An Interview with Mary Robinson
Poet Mary Robinson talks to Kerry Lagan about her first collection The Art of Gardening and her writing life.
How did you find the experience of having your first collection published?
Very exciting and a bit scary! The best compliment I received was from a reader who wrote to me and said “The vegetables boiled dry, the plums were a sticky mess on the cooker … I read on, and read, and pondered, and dreamt – oblivious”. It is very hard to get a first collection published so the fact that someone believed in my work enough to publish it was hugely encouraging.
Could you tell us more about the Czech writer Karel Capek? How has he inspired you?
Karel Capek was a very professional writer who could turn his hand to anything. His play RUR was successful on the London stage and gave the English language the word “robot”. I read the title poem at a reading last year and someone came up to me afterwards with a copy of Capek’s Dashenka the Puppy, a charming unsentimental account of his fox terrier puppy with his own photographs. He always looked at things afresh – The Gardener’s Year is quirky and thought-provoking and amusing and like no other gardening book. Last year (after my collection had been published) I visited his house in Prague. It now has a plaque and the street is named Capek Brothers’ Street (his brother, a talented artist, died in a concentration camp). I looked through the garden gate and there was Karel Capek’s garden coming to life again after the winter. In my title poem I imagine Capek planting bulbs that will continue to flower in Prague long after his lifetime. In a way writing poetry is like gardening – I begin with a little seed (an idea, a phrase) and nurture it and hope that it will grow. But it will also need controlling, shaping, pruning.
If you could summarise your collection in just two words what would they be?
Which poem was the most challenging for you to write?
Difficult one to answer! I’m a very slow writer and often have bits of poems on scraps of paper in a file and never quite know if they will grow into anything. Perhaps “George Orwell on Jura”. I know one of Orwell’s nieces (Jane Morgan to whom the poem is dedicated) and she told me about the near-death incident in the whirlpool of Corrievreckan (she was staying with her uncle at the time but had decided not to go with him in the boat!). I visited Jura one summer when I was on holiday in the Hebrides and I also did quite a lot of research and re-read 1984. So I had lots of information but I had no idea what to do with it all. But then phrases starting to form and then these phrases decided to become a poem. I didn’t know if it was any good but I sent it off (with some other poems) for the Templar first collection award and it ended up in their first anthology – I was delighted.
What are you reading currently?
Derek Walcott White Egrets. I’m planning to tackle Dante’s Inferno (in Dorothy Sayers’ Penguin classics translation) over the summer.
Mary will be reading at Tullie House in Cumbria on Saturday, 18th June at 1.30, 2.30 and 3.3o p.m. Check with the museum for further details. The Art of Gardening is available from Inpress and other on-line retailers, as well as at good bookshops.