(Not) very Northern Irish
Miriam moved to Scotland from Belfast two years ago, first to Glasgow and subsequently to Edinburgh. It was a bumpy ride, with an awful stint as a subtitler at BBC Scotland hardly helping. (Things I learned while talking to Miriam: never become a subtitler. It sounds like paid solitary confinement.) Despite being more settled now, with a job teaching creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, her poetry continues to reflect a feeling of unease here. ‘I don’t really feel any ownership of things here,’ she remarks. ‘I wrote loads of poems about Belfast – I felt more entitled to there than I do here. Edinburgh’s a strange city, a sort of transient city. Where we live there isn’t a huge local population, it’s mainly students and tourists.’
Nonetheless, Miriam has managed to avoid the trap of being pigeonholed as a Northern Irish poet, a danger eminent in the British poetry scene where the default tends to be English. ‘When my first book came out, I was interviewed for a programme called Arts extra for Radio Ulster and the woman said, ‘This isn’t a very Northern Irish book, you know.’ I suppose she meant that there wasn’t loads of stuff about the Troubles (shorthand for the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, at its height in the 1970s - ed). I was born in 1980, it’s not like there was nothing going on – but it would seem like a slightly dishonest thing for me to do.’ The comment is perhaps a telling one. For many, the Troubles would seem to be the defining characteristic of Northern Ireland and this holds true of the poetic landscape as well, with poems like WB Yeats’ ‘Easter, 1916’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘Casualty’ jumping to mind. Yet this attitude is hugely reductive. Miriam explains, ‘There is Northern Irishness to the work. The form is quite influenced by Northern Irish poets and there are a number of poems in the book that springboard off poems by other Northern Irish poems.’
'What would my father say?'
We’ve all heard the myth of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Kahn’, dreamt up on the fumes of opium and scribbled down furiously in the morning. The reality is more prosaic. ‘Sometimes poems spring from things that interest me,’ Miriam considers, ‘sometimes they spring from sitting in front of my computer for two hours, trying to think of something to write about…’ One of the poems she had read earlier in the evening was prompted by something she heard on the radio. ‘Talk radio’s quite new in my life,’ she explains. ‘I spend quite a lot of time in my car at the weekend and so I hear about lots of different things. Three or four poems just came out of that. So I’m in the car with a notepad, scribbling while stopped at the traffic lights, trying to get down the gist of what I was interested in.’ Sounds like a safe car journey, I remark. She laughs. ‘I also smoke, eat, drink coke, change the cd, do all manner of things when I’m driving, so probably I’m not a very safe person to drive with!’
Poetry is never an auspicious career. You have to be lucky to make it as a day job and any hopeful poet can be prepared to put up with a fair amount of slack in the meantime. ‘I had thought about doing a creative writing masters,’ Miriam admits. ‘I hadn’t really done that much writing and part of the reason I didn’t apply was I thought I would be laughed out of the room. The other reason was my thinking, oh god, what would my father say?’ She imitates a ridiculing laugh. ‘For a long time my parents’ attitude was, ‘What is she doing, wasting her time on this poetry stuff?’ Eventually my boyfriend at the time told them, ‘It’s her dream, let her get on with it.’ I think they were quite surprised by that and sort of backed off. When I started to get poems published and give readings and things my father thought it was great. You’ve got to write that out and then you’ve got to write out all of your kind of blocks not knowing whether you’re genuine or fake or not having anything to write about but trying to do it anyway. It’s not easy. You have to be bloody-minded.’