By: Elliot O'Lipchik, Irish American Post Poetry Editor
with Martin Russell, Irish American Post Book Editor
British-born poet Catherine Jagoe earned a doctorate in Spanish Literature from the University of Cambridge. According to her bio background, her first full-length poetry book Bloodroot (2016) won the Settlement House American Poetry Prize , the Council for Wisconsin Writers Edna Meudt Award and an Outstanding Work of Poetry award from the Wisconsin Library Association. She authored two poetry chapbooks, News from the North (Finishing Line Press, 2015) and Casting Off (Parallel Press, 2007), as well as a chapbook of translations of poetry by Uruguayan author Paula Simonetti, What the Sad Say (Avenue Q Press, 2017). Jagoe’s work has been featured in The Writer’s Almanac, Poetry Daily, American Poetry Review, and the 2016 Pushcart Prize XL anthology. She has received awards from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and is a contributor to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series.
She talks poetry, writing and living in Madison with Elliot O’Lipchik, The Irish American Post poetry editor, and IAP’s book editor Martin Russell.
IAP: What’s your hometown in Britain. When did you come Stateside? How old were you?
CJ: I've never felt that I had a "hometown," since my family moved so much and both of my parents were from "elsewhere"-- my dad was Irish but born in Malaya, my mother English but born in India. He worked in civil service, hence the moving around. When I was born, we were living in Nigeria. And after that we moved to three different locations in the UK before I went away to college. My grandparents lived in Currabinny, Co. Cork. But the place my parents eventually settled was a small rural town in the NW Midlands: Ellesmere, Shropshire. So, if you need to mention a town, I guess that would have to be the one.
I came to Madison in 1986 on a one-year visiting fellowship University of Wisconsin. I was 25, a graduate student at Cambridge University. Short version of a long story: I met someone that year, went back home and finished up my doctorate and returned to live and work there in 1989. We celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary in early August.
IAP: How long have you lived in Madison; what drew you to that city; is it a ‘hotbed’ of poetry?
CJ: I have been based in Madison since 1989 (30 years), though I have spent some years in Spain since then. I came to Madison as a graduate student in 1986, expecting to stay only a year, and fell in love with the freedom and the outdoor lifestyle, as well as the amazing libraries.
It was also during the Thatcher years, when university jobs in my field were being axed left and right in the UK, so there were many more opportunities here. I loved the friendliness of Midwesterners, the farmers' market, being able to bike all over the city and out into the gorgeous countryside, and the lakes--I swam across Lake Wingra and back every day in the first two months I was here. The poetry and cultural scene is very vibrant here, but that's not something I discovered until the late 1990s. And it's gone from strength to strength since then.
IAP: Did you write poetry as a kid, or short stories, novels? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
CJ: I started writing poetry at the age of 8. My first poem woke me up in the middle of the night to announce its arrival. I still remember the surprise, and urgency of it, stumbling around looking for a pencil and paper to write down the phrases that were arriving. I've never written fiction--never been drawn to it at all. But I do also write lyrical prose, anywhere on the spectrum from prose poetry to short-form memoir and personal essays. I'd love to "be" a writer--if that means earning your living just from writing.
Hardly anybody in the world does that, though. Most of us have other jobs and we try to carve out spaces for writing within our lives. I just know that writing is what I was put on this earth to do. If several days pass and I haven't even made notes in my journal, I start to feel anxious, unmoored; I need the writing to make sense of my own life as it unfolds. When I've actually built something with words that works, I feel happy. There's nothing more satisfying.
IAP: Were your folks supportive of your career choice; are your parents or any other relatives in the arts?
CJ: I've never made my living as a poet. I take my writing very seriously, but I don't earn money on it, so I wouldn't call it a career choice, more my vocation. I worked as a professor of Spanish literature for 11 years (Northern Illinois University and University of Wisconsin-Madison) and in 1999 moved into a second career as a self-employed translator, which I'm still doing. My mother has been supportive of my writing, though most people in my family are scientists (and I'm married to one).
IAP: Why do you love poetry and why do you love writing poetry?
CJ: I love that it can both communicate ideas and hold mystery; that it works beyond the conscious mind; that it can't be reduced to "what does this mean?" because it "means" on so many different levels at once. I love being surprised by an image that exactly captures something I instinctively recognize but hadn't thought to formulate for myself. It's the most concentrated, powerful form of language. Even non-poets turn to it, again and again, in times of trouble or extremity, for the soul work it does.
IAP: When did you when the Irish Fest poetry prize? Have you read your work at the festival?
CJ: My poem “Cilliní” won Joseph Gahagan Prize at Milwaukee Irish Fest in 2016. It was a total surprise, and I had travel plans that year during Irish Fest, so I wasn't able to attend--someone read it for me.
IAP: What’s your writing regime? Do you have a windowed office, or do you head to a coffeeshop or park to compose?
CJ: I have a home office for my translation work, but I'm not able to do creative writing in it--at least not composing new work. I try and get to a library with a writer friend one day, or part of a day, every week, for anywhere between three-to-eight hours, for creative writing. Even in the library, I wear noise-canceling headphones. I can't work in coffee shops--I find them way too distracting.
My goal is to write something in my journal for 10 to 20 minutes every day in between my weekly writing days, but that doesn't always happen. But reading creative writing and "priming the pump" daily by journaling is essential for me--all my ideas germinate in that interaction between what's going on in my life, what I'm reading and reflecting on, and what ideas and thoughts appear in my journal.
IAP: Do you have a poetic cat, goldfish, finch or some other critter to provide solace and support?
CJ: No. We've had two beloved cats over a 30-year period, but not currently.
IAP: Are you writing all the time? Do you have a drawer full of pieces ready to be published?
CJ: I have computer folders full of work that's "in-progress," but not ready to submit anywhere. And usually a small set of things I think are polished enough that they're ready to submit. Once or twice a year, I submit batches of work I think is finished to journals. But my writing is always crammed into the corners of my life, and it's constantly being put on hold due to work deadlines or family/community needs.
IAP: Where do you find your themes? How long does a poem percolate before its final version pops onto the page?
CJ: Mostly through reading other people's work--both poetry and nonfiction--or from what's happening in the news, or my life. Poems vary tremendously in how long they take. Sometimes--very, very rarely--one will arrive that seems to know exactly what it wants, and only takes two or three drafts. Mostly, though, they can take weeks, months, sometimes years, and many more drafts.
IAP: What does it take to be a poet/to be a published poet?
CJ: Determination and a thick skin. Mostly it's just about putting in the hard work of writing regularly, especially when you don't feel like writing. Inspiration rarely arrives: you have to go seek it out. And you do that by reading, observing, being open to other voices.
IAP: Do you work with editors, or go solo and hope for the best?
CJ: For over 20 years I've belonged to a poetry group called Lake Effect. We meet every two weeks and each bring copies of a poem we are working on. The Lake Effect poets--Alison Townsend, Robin Chapman, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Rita Mae Reese, Sara Parrell and Marilyn Annucci--are incredibly intelligent and gifted writers, with a great many books between us. By pooling our collective experience, we've been able to peer-edit each other's work.
IAP: For every poem you send out to a publication, what’s the success rate of making it into print.
CJ: Some poems take years to place, and may get sent to up to 50 journals before they're accepted. Once in a while, a poem gets taken by the first place you send it to. But there are thousands of poets in the US submitting thousands of manuscripts every day to literary journals, so it's a lottery. You have to be patient and determined, and keep sending out your work.
IAP: How do you feel when a poem gets accepted? Excited?
CJ: Happy, excited, relieved it's found a home.
IAP: Does a poet ever get discouraged; how do you keep fresh and creatively alive?
CJ: All the time. You have to keep reading, keep in touch with other writers, go to readings, do things to feed your creative life, as Julia Cameron suggests in The Artist's Way. Going to writing residencies is an amazing way to jump-start your process. You get dedicated writing time and contact with other writers and artists, which can inspire new paths and ideas.
IAP: Do you have a significant other, or a friend, to bounce off ideas, snippets, partial works, completed poems? If so, does that person contribute to keeping you settled and on task.
CJ: My husband is a theoretical chemist, so our minds are polar opposites. I get tons of support and encouragement to write from him, and he always comes to my readings--but I give my work to writer friends to get feedback. In terms of keeping me on task, I try and schedule my weekly writing date at the library with a friend, Judith Woodburn (a prose writer).
Having to show up because someone else is expecting you helps get us both there on time. We usually break for lunch or coffee and talk over what we're working on, and we share reading recommendations. We also try and do a longer writing retreat every year--from a week to two weeks.
IAP: Who are some of your favorite American poets, some favorite Irish/British poets?
CJ: American poets: Dorianne Laux, Ada Limón, Tracy K. Smith, Ross Gay, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin; Irish/UK poets: Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin
IAP: Why do dictators never seem to like poets?
CJ: It's worth pointing out that plenty of dictators have written poetry themselves. But perhaps they don't like poets because they can't be controlled, or because the pursuit of artistic truth is essentially at odds with the pursuit of twisting truth for power. At his trial for anti-state "parasitism" in 1964, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was asked, "Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?" "No one," Brodsky replied. "Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?"
IAP: Do you speak/write Spanish, since you’ve done translations of Simonetti; which other poets have you translated; how many languages do you speak/read/write?
CJ: Yes, I'm fluent in Spanish--have lived and worked in Spain for a number of years over the course of my life, plus I have a BA and a PhD in it from Cambridge University. I was a 19c Spanish literature specialist during my previous life as a university professor. I've translated two novels (see my writing website), and have recently been working on Uruguayan poets: Paula Simonetti, Sebastián Rivero, Roberto Echavarren, Luis Bravo, Laura Cesarco Eglin, with translations published in literary journals, anthologies, chapbooks and so on. My latest publication is Reborn in Ink, a book of poems by Laura Cesarco Eglin, co-translated with Jesse Lee Kercheval, published by Word Works International, 2019.
IAP: What does a poet do for relaxation, how do you stay fit? How do you rewind have a day of writing?
CJ: Walking, biking, swimming, tennis, cross-country skiing, weight-training--whatever I can fit in. I need to move: writing involves an awful lot of sitting.
IAP: What’s next for poet Catherine Jagoe?
CJ: I'm working on a collection of lyrical essays about home(s)--how we get uprooted, put down roots, come to belong in a place.
Grave sites or cilliní for unbaptized infants
and others who were not allowed burial
in consecrated ground are found throughout
Ireland; some were in use until the 1990s.
They still call, those unlived lives
of the unbaptized, stillborn, unshriven
before death and buried in unhallowed ground,
no headstones to mark their graves.
Always after dusk the hospital van
arrived at Belfast’s Milltown cemetery
with its load of dead infants
who were slung, unsung and coffinless,
by a sour-faced grave-digger
into an open hole.
A few still bore their caul.
Elsewhere, in the country, it was the fathers’
job to bury them, at night, after
the chores, the fodder forked
over half-doors, the lamps swung
through muddy yards, the steaming pails
milked from the cows in their stalls.
Men numb or grim or weary bore them
out beyond the last houses, to where
snipe creak and the sheep bleat,
to a patch like this on the other side
of a wall, where a track leads up the hill
and a stream comes down. They would
take their spades and pierce
the sod beneath the clumps of rushes,
furze bushes, bramble, nettles,
a hunch of wind-warped thorn.
It had to be done before the dawn.
Sometimes they laid them lovingly,
limned in pebbles of white quartz.
But no one’s to know: to the eye
of the passerby there’s just rough,
lumpy ground, tussocks of wet grass
Babies lingered in limbo—in eternal
darkness, but no actual pain,
like floating in a currach on the outgoing
tide at night, minus your oars,
through cloud-burst, peat-drench, soak,
snow, drizzle, and the louring clouds;
the mist, some days, descending over all.
From her book Bloodroot (Settlement House, 2016).
Editor’s Note: According to Jagoe, "Cilliní" was written during a big family reunion in Currabinny, Co. Cork, in 2012. “My husband, son and I had just spent several days hiking the Beara Way along the coast of West Cork, and we'd passed a countryside burial site for unbaptized children,” she recalled. “There was a small (new) plaque, so I knew what it was. But it was just a field in the middle of nowhere. It made a deep impression on me at the time and a few days later, The Irish Times ran an article about cilliní, which led to further research and thinking, and eventually to the poem. But it's based on my strong physical impression of an actual place” she emphasized
Editor’s Note: Catherine Jagoe’s first full-length poetry book, Bloodroot, won the 2016 Settlement House American Poetry Prize and the Edna Meudt Poetry Book Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. She is also the author of two poetry chapbooks, News from the North (Finishing Line Press, 2015) and Casting Off (Parallel Press, 2007), as well as a chapbook of translations of poetry by Uruguayan author Paula Simonetti, What the Sad Say (Avenue Q Press, 2017).
Her work has been featured on The Writer’s Almanac, Poetry Daily, American Poetry Review, and the 2016 Pushcart Prize XL anthology. She is a contributor to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series. Her work has been featured on The Writer’s Almanac, Poetry Daily, American Poetry Review, and the 2016 Pushcart Prize XL anthology. She has received awards from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and is a contributor to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series.
PUBLICATIONS: All are available for purchase at the publishers' websites or from Amazon.
Bloodroot. Settlement House Books, 2016.
What the Sad Say. Avenue Q Press, 2017. (Chapbook).
News from the North. Finishing Line Press, 2015. (Chapbook).
Casting Off. Parallel Press, 2007. (Chapbook).