Afric McGlinchey's debut collection, The lucky star of hidden things (copyright 2012 Salmon Poetry), is an unusual literary gem. lucky star is not a book to be read in one sitting. I can attest to this fact; lucky star contains poetry that is spare and lovely, yet, I found myself treating her work with reverence. The world McGlinchey offers the reader is dark, mysterious, and all-together accessible... however, if one is willing to revisit the sacred spaces McGlinchey has created, the reader, in this case, myself, finds the landscape deliciously altered – for the better.
In the interview below, McGlinchey discusses her poetry collection, as well as other current literary matters. I would like to thank Afric McGlinchey for her patience, artistry, and honesty. I look forward to reading more of her work – with pleasure – in the future.
A-KP: Please explain the inception of The lucky star of hidden things.
AM: Chance really had a hand in it. I won a prestigious award in Ireland, and soon afterward, Salmon offered to publish my collection.
As I have lived in a number of countries, a strong impulse all my life has been trying to find a way to belong to wherever I am. Usually, however, as is the case with many writers and creative people, I have felt an outsider, and feel that I am often more of a witness than a participant. So I decided to make that the focus of my collection.
As for the title, that came about by chance. Someone mentioned that they found my imagery very ‘celestial’ so I looked up stars, and discovered Sadalachbia, the nomadic star, which translates into English as The lucky star of hidden things, so I thought it fitted perfectly, as I sometimes use private coded symbols when writing about difficult subjects.
A-KP: What part of your life influenced your poetry more, and why: your Irish heritage, or, your time in Africa?
AM: Interestingly, I only began writing seriously when I returned to Ireland in 1999, when I discovered the Munster Literature Centre and started attending workshops. This is where I am creatively stimulated, where I read, and study the craft. But my image base is strongly influenced by my years in Africa (Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and time spent in Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and the Transkei too). I also return regularly, as my father still lives there, and my daughter, who was born there, has returned to live there too.
So, both influence my writing.
A-KP: Your poetry is quite arresting – cinematically - and, the language is immediately accessible, which gives your work broad appeal. Given your academic background and training, how do you feel about the idea of poetry being available for mass consumption?
AM:Interesting question. In his essay, ‘In praise of difficult poetry,’ Robert Pinsky argues for ‘difficulty’ as opposed to poems that are too easily understood, and I agree. It is infinitely more satisfying to read a piece of writing that offers itself up more slowly, where the reader is rewarded for his or her closer attention. Then again, there is a level of difficulty which can be alienating, where the writer, rather than communicating, is simply building walls. While accessible poetry can be dismissed by the academics, everyone gets offended by insular arrogance, although not everyone is brave enough to admit it. It’s a fine line. But I’d rather err on the side of clarity than perverse obfuscation – the act of writing is intended to communicate, after all. For my first collection, I felt the need for a narrative thread to run through the poems. Although, as you say, most are ‘accessible’, I wouldn’t say they are equally so. Ideally, I’d like my poems to communicate on a number of levels, and be open to more than one interpretation.
A-KP: The Tokoloshe sequence (Late, Exorcism, Curse), a three-part narrative of an exorcism, is profoundly disturbing. I felt, while reading Tokoloshe, that this was a very brave piece to write, not in a confessional way, but, in a 'bring the fear out into the daylight so people can see it's for real' way. Was this based on real events, and, if so, what inspired you to write it?
AM: Yes, the three poems were all based on true events, although the only factor linking them really is the spectre of the tokoloshe. They took place at different times. I lived on a farm where fear of the tokoloshe was a very real thing. I know of a perfectly healthy person who simply lay down and died after being cursed. The poem Curse refers to the time of land invasions, when a curse was put on us, in an attempt to scare us away; but we don’t believe in the tokoloshe, so it didn’t have power over us, although for the purposes of the poem I altered that detail slightly.
The ‘Exorcism’ experience was amazing. We hired a n’anga (witchdoctor) to do the exorcism on our farm, as all our workers were convinced they had been cursed. So he did his ritual, with everyone watching, and just as it says in the poem, at one point, everyone screamed and ran. When I asked them later what had happened, they said, ‘but didn’t you see? Small men, knee-high, running out of all the rondavels!’ So the exorcism did the trick.‘Late’ describes a tragic event, one that I’ll never forget. I find that I need to write about events that have affected me emotionally.
A-KP: The current trend of modern poets is to employ the device of 'travels through life, both internally and externally', but none as distinctively as yours. Would you agree/disagree, and why?
AM: I think a number of poets use this device as you say – I wouldn’t have thought my method was particularly ‘distinctive’. Perhaps you are referring to the clarity of my approach – the use of sections to allow for differing themes along the journey to date: my African life (In my dreams I travel home to Africa); returning to Ireland and taking on new challenges, as a mother, an individual, and, as a writer (The road); some witness poems (What we saw), and learning to trust again, after a long relationship had ended (Leaning into your world). My life has been more of a physical, literal journey than usual, so it was easier to chart the collection this way, and perhaps that’s what you mean by distinctive? Although I have seen divisions into sections used elsewhere, for example in Sujata Bhatt’s Pure Lizard, JohnFitzgerald’s The Mind, Jane Kenyon’s Constance, Harry Clifton’s The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass, or Grace Wells’ début, When God has been Called away to Greater Things, to name a few.
A-KP: There is an undercurrent of vulnerability that runs through your work, particularly in the poems “Totems,” “Invasion,” and “Wolf House.” Do you feel that it's necessary for a poet, in keeping with her work, to maintain, as well as cultivate, a constant state of openness? Why/why not?
AM: I don’t feel it’s necessary to be open; it’s probably a matter of temperament. Some poets are open, others are more reserved. In some instances, it might be harmful to be too open. But when combined with a cool editorial eye, poetry that allows itself to reveal vulnerability, can be very effective.
A-KP: What kind of feedback are you receiving from your poetry colleagues with regard to The lucky star of hidden things?
AM: They’ve been pretty positive, on the whole. Certainly, they’ve been supportive. The book’s only been out since summer, but already it’s on its second reprint. My work has been described by reviewers as melodic, sensory, exotic, scattered with interesting non-Anglo language and imagery, and immersed in the flux of life.
A-KP: I notice that many publishers are not yet offering poetry collections in e-book format, though I know that Salmon Poetry has an e-book category on the homepage of their website. How do you think the transition from physical books to virtual books will affect literature, particularly poetry, in the next five to ten years?
AM: Salmon are good at spotting trends, and staying abreast of the market, and no doubt most books will end up as e-books too. But Salmon have also just opened a bookshop, so they obviously trust that there’s going to continue to be a market for the physical product. And as a book-lover, I agree. There’s something about turning the pages, the physicality and aesthetics of the thing, even the smell, that e-books just can’t compete with. There’s something intimate about a book. When I’m asked to review e-books, I always refuse, and say I need to read the hard copy – and then they send it to me. I’ve resisted getting a kindle so far – maybe that’s a little more tactile, and includes the sound effects of turning a page…I don’t know. But I’m hoping there are more people like me, who will ensure that physical books don’t vanish altogether. And you can’t sign an e-book!
A-KP: What is one piece of advice you would share with a poet who is getting ready to put together a début collection of work?
AM: Be able to stand over the integrity of every single poem.
A-KP: Now that you have “arrived,” with your début collection, what are your future literary plans?
AM: Well, while the début collection is the most exciting one of any poet’s career, the second is probably the most challenging! I’ve already been given a date for the next one, but plan to wait until I’m really ready. This time, I’ll work to a specific theme, and try out different voices and forms, I think. But so far, I’m simply writing the poems that are arriving, and am going to allow the theme to emerge organically.
Note: If you would like more information on Afric McGlinchey, you can visit her website: http://www.africmcglinchey.com/
The lucky star of hidden things, Afric McGlinchey, copyright , 2012 Salmon Poetry, salmonpoetry.com, ISBN 978-1-908836-083, 83 pages, $17.90 (USD).
Author photo and book cover photo © 2012 Afric McGlinchey and Salmon Poetry
Article content © 2012 Marie Lecrivain