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Jean O’Brien: poetry, focus and competitions

Iain Broome
Iain Broome
4 min read

Interview by Donna Sørensen
Back in January, I had a delightful chat with Iain about what it feels like to be published for the first time. I was deliriously high at the time, riding the upward crest of the endless ‘Happy Face! Sad Face!’ wave that is poetry submission.

Since then, I’ve had tons of rejections from poetry magazines and had been wallowing slightly in the trough of the aforementioned wave.

Then out of the blue, I found out I’d been selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series, a summer reading series here in Dublin, showcasing emerging poets on their way to their first collection.

I was floored and refuelled. I was ready to write for my life once more.

This constant flux of feeling is, in all honestly, quite exhausting. I know I’m just starting out but I wondered to myself if it would always be like this?

The interview

Jean O’Brien has just won the single biggest poetry prize in the English language, the Arvon International Poetry Prize, for her poem, Merman. She has published three collections, stories and won competitions, and still she will tell you that getting published can sometimes feel like a nearly impossible task.

Here is what she told me about riding the ups and downs, and how it feels to have been published many, many times.

How long did it take you, after you’d started writing, to have the confidence to call yourself a writer/poet? Did this coincide with having a poem or whole collection published?

I can’t remember the exact light bulb moment, but I do remember the poet Eavan Boland at a workshop encouraging us to take our writing seriously.

She tells a great story of woman she encountered at a workshop who said to her: “Sure if I told people I wrote poetry they might think I didn’t wash my windows,” which I thought was brilliant.

I think it was after my first book, The Shadow Keeper (Salmon) was published, I remember putting ‘writer’ on my daughter’s birth certificate.

When you are at a social gathering and you tell people that you write they get very interested and always ask. ‘What do you write?” They get very disappointed and move away rapidly when you answer poetry!

Does any achievement in your writing career stand out as particularly memorable or influential for you?

There are many milestones along the way. Obviously whenever a new book is published. Meeting and attending workshops with poets. The poets Eavan Boland and Paula Meehan encouraged me to keep at it.

When I graduated with an M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, winning the Fish Award in 2008 and especially the Arvon International in 2010, as it was outside Ireland where nobody knew of me, or certainly very few. 

Do you have times when you just can’t write, don’t want to write or don’t feel that what you are writing is good enough for you? If so, how have you shaken these times off in the past?

In the early days of writing I had many more times when I just couldn’t write. Looking back I now think I wasn’t focused enough.

I still often get times when I feel my writing is too limited and I get very frustrated trying to get a poem to ‘lift’. I now make sure I read a poem every single day, just to set my compass so to speak. 

Has anything ever brought you close to giving up on pursuing writing as a career?

It is very easy to get disheartened especially after getting a rejection – you start to think why bother? But if I go any length of time without writing it starts to nag away at me.

I found it particularly difficult to write after my daughter was born. I was also looking after my elderly father who was dying of cancer, it was just the sheer physical difficulty of finding the time.

I think this is a difficulty lots of women face – how to fit in every aspect of their lives and other people’s lives (that they often also run!).

I know if I am ill or tired and people say I am doing too much and perhaps I should give up the writing or giving writing classes. No-one has ever suggested I give up the cooking or housework I notice! 

What was your experience of entering competitions before winning the Arvon? How is it different to submitting to magazines? Are both as important as each other?

Winning the Arvon was a wonderful confirmation of my work and what I am trying to say, but in some ways I feel it is something I should have achieved much earlier.

Back in the late 80s/early 90s, I entered quite a few competition and was a runner up numerous times, but always the bridesmaid never the bride.

So for a good few years I stopped and then started again about six years ago. This time it paid off with the Fish Award in 2008, and then the Arvon. I have my sights on one other competition and then perhaps I will give it a rest. 

Comparing magazines and competitions is like comparing apples and oranges – they are two different fruits. Competition poems tend to be a certain style and size, although I have noticed lately that competition poems are getting shorter.

For me I would believe that in the long run being published in magazines and journals is more important, as you are in that for the long haul and not just the sparkle of competition. 

If you could start life over, would you still be a poet? If so, would you approach anything differently in your path to multiple publications?

Yes I would still be a poet, but I would start much earlier. I would also start reading and studying poetry, technique, style, voice much earlier.

I would also take my work more seriously a lot earlier. I came to poetry late and feel I am still only learning, perhaps everyone feels like that.

I have tried other kinds of writing and still do a very occasional bit. Poetry is where my heart lies and as I get older I try to follow it.

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I'm the author of the novel, A is for Angelica. Every week, I send Draft Mode, a newsletter full of tips and tools that help you improve your craft and promote your writing.