Nuala Ní Chonchúir and the charms of Juno

Nuala Ní Chonchúir. Photo: Emilia Krysztofiak.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir. Photo: Emilia Krysztofiak.

AUTHOR NUALA Ní Chonchúir’s third poetry collection has just been published by Salmon and this latest volume affirms her credentials as a poet of considerable poise, sensitivity, and imagination.

In The Juno Charm, Ní Chonchúir explores the pain of pregnancy loss and fertility struggles. This is an intimate book where the reader is taken by the emotional resonance of the poems, as much as by the exploration of the use of amulets and charms.

The poems travel comfortably from County Galway – as in the wry ‘Frida Kahlo Visits Ballinasloe’ – to Manhattan’s skyscrapers; and from the Seine in Paris to Dublin’s Liberty Hall. Ní Chonchúir once again employs her signature sensual frankness in poems of love and the body. Sometimes irreverent, always vivid, this is poetry ripe with imaginative possibility and wit.

Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala currently lives in Ballinasloe. Her début novel You (2010 ) was called “a heart-warmer” by The Irish Times and “a gem” by The Irish Examiner. Her third short story collection Nude (2009 ) was shortlisted for the British Edge Hill Prize. Her second short story collection To The World of Men, Welcome has been re-issued by Arlen House in an expanded paperback edition.

Her story ‘Peach’ in the current Prairie Schooner has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. ‘Peach’ will also feature in Ní Chonchúir’s forthcoming short story collection Mother America, due from New Island in May 2012.

Over a morning phone call, Ní Chonchúir chatted about her writing and her latest poetry collection. She began by revealing how she was drawn into the world of writing.

“I grew up in a bookish household,” she says. “My parents had lots of books of Irish interest and there was always plenty to read so I got through lots of classics and books by writers like Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor.

“As regards my own writing I used always keep a diary – I still do as it happens but more so today when I am travelling. Then, when I was nine-years-old, I got second place in a poetry competition. I remember the prizes were given out by poet Michael Hartnett and my mother being in awe of him. I think that prize gave me the confidence to keep writing creatively though I didn’t really know where I was going to go with it.

“That changed after I moved to Galway in 1996, I enrolled in writing classes at Galway Arts Centre; there was a fiction class with Mike McCormack and a poetry class with Louis De Paor. Through doing those classes I became part of a community of local writers and we all egged each other on and encouraged each other in our work. From there I started getting published in magazines, and so on, so that’s how it all came about.”

As a writer of both fiction and poetry does she find herself addressing the same areas of experience in both forms?

“There is an overlap between my fiction and my poetry in terms of their concerns and subject matter,” she replies. “They both engage with issues of love, sex, fertility issues – these are all things that have impacted on me – but whereas with the fiction the scenarios are largely made up, the poems are 99 per cent about me, which makes them more nerve-wracking to write!”

The new book’s title alludes to Ní Chonchuir’s baby daughter Juno and a number of the poems movingly describe her attempts to conceive a child, and the painful experience of miscarriage as well as the joys of pregnancy and birth. Juno was also the Roman goddess of, among other things, family life and there are glowing poems here of conjugal love, familial warmth, and togetherness.

Amulets, as in the charm of the book’s title, are another recurrent theme. While poets such as Robert Graves and Ted Hughes would have attested to the actual magical properties or potential of words and poems, Ní Chonchúir does not go that far.

“I’m not really superstitious though I suppose when people move away from organised religion and then find themselves going through difficult times they latch on to other things for some kind of consolation,” she opines. “On my writing desk I do have amulets of amethyst and bits of stuff I have picked up from walking along the beach and I like to think they do help along the writing – there’s no harm in them anyhow!”

Several of the poems draw their inspiration from the world of visual art, referencing the lives and works of painters like Stanley Spencer, Vincent Van Gogh, and Cézanne.

“I’ve always been passionate about visual art,” Ní Chonchuir declares. “My sister is an artist and another sister who is now dead was also an artist. Both my parents were enthusiastic about visual art so that was another influence as we were growing up. The house was always full of art. I used to love doing art classes myself but ultimately words were more my thing.”

There are also a couple of poems which pluck fascinating tales from history, such as that of Belle Bilton, the English music hall singer who became Countess Clancarty in Ballinasloe.

“I’ve always been attracted to stories of historical women though I usually engage with them in my fictional writing,” Ní Chonchuir notes. “I’m actually working on a story at the moment about Joan of Arc’s father.”

There are also some delightfully playful poems in the book such as ‘Dancing With Paul Durcan’ which describes an imaginary encounter with the poet in The Winding Stair bookshop that ends up in an impromptu dance.

She recalls sharing a reading platform with Durcan soon after the poem was first published. “I was mortified when I realised Paul would be there!” she laughs. “He was very nice about the poem however, he said he was surprised at first, then a little embarrassed and then he read it three more times and he really liked it so I was pleased with that.”

The Juno Charm is currently available from all good bookshops. Nuala Ní Chonchuir also features on of the episode RTÉ Radio One’s Sunday Miscellany which will be broadcast on Christmas morning.


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