Rise up and shine - Elaine Feeney's 'multi-layred' take on poetry and life

Athenry author to launch fourth collection of poetry as part of CĂșirt literary festival

Poet Elaine Feeney. Photos by Kernan Andrews

Poet Elaine Feeney. Photos by Kernan Andrews

EMPEROR DARTH Sidious ordered Lord Vadar to 'Rise...!' in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith; WB Yeats threatened to "arise and go now, and go to Inishfree"; The Cardigans sang "Rise and shine my sister" - one word, yet each usage has very different connotations.

Words are elastic. They are slippery. On the surface they appears to convey a concrete, unmistakable meaning. In reality, were words a colour, they may be grey, or have a spectrum of shades, but they would never posses the stark, distinctiveness of just black or white. And to add further layers, in Ireland, 'Rise' is political. Once Fianna Fáil sang, "Rise and follow Charlie!". Today, Sinn Féin has adopted the word as a slogan and an aspiration, while Irish feminists urge 'Rise and Repeal' in reference to the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Rise is also the title of the new collection of poetry by Athenry’s Elaine Feeney. Published by Salmon, it is her fourth collection, and is about to be launched at this month’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature, where Elaine is performing at three separate events. As a teacher of English and history at St Jarlath's College in Tuam, she is very well aware of how 'Rise' is “one of the must multi-layred of words”, a fact caught brilliantly in new collection’s title-poem.

The poem is an exhortation to be to be true to oneself (“rise out of their history books and into your own history” ); to embrace life and love (“tell me you kissed her madly on the lips that you sucked them off her” ); to not take crap from anyone (“Rise your boss and keep doing it/make them earn it” ); to be a revolutionary, (“rise your hand to protest it…rise up and be counted” ); and to care for others (“rise up in the dark and let your mother glow” ).

It is also a poem with an unapologetically Feminist stance. “It is a rallying cry, a rallying cry to women, for women to break away from staidness and tradition and to shine,” Elaine tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “It’s also about women making their presence felt in history. I teach history and it is amazing how few women are actually taught about, and even when they are mentioned it’s mostly to do with social history from the 1950s onwards. It’s very limited.”

Elaine Feeney kirwins

The inspirations for the poem, and indeed the entire collection, are as varied as the meanings of the word ‘Rise’ itself, but a key influence was Elaine enduring the trauma of serious illness, and the relief and new hope of recovery.

“I was trying to come up with a philosophy of life as I’d been very sick,” she said, “so it comes from a place of friction - between life and death, between keeping your feet on the ground, and trying to look up and push forward. For me, Rise also means the Easter Rising; Antaeus, the figure in Greek myth who had to keep his feet on the ground; and Seamus Heaney’s epitaph, “Walk on air against your better judgement”.

Elaine’s experience with ill-health and her time in hospital are chronicled in a series of poems in Rise, beginning with the harrowing ‘Hindering Hercules’: “There’s nothing holy about dying in a hospital ward”.

“I became very ill just a few months after my third book, The Radio Was Gospel, came out in 2013,” she says, “so that put the book to bed as I had to go to a hospital bed myself. I spent 18 months in recovery and during that time did very little writing.”

Thankfully Elaine has fully recovered, and while today she prefers not to go into too much detail about her illness (“it was enough to go through it without having to relive it talking about it,” she says ), she opens up on how the illness affected her. “My mother said I wasn’t to write a poem about being sick as it was too traumatic for her…so instead I wrote nearly a whole book of them!” Elaine says, with a laugh. “That poem, ‘Hindering Hercules’, came out of a place of fear, my own fear, and a certain anger that was really, really raw and brutal."

Given those stark opening lines, Elaine admits she was “anxious after writing it” and “concerned about things I put in print”. Yet she realised she needed to be honest and that “I was writing about my experience, I’m not trying to write on behalf of others or tell them how they should feel”.

“I was dealing with life going on, but that I might not be here, with my own lack of a spiritual belief system, with finding the institution of a hospital itself as cold, calculating, with everything feeling sterile, awkward,” Elaine says. “The end is very much laced with my love for my mother and my husband, how grateful I was to them, and how angry I was with myself for neglecting my health.”

Elaine Feeney loft

‘Rise’ then can also mean Elaine’s personal rise from illness, and into what has been a hugely productive and successful period of her writing career.“I’ve been asked to do loads readings,” she says. “I read in Canada two years ago, I’ve read at previous Cúirt festivals, and I’ve now read in the US about four or five times, and I’ve read in London and Copenhagen. There’s also going to be a London launch for Rise, which is really exciting. The poetry has taken on a new lease of life.”

This creative rising has also extended to other area’s of the Galwegian’s talents. She was commissioned to write Wrongheaded, a theatre piece mixing drama and choreography, about repealing the Eight Amendment and the position of women in Irish society. “It took six months to write,” says Elaine. “It was an important piece for me, and has since been performed at the Dublin Fringe Festival. I’m hoping it will be staged in Galway.”

Her hospital experience also inspired a new project - a work Elaine hopes will be her debut novel. "It’s a bit Rear Window meets Casualty,” says Elaine. “It’s currently with a literary agent I’d really like to work with. It’s based in a hospital in Galway, with stories told from the perspective of the female narrator.”

Elaine has lived all her life in Athenry - “I bought the house I grew up in, I’m sure there’s many psychiatrists who would have something to say about that!” - with her husband and two children and she admits having “a love-hate relationship” with the east Galway town.

“I obviously have affection for the town as I’m rearing my children there,” she says, “but it’s a very different town from when I grew up. I went to primary and secondary school there and I’ve nothing but unhappy memories. Maybe I’ve stayed there in a cathartic sense, or from a sense of safety, maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome. The town has stared working it’s way into the poems though. One of the poems in the collection is ‘Journey West’ where I’m on a horse from Portumna to Athenry, and along the way I appreciate the beauty of the local landscape. I think it's a way of grounding me.”

If writing is one passion, teaching is certainly another, with it’s opportunity to introduce young people to literature. “I really love teaching, I’m 18 years doing it,” says Elaine. “It’s a real gift to share this part of the pupil’s life journey with them and to open them up to literature. For the most part, young people can be very open-minded and have a finely honed sense of equality, without that cynicism that can come later - so you get to work with teenagers at a lovely time. I also think it's interesting for them to have a teacher that writes.”

Elaine launches Rise in Bite Club, Abbeygate Street, on Tuesday April 25 at 6pm (admission free ). She also reads with performance poet Josh Idehen in the Róisín Dubh on Friday 28 at 10pm (admission €12.50/10 ); and at Far From Literature We Were Reared at the Róisín Dubh on Sunday 30 at 8pm (admission €10, all proceeds to Galway Rape Crisis Centre ). These events are part of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. See www.cuirt.ie


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