How To Speak Poetry – Sarah Clancy

photo (15)


To hear Sarah Clancy’s poem go here.

and yet we must live in these times

with thanks to Paul M. Garrett for an idea and for breakfast

in at the housing office the woman says
if I need a house I’ll have to tell the council
I’m homeless or else bunk in with my parents
and I feel the heat of tears in my eyes
and let me tell you
it’s not sadness I’m feeling it’s anger;
after all of my years insisting that no one
will ever call me victim in they come
and do it from a whole different angle
I didn’t see coming
and they call it helping
these are the times that I live in,
still paying the tail end of my mortgage
with no home to show for it
and I wonder what I’ve absorbed that means
even with all of my theories, my politics
this, the oldest human endeavour;
of seeking out shelter
has become shame-filled
and on my way down through town
Rosalee asks for a fiver, I give it
it’s easier to offer than to ask I reckon
she says ‘You are beautiful’ showing the limits
of her English vocabulary, I am not though
what I am is damaged and raging,
on days like this I seek the sea out and breath it,
or I write love poems to someone forgotten
and you, what do you do to get through it?

Don’t call it apathy, we are not fine
we are not grand thanks, we are hurt
and we’re making it worse by pretending we’re sorted,
I walk past Griffins bakery as if I am the only one
in this river of people on Shop Street
who’s rocking a sub-plot; who’s got things going on
in the background that take effort to deal with
and that’s why it’s called individualism isn’t it?
Because we aren’t telling anyone
in the separation of one from each other,
of ourselves from ourselves we’re alienated
but sure it’s all grand isn’t it?
We’re mighty, why wouldn’t we be?
We’re on the pigs back,
and yet we must live in these times,

and I write down past-tense love affairs
all the while getting older and worn out and what use is it?
Resuscitating old lovers for nothing,
recycling my slogans, if I can’t write
about real things why bother?
If I can’t mock the signs on the wall in Welfare
that say after two decades of working I’m likely
to drink in the daytime, to have poor personal hygiene,
or to spit and swear at the people who work there
and are only paying their bills same as anyone

I fool myself that one of these days I might do it,
might hurt someone, wreck something
and it might bring me to some other dimension
that’s human so they tell me competition
and viciousness but I say it’s fiction,
I reassure you that I won’t let it happen
truth is I don’t have it in me I’m lacking some cruelty
and I think what’s human is order and interdependence
what’s human is balance and kindness and humour
and us coming up with a way that we can live
in these times without violence
some way we can believe that this is our canvas
that we have no other time to exist in and
however slim the chinks in our armour are
it’s still our one chance to have at it
we have to stand up for ourselves
we must live in these times and no other,
but I for one, might need some help with it
is that too much to ask for?
first published on Irish Left Review


What is poetry and what brought you to it?

Poetry is often something I cannot express in another way, or something I can’t absorb in another way, or something I am learning about myself or the world, as I write. For me a poem has to engage the intellect and the emotions but that’s not all, often poetry that resonates can deliver something that it hasn’t itself explained. It’s as if a poem has the freedom to convey a message in a language it doesn’t speak, it can override reason, logic and the need to explain in something the same way that a look from a person can. So for me a poem is a thing that can create and share a feeling that it itself (or its author) couldn’t describe.  If a poem only needed craft or only needed intellectual or factual content then it would be hard to defend it as a means of communication but it is actually such a flexible form that it can get at the truth by creating fictions and get at the core of issues without any need for facts or figures. For me (I mean for my taste now rather than as a generalisation for others, who can like what they want) a good poem is often some sort of act of defiance or resistance or a call to action.

When I was a child I read poetry, I was fed books and books and books and the odd sandwich by my mother and I had a huge appetite. This included poetry and I always liked it even in school where I objected to nearly everything else. I had always thought that I would write at some stage, a writer was a normal thing to be in the world I grew up in, a normal but not an enviable thing to be- all the writers we knew or met were broke or mad or both at once.   As I grew older I became interested in other things, particularly in all things to do with horses, but that didn’t override (pun alert! although it is the year of the horse) my reading, it only meant that I began to read all about horses – so I read first world war poems about cavalry horses, big house-type foxhunting literature, and eventually all sorts of American-west type poems and novels etc.

I wrote a bit as a teenager and in my very early twenties but I did nothing with any of it then about four of five years ago I was working for Amnesty International in Galway and was a bit afraid that my work and personal lives were merging into one big campaign.  I decided to do something completely unrelated to campaigning and I took up writing.  I struggled away for a few weeks by myself first and then I went along to Kevin Higgin’s Over the Edge Poetry Workshop in Galway and the rest is the rest, I got the bug and was encouraged and promoted and helped beyond the call of duty by Kevin and his partner Susan and that set me off to wherever it is I am now.

What was your first engagement with poetry – page or stage? If it was page, how did it feel bringing your poetry to the stage?  If stage, how did it feel taking your poetry to the page?

For me page was first, I didn’t really know anything about live poetry other than official festival readings etc (I went to things like Cuirt in Galway every year) and so I had no real idea that there were other forms of ‘performance’. I read in public twice at small events and was horrified to find myself almost overcome with nerves and stage fright at the prospect of reading my own work in public. I was very surprised that I reacted that way, I was well used to public speaking and not shy or quiet or anything and so I hadn’t expected to react as badly. As a result of this I resolved to read at every single event I could find which lead me to begin going to the North Beach Nights Poetry Slam series in Galway where again everyone was so welcoming that I got hooked. ( I also learned the powerful lesson that when people yawn and start checking their phones during your reading it generally means you have indulged yourself and need to edit a few chucks out of the poem.)

Regarding the nerves, rather than get rid of them, reading in public so often has made me slightly addicted to them. Anytime now that I am completely calm before a poetry event I can guarantee you that I will read or perform in a lack lustre fashion and whilst the poems and the words and images they contain will be the same as any other day I will not have the connection with whoever is there to hear. There’s some magic alchemy between a reader and an audience when both contain the right measures of nervous energy. It’s an interesting one though because as I have got used to reading the nerves have lessened and so now I have to risk more in terms of my what my poems reveal or conceal in order to achieve the same feeling for myself. It has become a kind of kamikaze adventure sport of seeing what I am prepared to admit about myself to myself and others. By that I don’t mean more confessional poetry about incidents in my life but I mean in what I will publically take ownership of. It is easy to write something, but less easy to take public ownership of it.  I wonder where it will end?  Naked, I bet. That would be horrible for all of us.

Below are a few quotations from “How to Speak Poetry”.  Choose the one which most resonates with you.  Explain why – and whether or not there is merit in his position (both as it relates to the page and/or the stage).

“Do not act out words. Never act out words”.

“There is no more stage. There are no more footlights. You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside”.

“This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them”.

“Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list.”

“Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands.  It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence”.

“Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty”.

I hate all of those quotes. I tried with them but they sound a bit like over-thought prescriptive waffle to me. I think people should ‘speak’ or read or perform poetry however they want. Let them cut the air with their hands or their feet or their noses or their tails if they have them, however they want, wherever they want and also let whoever wants join in…

Some would contend that whether writing for the page, or reciting on a stage, poetry is all about performance.  How one presents poems on a page is a performance:  the line breaks, the punctuation, the visual impact of the poem in its physical form laid out on the page all amount to a kind of performance for the reader.  And, by the same token, how one presents a poem on a stage is a performance:  how the voice shakes or does not shake over the words, where and how the body moves, where the eyes look, the impact of language (both of the body, and in the speaking of the words) – all contribute to performance.  In light of this, is the distinction between the page and the stage a valid/necessary one?  Or is it better to conceive of the page and the stage as being two mediums among many in the spectrum of performance and how one can and does present poetry?

Most of our lives are performances of some kind or another, sometimes in artistic output we can approach the truth or integrity, and sometimes we can create great fictions. I have no idea as to how I could compare diverse artistic practices and declare one better than the next. It’s totally subjective and would require me to assume I have an authority or hold accurate and encompassing knowledge that in some kind of paper-scissors-stone fashion would crush someone else’s opinion.  I think though that what art and literature do is nourish and that that’s a better criteria than ‘performance or non performance’. That said, if art and literature have to make a song and dance about something in order to nourish me then that’s fine too.   What I mean by nourish is that the appreciation, the awareness of art can help us to live on more levels and with more depth and as a result with more fulfillment and purpose. This is something that we can get from being an audience for art and culture but it is even more true and more powerful when we can engage our own creative inclinations and from that point of view I find the discussion about the pre-eminence of page or stage a straw man argument.


I recently read about 400 poems by transition year students in schools all around Ireland. One of my favourite people, the poet Stephen Murray runs a schools poetry workshop called Inspireland and I was incredibly moved by reading the poems by his students. What moved me was not whether they were good bad or indifferent but it was the fact of Stephen’s work having provided them with this creative outlet, this source of nourishment which for the most part they passionately engaged with. Many of the poems were bleak and in fact they reminded me of what a difficult time adolescence can be but my overriding sense was a great relief that three hundred or so students have access to a nourishing means of exploring what it means to be human in this world.  And not to sound too self –help-y about it I was reminded too that poetry and writing creatively have brought me nourishment beyond anything I would have imagined.  It makes me happier, or better at dealing with various sadnesses.

I do have something further to say about the supposed page stage divide though, and that is in response to the often overly harsh criticisms that I hear from other poets about performance poetry.  I have very reluctantly come to the conclusion that a lot of criticism of the whole genre of ‘performance’ poetry has nothing more to it than a kind of snobbish gate-keeping. I am not in saying that all or even many or any of the performance poets are great, nor that all performers are poets, or any such thing. They aren’t. We aren’t. However lots of published books of poetry are also weak/boring/unnecessarily precious etc and yet people don’t try to declare that all the poetry in all the books is rubbish, though we hear that or similar from people all the time about performance poetry. I love the inclusive nature of performance poetry and I love the capacity it has to re-populate the world of poetry here with a more diverse crew of practitioners. These people may or may not have any interest in being conventionally published. They may or may not have any interest in developing their work to the level of literature, and they may succeed or fail if they try to do that. So might the rest of us. No one expects to like all film genres, or all types of music and in music also, some people love live gigs and some people prefer the perfection of  recordings; I don’t see why similar leeway is not applied to the various genres/mediums for poetry.

The whole way in which people consume poetry is changing and I would say that actually there are an increased variety of outlets now for people’s poetry (internet, journal/cd radio and event based).  This I think will help to increase sales of poetry books for the rest of us by  the very act of engaging people in some aspect of poetry. Bring it all on that’s what I say.

What advantages come with being able to think/engage/interact in more than one language?  What disadvantages are tied to having access only to your mother tongue?  If you don’t consider the first to be an advantage or the second to be a disadvantage, why not?

I am monolingual, apart from a few scraps of Spanish and a smattering of half remembered Irish words. I love being in a Spanish-speaking country though as my lack of proficiency requires me to actually become someone different. So here I’m a smart alec, a conversationalist, a chatterbox, a debater and a joke maker, in other countries what am I except a failure at all of the above?  I provides me with a degree of anonymity which I love and puts me in a far more reflective/action based environment where what I do counts and what I think counts but what I say is less important. I like it. I think form in poetry has a similar effect- it enforces discipline on your writing but perversely sometimes encourages you to say something because you can or because it fits, rather than because that poem or that conversation needed those words. I don’t see any advantages to being monolingual; however I do see a huge unearned privilege conferred on those of us who are native speakers of English or one of the other major languages of the world. One of the ways I combat this for myself (not for the good of the world now) is to make sure to read as much translated work as possible from other regions and in that way to try to have at least a snapshot of what it is possible to think in other languages. Go on the translators.

How do you speak poetry? (In other words, take the word butterfly and do whatever you want with it).

I try to not apologise for it. I try each time to find out if there is something new in what I have written that I did not know was there. Often it’s the audience who tell you what your poem is about. Other than that I try to make sure I am heard and that I am clear and that I don’t hide. That’s the most important in a way, I try to not allow myself to hide from whatever I am saying.


Sarah ClancySarah Clancy is 40 years old and is from Galway She has published two collections of poetry ‘Stacey and the Mechanical Bull’, from Lapwing Press Belfast in December 2010 and ‘Thanks for Nothing, Hippies’ from Salmon Poetry April 2012 ‘Cinderella Backwards’ a CD of poetry by Sarah and her fellow Galway poet Elaine Feeney was released in December 2012. Her next collection The Truth and Other Stories will be published in June 2014 again from Salmon Poetry. Her work has been published widely in journals in Ireland and less widely in other countries. Her work has also been regularly broadcast on RTE’s Arena, Lyric and The Business Programmes as well as on local radio.

Sarah has won or been shortlisted in many poetry competitions of both the page and stage variety. She was runner up in this year’s all Ireland Grand Slam Championship. She been an invited reader at many of Ireland’s best known literary festivals including Cuirt, The Cork International Poetry Festival and Dublin Book Festival and she also writes tortured fiction and short fiction with very little success as yet in that sphere.

This entry was published on February 4, 2014 at 7:20 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “How To Speak Poetry – Sarah Clancy

  1. Pingback: Ash Wednesday Poetry Series:How To Speak Poetry...

  2. Pingback: A Week in Words: Feb 9 | A Dreaming Skin

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