Grace Wells is an acclaimed author of children's books. Her children's novel, Gyrlfalcon, won the Eilis Dillon Award in 2003 and was selected as an International White Raven's Choice. Wells also enjoyed a successful career as a television and music video producer based in London. Now living in Ireland, she has recently published her first collection of poetry, When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things. Her poetic voice in this collection recalls the works of such poets as Adrienne Rich and Dorothy Allison as she addresses such issues as home life, domestic violence, and the ties that bind in families and relationships. Wells recently agreed to do an interview with JuliusSpeaks. This is what transpired.
1.Tell us about your background and where you are from.
I’m from London, England, a mostly Anglo-Saxon background, with some Russian Jews from the 1890’s thrown in to spark thing up.
For some years in the late 1980’s I produced TV commercials and pop videos, but I’d always wanted to write, so once I’d come to Ireland in 1991, had children, and got those children into school, I was able to take up writing in a more full way. I also work in arts administration and facilitate creative-writing workshops.
2.Discuss the title of your book, When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things. What in particular is the significance of the title in light of the corresponding poem within the book?
The whole voyage of the book is to do with a sense of God being absent, and the terrible things that people do to one another while that sense of spiritual presence is far away. In fact, I could add, even while that presence is up close, because many truly terrible things have been done, and are being done, in the name of God.
But mostly the book is about a sense of isolation and the lack of a vivid Spiritual presence. There are poems about childhood and growing up, and poems about people living within difficult relationships or whose lives are challenged in other ways. The title poem is, I think, the first time that we see the narrator(me) acknowledge, and realize, that within all this craziness, there is an imprint of God’s presence.
I think the whole tension of the book is that the phrase means two things: one, that we are alone and isolated while God seems to be off doing great things elsewhere, and also, on the other hand, that right there, in our pain and our isolation, that’s where we really can see God manifest. Hafiz has written “No one can resist a Divine invitation/That narrows down all our choices
/To just two:/We can come to God
/Dressed for Dancing,/Or/Be carried on a stretcher/
To God's Ward.” These are pretty much poems about the stretcher ride.
3.Your poetry is filled with metaphor. Throughout your poems you reference animals, using them in metaphor-the fox, the horse, the wolf. What is the significance of these metaphors in your work?
I think we’ve been relating to our humanity via the animal world for a long time. A lot of our sayings, like ‘keeping the wolf from the door’, you can’t teach an old dog, new tricks’, show that humanity has never felt itself too far away from the animal world. Now the majority of us live in cities and the action that plays out on the screen of our lives, is not full of nature. But I haven’t lived in a city for more than twenty years. My life is informed by the countryside, it’s understandable that it should have come into my poems in a strong way. Neruda said “The sea, fish and birds have a material existence for me, I depend on them just as I depend on daylight”. I feel the same way. When I wrote in my poem ‘Pioneer’, “she is sung with fox bark and pheasant call./Creatures roost in her thoughts, her days/ are measured by the slink, the leap, the pounce,/ the pitched balance of wings breaking into flight”, I’m writing of the things that are crucial to me. The natural world is so jeopardized by human beings, that it’s vital people become more conscious of its central role in our lives—and very quickly. If I write a lot about nature, it’s because part of me is shouting about our need to protect all this, for our own survival. In the poetry the call for protection emerges in a more subtle way, but inside, I’m screaming.
4.Your poems speak to issues of domestic violence and the everyday strife of domesticity. Tell us of your personal experiences with these issues. How do your experiences inform this collection of poetry?
I didn’t exactly chose to write about domestic abuse. It came at me and that was the primary material I had beneath my hands, so that’s why those poems are there. I feel I’ve said enough in the poems about those issues without having to say more in a public forum. When I’m speaking directly with victims of abuse I’m more open about my own experiences. But in a way I don’t think it matters that the poems are about abuse, in essence they’re about struggle and overcoming that. Every life has struggle. I think it’s always good to read about people who have come through.
Traditionally women’s poetry was marginalized and derided because it often dealt with the domestic, and rather than veer away from the domestic because of that, I think I have an obtuse desire to really look at it. I feel it’s not what you write about, it’s how you write about it. I think these are good domestic poems. Besides, if we get the domestic right, then we’re in a position to write about the big stuff. As my collection progresses, and the domestic world becomes more sane and livable, the poetry moves its focus and expands to include things like poverty in Africa, and global warming.
5. Am I correct in identifying an abusive father and an abusive husband in the poems?
Well these two people don’t even belong in the same sentence. My father had been involved in the Second World War, he’d taught young men in the RAF, and seen hundreds of them go to their deaths. He was marked by the war, and like so many men of his generation, he couldn’t contain his grief and rage.
6. I find your poetic voice to be an interesting mix of Adrienne Rich and Dorothy Allison. In your collection, you also pay homage to Sylvia Plath. Can you draw connections between yourself, Rich, Allison, and Plath?
When I first read that question I was very flattered. I thought, well that’s amazing that someone is linking my name with Rich and Plath. I don’t know Allison’s work, and I haven’t been able to source any, so, sadly, I can’t comment on that. But actually, after the initial sense of compliment, I started to get concerned. I’ve never been drawn to Plath’s work, her love affair with death just doesn’t draw me in. I haven’t consciously paid homage to her, if I have, that’s accidental. I know I’ve paid homage to Raymond Carver. His work was very important to my own. His work is vital and life-saving. Plath’s is a downward spiral. That isn’t what I feel poetry should be about. For me poetry is the life-affirming guide-rope that leads us from trouble. Carver knew that, it was his legacy and his gift to us. Besides there have been so many wonderful women writers since Plath, before Plath even, that it distresses me greatly that she’s dominated the scene.
As for Rich, I’ve never felt comfortable with her work either. She’s on the dense, incomprehensible side. I believe poetry should be generous and open, certainly it should be language-driven and provocative, but not distressing to our own sense of ability to understand. Right now Rich’s work is on the secondary school syllabus here in Ireland. And though a number of students will love her, and be invited, through her, into the world of poetry, she’s actually going to make thousands more run from poetry and never pick up another book of poems. That’s not what I’d hope for my own work.
7. In reading your work, I immediately thought of Adrienne Rich and her commentary, through poetry and prose, on domestic life, particularly where issues of gender and gender equality are concerned. How do your observations and philosophy delivered in this collection mirror Rich’s commentary on domestic life? I specifically identify “ The Dress,” “The Only Medicine,” and “The Lone Parent Does Not Write” as speaking to Rich’s work.
Well, as I said before, I don’t feel my work and Rich’s resonate off one another—at least not directly. I like her line, “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters”, it was used as the title of a brilliant book by Rebecca Wilson, an anthology of work and conversations with Scottish and Irish women Poets published in 1990. That book was very important to me, and many of the writers in it were undoubtedly influenced by Rich, so I can see she’s been relevant to my work, in the way a grandmother might be, but women writers have come so far since then, that I feel it’s time we stopped gyring around those rather outdated forces.
8. Does the poem “Rescue” reference the 1970s film, Deep Throat? Alice Walker, bell hooks, and several other feminist writers have addressed this film in their work. What were your impressions of this film? If this poem is not about that film, could you speak to this tradition of misogyny in cinema and offer your perspective on it?
The reference is to a much later film, and it was just a fairly ordinary main-stream movie, one of many where human sensuality is miserably misrepresented. I’ve never seen Deep Throat and wouldn’t think to. Somewhere in the 60’s and 70’s the floodgates burst on sex in cinema. I’ve read it began in Europe, where attitudes were quite open compared to American cinema of the time. The result has been that some decades later we live in a pornographic culture.
Pornography has spilled into the everyday and we’re awash with it. So much so, that I don’t think there’s even an intelligent discussion about its presence in our midst. The bar keeps getting lower, nothing is protecting young people and children, especially girls, from the rampant sexualisation of their culture and thinking. While many women are able to move forward into more independent, fulfilling lives, the exact opposite is also true, we’re seeing the development of a vast sex-slave culture, where millions of women are trafficked into the West to lose their basic freedoms. At another level it is now normal for women to keep their thumbs in their beer bottles when they got out at night, so their drinks aren’t spiked. That this kind of behaviour as a normality shows us how deeply disturbed the culture is.
The World Health Organisation tells us that one in five women in the West live in abusive relationships, one in three in the Developing world. For me these issues are central; those figures are not marginal. Anyone who thinks feminism is redundant is wrong. The tensions and personal dramas women have faced for centuries are still with us, only they’ve mutated form. We haven’t moved as far as we think we have, we’re still fighting for our lives.
9. You write about moving from England to Ireland in your work. What impact has this transition had on your life? What are some of the changes you have found in your life as a result of the move?
I have a certain sense of displacement I suppose, I’m not an Irish poet, yet my whole working life has been here, so I’m not really an English poet either. Ireland has had a deeply formative influence on who I am as a person. Mostly for the good, but not in easy ways. Like anywhere, there are good and bad things about Ireland. As an English person, it can be difficult living here because of Ireland’s history. The terrible things that the British did down the centuries are alive and unforgiven. The Irish are still in a process of recovery. Though our islands are very close, we have entirely different pasts. Many elements make for a subtle but ever-present tension against the English, which can be hard to live with.
Mostly what I love about Ireland are the people. I have some really great friends here. They’re very earthed, very focused toward real concerns: our shared humanity, concern for the planet. I feel it’s because we have more space here, more of a sense of what needs to be saved. Ireland has provided me with a sense of nurture and Spirituality that I simply might not have found in England. The land here is very alive with resonance. People here talk about the veil between the worlds being thin. I always feel it’s because Ireland only has a small population, and you can still get away from them to hear the land speaking. The sense of place is very alive in Ireland, very vibrant.
Then there’s the language, Hiberno-English is a much richer form of language than London-English. I know it has found its way into my writing. I’m also immersed in the Irish poetry scene. It’s a small enough world, so you can really remain aware of who is writing what. I like that. If I were in England there’d be so many names and characters, and a kind of resultant chaos.
10. Looking at your life experiences and the issues that you address in this book, what is your personal philosophy on juggling issues of marriage, children, personal identity, and all of the inherent in those connections?
It’s a day by day thing. Even an hour by hour thing. Often I’ve been in a great space, I’ve worked at my desk for hours, I’ll emerge from my study a wise and profound being and, within minutes, have one of my children reduce me to a neurotic wreck. I don’t have a big philosophy, one is constantly juggling and seeking balance. The minute you have equanimity, it passes and you’re right in the middle of the next drama.
Beneath the glass-top on my desk there are a couple of messages I like to keep with me. One simply says “Faith & Courage”. Another says: “Our single purpose is to magnify that Light we share between us”. And the last is e.e cummings: “I thank you God, for most this amazing/day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything/which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.” I muddle along somewhere in that midst.
11. The last poem in the book, “Work,” speaks of catharsis. How has this collection served as your catharsis?
The process of poetry has been very important for many years as a form of catharsis. My work has been enmeshed in a process of transforming dark material into something worthwhile, something meaningful, and almost darkly beautiful. I haven’t wanted that destiny, but that’s what came towards me. So ultimately I have huge belief in the power of art to transform and heal. Art, darkness, sexuality and spirituality have been the big themes of my life. The great thing about this book is that it puts a lot of things to rest. It clears the air, empties the shelf space and allows for new work. C.S Lewis wrote, “we read to know we are not alone”. For me writing has always been about that, a sharing of our humanity. All along I doubted the sanity of publishing these poems, but I kept on because I knew there were women who needed to read them, women who needed to see a way out of abuse, or women who couldn’t recover from it. I kept saying to myself I was doing it for them, to help them heal. Now those women are coming forward and thanking me in person, I see that actually the whole process is also about my healing at a yet deeper level. They’re the ones who remind me how relevant my work is, how despite everything, I belong.
12. Thanks for this interview.