I hear writers all the time say that writing is about showing up to work—you sit down at your desk every day and you write. My reality as a poet couldn’t be further from this. Writing poetry for me has to somehow weave into the warp and weft of a sometimes chaotic pattern of daily life. It happens somewhere between raising two busy boys aged twelve and fourteen (…yes I drive the Mum-Uber), media consulting, being Senior Poetry Editor for two university literary journals—Other Terrain Journal and Backstory Journal (Swinburne University, Melbourne), writing feature articles and fulfilling various community volunteering duties (for some reason, communications people are always in demand…). Oh yes, and if you’re ever in need of a meat pie, you can catch me on school canteen duty. But that’s life and I love it, and it feeds into my poetry in the most glorious ways… well, my sons may not agree. I am regularly accused of ‘roasting’ them in my poetry!
So my daily writing routine goes something like this – wake>>shower [jump out of shower to jot down idea on phone]>>take kids to school (picking up four missing items on way to car)>>clear emails>>check deadlines>>do urgent work>>walk dog [start poem on phone]>>eat sandwich in car to school pick-up [jot another line at ‘Kiss and Ride’]>>ferry kids between activities [pick up poem poolside at kids’ swim squad]>>supervise homework while writing or editing an article [add another line or two to poem]>>feed ravenous boys [delete a line of poem]>>don bio-hazard suit, unpack and decontaminate school lunchboxes, gym-bags etc>>find dog staring dejectedly at empty food-bowl>>feed dog [while adding back one line to poem]>>pack school lunchboxes>>pretend to watch the latest rave tv thriller on Netflix while actually dabbling on social media on my phone in between gasping over and retweeting stumbled-on poems alongside my husband who is also pretending to watch the latest rave tv thriller on Netflix while actually scanning headlines and reading sustainable energy research on his phone in between catnaps >>shoo child back to bed and rummage through house at 11 pm looking for impossible item urgently required for school tomorrow ‘but they only told us today’>>sleep [can’t sleep]>>finish poem>>sleep.
Not every day of course, but if a poem is happening, this is how. Over ninety per cent of my poems are written on my phone on the fly. They are usually in close-to-finished form by the time they get to my laptop. Meanwhile my husband and I ‘watch’ a lot of Netflix rave tv thrilllers by making up most of the plot twists when asked by the other what is going on. And, umm… maybe I do ‘roast’ my kids just a little bit…
In between all the dashing around, whenever I do get to choose my writing spot, it is usually either at the kitchen bench (where I can still keep an eye on homework or whatever is cooking) or my favourite hang-out—our back balcony amongst the treetops with my trusty hound by my side. In those rare moments when I can write uninterrupted, I tend to be laser-focused. Possibly because I am time-poor, and possibly influenced by my background as a journalist and magazine editor, I tend to be goal-orientated.
When I was starting out in journalism in Ireland almost thirty years ago, I had the great good fortune to do some work with a Dublin journalist called Barry McCall. Barry was writing for all the big newspapers. He was a phenomenon – he just churned out the stories. One grey morning in a Georgian terrace office in Dublin in the early 1990s (which was rapidly clouding over from the constantly replenished cigarette stub stuck to Barry’s lower lip), as he assaulted a keyboard next to me, I asked him “How do you do it Barry?”. His reply has stayed with me through all my writing years: “Just remember – the blank page is the enemy! Fill it up. Fill it with everything you know that’s relevant. Once you have the bones, go back and tighten it up.”
I love that – it makes complete sense to me. Before I even start writing, I will usually jot down an idea, some key words, or a couple of lines, sometimes sketch an outline. And that’s it then – you’ve made a start. You’ve got the blank page on the back foot. As a journalist, editor or communications consultant, it’s easy. I’m drawing on all those years of knowledge and experience. I am generally dealing in finite facts (no fake news here!). It’s a set formula – I sit down, do the research and I write. There is always a point when everything crystallises in my mind – let’s call it the ‘Aha!’ moment – that’s when I have the hook, the spin, the kernel, the angle around which the whole thing pivots. I edit a bit and it’s good to go.
So I guess all those years filling blank pages feeds into my creative writing too. The process is a little different as no-one assigns me a topic. Poems always start with a strong feeling about something – whether it is an environmental or political issue, or a personal moment or experience. Most of the time, it’s something close to my heart, so I tend to know the facts pretty well. Exit research stage. But there is always an ‘Aha!’ moment – when a line or a phrase drops into my head and that’s the fulcrum. Often when this happens, I will realise that this idea has been marinating for some time, though I have been barely conscious of it.
But I know that people come at the writing process from all kinds of angles. And that’s the great beauty about writing to me—the diversity. That joy of picking up someone else’s work and letting it blow you away.
This piece has been extracted and adapted from an interview with Anne Casey by Paul Brookes which appeared in ‘The Irish Times’ newspaper in December 2018 under the title “The real enemy in writing, the poets who slay me and do I really ‘roast’ my kids”.
A journalist, magazine editor, media communications director and legal author for 25+ years, Anne Casey is author of two poetry collections—out of emptied cups (Salmon Poetry 2019) and where the lost things go (Salmon Poetry 2017, 2nd ed 2018). Her work is widely published internationally, has won/shortlisted for poetry awards in Ireland, USA, UK, Canada and Australia, and ranks in The Irish Times ‘Most-Read’. Anne is Senior Poetry Editor of Other Terrain and Backstory journals (Swinburne University, Melbourne).