Elodie Barnes talks to Emily Cooper about her debut collection Glass: poems which shift and reflect on the ideas of home as architectural space, home as memory space, permanence, impermanence, and the ‘ownership’ of stories.
Emily Cooper’s poetry has been published in the Stinging Fly, Banshee and Poetry Ireland Review, among others. In 2019 she was a recipient of the Next Generation Award from the Arts Council of Ireland. She has been granted residencies by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Irish Writers Centre, the CCI Paris, RCC Letterkenny and Greywood Arts. Her debut collection GLASS was published by Makina Books this year.
Emily Cooper’s debut poetry title, GLASS, is a short collection of extraordinary depth. It landed on my door mat on a hot day in July; the kind of day when the opening poem, ‘The First Casualty of the Summer’, was evident on all the paths around the park in splattered ice creams and dropped cones. It was there that I read it through from beginning to end for the first time. Each poem has a distinctive voice and tells a distinct story, but there are themes that weave through the collection: those of home and home ownership, the memories and stories that a bricks-and-mortar space can hold, our own “guardianship rather than possession” of those spaces and their lives, and whether something can continue to hold joy even after our connection to it has been broken. (In the case of the ice cream, the first casualty of summer, the howling child on the next-door park bench would say not).
On each reading, layers reveal themselves. There’s both an honesty and a vulnerability in Emily Cooper’s writing that is refreshing, and that enables the poems to be read on so many levels. Each poem seems to unfold, meeting the reader wherever they are in place or time, because GLASS is not so much a ‘house’ as a collection of spaces, belonging to everyone and no one. At the heart of the collection is the question of permanence: how can we call a place our own when our stay there, wherever it may be, is so temporary?
I was lucky enough to talk to Emily over Zoom about the collection, her inspirations, and other writing projects.
What brought you to poetry?
I had a strange journey towards poetry. I loved English and art at school, but it was a strict Catholic grammar school that was very academic. There wasn’t really much space for creative subjects. If it had been a different environment I honestly think I would have been an artist, but as it was I ended up studying dentistry at Glasgow. It seems mad now! In the end it didn’t work out, and I left to study creative writing in London.
When I started studying creative writing I was mostly writing short stories, but at the end of the first year my father died, and I think that changed a lot of things for me. Something switched in my way of thinking. I became very drawn to poetry – because of the way it expresses the otherwise unsayable so succinctly, perhaps – and by the time I went to Belfast to study for my MA at Queen’s, I was writing poetry seriously. I’ve heard of others coming to poetry through grief or similar upheavals, too. It all happened without me planning any of it, almost without my participation! And learning to write poetry so intensely was an interesting experience. It’s become like a muscle memory, so that even now, when I’m writing more prose again, the poetry is still there lurking.
That’s interesting that you began writing short stories. One of the things I love about GLASS is that so many of the poems do tell a story, each one starting from a single moment. I visualised it as a stone dropping into a pond, and watching the ripples that spread outwards; there are some really beautiful explorations of the consequences of that moment, and how a single action or event can change so many things. I’m thinking particularly of ‘Old Lives’ (“Perhaps if things hadn’t turned out / The way they did, and I hadn’t left / Eight years before…”) but even the titular poem, ‘Glass’, begins “I buy / a slide projector in / a charity shop…” ; the whole poem springs from that one decision, to buy the projector. Is that something you consciously do?
I think it’s something that’s ingrained in me. I come from a family of anecdoters – if that’s a word! My mother, especially, is a storyteller. When she sees a particular place or object or person, she’ll compulsively tell the story associated with it. Each story relates to another, and it becomes like a large web. I do it too, I think I’ve inherited it! Oral storytelling is also a big tradition in Ireland. Poetry and stories were meant to be read aloud or performed, so maybe I’ve absorbed some of that too – although I never perform my own work, as such. I’ll happily do readings, but I don’t have a good enough memory for proper performances!
In poetry particularly, though, I think it’s very good to have the grounding of a single idea. It gives you a solid base to work out from. ‘Io at the table’, in the collection, is another example. It came out of a residency I did in India, where I met a fascinating artist called Io, and we sat at the dinner table one evening sharing stories.
A lot of the poems in GLASS involve travel. Does that come from your own experience?
Yes, I travel a lot. It started in my early twenties when I went to Greece for a couple of months, and after that I would try and go somewhere every year. I often picked up jobs like kitchen work or farm work, and so I was able to stay away for longer periods of time. I still prefer travelling like that – I find going on ‘holiday’ really unsatisfying. And of course I got to know people, and I had lots of different experiences which I feel are a deep well for writing. I always write from life. I’m not very good at what I call ‘clever’ poetry – highly referential or academic-style poetry. So there’s a lot of different places in GLASS, simply because that’s been my experience.
There’s also a thread of permanence / impermanence running through the poems; a sense of being in flux, which I associate with travel.
I am very preoccupied with those ideas of permanence and impermanence, and I think they’re often at the centre of my writing. I’m obsessed with recording things like memories and stories. I want to take them down and make them tangible before they’re lost. And I often think of poetry as being like a photograph: it’s something that you capture of a moment, so that you can always re-encounter it later on. Of course it might change in certain ways, depending on how and when you read the poem (or view the photograph), but once it’s written down, there is always a basis from which to go back.
I also think that because I’ve moved around a lot, a sense of insecurity does seep into the work. Some people have a permanent home that they’ve always lived in, and that’s a very specific experience which I haven’t really had. The page behind the poem is always shifting and changing.
In that idea of pinning down memories, there’s also the idea of ownership. I felt that in some of the poems, there was a question posed to the narrator: do you own these memories? Are these really yours? Or are they somebody else’s that you’ve inherited, or somebody else’s from a story they’ve told you? It creates so many layers to each poem.
That’s funny, because at the moment my mother is quite concerned about my memory recall! We see quite a lot of each other now, and she’s always telling me that I’m remembering things wrong. But I’ve also learned from her that stories are not permanent things – she changes them as she tells them – and I think the same is true of everyone, especially with memories. How many of us have talked to parents about an incident from childhood, and we all remember it completely differently? I read somewhere that memories don’t have a direct link to an event. A memory is never a memory of an actual thing, it’s a memory of the last time you remembered that thing. It’s a sequence, not a direct line. It makes me think that memories can be almost a dream space. Things can be the same, but different.
Returning to your comment about moving around a lot, I wanted to ask you about the idea of home, and the title of the collection. Within the collection there’s an architectural idea of home, which glass is a part of; but there’s also the abstract idea of home as a place of memories and stories, and glass as a reflective material that gives us those memories and stories back in a slightly different form. Are those ideas something that you consciously set out to explore?
I think it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few years, especially since moving into this house. It’s a very old house, and the woman who lived here before was an art historian who left a very strong imprint. It’s strange how people can leave different levels of presence in a house. It made me think how many different lives a house can live, and also how your time inside a house can be so temporary. I’ve always had a preoccupation with the architectural side of home, because my parents always had houses that were old and my father almost always did some restoration work (I remember when we lived in London he did up the windows and the floors), and a huge amount of love went into it. So those material aspects always had a value for me beyond money. But there’s also an anxiety attached to the architecture, especially architecture that you’ve built or renovated and put emotional value on, because there’s always a feeling of needing to protect it. I find it very hard to let go of that emotional connection when I move house, and all of that is very much in the poems.
I love the poem ‘A fountain pen slices my leg through a bin bag as I move into my new house’, which really expands on those ideas: “They tell you that owning an old house / is more of a guardianship than possession. / Though, it is difficult not to feel the presence / of those who left behind traces…”. But there’s also ‘The Catsitter’, which explores attachments without ownership: “I have to remind myself constantly that this is not my house / Not my bed or my oven, though I am attached to this / Too hot oven…” When you travel, do you still get that same emotional attachment to places?
I do, yes. I have places I go back to over and over again, like Loutro in Crete. Perhaps because Greece was the first country I travelled to for any length of time, I have a particular attachment to it.
Quite a few of the poems include women artists and the visual arts. What inspired that?
I’m very fixated at the moment on women artists. I’ve actually just finished a collection written in collaboration with another poet, Jo Burns, which is an imagined conversation between three of Picasso’s ‘muses’ – Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, and Marie-Thérèse Walter. I wrote Dora Maar, and I’m fascinated by her and her work. But I’ve also been discovering Irish women artists over the past year, since visiting an exhibition of Mary Swanzy’s work in Limerick. I was actually shocked that there were so many I hadn’t heard of – incredible artists like Mainie Jellett and Eileen Gray – and at how neglected they are. It’s become a passion of mine to try and create more visibility for them. Writing about them is a slow process because I don’t have much background knowledge of art history. I want to learn as much as possible, but sometimes it can feel as though I’m working blind, and the idea of trying to give a voice to someone else can be daunting! I don’t feel qualified to write an academic-type text, so I’ve been trying to find a creative side-door.
Did you enjoy working in collaboration?
I really loved it. I think the experience definitely depends who you work with, but Jo was lovely. We only met once in person, but we have a long coincidental history: she also studied dentistry at Glasgow, and we write on a lot of the same subjects, so it almost felt like we were fated to do this work together!
I also think that cross-genre collaboration is really exciting. I’ve never done a visual arts collaboration, for example, but I would love to. I believe that people are artists first and then they find their medium, and I find it invigorating to learn about other peoples’ languages of creativity. I particularly love how intuitive the visual arts are: the ability to create something that isn’t definitive is really exciting for me. I like a lack of certainty, which language – even surreal language – doesn’t always give.
Do you find that what you read changes with what you’re working on?
Not necessarily, it changes all the time! I read mostly poetry when I was studying, but over the last few years I’ve read less of it. My way of reading poetry has also changed. I used to be very analytical, but now I’ve stopped trying to work out the mechanics of it. I just read straight through, and either like it or not. I want to read more poetry, really, but one that I particularly loved recently was Ella Frears’ collection Shine, Darling.
I’ve been reading more prose lately, especially non-fiction. I really enjoyed What Artists Wear, it was like reading a documentary film! I also love memoir and autofiction, Rachel Cusk’s in particular, and I enjoyed Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan.
Huge thanks to Emily Cooper for her time with this interview.
Feature image: Emily Cooper by Robin Christian.