Ailbhe Darcy on How She Writes a Poem

We kick off 2018 with the marvellous poet, Ailbhe Darcy, on how she writes a poem:

First, invest monstrously in your own personal mythology. Novelists build a fictional world for the space of a volume or several volumes, but the poet builds a fictional world across an entire life.

Then, disagree. A poem is a disagreement. You have a quarrel with yourself or someone else or the world or history or, most often, poetry itself. You make a poem because you’re ornery.

Sometimes you’ll carry around the vehicle of a metaphor for months without its tenor. Like a fidget spinner, it’s there and you can’t help fiddling with it. For a while my pockets were full of knotweed, with its femaleness and monotonous leaves. Another time, that damn umbrella. When the metaphor finds its meaning, it’s all used up and you’ll miss it.

Your job is an intense negotiation with language: you head into the poem with a list of demands but find you must compromise. Poets writing in rhyme can’t avoid knowing this, but it’s true for all of us.

Every poem is an argument about how a poem should be written; each poem has a bone to pick with the last poem. So the answer to ‘How do you write a poem?” is always going to be: ‘it depends.’

In any case, writing a poem isn’t the problem. Even writing better poems isn’t the problem. Not an intellectual problem anyway – only a practical one. Writing the poems you want to write takes more time than you have, that’s all: time to read all the other poems in the world, time to practice and practice and practice, and time to walk around in fresh air and comfortable shoes with an empty head for half infinity.

No, the real problem is what’s between poems. How do you get from one poem to the next? How do you survive those vast chasms when you seem to be nowhere near a poem? How do you maintain any faith that there’ll ever be another poem at all?

1. Write critically, unpicking the poems of others and putting them back together to see how they worked. I see this as a form of required service for the poet, anyway. If you expect anyone to read your poems, you owe it to the universe to respond to the poems sent out by others.

2.Write collaboratively with another poet. It’s a whole other way of being solipsistic and absorbed and bewildered.

3. Make a thing that isn’t a poem. Bake. Try this Amish cinnamon quick bread.


Ailbhe Darcy is an Irish poet living in Cardiff. Her first collection, Imaginary Menagerie (Bloodaxe, 2011), was shortlisted for a Shine Strong Award. Her second collection, Insistence (Bloodaxe, 2018), is due out in May. Poems from it appear in Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review and Poetry Wales. She has also written a book in collaboration with S.J. Fowler, called Subcritical Tests (Gorse, 2017).  Ailbhe’s poetry appears in FUTURE/NO FUTURE, Spring 2017 Vol 52.3 of Poetry Wales.

insistence cover