Give It A Go: Poetry

Whether you’re just starting out or need some inspiration, Poet, Writer and Lifeboat Volunteer Eleanor Hooker shares her top tips on the art of writing poetry.

A woman writing poetry at a desk

Photo: Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

‘Poetry is a profoundly consoling art, especially in these difficult times,’ says Eleanor, who has had a passion for poetry all her life.
Eleanor Hooker - Poet, Writer and Lough Derg lifeboat Helm and Press Officer

Photo: Eleanor’s son, George Hooker

Eleanor Hooker - Poet, Writer and Lough Derg lifeboat Helm and Press Officer 

So, when did you start writing poetry?

‘I always wrote for myself without the intention of ever publishing. About 18 years ago, I showed some of my poems to my dear friend and fellow RNLI volunteer Pat Kelly. Pat was massively encouraging. We have always shared a love of the written word and are both founding members of the Dromineer Nenagh Literary Festival.

‘In 2009/10, I enrolled on an MPhil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin and graduated with Distinction. That was the boost I needed. In 2012, the Dedalus Press in Dublin published my first full collection of poems - The Shadow Owner’s Companion. I was in my mid-40s.’

Eleanor has since received many awards and commendations for her poetry and prose. In October 2016, her second poetry collection, A Tug of Blue, was published by the Dedalus Press. And in this same year, she was included as one of Poetry Ireland Review’s ‘Rising Generation’ of Irish poets.

What do you love about poetry?

‘I find that poems are a safe place for me to put vulnerable, breakable things, whereas prose provides company.

‘I love the disparate juxtaposition of abstract and concrete nouns on the page, and how the appositions enable us to see the world anew, discover new ways of looking. Poems often reveal primordial truths and access to a deeper knowledge of our world.’

How do you write a poem?

‘My poems start with ideas, then the challenge is to articulate the ideas as poems.

‘First, I have to walk the hind legs off my dogs so that they will rest beside me whilst I write! 

‘I write in a book-lined room in my house. It has great energy and I write my best stuff there. The window in front of my desk looks out onto the cobbled yard and a large window to my right looks out onto Lough Derg. Perfect!

‘With prose you write in sentences and fill paragraphs ‘til they’re loaded with words that end up in great chunks of writing. With poems, the process is much slower. It’s word to word and syllable counts.

‘It might take me a week to get down the first draft, and sometimes months before I’m ready to abandon the poem as completed.’

Eleanor at the helm of Lough Derg’s inshore B class lifeboat Jean Spier

Photo: Pat Flynn

Eleanor at the helm of Lough Derg’s inshore B class lifeboat Jean Spier

What inspires you to write poetry?

‘The world around me. Everything under the sun is worthy of consideration and of being written about.’

Eleanor also finds inspiration from her experiences on the lifeboat. When she isn’t writing she devotes much of her time to her local lifeboat station on Lough Derg, Co Tipperary - the RNLI’s first inland lifeboat station in Ireland. She has been a volunteer since the service began there in May 2004 and today is an inshore lifeboat helm and lifeboat press officer.

‘You often hear people referring to the RNLI family, and it’s not a cliché,’ Eleanor says. ‘My fellow volunteers are like a second family. We care for one another and look out for each other. There are times when our lives and others depend upon that mutual trust, training and regard. The sense of belonging is inestimable and is something all crews will describe without much prompting.’

Some of Eleanor’s poems use water as a metaphor and some, such as The Shout, reflect the gritty reality of search and rescue, where you never know what the outcome will be.

What is your favourite poem that you’ve written?

‘Gosh, that would be like choosing a favourite child! But a poem I’m really fond of is Love Song: for Peter, because of my husband Peter’s reaction when he first read it.’

Love Song
for Peter

Remember when I came to you
clothed only in catastrophe?
You whispered: ‘If I unbolt my heart,
you must walk through or walk away.’
Remember? And once inside, we coupled,
unlearned the sad refrain we once called loneliness.
We became the boat. Reefed our sails
in squally weather, sailed our course together.
When judgement fell
and the fleet railed ‘recollect your family’s
good name, we’re your class remember’,
you gave my tears to the sea and the sea
wept. They hauled our sheet
through the block, and when our boat luffed,
we corrected, we stemmed the line.
And after the wind arrived as a huge silence,
I asked if we could ever be becalmed
and you said no, we have locked
ourselves inside one heart, remember.

By Eleanor Hooker, from A Tug of Blue

Do you have a favourite poet or poem?

‘At the moment I’m reading every poem I can find by Eleanor Wilner. Her poem, The Girl with Bees in Her Hair is exceptional, an enigma. 

‘One of my all-time favourite poets is the Scottish poet John Glenday. He writes the most exquisite poetry, absolute gems of quiet insistence and reflective observation.

‘I’m also reading new collections by Chelsea Dingman, Roisin Kelly, Caroline Bird and Fiona Benson. And I’m really looking forward to a forthcoming collection by a super talented Irish poet Leeanne Quinn.

‘In these uncertain times, a poem that offers hope is Derek Mahon’s Everything Is Going To Be Alright.’

Everything Is Going To Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

By Derek Mahon, from Selected Poems

Eleanor’s top tips for writing poetry

1. Read like a mad thing
Learn your craft. 

2. Don’t be afraid
You don’t need anyone’s permission to start.

3. Be passionate and honest
Passion and truth (even if it is a lie) is essential. I repeat this at every workshop I give. You must have heart. A poem that is beautifully constructed, that pings like cut glass, but is hollow at its centre, adds nothing.

4. Listen and look
The world has not ceased to be beautiful. There are moments of joy to savoured.

5. Trust your reader
Don’t feel you have to resolve everything at the end of your poem. Allow the reader to infer.

6. Turn off your social network sites!
If you spend a lot of your time monitoring what other people are doing, you’re not writing yourself.

7. Join a writing group
The support from other writers when you’re starting out is invaluable.

8. Give it time
Writing is hard work. So, if a piece comes together too easily, then you probably didn’t give it enough time - and it will show.

When trying to get your work published:

9. Test the water
Send out work for consideration, but don’t rush and send out early drafts. Make sure the poem is ready.

10. Enter poetry competitions
Poet Angela Carr posts a comprehensive list of competitions, submissions and opportunities every month on her blog, A Dreaming Skin. It’s an invaluable resource for writers. 

11. Don’t get dejected by rejections
Stay strong. Take it on the chin - then take a break. Regroup and reenergise. And when you’re ready, use your courage and determination to try again and prove people wrong. 

Sylvia Plath once said: ‘I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.’

Give it a go!

Has Eleanor inspired you to give poetry a go? Remember, write from the heart, take your time and enjoy getting lost in the moment.