Sunday, 3 April 2016

Kate Dempsey's poetry collection, The Space Between. And other things. Including Thorium 238...

If you write creatively, whether poetry, plays, prose, you may well be aware of Kate Dempsey’s Emerging Writer blog -  a rather useful blog to say the least, containing a constantly updated drip feed of markets and opportunities for writers of all sorts, in depth interviews and interesting reviews. It is indeed rather brilliant stuff. And it's constant, and it's a free resource, even if occasionally someone drops in the cost of a coffee, I bet that doesn’t happen very often. Among other things, Kate is a poet. A poet who performs as well as sits in a darkened room. Who not just performs but is part of a group of women poets called Poetry Divas. I quote from one festival line-up I read:  
The fabulous Poetry Divas Collective are a glittery group of poets who read their own material at events and festivals all over Ireland including Electric Picnic, Féile na Bealtaine, Dublin Writers Festival, Dromineer Literary Festival and Kildare Reader's Festival. Each line-up and show is different, blended to the occasion but they guarantee a deliciously infectious show that's bound to touch a nerve and blur the wobbly boundaries between page and stage. The Divas include Barbara Smith, Maeve O’Sullivan, Triona Walsh and Kate Dempsey. 
The Poetry Divas. Kate on the left. In tiara. 

Kate had her own debut poetry collection out at the end of last year, with Doire Press - The Space Between. I happened to be in Dublin thenabouts, happened to be staying in a hotel a stone’s throw from where Kate works, and she kindly whizzed down one lunchtime to deliver my very own copy. 

I don’t review many books. However. This book is different. I don’t know Kate from Eve, apart from the fact that she is a hugely helpful person for other writers - but felt I ought to say I have met her for all of three minutes, in a Dublin hotel foyer, before saying that if you appreciate poetry that is by turns witty, funny, poignant, insightful, beautiful, strange,  and above all memorable, you ought to be getting yourself a copy. I can’t lend you mine, it is covered in scribbles. Its the sort of collection that makes me want to write myself. High praise. 

Look. Here’s the opening poem. (I have Kate’s permission to reproduce this one, and a couple of others, here.)

It’s What You Put Into It
For Grace

On the last day of term
you brought home a present,
placed it under the tree,
a light, chest-shaped mystery
wrapped in potato stamped paper
intricate with angels and stars.

Christmas morning
you watched as we opened it,
cautious not to tear the covering.
Inside, a margarine tub, empty.
Do you like it? eyes huge.
It’s beautiful.
What is it, sweetheart?
A box full of love, you said.

You should know, O my darling girl,
it sits on the dresser still
and from time to time, we open it. 

My heart does a backflip every time I read this one. I wish I’d written it.
Let’s move sideways, to something completely different. Dublin conjured from scents and sounds:

There’s fresh oranges on Mary Street,
fresh words, fresh-sprayed on concrete walls.

Or sideways again, one of my many favourites - a few couplets to give a flavour of 

Verbatim (i m Barbara Ennis Price) :

Its all the fault of the British, she said.
The cursing came in with the troopers,


Sure, weren’t we a gentle race
until the squaddies boated in?


What did we have to swear about 
until the British came?

I bet that one brings the house down.  And sideways yet again to this, which had me laughing out loud on a Ryanair flight. (There’s not much to laugh about on Ryanair..)

Thorium 238

I am Thorium
luke on mi magnifisens an kwiver.


U can bild yr collider in a playgrown,
bombard me wiv protons,
thro evrything u hav at me,
an 1 glorus day I will radee-ate 2 order. 
I am de answer, earthlings...

I googled Thorium 238. This is what it looks like. 
Thorium 238. Great, isn't it? 

I hope you are getting the point. This is not an easy collection to categorise. It is broad ranging, fascinating, and terrific. Sorry, but I love it. 

Kate Dempsey was born and raised in the UK, seems to have lived all over the world, and now lives and works in Dublin. She once studied Physics at Oxford University. (See, we have a lot in common. Not that I went to Oxford, or indeed studied Physics anywhere - I dropped it before O Level. Long Story. But in the run up to the publication of I Am Because You Are, the short story antho in celebration of the centenary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (Freight Press, eds Tania Hershman and Pippa Goldschmidt) I went to Oxford Physics Dept for four private seminars for the commissioned writers, to be fodder for said Relativity themed creation. Yup. Moi.) 

The Poetry Divas, her bio also says, blur the wobbly boundary between page and stage at events and festivals all over Ireland. The collection certainly contains poems I can ‘hear’ being read out loud, as well as those I want to curl up with and enjoy quietly (such as that first one up there.)  So we nattered, remotely. I asked her about the two. 

Moi: Performance and page poetry. Which came first, for you? How did the sideways shift occur? Can you pick one you define as a performance poem, and one that really belongs on the page? Why? What is it that pushes this divide?

Her: Well, page is always first. You have to write a poem before you can perform it. A poem that only works as a performance poem is only half a poem, and vice versa. If a page poem does not work out loud, then something’s wrong. Poetry started as recitation long before it was written down.I do have poems that would lean one way more than another. I have quite a few poems I would not put in a book as on the page they are missing something. Maybe that something is the voice? I don’t know. If I could fix it and make the poem work on the page too, I would. And then again, I have poems that are good on the page but when I’ve read them to an audience, there’s too much going on on the page for a listening audience to get much out of it in the first run through. So those would be stay-on-the-page poems.  
Moi: Some poems seem to straddle to divide neatly. For example: 'Tell me about your scar'. May I reprint this one?

Her: Sure, go ahead 

Tell me about your scar

that pucker of skin in the shape of an owl.
Was it an irritable pug,
a fight about a man, a look, the price of pie? 
Were you cursed by Minerva?
Did your knife slip making a rocket from a bottle?

Is it perhaps where you had a rash tattoo removed? I hear the laser hurts more than the needle.
Were you caught climbing barbed wire into somewhere,
out of somewhere?
Did you fly into a window, smash a mirror?

Was it cancer, may I ask, a nasty melanoma?
Did a small owl-shaped alien erupt after one to many bad nights?
Was it self-inflicted?
Is there a matching half on your other arm,
your leg, your brother?

Does it ache when storms are near?
Do you still notice it? 
Does it disappear in sunshine, 
in the shower, in the snow,
when you sweat, when you fall in love?

Do you have a story
or shall I make you one?
I can do that.
Sit still.
This will hardly hurt a bit. 

Her: I started that one because I wanted to write a poem with a reference to classics, originally Athena but she changed to Roman Minerva. On top of that, I have taught creative writing in schools and one prompt I’ve used is to write the true story about a scar. Everyone has a scar with a story. And then to tell a story for the scar that isn’t real. Works well.

Moi: Specific question - it seems to me that humour is a fundamental for performance poetry, in whatever quantity - a flash thereof, or a lot.

Her: I don't think so. Maybe it is in mine but there is plenty of performance poetry that is fiercely passionate or angry with no humour at all. I'm thinking Kate Tempest as  a terrific example and many other performance poets who think that anger on its own will make a poem, which it won't. I don't always intend to write funny poems but humour tends to creep in. In a performance environment, a funny poem or a poem with at least touches of humour is good to keep the audience on your side. A laugh relieves the tension of listening (or not)

Moi: I laughed out loud in the plane home, at Thorium 238. I love the humour that runs through the collection - favourites might be I Could Lie and Running Out. And Regeneration... despite the serious echoes underneath

Her: Thorium is one of the more Science poems. I wrote it to be displayed in the Bodleian Science Library in Oxford, which was really cool. Thorium and Thorium 238 in particular some scientists believe have the potential to release very cheap clean energy but they haven't figured out how to do it yet. So I imagined Thorium as some kind of a partially literate superhero, sniggering as he watches humanity trying to work it out.

Moi: O Lord. Thorium 238 is now my favourite. It has to be. To celebrate... here is that pic of...
Thorium 238. Still great...
But doing an about turn, I am wondering, as there are many very insightful, hilariously sharp poems about blokes  in the collection, is this a feminist collection? I am thinking of Karl, poor poor man, ghastly man,  in his very own poem.. .

We weave around conversational sinkholes, as he ploughs
into his half-a-bloody cow, chewing open-mouthed 
as if we all want to savour the flavour...


He’s all for diversity so long as the service industry
speaks English with no accent.

Her: Now there's a question. I come from a generation where it is almost taken as read that if you are a woman, you are a feminist. Of course I'm a feminist! And feminist beliefs will inevitably pop up in some of my writing. But I don't think anyone gains anything by forcing doctrine down other people's throughts. Subtlety and light humourous undermining of assumptions is my main weapon. But if I had to pick out an overtly feminist poem, I would be hard pressed. Perhaps While It Lasted, about a mother taking some time off from running the house and family. Actually my mother worked too, but that's not mentioned specifically. Or Running Out. I may have to address feminism more overtly in some new poems, I think.

Moi:  Love that one too. here it is, on
On to Physics.
Can you say a bit about how this (and broader science) does or doesn't inform your poetry? Noted: Hydrogen, Equations on Waking. Again, may I use Hydrogen on the blog?

Her: I am fascinated with Science, specifically Physics from my Physics degree so I think it is inevitable that some science will creep into poems, even if they are not specifically about science. For example Schroedinger's famous, much maligned and misunderstood cat appears in a poem about a lump in a breast. I sometimes read at Science events so I specifically tried to write a few really science-y poems. I also collect interesting science facts for future poems, I jhave notebooks bulging with ideas waiting for time to craft them into something more than scratchy notes. I wrote a sequence of poems about elements represented as women, which was much fun to research and imagine. I should thank my daughter who is a Chemistrry graduate as well as Wikipedia. Hydrogen addresses varoius attributes of the element, the lightness and flammability. In a lab, the test to see if Hydrogen is released is to set it alight so it will pop. And it commonly occurs as H2, in a pair, two protons, no neutron, so that went into the poem too.

Moi: I knew it. Honest.


You can’t hold me down for long,
buouyant, I’m ready to burn bright, pop.

Simple? Say straight forward,
I say what I mean and I am what I am

a singular girl and 
a star in the making.

If you think about it,
it’s your all-natural pairing --

no need for a gooseberry neutron
my twin and I hold it together just fine. 

Still Moi: You were at Oxford University. One line that sticks in my head from the poem entitled ‘Pure Class’ is this,

Poetry won’t get you outa here,’ my da says. 

Is the 'City with stones of gold' form the poem of that title, Oxford? Can you talk a bit about the class boundaries and their blurring - how class becomes an education thing as opposed to a money thing? Did you feel you were the chosen,  ‘shucking the limits of hometown grime’ (your lovely phrase)?

Her: Yes. Oxford, a beautiful place that I loved for my 3 brief years. I made life long friendships there as well as the education. I went up there from a very ordinary Midlands comprehensive school and the class divide was a shock to me as was suddenly not being the cleverest person in the class. But also working with people who were as interested in science (and reading) as you were. I literally still dream about it. But not everyone managed to survive it. People failed, dropped out, someone from my school killed himself. So there's a price. It's not for everyone. University is not for everyone at that age.

Moi: Lots more I could ask, but I know you are busy.

Her: I am! Apart from working full time, I am running an 8 week online poetry workshop with 7 other poets where we take turns to give a prompt each week and then write a poem to respond to it. So each week I have a poem to write and 7 to respond to. It's a hard slog but very rewarding. We're all going to meet up in Dublin at the end in person.

Moi: Sounds wonderful! No rush. Am off to Gladstone's Library to write from 25th to 1st.

Her: How lovely. How do you get that gig? I would love a week off to write ...soon soon.
Moi: But you can. Anyone can go - its now a terrifically unusual hotel, with this Victorian Gothic library, Gladstone’s memorial, attached. I am hooked. I ran a workshop for them last autumn, and my payment is two blissful weeks of my own this year, glorious.

Ok, peoples. If you only buy one poetry book this month, make it this one. You can buy Kate’s collection direct from Doire Press. Support quality indies! 
OK. We know... Thorium 238, right? Byeee!


  1. Vanessa, thanks for this in-depth review/analysis of Kate and her Doire Press collection. Much appreciated. Best John Walsh@doirepress

    1. My great pleasure. The collection is a joy.