The Space Between: interview with Kate Dempsey

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. Do you think that poetry is a more truthful medium – that it cannot dissemble in the same way as a short story, or a novel?

Both poetry and fiction are a very broad spectrum. Some of each are truthful, some pure fiction, most are some way in between. Even those poems purporting to be the absolute truth are only so in the head of the poet. Everyone’s perceptions are different, based on their own life experience.

Maybe one difference is that poetry leaves a little more space for readers to fill in themselves, to mull over and make up their own minds.

Certainly I sometimes find if I am working on a poem and it seems to be lacking something, if I look at it with a new eye, sometimes I spot that I have been holding back something, that I’ve not been telling the truth, and in adding something true, something perhaps uncomfortable, some phrase or word or description or layer, that makes the poem hang together.

Does it matter what the artist intends? How do you feel when a reviewer has a different reaction to your words than you might have anticipated?

I had one poem that won a competition and the well respected judge said it was about the economic crisis. I had thought it was about a ring. I suppose, ultimately if you peel back the layers, it was about ridiculous financial pressures, and therefore the crisis. Or perhaps the one before.

Someone recently wrote a close review of my book and it was fascinating to see what someone, who has never met me or heard me, picked out. Once a poem is published, it really no longer belongs to you.

Did you have a clear vision of ‘The Space Between’ from the beginning?

I had no clear vision at all. I think that’s pretty common with first collections. I’ve been writing these poems for 16 years now. I am a different person now from the person who wrote my first few published poems.

The collection changed its title umpteen times in the last few years. The Space Between is a line from one of my poems, Reaching Agreement:

Your lips move but I’m hearing

the way you taste the space between your words,

phrasing so there’s something more than silence,

an emphasis pregnant with promise.

Once I’d settled on that, I realised that there are lots of spaces of different kinds that are touched on, in one way or another in the poems. There is a space between a poet and the reader or listener, and also a space between the voice of the poet and the person who is the poet. So between the ‘I’ in a poem and the ‘I’ of the poet, which are not the same. That’s what I wanted to show with the picture of a Venetian plague doctor mask I chose as the cover, a mixture of performance, laughter and death. I think it’s a striking image but I also like that it indicates the performer and the audience and the space between them.

How do you feel seeing your collection in print? Has it changed how you view your own writing, and has it changed how others view you?

It’s exciting, bewildering, bemusing, thrilling, frustrating and wonderful all rolled into one. To see my book on a book shelf I think is the best thing, next only to seeing someone reading it.

Has it changed how I view my writing? No. Why would it?

Has it changed how others view me? I told everyone at work it was coming out and that certainly changed their perception of me. Lots of them were generous enough to buy it and someone of them even told me they’d read it and enjoyed it. These wouldn’t be typical poetry book buyers. I made one woman cry. The first poem in the book is about a child’s love for her parents.

What was the hardest thing about working on your collection and what was the most rewarding?

The hardest thing is probably writing the poems and deciding which ones were any good. For every poem in the collection there are probably ten others at varying stages of completion or extermination. Time is a great editor.

The most rewarding was opening up the box of books and seeing my cover and my name and my title and opening up the top book and smelling the printed pages. Everyone does that, right?

Do you read poetry similar in style to your own?

I read a lot of contemporary poetry, lots of Irish, English and some American. I try to read some older poetry too, especially if the poet is cited by other writers I admire as influences. I love it when I discover a new poet, or rather a poet new to me who can make me see something differently or make me fall in love with another word.

I try to support journals and poetry presses and poets when I can by buying the books and journals directly from them. If all aspiring poets bought a few more magazines, anthologies and collections, the business would be healthier and less financially precarious.

If you could pass something on that you have learned from your experience as a writer and performer, what would it be?

Find and keep your own voice. Don’t ape some other writer just because you admire them. Don’t try and write the type of poems that you think an editor will accept, that you think a judge will choose, that you think your writing group will enjoy, that seems to be in fashion. Write your poem, your story, your play. No one else can do it for you.

Also, send your poems out. No one is going to come and take them off your desk, your computer, out of your notebook and publish it for you. You have to take time to submit. Professional Photographer

Kate Dempsey’s poetry is published in many journals in Ireland and the UK. Prizes include The Plough Prize, Cecil Day Lewis Award, an Arts Council grant, Hennessy New Irish Writing Award shortlisting and a poem nominated for the Forward Prize. She runs the Poetry Divas, a glittery collective of women poets who blur the wobbly boundary between page and stage. Her debut collection, The Space Between, was published by Doire Press in 2016. 

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