Q&A Mariah Whelan: ‘I do not want my art to consciously or unconsciously be an agent of sexism, racism or oppression’

Mariah Whelan (1986) studied English at Queen’s University, Belfast before completing an MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford University. She has lived in Japan and Spain and is currently based in the Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester where she was awarded a scholarship to write poems and research trauma in contemporary Irish fiction. Mariah’s writing has been published in The Open EarThe Irish Literary ReviewCadaverineAsh, been digitalised in The Seamus Heaney Centre Digital Archive and anthologised in Rebel Poetry Ireland’s Fathers and What Must be Said and Tidelines from Queen’s University Belfast. Her master’s thesis, a novel-in-sonnets titled City of Rivers, has been shortlisted for the Melita Hume Prize, won the AM Heath Prize and individual poems were shortlisted for The Bridport Prize. Mariah is currently Director of Oxford Writers’ House, a hub connecting writers across Oxford’s literary communities.


From your view, what is the most important thing that’s happened in your career?   

The greatest thing that happened in my career was the luck of my birth. I was born into a stable family, orientated towards education and the arts, and lived in a wealthy part of the country. For example, I wouldn’t have written City of Rivers if I hadn’t gone to Oxford and I couldn’t have gone to Oxford without my hard work, yes, but once you get in, you have to sign a document called a ‘Financial Guarantee’ that proves you will be able to pay the fees and cover your living costs. I didn’t have the money, but my parents’ lawyer signed a document stating they would sell their house if I got into problems. A lot of people simply don’t have that resource and as a result, they don’t get to go. My success is related to my privilege and I think that’s pretty normal in the UK. I think we miss out on a lot of interesting voices because of this and that’s why, at Oxford Writers’ House, we are trying to make the city a space where everyone can participate in writing, not just the privileged few.

You have been living in Spain for around a year. How is to live in Barcelona for a British poet? 

 I had a very different understanding of what it meant to be a ‘poet’. I moved to Barcelona because I had a broken heart and my writing became a way of negotiating that pain and desire. My poetry writing practice wasn’t a practice yet, but something I did when my emotions overwhelmed me and I needed to translate those feelings into words, so they were quite one-dimensional and very personal and I paid no attention to form or even editing. They just came out in one big splodge. I didn’t share them with anyone, I didn’t publish them, they were just a very private thing I wrote for myself. I was actually alone a lot in Barcelona. I lived in the hills and nannied for a family so I wasn’t part of the poetry community but, this loneliness was just what I needed to heal my heart and writing was a big part of that. As for being British… I learned that people were a lot more accepting if I told them I was Irish so I did that a lot!

Idem question 1, but with Japan.

I didn’t write a single poem in Japan. That said, I had some experiences that contributed to my becoming a poet. For example, I travelled to a monastery in Koyasan and it was an experience beyond words. It was a poem. I always think of poetry and life as an interaction of two levels, the real and the associative life that exists inside the real. In Koyasan, maybe because its so old or so holy, that hidden world that you are always trying to find through poetry is the real world. To walk through its forests, temples and giant graveyards is to walk through a poem. That experience allowed me to become attuned to the life inside the real and probably set me on the path to becoming a poet.

There is a TV program called Very British Problems. I was wondering if the name of it were ‘British-Poets Problems’ instead. What problems would they be? Because I have the feeling, after living a long time in the UK, that there are myths surrounding the idea that British writers have fewer problems than poets from other parts of the world, especially poets that have been studying in places like Oxford Uni.  

I am interested to know what these myths are about British poets! What is easier for us? I am intrigued! Back to your question though, the biggest problem British poets face is probably MONEY! Life is so expensive here: rent, transportation, taxes, food and generally salaries are high but in the arts, particularly writing and particularly poetry, people are often expected to have independent means and work for free. Even if you publish a collection with a big publishing house, you won’t be able to make a living off this. You need to supplement with teaching and that pay can be super low. A lot of people just work regular jobs, of course, but that’s hard. I did it for a long time, getting up at 5am to write and then going to work and then reading in the evening and its tough. I wrote one collection that way and I don’t want to do it again. It’s too tiring. Again, it also excludes many writers who can’t afford to work for free. And that makes British poetry less interesting as it’s only people with certain experiences who can participate.

Do you like any Ibero-American poet? 

I like Lorca because we had to translate his work in a class I took. It was a really interesting class as you were translating without having to know the original language. You had to try and step inside the poem’s sounds and get a sense of its atmosphere. You had a literal translation to help, but it made you pay attention to the associative life of the poem’s sounds and images, not just the words and the process of reading. So, Lorca will always have a special place in my heart!

One of your poems from City of Rivers says, ‘the river below me breathing as all rivers do.’ I think inanimate objects play an important role in your poetry. What do you think about that statement?

Well, I don’t tend to think of ‘inanimate’ objects as inanimate! What is the most solid and immovable thing you can think of? A mountain? A piece of plastic? A chunk of metal? The truth is they are in a constant state of flux, it’s just our lives are so short they seem permanent and sometimes a little lifeless. But if you get very quiet and pay close attention, everything is humming with a life of its own, from rivers to tarmac roads. I love that. I love feeling knotted into the life that streams around me and I take comfort from how small yet expansive it makes me feel. I will die within the next fifty or sixty years (if I last that long!) but my atoms have been here forever, just in a different form. So yeah, they definitely play an important role!

What is the coolest side of the poet Mariah Whelan?

 Oh, I am not cool. I live in a cottage in the Cotswolds, I don’t really go out, I go on long walks and get very stressed about work and then spend a lot of time trying to calm down with yoga and meditation. I used to be cool, though. I probably felt coolest when I was cycling round Europe, busking every evening, sleeping wherever I found myself and having adventures.

Still being in the world sexism, racism, oppression… does that have an impact in your writing?

It absolutely has an impact on my writing and not necessarily in a positive way. I used to think of myself as a very apolitical poet. I mostly wrote about my own life, my experiences and a lot about love. I thought politics was something other people did. But recently, I have begun to realise that by excluding the political, that is itself a political statement. For example, everyone in my books is white. White, for me, was the default setting of existence because it is my experience of existence. I didn’t do this in a conscious way, I was just writing about my life, but when you make art that reflects that unquestioningly you begin to contribute to this idea that the world of fiction and poetry is, by default, white. And that is enormously problematic. It’s unconscious white supremacy. My work is starting to question the construction of whiteness now in a much more overt way. I have begun to think that if you aren’t dealing with these issues, your work is part of the problem and I do not want my art to consciously or unconsciously be an agent of sexism, racism or oppression. That’s not good enough anymore.

For any Ibero-American reader who has never read a British contemporary poet, why he should read your poems?

Gosh. This is one of the hardest questions to ask a writer I think, because I have to write it but am always slightly confused that other people want to read it! That said, people have told me they loved City of Rivers for its portrayal of sexuality and desire—the realities of it for a young woman. They also love it for the way in which it reads the world through the body, and people love the use of the sonnet form as a conversation between lovers. City of Rivers is quite old now and my latest work is probably going to be most interesting for its sensitivity to the world we live in now and its attention to British politics and ideology through the frames of family and trauma. There are probably other writers to read first though, like Sophie Collins, Mary Jean Chan and Kayo Chingonyi!

What are your next projects?

I have just entered the final year of my PhD so that’s my main project for the next 12-18 months. I’m working on a new collection of poems and writing an academic thesis on traumatic memory in contemporary Irish fiction. I also have a book coming out next year so am going to try and not to take on too many other things, so I can give my two theses and the book my full attention! I will also have Oxford Writers’ House to direct and will be trying to get some better funding, so we can expand what we do. My main goal is to read more. I am so busy I sometimes don’t read poetry for weeks and it is so important to my writing to read but also to support the poetry community by purchasing my peers’ books! You can’t just write poetry, you need to buy it and read it, too!

+info about Mariah: https://mariahwhelan.com/

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