Jean Bleakney: 'Accessibility is a dirty word in poetry circles, but I think my work's more reader-friendly'
As she launches her fourth book tonight, Belfast's Jean Bleakney tells Malachi O'Doherty how she went from being a medical researcher to a poet whose work now features on the English A-level course
Jean Bleakney discovered that she was a poet when her child, from the back seat of the car as a toddler, challenged her to come up with rhymes. Now her poems are on the school curriculum for English A-level, and older children will have the chance to enjoy the fruits of that rhyming game.
It was also at about this time that the former medical researcher discovered her first big theme.
"I discovered gardening, as an alternative to the hated housework," she reveals. "Much to my surprise, I soaked up plant names, sparking, or fuelling an interest in language. Then on sleepless nights, I started putting words together."
That interest sent her to the library where she discovered Wendy Cope's poetry and felt prompted to take her rhyming and her playing with plant names a little further.
She joined a writing class in Lisburn. It was a good move. Someone in the class who liked her work mentioned her name to Carol Rumens, who was then writer-in-residence at Queen's University in Belfast. Rumen was organising a Woman's Day event in the Student's Union and Jean was invited to read. That led to an opportunity to attend a writing group at Queen's.
"And Carol was a great teacher. On the first day, she asked me if I revised my poems. I didn't know what she meant. The only revision I was familiar with related to exams. Her big advice was to read widely. Also, not to try to round off poems in a twee way, as I was prone to then. And to rhyme in an interesting (and not obvious) way, when I chose to rhyme.'
Local editors took note of her work. Frank Ormsby accepted some of her poems for Poetry Ireland Review.
"I approached Pat Ramsey of Lagan Press and after a year or so, he published my first collection, The Ripple Tank Experiment in 1999."
That brought her up against critics - some generous, some not. "There were favourable comments, but there was a reviewer who was obviously uncomfortable with my more humorous poems," recalls Jean.
Time off work to look after the children had now turned her into a gardener and a poet. "The interest in gardening led me to applying for part-time work in a garden centre when the kids were at school. I thought of myself as a mother. The poetry was a hobby. And the garden centre was a healthy diversion, in lots of ways."
Her second book, The Poet's Ivy, continued the horticultural theme.
But she was commenting on poetry, too. She was now the friend of poets, in their circle and sharing her surprise at that.
Her themes now included the party after a book launch, the shock of seeing a poet at a petrol station. "I'd always thought the poets are the driven ..."
Jean goes on: "I felt freer to experiment. And not so overly keen to amuse. But I was beginning to understand that I was first and foremost interested in words, their sounds and meanings."
Jean, who was born in Newry where her father worked as a border customs officer, says the greatest reward of poetry for her has been the friendships with other poets and poetry lovers.
She talks of "the companionship and the affirmation that it wasn't just me". Which suggests that her being a poet struck some around her as odd.
"Other people were also infected with the urge to put words together in quirky ways. And living in Belfast meant that I had easy access to readings by other poets."
She kept going to the writing class after Carol Rumens left but stopped going when Sinead Morrissey took over. "I had already developed a friendship with Sinead and preferred to sustain that outside of the group. She has been a great friend to me and many others.
"Her passion for poetry has been a tremendous force for good hereabouts. Miriam Gamble was also a good friend to my poems. A superb critic. Others who have been valued readers include Paul Maddern, Paula Cunningham, Moyra Donaldson and a few others."
Tonight she launches her selected poems drawn from three collections. This book is published by Templar and follows the decision of CEA to pair her with Dublin poet Eavan Boland for a unit in the English A-level course, starting this year. She will be the subject of exam questions next June.
And she is listed on the course among some of the biggest names in poetry, including Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
Some of her poems are funny. There is one that children all over the North will be learning now about the challenge to carry four mugs of coffee in one hand, "As if to prove the point of hands like these/ that can't hold down a chord, nor span the keys ..."
Jean says she had not expected to be chosen for the curriculum. She writes pacey poems that draw out long rhythmic sentences. They are readable and engaging, and playful.
"It is all about words. Also looking at things afresh. Like being invited into a neighbour's garden and suddenly looking up and seeing your own house from a different angle. Poetry should have the sense of a tripod being moved a little. Also, going back to words and their meanings, I think poets should entertain. In both senses. To give attention or consideration to, and also to amuse. Yes, I would like to be thought of as an entertainer."
And she is entertained herself by the thought that some of these children might carry scraps of her poems in their heads into the decades ahead, the way she has with the poems she learnt at school.
"I suspect my work has been chosen in an attempt to engage younger readers. Accessibility is a dirty word in poetry circles, but maybe I am more reader-friendly than some. And hopefully, having gained attention, there is sufficient depth in my work to give them an appreciation of craft and pleasure to be derived from studying poetry."
The cover of the new selected poems is a beautiful undulant landscape by the Hungarian artist Tivadar Csontvary-Kosztka. "I saw his paintings in Pecs when I was there as part of a British Council trip to the Pan Celtic Festival in Budapest in 2004. His paintings were almost lost after his death, to be auctioned as canvas after the First World War, but someone saved them."
And what comes next? She plans to continue writing, perhaps in prose. She says, surprisingly, that one of the themes that attracts her now is the film The Quiet Man.
"I'm not sure if it will be a sequence of poetry, or prose. I was led there by researching RIC records and thinking it was about time I did a bit of proper reading about the early Twenties. The film, based in the period just after the Civil War, throws up a lot of ironies. Otherwise, I will keep looking. In a poem called Remission, I state 'There's always something new to be noticed, to take refuge in'. I wish more people would take refuge in poetry. I really do. It seems tailor made for these days of mindfulness."
Jean Bleakney's Selected Poems (£12.99) will be launched at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast tonight at 7.30pm. She will be reading at the Steinbeck Festival on Saturday in Limavady at 3pm in Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre