Belfast Poet Laureate Sinead Morrissey: 'The next laureate will need a lot of energy, I couldn't do it for more than a year with a family and a full-time job'
After a year that has seen her read for the Queen and work with everyone from pensioners to prisoners, inaugural Belfast Poet Laureate Sinead Morrissey tells Una Brankin why she hopes that a successor will be appointed
Sinead Morrissey had such a severe migraine last week she had to be hospitalised, but only her husband's acupuncture needles could relieve the ache.
"I had an intense pain in my head for 14 days – you just can't function with a bad migraine," she says. "I can't drink coffee because of it and I have to drink two litres of water a day to keep extra well-hydrated. Joseph's acupuncture is the only thing that can take that pain away; it was also really helpful when I was in labour. I'm really lucky to be married to him – I have health on my doorstep."
The softly-spoken academic (41) is three-quarters of the way through her tenure as the inaugural Belfast Poet Laureate, a position created by Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir and supported by the Arts Council of NI, Arts & Business and Moviehouse Cinemas.
To date, it has been a highly successful, event-packed year in which she won the prestigious TS Eliot Prize and the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in the Arts award, and read her poetry to thousands, from schoolchildren to Hydebank prisoners.
Meanwhile, the baby-sitting for her children Augustine (7) and Sophia (5) has fallen to her husband, Joseph Pond, from Arizona, who also works as a hypnotherapist.
"The hypnotherapy helps too when I'm anxious or worried about something, or have insomnia," says Sinead, down the line from her office in the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University Belfast.
"I couldn't have done this without my husband – he has been a pillar of support and has spent a lot of time with the children at night. I have to given him full credit. He's my main reader and critic and also my greatest single inspiration."
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Joseph was back home minding the children when his wife was reading for the Queen at Buckingham Palace in November, to celebrate poetry in Britain. Meeting the monarch, she admits, was one of the highlights of her year.
"I had recited a poem about the Women's League of Health and Beauty in the 1930s and she had listened very carefully," says the poet in her light, girlish tones.
"There was a mass display of 15,000 women exercising in London at one stage, and the Queen came up to me at the reception after the reading and told me that she remembered the league as a child and had seen them.
"She's very small and she has beautiful skin, and a real quality of attentiveness, and she can make intelligent small talk, which she has to do all the time. She's very impressive."
Sinead also has good skin, possibly from all that water she drinks, and a waif-like figure. She sports a distinctive haphazard bob and wears very little make-up, apart from a slash of deep red lipstick.
Like many mothers working full-time, she's too busy to give much thought to her appearance, although she has worn a nice collection of simple, vintage-style outfits for her public appearances over the last eight months.
It's been a hectic time – for example, a few weeks ago Sinead was back in London for a Women of the World (WOW) event at the Royal Festival Hall, which involved the five – incidentally all women – laureates of the British Isles, Scotland, Wales, the Republic and Belfast.
"I've said yes to everything," she explains. "The next Laureate will need a lot of energy. I don't think I could do it for more than a year and work full-time in Queen's, with a young family at home. I try to get a day a week with them, just hanging out together – going out for something to eat or going on walks by the sea where we live in Whiteabbey.
"My son has an extraordinary imagination and loves stories and books. I read my favourite books from my childhood to him – we're at a very exciting point in The Hobbit at the minute. He also likes Danny The Champion. My daughter's only in P1 but she has taken to writing really quickly."
Well-travelled, Sinead met her husband in Japan – she lived there and in the "heart-stoppingly beautiful" Waitakere rainforest of West Auckland in New Zealand after she graduated from Trinity College, Dublin. The couple settled in Belfast in 1999 and three years later Sinead was appointed Writer-in-Residence at Queen's University Belfast, where she is currently Reader in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry.
Like thousands here, she will never forget the moment she received the news of Heaney's death.
"I heard about it by a text from a friend, then the phone started ringing," she recalls quietly. "It was a shock; he went so fast. A lovely way for him to go in a way, rather than lingering in an illness. A blessing maybe. The reaction to his death showed how much he meant to people, how central he was. His funeral was close to a state funeral. He had some dazzling achievements."
Sinead admits she was "stunned" by her own dazzling achievement when she won the TS Eliot prize for poetry in January for her fifth collection Parallax. She has since spent her £15,000 prize money.
"It is all gone! I bought a bigger car, second-hand, because the old one was too tiny for us, and paid off 10% of my mortgage, and gave some away to children in Syria.
"Basic financial security is important to me, with having kids and providing for them, but I'm much more excited by reading a really good poem and leading a fulfilling creative life." Her bucket list includes watching whales in the ocean, visiting Alaska to see the wildlife and mountains, and writing a novel. She's reading Donna Tartt's bestseller Goldfinch at the minute and is "in awe" of anyone who can write to that length.
A voracious reader as a child, she was encouraged by her English grandmother, Doris Goodwin, who would recite classic poetry to her long before school, and by her "amazing" grandfather Sean Morrissey, who's now 92.
"I was very close to my granny on my mother's side and would always ask her to recite poetry to me. She knew the entire Highwayman; she'd also recite Wordsworth's Daffodils when we went on our long walks, and when I worked with some senior citizens recently for a project called Mapping Memories, most of them could recite the poetry they had memorised at school.
"The school kids and younger people I've worked with this year too are committed and passionate about poetry," she adds.
Belfast City Council is shortly to consider whether to continue the post after such a successful inaugural year. It's clear, though, that Sinead believes it's a vital appointment.
She adds: "It has been a privilege to do this. I've tried to celebrate poetry as much as I can and to connect with hidden Belfast. That hasn't been a hard task as there's such a resurgence in poetry at the moment and so much talent; it's really exciting. I don't know if it's something in the water but there's an incredible tradition of poetry in Northern Ireland, and the work community groups and figures like Ruth Carr do in the arts is amazing."
Mapping Memories, featuring written work by Belfast senior citizens, takes place in the Ulster Hall on Thursday, May 1, www.ulsterhall.co.uk