Sinead Morrissey: 'We had a very different upbringing and I'm grateful to my parents for that... it was very liberating not to be on either side here'
On Thursday night Sinead Morrissey's latest book On Balance won the prestigious £10,000 Forward Prize for Best Collection. The Northern Ireland native tells Judith Cole about her unusual upbringing, meeting the Queen, her new life in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and why working with female prisoners was so rewarding.
In her latest collection of poems, the first person to be Belfast's Poet Laureate, Sinead Morrissey, has taken engineering feats such as the Titanic, and other great Belfast themes, as inspiration. And just this week, the book, entitled On Balance, won her one of the most prestigious poetry awards around, the £10,000 Forward Prize for Best Collection. Morrissey, who accepted the award at a glittering ceremony in the Royal Festival Hall in London, follows previous illustrious winners such as Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney.
"It means a lot, I'm delighted to have won," she says. "I've been shortlisted for the prize three times in a row so it was really lovely to be the winner this time."
Morrissey (45), who has just taken up the post of professor of creative writing at Newcastle University after working at Queen's University for many years, came up with the title for the collection before she had written any of the poems.
"My other collections were written poem by poem but this one was a bit different," she explains. "I wanted this collection to be very concerned with structures and gravity and deep gravitational forces that hold the world together. I had a 3-D picture of it in my head but I didn't write anything for two and a half years. Then I got ideas for individual poems. I think they gestated for a while and then they all came together."
There is a poem, entitled 'The Millihelen', about the launch of the Titanic; 'Articulation' is about Napoleon's horse; and there is a piece on Lilian Bland, who lived in Carnmoney just outside Belfast and was the first woman to design, build and pilot her own aeroplane. Interestingly, the book showcases different forms of poetry structures and layouts as well as being about many different subjects.
"I'm really interested in poetic form," says Morrissey. "The poems are all very different from each other in terms of their formal structures and formal characteristics and I'm playing a lot with line and white space and gaps, so how the poems are laid out is really important.
"That is a sort of corollary for my idea for the book to be about deep structural forces which may be to do with engineering and may be to do with machines - there is the Titanic and planes, there's a reference to Brooklyn Bridge which was a terrific feat of engineering and architecture when it was built. There's also a lot about weather and how we've affected that and global warming and if that can be reversed or not. Ultimately, it's an exploration of the potential of poetic form itself to describe these things."
She adds: "I'm really proud of the book, I think it's the best thing I've ever written."
Born in Portadown in 1972, Morrissey has already had a stellar career, winning the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award when she was just 18.
"It was an amazing experience to be vindicated that young," she says. "I knew from the age of 10 I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to write poetry; I've never deviated from that and I have written continually since then."
Another major highlight was winning the T S Eliot prize for her 2013 collection Parallax - and, of course, her year as Belfast's first Poet Laureate was full of memorable achievements.
"It was a very enriching experience and I met many diverse groups of people," she says. "I did a lot of schools work, and I worked with charities including Niamh (Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health, since renamed as Inspire) for which we devised a four-week programme that culminated in a rooftop concert at which the participants read their work.
"I did work with the Ulster Hall's outreach programme in which we did a series of community workshops looking at Belfast and memories, with people from all walks of life.
"And the most rewarding thing I did was with women prisoners at Hydebank. A colleague at Queen's University, Patricia Canning, had already set up a project, Read Live Learn, at Hydebank where she read to women prisoners from all kinds of texts including Dickens and poetry and short stories, and then she would encourage discussion. I was able to go in as part of that project and do reading workshops with the women and it was a fantastic opportunity."
As part of Morrissey's Laureate year, she had the chance to do a reading at Buckingham Palace in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen, along with the laureates from Scotland, England and Wales, who all happened to be women.
"Carol Ann Duffy organised a reception to celebrate contemporary Irish and British poetry at the palace and we all read a poem for the Queen - it was a lot more fun than I expected," recalls Morrissey.
"The Queen paid scrupulous attention to the proceedings and is obviously a very smart woman. I read a poem about the Women's League of Health and Beauty which was a 1930s movement in which women would get together and wear shorts and little blouses and do exercise in public places. By 1939 it had a million members and I had remembered my granny talking about the League and her memories of it when she worked in the Raleigh Bicycle factory leading up to the Second World War. I read my poem, from my previous collection, about these women getting together in Hyde Park.
"When the Queen came to talk to me she said 'I remember the League from when I was a child, so I knew everything that you were talking about in the poem, and it was such fun'. As small talk goes, and she must have to make small talk with so many people, I thought it was very good."
Morrissey, her husband Joseph Pond and their two young children moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne from Belfast in July and are enjoying the change so far.
"We are living in a little town in Northumberland and we're surrounded by the beautiful countryside," she says. "I have joined a fabulous creative writing department (at Newcastle University), and there are lots of other brilliant poets. It was a big change for our family but we are really happy with the move.
"Of course, I miss my family and friends - we left behind in Belfast everybody we know - my mum is there, my dad and stepmum, my brother and his kids. But we've had lots of visitors and it's only a 35-minute flight so we're still going to be able to keep in touch."
Morrissey has fond memories of growing up in Belfast after moving from Craigavon at the age of six. Her Catholic-born father and English mother, who came from an Anglican background, had met at a Communist Party meeting and had no religious leanings - for which Morrissey is thankful.
"We had a very different upbringing and I'm very grateful to my parents for that, for giving us a different perspective," she says. "We had really good values instilled in us by our parents. When things get very tribal and divided between two groups of people, much of reality is predetermined by which side of the divide you stand on and where your values were formed. It was very liberating not to be on either side and to feel quite apart from those two dynamics."
Morrissey pursued her love of English by studying the subject, along with German, at Trinity College Dublin and then made the move to Japan. She remembers being assigned to an ancient, tiny village and living in an upstairs flat next to a rice field from where she could hear the frogs singing all night long.
Just three days after arriving, she met her future husband, who had studied Japanese at university in Arizona and was aiming to become fluent in the language. They married in a temple nine months later in Morrissey's village, moved to New Zealand after a further year in Japan before settling in Belfast in 1999.
Now, they have two young children: Augustine, who is turning 11 soon, and Sofia (8). She and Joseph enjoy seeing the fruits of their children's vivid imaginations. Morrissey adds: "My son writes sagas with multiple parts and both children have got fantastic imaginations. But I don't think that's got anything to do with their parents, it's just to do with being a child - all children have fantastic imaginations. "Motherhood has always inspired me to write. Poems about my children have filled my last three collections. It's something about that intensity of scrutiny I suppose - it gives you ideas. Also, the depth of feeling."