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Lunch with...poet Rita Ann Higgins


A safe haven: Higgins near her home in Spideal, Co Galway

A safe haven: Higgins near her home in Spideal, Co Galway

Flowing conversation: Anita and Rita Ann at lunch in the Corrib House Tearooms.

Flowing conversation: Anita and Rita Ann at lunch in the Corrib House Tearooms.

Devastating loss:  Seamus Heaney

Devastating loss: Seamus Heaney


A safe haven: Higgins near her home in Spideal, Co Galway

So how did one of Ireland's most respected poets end up on all fours in tears, crawling around an airport jet-bridge picking up her personal belongings? Rita Ann Higgins's painful recollection of a recent experience with an intransigent Ryanair, assaults the serenity of an utterly perfect autumn afternoon in the City of the Tribes.

We are seated in the bay window of the elegant Corrib House Tearooms in Galway's Woodquay, looking out over the salmon weir, and chatting about her recent international travels.

Suddenly, she is back in the nightmare.

It was last May and the 58-year-old poet was returning home from Liverpool, where she had hosted poetry workshops at two psychiatric hospitals as a guest of RISE, the Reading in a Safe Environment project.

She was waiting for a replacement credit card and had just spent her cash – except for £32 – on a football jersey for her beloved four-year-old grandson at the airport. When she went to board her flight for Shannon, the weekend travel bag, which she has used on Ryanair flights previously without a problem, wouldn't fit in the luggage size gauge.

"For some reason, the wheels just wouldn't go down. They were sticking out. They were looking for £70 to check in the bag. I explained to the young man that I didn't have a credit card – my flight had been paid for – and I didn't have the cash but he wouldn't let me take the bag on."

She was faced with three choices: to pay £70 in cash, to pay it by credit card or to leave the bag.

"I had no choice. I ended up walking with my stuff in my arms. I remember some items dropping. I could see my toothbrush on the ground and some article of clothing. I actually burst into tears.

"I was on the floor and I thought 'I wonder would Michael O'Leary like to see his mother or father like this'.

"I wasn't able to do anything about it, as tough as I am. I'm even traumatised now talking about it. It was the most humiliating experience of my life," she recalled.

Her words trail off. She turns her gaze to the open window and across the glistening Corrib. Gulls call and the air is dancing with the distant sound of children playing on the riverbank.

The poet, so rooted in Galway, draws her energy from the water that surrounds her. "Every day I try to go to the beach near me in Ballyvaughan. I suppose Galway supplies a safe place for me, where I relax, where I want to be, where I love to be, surrounded by sea."

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Our lunch of delicious Galway Bay smoked salmon and salad is served by the current Miss Galway, Laura Fox and the memory of Liverpool airport dissipates.

For the past 25 years, the gutsy, sharply-observed, and often anarchic poems of Rita Ann Higgins have been challenging and delighting readers. She now has 10 volumes under her belt and a new one on the way.

Words are her stock in trade and even in conversation, she measures them out with razor-sharp precision, reluctant to settle for second best.

"They are very much city poems, but there's country in there as well. You wouldn't mistake them as landscape poetry. They are people poetry. They are rooted in people."

She was once described as hearing conversation very well and although she is unsure what that means, she knows when the right note strikes and she has the makings of a poem.

"It could help me create or build a character but I don't really spend any time analysing how it happens. I'm just always grateful if I get a poem or a line of a poem."

Her most recent inspiration came from a trip to Rome with her younger daughter, Jennifer, but the risqué nature of what has been unleashed has taken her somewhat aback.

"Risqué!!!" she repeated for emphasis, her eyes widening in mock horror.

"I'm a bit surprised about that. I don't know where they came from, but of course I do. On these walking tours of ancient Rome we were learning about Nero and Caligula and all the corruption and the partying and of course I wanted to read everything when I came back."

Typically she will rework a poem 15 to 20 times before she is happy with the finished product. "They are all constructs but they should appear as if they are not."

Her focus isn't exclusively on poetry. She is also a playwright and has her fingers crossed, having recently sent the final draft of a play she has been working on since 2005 to theatres in Ireland and the UK.

"It's called The Colossal Longing of Julie Connors," she reveals tantalisingly, but leaves it at that.

When the poems and plays aren't flowing, Rita Ann is devouring literature, driven by the feeling that she has to make up for lost time.

An early school leaver, she began reading in her early 20s when a bout with TB confined her to bed for months and although she has long since overtaken most people in the amount of books she has consumed, she can't shake off that feeling of having catching up to do.

"I'd say to people who aren't good readers, don't be afraid, just read.

"I always read good stuff. I never read trash and I get very intolerant with dross. I'm a good reader. I'm a critical reader.

"I've never bought a magazine in my life. The only time I've ever read a magazine is at the hairdresser's."

The coffees have arrived and we take a moment to admire the treble clef shaped from cocoa powder that adorns the top of the cappuccino.

Our talk turns to the death of Seamus Heaney. Rita Ann was in her kitchen when she learned the news by text.

"Now that's a show stopper," she said quietly.

"That was the saddest news. People in the writing community, we are all devastated because he was such a friend to us. He always made me feel like I was important. We also lost Denis O'Driscoll who was a great friend to all of us, somebody we loved. So we are actually in mourning for Seamus and Denis in as much as you can be for someone else's grief," she said.

Rita Ann admits she has yet to get comfortable with the personal realisation that she is a poet.

She laughs as she recalls how she stopped 'googling' herself when she discovered a listing in which she was described as a poet but that stated she had died in 1977.

"I thought to myself; 'I'll never do that again'.

"Seeing something written on a piece of paper doesn't matter at all. It's to do with your temperament and how you are in yourself. I have often toured with writers who have been angst-ridden at the notion of being a poet. I don't want to be that person."

So, would such a handle burden her? "I don't see it as a burden," she responds, carefully. "It's just. . . shameful, that's what it is!" She claps her hands triumphantly.

"I swear! It's the guilt thing. It's Pope John XXIII fault.

"How will I publish those poems I wrote in Rome?" she asks, laughing.

The reply is at the ready.

"I'm defiant too. I'm not going to hide. If you want to go along and beat yourself up you can do that, but I choose not to. I write from a place of honesty and my integrity is important to me."

In December, she will celebrate 40 years of marriage to husband, Christy. Her daughters have been saying they should mark the occasion by getting married again but she's sceptical. "I don't know why we'd do that. I mean WTF?" she laughs.

She treasures family time and the friendship she has with daughters, Heather (36), a media lecturer, and Jennifer, (33), a barrister.

"My family are my daughters, my husband, my grandson.

"My family has got smaller as I've got older," she says with unmistaken emphasis. It's her role as 'Mamo' to grandson Oisín (4), that's her greatest source of pride.

"Any time with him I love. The other day, he and I were making an apple tart and he just said; 'cooking is like artwork, only we are using flour' and I thought 'Oh my God it's so beautiful to be with him'."

Rita Ann Higgins: Life in Brief

Born: In Galway in 1955.

Education: Left school aged 14.

Husband: Married Christy in 1973.

Poetry: Joined Galway Writers' Workshop 1982. Her first collection, Goddess on the Mervue Bus, was published in 1986. Recipient of numerous awards and bursaries and a member of Aosdána.

Rita Ann Higgins will be appearing at the Allingham Arts Festival in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, this weekend.

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