Who is Connie Roberts?
I am a mother, poet, teacher…….and late-bloomer.
I was born in County Offaly, Ireland and lived there with my parents until I was five years old, at which time I was admitted to an industrial school in County Westmeath. Apart from 10 months back at home with my parents when I was eight years old, I remained in the orphanage until I was 17.
All of my 14 siblings spent their childhoods in Irish orphanages.
Many of my poems were inspired by my experiences growing up in care.
When I was 20 years old, I emigrated to the United States and settled in New York.
I worked as a waitress for many years (Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion and the
Pig & Whistle, among other Irish bar-restaurants) before enrolling in college in my
early-30s. A bachelor’s and master’s degree later, I secured an adjunct position teaching creative writing at Hofstra University, where I’ve been for the past eight years.
What honors have you received for your poetry?
- Winner of the Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection Award, 2013
- Winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, 2010
- Winner of the Dromineer Literary Festival Poetry Competition, 2010
- Awarded a space in the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series
- Awarded an Irish Arts Council Literature Bursary Award
- Nominated for the Hennessy X.O. Literary Awards
- Finalist in the Strokestown International Poetry Competition
- Finalist in the Dana Awards
- Awarded a space at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Vermont
- Recipient of the George M. Estabrook Award at Hofstra University
Why have you chosen poetry over other forms of writing such as short stories, memoir or novels?
To be honest, I don’t think I had much control over what genre I “chose” to work in. In the mid-90s, when I was an undergraduate in a creative writing class at Nassau Community College, poetry grabbed me by the lapels, and refused to let go. As Professor Gubernat recited Molly Peacock’s poem “Say You Love Me”, about a drunken father pinning his child to a chair, my heart quickened, my throat tightened; I was in. Where do I sign up? I said. Besides the subject matter, which reflected my own background, I found the density of language, the imagery
(the drunken father’s face described as “a ham on a hook”), the rhythm, the sound devices exhilarating.
Now that I’ve been writing poetry for a number of years, I see another possible reason why the genre is a good fit for me. Most of the fodder for my work
(read: Irish-Catholic misery) was foisted upon me—believe me, I’d rather be writing about the heather on the bog or the windswept hills of Donegal—and it is easier swallowed, by writer and reader alike, in bite-sized pieces. The eight-line triolet or 14-line sonnet versus the 300-page memoir.
Who are the poets/writers you admire?
Irish writers I admire include Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, and John McGahern. I love the sense of place in their work. To say the least, my background is fragmented, so I find myself drawn to their sense of rootedness. Heaney’s Derry, Kavanagh’s Monaghan, McGahern’s Leitrim—they seem to know every blade of grass, every highway and byway, every neighbor and straggler on the road. I envy them their stability, their sure-footedness.
Other contemporary Irish poets I admire include Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Moya Cannon and Rita Ann Higgins. Ireland is teeming with talented women poets…
I’m also drawn to African-American women poets: Marilyn Nelson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Natasha Trethewey, Lucille Clifton, Toi Derricotte, among others. I love how they explore and excavate their past, the beautiful and the ugly. I admire their bravery in taking on important—and oftentimes, provocative—issues. But besides all that, they are just brilliant poets—verbal acrobats who use language in an exciting and interesting way.
Who is your greatest inspiration and why?
I don’t think a day goes by that I’m not inspired by someone. Two examples from the past week or so:
- The retired (and retiring) truck driver I met in Scribes coffee shop in Listowel who sheepishly pulled a sheaf of poems he’d penned over the years out of his breast pocket to show me. It was open-mic night; thirty years earlier he might have stepped up to the podium. That night, he recited them to me.
- Two days ago, my son and I were working on his “Me-Book” project. In the “My Future” section he wrote, When I grow up, I want a happy family and a happy home like I have now. Like most of us, sometimes, I wish I had a bigger paycheck, a nicer house, or a slimmer waist. But when I’m sitting in that ould rocking chair in the nursing home, the accomplishment I’ll be most proud of is that I brought my son up in a secure, happy, loving home.
What are the top five things you’d like to accomplish in the next five years?
- Publish my first poetry collection in Ireland (which will actually happen next year)
- Record a poet & piper CD with the premier uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan (which is on the cards for this summer)
- Drawing on my own poetry, collaborate with other artists on a multi-media project
- Secure a full-time teaching/administrative position at a U.S. college
- Create an (audio/video) oral history of Irish industrial school survivors.
A massive undertaking I know (hint, hint: any sponsors in the crowd?), but their individual stories need to be documented. In their own words, not by scholars and intellectuals. Yes, there’s the Ryan Report. Yes, there are a handful of film documentaries. But the majority of survivors are still voiceless. And with each passing day, the chance of these elderly inmates (in Ireland, the UK and beyond) being heard grows slimmer.
What was the best gift that someone gave you that inspired or facilitated an interest in your art?
When I was in secondary school in Ireland, my English teacher, Mr. Costelloe, encouraged me to enter a Credit Union essay competition. I won at the local level and went on to the Leinster final, which I subsequently won. My first validation—I’d dipped my bucket in the writing well. But Mr. Costelloe’s gift to me wasn’t merely his encouragement. He also gave of himself. No parental figure from the orphanage accompanied me to the awards ceremonies. But he did. It was Mr. Costelloe who stood behind me for the newspaper photograph; it was Mr. Costelloe who took my friend and I for a celebratory bag of Tayto crisps and bottle of red lemonade in the local pub. It was Mr. Costelloe who took time out of his busy schedule as a teacher and father to reach out, to care.
Another gift I was given is a bit more tangible, and one that I’ll treasure for a lifetime: a handwritten note from Seamus Heaney. A few years after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, on a visit to NYC, he happened to walk into the Irish bar-restaurant where I waitressed. Unfortunately, I was off duty that evening, but my friend, knowing how much I admired the Great Poet, asked him if he would write me a note (I had just won a prize for poetry at Hofstra U.). He obliged.
It is a far, far better thing you do now than you have ever done. Stick with it…Congratulations. Keep digging for the good turf…
When you’re a Nobel Laureate, everybody wants a piece of you. Doubtless in the years after Seamus Heaney’s trot over to Sweden, he must’ve been pulled in a 100 different directions. I’m sure on that visit to New York in 1998, SH would’ve liked nothing better than to slip anonymously into a nondescript bar downtown and enjoy a pint in peace. Instead, he took the time to write a note of encouragement (on an American Express reservation card) to an insecure, fledgling poet.
Great note. Great poet. Great man.
What is your favorite quote?
Since I turned 50 last December, Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape has been spooling in my ears:
Perhaps my best years are gone….But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.