Thursday, June 23, 2011

Writers Talk with JoAnne McKay

Greetings!  Thursday is upon us, & I’m so happy to say that we have a new installment of Writers Talk today, posting simultaneously (thu the magic of Blogger) both here & on the Writers Talk blog.

& a wonderful interview to get Writers Talk started back up, indeed—today’s guest is poet JoAnne McKay.  Some of you may know Ms McKay from her blog Titus the Dog; she also has published two collections of her poetry.  Both of these books are available directly from her blog.

JoAnne McKay was born in Romford, Essex in England, the fourth child of five & the only girl. Her father owned a slaughterhouse & wholesale butchers in Romford, which unusually began halal slaughtering in the 1960s to cater for the increasing Muslim population of south east London. She went to Bristol University, & then joined the Avon & Somerset Constabulary & latterly the South West Regional Crime Squad. Her police career took her on operations throughout the UK, & in Scotland she met a policeman she fell in love with. Fortunately, he fell in love back, & upon marriage JoAnne moved to a very small village in South West Scotland. She has two grown-up stepchildren & twin boys who are still at primary school.

JoAnne’s poetry & prose has been published in numerous literary magazines, both print and online. She has published two poetry pamphlets, The Fat Plant & Venti & has appeared at The London Poetry Festival, The Wigtown Book Festival & at Glasgow’s Aye Write literary festival. She is currently studying for an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.

JoAnne McKay’s poetry evinces an eye for detail & precise image as evidenced in her two poems that accompany the interview (one from each collection—see the post below); these poems also show her versatility—contrast the more free verse narrative of  “Diamond People” with the beautifully realized Italian sonnet, “The Magdalene Fleur-de-Lis,” & with the wonderfully reflective “Moment.”

& now—Joanne McKay!

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

Aha! That old trick of starting with the hardest question first. I genuinely can’t answer this one. Tediously, my identity consists of so many more necessary things – wife, mother, daughter, sister, work colleague etc – I don’t identify myself as a writer. Possibly it’s yet to happen.  I  believe I have a coherent voice. It is more cerebral than emotional, meaning I spew my guts quite happily but do think hard about how I’m doing it.

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.

I have a poem, ‘Moment’ which is about how I felt on seeing a lump of rock. The rock in question was an Olduvai Core, arguably the oldest artefact left by the first hominins, our ancestors in the homo genus. I had dreamed of seeing a Core for years, and back in the 1990s I wandered into the Royal Academy on Piccadilly in London to view a major art exhibition – Africa: the Art of a Continent. In the first room I saw a lit, glass cabinet and I could tell from a distance of 40 feet that there was an Olduvai Core on display. It was my Holy Grail, when I least expected it. For about 10 seconds I genuinely couldn’t breathe.

I wanted to capture the feeling of those seconds - my wonder, and the reason for it – in a poem. As I tend to the long narrative I deliberately set out to write a sonnet to keep myself brief and as focused as I had been when the incident happened. I always write to the Petrarchan form – abbaabba then the sestet cdecde – as I can’t be doing with the rhyming couplet at the end. It often sounds too pat to my ears.

And I struggled, and struggled, and realized I couldn’t do it. Nothing I was trying within the strict form was conjuring what I wanted. So I abandoned the sonnet idea, and wrote a short poem that ended with not one, but two of the rhyming couplets I so disdain!. It’s a poem I’m still very pleased with, and that’s something I rarely say. I suppose the important point is that it would not have come into being had I not worked and worked at it as a sonnet. Doing that crystallized the points which were most important. I’m usually an over-punctuator too, and this poem ended up without any.  Sometimes what works is not what you least expect or aim for.
Anyway, here it is;


for a heartbeat there is no heartbeat
between the hominid and me
she holds it steady hand like mine
I hold it steadfast in my gaze
and will not look away till I can bear the weight
for this is it this rock
the birth of homo habilis who bears me
these two million years past imagine
what happens in her mind that makes her reason
if I hit this with that then other will result
and I can use it glass-cased before me
is the Olduvai Core of Prehistory
and I can’t use language in order to grasp
this the moment of the start of our past

Olduvai Core: Africa: The Art of a Continent, Royal Academy, December 1995

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process? (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)

I only went ‘public’ with my writing three years ago, but now I enjoy being read and therefore I have to get work in view somehow. My blog is a favourite method, primarily because of the delicious immediacy. I do submit to magazines but have not yet got this to the art it should be – I have favourites, whose processes I understand, though I really could do with branching out more. But it’s such a faff remembering what you’ve sent where; I admire the writers who pursue this with more diligence than I do at present. I’ve also been anthologized, which is nice.  I self-published my first two pamphlets and it really could not have been a more joyous ride.

The Fat Plant I did online, through Lulu, and I was very pleased with the result, reviews and sales. Venti was handmade, at home, on my own printer, and an enormous labour (really) of love. It’s had good reviews, and last month was runner-up in this year’s Callum Macdonald Memorial Award, administered by the National Library of Scotland, which was an honour and a surprise. And incredibly fattening – there was a huge dinner afterwards for the judges and shortlisted poets and publishers.

I’m not yet ready, or even in a position really, to begin the long slog of approaching publishers with a view to a collection. Primarily because my writing is not yet of sufficient quality. I’d like to feel I’m very good before I start down that road. A few years maybe.

How has being a writer affected your relationships?

In no way whatsoever that I can think of. This probably relates to my inability to answer the first question; I am JoAnne McKay, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague all day.  The writer only comes out long after midnight when everyone else is at work or in bed.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any?  This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.

In one word, interesting. I am a member of Crichton Writers, which is closely affiliated to the University of Glasgow Crichton campus in Dumfries, and thus local to me. The group is made up of poets and prose writers of very different levels of experience, and meets monthly. I can usually get to one meeting in three. It’s a group that achieves things but it is also delightfully relaxed and encouraging, and I’ve made genuine friends amongst its members.
You can find us here.

The online community (and it does feels like a community to me) is also important – I’ve found poets I like and admire through my blog, and even better, I can communicate with them. It’s loose, fluctuating, incredibly informative and often very funny. I cannot think of a downside to it.

Finally, I live four doors away from a very fine Scottish poet, Hugh McMillan. He generously agrees to edit my work, and his wife Jane is my proof-reader.  Brilliant community for me; I’m not sure what they get out of it!

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

It is the same goal as when I started. To write things I still like six months after they’re written.

All the nice stuff, like readings (which I adore) and getting published mean very little if you can’t achieve that. It happens to me only very occasionally at the moment.

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?

Whilst I’d love to say Jimmy Page’s twelve-string guitar, I’m afraid it’s probably more of a kettle drum. I am overfond of going for the big bang.


  1. No idea what JoAnne is talking about when she says her writing isn't of sufficient quality. Its darned good. Its more that she doesn't realise how good she is that is holding her back!

  2. Hi Peter: I'd have to agree with you on that 100%. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. It is interesting to read JoAnne's thoughts on the writing process. She seems to have so many strands to her life that I don't know how she keeps them all going - but she certainly does. I find her poetry most inspiring and love Venti - I read if often at my poetry group.

  4. Hi Weaver of Grass: I thought JoAnne did a marevlous job with the interview--glad you liked it, too, & thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. I'm glad these interviews are back.

    This made me laugh:
    It is more cerebral than emotional, meaning I spew my guts quite happily but do think hard about how I’m doing it.

    And I understand this:
    To write things I still like six months after they’re written.
    My goal was once even more modest - to just like it the next day :)

    Great interview!

  6. I know what you mean about the submitting "faff" - but you must do it - we need to read more of you!

    Fab interview x

  7. Apart from the bit where she sells herself short, an excellent interview. Great questions, interesting answers.
    "Moment" is the finest poem I've read on-line in quite a while.

  8. Yes, great to see JoAnne's thoughts, and the six month goal is a good one...!

  9. Hi HKatz, Rachel, Dave & Niamh!

    HKatz: That is a particularly funny line! I believe Writers Talk will continue to be sporadic--I have a few pending invites out, but haven't been as active as I should be about recruiting new people to participate.

    Rachel: Glad you enjoyed the interview, & thanks for stopping by.

    Dave: "Moment" is a fine poem indeed, tho I must say I was really struck by the sonnet & how beautifully it was constructed. Glad you enjoyed it!

    Niamh: Thanks for stopping by & taking the time to comment!

  10. Writers Talk is always an interesting read and JoAnne is always an interesting person.Good combination!
    I like her modest reluctance to call herself a writer and can't begin to imagine how she fulfills all the roles she does. Clues may be found in her wonderful 'The Fat Plant'and the fact that her beautifully crafted 'Venti' was within an ace of winning the Callam MacDonald Memorial Award speaks volumes. JoAnne has a great poem in the forthcoming Poetry Bus PB2- another good reason to buy the world's most wonderful poetry mag!! :) Shameless plug alert!

  11. Hi Peadar: You're always welcome to plug the Poetry Bus here! Thanks for stopping by.

  12. JM-I tried to leave this comment on your blog: "Hey! I didn't know you knew him! I began following him on twitter and went to his blog and enjoyed it so much! :-D" so now it is here!

    Love the interview - love "titus" and adore her poetry. I have her poetry in my little log house and count her as one of my favorites of all time poets . . . Yes, JM, I mean that and take that in your pipe and give it a good smoke all down in your lungs and to your marrow! :-D

  13. Hi Kathryn: Thanks so much for stopping by & leaving a comment!

  14. Thank you for the invitation John, and thank you to everyone that came and read.
    Kat: I hear ya!
    TFE: Have you no shame?!

  15. Is this the first interview I've read with JMcK? Possibly. An enjoyable read... and what would the online bunch be without Titus (everybody's favourite blog dog)?

  16. Hi Rachel: Glad you enjoyed it, & thanks so much for stopping by!

  17. Why did no tell me that this was taking place? Here I was off on my hols, feasting and frolicking and not one dickie-bird from anyone to say that Titus was being interviewed. Humph!

    Enjoyed every bit of it, JoAnne and agree with everything that has been said. You're a fantastic poet and I'm sure any publisher would be pleased to have access to your work.



Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.