Martin Malone: Black Rose Days


Martin, First of all congratulations on the publication, by New Island, of your tenth book Black Rose Days. The title is immediately arresting and, I have to say, the cover strikes me as the perfect match for the story this novel tells.

SG: So tell me about the title. Did you always have it? The motif of the black rose – quite beautifully – is threaded and themed through the novel. Did this come first, along with the title, or, like Stephen King and Carrie, was it only when you’d finished the novel that you were able to sit back and discover the recurring imagery (of which, I should add, the black rose is only one).

Titles can be difficult to decide upon,especially if they’re not organic within the work. It wasn’t with me at the outset. But later I had this image in my head of a young woman and the black tattooed rose just seemed a natural fit for her      personality. I had a loose idea that sub-consciously she was outing what she deep down believed was the colour of her tarnished soul.

SG: Yes, I think Ena’s belief about the darkness within her comes out very clearly in the story. You set the book mainly in Kildare, though we do get an American voice through Irene’s perspective. You’re from Kildare so did you still have a map in your head of how far real hotels, discos, pubs etc were from each other as you wrote the story? And did you have in mind at all the history of the Curragh, and the Curragh Camp? I’m thinking here of the theme of entrapment, and inevitability.

I think I know the Curragh and its surrounding milieu very well, and I have a fondness for the terrain and its characters, not always reflected in my writings.The map in my head was of areas and places no longer extant, or if in existence, much changed. I like to anchor my characters in familiar landscape, as I feel, perhaps sometimes wrongly, that it’s an inroad into breathing authenticity into their nature.

SG: I think you’re right; the landscape in which we exist does impact on who we are – it’s whether we acknowledge this or not that is key to our creative writing. Tell me about the brilliantly executed dual narrative. We have the ghost voice of Ena which is, at times, more real than the voice of the protagonist, Dan. How did you approach these? Did you write one narrative and then the other? And if so, could you tell us a little about piecing them together so that they revealed the whole story at the right pace?

Ena’s voice is strongest, I think, because of the first person past tense narrative, which allowed for an in-depth soul excursion. Dan is written third person present tense, which puts him at a bit of a remove from the microscope. Irene, likewise. The styles are contrasting and the book runs the risk of being  jarring in the sense that the reader has to contend with the different styles at play. It’s an unorthodox crime novel, alien to the concept and genre and not at all formuliac, I think. Ena’s voice gives us her life, but where she is now… she does not mention where –  this was deliberate and to broach it would have meant, I think, another book in its writing. I wanted to work the reader a little,too. Where is Ena? How is she? Is she at peace? This is another mystery at play within the novel – so to solve it a little – well, I would have written something like this:

There is rest after death so as to recuperate from the exhaustion caused to the soul by living: there’s an awakening and a reappraisal then of how one has led his life – there is understanding and compassion and  forgiveness in this, lessons learned and others for the learning, before the rebirth.

Interesting to hear the comments of President Obama on the death of Muhammad Ali – they ran along the lines of that we were blessed that he chose to live among our generation…’He chose.’

SG: The fact that Black Rose Days is unorthodox and has a very literary feel to the writing was what struck me as quite wonderful. But staying with narrative voices. I was particularly taken with the strength of Ena’s voice – and how her story explores the themes of identity (starting with her name), class, privilege, and courage. You said in an Irish Times article that the book isn’t intended as a social reflection yet Ena’s narrative is both reflective and reflexive beyond her years – her keen eye for detail, from Luigi’s “nest of blackheads,” to the benefit of perspective: “Habits have small beginnings” she reflects on remembering when she first drank in a pub. Can you tell us about writing Ena?

Ena is intelligent, acutely observant, curious and naturally rebellious. Her intelligence is not of the sort agreeable to the restraints created by a dysfunctional educational system,  centred on the size of one’s memory to retain information, much of it useless. She has been tainted and evilly blessed by a fiery baptism of blood, a sight and experience for which she received no support, for which there was no support – PTSD.

She has examined the accident in minute detail for years, in her wakening and sleeping moments – she has become accustomed to reading people, not always correctly – this pattern of observation became a survival tool for her. She     tries to read another’s mood, so as to bring herself out of harm’s way. Are there people walking around today who have similar tales to Ena? Yes, sadly too many.Their stories might differ to Ena’s, but their trauma is no less than her’s. Many children grow up too quickly, in order to leave something behind.

In terms of pacing. Not sure about this, if the cadence was spot on, but I went for voice and pace at the outset can be a little off whatever pace the reader might expect and hope for. It’s probably better, definitely for future crime related work, to exit the starter’s block at word one.

As a writer, I want to lift the rock and see what’s underneath. I don’t write about all that I see.

SG: Ah yes, now that you name it – PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), it is so clear how the event that happens at the start of the book set out the path she was to follow. But also layered through this murder mystery is that ultimate question of existence, and how and why we share our lives with others. As you say, it’s about what we don’t see. So, Irene realises at one point that her and Dan had “accepted less because less was much more than they already had” and Dan acknowledges that now Ena “is dead for longer than she had been alive. This happens to us all…”. He remembers his mother saying that “We will all be ancestors one day”. (I loved this line) Can you comment on this?

Human interaction is always interesting to watch/note. Dan and Irene are far from a perfect fit, and their marriage is on the point of collapse when he falls seriously ill. She decides to stay with him. Irene understood something was lacking in the relationship, and though she dealt in the world of spirit, she failed to fully understand Dan and the type of ghost he danced with – his past was his ever-present.You know, I suppose for Irene…I think she was sad at the depth of loneliness she’d felt, despite being alone in the same room with someone she once loved or had come close to loving.

As for ancestors…a while back I brought my son to a stone circle and spoke to him of the rituals associated with these ancient temples, and of their lore and history – the points I’d wanted to impress upon him, without lecturing: respect for all faiths, for the frailty of man, to understand the shortness of your life no matter how long you live. An important lesson I’d wanted him to understand was that of energy/atmosphere – how to tap into the energy of a place, which then becomes more than just a place. It becomes an experience.Culture, folklore and tradition, are dear to me.

SG: It occurs to me that in a way Ena became the embodiment of Kildare, or a type of fictional Kildare within a very real landscape of the Curragh plains. So lastly, Martin, a little about you as a writer and reader. What are you working on now and what books are on your bedside table?

I’ve just finished reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, set in China, and it concerns Mao’s reform policies and their effects on writers, teachers – basically anyone with the capacity to think for themselves and question. Currently reading Of Love and Demons by Gabriel Marquez.

Sitting with a stage play at the moment and wondering if my latest novel, It’s a Murder Story, will pass muster. Other than that, it’s the occasional writing practice session, searching for a rock to peer under.


Oh! Marquez is one of my go-to writers.

Well, I am sure you’ll find many rocks and write about what may or may not be visible. Thanks, Martin for such engaging answers and I wish you every success with Black Rose Days and look forward to the new novel! 

Martin will be reading from Black Rose Days at his launch on Thursday, 23 June, in Kildare Town Library, Claregate Street. All welcome. You can also follow Martin on his blog


Ron Carey on poetry, the power of detail and finding stories

FullSizeRender (22)Today I welcome Ron Carey, whose poetry collection Distance provides a window of wealth, detail and story, one which merits return readings.

Welcome, Ron. I’d like to learn more about you as poet. It wasn’t a straightforward road to publication – with life, and family, and all that involves in between – or perhaps your poet self was waiting for the ‘right’ moment? And that moment came in 2015 with the publication of Distance.

Thank you for having me on your blog Shauna; it’s a real pleasure for me.

Yes, coming to the point where I can justify calling myself a poet has been a journey. As a teenager I wrote with a romantic view of the world, with all brittle intensity of first love. However, this view didn’t hold out under the pressure of a job, paying a mortgage and bringing up four children. Perhaps I didn’t have the skill-set then to move my poetry to the next level. For many years I wrote poems of celebration or of consolation for friends and family at times of birth, marriages and death. Writing these occasional poems, with all the honesty and directness I could manage, became the basis for the way I write today. But I really only started to write seriously, I mean to seriously consider my life in terms of poetry, about five years ago when I began an MPhil at the University of South Wales.

 Tell me about the MPhil in Creative Writing. How did meeting other poets – both emerging and professional – and the workshop process help in the creation of Distance? I’m thinking here of how the collection is structured thematically: divided into parts or sections – ‘Time Travel’, ‘The Beloved’, ‘New Oceans’ and ‘The World Will Break Your Heart’.

To meet such a talented and (to me) very young group of poets at that very first workshop in Wales was quite a shock to the system. My first reaction was, ‘Oh my God! My poetry is nothing like theirs!’ It was some time before I realised that this difference was something to treasure. The workshops and the mentoring of people like Professor Philip Gross, helped to raise the level of my poetry. I began to enter and do well in competitions but at that point I didn’t know these poems would come to make up Distance. When I came to arrange the collection, I saw that I had tackled different aspects of something I am very interested in – distance in time and space – and divided the collection along those lines.

 Your poems touch on detail wonderfully – clothes that echo time and place, body language that brings us deeper into character, and dialogue that captures an age. Those visual details sit sharply against the sound and beat of the poems that sometimes beg to be read aloud. I’m thinking here of the shawl and the lane in ‘Chicken’ and the animals and clip clop as the movement in ‘Moving’, and the words of the son in ‘Fathers and Sons’.

My Aunt Babbie wore a shawl, black as midnight

In a country lane […]

Her legs were gone and she used mine to round-up

The chickens condemned for Saturday’s Market.

Thank you Shauna; these poems get some of the best audience reactions. I believe I would have been able to write these poems as a young man but not in such detail. I would have skipped the detail for the emotional fix. Now I try to use detail to ‘recover the time,’ as Patrick Kavanagh said, and leave the emotions to the reader.

 And that technique works so well, Ron. Also, the passing of time – and of people – is a recurrent theme in the collection. From the very moving and very Irish ‘Letter’, or ‘Upstairs’ to the Amelia set of poems in the exotic ‘New Oceans’ part of Distance. Was this a conscious decision or did the themes present themselves once you had the poems ready?

I do use memory in my poetry to build bridges and reconnect to places and individuals. With the ‘Amelia’ poems in the section ‘New Oceans’ was my attempt to connect to somewhere I knew nothing about but I was sure the I would find the same problems that that we all face. I did quite a lot of research before I wrote anything at all. But once Amelia became a real person to me, the rest of her family simply walked in and introduced themselves.

 How interesting that the rest of her family arrived first! But ordinary life – and death – is here, too. I’m thinking of the rhythms in ‘Clocking Out’ and the unsentimental shock of the moving ‘Burying Angels’.

Writing poetry I am reminded that there is really nothing ‘ordinary’ about life; it is wonderfully immense and though some find no hope in death, yet there is consolation and caring even there. However big the theme, I believe the structure of the poem needs to be obvious and at the same time hidden. In the same way we look at a building; we know that bricks and mortar hold everything together but that’s not what we see when we see a building that is our home. A good poem should be like that.

 You’ve stated that poetry can help bridge the distance between people. Can you talk about that a little – the role of poetry in today’s society where the sound bite is king?

The distance between people in families and communities is a state of mind and therefore subject to change. Good poetry, like good music, gets past the modern defences we have built to keep ourselves safe from being hurt by the outside world. When we read good poetry, the reader and the poet are connected because they identify each other as human. This identification helps bring people closer. I try very hard not to put anything obtuse or complex between myself and the reader.

 Lastly – what’s on your Christmas book wish list?

This has been a great year for poetry in Ireland and I believe I have most of the books launched this year. Here I would like to give a shout out for Breda Wall Ryan’s In a Hare’s Eye (Doire Press) and Jane Clarke’s The River (Bloodaxe). I would like to recommend John F. Deane’s wonderful book Give Dust a Tongue (Columba), it would make a great Christmas present.  If anyone would like a hint, Matthew Sweeney’s latest Inquisition Lane, looks good. At the moment I’m reading T S Eliot’s annotated works – (a birthday present from my wife Cathy) – two wonderful, weighty tomes but impossible to hold upright and read in bed!


head shot for book Thank you, Ron for such insightful answers. I look forward to returning to Distance again. 

You can keep up with Ron’s poetry and upcoming readings on


Jane Clarke ‘The River’

First of all congratulations, Jane Clarke, on the publication, by Bloodaxe, of your debut collection The River. It is beautifully produced with a front cover image that somehow reflects the depth of the emotions and narratives within. I’m delighted to feature you on my blog and chat about The River.

janeclarketheriversmallerSG: I’d like to learn more about the process of ‘producing’ The River. How did you select the 50 poems that made it to the final collection and how easily or difficult did the title come to you? And finally, did you have any input to the design?

JC: I began writing poetry ten years ago and about four years later I started to think about drawing together a collection. It took another four years before I had it ready to send out to publishers. Over that period I did an MPhil in Writing in the University of South Wales where I was given invaluable help with my growing collection, including the crucial advice not to rush it and to take more time. It was relatively easy to select the poems because I was adamant that only the very best of what I had written could go in. There were a few I wasn’t sure about which got moved in and out a number of times. The collection was accepted for publication in late July 2014 but I was still editing newer poems for it right up to the day I sent the final manuscript in March 2015. The hardest part of  “making” the collection was the sequencing, which I changed many times. In ways it was like writing a poem; doing a draft, reading it, redrafting, putting it away for a while and then coming back to it and drafting again. In shaping the collection I was looking for a thread through the collection as a whole as well as variety and movement and also resonances between and among poems. My friends and colleagues, Shirley McClure, Geraldine Mitchell, Grace Wells and Yvonne O’Connor all helped me with this along the way. Meantime my workshop group was helping me with individual poems.

One of my first ideas for the title was Where the river deepens so the river was there from the start. Somewhere along the way I realized I wanted it to be The River, to reflect what I saw as the strongest poem in the collection and also to reflect the themes of change and loss and what nature offers us.

I had very little input into the design and I was more than happy to leave that to Neil Astley.  When he wrote to confirm that he would be publishing my collection, he suggested the image of the heron, inspired by a line in one of my poems, “River at Dawn”.

………………………………………… A Heron flies up

from the callows, leads river and rowers

into the day, lean in, catch, pull back, release.


I love the cover and the lay-out and I have no doubt that the beauty of the production has brought quite a few readers to the book.

SG: As a fiction writer, I am always fascinated by and in awe at how poets often seamlessly feature place so strongly in their work. In this collection we move through fields, farmyards, rivers, lighthouses – some place-specific – and cities. Parallel to place, notions of ownership and belonging seep through as themes. Was there a conscious sense of themes corresponding to places in your life as you pieced the collection together in the order that it is in, or was this something that appeared organically?

JC: When I began writing I had no idea that place would feature so strongly in my work. But the poems kept coming out of the landscape and physical surroundings of various times in my life; growing up on a farm in Roscommon, my fifteen years studying and working in Dublin, living in Wicklow since then and other places that have mattered to me along the way. I can see now that the physical details of place both carry and express the emotions in my poems. The containment of place gives me a way of exploring relationships, ambivalent emotions and themes of belonging and identity. But I did not set out intentionally to do that. I have learned from drawing together my collection that if you let it, poetry will inevitably reflect and engage with your questions and concerns at the time you are writing. Some of these are questions you will repeatedly return to and others are of a particular time. I have been amazed to find how much of the process of writing poetry is an unconscious process. That is not to say that it doesn’t involve conscious dedication and craft but there is a well of unconscious associations influencing the work that sometimes seems magical. For example I only realised that “Among the Cows” was inspired by my grandmother’s life when I put it next to another poem about her in my collection.

SG: That’s fascinating, Jane, how the themes grew organically. It’s true that place in The River also extends to the place of our hearts – and memories. I’m thinking of the first poem in the collection: ‘Honey’ or ‘Rhode Island Reds’, poems which begin in one emotional, almost sentimental place, and end, shockingly and yet movingly, in an entirely different place. Or, in contrast, the brilliantly titled, heart wrenching ‘Every life’ which grounds us in the bodily place of possibility and impossibility.

JC: Thanks Shauna, I appreciate how you express your response to my poems. For me, part of the power of poetry is how it can allow the poet to write out of and into loss, either their own or the imagined loss of others. I have these lines from Macbeth on a yellow post-it above my desk, Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break. To do this without sentimentality or self-pity, you need to be available to a depth of emotion as well as being able to stand at a distance from it. The restrictions of the poetic form can contain grief that feels uncontainable. Poems can’t give resolution or consolation but I have found that they can say what seems unsayable, evoke what has been unknown and that they can accompany, comfort and sometimes sustain others. Robert Frost says it for me: “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

SG: That last line by Frost could apply to any form of creative writing, actually. Now while many of the poems are solid, and grounded in the specific, there are a few that have an undercurrent of the unconscious world of dreams, where danger is at the edges waiting to be acknowledged. The magical first stanza of ‘On the boat’:

“On the boat we were mostly virgins,/We talked about who we were going to be – /waitresses, seamstresses, nurses,/we didn’t talk about why we had to leave.”

Could you tell us a little bit more about this poem, for example the use of ‘mostly’ and the sense of journey and hope.

JC: I am always a little wary of talking about what a poem means for me because I don’t want to influence the reader’ response. But I know myself how interesting it is to hear a poet write about the background to a poem. “On the Boat” was inspired by Julia Otsuka’s novel, The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese women migrating to the US in search of husbands. It set me thinking about all the Irish women who had migrated to the States in search of a better life.  A visit to the Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side also influenced the poem. The first line is the first line in Otsuka’s novel and what I liked about it was the question in “mostly” that let us imagine all the many reasons women left their home places apart from poverty or a sense of adventure, including rape, sexual abuse and pregnancy outside of marriage. I think it is what is not said as well as the strong rhythm, rhyme and repetition of the pantoum form that conveys a sense of mystery and at times menace as well as hope. There is also the intimation that regardless of getting the opportunity to start all over again, there are memories both wanted and unwanted that we carry with us.

SG: Of course, it’s a bit of a tricky question – almost like asking about inspiration! And now to my last question. Kent Haruf, one of my go-to writers who sadly passed away last year said in his last interview “The obvious thing is to read, read, read, read, read. Then write, write, write. There is no way around it.” As a poet, can you relate to this? When you are not writing, what are you reading? And what are you reading right now?

JC: I loved Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, Shauna. I hadn’t read his advice before but I totally agree with it. I find that reading both prose and poetry feeds my work. Reading sets off thoughts, memories and emotional responses. It can be a place, a time, a person that is evoked or sometimes just one word or a mood or tone sets something alight. When I haven’t been writing or when I want to get something started but can’t find a way in, it helps to take out a poetry anthology or a collection from a poet that interests me, read through it at random and just see what is sparked off.  I always have a novel on the go; at the moment is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose writing is just getting better and better. I’m reading Caitriona O’Reilly’s latest, Geis and also Philip Larkin these days as well as dipping into Richard Mabey’s Weeds. I’m also reading Colm Tóbín’s  very personal study of  Elizabeth Bishop, who is one of my favourite poets. I remember when I first read her advice  to a younger poet, “read a lot of poetry – all the time… anything at all almost that’s any good, from the past – until you find out what you really like, by yourself”. Only then should one proceed to “the great poets of our own century… and not just two or three poems of each… read ALL of somebody. Then read his or her life, and letters, and so on… Then see what happens.”

As regards the second part of Haruf’s advice, “write, write, write”, it is good to be reminded of it. The more I write, the more I need to write. There can be so much fear asscoiated with writing; fear of exposure, of failure, of coming across as ridiculous and yet we have to risk it, we have to put ourselves into words if we want to move closer to the writer we want to become. The advice I would add to that of Haruf and Bishop is to join a writing group and to set up a poetry reading group, on the lines of a book club.

SG: Thank you to Jane for such informative, and open answers. You can listen to a wonderful interview and reading with Jane on RTE Arena here and keep up with Jane’s readings and poetry on her website.

Jane Clarke
Jane Clarke

Some of Jane’s upcoming readings:

  • Red Line Book Festival Jane Clarke will give a reading from The River in Whitechurch Library, Rathfarnham on Tuesday 13 October as part of the Red Line Book Festival organised by South Dublin Libraries.
  • London Jane will be reading at the Coffee House Poetry Autumn Showcase Reading in the Troubadour on Monday 19 October, 8pm, 263-267 Old Brompton Road, London SW5.
  • Imagine Arts Festival Jane Clarke and Shirley McClure will give a poetry reading from their new collections on Sunday 25 October at 3pm in the Book Centre, Waterford.
  • Donegal Jane Clarke will give a reading from The River at the Allingham Literary Festival on Saturday 7 November, as well as giving a writing workshop and presenting the awards for the Allingham Poetry Competition 2015.
  • Wicklow Jane Clarke will give a reading from The River in Rathdangan on Saturday 21 November at 9pm, with music from Rory Adams.
  • Dublin Jane Clarke will give a reading alongside Shirley McClure, Rosie Shepperd from London and Paula Cunningham from Belfast in Books Upstairs, 17 D’Olier St. Dublin on Sunday 29 November at 3pm.