POET Joanne McCarthy says she writes ‘in the shadows of the day’ - time carved out of a busy schedule as mother to three young boys, wife, and teacher, to be herself: to just be Jo.
Originally from Castletownkenneigh in West Cork, Joanne, 42, now lives in Waterford city with her family, teaching in a local Gaelscoil. In 2020, she co-founded and launched The Waxed Lemon, a new literary journal, with friend and writer, Derek Flynn.
Intended as an open platform for writers of poetry, flash fiction and short stories, and for photographers and painters, the twice-yearly journal has quickly established itself as a new voice for creatives; and has received funding from both Creative Waterford and Waterford Arts Council.
For Joanne, The Waxed Lemon is not about creating something in which she can showcase her own work; but rather provides a space to showcase the work of others while addressing issues that writers often face, such as writing in isolation, feeling part of a community, and the struggle for publication and recognition, and the opportunity to give a voice to their work.
From a young age, the joy of reading and writing was ever present for Joanne. It has never waned, only growing stronger, finding deeper meaning in womanhood – and motherhood.
“One of two children growing up in West Cork, the world of books was absolute escapism and joy for me; and, of course, as a teenager I wrote all those angsty poems that you have to write to get yourself through!
“While studying my undergrad in UCC, I always wrote poems - it was a form of expression for me, and I often joked that if you looked into my make-up bag you could easily find an envelope with a poem written on the back of it.
“Words were always my medium for expression; and when I had my first child in 2013, I was writing more, I think, because I needed something for myself – an outlet.
“I started going to a local open mic event, listening to other people reading their work. Eventually I got up on stage, and that was it! I started getting confident in myself and I began performing my work. But I found I became more interested in reading poetry and more interested in ‘page poetry’, that my true passion was in reading the poem.
“I became more specialised in my interest in poetry, and I started to play with form. It’s joyful for me to play with form; certain poems and themes or emotions will naturally lead themselves to one form over another. Now, I’m thinking of a broader narrative, about creating a collection of my work, looking at the arc and where it’s going; and realising that I have more to say than what I can write onto a single page.”
The skill of the poet and the craft of the poem is to convey much with a few carefully chosen words.
Often, Joanne writes inspired by deeply personal events. Her poem, Triskelion, relives her struggle with IVF – emotionally and physically; and addresses the unanswered question of what is left behind when a woman’s body reaches its limits in pursuit of motherhood.
How is it possible to approach poetry when the topic at hand is so personal?
“The impulse to write is the first thing, and when the impulse comes, I need to harness it. People talk about first drafts, getting it down, and that being key to getting the sentiment or the emotion out.
“Sometimes poems will come fully formed - my poem, The Girls of Fairhill, (due to be published in Poetry Ireland Review), came to me fully formed – it just flew out of me. But others torment you and hang around in your brain, writing them for ages. Some poems just won’t finish themselves...
“I’ve worked a lot on craft, but it’s not easy. I journal, write, go back to find key messages and phrases; and work on shaping it into a poem. I might try it as a sonnet, or as a free verse; Triskelion ended up in segments because it represented how difficult it was to write, and how difficult the process was - the form of the poem reflected the energy of the experience.”
Joanne is a fluent Gaeilgeoir and says often her poems written in Irish are about her children.
“I don’t know what that is, an emotional link maybe? But when you have young children, there’s a certain amount of loss of identity and I think poetry for me was a vessel – a way of holding onto myself, my thoughts, ideas, and my creative side; to express my voice at a time when I felt unseen and unheard. Poetry was something that kept me going.”
In 2020, Joanne established Ireland’s newest literary journal, The Waxed Lemon. Issue two was released in August, and planning for issue three is well under way. The idea for it came to her after she attended the Waterford Poetry prize-giving in 2019 where poet, Grace Wells, commented on the high calibre of work received for the competition.
“The whole room was full of writers, and I knew there was no open platform in the South- East at all for them, and that was a void that needed to be filled. I was considering [establishing the journal] on my own, but I asked my friend Derek Flynn if he would consider coming on board with me and he said yes.”
Joanne and Derek approached Creative Waterford who agreed to fund the production of the first issue and a series of summer workshops. Waterford Arts Council have followed on with funding for issues two and three.
The Waxed Lemon is a platform for writers, photographers and artists in the Waterford area and their community, although submissions are open for national and international contributions also.
“We had well over 100 submissions for the first issue, and 150 submissions for issue two. One submission could be three poems, so the reading is very onerous. We have external readers to help us with ideas and feedback and then we hash it out over Zoom.”
As a published poet, Joanne knows all too well the cycle of submission, critique, acceptance or rejection, so it must be hard to say no?
“It’s very hard and it would be awful if it was just me, but because I’m part of a team we can say each piece of work was honoured – it was read, discussed, and given every chance.
“The space is competitive; I know from sending in my own work. I’ve learned to be resilient, and sometimes a rejection isn’t about the quality of the work; it might not be a thematic fit with an issue, or subjective to the editor’s taste. So, when I talk to people about resilience, I tell them just to do the work to the highest level you can, have it peer reviewed and then just send it out. But keep at it – don’t give up!”
In a world of digital words, The Waxed Lemon is staunchly analogue, available only as a printed journal, and speaks to the love of the bookish to hold words in their hands.
“I love the feel of a book. There’s something about writing into the abyss of the internet, like the words are just a tiny little water droplet in a vast ocean. The words people send us are so precious and personal to them they deserve the page; they deserve to be there. We want The Waxed Lemon to be on the shelf, to reach readership, to direct people to the bookshelf. It’s about letting writers reach out into their community, and for them to be seen.”
The desire Joanne has for writers to be seen reflects her own need for her poetry to sustain her sense of identity. Even though publishing the journal is hard work, it’s also how she carves time out for herself.
“It’s very joyful for me; but also, writing can be very lonely. I’m interested in The Waxed Lemon being there for the broader writing community and the resulting friendships, networks and readerships that it will create: the voice of the people writing at this time in this place.
“I’m really happy about the success of The Waxed Lemon, and it’s something I can do in tandem as a mother of three young boys. I work for a couple of hours before the children are awake and after they have gone to bed - I write in the shadows of the day.”
I ask Joanne what poem first captured her, and if she has a favourite one.
“I first came across Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and her book The Astrakhan Cloak as an undergrad in UCC. We had to read an awful lot of poetry in Irish, but the minute I read Nuala it was like she was singing into my heart, it was amazing. I connected to her, I love her turns of phrase, and she’s still my favourite poet.
“You know how sometimes a few lines of a song get stuck in your brain that just repeats over? That’s Nuala for me. When I see something, lines of her poems come into me like lines of a song.
“My poem, Triskelion, is absolutely me laid bare on the page. I want to Become a Punk at 40 is playful – I watched a documentary about a girl who said she was the only punk in Carlow, and I felt I wanted to just scoop her up and say: you might be the only punk in Carlow, but there’s loads of us everywhere in the country!”
Issue 3 of The Waxed Lemon will be released in early December. Anyone can submit work for consideration, submission guidelines are available on The Waxed Lemon’s social channels on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; or email email@example.com with any queries.
The Waxed Lemon is available through The Book Centre in Waterford, and online at www.thebookcentre.ie, priced at €10.