Cork writer captures pandemic experience in new book of poetry

Writer William Wall wanted to document life in the time of Covid, but the new Port Laureate of Cork tells GRAINNE McGUINNESS he had to turn to poetry to do it right
Cork writer captures pandemic experience in new book of poetry

William Wall, author. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

AS well as being the inaugural Poet Laureate of Cork, William Wall also has a long and distinguished career in writing fiction.

He has published six novels and three collections of short fiction and won numerous awards, including the Drue Heinz Literature Prize (2017), the Virginia Faulkner Prize and The Sean O’Faolain Prize.

But when he started trying to capture the experience of living through a pandemic, he found poetry was the natural medium. The result is Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade: A Journal of the Plague Year, which was published in the autumn by Doire Press.

“I decided to initially try writing a prose journal, just with a view to recording it, even if I never published it,” he says. “I found that prose - I just couldn’t write it, it just wasn’t working for me.

“At the same time, I had been writing some poems, and gradually I realised that poetry was the way to do it - because you’re talking about episodic experiences really, you’re not talking about a narrative. The narrative would be pretty grim.

Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade: A Journal of the Plague Year’ by William Wall
Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade: A Journal of the Plague Year’ by William Wall

“We were confined to two kilometres, we live in the country at the edge of the city. We could go for a walk up the lane and you could record what you saw in a poem, or what you felt in a poem, but it wouldn’t make anything of any significance for a piece of prose. 

"It became a poetry diary or journal of the plague, that’s how it came about, I just found it the best way to record it.”

Part of the reason he started the journal was because of the lack of information he found when he researched previous pandemics and plagues.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, my wife and I went looking for books about the pandemic and we found there are plenty of historical books about then but very few contemporary accounts,” William says. “Almost none about the great flu of 1918/19.

“What we found is that people tended not to record these events. I kind of feel that writers have a duty to record the reality that is around them as well as their own state of mind.”

But for William, prose needs more reflection and he suspects it will be some time before we get the great pandemic novel.

“For me, poetry can be a thing of the moment, something that happens almost while the event is occurring,” he says. “I take a long time to digest something to make a novel of it, for example. I’d say I take a year or two. I am working on a novel which is set during the pandemic year but is not about the pandemic.

“Madeline Darcy’s Liberty Terrace, which is a wonderful book, is also set during the pandemic but is not directly about the pandemic. I think there will be a lot of that for a while, but I think a novel specifically about the pandemic will be a few years in coming, a good one anyway.”

What records William could find about previous pandemics showed him that our current experience with Covid is far from unique, with previous generations also experiencing the positivity of solidarity and the problems of ‘fake news and all sorts of weird cures’.

“In 1630, in Florence, they had social distancing, they had the equivalent of the PUP, so much so that poor people came out better fed after the plague than before,” William says.

 “They had contact tracing and mask wearing and everything, this has all been going on a long time, you know. We have been coping with plagues and pandemics for centuries.”

He finds some of the reactions to restrictions dispiriting.

“I find it sad that science has not managed to penetrate people, despite the fact that everybody in Ireland has at least some science education, you would imagine,” he says. “It is nothing to do with freedom, it is about solidarity with your neighbours and your friends and your family.”

This poetry collection is a journal of the pandemic experience, but that is not to say it is a collection focused only on the grimness of Covid.

“It is a whole year in a life,” William says. 

“I go swimming and there are poems about swimming and beaches.

“When we were locked down here, I used to dream about being able to go for a walk by the sea and there is a poem about being able to go again - to walk on the beach. I nearly tamed a robin here at home, he used to come to my hand to take.

“There is a lot of nature poetry in it and a lot of positive things about family and friends, because these are the experiences when you are going through a pandemic.

“OK, the numbers every evening are there and you are shocked or you are frightened, and you hear about friends who go sick. But there are also all the positive things that people remarked about at the time - people singing to each other from their balcony and offering free gigs on the internet. There were a lot of positive things happening and a lot of negative things, it is a real mixed bag.”

William, who speaks and occasionally writes in Italian, was in Italy in the early days of Covid, as Italy became the early European epicentre.

His poems describe the dawning realisation of the seriousness of the situation and the return to Ireland to a situation of profound uncertainty.

As he describes the experience in Lockdown, written on March 29, 2020 :

we are having an at home day

for the foreseeable future

we will be lucky

if it is only forty days

Other poems describe the startling silence of an empty Cork city and the ritual of the nightly numbers. In between lines which so accurately describe moments we all experienced that year, even if we experienced them apart, William also describes moments of stillness and peace

‘in the time when the introvert is king’

He also addresses the other issues which occupied us in the strangest of years, from the formation of a Government here, to Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter protests.

But although he is glad to have this record of the year (the collection closes with a poem written on December 3, ‘the end of the strangest year we have lived’), continuing for another year was out of the question.

“I could not do it again this year I found it emotionally exhausting,” he says.

Instead, this year he took up the role of Cork’s Poet Laureate, publishing a poem a month, a role he is enjoying ‘very much’.

“It’s an interesting experience,” he says. 

“In the ordinary course of events, I’ll take months to finish a poem, I’ll get an idea today and put down 10 lines and won’t be happy with the ending and I’ll leave it be and I’ll come back.

“I have to finish the poem within the month and it is quite pressuring, it is changing the way I am working. It has been a very interesting experience. I have tried to make them more accessible than my usual stuff, trying to keep them related to something going on in the city or county or of concern to the people in the city or county.”

William is full of praise for the thriving literary scene in Cork, with great work being done by both the city and county library services, the Munster Literature Centre and more. His time as Laureate continues into 2022, with a chapbook of poems due in April.

While public events are limited at the moment, he is looking forward to further reading when time allows.

For now, he is working on his next projects and, like the rest of us, waiting to see what will be the next chapter in the ongoing pandemic saga.

Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade: A Journal of the Plague Year by William Wall. Published by Doire Press in paperback, €14. Available now.

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