Maggie O’Dwyer, poet + artist

Maggie O’Dwyer

Maggie O’Dwyer is a poet and artist, living and working in Dublin. She has published three books of poetry, and her collection Laughter Heard from the Road was shortlisted in 2010 for the Rupert and Eithne Strong Award for Best First Collection.

There is an arresting freshness and immediacy to Maggie’s poetry. Often as saturated in colour as her visual art, the poems draw on clear eyed wisdom to bring the reader into intimate moments of time, space, and relationship.

Since she graduated from art college in 1974, her work has been exhibited widely, including at the RHA exhibitions.

In conversation with Beth for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, Maggie talks about the role of trust in her life and work, and tells us – “I don’t question why I write or paint, I just do it.”

Fruit Bowl

BEGINNINGS:

In this section we ask artists to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivates people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?

MAGGIE: “I have to tell you, it has taken me a long time to be able to answer the question, ‘what do you do?’ I’ve always hated saying, ‘I’m an artist and a poet.’ Even still I hate saying it; even now, a friend will usually say it first for me: “She’s a poet,” or “she’s an artist.”

I started by going to art college straight from school. I wanted to do acting and English, but I got an A in art so it was decided that I should go to art college. I got a D in English anyway, so it was a no brainer. I’m delighted that decision was made for me now, even though at the time I had that imposter feeling – that I wasn’t a real artist.

When I started in Dun Laoghaire Art College it was just a one-year course and then you were expected to go and finish your degree in NCAD or Belfast, but just as I was finishing my year they extended it into a full degree course. I loved it. It was chaotic – everybody trying to find their feet – possibly I needed more discipline. But I’m very glad I went there.

‘In the real world being an artist means you also have to be savvy in a business sense’

I’ve made my own way and I’m very happy that I have. Though of course that hasn’t helped me when I’ve looked for bursaries and things. When we went to college we were just thrown out into the world without any preparation for practical supports or help for setting up a studio or earning a living. But in the real world being an artist means you also have to be savvy in a business sense – otherwise you will simply not survive financially.

Quite honestly, I’ve been able to continue with my creative life because of the support and help of my friends and my family. Also, I’ve always been lucky that the right people have come into my life at the right time. My publisher, Alex McMillen (Templar Poetry), for example, is a lovely man – someone who really believes in my work. He is committed to publishing new talent and as well as that he has strong views on the fact that women poets are very often overlooked. If it hadn’t been for a friend of mine suggesting I submit to Templar Poetry (which I’d never heard of) I think that opportunity could have been missed.

Two of Maggie’s poetry books published by Templar Poetry

As an artist you have to trust that there are people out there who like what you’re doing and will support you – find them! Surround yourself with those people. And of course – it’s not a one-way street.

In terms of making the leap from dreaming to doing … I think I was making that leap from a very young age. Until I was 9 years old I lived in the inner city opposite the fish and flower market and for me it was a very stimulating and alive place to be. There was a great sense of community there and I was free to play in the streets and be myself. It was a time of dreaming and imagining.

“I really believe in the process of exploring”

It’s still the same. I don’t question why I write or paint, I just do it – I have to do it. I really believe in the process of exploring. But it’s the making that motivates me. Doing the work gives so much back. You know, it’s very important to give yourself permission to play. A couple of years ago my friend gave me a notebook for Christmas and I decided to draw in the notebook in any way I wanted but to do it every night and even take a leap by using my left hand – just to play and not care what anyone else thought. I had the best fun with it. Getting away from my inner critic for a while every night was liberating.

Pages from Maggie’s sketchbook

PRACTICALITIES:

In this section we ask artists to talk about their work spaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their workday looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’

I’ve always made a dedicated space for my work, ever since my 20s, living in a flat over my family’s pub on Pearse St which was my first work space. I had a big table. I’ve always had a table – in big rooms and small rooms. I had a wonderful room with three big tables for 27 years that I rented from a friend for half nothing as a studio. When that changed two years ago it meant moving my workspace to our small kitchen. You manage and adapt. I do miss not having to tidy away my work at the end of a day. So yes, ‘a room of one’s own’ is important – it’s important to be able to leave your work and return to it undisturbed. I believe in what I do. So I’ll always find a place to do it. If there’s a table, I’ll make it my workspace. 

Evening sketching at the table

I have a gardening job, I teach creative writing and I have a small card business. So I never know what the day will look like. But one thing I do know is that every night I will sit down at the table and I will write or I will draw.

Everything I do goes hand in hand, everything helps and informs the other things – but in terms of balance, time for writing is what suffers the most. Writing has made a huge difference to me. As I’ve said I always meet people at the right time, when I need them. And meeting Dorothy Molloy changed my life. She was an amazing poet and teacher, and the saddest thing was that she died two days before her first collection was published. She was the first Irish woman to be published by Faber.

“None of it matters, Maggie, you don’t need to know these things! Just write.”

I met her when I went to a creative writing class she gave – I kept going to classes she’d give and then one day she called me to say she was starting a poetry workshop in UCD and was inviting me to join. That group was to become Thornfield Poets. I was terrified – some of the women in the workshop were published writers – but she encouraged me. I’d be worrying about grammar or structure or techniques I hadn’t learned, and she’d just say – “None of it matters, Maggie, you don’t need to know these things! Just write.”

She gave me the confidence to be myself in my writing and I am very lucky to have been a member of Thornfield. That’s why I teach, when I can. Because what Dorothy gave to me, I want to give back.

One of Maggie’s Botanical Alphabet cards

BEING IN THE WORLD:

Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?

I think with writing, yes, it is very important to be published. I write to understand life and the relationship I have with myself and with others. I want my poetry to connect with people. I’ve heard that more people are reading poetry since COVID and I think it’s because we can all feel isolated and alone at times… and scared. Sometimes reading a poem can help us to see that someone else has gone through the same thing. So yes, publishing is very important and when I got published by Templar, my work was out there – that made a big difference.

I think it’s still extremely difficult for new writers to get published. For a long time it was a man’s world. It is changing – slowly – but I think it needs to change more and editors and publishers need to take some “risks.”

I love chap books. I love working towards them, I love reading them. I actually prefer them as a format to a full poetry collection. A collection can be quite a lot of work to read whereas reading a chap book you get to be very intimate with the writer. In a way I like to tell a story – a chap book allows me to do that. So I would like to see the chap book format taken more seriously and reviewed.

When I left art college in the 70s, if you wanted to be taken seriously you had to be with a gallery. That’s changing now and artists are taking more control of how they want their work to be seen, say on Instagram or on their own websites – but there’s still a view that if you promote your work on social media like Instagram, the work is of less value. I don’t agree with that. I have always gone my own way – I’m quite controlling – I have my own private exhibitions and that works for me and I’ve been lucky to be published by Templar Poetry.

“the most important thing for me is connection”

I think if you want fame, go for it. Personally I have always looked for something else – shared empathy and appreciation. They’re not mutually exclusive – but to be honest the most important thing for me is connection. I hang out with people who really like what I do and I’ve been lucky to have been supported by my family and friends and the people who buy my art and read my poetry. I do post to Instagram – and I find it’s a great way for me to see my explorations in another format­ – I love that.  

From Hedgegrow Series

You know the story of the tall poppy in a field; that if a poppy grows too tall that’s the one people will want to cut down. There are always people out there who will want to cut you down if you’re drawing attention to yourself – to them it’s “being an exhibitionist,” and it’s never seen as a good thing, especially not a good thing for women to do. I think it’s much more approved of for men to be in the limelight. Women are supposed to just get on with it quietly while doing all the other bloody things we’re supposed to do!

BEING IN OURSELVES:

Many creative people speak of periods of self-doubt or imposter syndrome. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self-doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?

Anxiety has written my life, but that hasn’t been a bad thing. I hope it’s made me more empathetic and kinder. People need to feel they’re not the only one facing their fears. It can feel like you are, but you aren’t. I think you learn; it’s a process. Through the process of doing your work and having difficult times, you can look back and see, ‘I got through this before, I’ll get through it again.’

Friends are what get me through life and my creative work and of course music always inspires me. I’m very appreciative of my relationships.

It’s not easy for any of us – we’ve all gone through hard times. Even in relationships – you want it to be lovely all the time, but it isn’t like that. My mantra is ‘Everything Changes.’ The most important thing I have done to get through hard times is I have trusted in that mantra and in myself.

I remember going through a difficult time years ago and my brother came to see me. He stood at the bottom of my bed and I was saying ‘I can’t do it! I just can’t do it!’ He said, ‘I know you and I’ve watched you all your life, you’re a strong woman. You always have been. You can do it.’

And he’s right.

Also from Hedgegrow Series

From her most recent book The Wire Heart:

Let me say…
we are not in love today
but when you put my glasses on
you can see a thousand drops
of rain, held on a birch tree,
                                                
that’s enough.
 
Let’s take a break from love,
find a place that breathes
without the other.
Too much loving is exhausting.
 
What a relief to know we’ve
let each other down.
What a relief not to have to
end it… each time, to know
 
the seasons can be hard,
 
like walking in the rain, soaked,
then walking back
to the heart riddle of our house.

Website – www.maggieodwyer.ie

Instagram – @maggieodwyerdublin

Hear Maggie read three of her poems here.

Her most recent book, The Wire Heart, is available here.

Maggie’s first book, Yes, I’d Love to Dance, is not available to buy, but her collection, Laughter Heard from the Road, is available here.

Several of Maggie’s poems are included in
Thornfield: Poems by the Thornfield Poets published by Salmon Poetry.

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