By Cáit O’Neill McCullagh
I began writing poetry in December 2020, when ‘community transmission’, the connective tissue of our relational lives, became dangerous. It felt like a remedy; a kind of convivial activism elicited by our pandemic resort to living ‘the universe’ in our own ‘potato patches’, as Patrick Kavanagh would have it. I found in poems a way to keep listening to the world from the perimeters of home, whilst also making a response for sharing, somehow, some when.
This idea of poetry as being in relationship (even if only with oneself), I had found already in others’ writings, including Caithness poet, George Gunn, whom I am honoured to call mentor and friend. These champions of the democracy of noticing the world through experience and sharing it out again in our own uniquely truthful idiom, clarifying the specific and diverse ways each of us lives this universe, spoke to my sensibility as a child of the ceilidhing tradition. For my Irish and Highland families, sharing bardic verse, including in song and story, travelled poetry beyond the intellectual sense of genre. Like George, they lived poetics more as a way of socialising life, its celebrations and predicaments, and correspondingly increasing empathy with all who also feel joys and precarities in their own dear (or besieged) places in the world. Such sensations were oases in that pandemic drought.
No poet, nor their poetry can be fruitful in complete isolation. To assuage my Covid-19 loneliness and grief, I rapidly identified and joined in some of the proliferation of online ‘open mics’ that sprang up in that time. The generosity of welcome I experienced, including interest in my own early, sketchy poems, was humbling and encouraging. This equitable access to a community of practitioners afforded an intense education both in crafting and sharing my work. More than fifty of the poems tried-out with fellow poets in those virtual environments have been published.
It was through one-such group that I encountered Sinéad McClure, with whom I co-authored (virtually) ‘The songs I sing are sisters’, co-winner of Driech’s ‘Classic Chapbook 2022’. Early in our friendship we realised that our individual poems elicited a commonality of experience: being born in the same year of parents pushed to becoming what might now be termed economic migrants.
We began sharing poems and then responding to each other’s words, drinking in the stimulus of our both similar and different experiences of diaspora and re-making ‘home’. I will often write in a kind of migrant’s synthesis of English, Gaelic, Scots, and Irish; the languages I grew up in. This linguistic flexibility resonated for Sinéad. I was equally taken by her facility for lyrical narration, something I recognised from my own family’s quickness for capturing the ephemera in the mundanity of daily life, transforming it into enchantment and mobile legacy. We shared from our tacit tutelages in ceilidhing culture – bringing oneself as a finely tuned instrument to any gathering – into an obvious progression; the socialisation of our poems, with each other, and more widely.
Just over a year into my becoming as a poet, on 24 February 2022, I was diagnosed with two forms of cancer. This life-altering process: the initial devastation, invasive surgery, and chemotherapy challenges became a calendar of milestones. It also waymarked another poetic journey in which my diagnosis date coincided with the invasion of Ukraine. This conjunction became a lens through which to understand my experience; to connect in empathy, not equivalence nor competition, with those suffering immeasurable trauma half a world away from me.
This uncanny entwining now informs my response to an invitation to draft a first full collection for publication by Drunk Muse Press. My initial impetus into a poetics of spatial transgression; refuting insularity to, as Édouard Glissant advises ‘think like an archipelago’, has also pushed me through chronological boundaries into exploring my family’s experiences during Ireland’s Civil War in1922. I hope that these poems and others in the collection will speak to all asking how we might understand frailty, loss, and displacement in our shared Anthropocene; poetry that invites us to stop living as if in parallel with all else that lives.
I am aware that finding a belonging in poetry has been a gift. It is a tremendous privilege to write and share my poems and to read and listen to the poetry of others. It is this generosity that I hope to continue to spill, contributing towards imagining more possible futures, shared with and for all, and not at all alone.
About Cáit O’Neill McCullagh
An archaeologist, ethnologist, and educator, Cáit started writing poems at home in the Highlands in December 2020. Her poetry has been published in print and online, including in Northwords Now, Poetry Scotland, The Storms, Howl: New Irish Writing, Ink Sweat & Tears, Visual Verse, The Poets Republic and forthcoming in New Writing Scotland and Seahorse Publications’ ‘How Do We Talk About Knives’ Anthology. In 2022, she was a co-winner of Dreich’s ‘Classic Chapbook Competition’ for ‘The songs I sing are sisters’ co-authored with Sinead McClure. Her first full collection will be published by Drunk Muse Press in early 2024. She continues to outrun her diagnosis of cancer identified in February 2022. See https://linktr.ee/caitjomac