Kate Dempsey is a fiction writer, poet and blogger whose writing had been published and broadcast widely in Ireland and the UK. Her debut poetry collection, The Space Between, was published by Doire Press in 2016.
When did you realise that writing was going to mean something in your life? Did you write as a child?
I have always read voraciously and I loved writing in school but I had a series of terrible, creativity-squashing teachers and didn’t write anything for years. I always assumed I would write though at the back of my mind. I remember getting a Christmas job in Harrods and thinking it would look good on my author’s note. Years later, my TV was stolen and I decided to write a novel in the evenings instead of replacing it. It was harder than it looked. Plus it was usually dinner time and I was hungry so there was a gratuitous eating in every chapter. I took a beginners’ creative writing evening course, met lots of lovely aspiring writers and kept going. Now I can’t stop.
Where are you with your novel, the counter on your blog says 82% finished? Can you tell us which novel this is, it’s not your first?
My current novel, my second one, is on a back burner for now. I know the end but I am stumped as to how to get there. I am hoping that, like not watching the kettle, it’ll come to me and I can cross the finish line. Then the real work starts: editing.
Tell us about your previous novel, the one that went on submission?
My previous novel, The Story of Plan B, was picked up by an enthusiastic agent, enthusiastically rewritten on her very good advice, enthusiastically hawked around lots of publishers and summarily rejected by all. It was a learning process, that’s for sure. It’s about an English woman and partly set in Ireland. I was flummoxed when one Irish publisher said it was too English for them, and an English one said it was too Irish for the English market. Eventually I decided to see what e-publishing was like. Another steep learning curve. What I learned from that is 1) You will never find all of your typos 2) Covers are really important 3) Self promotion is almost as important as writing the best book you possibly can. It is currently available on Amazon and Smashwords and I earn about 13 precious Euro a year from sales.
When did you make the switch to poetry or did you always dabble?
I was put off poetry at school. All that analyzing. What did the poet mean by…well, why didn’t the poet say that then? And pretty well all dead white guys. Nothing to do with my life. At the creative writing course, we were made to write a poem. I wrote a sonnet about my garden shed falling down which made everyone laugh and I was hooked.
What are the main differences between writing prose and poetry?
That’s a tough one. Certainly with poetry, every word counts, and you have to listen to rhythm and sound, rhyme and the like, but the best prose is also written to be read out loud I think. I love listening to audio books, for example. And in flash fiction, those lines are even more blurred.
The way a poem looks on the page, the form of a poem is very important. That’s why poetry in ebooks doesn’t work so well. Prose, fiction in particular, usually has a plot, characters, dialogue, action and a dilemma. Poetry may have some of these but doesn’t need to. Then there is the narrative poem, the oral story was often created as a long poem, think of Homer, Anglo Saxon legends, all passed on in rhyme.
But the best prose and the best poems are all about the love of words and communication of an idea. And that’s what excites me about reading and writing both.
Is it easier to get published as a poet, or more difficult? There seem to be quite a few poetry competitions – but are poetry collections hard to sell?
There are lots of poetry magazines out there, traditional paper based and online, of varying frequency and quality, aimed at different audiences and interested in different types of poetry. So if you choose your magazine carefully, getting a poem published is achievable. Getting a pamphlet or full length collection published is another story – similar to getting a novel published. You have to have a writing CV, a publishing history, competition placements perhaps. You have to choose a publisher that publishes your type of writing. My debut collection, The Space Between, came about as my publisher, Doire Press based in Connemara put out a call for submissions, on Twitter, I think it was. I asked them did they prefer ten poems about love, death or science. They asked for science!
But the audience for poetry, the book buying audience I mean, is much smaller so most poetry presses are dependent on grants and funding from other sources to be able to publish anything at all. The numbers, when you look at them, are scary. So please, please, if you enjoy reading poetry, if you enjoy writing poetry, support the industry and buy a book, buy lots of books and magazines and preferably direct from the publisher, the writer or your local independent bookshop.
Are you still working with an agent?
Not at present. I don’t have a novel to sell and poetry isn’t generally represented by an agent.
How long have you been writing your blog? Do you find it helpful as you write – to interact with other writers and collect your thoughts as you face the ups and downs of a writer’s life?
I’ve been writing www.emergingwriter.blogspot.com since 2007 and for writing.ie since 2011. I kept missing deadlines for submissions and competitions as well as events and I was trying to keep them in an excel file. I thought other writer friends might be interested in the same things so I started keeping them in a blog, mainly for them and for my own organization. It rolled on for there. I’d like to have more time to blog about writing, things that occur to me, that I’ve learned, advice I’ve given or received, but working full time, that just takes time away from the precious amount I have for writing my own poetry and prose. Sometimes I do interviews with writers, and that’s really interesting for me and I get lots of feedback from readers. Much like yourself!
The best interaction these days is at real life events and readings. Get out there and meet other writers, listen to readings and interviews and talk about books with other readers. On top of that is the interaction and support you can get from social media. I have some long term friends on Twitter and Facebook who I have never met and some others who I met in finally in the flesh after a long time. And that’s wonderful to do.
Tell us about the prizes you have been nominated for or won. Are there any that stand out for you in particular?
Just this week I heard that I have a poem selected as Highly Commended by the Forward Prize; it will appear in the Forward Book of Poetry later in the year with some fantastic other poets. That was a real thrill. Other prizes that spring to mind are two short story shortlistings for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and one poetry, a real boost to emerging writers and a lovely event. And I won the Plough Prize for a short poem. I wish I could have attended that prize giving event in Devon.
But competitions are such subjective things once you get to the final shortlist. I once judged a poetry competition myself with two fellow judges and we all independently put our top ten favourites in order and then compared. I thought my list was pretty objective and obvious but the three lists were completely different. Completely! So just because your piece of work hasn’t even placed in one competition, doesn’t mean it won’t go on and win another.
Tell us about the Poetry Divas?
The Poetry Divas are a collective of women poets. We read our own poems at events and festivals all over Ireland, blurring the wobbly boundary between page and stage. We tailor each show to the occasion and audience and aim to give a deliciously infectious show that’s bound to touch a nerve. Events have included Dromineer Literary Festival, Dundalk Book Festival, Electric Picnic, Leonard Cohen festival, Kildare Readers Festival and Allingham Festival.
What inspired it was that I wanted to go to Electric Picnic but the tickets were too expensive so I applied to be a wandering troupe of poets in Body and Soul. And they said yes, what are you called?, so I had to think up a name on the spot.
Divas have a reputation for being temperamental but I prefer the definition that implies glamorous, successful, confident and independent women. Some spoken word and literary events can be unbalanced, not only for gender but also for generation so we like to tip the scales a little. We get a great kick out of performing for audiences who rarely come across poetry and the best feedback is when someone comes up after and says “I don’t like poetry but I like yours.”
What is your writing routine?
I write on the train to and from Maynooth, just sit down and think and write either longhand in pencil in my notebook or tackle some work in progress on my dinky laptop. Then at night or at the weekend, I pull all those scattered words together. I print out versions and edit on the page. I leave a piece of writing to sweat for a while and come back to it with a fresh eye. Luckily I have a terrible memory and it doesn’t take long for me to forget what I wrote.
I take pieces to my writers’ group to read aloud and to get some honest feedback. Sometimes I go to Annaghmakkerig, an artists’ retreat in Monaghan for an intensive week of writing. That’s a wonderful place to take stock, edit, cut cut cut, rewrite.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really. I always carry a notebook and jot down ideas, phrases, overhead dialogue, images, incidents, rhymes, so if I’ve nothing in my head, I leaf through one of those, decipher my terrible handwriting and start from there. If that’s not working, I read.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am working on some science poems. I have a physics degree and have been working in IT for years so inevitably my love and fascination for science shows through in some poems. I would love to collaborate with a visual artist on some of my science ideas, it’s just a matter of finding the time, and the artist. Plus I have a couple of short story stories on the go, which I haven’t had for a while.
I have some readings and workshops coming up in the next few months around the country and I am looking for more opportunities to get out there and promote my book. It’s been a busy few months since it was published.
Where do you write?
On the train on my commute, on the sofa in the evening, in a coffee shop at lunchtime, in a hammock.
The Space Between is published by Doire Press. You can purcase a copy from the Doire Press website
LadyNicci comment: I, like Kate, had a particular idea of poetry, based on my school learnings of the craft. While I did enjoy it at school (thanks to an updated curriculum of Heaney and Emily Dickinson) I had it boxed as something that wasn’t really for me, or that appealed to my literary senses. Fast forward to a trip to Doolin Writer’s Weekend earlier this year and my poetry senses were awakened after a session of live and artful performance. Now – I get it. I think it is possible to straddle both poetry and fiction as a writer, but perhaps, like all art forms, it takes proper dedication and commitment to become truly good at one over the other, which is why Kate has now moved her interest and talent. I think her experience too is a good lesson for fiction writers, having had an agent, and a book on submission, but yet not gotten it over the line in the traditional publishing world. This is the reality we face. I’m inspired by Kate, her blog is great, positive and warm and a honest reflection of what is to be a modern day writer.
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.