The Writing Shed: Emily Cooper on her creative space, her writing routine and everything in between
Irish poet and prose writer Emily Cooper speaks to Sophie Grenham about Greek Mythology, writer's block and her favourite spots in Ramelton, Co Donegal
Emily Cooper’s work has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, Banshee, Hotel, Poetry Ireland Review, Bath Magg. She was a recipient of the 2019 Next Generation Award from the Arts Council of Ireland and took part in the Poetry Ireland Introductions series. In recent years she has been granted residencies by the Arts Councils of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, Greywood Arts in Cork and the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin. She is currently writing a book on solitude as well as a collaborative poetry collection on Picasso’s lovers with Jo Burns.
Glass, Cooper’s debut poetry collection, feels like a vivid hybrid of verse and short stories, each piece a glimpse into people’s lives that carry on long after you’ve finished the last word. You’re always left wanting more in the best possible way. Through her absorbing narrative, Cooper examines the concept of home ownership and the energy that inhabits such a space – when we leave, does it come with us or does it linger? The house in question is a dilapidated pile in Donegal and in this she ponders its previous occupants as well as the rugged landscape beyond its four walls. Glass has received praise from all over the literary community, including Ella Frears who said, “If there is ever bad news, have it delivered to me in an Emily Cooper poem.” One should buy this title for its beautiful presentation alone; royal blue cover with French flaps and playful formatting. Best of all, it fits perfectly into one’s pocket or purse.
Emily Cooper tells me all about life in Donegal, her favourite local haunts, wanderlust, writing residencies and her exciting debut collection.
Currently, I am living in Ramelton in Donegal with my boyfriend, Dean, who is also a writer, and our dog, Lexi, an Irish Water Spaniel who is extremely good looking but not particularly well behaved. My mother has a vintage shop, The Green Door, in the garage so she comes and goes as well. It’s quite an arty little town that has recently burst back into life. We have a fancy new deli (The Blue Goat) and a coffee van (Bambi and Bean), but my favourite place, McDaid’s Wine Bar hasn’t yet reopened. When I first went to the wine bar, it was like stepping out of Donegal and into Paris: International Klein blue paint, a jasmine growing up the wall, roaring fire, the whole place heavily scented with lemon oil and the indescribable owner, James McDaid, at the bar. Heaven on earth.
In my very early childhood I lived in London, though we were often back home with family in Donegal and Belfast so those years are as full of memories swimming in the Atlantic as they are tramping around Bushy and Richmond Park. We moved to Derry in the late 1990s and our family home is an old farmhouse on the border with Donegal. I am the eldest of four and spent a lot of time sitting in the boot of our Volvo estate making faces at the cars behind with my brother. A Woman’s Heart was usually playing from the tape deck. Our father was a great cook, so the kitchen was always full of the smells of his cooking: squid ink pasta, curries, sourdough bread, hake and olive oil chips.
On early reading
Both of my parents read to us growing up, usually things like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, and at some stage, my father decided to read us all of the Greek Myths. On reflection, I think this was an attempt to create better competitors for when we watched University Challenge. To this day my mother will announce, “You will know this” when a Greek question comes up. Unfortunately, I have forgotten almost everything that was read to us, but recently found the original book with an inscription written in my father’s handwriting. “For Emily & Lorcan, to inspire and weave the magic of storytelling in the innocent mind. Fionn & (Madeleine) Maisie may yet hear the stories and be amazed.” You could say it worked!
On Familial Roots
One of the most important things I have gained from my family is the love of anecdotes and stories. None of us in my immediate family can sing or have any particular party tricks, so the gaps on long journeys were filled by my mother’s stories. She can still fill a four-hour car journey with stories prompted by things she passes on the way. She and her sisters were encouraged to travel from a young age so these are often very international stories involving real-world events. This is a wider family trait and I spent many of my early years listening to the stories my grandfather told. He had a stock character, Jimmy Burnt-toes, who would have different adventures according to what was in the news that week. I have inherited this habit and now drive Dean mad recounting family histories every time we go out in the car.
On her creative space
I tend to move around when I’m writing, and because we’re renovating this house my writing spaces have been upturned when work has been done. My most common writing spot is my bed, but for the sake of decency, I will describe to you my current “professional writer” set-up. I’m sitting at a table on the first floor of our house at my grandmother’s dining table which I inherited a couple of years ago, or rather the house did. I keep the padded cover on it at all times because I’m scared to damage it and currently it is wearing a bright orange tablecloth. I enjoy writing here because there are two large sash windows that let the light in and a big fireplace that, while a bit smoky, will come in handy as the cold weather arrives. We haven’t hung any artwork yet, but before the walls were painted they were big marked by where the previous owner had hung her art collection (the art historian Professor Anne Crookshank lived here before us). I like to have flowers everywhere to distract from the mess and have a jug of the last hydrangeas and some unknown weeds from the garden in the middle of the table.
On writer’s block
I have definitely had bouts of writer’s block, but the times I’ve had reader’s block have been much upsetting. I can go for weeks or months without being able to concentrate on a book and with reading being such an important aspect of my work, it feels very frustrating. With writer’s block I tend to fill the time with administrative tasks. So much of my job involves filling in applications and seeking out opportunities. I don’t think that people realise how much admin goes into it. Poetry comes to me in the moment, it is sporadic and unpredictable and I have learned to just trust that more poems are always on their way. I see it as a kind of sloughing off of your life, which is close to saying it is like metaphysical dandruff. It happens very differently to prose (I also write non-fiction), which requires a more sustained focus. Dean is always showing me up by keeping to a regular schedule of writing, sitting at his desk every day. I can only aspire.
On her routine
I am notoriously bad at mornings, but increasingly this is the time that I get the most work done. I wake up – usually later than I intended – and drink a coffee that Dean brings me before he sits down to work. This is my favourite time as I do a bit of reading, some chess puzzles and maybe a session on Duolingo (I’m trying to brush up on my Greek), then I go downstairs to my desk and do some work. Depending on what I have to do, I might write a proposal or work on an essay.
Currently, I’m creating an archive of objects so I might set up a few photographs for reference later. I drink tea during the day and probably something stronger in the evening while I start to cook dinner. I’m a bit of a sloppy dresser in the house so will probably be wearing something loose and comfortable under an Aran jumper or cardigan. When I make notes, I use a mint green Lamy that I have had for years and I recently bought a lemon notebook from Badly Made Books that I am quite pleased with. After dinner, we sit by the fire with Lexi and watch TV or read, depending on how virtuous we are feeling.
On independent bookshops
My favourite bookshop of all time was Bookfinders in Belfast, which sadly no longer exists. When I was studying at Queen’s University, this was where all the poets and writers would meet to have “business meetings” after classes. There were great nights to be had with carryouts at Poetry and Pints and the proprietor, Mary Denver, is one of the best hosts and unwavering supporter of young writers I have ever met. When in Dublin, I love stopping into Books Upstairs. As well as looking at all the newest books, I’ll have a rummage in their basement and upstairs rooms. No Alibis in Belfast is a great place to drop into before a sit in the Botanics or solo pint in Lavery’s.
On her most-read book
I very rarely re-read books. In fact I can’t remember one that I have re-read. I tend to read and move on, sometimes completely forgetting whole books as I go. I feel like there are so many exciting new things to learn and read about that I tend not to look backwards. Saying that, there are definitely books that have left a mark on me. A couple of examples being Aug 9 – Fog by Katherine Scanlan and Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux. I love a short book with a hard punch.
I like to travel a lot. There haven’t been many years in my adult life that I didn’t spend a few months away working somewhere. I have worked in Greece, France, spent a couple of months in a commune type place in Portugal and in 2019 went on a residency to New Delhi. Spending time in new environments is when I feel the most alive, the most myself, so I try to do it as often as possible.
I have been on a couple of residencies in Ireland; I spent a week at Greywood Arts in Cork, a beautiful place with the most dreamy writers’ room and to Cill Rialaig Arts Centre in Kerry with a group of women through the Irish Writers’ Centre. You couldn’t imagine a more dramatic setting than Cill Rialaig: a row of cottages on the coastal cliffs. Bring candles to keep away the ghosts. The best thing about residencies, in my experience, is the conversations you have with other residents. I have made lovely friends and met collaborators while at residencies so I would say they are brilliant if you get the opportunity to go on them.
As first collections tend to be, Glass was quite a long time in the making. I don’t necessarily mean that the poems are all old, more the ideas and styles contained in them have been percolating for years. A lot of the work is centred around my experiences of living in this house, considering the histories of it and the responsibilities you have in restoring an old building (it was built in 1790) and so I see that as being at the centre of the book. I was very lucky that it found a home with Makina Books as Robin the publisher and Patrick the designer put so much care and attention into the development and the production of the finished book. The finished product is a very beautiful object if I do say so myself!
On what’s next
I like to have lots of projects on the go, so there’s always something to be done and something to look forward to. I’ve just finished a collaborative collection with Jo Burns about three of Picasso’s lovers so we’re looking for a home for that. I’ve been working on a non-fiction book for a while that relates to the archive I’m making and Irish women artists, a subject I’m very interested in currently. There are other different projects in the mix and I’m working on my next collection, sloughing off some life for that. Dean and I are heading to Greece for a couple of months this winter for a change of scenery and some research.
Glass (€12.50, Makina Books) is out now.