Living with a love of poetry
Poetry seems to come to Fidel Hogan Walsh when she needs it most. Originally from Dublin, the Bailieborough poet is set to launch her debut collection ‘Living with Love’.
When she started writing back in 2014, 2015, she initially kept her hobby to herself. When she finally revealed it to loved ones, her son Jack recalled: “But Ma, you always wrote poetry”.
His assertion was a pleasant surprise to Fidel. He reminded her that when he was a young child she kept a series of journals about what was going on in their lives. They were only intended for Jack, now 27, to read.
“Your life changes completely,” she says of having a child. “It’s not you any more. There’s someone more important than you.”
She adds: “I just wrote to him every day because I felt if I was to die, he wouldn’t get to know me. He wouldn’t get to know the woman I am.”
While Fidel was eager to keep the reasons behind this morbid motivation to herself, she just alludes to “an awful lot happened”.
Reflecting on the jotters now, it occurs to Fidel that she was a latent writer, and there were elements of poetry in the entries. Moreover they were deeply personal and honest, a trait that distinguishes Living With Love.
She assures that it didn’t cover the mundane, but nor was it entirely serious. They always signed off with a burst of verse.
“Some of it would have been whimsy, I remember one of them being: I’ll always be your dragon slayer until you’re big enough to fight your own demons or dragons, for want of a better word,” she paraphrases.
She ceased writing them, when Jack was four or five and “the fear had gone”. But a stack of journals were kept to read whenever he chose “because they were for him, and they were not for anyone else”.
Whatever trials Fidel endured, it passed, as did the decades before she began writing again. Moreover the way Fidel relates the story, the poems came pouring out of her with an insistence that seemed unstoppable.
Healthwise, Fidel has endured much hardship with very severe arthritis from an early age. She was just 23 when had her first hip replacement.
“I now have what they call bone scarring. There’s hardly any of them left - I’ve had to have someone donate bone to me, they’ve had to grow the bone,” says Fidel.
She reluctantly acknowledges it’s been a “massive” factor in her life.
“I’ve had so many [operations] that I’ve just had to get over them. I’m not trying to make it sound blasé, I’m really not, it’s fairly difficult when you’re going through it, but anyway.
“I was even told not to have a child. Imagine being told that. Anyway, in the end I did. And the proudest thing I ever did was carry that baby for eight and a half months in my own body.
“I’m that type of a person that there’s always a way around everything. ‘No’ should never be the final word. There should never just be: “No, I can’t do it,” There should be a way around, well if I go that way around it or if I look at it differently I’ll get where I want. Even if it’s not fully what I want, only partially, but will make me happy - so that’s how my life is. This is the bright spark. The positivity.”
It was that spark which ignited her poetry when in 2014 she had another health scare, separate from arthritis. “I actually thought there was something wrong with me, I actually said it to one of my friends: I wonder if I have a tumour. I had had a problem with my eyesight - I couldn’t see.”
Brain scans galore, diagnosis and contrary diagnosis suggested different things, but ultimately she got the all clear.
The Celt jokes the scans revealed she was a poet: “No, migraine,” she says, almost apologetically of the affliction which sufferers can attest is no laughing matter when they strike. Sure it’s cause for celebration. But in the midst of her worries, it was then that the bright spark appeared: “It was the saving grace because I didn’t get bent out of shape, I started to write - out of nowhere.
“It just started to come out. Seriously! Words were coming out of my mouth.”
Initially she shared her work anonymously on Twitter, as she admits, “When you’re doing something you want to show it off”. She photographed the poems rather than being restricted to the character count, and buoyed by the support of the online poetry community she found favourable audiences.
With support from her editor Suella Holland, she relies on family and friends for honest feedback. Her ex-husband, John Walsh, with whom she remains very close, is another good barometer. Her son received a first in his degree in literature, which she laughingly accepts is a “very handy” person to have for feedback.
“I would have said to them straight out: what do you think – don’t lie to me. I know Jack would want to hurt my feelings and say ‘That’s shite Ma’, but he would have went, ‘Maybe not that one’.”
The poems continued to present themselves on and off for a few years, before the dreaded writers’ block appeared. She had to have “serious surgery” - bone replacements in March 2018, which required a committed rehabilitation regime.
“The horror of all of that was I wasn’t allowed to walk for six weeks and I didn’t know if Id be able to walk again,” she says.
Almost two years later she uses a stick to walk. She persecuted herself that this time of rehab, confined to a bed or chair, should have been a time to lean on her crutch of poetry.
“I tried [to write]. And nothing. Nothing!
Though “still very fragile” and aided by two crutches, she joined her sister and niece on a sun holiday in the south of Spain. A curious incident on the beach helped Fidel to rediscover her poetry mojo.
Back writing, Fidel along with a friend, Sally Ann Duffy decided to set up Bailieborough Creative Arts Hub to encourage people to explore their artistic side, and to give encouragement to each other. The Hub gave huge impetus to her work. It culminated in Poetry Town – the Hub’s contribution to Poetry Day Ireland celebrations last May when Bailieborough town was festooned in literary decorations, and immersed in verse. An open mic event outside the old post office gave Fidel a chance to air her work in public for the very first time.
“I was a nervous wreck,” she recalls. “I don’t look like I suffer from being nervous, everyone thinks I’m super confident - I am and I amn’t. I portray that I am, but like everyone else, I have a beating heart.”
Poetry Town also introduced her to young Dublin performance poet Lizzie Byrne. Upon reading Fidel’s work Lizzie invited her up to be a feature poet at the ‘Intercollective’ event in the International Bar, in Dublin’s Wicklow St.
For support she was joined by her “love tribe”, as she calls her friends and family.
“It was just packed - the atmosphere was electric,” she recalls of the intimate venue. “I’ll be 60 this April, and I don’t think about age usually - I really don’t, but Jesus there was a lot of young people in the room, a lot of young performers and they were really hip.”
She had to endure an age of negatively comparing her own work to a stream of young poets sharing their poems, before she took to the stage.
“I can not remember very much of what went on on that stage. I couldn’t see anything, but when I came down [compeer] Joe [Byrne] said to me: ‘You were absolutely incredible’.
“Ever since that I haven’t looked back,” she says. “It’s from there came the idea of the book.”
Living With Love is divided into five sections: ‘Crazy, Mad Love’, ‘Real Love’, ‘Dark and Chilling Obsessions’, ‘Sex and Lust’, and finally, ‘Death’.
“I’m really really proud of what’s in that,” she said, nodding to the collection before us.
“Poetry for me is for everyone,” she contends, adding: “Everybody should be given the chance – everyone should be given the chance to get it out there, okay if it’s not great you are going to know it’s not great, but why stop?
“I suppose that’s what mine is about – poetry is for everyone – I think it’s meant to be. I’m probably not the brightest bunny in the box, but I have life experiences that are different – completely different. I’ve lived lots of different lives at this stage.”
And each of those lives, as this collection displays, has been shared with love.
Fidel will launch Living with Love in Bailieborough Courthouse on Saturday, February 8 at 8pm. She will also sign copies at Eason Cavan on Saturday, February 8 from 11am-1pm.