The nature of this pandemic means that every communication is orchestrated over technology - a digital space. This was no different for my interview with Orla. On a Tuesday evening, we had a Zoom meeting to talk about her contributions to Portmanteau Issue 1, and her practices as a writer. There is a lot that we covered that would make this article go on page after page, more than any reader would have the patience to sit through. With this in mind, this is a highlights reel, as it were, of our conversation.
In the next few pages, Orla details her writing process, including her limited editing practices, despite her profession as an editor. We talk about writing in second languages, and writing on digital platforms, in which you will learn the name of her extremely private writing Instagram. Even edited down, this is a long read, so use the hyper-links to jump to the parts that interest you.
If you have any questions about a topic that has come up in this conversation, feel free to post them in a comments section. Let’s continue the discussion, I want to hear your thoughts!
S: Shona Henderson - the marketing and communications person at Portmanteau. I’m on Twitter as @_shonahenderson.
O: Orla Cura - poet and contributor in Portmanteau Issue 1. Orla is on Twitter as @orlacura and her poetry is accessible on Instagram @quote.poetry.endquote.
Introduction + Writing Inspirations
S: Hello, Orla! Can you give us a short introduction, tell us about yourself?
O: Hello, I’m Orla. I’m 24. I am a junior copy editor for a law publisher at the moment. I’ve been writing since I was about fourteen, on and off. But, this is the first time I am sharing it publicly!
S: Nice! Congrats! You’ve already answered part of my second question, but can you remember what inspired you to start writing?
O: Well, I started writing non-fiction when I was about fourteen because a friend’s mum asked me to for a parenting magazine. I wrote a little article about what it was like being home educated for this magazine, and then from that, I found it fun and interesting. I started filling up a lot of diaries, and did it in hard copy, mostly handwriting. My handwriting is terrible, so I can’t read most of it now.
S: I bet it’s fun trying to decipher it.
O: Yes, to go through and I’m sure some archaeologist will find it in a thousand years and be like, “Oh, this teenager was sad…” But, yes, I started writing more, and I started keeping more digital notes probably about five years ago - just so I could have a better catalogue of what was written and when.
S: By digital notes, do you mean like phone notes?
O: Yes, I write everything in Google Keep notes. Then, when I want to play with the shapes and format it nicely I put it in Word properly. Most of the time what I write are just little bits in Keep notes.
S: It’s interesting to hear what platforms different writers write on because I find it useful - as a Samsung user - to use the notes app. I guess it’s because your phone is always on you, so you can just get it out and be like, “This is what I’m thinking.”
S: Though, I think a lot of people prefer paper writing. Do you just not find that useful?
O: I like to go back, and be able to edit what I’ve written. So, often something that I’ve written will be in one note, and then I’ll copy and paste it into a new one, you know, change it around. I find that my writing process, if you can call it that.
S: Of course, you can!
O: Yes, I used to write a lot of little haikus on paper because they are a fun little exercise to get into. I’ll have to start doing that again - I forgot about that!
S: Nice! So, the next logical question is, what writers and/or poets have inspired your writing? Or, what do you just enjoy reading?
O: I got really obsessed with Sappho in my final year of university because I did a presentation on her, so I got really into her. I really like the Anne Carson translations because I’m very basic. They’re really good. The Anne Carson translations in If Not Winter are really good. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Eavan Boland, and her poems on the theme of absence. So, I found her a really big inspiration. I thought she was really cool. And, also Laura Marling - singer/songwriter. I really like her lyrics, and I’d like to be able to do something similar.
S: I’m not super familiar with her name, but I guess you could call me basic when I say a lot of my inspiration comes from Taylor Swift.
O: Well, she’s also a great songwriter and lyricist!
S: But, I understand where you come from. I feel like poetry comes in a lot of forms, songwriting one of them. So, it’s interesting you bring that up.
O: Yes. On that, also, Ian Dury and The Blockheads. His lyrics are fantastic, and so clever in the way that they play with language, and are punchy. That’s another one. You can definitely read the lyrics of his songs and enjoy them as poems - you don’t have to listen to the music. I think that poetry is seen as inaccessible a lot of the time, and a lot of people don’t realise that what they engage with daily in music is a format where language is used in a similar way when used in poetry. I thought that was a really interesting thing to happen. Hopefully, it made some people look into poetry or literature in a way that they haven’t before.
On Sharing Your Writing
S: When did you start submitting to literary magazines? If there is a writer out there that is still hesitant to let others read their work, or hesitant to send it to a literary magazine, what piece of advice would you give them?
O: Portmanteau is the first thing I have submitted poetry to. I would say to anyone who is hesitant about submitting is that you can do it anonymously, if you are not sure you want people in your life to know about it. A huge hanging point for me was, I don’t know if I want people in my life reading about some of the stuff I write about. I know someone will pull up a poem, “like do you want to talk about this,” I don’t know if I want to have those conversations.
S: Well, poetry is how you get it out, so it’s in the poem.
O: Yes, just read it please. Don’t talk about it to me. Death of the author! Death of the Author! But, I think if that’s something that you are worried about, do it anonymously. I’ve been posting poems on my Instagram for about three years now, just on and off. You can do it without anyone knowing that you’re doing it.
S: I’m interested to hear about you posting on Instagram because I think for a lot of people Instagram is quite a public place. How do you do that to be more private about it?
O: I made it as a business account on Instagram. I didn’t follow anyone that I knew in real life. I just kept it totally separate from my personal account. I told my partner, I told a friend - very few people at the beginning. I’ve just left it. I have a bit of a fixation on documenting things and keeping stuff. I like to have a marker of what I was doing in a particular time, so I found that posting on Instagram was helpful.
S: Why did you decide to submit to Portmanteau?
O: I think it’s a really cool project you’re doing. I wanted to be supportive and also, recently I’ve been trying to be more open in my personal life. I’m not sure exactly, but I’m quite reserved about talking about some semi-serious things that have happened, in general. My New Year’s resolution was to try to be more upfront about things. So it was that, and also, putting it out there that this is something I like to do. I worry when I say to people that I write poetry that they then think that I am a fainting damsel writing about her long lost love, or something like that. It’s maybe me being a bit judgemental of what other people are going to think before they’ve even said anything because I have no basis to react this way. I think that it’s never a bad thing for someone to try to express themselves artistically and mess around with language. Usually people tend to like a thing because that thing has an element of universality to it as well. It’s not fair to say that because everyone likes something, it’s terrible. And also, even if something is objectively terrible, does its “quality” actually matter if you are enjoying it? Even if the work is not the most inventive thing in the world, if someone has had fun creating it, and they’ve enjoyed sharing it, what does it really matter if it’s not breaking barriers with language? We’ve got this hustle culture where if you are not doing something for money or because you want to make it your career, then it’s not worth doing. That’s just not true. I hate that mentality, that you’re not allowed to just have a passion project, or that you have to be amazing at something to do it. I think that especially applies to the arts - everyone’s a critic and no one wants to just let people do stuff they think is fun just because they enjoy doing it.
On the Writing and Editing Process
S: Okay, so, what does your writing schedule look like? I guess I’m wondering whether you write more when inspiration strikes, or whether you schedule time specifically for writing to reflect on things that have happened?
O: I really wish that I was one of those people that could sit down and write a thousand words everyday. Multiple times in my life, I’ve tried to do just that. It doesn’t work that way for me. I haven’t written much in lockdown because I haven’t been doing things that I usually do when inspiration strikes like being out travelling and on public transport.
S: Yes - I’ve noticed that is a theme in your poetry.
O: It comes up a lot. It’s annoying because now, if I’m going for a walk with my partner, I drive there. If something occurs to me while I’m driving, I can’t stop and write it down. Where I tend to find things to write about is when I’m on the move.
S: You should take a voice recorder with you!
O: I like to write when I feel anonymous and when you are on public transport, no one cares who you are. No one knows who you are. You’re just another face that at some point will pop up in someone’s dream. You’re no one when you are travelling, which I really like, and why I really like Flights, which is an excellent book. I find that catching someone out of the corner of my eye doing something that reminds me of someone, that reminds me of something else is something I’m more creatively sparked by. There’s a note that I have with four poems that are in terrible Italian that I wrote on the way back from a gig with my partner where someone proposed during the show - it was a Hobo Johnson show. Also, it’s interesting because I know exactly where I was when I wrote that too. I struggle to remember these things, which is why I write stuff down so much. I like having a document of these things to look back on.
S: So, we’ve talked a little bit about editing, and I know some writers dread the editing process, are you one of those writers? How do you approach the editing side of writing?
O: My profession that I’m in is editorial. I spend my day criticising other people’s writing, but I have such a problem editing my own work. Even when I’m writing essays, I can’t draft. The thing that I write is the thing that I submit. I can change little bits here and there and change the order, but I can’t draft seriously. I guess with poems, the editing process is writing little snippets and then, at some point I’ll pull them together to make something bigger. The actual content of them doesn’t change very much though. I don’t love editing my own stuff.
S: It’s hard as an editor to create some space between you and your work to the extent you can be critical of it.
O: I can’t take my own advice here because I absolutely don’t do this, but I wish I could. I wish I could leave something then come back to it later and completely rewrite it rather than just changing the order of complete sentences or stanzas. I think that is useful to say because maybe one day I will be that person.
On Writing in a Non-English Language
S: You mentioned writing in Italian. I know you are part Italian, and part Irish, and that you speak Italian.
S: It’s still better than me! So, does the crossover of different languages ever feature in your writing? I know you’ve titled a poem ‘io scappo’, which I google translate to “I run away.” What’s the experience of having multiple languages to write in?
O: It’s interesting. The literal translation of that word is “I escape” or “I’m escaping,” but it’s something I heard one of my colleagues use in Italy. She said it at the end of the day when she was leaving the staff room. It was like the way we would go in English, “I’m out of here.” It has lots of different connotations. It has a lot of different connotations to people reading it and translating it who don’t have an experience of the language. I thought that encapsulates what poetry is for - it’s about your own interpretation, and what you feel, and what you think the author felt, and what you take from it. I found using Italian sometimes an interesting exercise in trying to stoke my second language, but also being aware that I am not using it the way that a native speaker would. I don’t have the cultural understanding of using a word as a call back to something you’d say as a child, or a common saying, or quote from a popular TV show et cetera. I don’t have that. That’s a fun thing for me to play with as someone who is from a second/third generation immigrant family. It’s a connection, but also a disconnection from your roots.
S: It’s interesting that you bring up how you’d use language differently to a native speaker. Maybe language in a way is more accessible when you are more aware of your use of it, like when you access a second language.
O: It is odd because if you speak a language as a second language, you’ll never have the same understanding of it as someone who only speaks that language. In a way it’s a never ending puzzle - you’ll never fully grasp the whole complexity of everything unless you’ve grown up speaking it. It’s interesting to try, nonetheless.
S: Do you think there are any drawbacks from writing in a non-English language when you know the majority of your readers will probably be English language readers? I guess this harks to your opinions on translations too.
O: I know that I write Italian like an English speaker. I feel like I’m writing more for myself rather than writing for any audience. So, I feel like peppering Italian in my writing for my own amusement is more important to me. It would be potentially different if I was willing to promote my writing more, or if this was my career, it might be different. But, I write for myself more than anything.
S: You’ve said before it’s your connection to your heritage, or background, so it’s for you!
O: It’s something Eavan Boland does with Irish. She puts it in just as a word here or there, and it’s a nice little reminder of her expertise on the subject.
On the Theme of Invisibility and Other Social Influences
We’ve already discussed this a little bit, but you are very drawn to the theme of invisibility, or the speaker’s need to feel invisible in ‘23/07/2020’. Can you elaborate on this recurring theme of invisibility?
O: I really enjoy feeling anonymous. I really like not being answerable to anything or anyone and just going with the flow, and being part of something else, and knowing no one is noticing me. I really enjoy that feeling. I think this is me psycho-analysing myself a little bit here. When I was growing up, a lot of the time people would call me weird. Even people who my friends would call me weird. That really annoyed me when I was a child because what is weird? Compared to what? It’s all arbitrary. There is no norm, there’s no weird, people are just people. This need to put people in boxes is of being alt or being mainstream, it really annoyed me. I think that I like just melting into a situation under which no one has that judgement of me. I don’t like being aware that people think like that, so I like feeling totally anonymous.
S: Yes - when you’re seeing that person in the crowd you are only getting their outside shell, you don’t know who they are as a person. That makes a lot of sense.
O: It’s cool to see what people put out into the world. You can tell what someone thinks is valuable by how someone presents themselves. It’s interesting to perceive those differences, but it’s when someone makes a value judgement about those things that I start getting itchy.
S: Most of your poetry is centred around a speaker, and the world going on around them, and often there are social issues that are hinted at. You write about being seen by CCTV. So, how do you think social and political events that go on in the world around you have influenced your writing?
O: I think, what we’ve just talked about - being anonymous - is really hard to achieve as a woman. I still do this thing, where I leave bits about, so that if I do go missing, someone can track where I was. I think it’s something a lot of women do, and it’s as simple as walking along a street that is more lit than another one. We all do that. I don’t think that’s something that occurs to men at all. Or when it does, it occurs to men in a different context than it would for a woman. All of my poems are very much about me. I don’t really adopt another voice in my poems. What I put on my Instagram, or what I’ve submitted to Portmanteau is very much my voice, and what I’ve been through, what I do, and things that I feel.
S: So, very autobiographical.
O: Yes, definitely. It’s not fictional.
On Snacks and Hydration
S: The final question is more a fun question. What is your go to writing snack and beverage. I eat a lot when I’m writing, so just like to hear other people’s choice of snack, if I’m being honest.
O: I like Fizzy Cables - the strawberry or cola ones. Or, crisps of any variety. I like salt, so savoury, and I like sour things. That’s what I tend to go for. Drink-wise - I’ll be very boring and say that I’m trying to be more hydrated, so water. I have a little app on my phone that guilt trips me into drinking more water. It’s really passive aggressive. I’ll get a little notification saying, “I’m concerned about you.”
S: Oh okay, me too… I’m concerned about myself too! Get in line. But, if you didn’t have to pick water… tea or coffee? That’s the standard question.
O: Oh, coffee. I drink a lot of coffee and then I get very fast but not productive. Then, I have to calm down. So, coffee. Also, I like red wine.
S: I mean, who doesn’t. Actually, I don’t. I don’t know why I said that…
Where to Find Orla Online
S: There are a lot of your poems we didn’t even mention. I think we talked a fair bit about some poems that aren’t even in the issue.
O: But, they are on my Instagram! It’s @quote.poetry.endquote on Instagram.
S: I’m going to go follow you right now. I’m your number one fan now, as you know.