Colette Bryce, 2018 Heimbold Chair
Award-winning Derry Poet
Colette Bryce holds the Charles A. Heimbold Jr., Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University for the spring 2018 semester. Born and raised in Derry in Northern Ireland, poet Colette Bryce did not explicitly identify as an Irish writer in 1988 when she moved to England as a student. She then remained in London while beginning her career as a poet. As she says in a 2013 interview with former Heimbold Chair, Conor O’Callaghan, “At that time, being Irish in London didn’t seem important, and I didn’t think of myself in relation to the Irish tradition at all. Poetry belonged to the now and the future.” Bryce then adds, “of course, that would change in the years to come,” just as Bryce had already adapted to change in her career path. In a 2002 interview with John Brown in 2002, she notes, “Being a poet was never an option. Being a teacher, or anything with a secure salary, was the ultimate goal.” She has succeeded in both teaching and writing brilliant poetry.
In 1995, she received the Eric Gregory Award for emerging poets and in spent a year teaching in Madrid. In 2000 her first volume of poems, The Heel of Bernadette (2000) won the Aldeburg prize and the first Strong Award for emerging poets. From 2002-2005, she had a fellowship at Dundee University, and the title poem of her second volume of poems, The Full Indian Rope Trick (2004) won a first prize in the UK National Poetry Competition. She served as Poetry Editor for the prestigious Poetry London and her third and fourth volumes, Self-Portrait in the Dark (2008) and The Whole & Rain-domed Universe (2014) have met critical praise, and in 2010 she won the Cholmondeley Award for poetry. Her most recent publication, Selected Poems (2017), demonstrates the achievement and mastery of Bryce and recently received a special commendation from the Poetry Book Society.
She has served as the North East Literary Fellow at the universities of Newcastle and Durham, as well as holding fellowships at the University of Manchester and the University of Notre Dame. Throughout all, poetry has been her guide, as she told O’Callaghan, “I see poetry as a faithful kind of art, and I think faith in love, the idea of love as a solution, can be the thing that guides us.” Bryce spent her early years in Derry “liv[ing] and learn[ing] the strange mix of the religious, the historical, the political, and the day to day” (Brown). In a recent interview with Susan Haigh, she described her childhood as a “collective experience,” and relatively normal, though existing in “a very abnormal kind of society to grow up in.” Bryce does not consider her poetry to be especially political, but notes the “strange mix” that animates her poetry: “[p]oems chart their own water . . . I wouldn’t say that I attempt to engage with Irish politics through my work, it’s not what I’m after [yet] it’s impossible to separate the political from the historical, the social and the moral.” Events like the “Troubles” do feature in poems such as “Break” and “Hit Shite and it Flies High,” but as Bryce explains, the Troubles “are part of my landscape. I don’t have a conscious wish to avoid them or to comment on them through my work, but if they turn up in a poem I’ll let them in....I find it difficult to sit down and intentionally approach a ‘subject’ in poetry.” Bryce’s voice observes the world around her and the world inside her. The poem “Break” begins with what seems to be a view of the wartime—“Soldier boy, dark and tall, sat for a rest / on Crumlish’s wall”—but as the poem advances, the speaker moves away from a documentary perspective and asks to punch a bulletproof vest, and look through both the eye of both the soldier and the scope of the gun. When the poem ends, the scene has dissolved into the everyday. Thus while the political can appear in her poetry, it feels just as Bryce describes it—as having just turned up to the poem.
Bryce consistently weaves political history in Northern Ireland, her identity as a gay female writer, and her childhood. From her first collection, The Heel of Bernadette, in 2000, Bryce’s speaker underscores a mother’s religious zeal in “Itch,” juxtaposing a sweetly whispering Jesus who “lives / deep in the ditch of my mother’s ear,” with the voice of the speaker wanting her ear, “I believe sometimes she cannot hear / for the whispering like wishes / of Jesus softly breathing there.” A sense of quiet observance reigns throughout her poetry, and makes her love poems sensuous observations of body and landscape. In “Gallery” (from The Full Indian Rope Trick), Bryce’s speaker is praises a lover who “showed me the red earth / breaking under lightning” and in “Tense,” they lie “streamed in each other, breath in breath.” Her appreciation of her native land is mingled with sober takes. In “When I Land in Northern Ireland” (Self-Portrait in the Dark) the speaker longs for cigarette smoke and a drink in a bar where “everyone smokes and talks about the land, / the talk about the land, our spoiled inheritance.” Such reflections always feels personal and invested, as Bryce says in an interview with Alex Pryce, “I think a poem is no good if it doesn’t have an emotional truth [ . . . ] I’d like to fly the flag for content because as human beings we are interested in each other’s lives, and the world. That’s why we read.” Indeed, it seems writing emotional truths is her mainstay.
In reviewing Selected Poems for the New Statesman, Paul Batchelor writes that Bryce, “[n]ever showy, always watchful…return[s] to the parts of personal and political life that hurt.” Of “A Spider,” Batchelor writes that “the poem’s allegorical charge lies not so much in its content as in the way it compels the reader to vocalise the mixture of hesitancy and inevitability by which it proceeds.” Another former Heimbold Chair John McAuliffe, for The Irish Times, adds that Bryce’s Selected Poems “elaborates a richly detailed and contemporary picture of the worlds she has observed, and into which, or out of which, she has disappeared [ . . . ] The emotional punch of the poems is when we see their speakers register again and again that tension between invisibility and exposure.” Bryce’s keen attention to voice, observation, and description of the human experience is clearly visible in Selected Poems.
Recently, Bryce taught at Trinity College in spring 2017 at the Oscar Wilde Centre, as Irish Writer Fellow. She is currently working on new poems, and hopes to make some new work during her time with the Center for Irish Studies at Villanova University.