Describing herself as a hyper-sensitive person, poet Victoria Kennefick lays herself bare in her debut poetry collection, Eat or We Both Starve. The native of Shanagarry, Co Cork, now living in Tralee where she teaches English and history at second level, writes on a range of themes. These include eating disorders, sex, the female body, and coming-of-age in Catholic Ireland.
However, she baulks at the description of her poetry as ‘confessional’. “It’s a difficult term. I’m a huge fan of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton who would have been called confessional poets. Of course, in my writing there is self-examination but it’s a conceit. What I’ve written isn’t exactly what happened but yes, there are autobiographical elements. I can see the merits of the term ‘confessional’ but it can be used to be quite dismissive of women writers.”
Kennefick says poetry has saved her life. “I would be quite a distractible person. Poetry allows me to focus in a way that nothing else does. It allows me work through things even if a poem isn’t about what I’m experiencing. It’s just that it brings so much clarity and meaning. It keeps me connected to do something bigger than myself. It’s almost a spiritual practice really.”
There is much about food and more specifically, meat, in Kennefick’s collection. In a poem entitled (M)Eat, she writes: “Holding my mother’s hand in the English Market/I saw them – turkey chandeliers, plucked/Bruised purple eyelids dainty light bulbs./Their smell, fresh as the insides of my mouth./”
Until Kennefick was six years of age, she was an enthusiastic carnivore. “I loved meat. I have memories of having liver for breakfast and memories of sucking the marrow out of chop bones. I must have been very dreamy or with the fairies because I hadn’t made the connection that meat was from animals until I was six. My mother pointed out the lambs gambolling next door. She said that soon, they would be on our plates. I was horrified and absolutely crestfallen. For me, that was the moment when I suddenly realised what I thought life was, wasn’t the case.”
Kennefick became a child vegetarian, although her mother, worried about her daughter’s diet, put disguised meat into some of her meals. Kennefick wondered why nobody talked about the slaughtering of animals for food.
“A lot of what I write about is what people don’t talk about. I think our consumption of meat represents something problematic about elements of the human character. Yet it is something that is part of the natural world and the food chain.”
However, what Kennefick objects to is “the quantities of meat that people gorge on.”
Kennefick developed an eating disorder in her twenties. It was around the time that her father became ill with cancer.
“When he died, I suppose I felt so unbelievably out of control. The whole world was out of control. I became really anxious about food. I almost associated it with death. I would watch food going off. Even the lovely apples that are picked off the trees are dying. I was very connected to mortality.
“It wasn’t logical obviously. But I was very controlled and uncomfortable around food. It’s complicated and different for different people. It was extreme for me in terms of how much weight I lost so quickly. I was so rigid. It was my way of coping.”
Asked how she overcame her problems with food, Kennefick says moving to Kerry, starting work as a secondary school teacher and getting married all contributed to her recovery. “I had lost my connection with the real world. I had been living in a kind of limbo because my dad was in and out of hospital for eight years.”
Kennefick had completed a doctorate and was looking for post-doctoral work. But she says teaching secondary school students gave her stability.
“Just having colleagues and support and friendships, it was kind of like re-entering the world. It was like emerging from this very dark place. And Kerry is so beautiful. A lot of it was just being there. Having a structure was a big thing for me. Just really simple things that might not work for everybody.”
- Eat or We Both Starve is published by Carcanet Press