A LETTERKENNY grand-mother is the Regional Cultural Centre’s first Virtual Artist-in-Residence for 2021.
Denise Blake, a successful poet and writer, has been presenting a selection of her work on the RCC social media channels this week and will continue on to Friday, 22nd.
Denise has broadcast regularly on Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1 (as recently as last Sunday) and her poem, ‘And They All Lived Happily’, was part of Poetry Ireland’s Poetry Day ’19 and a display poster of the poem was carried on the Luas. The poem was also on some English Mock papers in 2019.
A member of Errigal Writers who received an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University through the Poets’ House in Falcarragh, Denise has had two poetry collections, Take a Deep Breath and How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy, published by Summer Palace Press. Her third collection is Invocation by Revival Press
Speaking to the Donegal News this week, Denise said that her writing career to date has been a series of good luck events.
The eldest child of Basil and Eileen McGill, Denise was born in Ohio. The family moved back to Letterkenny in 1970 and her mum, Eileen (McGlinchey), ran a clothes shop on the site where Veritas now stands. Unfortunately, she died in a road traffic accident in December 1972.
“The two of us were going shopping for the shop to Dublin when we skidded on black ice and mum died,” Denise, who was just 14 at the time, recalled.
“When I came to 7th class in National School my spellings were wrong my history was wrong and my geography was also wrong. I had no Irish and I couldn’t sew. My hand-writing was also wrong – I had American style slanted writing which the nuns didn’t like,” she laughed.
While it took Denise some time to come to grips with this new country and its new rules, she soon meet some great classmates – some of whom have remained friends for life – during her time in the Convent.
“School didn’t instill too much confidence in me. There was one lovely nun, Sr Christine, who decided in my fifth year that I should be in the public speaking team. She was the first person who encouraged me to try out new ideas,” she said.
There followed a spell in Cathal Brugha Street and a Hotel and Catering supervision course which led to a job in Letterkenny Hospital as an assistant domestic supervisor.
However, after eldest son Damien was born Denise gave up work to become a full-time mum.
“There was no careers guidance in those days. I had made a poor choice (Cathal Brugha Street) and thought there must be something more to this – to me,” she said.
And with that, Denise enrolled in Magee College, Derry, to do a foundation studies course and so began her writing journey in her thirties.
“Luckily English was part of the course and luckily they were doing Seamus Heaney poems. I had never heard of him before and something triggered inside me and I started to write.
“Initially, I didn’t believe that I could do it,” she recalled.
First published by the Letterkenny Writer’s Group, in their magazine Leitir, Denise soon found herself on Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1.
“I was lucky to get on that so early,” she smiled.
Part of a group who formed the Errigal Writers, Denise started to attend the Poets’ House in Falcarragh from where she graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University/Poets’ House.
“The boys were young but I was still able to go to Falcarragh two days a week. Also, the Newmanns, Joan and Kate, were publishers (Summer Palace Press) and they had a holiday home in Kilcar. I was able to meet them and they published my first two books – the stars aligned for me,” she said.
More recently, Denise had been visiting schools through Poetry Ireland’s ‘Writers in Schools’ Scheme. She’s also working on a booklet for the Library with a group of retired people who are writing about their experiences of Covid.
“I’m amazed how well the booklet has worked out. The workshops have been done via Zoom and maybe it’s the safety of their own home which has allowed them to be more personal in their story-telling,” she said.
Over the past year, poetry has used so often to lift the nation and people’s spirits during dark times. While it wasn’t easy to write anything during these recent times, Denise said in her own experience, nature became very strong.
“You weren’t out watching people as much, you were out looking at nature, and I would have noticed birds around me much more and how they acted and other things I wouldn’t have paid much attention to before.”
Married to Laurence, the couple have three sons Damien, Aiden and Ian. The boys were raised in Covehill, Letterkenny, but Ramelton has been home in more recent times.
“During lockdown we got another timely reminder of how fortunate we all are to live here in Donegal. We’re lucky. Our family are grown up, we’re grand parents and we don’t have some of the worries that other couples face on a daily basis. We’re doing okay.
“Anytime I find myself in a stressful situation I always seem to get another offer to do with writing. It has definitely enriched my life immensely and I’m so grateful to have been asked to this residency.
“I’ve been spending these past few days preparing videos for the RCC to post. It’s never too late to learn new skills.
“I was in my thirties before I started to write so you’re never too old. I’ve always said that the one thing I would love to do is to be able to surf well so who knows,” she laughed.
Follow the RCC’s social media channels to see poetry by Denise Blake, RCC Virtual Artist-in-Residence which continues to Friday, 22nd January.