Poet Sinead Morrissey tells of her travels to Russia with love

Following a hectic year as Belfast's first Poet Laureate, Sinead Morrissey has embarked on three-week visit to Moscow during which she will publicly discuss her work, meet Russian poets and explore her strong family connection to the old Soviet Union. David Roy spoke to Sinead prior to her trip of a lifetime

Poet Sinead Morrissey
Poet Sinead Morrissey

"THE Russians were always 'the good guys' to my family - we saw the Cold War from a completely different perspective to most people here."

This is Co Armagh-born poet Sinead Morrissey's recollection of growing up in a Communist Party-affiliated household in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 80s.

Sinead's Falls Road-born father Mike met her mother Hazel, who hails from Sheffield, at a Communist Party meeting in Belfast in 1968, while her grandfather Sean was an executive member of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland. Both men actually spent time in the Soviet Union on a number of different occasions during the 70s and 80s.

With her 2013 TS Eliot Award-winning collection Parallax featuring several poems inspired by a fascination with the former Soviet Union, now Sinead (42) is finally experiencing 'the motherland' which so influenced her early life and contemporary work for herself.

The former Belfast poet laureate is currently on a British Council and Arts Council of Northern Ireland-funded trip to Moscow, a packed three-week programme of poetry readings, talks and tours as part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture.

It will also include a visit to the International School of Revolution in Moscow for a look through their archives on communism in Ireland, plus excursions to the homes and graves of the great Russian poets of the 1920s and 30s who have influenced her writing.

"I can't read Russian but I've read a lot in translation," Sinead told me just before she was due to set off.

"In fact, I originally read Mayakovsky translated into Scots by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan, which was fantastic - really, really amazing.

"I've also read other poets like Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova and Mandelstam. I'm reading Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman at the moment and I've read a lot of Russian history too."

Sinead's Moscow trip comes in the wake of a hectic year as Belfast's first Poet Laureate, during which she also maintained her position as Reader in Creative Writing at QUB's Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry.

The Russian visit  offers a unique opportunity to investigate her family's long association with the politics and culture of the former Soviet Union.

Poignantly, her grandfather Sean and grandmother Catherine first visited the Soviet Union 50 years ago this month.

"My grandfather was invited over for four weeks in August 1964, all expenses paid, by the Communist Party of The Soviet Union," she explained.

"They visited Moscow, Leningrad and Sochi on The Black Sea and were basically shown a marvellous time."

Sean, who turned 93 last week, returned to Moscow again in the 1970s and also visited Soviet-occupied Kabul during the following decade.

Needless to say, he was extremely pleased to hear that his grand-daughter would be keeping a family tradition alive.

"He's very excited that I'm going," the Whitehead-based poet told me. "I think he wishes he could come with me."

Until this week, Sinead's father, Mike, was the last family member to have set foot on Russian soil, during the summer of 1989. The west Belfast man actually left the Communist Party soon afterwards, having witnessed first-hand the ever-widening gap between ideology and reality.

With Sinead's mother having already broken from the party over disagreement with "particular policies to do with Northern Ireland", this effectively ended the family's longstanding connection to communism.

However, nothing prepared them for the seismic changes ahead, as the poet revealed.

"I remember the Communist Party Christmas Bazaar around 1988 or so, when a Soviet representative from The Kremlin spoke at [Belfast pub] The Duke of York afterwards.

"I remember really clearly that I was incredibly excited to meet him and hear what he had to say.

"Even at that late point we really didn't have very many doubts about the future.

"So I have become very fascinated by Russia, particularly the social experiment that was the Soviet Union.

"The fact it ended as abruptly and completely as it did after having seemed so strong, monolithic and permanent for so long. "I mean it's finished - that whole world is gone. It absolutely no longer exists."

The sudden end of a globally ambitious regime which presented itself as an idyllic alternative to Western democracy and capitalism while inflicting terrible damage on its people has been a recurring inspiration for Sinead's poetry, as she explained.

"As a child, I had this idea that the Soviet Union was actually our future, that it was this kind of advanced society," she told me.

"Then you read Orlando Figes's A Cultural History of Russia, which explains that it was actually incredibly dark from its inception and that a lot of what went on even before Stalin's time was unspeakable.

"I've been very interested in exploring those tensions in my work."

Sinead's favourite Russian-inspired poem from Parallax is a sonnet titled Puzzle, about The Moscow Puzzles, a unique collection of 'verbal reasoning'-styled mathematical problems published in the Soviet Union during the 1950s and available in translation via Penguin.

"It's brilliant," enthused Sinead, "because they give you this incredibly difficult mathematical problem to work out in your head, but they also tell you how to be an ideal Soviet citizen.

"They're fascinating. I was really struck by this book and the insights it offered into how the Soviet Union worked in the 1950s and what people were like.

"The first eight lines of my sonnet are one of the mathematical problems and then the next six feature a series of defunct imagery."

Of course, there's a rather different regime in place in today's Russia - yet apparently Sinead wasn't nervous about the Morrissey clan visiting Vladimir Putin's Russia.

"No I'm not, actually," she said. "I probably should be, but I don't feel nervous. "Although people do respond really differently when I tell them about

the trip. Some of them are like, 'wow, that's amazing', and some of them are like 'What? Really? Now?' "I think it will be fine. We're going under the aegis of the British Council and I think that makes a big difference."

Although Sinead's schedule was still being finalised when we spoke, already the poet was bracing herself for a hit-the-ground-running kind of a trip involving several public readings and discussions of Parallax.

The British Council will also be helping the northern poet gain access to the Federal Archives building, which houses and preserves extensive state records of the communist era.

"That's really going to a big preoccupation for me while I'm over there - it's a major part of the trip," she said.

"It's going to be very interesting for me to find out if there are any documents or files on members of my family."

With her engagement-packed year as Belfast's first ever poet laureate having ended in May (a successor has yet to be announced), Sinead is now looking forward to spending more time with her children as well as doing some new writing - though she jokes that the visit to Moscow might finally put an end to her Russian-inspired work.

"I've kept on writing about Russia," Sinead told me, "maybe when I've actually been, I'll stop."