Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Do you have a particular method of writing?
Each collection seems to tie in with a particular period of five or six years in my life. I have to live a bit, to gather fresh experiences as raw materials for poems. So for example the new work in Groundswell, recently published, has to do with my ongoing preoccupations – landscape that’s both rural and urban, stories from history and modernity, meditations on nature and folklore – but now as well there are poems that dwell on ageing, on art and music, on the sustaining of love over time and on the nourishment that comes from a long-lasting love. These themes have come more and more to the forefront.
I write mainly at night. I enjoy the quietness. The poem often starts with an image, and I build on this and see where it goes. I love the physicality of being in the world. I plunge in. Images come of that sensual engagement, but then there’s narrative as well. If I’m lucky the poem gathers to some kind of earned wisdom or insight. After the rush of the initial draft I have a fair idea whether there’s something worth keeping or not. Then I edit. This job of editing is about as much fun as trying to extract a thistle thorn from your finger with a sewing needle – but crucial if the poem is to have a chance.
How has growing up in Ireland influenced your poetry?
I spent my childhood in rural East Galway in the late 1950s and early 1960s. My father was mad about machines and timber. He had a sawmill and a carpentry workshop where he made all manner of things – hurleys, furniture, cartwheels, farm implements, even coffins at one stage. I loved watching him shaping wood. My mother as well as being a home-maker did much of the farming. Part of the farm consisted of a Callows or wetland meadow, with its own specialised flora and fauna. I skived off there just to avoid work. Both the beauty and solitude grew on me, and influenced my poems, later – I saw nature in its raw state, up close, at first hand. But the skills my father possessed, and the lives of local people who lived round about us, and their colloquial speech, also chimed with me when I began to write.
My grandmother made ballads. Seumas O’Kelly, a relation of my father’s, wrote the highly regarded novella, The Weaver’s Grave. But there were few books in our house. My parents were pragmatic. They worked hard. They loved talk, the oral tradition. I began to write only after I’d moved to Dublin to train as a teacher. The home place and the memories came back to me unsentimentally. I enjoyed the quickness and the freedom of city life, and that also has shaped my poems. I still return to County Galway every so often, to meet my family. It’s the trigger of childhood memories, but when I splice these with later experiences and events from the present the poem happens out of that.
Landscape is sometimes still the spur, but I’m more interested in how we’ve harnessed and transformed it. My own memories, as well as more general notions about the primordial, can work as a starting point, but the poem must catch and connect the old world up with the possibilities of now. That, for me, is the challenge and the excitement. Somebody remarked that you have to keep glancing around and behind you while reading my poems. I like the implication, the ghost lurking in the machine of the poem at any moment liable to jump out.
Are there any particular themes that, as a poet, you feel compelled to write about?
Yes. To do with nature, but not simply as nature poems, more a case of how we impact on the earth and how the earth impacts on us. Groundswell: New and Selected has five sections and these sections have themes in common as well as specific themes of their own. In the first section, The Hidden Village, I address my early life and the lives of my neighbours in Foxhall, the townland where I was born.
In King of the Wood, trees are the compulsion, for themselves and for the myths and folktales associated with them. These are frequently given a modern twist or written at a slant. My father lost his life in a tree-felling accident, and maybe it was a working out of grief at what had happened that brought me to face up to trees, their beauty and their versatility, their panoply of legends and their mystery, and the sense of loss I felt for my father, with his sawmill and workshop and the machines and implements he had put his hand to left behind as a reminder of him.
In The Flowing Bones section I examine aspects of the earth and its creatures at ground level, to find out what makes them tick, and I focus more on city life as well as on the increasing urbanisation of rural Ireland over the past decade or so.
In the fourth section, Fear Bréige, I’m having a lash at the recent economic disasters that befell our country – using as catalyst a rudimentary scarecrow or ‘Fear Bréige’ who finds himself in Dublin, living with some builders and made to serve as an ineffectual witness of the entire boom and bust.
And in Groundswell, the substantial batch of new poems that comprise the fifth section of the book, well… I’ve talked about some of the themes there earlier.
Has your idea of poetry changed since you started writing?
I think poetry – the reading and the writing of it – helps to enrich and develop our consciousness. In my classroom in Ballyfermot when I was a teacher I encouraged the children to write poems in their own language and out of their own experience, for precisely this sense of personal enrichment – not just in terms of vocabulary but because poetry helps expand our ‘creative space’, where alternative possibilities in the way we live our lives can occur to us.
For my own part, each poem is always a beginning, a shot in the dark. It’s a more studied undertaking now, less fun perhaps because I’m trying to ratchet it up in terms of stretching the language as fully as I can, and deepening the layers of meaning or potential meaning, and aiming for beautiful expression always, even when the world the poem confronts is distasteful or unfair or considered ugly. I hope that the ‘argument’ in my poems has caught up with the imagery, that the wonder remains, and that the payoff for the reader is in finding more pleasure, greater reward in reading the poems.
Do you think that the core ingredient of a poem is that it should be read aloud in order to be fully appreciated?
It depends on the poem, I think. Some poems are slow-burn, and need a good mulling over. Others demand the carry of the air. Others still may fit both forms of presentation. People who attend poetry readings often say that the poem read aloud by the poet enables them to appreciate it more. But then, reading poems aloud to an audience is its own knack, one that not every poet can manage effectively.
What do you think constitutes a successful reading?
A big and happy crowd held spellbound by a poet performing at the top of his or her powers?
Are there any other poets to whose work you continually return?
There are several poets I admire, but what I tend to do is return to certain poems which I consider to be great and which I never tire of reading. I admire the way Hopkins mints a language to match his restless search, and the passion of John Donne expressed with tremendous technical excellence. The pure vulnerability of Theodore Roethke appeals to me, his lyricism hitting the spot, taking you there. I met him once, when I was a child. He bought drinks for my father and the other men in John Joe Broderick’s pub in Kilrickle.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Making Way, a novel by Theo Dorgan, and Savage Solitude, a book about the nature of being alone, by Máighréad Medbh. I’m also reading current issues of The Stinging Fly, Poetry Ireland Review and The Shop – but not just because I happen to have poems in them!
Are there any creative mediums that you'd like to pursue that you haven't yet?
Recently I took early retirement from the job of primary school principal in order to devote more time to writing. Memoir interests me. At some stage I’d like to write about my father’s life – spent, as he would have it, “following tractors and various other contraptions”. I’ve had works of fiction for young people published by O’Brien Press, and if or when the poems leave me alone I may go back to that.
Which other contemporary Irish writers do you admire?
I admire far too many contemporary Irish writers to even begin to mention just a few.
Do you often find yourself in the company of other poets? If so, how do you think this might influence your work?
I don’t often meet other poets, except at the occasional book launch or festival. I never discuss my work with them – apart from with my editor, Pat Boran – nor do they discuss their work with me. I do feel that we recognise each other’s struggle, however, and the odd word of praise back or forth for work published does matter, especially from someone whose own work you admire.
Do you think the reading public has any preconceptions about poetry? If so, do you think that they are correct presuppositions?
The poetry reading public is small but passionate about poetry. I really don’t know what presuppositions there may be out there generally or even among poetry followers, but people who attend poetry readings seem well informed about the contemporary scene. What I would hope for are more informed anthologists, some of whom seem led by media perceptions of ‘who matters’ and ‘whose work is important’. I would in common with other poets also welcome more space for reviews and critical attention for poetry.
Do you use the Internet to find new poetry? If so, where do you go?
I go to various sites including that of The Munster Literature Festival and The Irish Literary Times. Naturally I go to the Dedalus Press website for their ‘Poem of the Month’ and to see what’s up. I often use the Internet to locate the work especially of the poets of old, when I can’t find their poems in books, but I still buy a fair amount of poetry books. I’ve a roomful of them, going back over thirty years.
What about some advice for aspiring Irish poets?
Apart from the obvious things such as persevering at the craft and reading the work of proven poets, I’d say follow your own path, but with an open mind and out of an emotional imperative.
What is it about poetry in particular that attracts you as a writer?
Writing poems helps me to stay open to the world. I enjoy the pressure it puts me under, and the pleasure when the poem catches fire. It’s a solitary task and while I tend to be gregarious the solitariness of poem-making draws me in.
As a child looking at nature, I often fell into a trance. People say of the new poems in Groundswell that the wonder is still there. The poems help me come to terms with things, in a sense preserve the experiences and the wonder. Writing poems is for me an affirmation of the world and of my place in it. And the world, for all its faults and failings, deserves to be sung – passionately, beautifully, even in the cracked voice of a poet.
Groundswell: New and Selected Poems is available from Dedalus Press here.