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Grasshopper Warbler by Mark Roper

Mark Roper. Dedalus Press

Poet Mark Roper ventures out along Waterford’s Anne River, hoping for a sighting, or hearing, of the grasshopper warbler

A GRASSHOPPER WARBLER is a small, inconspicuous, secretive bird, which likes to spend its time deep inside tangled vegetation, often near to water. Rarely seen, it’s known mostly by its song, a thin continuous trill or whirr, which sounds a bit like the slightly mechanical unreeling of a fishing line, rather than the ‘ticking’ of the grasshopper for which it was named. The trill can last, unchanging, for many minutes; as the bird moves its head from side to side, the volume can alter, and the song, uncannily, can appear to be coming from different directions.

You can hear examples of it here:
https://xeno-canto.org/species/Locustella-naevia

The warbler spends its winters among grassland at the southern edge of the Sahara. It comes here for spring and summer, and can be heard chiefly in the early morning and quite late at night. I had only ever heard the song on recordings, but in May I was told it could be heard in the Anne Valley, where a beautiful walk has been developed which follows the Anne River as it meanders through marshland, on its way to the coast in Annestown, on the Waterford coast.

I set out one evening with my partner Jane. For a long time we heard nothing, except of course for the mutterings of the river and all the other mysterious noises of a riverbank night. Then Jane said she could hear something which sounded right. “Is that it?” she asked me. I couldn’t hear anything. “That’s it, that’s it, listen, listen”, she kept exclaiming. Still I couldn’t hear anything. I began to get annoyed, and even to doubt that she was actually hearing anything at all. Of course I was really getting angry with myself, not wanting to admit to myself that I am beginning to be a bit deaf. And I was jealous, resenting the fact that she could hear it when I couldn’t.

Grasshopper warbler. Image credit: Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

I know that I can no longer hear high-pitched calls. But this trill is a mid-range sound. I had no difficulty hearing it on recordings. In the end I did hear a few small snatches, but never in the continuous way that Jane had heard it. A few weeks later I was relating the story to my brother-in-law, a much better ornithologist than me. He told me that surveys over the last years, around where he lives, in Rothbury, Northumberland, had revealed a sharp decline in the numbers of grasshopper warblers. This decline went against the national norm, and so was a bit of a puzzle. After a while, the person in charge of the surveys suddenly had a thought about the age profile of the volunteers doing the survey. They were all in their sixties and seventies. He decided to send out younger volunteers the next year; sure enough, there were many more birds heard! Although the sound is mid-range, for some reason it is one which older people can struggle to hear.

This made me laugh, and made me feel a bit better about my own experience. As I began to stop thinking about that evening as having been a bit of a failure, so I began to recollect the smells and sights and sounds of that walk by the river, the particular, rich texture of the evening. I started to sense a poem in the making.

I soon realized that description wouldn’t be enough – something had to happen.
I like Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s observation: “You go into a space and something has to have changed by the time you come out of it. I think that is sort of a description of a poem.” There has to be that change, however modest it may be.

Or, there has to be some kind of balance, or tension, between description and emotion. I was aware that I had shut myself off from a full appreciation of that evening, because I had been too focused at first on wanting to hear the song, and then had been too annoyed with myself for not being able to hear it. What began to develop in the poem was a dramatized rebuke to myself. Who from? Well, from the ‘god of all things’, of course! I had never heard of this fellow before, but now s/he made an appearance and was soon taking me to task.

How much we miss because of our unpredictable moods, how they take us over! We have our wonderful set of senses for the appreciation of this most wonderful world, and at least half the time our heads might as well be stuck in buckets. And yet, even though my head had been stuck in a bucket, the god told me I had in fact taken a lot in. It had been a special, shared walk.

Grasshopper Warbler

Walking beside a river at dusk.
Shadows starting to merge
the alder and the willow tree.

Stealthing the rushes, a moon –
a pale face breaking up
and breaking up again

in whorls and whims of current.
The silvery plip of a fish.
Comings and goings in reeds.

At last it unreeled itself,
the song we had come for –
a warbler’s grasshoppery whirr.

Only I couldn’t hear it.
Jane had to hear it for me.
And the world got that bit smaller.

The god of all things laughed.
So you couldn’t hear a song.
Tell me, where are you now?

Walking by the Anne river.
And tell me, what’s it like there?
Dark is round us like a glove,

reeds are creaking in their sleep,
we can taste the scent of water.
Tell me more. Bats are on the wing –

their half-seen threads seem
to draw the stars together.
And where would you rather be?

Nowhere else but here, my lord,
nowhere else but here.

— Mark Roper, January 2023

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Poetry Affair by Polina Cosgrave

Polina Cosgrave

Russian-born Irish-based poet Polina Cosgrave on the poetry affair, or the heady attractions and transformative power of an engagement with poetry

POETRY HAPPENS in isolation. It is taken like a drug, when nobody sees. You meet poetry like a lover. In a hide-out, invisible to the entire world, unreachable for the general public. It could be your first rendezvous, all sorts of magic anticipated. You are craving to find the real meaning behind their words. Is this a game? What are the rules for interacting with this work of art? How do you prepare as a reader to get the most out of it? Decipher the message addressed to you and you only? This ‘date’ will most certainly reveal some truth about you, that one indisputable fact concealed from everyone, yourself included. A poem may take you to a different destination, a place you didn’t know existed in you, or even somewhere you’d rather not go. But can you stop yourself now, after the candles are lit and the curtains are closed? 

There is a secret urgency about this passionate exchange, and, if you do it right, the collision of your mind with the words typed in another time and locality will culminate in the birth of something blazing and unfathomable. A new state of consciousness, perhaps. If both, the poem and the reader are ready for this transformative union. 

Yet, not every lover will stay with us for long. It is your favourite poetry that continues to haunt you through the years. In my second life in Ireland I have encountered masterpieces that enrich me and reconnect me to my acquired individuality, arising from switching my thinking and writing in the English language. You’ll recognise your darlings the second you touch them. Yes, I’m talking about that feeling in your stomach, those omnipresent butterflies of infatuation, the familiar yet never-seen-before allure. You will repeatedly come back to those poems to discover more precious layers. The works capable of evoking this much feeling are often about you and me both, regardless of our identities.

Some of my very first Irish romances are ‘A Man is Only as Good’ by Pat Boran (see graphic) and ‘Endangered Species’ by Eamon Grennan – probably, because children and animals as the central image represent the essence of existence. And when you’re lost in translation and a foreign culture, you need to check your reflection in the mirror continuously: is this still me? Do I exist? Or is this someone else living and breathing instead of me? As a result, you attempt to examine your reactions to the most crucial, the key experience – your relationship with the vulnerable and the vital. Kids and dogs.

These two poems bring back what I struggle to find at times — my humanity, the belonging to my kind, and they do so without ruining the loneliness we often forget to honour. They point to where my heart used to be in the broken system of modernity, and lead me away from its shards to the point zero, the common origin, where our super powers – the warmth and the observance – dwell, where neither social status nor nationality matters.

These poems’ significance, and the reason they take me where I long to be, is that despite their universality they do not make you look away from the abyss between us and the nature; these two texts actualise and own the otherness as opposed to running from it. We are locked in some form of perceptive contact with the core of the poem (a dog, a child), yet we leave them in their special place, and we respect the position we are put in as well. To be there fully, unapologetically, and still admire the distance. It’s a beautiful dance of imagination, this kind of poetry is built with the dark matter of dreams and true love for artistic creativity.

What’s more, I am attracted to them, because I cannot write like that, and I desperately need someone to formulate these realities for me, to invite me in, to open the door into the sanctuary of literature. That one door I will manage to enter through. And via this act of reading synonymous with communion, I can even be an accomplice to the author by sharing their vision, potentially becoming a part of their art for a split second. There are lovers that complete you, the ones that show you what you couldn’t see without their help. Watch out, because they might demand the same back. And if your gratitude is powerful enough, you will respond in kind to keep the balance.

Poetry happens in ringing silence. It is given like a goodbye kiss that will leave the lovers forever hungry for more. You make a decision to encounter another self. You chip away the too familiar bits of your psyche to dig deeper, to reach the flaming centre of your poem and get burned. It doesn’t mean you are ready to embrace that new person you are about to become. But you are already there to set them free. 

Sometimes it is the excess of life that serves as a poetic impulse, sometimes the lack of it forces you to write away. Whether it is to avoid the emotional collapse or to rejoice in its cleansing fires, you do it again. On your own. Well, almost. You, that poem you are about to call to being, and potentially a few other poems you have been carrying within for months. With a reader in mind, you continue. Maybe they haven’t been born yet, but their likely future perspective has already had an influence on you. Or maybe they are long dead; however, you keep talking to them. To that mental structure you regard as your addressee. Fantasies are a necessity for this tricky business.

Yes, this kiss might be a forbidden one, and this affair will ruin the old you and the habitual predictability you hold dear in order for you to meet somebody else already ripening inside your soul. The other you. The one kinder, stronger, more understanding. Yearning to connect. Line by line you keep shocking yourself. You definitely took this too far. But can you stop yourself now, after the wine is drunk and the buttons are loosened?

The walls will be demolished, the worlds will be exchanged and the pain of creation will be faced. How far can you go with it? Is there a limit to this feeling, is it reciprocated at all? Your poem will bring you the answer, if you just shut up and let it undress you and cut you open. Not every lover is your friend. But each of them knows something you don’t. All you have to do is listen.

Poetry, always in solitude. The most intimate, most personal exploration tool. In seclusion. The antidote to mob mentality. In silence. Natural like breathing. What if I told you that one day you will find the lover you will be willing to share your last breath with? To engage with poetry is to keep looking.  

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The Crane, Foreword by Liu Xun

Liu Xun introduces The Crane, Selected Poems of Yau Noi (Dedalus Press, 2022), translated by Liu Xun and Harry Clifton

Chinese literature has always been almost too immense to talk about, for myself or for many lecturers working in institutions outside of China. It’s a literature that has witnessed more than five thousand years of social, political, as well as historical change. If a lecturer chooses to lecture on the subject, what must be included on the syllabus? Mythology, classical poetry from ancient times to the 1900s, essays by literates of all dynasties, vernacular novels, modern poetry, contemporary novels? Fortunately, the present project offered a clearer path, as there is no need to scope out such immensity but only to focus on four decades of time.

That said, to offer some context on modern Chinese poetry, I would like to elaborate on its historical evolution and how it relates to classical Chinese poetry, that is poetry written in Classical Chinese and typified by certain traditional forms and genres. As modern Chinese poetry was part of the language evolution, I will begin with a brief introduction to classical Chinese poetry. Classical Chinese poetry is traditional Chinese poetry written in Classical Chinese and typified by certain traditional forms and genres. The existence of classical Chinese poetry can be traced back to 1100 BC, which can be documented by the publication of Shi Jing (Classic of Poetry). Over the ages, various forms and genres have been adopted. Today, the most well-known forms are Han Fu, Tang Shi, and Song Ci (folk ballads, romantic poetry, and poems intended for singing, respectively). Modern Chinese poetry, including new poetry or modern vernacular poetry, mostly refers to post Qing Dynasty poetry. Modern Chinese poetry became increasingly popular with the New Culture and 4th May movements. As an alternative to the traditional poetry written in classical Chinese, experimental poetic styles and ‘free verse’ were adopted by many poets.

On one hand, four decades of time counts as nothing in the grand history of Chinese literature. On the other, four decades can be incredibly important to the story of modern Chinese literature. During these four decades, not only was a country’s destiny reshaped but also millions of destinies were totally redirected. Our poet Yau Noi was one of those millions.

Yau Noi, also known as Wa Lan (a former pseudonym) comes from a small village in Jiangsu Province, Southern China. He was born in 1965; his birthplace, a farm in Linhai, was several hours’ bike ride from the nearest bus station. During his years in junior high school, he fell in love with poetry and excelled in Chinese; the school principal encouraged him to represent his county by participating in the national writing contest. However, this did not change his fate. After graduating from high school, Yau Noi, like all his classmates, was not admitted to a university. Instead, he returned to Linhai and began to help his father to support the family by working on the family farm. He contracted 13 acres of rice fields and raised 8 black pigs. He picked two large buckets of pig food and walked a mile and a half to feed the pigs every day. Despite the exhausting and repetitive labour, he did not give up his dream of becoming a poet and read eagerly anything that could be accessed from an isolated farm. Under heavy manual labour, he was not giving up his dream to become a poet. He was eager to read anything that could be accessed from an isolated farm.

In 1984, Yau Noi finally had the opportunity to escape from farm life to work in a county town. In 1985, he read ‘the Misty poets’ (*1) for the first time. Drawn by the fascinating world of poetry, he decided to quit his job to write. Later that year, Yau Noi went to Beijing. In Beijing, he joined the circle of poets and met Xuedi, Xing Tian, and Wei Mang, the main members of the ‘Yuanmingyuan Poetry Society’ (*2). His encounters with the Beijing poets during this period had a profound impact on him.

In terms of poetic content and aesthetic tendency, Yau Noi’s poetry preserves the temperament of ‘Misty Poetry’, as well as the seeking of an ideal world. He also claims that he has been deeply influenced by Paul Celan. It was Celan who encouraged him to draw strength and poetic inspiration from suffering. This influence can be seen when we read his poetry recalling his childhood memories, especially from the lines talking about freezing winters and deformed body parts. Besides, from Celan’s introduction, Yau Noi became interested in ‘Russian poetry from the Silver Age’ (*3).  He once revealed his love for Osip Mandelstam. After leaving Beijing, Yau Noi met Cheng Shang in Nanjing. Under the influence of Cheng Shang, his poetry gradually developed a surrealist style, as we read nowadays.

For myself, I did not directly witness those great changes. When taking on this poetry translation, I felt I had to travel back with our poet to the winters of rural China, then to the exciting years in Beijing of the ’80s and after, following a solo cosmopolitan wanderer to explore his world.

I often worked late into the night. Yau Noi is a poet of the emotions, but always grounded or earthed in his work. We have divided the poems of The Crane into three sections which, loosely, follow the three main ‘movements’ of the poet’s writing life, ‘Before’, ‘During’ and ‘After’, the ‘During’ section inspired by and describing the profound changes that took place in China during the poet’s early years. For me, the intensity of the emotions evoked was almost beyond my experience, especially in the poems from his early period. The three periods together describe a journey from ‘the unbearable heaviness of being’ to ‘the unbearable lightness of being.’ From the perspective of Yau Noi, life can be as suffocating as the dense wintery fogs or as light as the cooking fumes above a heated pan.

In this sense, for me Yau Noi’s The Crane is a history book. I was not so much a translator of words as a storyteller charged with retelling history for a new generation. I am obliged to my co-translator Harry Clifton for his help in ensuring that these stories are well retold.

FOOTNOTES
1. The Misty Poets (Ménglóng Shīrén) are a group of 20th-century Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions on art in the 1970s. They are so named as their works were officially denounced as “obscure”, “misty”, or “hazy”.
2. Yuanmingyuan Poetry Society, a modern poetry society founded in 1984, Beijing.
3. The Silver Age of Russian poetry is an artistic period, it dates from late 19th century to the 1920s. It implies a wide range of poets, genres, and literary styles. It was an exceptionally creative period in the history of Russian poetry.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATORS

LIU XUN is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree in linguistics at Trinity College Dublin; her research mainly looks at cognitive metaphors in Chinese vernacular novels of the 18th century. She is a freelance literary and academic translator in her free time. Her interests lie in Chinese modern poetry and academic publication on Chinese classical literature. Xun is also engaged in giving public lectures about Chinese vernacular novels and the literary history of the High-Qing period.

HARRY CLIFTON is one of the best-known of his generation of Irish poets. The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974–2004 was published in 2014, and Ireland and its Elsewheres, his lectures as Ireland Professor of Poetry, in 2015. More recently, he has published Portobello Sonnets (2016) and Herod’s Dispensations (2019). He teaches at Trinity College Dublin and is a member of Aosdána, the affiliation of creative artists in Ireland.

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Romance Options, The Introduction

Leeanne Quinn and Joseph Woods introduce Romance Options: Love Poems for Today, their life- and love-affirming anthology of new Irish love poems, published by Dedalus Press in 2022

WHEN WE WERE INVITED by Dedalus Press last autumn to take on the task of editing an Ireland-based anthology of contemporary love poetry, there was a resounding ‘Yes’ from both of us. Frank Ormsby’s The Long Embrace: Twentieth Century Irish Love Poems initially came to mind when first thinking about extant love poetry from Ireland. Published some thirty-five years ago it features an expansive selection of love poems ranging from Yeats to Ní Chuilleanáin. While still a fine selection, we wondered what had changed in the intervening years in terms of love and its expression in poetic form. We wondered also to what extent contemporary poets were still writing about love? In a time of social and political upheaval, and environmental crisis, was there still a space for romantic love in contemporary poetry? And, if so, what did this space look like? It was time to look at one of poetry’s most established themes with fresh eyes, to see what 21st century poetry would make of love amidst the landmark changes that have taken place over the past few decades.

The most obvious change to Irish society in recent years has been the continued separation of church and state, the move to a society that no longer polices the romantic and intimate lives of its citizens. While Ireland is still recovering from the trauma of this policing, the changes we’ve seen in recent years, from the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015 to the successful repealing of the eight amendment in the referendum of 2018, confirm the extent to which our bodies and our intimate lives are becoming just that: our bodies, our intimate lives. Coinciding with these political changes are the enormous changes witnessed in terms of the prevalence of technology and social media in our daily lives. The ways in which we seek out love are intimately tied to the ways in which we now communicate socially.

***

This anthology was compiled via an open call that itself served two main purposes. We hoped that an open call would be precisely that – an attempt to democratise the often opaque and exclusionary world of poetry anthologies. The decision not to draw upon the extant love poetry of the Irish canon was thus a deliberate one: an open call of this kind appeals to the here and now, and creates a snapshot of the response of contemporary poets to one of the oldest themes. The considerable response to the call – from new, emerging, and established poets alike – suggests that any doubts about the validity of romantic love as an adequate and pressing subject for poetry today were unfounded. Poets are still writing about love. Lover and beloved still very much traverse the lines of the contemporary poem.

***

The poems in this anthology, in their diversity and range, show us what love in the 21st century is and can be about. The anthology’s title was inspired by poems from two of our contributors, Eva Griffin and Mícheál McCann. Both poems are titled ‘Romance Option’ and carry dedications to the other’s author. The poems take place in non-tangible landscapes, in virtual gaming environments where romance and intimacy still follow established real-world patterns of quest and pursuit. There’s a vulnerability to the poems, as longing and desire persist in solitude, and the term ‘Romance Option’ comes to suggest something of the complex economics of love and intimate relationships in today’s society. We loved the idea of two poets speaking to each other across the anthology. We pluralised the term not only to expand upon its original context, but to convey the multiplicity of experience reflected in these pages.

While we want the poems here to speak for themselves, taken together they present a cross-section of the core concerns of the 21st century love poem, with poems of desire, of the body, of compromise, of satisfaction, of dissatisfaction. The poems here speak of language, its adequacies and inadequacies as a medium for the expression of love. They speak of loss and gain, of joy, of celebration. They speak of community, of identity. They speak of the past, of the present, and of the future. In short, these poems speak of love, and, in these challenging times for so many, in defence of love.

— LQ & JW

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Ars Poetica by Patrick Cotter

Patrick Cotter

In a wide-ranging and thought-provoking ars poetica, poet, editor and festival director Patrick Cotter answers our occasional 7 questions on poetry.

Your poems are noted for their marked lack of sentimentality. Is poetry devoid of sentimentality merely a mark of emotional coldness?

Emotion-free poetry is the truest test of a reader’s capacity for empathy. A good reader can generate their own emotional responses to another’s existential predicament. A good reader can respond with feelings not predicated by supplied emotions in the text.

Fast emotion is as insubstantial as fast food or fast fashion. Sentimentality is unearned emotion and sentimental poetry contains emotions that come preprocessed and prepackaged.

Just as with about every other kind of commodity, there is a demand for prepackaging and preprocessing in poems, the prepackaging and preprocessing of emotions and ideas – as distinct from the kind of poem which provokes the reader to generate their own emotions, their own ideas. Too many poems are easily consumed and digested without effort – a phenomenon not necessarily connected to a poem’s comprehensibility, but to its incapacity to challenge (to surprise, I want my poems to surprise) the reader’s world view or emotional comfort zone, even if that comfort zone is built on a foundation of reassuring, reflexive, discomfort – such as that catered for by the misery porn constantly filling the hours on talk radio. Tolstoy was wrong to imply that all unhappiness is original and uncliched. Verse reeking and dripping with sentiment caters to this market, a market sustained by consumers with no capacity for Theory of Mind, who are not interested in learning of the lives of others, where those lives do not automatically reflect the inner life of the reader themselves.

Paul Celan’s ‘Espenbaum’ was a crucial early lesson for me in Ars Poetica. I first came across it in a poetry workshop given by John F. Deane for schoolkids circa 1980. In this poem Celan recounts his mother’s death without portraying directly the state of his own heart or mind in reaction to his loss. A sentimental treatment of this subject matter would not be about the mother’s dying but about the son’s self-pity. A self-pitying reader would find satisfaction in these prepackaged, preprocessed feelings. But that satisfaction would be as fleeting as that provided by a Big Mac.

An evolved reader receives more from a poem which describes the mother’s death in such a way that challenges the reader to imagine the undeclared feelings of the grieving son – it requires a more creative action of reading. The poem free of sentimentality avoids dictating an emotional response, rather, it provokes or evokes an emotional response, it is less manipulative. It is disengaged from the co-dependent mind, even if, occasionally, its subject matter is the co-dependent mind.`

You subscribe to the ‘no ideas but in things’ school of thought. Is this why there is so little presentation of argument in your poems?

Likewise ideas can come prepackaged and preprocessed. The successful poem of ideas is successful in spite of its ballast of ideas. If ideas have any true currency they can be conveyed in any form – an essay, a newspaper column, a radio documentary – as you like it. Ideas do not make a poem – language does, imagination does. The poem of ideas seeks to dictate the intellectual experience and response of the reader. The poem of ‘things’ prompts polyvalent intellectual responses. It facilitates creativity in the mind of the reader. It prompts original, individuated ideas in the mind of a skilful reader. The problem with most poetry of ideas is that the ideas are jejune, unoriginal, received, whose circulation is prompted by narcissism on the part of the author. Most poetry of ideas stems from the conscious part of the brain, the egotistic part of consciousness that gets by on, figuratively, 15mb of RAM, rather than the terabyte of experience and emotion stored in the brain’s (the mind’s, for those who believe in that outdated dichotomy) deeper reaches. Only the subconscious has access to those reaches.

By presenting the opportunity for polyvalent thinking, the poem of things, rather than ideas, can prompt different new ideas each time the same reader approaches it. The poem of things can be ambiguous. We know the best art is ambiguous, open to many interpretations – some artists aim to fake ambiguity through obtuseness, hermeticism. They never succeed. Sometimes true artists appear obtuse, hermetic. But they are not. Their mode of expression has been pushed beyond limits in pursuit of the truth, beyond the current limits of a given reader’s capacity to comprehend. But accumulated experience in life, in reading, eventually opens a reader’s mind to such comprehension.

An aesthetical pursual of this idea, of this argument, against ideas, against arguments in poetry has led me to conclude that content, in poetry, is a conveyance for form. But, acknowledging that content is a mere conveyance for form in poetry is not a recipe for treating content casually as a substance of no importance. On the contrary, content must have substance to adequately convey form. Content fails to convey form when it strays into abstraction and/or when content fails to acknowledge that it is encapsulated in form and that form is the medium by which artistic accomplishment is measured. Poetry fails when content is overprioritised to the detriment of sensitivity to language. Poetry fails when the content is so banal, inane or bathetic (which is not to say that the banal, inane or bathetic cannot be knowing subject matter for functioning content) that it fails to compel the reader to consume the form, no matter how successfully sonic effects might be executed.

Some philologists and philosophers may disagree, but I believe (a Jungian, trans-generational belief) that in the formulation of language, abstract nouns were preceded by their associated/associative adjectives. ‘Beautiful’ preceded ‘beauty’. The concept of beauty could not have been formulated without prior observation of the beautiful thing.  This is why in the first instance there is no idea but in things. Abstract language may be essential in philosophical or scientific treatises, but no treatise ever constituted art. The text you are reading now is not a poem, although various visual art school theorists would claim all one has to do to make a poem, is to assert an object is a poem. You can effortlessly guess what I think of that argument.

People who treat poems as repositories for treatises are mortal enemies of poetry, especially those masquerading as literary critics. Sociologists, historians and AgitProp merchants who have mined various poems for information do great damage to poetry by elevating in importance, useful-information-laden verses above more artistically accomplished poems which fail to serve their purposes. One could say they make a useful idiot of the poem, in the political science meaning of that term.

There is an old Creative Writing adage – do not describe the branch of the tree, describe the shadow thrown by the branch – just so with ideas – do not describe the idea, describe the situational set-up where the idea may arise – thus contributing to the creative potential for a reader in their encounter with a text. If a reader can generate no ideas of their own by reading of a situational set-up, then they will be the sort of individual incapable of generating original ideas in life. An exemplary poem for simply illustrating this point is Miroslav Holub’s deservedly, oft anthologised, ‘The Fly’ (in George Theiner’s translation). Nowhere in the poem do you find arguments or statements to the effect that ‘life is cheap and ephemeral’ or that ‘war is vainglorious and cruel’, but nevertheless those are ideas (which you are left free to agree or disagree with) impossible to come away without, after a reading of this poem, which consists of a simple narrative constructed on a light scaffolding of listed things.

Photography is a major presence in Sonic White Poise – you reference specific photographs by Frank Espada and Bill Brandt, and the names of cameras and other photographers crop up throughout the collection. What is it about photography that interests you as a poet? Do you think there is something that connects photography and poetry as forms or practices?

Most of the photographers who prompt many of my poems I do not acknowledge to the reader. I believe the reader should retain the right to approach those photographs (if they ever come across them) and view them without their interpretations being influenced by my own. In referring directly to Bill Brandt’s East End Girl Dances the Lambeth Walk, 1939, I am involved in something additional, I am not simply recording a narrative prompted by the engagement of my subconscious with the photograph, I am giving a record of my act of thinking about that photograph – the process of that thought, which is distinct from the thought itself. I examined Brandt’s photograph (not for the first occasion) at a time when Syrian refugees flooded (a deluge which engulfed no one, no matter what xenophobes might claim) across Europe, as German Jews had done in the years, months before Brandt’s photograph was shot (Brandt, himself, if not exactly a refugee was at the very least a pressured German immigrant to the UK). These Germans had fled to a space which was subsequently bombed by the people they fled from. They jumped from one fire to another, lit by the same taper. I was imagining our contemporary space – to where Syrians were fleeing – as a place awaiting its own impending conflagration. The poem must suggest these ideas, not declare them as unbendable facts.

Most of the poems I write which are prompted by photographs contain narratives not necessarily imagined or intended by their photographer. A picture can speak a thousand words – so the old shibboleth goes – but I believe, not all thousand words at once and not always the same words at different times. A photograph can speak 200 words when you view it one day, 500 words more when you view it another day and so on. Wait some years until you view it again and you may find it says something completely different to you, as it would to a different person sitting alongside.

I don’t agree with John Berger’s confederacy of accomplices and collaborators way of approaching an image. I saw a filmed exchange between Berger and Jean Mohr in 1988 where Berger in the self-rightous tone of J’accuse, said: “You are completely wrong. Look again!”  Berger’s Way of Seeing merely proposes an alternative orthodoxy – an orthodoxy in contention with opposing, more reactionary, hierarchical orthodoxies, but a new orthodoxy all the same, where Berger’s programmatic way of looking imposes a particular interpretation on subsequent viewers, an interpretation informed still by received ideas.

I say abandon all preconceived ways of looking, Berger’s or anyone else’s. Surrender the image to your subconscious. There will still be an element of preconception which stems from your own experience of being in the world, but it will be a unique experience born of your own uniqueness as a living, feeling, thinking entity. It is only your subconscious which is unique. Your conscious self is forged (as a bank note is forged, not as a sword is forged) by received opinions, programmatic education, inculcation by control freaks and power mongers. Even a palimpsestic mess of unrelated inculcations, imposed on the calculations of your prefrontal cortex, is still just a forgery of a true self. A writer’s so-called voice is just their subconscious revealing what it knows. Sometimes writers of true genius, in spite of themselves, unknowingly allow their subconscious to leak out between their elegantly regurgitated received ideas. They think their appeal and genius is manifested in the elegance of their regurgitations, but, of course, they are mistaken. As I have said, the successful poem of ideas is successful in spite of its ballast of ideas. Rather than speak further here about my creative interaction with photographs I would direct a reader to this earlier article:

http://poetrysociety.org.uk/publications-section/the-poetry-review/behind-the-poem/cotter/

And in this article I relate how my contemplation of a certain work of Leni Riefenstahl’s was one of the starting points for my poem ‘Dinka’:

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/white-privilege-i-am-a-refugee-fleeing-the-mindsets-of-the-20th-century-1.4489876

Ghost housemates, a peacat (a peahen-cat hybrid), literate dogs and an array of other surreal elements appear in Sonic White Poise. What compels you to write about the absurd and the surreal? What can surrealist poems do that other poems can’t?

Surrealism is the perfect vehicle for individuated truth because it circumvents Social Realism which is the main vehicle for received ideas and the imposed interpretation of reality used by Capitalism, Authoritarianism and groupthinkers to reinforce conformity and intellectual serfdom. Prevailing power structures and displacing new power structures cannot be maintained without conformity. Power structures limit the parameters of thought with Social Realism. The word ‘absurd’ needs to be reclaimed by individuated dissenters the way ‘queer’ has been by the LGBTQIA community, the way the ’N’ word has been reclaimed by people of sub-Saharan descent.

The absurd is not a corruption or distortion of reality. It is not a defective perception of reality, it is a valid, dissenting presentation of reality, of the truth which contravenes the dictatorship of groupthink. It works against the chimera of change created when one variety of groupthink is displaced by a different variety of groupthink. It does this by provoking an individuated intellectual and emotional response untainted by received ideas and fast emotion. An individuated response allows space for nuance, for self-truth, for constantly-changing and adjusting self-truth informed by personal experience and the subconscious. This is why great art has different things to say to you at different times of your life.

 Surrealism/Absurdism is a way for an author to convey one’s truth without ramming it down a reader’s throat. A poet should be authoritative in voice – not authoritative in statement. Authoritative statement (in art) is for mansplainers (of whatever gender) and individuals who believe in imposing their views on others or imbibing their beliefs from others. There is a qualitative difference between opinionated facts and truth, one which many reactionaries (of left, right or centre) refuse to recognise. They are driven to apoplexy at the mere suggestion of its existence. Such people dismiss surrealism and the absurd as mere whimsy, in spite of the fact that almost all cultures began by conveying their truth through myth and folklore steeped in absurdity and the surreal.
Poets under the boot of the imperialist experiment of the Soviet block learnt to write aslant to the reported, mitigated, official version of reality; not just to elude detection of their dissidence, but to defy the authorities’ demands for clear as glass communication, constrained within certain ideological parameters. To write work which was polyvalent in meaning (nuanced, as most of the absurd is) was to deny the imposed ‘facts’ of the oppressors, without seeking to impose an alternate orthodoxy. 

There are many schools of surrealism, the way there are many schools of socialism and just as the best socialisms are pragmatic and undogmatic, adjustable and non-prescriptive, so too are the best surrealisms not constrained by formalised manifestos like Surrealism with a capital ‘S’ is.

As both a poet and an editor of a literary journal (Southword), do you think that engaging with journals and magazines, through publication and/or subscription, is an important part of being a poet today? How valuable are journals in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work?

Essential to learning how to write well is to read well. Poetry journals come in all shapes and sizes with different aims, ambitions and aesthetic stances. There are established journals of national importance such as Poetry, Poetry Review and Poetry Ireland Review which are recognised as journals of record, ready to publish established acknowledged masters alongside mid-career and promising or accomplished emerging poets. They reflect the development of poetry in a nation over time and can inform canonical-attempting instruments such as anthologies. Poetry journals are a way for commissioning editors and festival curators to become aware of many new voices. As a festival curator it is impossible for me to buy and read every collection that comes out, especially foreign (American, Canadian, British) collections. I’m grateful as a curator and reader of poetry to have had the chance to discover curated, new voices through the pages of Poetry, the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, but also through many provincial journals. Arguably, any city large enough to have a major art gallery ought to be home to a literary journal. Such institutions present major names, remotely located accomplished artists, with locally located accomplished artists. Crucial to the individual development of an artist is the Anxiety of Influence. By following closely the achievements of peers and fellow denizens and desiring to match or exceed their accomplishment one can become a better artist oneself.  There are always those poets who are content to spend the whole of their creative lives waddling around the paddling pools of ‘starter’ poetry journals. Such journals are essential in the literary eco-sphere. One needs affirmation at all stages of our career and to be published in such outlets during one’s apprenticeship can be essential to receiving the succour required to persist. But ultimately one should push oneself to graduate to swim in the more demanding open seas. There are so many poetry journals no one individual can claim to be blocked in their advancement by a particular editor. The most freedom exists in writing in the English language, there are so many journals in so many places. Even in a world which can be swept by the demands of emerging ideologies, or which you may believe to be constrained by gatekeepers, in the Anglosphere there are enough journals with independently-minded editors to provide a home for all kinds of accomplished work various in intent and aesthetics. I’m grateful to the many editors who have rejected my work. On most occasions, I’ve learnt that the poems needed further work, pushing me to develop my craft, making me the better poet I am today than ten and twenty years ago. A poem I had published in the London Review of Books had been rejected in a rawer form, by the same editorial team three months before they accepted it.

On that note, how do you know when a poem is finished, and how can you tell when it works?

The most crucial lesson I learnt (as a writer) by judging competitions and editing journals is that most work sent out into the world is unfinished. A poem steaming towards accomplishment is often derailed by a clunkily sounding line, an unintended cliché or a bathetic turn of thought. Bathos can be banished only by maturity and the constraining of narcissism. Clichés are like constantly invading lice that keep coming and need to be caught and squashed by constant vigilance. One thing for poets to be aware of is that cliches are formed of not just well-worn locutions but of the combination of a noun with its expected verb. Must that dog ‘bark’? Must that liquid ‘drip’? If they must they better be doing something else unexpected as well. What can pass as non-cliché in prose can count as dead language in poetry. In a poem language must be made new. A major challenge is to make the new believable or truth-sounding. And if the sound is not working rarely is the sense. A poem lax in sound is almost always lax in thought. When I was a young writer I thought the ‘well-made poem’ was an instrument of conspiracy wielded by a patriarchal establishment seeking to exclude everyone else from their club. It is hard to accept that one is not yet accomplished in one’s craft. There are many accomplished poems which do not qualify as ‘well-made poems’ but they are much harder to write because it is so difficult to judge if you have written one from your own subjective viewpoint.

Subjectivity is not such a problem if one aims to write sonically effective lines. I find a poem is finished when I can no longer change the sound of a poem. I find writing poems in regular stanzas and rhythms helps to hunt down the word or syllable which is disrupting the sound. If one has an aesthetic preference for meandering lines, uneven stanzas, one can always reset the lines after one has hunted down and replaced the individual clunking words while drafting in regular stanzas. But I still manage occasionally to send out poems which are not quite finished. As the poem is waiting in its submittable queue or desktop slushpile for the editor to get around to it, I’ve found myself making more and more edits to it. It helps to wait months and years for a poem to settle but most of us are in too much of a rush for that.

If you had one piece of advice to give to young or beginning poets, what would it be?

I actually have two pieces of advice.

Be careful how you wield ambition. The supreme ambition should be to write a brilliant poem, but paradoxically the initial stepping-stone is to begin the writing process without ambition, because ambition breeds judgement. Judgement will kill the proverbial baby at birth. Judgement will create performance anxiety which causes writer’s block. One should begin to write the poem without expectation or judgement, one should begin in a state of play. What you write might be unusable, unfinishable, not worth finishing. But to judge something as unusable at the beginning kills creativity.  At a certain stage of the writing, on certain occasions a viable poem will begin to present itself. A poem which works, proves itself working as an organic whole in need of revision, a poem with a promise to interest other readers beside yourself. At that stage ambition and judgement should kick in, the ambition to finish a brilliant poem, using judgement to eliminate cliché, cacophony and bathos. One generates writing without ambition but one revises with ambition. Remember the ambition should be to complete the brilliant poem. The ambition to be a writer in residence, to set oneself up as a workshop leader, to be a social media-star, can lead one away from the path of being a writer of brilliant poems. Such ambitions are sirens with real power to lead us onto the rocks, because it is a sad truth that many curators and gatekeepers do not actually read the poems of the poets they work with – they choose poets by hype, they give awards to poets they know, they reward poets who share their political or religious ideals. But the poems of such writers have no staying power. Do you want quickly achieved, transitory, temporal renown or do you want to write a poem which will be still readable a century from now? The choice is yours.

When I was a young writer I believed that I had to become experienced in life for life to inspire me to good work. But most of us lead unremarkable, humdrum lives, the account of which others would find tremendously tedious. I would wish a tragic, ‘interesting’ life on nobody. Everyone deserves to have the comfort of a settled, trouble-free existence. Tragedy finds us out anyway but we should never seek out tragedy for ourselves or others, especially just to write about. A young writer should not wait for life to inspire them, they should practice generative exercises. Such exercises might generate publishable material only ten per cent of the time. But that results in far more poems than twiddling one’s thumbs waiting for life to provide inspiration. I fully subscribe to Picasso’s statement: “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.”

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Leeanne Quinn’s Some Lives

Circling the Subject: Leeanne Quinn’s second collection of poems, Some Lives, introduced by Aoife Lynch

Leeanne Quinn’s second collection, is a rich and generous exploration of how poetry is made and how it makes meaning. Simultaneously intimate and outward-looking, Some Lives celebrates the collaborative and open-ended nature of art. In this collection, Quinn takes on some of the giants of 20th century Russian poetry: Anna Akhmatova, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva. These writers, whose work has become shorthand for the power and agency of art, prompt Quinn to ask: what about here? And now? In a time of personal crisis or stasis, can poetry still be effective? And what are the implications and limits of connecting these very different lives and circumstances?

Some Lives is characterised by a paradoxical sense of simultaneous stasis and movement. It’s Quinn’s impressive use of repetition that enables her to balance these oppositional states so expertly. The subtle but significant adjustments which occur throughout the collection are brought about by Quinn’s use of repetition as a source of both sameness and difference. The collection is structured around metamorphosing repetitions, with rhyme, alliteration, and recurring phrases enacting subtle transformations.

Several poems circle back on themselves, repeating words and phrases.

The opening poem, “September”, begins in sibilance: “Wasps, then rain. Below, streets clear / to a silent siren. Some citizens scatter, / others stand looking upwards.” This poem’s sibilance, and its heavily accented style, slow the reader’s pace so that the movement of leaves “beginning to fall” at the end of the poem seems particularly significant, despite the slightness of their movement.

Several poems circle back on themselves, repeating words and phrases. “Precedence” does this particularly well. Quinn creates a stasis in constant movement through her insistent repetitions:

in the city where the trams still
run and we greet each other
with smiles and greet each other
with smiles while the trams still

run …

However, “Precedence” ends with the observation that even “where nothing // appears to move it is moving”. Even in a poem where stasis and motion are one and the same, Quinn indicates that change is constant.

Moving towards the later poems in the collection, Quinn creates a sense of physical and emotional stagnation that cannot be alleviated. In “Any Weather”, the movement “from one room / to another” that opens the poem begins a process of compression – what Quinn calls a “reducing / down of myself to negatives”. Poems become letters, which become postcards, and Quinn writes: “I used to have quite a cheerful nature, // would go out in any weather, now / I don’t think to go out at all beyond / necessity, which is now my only state”. Quinn suggests that the transformative repetitions which energised earlier poems are no longer enough to propel some of these later poems into hope.

However, only a couple of pages later, the title poem reinvigorates the processes of repetition and transformation which drive Some Lives. This 19-page poem has three modes which recur in sections, all of which are interested in intertext and influence. It’s set into motion when Quinn writes: “I read a poem. // I read a poem about the end of the world”. This poem is “Weltende”, an early expressionist poem by Jakob van Hoddis. One mode of “Some Lives” consists of translations and re-translations of sections of van Hoddis’s poem. Another mode places fragments of previous poems in the collection alongside one another in new orders, to create new meanings, and another mode consists of documentary-style explorations of moments and observations pertaining to the life of the speaker and the lives of the writers who influence Some Lives.

Each section emphasises the time-disrupting power of poetry to enable dialogues simultaneously across years and decades, and across a single moment. Quinn links the drafty provisionality and elusivity inherent to translation to the creation of her own poetry. Here, a poem written a hundred years earlier transcends time, language, and circumstance to accumulate new relevance and resonance, in its uncannily familiar evocation of an apocalyptic world in which “(t)he tides are rising”. In a poem so interested in writing which could be classified as modernist, Quinn rethinks the modernist call for the new. Instead, “Some Lives”, and the collection as a whole, argue for the importance of precedence, and the open-ended, intertextual, collaborative nature of creation. Here, stasis and movement, tradition and change, exist alongside one another rather than in opposition. This collection is a nuanced, thoughtful meditation on poetry’s possibilities.

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The Arts as Anchor

Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan, one of the contributors to Writing Home: The ‘New Irish’ Poets, on home, belonging and the writing life - Writing Home

Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan, one of the contributors to Writing Home: The ‘New Irish’ Poets, considers home, belonging and the writing life

I had found an aerial shot of Dublin on Google, laid out like an intricate carpet, glowing under the rise of a morning sun; the Liffey a sapphire artery, trees and parks peeking out amongst the low buildings, lush and rain-fresh, and the stretch of sea a long sigh past the Poolbeg Towers, with Howth rising sleepily from the bay in the distance. I remember my chest loosening and the rush of relief that swept across my body. I remember thinking that I could fall in love with this city; it looked like somewhere that could be a home.

I had moved to Dublin in September 2012 after Theresa May’s immigration policies forced me out of the UK, the place I had called home for 7 years. I had to leave my friends, my partner, and the life that I had built; I moved to Dublin to start an MA at UCD where I was lucky enough to be accepted at such short notice. Before arriving, I looked up local events and began booking tickets and making plans so I could dive into a new life as soon as I arrived. I didn’t allow myself to grieve for the life I had lost – Dublin somehow felt right, and to cope, I let myself get swept up in it.

Within a week, I had gotten myself a gig as a contributing writer for LeCool Dublin, after religiously following their London edition for years. Every article of mine that they published helped validate me as someone who belonged here, who knew the scene, the streets, the performers, someone with a finger on the pulse. This was the person I had been before, and this was how I would fast-track a sense of belonging – nobody would guess that I was new here if I already had this under my belt. My knowledge of arts events in the city would be my weapon, my shield, and my armour against being the outsider that I knew I was. Writing about Dublin would make me a Dubliner, I had decided. I would write about the home I didn’t have yet, and pretend it was mine.

‘Home is wherever my underwear drawer is,’ I joked to my friends, knowing that there was no teenage bedroom to return to, or attic full of memories

As the daughter of a diplomat, home has always been a temporary concept for me. ‘Home is wherever my underwear drawer is,’ I joked to my friends, knowing that there was no teenage bedroom to return to, or attic full of memories. With all my childhood belongings in a storage unit in Blanchardstown, I knew home was a state of mind. It had to be, otherwise, people like me would be adrift forever.

So over the years, I used the arts as an anchor. I absorbed Irish history and culture through theatre, poetry, exhibitions, and cabaret. Buoyed by cultural events and supportive artistic communities, I put myself in front of a microphone for the first time in my life. I discovered I had the ability to tell stories off the cuff, and years later, I realised that I could also perform my poetry, as well as write it. I had written for as long as I can remember, but Dublin had lifted my abilities up to a new level. I lovingly mapped out the Northside in poem after poem, raising her up and praising her in all her sticky glory, in all her cigarette butts, and in the sweetest of mountain-glimpses.

I made Ireland permanent on paper, because I couldn’t make her permanent in my passport.

Living in my studio flat, in a building where white mould grew out of the walls and furred into the air, I claimed the city as my own through writing, gripping tightly to her, terrified of everything that could be taken away from me with the flick of an immigration official’s pen. After almost having to leave twice, rejected permits, unhappy jobs, damaging relationships, and all of my non-EU friends leaving one by one, I became severely depressed and suffered from horrific anxiety. And so, I clung onto Dublin as my friend, my family, and the love of my life instead. I wrote poems like ‘You City, You Boyfriend’. I made Ireland permanent on paper, because I couldn’t make her permanent in my passport.

That poem, and others, are now included in Writing Home: ‘The New Irish’ Poets, published by Dedalus Press, where 50 poets who have claimed Ireland as their home, have told their stories through poetry. It’s telling that out of my 5 poems chosen for the collection, one is about Brexit, two are about traveling across the Irish border, one is about the Irish coast, and one is a love letter to Dublin. These poems have grown from Irish soil and salt, from the blood meal of isolation from close friends and family, and a life in constant limbo. They have been honed by workshops, writing programmes, spoken word nights, and evenings shared with other poets and writers in their homes, or on their stages. They’ve been shaped by voices on both sides of the border, by those who have lived here all their lives, and those who like me, are far from the place where they were born.

These poems have grown from Irish soil and salt, from the blood meal of isolation from close friends and family, and a life in constant limbo.

But more than anything, my poems come from a constant urge to define and claim a home. My words strive to describe this life in Ireland in the manner of someone who belongs here, whilst knowing that otherness echoes around me, sits on the surface of my skin, and rings awkwardly through my mongrel accent. However, my intrinsic unbelonging is no longer something to defend myself against: I have instead turned it into a beating pulse; it is now the redness that flows through the veins of this life, and Ireland is the pen that has turned it into ink.

Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan is a Dublin-based arts manager and writer from India, who has also lived in North America, Sweden, Turkey, and the UK. She has been featured on The Moth and Mortified podcasts, with work aired on NPR and Irish radio, and regularly performs her poetry at literary and cabaret events in Dublin. In 2018 she was a participant in the Irish Writers Centre’s XBorders: Accord programme. She is among the 50 contributors to the Dedalus Press anthology, Writing Home: The ‘New Irish’ Poets (2019).

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Making Our Own Days: Keith Payne on Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems

Poet and translator Keith Payne on a favourite book, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems
(City Lights Books. The Pocket Poets Series: Number 19)

 

The idea is really simple. Every day on your lunch hour, if a lunch hour you take, make a note of what you see as you go from work to lunch and back. Construction workers in yellow helmets ‘that protect them from falling bricks,’ lianas elevator cables, a woman whistling her ‘filthy hope that it will rain tonight.’ You watch the shops for bargains in wristwatches; you buy a copy of ‘New World Writing to see what the poets in Ghana are doing.’ This could be any day. This could be every day: 12:40 of a Thursday, 12:20 on a Friday or for that matter 16th June. You think about what you will bring for that night’s dinner with friends, though you may not know the person who is cooking for you; a carton of Gauloises, a copy of Verlaine for Patsy, a bottle of Strega for Mike. Then ‘a glass of papaya juice, and back to work.’ On the way back you catch the front page of the Post with ‘her face on it.’ This is the city, where perhaps you’d like to ‘be an angel (if there were any), and go / straight up into the sky and look around and then come down.’ This is the city, where you ‘run your finger across your no-moss mind’ and realize ‘that’s not a thought, that’s soot.’ This is the city immediate, the city that hums and bustles, the intimate city. Oh, for the hum and intimacy right now of a busy Henry St. shouldering through the shoppers with no more on your mind than whether it’ll be a bagel, a burrito or a bacon sandwich for lunch. ‘Strawberries, 5 euro the punnet.’

But this is not Dublin, this is Frank O’Hara’s New York. The time is 1953 to 1964, the eleven years of Lunch Poems, Number 19 in the Pocket Poet Series edited by the City Lights Bookstore and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A poetry series spanning over sixty years that published collections by Ginsberg, Levertov, Ferlinghetti himself, Cortázar, the great Ernesto Cardenal, recently departed and Mayakovsky to name a few.

The collection opens with the poem ‘music’ and closes with the line ‘never argue with the movies.’ And at 24 frames per second we reel through NYC as O’Hara shows not for him the slow, Sisyphean drudge of re-writing, cleaving lines, taking a word out, putting a word back in again, pushing on for another verse till you realise the poem will never be finished but what you’ve got will do. Or at least it appears that way. O’Hara was reputed to have run up poems in minutes and often did so as a challenge, on one occasion going into his bedroom and coming out 3 minutes later with the poem ‘Sleeping on the Wing:

‘Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness,
as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries ‘Sleep!
O for a long sound sleep and so forget it! ‘
that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city,
veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon
does when a car honks or a door slams, […]’

Is it so unlikely that a poem could land fully formed onto the scrip of paper closest to hand? It has happened to all of us before. I hope it will happen again. Is it so hard to believe that O’Hara was such a poet as to leave himself open at all and any hours of the day and night for poems, fully formed, to land onto his page? ‘Yes, I don’t believe in reworking,’ he tells us ‘–too much. And what really makes me happy is when something just falls into place as if were a conversation.’ There are several poems in Lunch Poems and elsewhere that would suggest he didn’t rewrite, that instead he continued the conversation elsewhere in another poem. Though there are enough drafts and re-workings in his own hand to know that this wasn’t always the case. Of course he worked his poems. Why always the myth of rapid composition?

O’Hara’s poems may seem frivolous, all about the ‘I’ in the city lights. But that’s to miss the point. In what Kenneth Koch calls his ‘I-do-this-I-do-that’ poems we see O’Hara allow everything slip into the poems, as it would into a conversation. And by admitting everything into his poetry, he shows us that there’s poetry in everything; if you’re willing to address it, as O’Hara does, directly addressing the ‘Mothers of America,’ Rachmaninoff, swans swimming in the park, Lana Turner after she has collapsed: ‘Oh Lana Turner we love you get up,’ the reader, always the reader who is party to the endless chatter that is a conversation with Frank O’Hara covering every subject under the sun: ‘The seismograph / at Fordham University registered, for once, / a spiritual note.’ And not content with ushering everything under the sun into his poems, O’Hara ushers the sun itself in for a conversation in a poem written at the same time as the Lunch Poems though eventually not included:

‘The Sun woke me this morning loud
and clear, saying: Hey! I’ve been
trying to wake you up for fifteen
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen
to speak to personally.’

(from ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’.)

The other poet was Mayakovsky, one of O’Hara’s touchstone poets and who also had a poem addressing the sun. It is the sun who reassures O’Hara that all is ok, to trust what he is doing, to trust the poems, to trust that ‘you’re making your own days.’ That rare and reassuring phrase that covers so much of what we do: Making our own days. O’Hara was making his days from the streets of New York in conversation with all the buildings, street corners, delis, tobacconists, bookshops, hamburger joints, bars, clubs, jazz joints, every sound, sigh and taxi cab squeal. But most of all, while making his own days he was with friends. His poems align themselves with the intimacy of conversations with his friends. For such a necessarily solitary observer of his own days, O’Hara, in his poems, as in his life, was a most gregarious man. For all his walking alone down the avenues thinking about ‘instant coffee with slightly sour cream,’ or the ‘Muzak in the Schubert Theatre,’ he inevitably ends up thinking about his friends who he’ll see later; friends who me meet along the same lines as Beckett, Verlaine, Miles Davis, Grace Hartigan or Ginger Rogers. Friends who are so important first names only are needed: Mike, Patsy, Vincent, Hans, John, Bunny, LeRoi (LeRoi Jones, who would become in 1965, the poet Amiri Baraka), Kenneth, Norman, Sally and of course Allen and Peter. All through these poems, and throughout his short but impressive and impactful oeuvre, we read Frank O’Hara making his own days in the city, conversing with the pigeons and cabs yes, with the cats and poodles too, but always and most of all with his friends:

‘I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work at the thought possibly so.’

For as the sun says to O’Hara in their conversation:

‘And

always embrace things, people earth
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens
and you should follow it to hell, if
necessary, which I doubt.’

And yes, this is indeed a ‘True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,’ and yes, it’s a reminder that we’re all making our own days, together.’

– Keith Payne

(03.04.20)

(Full text of ‘True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ may be found online at https://www.frankohara.org/writing/

***

Works Cited:

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1993

O’Hara, Frank. Lunch Poems, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1964. Collected Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1971.

Koch, Kenneth. Making Your Own Days, Scribner, NY, 1998.

 

 

 

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Roots, Rhythms & Revelations – Grace Wells on her Writing Practice

Grace Wells - Dedalus Press

Passionate, courageous, incisive, inspiring – poet and fiction writer Grace Wells answers our occasional 7 Questions on Poetry, and gets to the heart of what really matters in the writing life.

1. How/when did you start to write? Did poems precede prose or vice versa?

In my study I have a very endearing black and white photograph of myself aged four, earnestly grasping a pencil as I learn the alphabet. It lets me feel that I’m meant to write and that I have always been doing this, which I haven’t. From the earliest age, I wanted to write. As a child I made up stories for my siblings from playing cards, sending the kings, queens and jacks off on rather mundane adventures. I kept secretive diaries, and in school I wrote and directed plays. At thirteen I conceived a very poor dramatisation of Cluedo, and gave myself the part of Miss Scarlet—an archetypal blonde siren in a red dress, which I wasn’t but wished to be.

Writing was always in me but it wasn’t encouraged; I was supposed to get a proper job. My writer was forced underground until she percolated up again in my early twenties, swelling a murky pool of juvenilia, both poetry and prose. The two forms coexist in me like demanding twins. Both vie for my attention, but for the most part poems come as fleeting apparitions, rather as a badger or fox will suddenly run through your headlights at night, or an owl will miraculously wing overhead. Then the actual crafting of poetry is a bit like bonsai gardening, going in with minute scissors, pruning, shaping, clipping. Prose, in contrast, is gargantuan. It’s like carving the Bamyan buddahs, or a temple in a rock face in Persia. Several times I’ve had the experience of spending years chipping away at a longer work only to stand back and see that rather than temple pillars, I’ve carved a mill-stone around my neck.

So poems with their light touch and their sense of apparition, are always blessings for me—fleeting and enlivening love affairs, while prose is the hard work of a marriage full of irritations that must be continuously transmuted into love.

Several times I’ve had the experience of spending years chipping away at a longer work only to stand back and see that rather than temple pillars, I’ve carved a mill-stone around my neck.

2. What’s your process of writing? Do you have a favourite time/place/practice?

I write by hand which fewer people do now. When we tell one another we write, our hands usually make a gesture. Most people air-type at an invisible keyboard which has me frowning. The rhythms of the keyboard are the zippy connections of the mind’s fastest neurons. They tend to show-off, to shriek, Look at me! But the rhythm of hand-writing flows through wrist, arm, chest, heart, breath. I find it more authentic, organic, ancient.

I have iron habits and quirks. Spiral-bound notebook, thick-enough paper, biro devoid of branding or slogan. I turn off the phone, become unreachable. Growl at unexpected visitors. If I’m on a residency I tend to drape scarves over the paintings I don’t like, and heft leaden furniture around until I’m satisfied that everything is just so. I like to position the desk by a window. If the desk-top is glass it becomes a camera obscura, birds drift across its screen. I like to look up, take in the outdoor world like a gulp of air, and then go back down into words.

At home its more haphazard, phrases and ideas come when they will: when I’m stepping out of the shower, or doing something domestic, or when I wake in the night, so I have pens everywhere, and my notebooks rove around like gypsies. But mostly I sit in my study at a rather blocky pitch-pine desk that my writer-friend A.S. King gave me before she left Ireland seventeen years ago. Its wood holds the memory of our young lives, and all of the stories that have happened to us since, so it’s very precious to me. It’s slightly hideous and Germanic, and might have been made by a gentle troll deep in the Black Forrest. I’ve written at it in many houses and under all kinds of duress, and its wide, solid top has been both a high-sea of adventure and a very safe space, a real shelter. At the moment it looks out into silvery-green willow trees. I watch their first buds open, their last leaves fall. I like that slow clock. And in contrast, there’s a fast-flowing stream behind my house, so I work within the sound and auspice of running water. 

I hole up in my study for hours, and then escape outside. I’ll walk off with my notebook and write from the real world. It’s much easier to work with genius loci when you can actually see the features of a place, and watch how the light moves over each small detail. The actual is more intricate than the imagined and remembered. I like that accuracy. And I simply love being in the wild. Writing from within nature resources me, I’m befriended by root and tendril, nourished by the jerky little flutters of songbirds, soothed by the uncurling spirals of ferns in spring, and chilled by winter’s dark lattice of bare branches. It’s easier to chronicle the colour and behaviours of ocean waves when they are in front of you, affecting you, and it’s easier to write about your emotions by letting them speak through seen images and metaphor.

When you bring a nature-slowed eye back into the urban world, the built environment teems, you see the antediluvian lintels and paving-stones, the Bangor blue slates quarried in Wales, the green post-box bearing the initials of a long-dead queen, the dark crow that lands on it and caws alerting you to starlings chattering within a small forest of metal spikes designed to prevent birds from roosting. Brick and plaster and the way nature co-exist with us, offer up a ripe harvest. So I note things down and bring my bag of swag back to my troll-built desk, and tip everything out, and shape something.

I believe in the innate rhythms of voice. We don’t really have a word for that besides voice, but its our jazz, our soul-sound, our gift, our pace.

3. How important is the sound/music of what you’re writing? How much, if at all, are you guided by ‘received forms’?

The musicality within a poem is vital to me, but not in the conventional sense. I know my limitations. I can change a tyre, unblock a U-bend, sew curtains, but I can’t tile a bathroom any more than I can successfully work with metre. I just don’t have the ears for it. But I believe in the innate rhythms of voice. We don’t really have a word for that besides voice, but its our jazz, our soul-sound, our gift, our pace.

So I read my lyrics aloud, listen to how they sound on my tongue, sense how they feel in my body. After recording the Jeeves books, Simon Callow said that Wodehouse’s prose ‘is like singing Mozart: the perfection of his phrasing is a physical pleasure’. Wodehouse wasn’t working within a ‘received form’, he was simply putting words to his own syncopation. Reading those phrases conducted Callow into an embodied experience of Wodehouse’s innate pulse. That’s the rhythm that interests me. One of the great joys of being a poet, is that you get to spend time with a broad range of differing syncopations, from spoken-word ebullients, to restrained academics, and voice-breaking novices just finding their tempo. Helping people to find their voice has been a large part of my life.

But for my own practice, the root of poetic rhythm rises out of stillness: the white spaces between stanzas. The in-breath where we absorb and process what we’ve just read. So much of a poem’s power stems from its pauses, the timing and reveals that tug us on towards a certain visceral response. Poetry is like masterful puppetry. And much of what animates its effect, is breath and pause.

Our current lives are so fast and stressful, if we’re not alert to that, we breathe in a shallow way and operate from a sympathetic-nervous-system in over-drive—completely disconnected from our powerful natural rhythms. But when poetry is read aloud, it can soothe our nerves, lengthen our breath, lower our blood-presssure, calm our heart-rate, and bring us back into the rejuvenating territory of our own stillness. Metre achieves that, but paced breath does too, so that’s what I’m exploring on one level.

But as someone who predominantly writes and thinks about nature and our environmental crisis, there is a further layer to this for me. When we speak or recite, we speak on the out-breath having first drawn in the fine threads of this earth—our planet’s embroidered atmosphere. As writers it’s time to be very conscious of that, to be aware of how our every spoken word is dependent on our living planet. I’ve had the luck to live close to nature and to see the myriad intricate behaviours of fur and feather, bud and blossom. In her health, nature creates the most exquisite patterns and form, music and cycles, and my work is often a dim tribute to that, an attempt to stand within her rhythms and see how they resonate within my writing.

I’d like to think that the more we reconnect to earth-culture, the more likely we are to re-sacralise nature, and truly address the calamity of losing her myriad manifestations and intelligences. So my quest is to write from within that extraordinary matrix. To offer up something that is both full of grief and celebratory wonder, because that is the rhythm of now, the waltz of sorrow and praise that we are all caught up in.

Ted Hughes once said that as an imaginative writer his only capitol was his own life. Forty years on, in a fragmenting world, where all nature’s small threads are unraveling, my only capitol is my creative response to the disintegrating rhythms of the natural world. And I have to trust that staying true to that, will in turn offer something to my reader, their breath, their stillness, their somatic pleasure.

4. At what point do you start thinking in terms of writing a book rather than just writing individual poems?

There are so many ways to write a book of poems. I tend to collect up a body of about sixty poems and see what narratives and themes have constellated, and weigh up what’s good enough to go in. It’s kind of like that old children’s riddle: which is heavier, a tonne of lead or a tonne of feathers? A mathematical mind sees they weigh the same. A poet will experience the feathers as lighter. But when it comes to putting our collections together, we have to be mathematical and know the scruples of each lyric. If a poem is too light, it’s forgettable. It can’t stand up to multiple readings.

Poems can only go into a collection if they weigh enough. Unfortunately for me only three or four really good poems come along each year. So I’m very slow to think about forming a collection. But I’m okay with that. I’d rather wait. I don’t want to publish goose down. I’m looking for swan feather and peacock plume.

5. Who are a couple of your favourite poets (in terms of inspiration) and why?

I love Paula Meehan for her candour and poise, her combination of raw honesty and beguiling expression. And Pattianne Rogers for her capacity to write about nature in a way that even nature would stand in awe of. She weaves thick, intricate poems, dense with flora and fauna. And in contrast I love Mark Roper for his capacity to do the opposite, to simply open one natural detail and marry it to an unforgettable idea. I treasure Michael Coady of Carrick-on-Suir, and Thomas Lynch of Moveen for how they’ve taught me to look at place. I love the cool Northern poets, Olav Hauge and Tomas Tranströmer, for their snow light and fjord thinking. I’m indebted to Rumi and Hafiz for their poetry of devotion, and to James Harpur for keeping a spiritual flame alive within the modern word. I value Thomas McCarthy for his incredible mind, his passion for encouraging young writers, and his capacity to utilize social media as a space for fascinating contributions. I could go on. Rachel Hegarty, Sinead Morrissey, Eileen Sheehan. So many poets to praise and be grateful for.

6. How important are journals and magazines in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work?

It’s live audiences who are my most useful gauge as to whether a poem is working or not. When people are moved by work they queue to tell you. If someone comes up to me with tears in their eyes, I know I’ve achieved something. If I’m really on form at a reading there’s a perceptible silence in the room, there isn’t a chair creak, or shuffle. To create that for even a moment is a privilege.

And radio is really important for me too. The postman sometimes brings me these notes from people I’ve never met, who’ve reached out to me through RTÉ or my publisher, thanking me for a poem or piece of prose they’ve heard on the radio. I’m touched that I’ve compelled someone to sit down, and write their thoughts on a card, and spend good money on a stamp, and walk to a postbox. That spidery, handwritten praise is treasure to me.

The truth is, the way I measure the ‘success’ of a poem has changed. For years I promoted the journals and maintained subscriptions to a good number of them, even through the leanest of times. I used to love ‘The Shop’, which was full of fine poems. It was a real loss when it ended. And I’ve always scolded students and mentees if they weren’t subscribing to poetry magazines. How dare they not! Journals are the life-blood of this art-form. But for too many years I had to work all the hours God sent, I was raising my kids, putting them through college, teaching and mentoring at the coal-face of the poetry world, getting swamped by other people’s output, and having less and less oxygen for my own work. I didn’t have time to even glimpse at the journals. They stacked up by my bed unread.

And then when I did have the luxury of time for a bath, and remembered to take a journal with me, I often didn’t like the poems I was reading. Either I wasn’t grabbed emotionally, or the poems weren’t reflecting the state of our world and the depth of our environmental crisis. My taste just isn’t congruous with most of the editors of the day. There have been some really good environmental journals like The Curlew, Earthlines and Dark Mountain, which I’ve been proud to be in, but I resent how for the last thirty years, the mainstream journals have ignored the earth’s crisis, and not found it necessary to place themselves in the centre of a creative response to our precarious situation.

I’ve always scolded students and mentees if they weren’t subscribing to poetry magazines. How dare they not! Journals are the life-blood of this art-form.

Poets and poetry could have been the fulcrum of all the social and environmental changes that needed to happen. But we haven’t been. We took the wrong fork in the woods and followed the commercial-travellers down a well-trodden path, only for our art-form to get lost in the glitz of festivals, and lost in the house of mirrors that is social media and self-promotion. At the first whiff of hubris, I keel over like a canary in a cage down a mine and lose all interest. I fear that in the cacophony of our own trumpet-blowing, we are making ourselves ludicrously irrelevant, and are doing a massive disservice to poetry.

So I’m very wary about what I read. It’s important that I read for pleasure and nurture. My poetic muse is delicate; I’m careful to only feed it work that enlivens me, so I take word-of-mouth recommendations from Lani O’Hanlon, Fergus Hogan and Keith Payne, poet-friends that I trust, and I dive into their suggestions happily, hungrily. I’ll review work if I’m invited, and if I find it stimulating. But I rarely risk the journals now. In these challenging days we all need to know our places of sanctuary. If I’m happier with a seed catalogue than a poetry magazine, well that’s my sorry truth. Adrienne Rich said ‘there are times when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die’. It’s important I protect my poetic impulse, don’t numb it with deadening work, and continue to seek out poetry that enlivens and restores.

7. If you had one piece of advice to give to young or beginning poets, what would it be?

Coincidentally both the youngest writer I know, Molly Twomey, and the oldest writer I know, Dervla Murphy, come from Lismore, Co Waterford. Murphy is now eighty-seven. She began writing at thirty when she cycled to India. She has the most amazing courage, tenacity, force of will, and resilience of any person I have ever met. These are the qualities that every writer needs. Murphy appears to have them innately, but the rest of us have to grow these qualities and teach ourselves endurance.

For all the previous years of my life I would have answered this question very differently. For decades I poured absolute enthusiasm over every young, or emerging writer, that I met, urging them on into this profession. But I can’t do that anymore. Asked to offer one piece of advice to Molly Twomey, and I feel frozen, tight-lipped. I still sincerely believe that every writer must write. It is necessity. Being a writer is like having a mental illness, if we’re writing, we’re ok. If we haven’t time for our work, we’ll be somewhere on a spectrum between catatonia and mania. So we have to write. But would I send another beautiful, young person into this circus? No. I have seen too many writers crash and burn, their bright trajectories shot down by the unkindness of publishing and the generally inclement conditions of the writing world. It is too harsh out there for me to actively encourage anyone into this realm.

And as right-wing and neo-liberal politics gain more ground, it is going to be harder than ever to be poor— and most artists are poor, we scrabble around like elegant, cathedral mice seeking crumbs beneath the altar-cloth of capitalism.

And things are going to get harsher. These are serious times, we are in an environmental tailspin that may not be reversed. And as right-wing and neo-liberal politics gain more ground, it is going to be harder than ever to be poor— and most artists are poor, we scrabble around like elegant, cathedral mice seeking crumbs beneath the altar-cloth of capitalism.

Oscar Wilde said that when bankers get together they talk about art, and when artists get together they talk about money. We do; the lack of it, and the myriad problematical ways that lack manifests. And if we do have money, then we are likely to be time-poor without the quiet to work. All writers bear the wounds of that time-versus-money war. And though there are publishing contracts, competition wins, arts grants, and funding opportunities out there, they are usually chimeric what-ifs dangled in front of our eyes like carrots we rarely ever reach. If we do suddenly find ourselves with one of these lucky-tickets in our hand, it is likely to only avert yet another financial-crisis, and go towards paying bills that have amassed like sand-dunes around our small cove.

To write with any comfort, a young writer is going to need a trust-fund, or a patron, or a partner with a proper job, or a parent with some cash, but even with those supports, they will still be in and out of the dole-office cap in hand. And all of this will be just a little shaming, so it will be hard for them to hold their head high. All my advice now is going to sound like a dire warning: there probably won’t be holidays, or health-insurance, or a pension, and you are likely to have holes in your clothes, your shoes, your teeth and your roof, and this lack will drone on like the sound of a poignant violin, or a dirge that you won’t be able to block your ears against. Struggle and bitterness and your own sense of failure, will clack at your heels like shadows to be eternally fought against, knight-like as St George with his dragon, sword-arm perpetually raised.

And the worst part of all this is, that these material and psychological challenges will co-exist while you are grappling with the unconscious, the half-hatched, the just out of reach phrases and ideas that you are desperately trying to make concrete. Your writing will be impacted by your circumstances, and you will not quite create what you meant to, not quite fulfill your potential. But nonetheless you will offer what you can, bringing your finished poems and stories to the table like someone arriving at a pot-luck dinner with a pie whose pastry is just a little undercooked. You will offer it anyway and everyone will be very nice about it, but you’ll know in your heart your work could have been so much better.

And all of this will have ramifications and consequences for the people close to you. Your partner. Your children. And your parents—who will always be worrying for you and trying to rescue you from what they consider your folly, so you will need to be very determined, and ruthless as a card-shark, in order to bring all of these other people along with you on this uncomfortable ride. You will paradoxically need to have skin thick as elephant hide to ignore the impacts on your loved ones, and to withstand the constant arrows of rejection, and the barbs of bad reviews that keep coming, while you’ll simultaneously need to keep your pores open and gossamer-sensitive enough to write anything worthwhile.

And all of this will impact your mental health. So what one thing might I say to a bright, hopeful new writer of any age daring to enter this melodrama? For your mental health, you must write, and for your sanity you must defend yourself against the worst failings of this industry so you are not defeated by the obsessive competition and clamour for success that fuels this industry and divides writers from one another. Instead you must strengthen your writing-friendships, build peer-support, and only engage with structures that deepen your feelings of mutuality with other writers.

But having given that warning, I still have to say, write. Though your glass is always going to be half-full of money-worries, professional jealousy, insecurity and self-doubt, it will also be half-full of creativity, contemplation, observation, mystery and meaning. The prevailing wind of lack is also your updraft of freedom. However austere things become, you have to keep viewing your days as the most marvelous adventure. And your words will bring you to wonderful places and incredible people. So make it easy for yourself, buy nice notebooks, good pens, lure yourself on with enticing sugar-lumps of one sort or another. Catch your brain the minute it starts moaning and whimpering about how hard this all is, stop those thoughts, pick up your pen and push on as if you were Dervla Murphy cycling to India.

Remind yourself daily that the reason you write is not because you want success or fame, or even to earn a living from this patchwork profession, but because this is who and what you are, a writer prepared to face into the cycling alphabet of storms that are going to keep blasting our shores, while you courageously write into their gale, a silver river of words brooking your lips, and flowing on, moon-bathed through the dark.

Grace Wells has published two collections of poetry with The Dedalus Press, When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things and Fur.