Do you remember how or why you started writing poems?
The very first poems were written in the classroom. They were set tasks. Commissions if you will. The teacher would instruct us to write a poem about an elephant, or the moon, or a summer’s day – something along those lines. I wrote one about an old man looking out the window at the snow, and it was pinned up on the wall. In fact I handed up the same poem the following year in the next class, and it made the wall again. The first poems of my own, not written under teachers’ orders, appeared at the big school. They were nonsense, of course –very heavy on symbolism – like automatic writing dictated by some eejit with very similar interests to my own. Things improved a little in my final year. My mother bought me a typewriter, and that brilliant little machine finally put manners on me, and on the poems too. From that point on they seemed to have a shape, and small of degree of sense about them. Discipline had somehow slipped in the door and, the following year, one was published in The Irish Press. It wasn’t Dante but it was a start.
Who are a couple of your favourite poets and why? Have you a favourite poem?
I have very mixed feelings about my schooling but I will always be grateful to my English teacher – Mr. Lavin – for introducing me to Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. These were the poets that I responded to most and I’m still in awe of both of them. Wordsworth was another. I recently re-read a huge chunk of The Prelude and it’s quite astonishing. I also discovered a few poets down the back of a shop called Hall’s in Darling Street. These were mostly Gallery books and that’s where I found John Montague and Frank Ormsby. Frank is from Fermanagh and that was significant for me. I still think he’s a wonderful poet.
My favourite poets? All of the above. I’d add to the list Elizabeth Bishop, Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Pinsky and Tracy K. Smith. I don’t have a favourite poem as such – it all depends on where I’m at – but I keep sending people to a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called ‘Cross That Line’. I’d love to write a poem like that.
Music and visual art are important presences in Notions. How much is your poetry guided by these other art forms? Is it important to be open to influences outside of poetry when it comes to writing?
I’m pretty voracious when it comes to most art forms, and I suspect that everything I read, see and hear feeds into the writing. Of course I have to edit, but it’s all there, or not there, somewhere. I feel strongly that whether you write or not, you should be open to as much art and beauty as possible. I’m constantly and very deliberately trying to educate myself, very conscious that when I left university I knew very little about anything. A law degree is a good degree, and it gave me certain useful skills, but it’s not the sort of grounding that suits my approach to life. So I usually have about four books on the go. At this moment it’s Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Graves’ The White Goddess, the sermons of Meister Eckhart and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I know that might sound like heavy-going but actually it’s a real pleasure. Frankly, I should have read these books years ago and, these days, I devote my time, almost exclusively and without apology, to the big stuff. Keep learning and finding new perspectives. Don’t ever stop.
In your poem ‘Antonyms’, you mention Anthony of Padua, ‘patron of the lost thing’. Many of your poems attempt to use words to reach some absent other time, place, or person. To what extent do you think words are capable of bridging those gaps, recovering the ‘lost thing’?
I might make a better job of it if I were a pianist, but words are what I use. And yes, a word or a sequence of words can land me right back in a time or a place in exactly the same way that a piece of music can. I was always interested in language and had some sense of its capacities. Growing up in the north I also had that extra awareness of language as code, signal, nuance, diplomatic gesture, sly dig and all the rest of it. I would have been very conscious that the language of the BBC reporter was not the language of the locale; or that the allotted name of some new housing development had an obvious wrongness to it. I also think of the words my parents used in everyday life – the expressions they used and the very particular characteristics of the how they spoke, and people still speak, in my part of the world. I cherish all that, and I’ve always had a sense of it, and an appreciation for it. That said, I’m not an anthropologist.
What I’m more interested in how these words, and words from altogether different worlds, can spark the magical or mystical dimension of poetry – the part that surprises the writer when they all begin to interact, and their various meanings start to ignite each other.
Words are alive. They contain multitudes and some are so loaded that they can plant a very deep charge in a poem. So yes, words are capable of bridging gaps to things, and to people, and indeed to former editions of yourself. But words can also bridge the gap to things that have yet to be discovered and this really appeals to me. It ties in with my reading. I’m very interested in the spirit of poetry. I feel that it’s one with the spirit of religion, astronomy, quantum physics and everything else. It’s all one thing.
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?
I published in quite a few magazines and journals when I was a student – and for a period afterwards – but when I finally, decades later, got around to thinking of a collection I decided that I wouldn’t drive myself to distraction in that regard. That said, I did send poems to the Irish publications that I really admired. To get an opinion and, with any luck, a blessing was important in me finally attempting a first book. These magazines were even more important as I completed a second book. Their editors have been both first readers and first editors of the new poems, and while poetry is obviously a solitary activity there does come a point – a quite desperate point – when you really need someone to say, yes this is a poem and it works. Or the contrary. The gap between books is necessarily a long one, but momentum can really become an issue if you feel isolated. The magazines and journals, whether it be a yes or a no, are really crucial in that regard.
On that note, how do you know when a poem is finished, and how can you tell when it works?
That’s a really interesting question. I’ve made the mistake many times of thinking that a poem is finished simply because it sounds like it’s finished – perhaps there’s some sense of sonic satisfaction about it – but then after a period you realise, if you’re lucky, that it’s not ready at all. It may simply be the case that you haven’t yet written the last verse. I think perhaps the best you can do to stress test a poem is simply to read it aloud. If it sounds OK then you might be on to something, but it’s still probably very wise put it away in a drawer in a darkened room. Forget about it for a while and then come back to it. So in answer to your question, I’m never entirely sure when a poem is finished, or if they’re ever finished. That said, once something is published I tend to leave it alone.
If you had one piece of advice to give to young or beginning poets, what would it be?
I’m the last person to give advice to anyone. I went about everything arse-ways and bar-ways. I made a lot of mistakes. I got stuck, I got distracted and I took a lot of wrong turns. But maybe consider the advice that I didn’t take thirty five years ago. Trust the poems and trust yourself.
See also: John Kelly, biographical note and publications