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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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Emerging Poets, Call for Submissions 2022

Poet, poem text
Submissions window for first full-length collections open 01 June 2022
 
Dedalus Press is pleased to announce a call for book-length manuscript submissions from poets who have not previously published a full-length volume of poems.
 
BACKGROUND
It’s been an incredibly busy two years at Dedalus Press. As well as new books by individual poets, in an attempt to involve and connect with the wider community of poets and readers, since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve published no fewer than four anthologies (with two more due to appear before the end of the year). A single anthology is a massive extra amount of work for a small press; to produce six of them in so short a period is arguably a kind of madness. Yet we felt it was an important thing to do, and we were bowled over by the public response to our efforts, and delighted to reach an ever-wider audience with each in turn, culminating in Local Wonders, one of our most popular publications to date.
 
NEW POETS, FIRST COLLECTIONS
Now, however, it’s time to return our focus to an area that is at the heart of our mission but which has received somewhat less attention in recent times than it deserves.
 
Applicable to POETS BORN IN IRELAND OR CURRENTLY LIVING HERE, this call for first collection manuscripts will run from 01 JUNE to 31 JULY (i.e. the months of June and July inclusive). We’re looking for your best 20-50 pages of poems from an unpublished first collection manuscript; individual poems may have been previously published in journals, chapbooks, social media, etc. This call is open to poets writing IN ENGLISH ONLY: though we do publish books in translation, these are by invitation only. (We are unable to consider illustrated books, books by more than one author or books combining poetry and fiction.)
 
ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE
Mindful of the challenges faced by poets writing outside of their native language, where we receive a manuscript of sufficient interest, we may offer an extended mentorship/editorial relationship with the poet in order to produce a final text of which all parties can be proud.
For an idea of the kind of books we’re interested in, please familiarise yourself with some of our publications. Poets who published their first collection with Dedalus Press are too numerous to mention but include Doireann Ní Ghríofa, John Kelly, Polina Cosgrave, John Sheahan, Ross Thompson, Enda Coyle-Greene, Erin Fornoff, Billy Ramsell, Mary Noonan, Eleanor Hooker, Iggy McGovern, Grace Wells and Leeanne Quinn.
 
Full submissions details will be published on social media, on our website, and through our Mailing List (be sure to sign up at www.dedaluspress.com) from late May.
 
Please share to help us Spread the Word: Poetry Matters.
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Internship, Summer 2022

Dedalus Press is currently accepting applications for a SOCIAL MEDIA / PUBLISHING INTERNSHIP to run over the summer months. The position will suit those working from home and involves approx 5–7 per week, but we hope to see it develop into an ongoing paid relationship with the press from September.

This is an excellent opportunity for someone with a proven interest in publishing, and media in general, to get invaluable, real-world experience in the world of publishing.

Applicants should be confident communicators and fluent in English.  We warmly welcome expressions of interest from persons over the age of 18, irrespective of age, gender, race or creed.

Dedalus Press is one of Ireland’s longest established poetry publishers, with a reputation for innovation, excellence and inclusivity. We are proud recipients of financial support from The Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

Letters of application, which should include relevant experience of Social Media publishing (including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc) as well as graphics, design or any other interests/skills) should be sent to editor @ dedaluspress .com (without spaces). 

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Thomas Kinsella (1928–2021)

Thomas Kinsella by Niall Hartnett - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

AN ART OF BRILLIANT FRAGMENTS

THOMAS KINSELLA, who died yesterday, 22 December 2021, aged 93, was among the most significant voices in contemporary Irish writing, celebrated as a translator and editor, a political commentator in a way that was almost uniquely his own, and above all else as the author of a body of distinctive, intense and often challenging lyric poetry.

Older Irish readers will know him best as, for decades, the only living poet on Ireland’s Leaving Certificate English Poetry syllabus. But where Kinsella’s early poems had a kind of Audenesque classical poise, what became his typical mode was a more organic form, perhaps more indebted to the modernist influences of TS Eliot (whose Prufrock and The Wasteland were among his abiding fascinations). In seeking to make something more approximate to the complexities of our times, Kinsella opted not for summary or overview, not for the fine-tuned linear narrative or the self-contained lyric, but for the poetic sequence, what might be called the art of brilliant fragments. Like mosaic pieces, his often downbeat, unflashy, even clipped free verse poems might sometimes puzzle on their own but, seen together, could have an uncanny power to challenge, provoke, suggest and engage the reader intellectually as well as emotionally. This intellectual rigour may be one of the reasons he is often seen as a poet’s poet.

It should also be said that Kinsella had little interest in poetry as entertainment or performance. Though his subject was often the individual and the world – and the complex relationship between the two – it would be hard to think of an Irish poet further removed from the general caricature – beguiling, inspiring or even leading the masses. Where Kinsella felt called to engage at a political level (and much of his work has a significant political dimension), he is there as witness, attentive to the inner as to the external drama.

His near-legendary Peppercanister series of pamphlets was unique for a major Irish poet of his generation, a private line of enquiry, as it were, where others might seem to conduct more public engagements. Even there, however, the standout moments brought the private and public worlds together, at times  dramatically. Famously, the series was born with the publication in 1972 of his famous Butcher’s Dozen, a long poem that attacked the Widgery report on the infamous Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in January of that year, a move that almost certainly lost him readers in a time of polar extremes in Irish and UK politics. But the poem’s power, its Swiftian ire spun out in tetrameter rhyming couplets, was undeniable for its apparent artlessness, and the rage and disillusion it records were vindicated by subsequent political investigations, culminating in the official apology of British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010.

Other Peppercanister volumes responded to the death of noted Irish composer and friend Seán Ó Riada, re-visited the JFK era through the person of Lee Harvey Oswald, and, more recently, extended Kinsella’s ongoing consideration of the role of the citizen, as well as that of the artist, with considerations of JS Bach, Marcus Aurelius and others. The series culminated in Love Joy Peace, a poem that begins with a recollection of a three-word graffito from ‘Many years ago, our first neighbourhood’ and goes on to a consideration of religion, St Augustine and Martin Luther, in a way that seems both free association and, at the same time, the continuation of a lifetime’s artistic logic.

Kinsella’s tendency to look back is, of course, an essential feature of his poetry, which regularly sees him return to key scenes in his Dublin boyhood (often mapped to specific locations in the city), as if poetry was, among other things, a stopping and rewinding of time, an opportunity to see and feel again, to dwell and perhaps better to understand. Not surprisingly this also made him a tender love poet, tracing, never in a showy way, the arc of love and marriage with his beloved wife, Eleanor, who pre-deceased him in 2017.

If Dublin takes on an almost mythic power in the work, and philosophical inquiry is often a motivation, Kinsella never descends into what we might term hermetic choreographies. Indeed, it is as if he balances his inward explorations with a great scholarly dedication to the world around him, including to his inheritance as an Irish writer.

In this respect, undoubtedly among his great gifts to world poetry are two much-admired translations: first is his version of Ireland’s 8th century epic The Táin (Táin Bó Cualinge, or The Cattle-Raid of Cooley), first published in 1969 with illustrations by the late Louis le Brocquy; second is the ground-breaking anthology An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed (1981), in which Kinsella’s verse translations excavated and breathed new life into the work of the 17th–19th Irish bardic poets, increasingly islanded, one might say, by the rising tide of vernacular English.

For a poet whose work in print might seem challenging if not to say difficult, Kinsella had a wonderful speaking voice and great acuity as an extempore thinker and speaker (factors which made him greatly admired as a teacher, perhaps especially in the United States where he lived much of his life before returning in recent years to Dublin).

Those wishing to find a point of access into his diverse but hugely rewarding body of work would do well to seek out one of the many fine recordings that exist (including Poems 1956–2006 from Claddagh Records) and, centred by the undeniable authority and integrity, the clarity of both vision and expression, proceed from there.

— Pat Boran, 23 December 2021

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7 Questions on Poetry: John Kelly

John Kelly photo by John Minihan - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

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

 

 

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7 Questions on Poetry: Mary Noonan

Mary Noonan - Dedalus Press

How/when did you start to write?

I’ve loved poetry for as long as I remember – Keats was a favourite when I was a teenager. I did a BA in English and French, and relished the immersion in literature in both languages. I’m still grateful for having had the opportunity to study poetry in Anglo-Saxon and in Middle English at UCC. I went on to do an MA on the plays of Synge and Beckett, and then went off to Brussels to work as a translator. I returned to London seven years later to do an MA in French, and a PhD, both in the area of French drama. Drama was always in the mix, along with the poetry – I think they’re quite compatible. I wrote poems when I was a teenager, and very intermittently in my early adulthood. And then no poetry for a long time.

I had been teaching French literature at UCC for a number of years, and writing and publishing literary criticism, mainly in the field of contemporary French theatre. But when my mother died early, in 1998, I started to write poetry. I don’t know why it coincided with her death, but it did. I started going to weekly workshops in Cork, led by the poet Gregory O’Donoghue, and for a number of summers I attended the week-long poetry summer-schools at the Poet’s House in Falcarragh, Donegal. Then I had a few poems published in magazines, and some breaks came when The Stinging Fly selected me as their ‘Featured Poet’ in November 2006, and I was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions in April 2007. That’s how I got started. I’ve never been tempted to write a short story, much less a novel. I’ve no idea why my creative instinct takes the shape of poetry.

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

Much of the effect of poetry is achieved through sound, whether it be mellifluous, dissonant or somewhere in between. Poetry capitalises on the resonance of words, their ability to sound in the echo-chamber of the mind, to trigger auditory memories. I think it’s something to do with the transmutation of voice into writing. And the voice is such a primitive part of the self – our connection to a voice is maybe our first psychic connection. Heaney once said that poetic technique involves the poet’s discovery of ways to ‘raid the inarticulate’ (Preoccupations), and our relationship to sound, and to voice, opens a channel to that primitive self.

Stone Girl by Mary Noonan cover - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the worldI wouldn’t say that I systematically check my poems for sound, though I know I should. I like the thought of Yeats pacing the boards on one of the upper floors of Thoor Ballylee, intoning loudly and repeatedly, driving his wife and children crazy! It’s certainly good to read a poem aloud when you have a draft, your ear will usually pick up when something is jarring. And early public readings of poems will always tell you if a poem is working or not. As regards poetic forms, I love reading sonnets, villanelles, sestinas and ghazals, and marvelling at the poet’s skill. But I don’t generally practice them myself, whether through lack of skill or application, I’m not sure. I do occasionally practice ‘home-made’ forms though, creating formal challenges for myself within poems.

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

My process is fairly haphazard, I’m afraid. I don’t have a routine as such, for writing poetry. As I work full-time as an academic, I fit the poetry around that. If a poem strikes, I’ll write it out by hand first. I used to write on loose A4 sheets, but have graduated to large notebooks. I tend to write at the dining-room table, as the room is bright and cheerful. I’ll usually do a couple of hand-written drafts before I type the poem on the computer. The summers are better than the winters for me, as I have more time then. It’s a question of clearing enough head-space to allow the poems in. Having said all that, my practice has been completely thrown by the death, in 2018, of my partner, the poet Matthew Sweeney. I’ve written little since his death. You become a ghost in your own life, hanging around on the outside of it and feeling a little bewildered by the things that used to come naturally: reading, listening to music, writing poems. The poems took fright, and disappeared down a long tunnel. One has to hope they’re still there somewhere, composing themselves in the farther reaches of the mind, and staying safe until they’re ready re-emerge. It’s one of the more terrifying aspects of artistic creation: how fragile it is, how unbiddable.

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

I’m not sure I have a clear answer to that. The first collection (The Fado House, Dedalus Press, 2012) was about 10 years in the making, the second book, Stone Girl (Dedalus Press, 2019) took 7. I guess after the first collection, one is always thinking in terms of the next collection.

When I have 30 or so poems I believe would stand up if challenged in a dark alley, then I feel I’m well on my way to the next book.

What about journals and magazines? How important are they in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work? Do you subscribe to any publications?

I would say publishing in magazines and journals is part of the trajectory of most poets. It’s a good way of testing the poems, and it’s reassuring to get the validation of editors and readers that publication brings. My heart always does a little skipping dance when a poem is accepted, and there’s that thrill of knowing that your poem is out there, moving around in the world. Of course, it can be painful too, as there is the inevitability of regular rejection. And waiting times have got much longer! When I started out, 20 years ago, 3 months was the maximum wait time, and many publications got back within 6 weeks. Nowadays, it’s more like 6 months. So it’s a slow and sometimes distressing process, with occasional rewards.

Over the years, I’ve subscribed to many magazines, but as the house was quaking under the weight of paper, I had to cut back. I currently subscribe to Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Review, The Stinging Fly, The Moth, The Well Review and Agenda.

Who are a couple of your favourite poets and why? Have you a single favourite book of poems?

It’s hard to pick favourites, isn’t it? There are so many wonderful poets, and one tends to gravitate to different poets at different times, depending on one’s mood or circumstances. For that reason, I could never single out a single volume. I’m currently reading Louise Glück’s Wild Iris and John Glenday’s Selected Poems. I’m very taken with both of these because of the quality of silence in their poems, their skill in ‘saying by not saying’. I’ve always loved poetry that is mysterious, but not mystifying. I’m a big admirer of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry, for its deep sense of enigma, and also for the sheer brilliance of the craft. I’m currently reading her Collected Poems. I recently re-read Jo Shapcott’ collection Tender Taxes, published in 2001. In this book, Shapcott appears to provide versions of Rilke’s French poems, but she has in fact created exceptionally powerful poems in English that speak completely in her voice and are redolent of her responses to her own environment. And yet, she retains much of Rilke, giving an English voice to the intensity of his (French) music. The result is quite startling: two poetic voices – each one uniquely resonant – calling to each other across time and space. Neither is dominant – one is not ‘carrying the other over’ into her language. But the contemporary poet is answering the call of the earlier poet, taking his words and reconfiguring them to give voice to a new music. Astonishing.

The Fado House cover. Mary Noonan. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the worldI love the poetry of French poet Valérie Rouzeau for its extreme linguistic playfulness, in the tradition of French surrealism and poets like Robert Desnos and Apollinaire. Vrouz (2012) is a stunning book of contemporary sonnets, and her most recent book, Éphéméride (2020) is a surprising calendar, exploring time, friendship and loss.

I’ve been trying to find ways to put a shape on grief, and I came across a fantastic collection by Victoria Chang, entitled Obit. Chang takes the form of the obituary and writes a whole book of them in order to distil the grief she felt after her mother died. When someone you love dies, everything dies – Chang has given stunning, lyrical expression to this bald fact.

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

The poetry world is a hard place to be sometimes, but in that it’s no different to the other arts. There are challenges, rejections, failures – and moments of satisfaction, and sometimes even something approaching joy. If you are a poet, none of the setbacks will stop you from writing poetry.

What will sustain you, and ultimately define you, will be your belief in your own poetry. Do everything you can to make this as good as you possibly can make it. This is mainly done by examining the work of other poets, by reading extensively the poetry of the past and of the present – reading is the royal road to writing, there are no short-cuts.

Developing your craft is a lifetime’s project, so be wary of complacency. You must keep reinventing yourself, be always on the ‘qui vive’ – take Bob Dylan as an example! Once you’ve given your creative best to poetry, you’ll be in a strong position to withstand the knocks and the shocks. Believe in your own work: you write the poems you were meant to write, the poems that no one else will write.

***

For a biographical note and links to books by Mary Noonan click HERE

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7 Questions on Poetry: Eleanor Hooker

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

When I was a small child, Dad would invite me to tell a story or sing a song for the family after supper. I would stand by him at the top of the table and recite my made up my stories and songs; it was a thrill to make everyone laugh. Though Dad wasn’t always impressed when, after listening to my stories en route to the seaside, none of my younger brothers or sisters would go in the sea when we arrived. It’s a role I’ve held in my family since then, to bring up the mood in the difficult times with a funny story.

Dyslexia wasn’t recognised as a condition until 1989, so when I was a schoolgirl, anyone who had difficulty with spelling or reading was considered a dunce. Left-handed pupils were also ostracised.  They would be relegated to the ‘Bad Row’, would be caned regularly and had little chance of progression. So being both dyslexic and left handed, I was automatically disadvantaged as my first school teachers couldn’t get past my poor spelling and grammar to read the essence of my stories and poems.

This might sound like a miserable Irish childhood story. It really wasn’t. I was bold. And rebellious. And I pushed back. One day, one of my teachers, who had a particular fondness for the cane, told the class she hated whistlers, that young ladies should never whistle. I whistled as loud as I could, which made the entire class snigger, and I got four whacks on my hand for my troubles.

When it became evident that I was thoroughly unhappy, my parents moved me to a little country Primary School where my Aunt was a teacher and later Headmistress, and everything changed. The different teaching style, the engagement and encouragement seeded my love for the word and language. My stories and essays were never scored in red there, and it didn’t seem to matter in the least that I finished a text behind the rest of the group. I was fortunate that my secondary school had the same philosophy as this school, and I continued to thrive, but I no longer ‘wrote’.

I’ve read poetry and fiction all my life, but it wasn’t until our children were small that I returned to invention, reading them stories from my head, reading them poetry from books. It was so good to revisit the magical thinking of childhood, to revisit it with my own children, but without any of the tyrannies.

After school I trained as an Intensive Care and Coronary Care Nurse, and as a midwife, but still I felt a hunger for higher education so when our younger child was eight weeks old, I enrolled with the Open University to study the arts, and then went on to complete an MA in Cultural History.

My early poems were unsophisticated, soaked in sugar or pathos… or both. I recognised that I needed to learn how poetry worked, what was happening in a poem at the cellular level of language, so I read widely, including poetry, books on form and poetry of all genres and eras. I attended workshops for both poetry and prose, and then went back to school again to complete an MPhil in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin. I learned that to thrive, my own writing had to be authentic, had to come from a place of truth.

I write most days, either poetry or prose. I get cranky and anxious if I don’t get to my desk. I acknowledge that there is much more to learn and not every poem or story can be a success. James Dickey said “I need about one hundred fifty drafts of a poem to get it right, and fifty more to make it sound spontaneous” and I think that’s about right.

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

Rhyme, metre, assonance, word echo and sound echo and all the elements on the page that support the music of a poem, are fully tested when the poem is spoken, so I speak my poems to check their musicality.

End rhymes work in form poems, but outside of that I’m not fond of them, there’s too much danger of dee-dum-dee-dum. Occasionally I will add a word to a poem to interrupt the music, to create a mental trip, to slow the reader down so that they fully consider the metaphor or image or whatever it is I wish to emphasise.

In my early writing, form poems checked my tendency towards volubility and verbosity, and were central to my education in received forms.

In January 2020, Kenneth Keating published an academic paper, ‘ ‘A tight memorizing chain of echoes’: the pantuom in Irish Poetry’ in the Irish Studies Review. In his essay Keating maps the pantuom form, from its origins in Austronesian culture through to its emergence in Irish poetry. Through close reading of my pantuoms and those of Anthony Cronin, Paul Muldoon, Nick Laird, Caitríona O’Reilly, and Justin Quinn, Keating builds an argument that, rather than representing cultural appropriation and distortion as evidenced by European colonisers of Austronesia in nineteenth and twentieth century, our poems are ‘attentive to the history of the form [and] foreground transnational cultural hybridity in an effort to not divest the form of its rich history and its importance in Austronesian culture’.

I found this extraordinary paper fascinating, as it pointed up the importance of knowing the origins of form in poetry and what it means to write in a particular form is not neutral, laden as it is with cultural precedent.

 

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

I get to my desk at 8.30 a.m., after the first long walk of the day. I need my dogs to rest whilst I’m working before luncheon and for that they need a good run and I need the fresh air. I used to write at the kitchen table, but was constantly distracted by guilt over domestic chores.

I moved an old desk from a room we were restoring, to another room down the house. The light is perfect, there are two windows, through which I can see the lake on my right and the cobbled yard through the window in front of me. I’ve made good work at this desk, in this room.

I remember visiting Virginia Woolf’s writing shed at Monk House and thinking, how lovely it would be to have a writing shed like that. Lots of my friends have similar writing sheds in their gardens. We’re currently tidying up a tiny two room stone cottage in the woods here, so that I can go there to write. I used to think I could write anywhere, in the lobe of your ear, but that’s not the case, I was only making notes.

I listen to cello music when I’m writing, it’s calming and gets me in the zone.

On days when I’m too mithered to work, I read, and walk, and listen to podcasts on my walks. This year has been so strange. I don’t mind being solitary, it’s my preferred way to be, but when it’s enforced due to a pandemic, I long to get back into society. 

 

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

Years ago, when I presented the first draft of my MA thesis to my Professor, he came back a little alarmed that I’d included everyone, from Jesus Christ to Schopenhauer in my dissertation. He liked the thesis, but worried the examiners might not, as typically they looked for students to specialise. In the end, it wasn’t a problem; I’d made a watertight case for their inclusion, that I could defend in a viva.

Generally, after three to four years writing, poets have sufficient poems from which to form a collection. I find when I lay out all the poems, themes and motifs emerge of which I wasn’t entirely aware when I was writing each poem. By the end of the selection process poems are huddled together by topic, colour or song. The ‘maybe’s’ are the saddest group, but I know pruning will make the book a stronger, more fruitful creature.

Unless there is an intention to write a mono-themed collection, I think it’s good to have a multiplicity of sounds and refrains. For good or ill, when I’m writing a poem, my best intention is only for that poem at that moment. If I think beyond that, the poem will show its contrivance like a petticoat dipping below the hemline. 

 

What about journals and magazines? How important are they in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work? Do you subscribe to any publications? 


It’s essential to send poems out into the world. It’s also essential to know the journal or magazine to which you’re sending your work, before submitting to them. Without doubt editors’ decisions have a subjective element, so one journal might take poems rejected by another. However, if particular poems keep coming back, it usually signals that they need further consideration, editing or lay away.

That moment of absolute joy when a journal says yes to new poems never fades. And even if a rejection is brutal (editors who don’t use the standard ‘dear Jane’ should really think about what they write in their rejection notes), I allow myself a moment to kick a stone, then limp back to my desk to either rework the poem or send it back out elsewhere. After one particularly mean, hand-written rejection slip from a journal, I sent the poems straight back out, and they were all published.

Of course there’s nothing like that hum of approval from an audience at a live reading, or that deadening silence if a poem doesn’t hit its mark.


I find that I’m running out of shelf space, so I buy journal issues that include writers I like or am curious about, and subscribe to the hard copy/online editions of others. Journals often run on a shoestring budget, so it’s important to support them, and also, by buying the journals I am also supporting the writers they publish. Truthfully when Martin, our postman, delivers parcels of books, my husband jokes, ‘you know what this house needs…is more poetry books’.

 

Who are a couple of your favourite poets and why? Have you a single favourite book of poems?


My book shelves sag with poetry books by friends, by poets at home and from all over the world. I support poets by buying their books and reading them. The danger of lists is the risk of causing offence by omission.

That said, these past months of lockdown, isolation and family loss have taken their toll on so many of us. In the difficult times I’m so grateful not only for the extraordinary poetry of Thomas McCarthy, Leeanne Quinn, John Glenday, Jessica Traynor, Nessa O’Mahony and Martina Evans, but also for their friendship, communication and support these past months, and though she isn’t a poet, but an incredible scholar and writer, I include Linda Connolly here too.

Collections I get lost in all the time and definitely rate as favourites are: Eleanor Wilner’s Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press) and Linda Pastan’s Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998 (Norton)

I am currently reading Paula Meehan’s recently published As If By Magic: Selected Poems (Dedalus Press) and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Collected Poems (Gallery Press).

 

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


Read, read, read like a mad thing, learn your craft, be kind – to yourself and your fellow writers, that’s important advice. Revise, revise and re-rewrite. Rejections can seem a hammer-blow, pick yourself up and get back to your desk. Whilst always being collegiate, strenuously maintain your independence, don’t get involved in cliques or coteries, don’t become anyone’s ‘pet’.

 

 

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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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Poetry and/for Jam

Poetry publishing is an odd business at the best of times. But yesterday’s unusual exchange with a customer was of the kind that makes the more difficult parts worthwhile.
 
In the late morning I received a call from what looked like a local number. A reader was looking for a book from the Dedalus backlist. She had, she explained, already been in touch with a major book chain in the city who told her they’d be happy to order it for her but it might take a while.
 
(For reasons that make little sense to anyone outside of the book trade – and to few inside – some larger bookshop chains manage orders through UK HQs which means that, though Dedalus Towers (ahem) could despatch a copy in the post and have it anywhere in the city, or the country, overnight, we’d first have to wait for an official order (from HQ) to be sent to our distributor, who would then have to order the book from us in turn. Sometimes it’s hard to credit how complicated the world has become.
 
Anyway, having thanked our caller for going to the trouble of finding the publisher (i.e. ourselves) online, I checked to see that she was indeed in the general area, and, discovering that she was barely a mile distant, offered to drop her over a copy of the book in question later in the day.
 
‘Oh that would be great,’ she said, delighted at her good fortune. ‘It’s for a friend who is visiting this week. But how will I pay you?’
 
While I wondered about the kerfuffle of powering up the credit card reader for a single sale, and whether it wasn’t a better and nobler thing to make this the morning’s random act of kindness, she seemed to sense my hesitation and jumped in.
 
‘Do you like jam?’ she asked brightly. ‘Home-made jam?’
 
‘I love it,’ I said.
 
‘Blackcurrant.’
 
‘Even better.’
 
A half hour later I was in a beautifully managed front garden about a mile from base camp, discussing a number of apparently unconnected matters with a perfectly charming perfect stranger: among them the growing of berries and the ‘rolling boil’ necessary to transform the freshly picked fruit into jam …
 
At last we finished up, as you do on a good day in the world, by exchanging poems for jam, a reminder perhaps of how the making of each is itself a vote of confidence in the local ecology.
 
– Pat Boran, 18/08/2020