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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Patrick Kehoe, poet and arts journalist, answers 7 Questions on Poetry. His most recent collections of poems are Places to Sleep (Salmon Poetry, 2018) and The Cask of Moonlight (Dedalus Press, 2014).
Do you remember How, or When, or even Why you started writing poems (as opposed to songs, say, or fiction)?
I recall writing poems that were like company or friends to me, at St Peter’s College around 1972 in a blue notebook. I recall pleasure in particular from a poem I wrote about the evening sky changing in the month of October outside the study room windows into night. A great passage through dusk, twilight.
The poem was, I could see, close in its imagery to what I wanted, which engendered a peculiar satisfaction. Such versifying was predicated on the fact that I was conscious of being in boarding school for a five-year sentence and that my freedom was compromised. The view from the study room window was akin to Oscar Wilde’s ‘tent of blue’ as seen from the confines of Reading Gaol.
Five years is a huge block of time in the middle of your early adolescence. It was not relevant that you got home for holidays, you could not be philosophical about time passing quickly, as one ruefully is when one is much older.
So poetry was an imaginative liberation. It is strange that when you endure – or enjoy, as I sometimes did – those days, that one day they will seem so long ago, so much an afterthought.
Rather than doing my study, I loved watching the light fade and the way bits of cloud turned red and then lost the red, or yellow faded somewhere else. I put these visual elements into a poem called ‘Seasons at Saint Peters’ in my book The Cask of Moonlight.
Do you have a favourite poet, or even a favourite poem? A poem you think everyone should read, even know by heart?
I recall in 1973/1974 my friend Eamonn Wall had a few of those Modern European Poets selections from Penguin which I wish they would reissue in exactly the same livery now 40 years on. Jiménez shared a volume with Machado, there was a selection of Mallarmé.
I have only two or three of such volumes but I am very fond of the first half of my Selected Eugenio Montale, the earlier poems, from Ossi di Seppia (Bones of the Cuttlefish) and other early to mid-period work. It’s a peuce-covered slim volume purchased in Copenhagen in 1977.
In general, would you say that you write to expand on an image or idea or to compress and focus it?
How much do you edit? How much do you know where you’re going and how much do you blindly feel your way?
It’s like a sprint to the finish and I know it will be a short sprint, i.e. a short poem, so there is no real pressure. Once done and let rest for a day or so, I realise I must go back to the start again and forget the sprinting. Rather, crawl on my hands and feet around the words as though they were obstacles, but also turnstiles letting me in when I select the right one.
What’s your relationship with ‘received forms’ (the sonnet, ballad, villanelle etc)? Are there other non-traditional form restrictions you place on your work?
Have you ever been a part of a writing workshop and, if so, what do you think you gained from it. If not, is there any reason why not?
A great deal of your poetry is concerned with / based in, Barcelona in the 1970s. Is there something about that place and period that has a special ‘hold’ on you? Is the distance from it (in time and space) a help or a hindrance?
Elaine Cosgrove, author of the much-admired debut Transmissions (Dedalus Press, 2017) takes part in our occasional series and answers 7 Questions on Poetry
Do you remember the first poem you wrote or what prompted it?
How do you get started on a new poem? Is it a conscious effort or something you find yourself doing without plan or premeditation?
How important is music / the sound of the poem to you? Does it play any part in your writing process?
Do you share your poems with anyone before you decide they’re completely finished? (Are you a part of a writing workshop?)
How important to you is taking part in poetry readings and other ‘live’ events?
Do you have favourite poets or favourite poems?
What would you say your immediate friends/family thinks of you as a writer of poetry?
Paddy Bushe in email conversation with Pat Boran about his latest collection of poems, On a Turning Wing, winner of the 2017 Irish Times Poetry Now Award
How important is place to your writing life, both in terms of subject matter and your actual modus operandi, the locations where poems come to you and/or get written down?
Place is of primary significance in my poems, probably the element which is most essential to them. I think this may be because I grew up in a Dublin suburb to which I felt no familial or imaginative ties, and that I have a consequent yearning to be integrated into place, to be a part of place. Of course the result is a willed, creative process rather than an organic, natural one, and this feeds into my poetry. I can place the genesis of most of my poems, a genesis or place that may disappear in the poem itself, but which is very much part of how it develops and survives – if it does. Love poems, political poems, poems about the nature of art – all of these can begin as a kind of invocation of place. For many years most of my work was ‘placed’ in Iveragh in South Kerry, my adoptive home. In more recent times my focus has widened, but usually with Iveragh not too far in the back of my mind.
Your poems are often ‘set’ far from home, reflecting your interest in travel and, in particular, hill-climbing and mountain-trekking. Are you actively writing, note-taking for instance, when you’re on the move? Can you make final versions in situations like that, or is it a case of poetry being something ‘recollected in tranquillity’, as Wordsworth had it?
I’m always full of good intentions about using notebooks, voice recorders, cameras and so forth. But I’m afraid I’m highly disorganised and unsystematic. Notebooks tend to be lost or neglected fairly quickly, and voice recorders gloriously blank when I return. I do find a camera useful as an aide-memoire, and even a stimulus for some new insight after a trip. Sometimes I get a reasonably complete draft of a poem. But my poems usually “stew” for quite a while after the spark first comes, generally in the form of a line or three which move around in my mind for weeks on end. So yes, I’m actively writing, but perhaps in a way that others wouldn’t notice. That’s my usual method – if that’s not too much of an overstatement – whether my work is placed at home or away.
Of course it’s not just in seemingly adventurous things activities like trekking or visiting formerly remote places (is anywhere really remote today?) that inspiration is to be found – galleries in Madrid or Paris, or conversations with musicians and poets in the extraordinary landscape of An tEilean Sgitheanach (The Isle of Skye) can stimulate poems. The genesis and working-out of most poems is humdrum enough, as it is, I imagine, for most poems by most poets. All of which is really to partially concur with Wordsworth’s ‘recollected in tranquillity’ formulation.
It’s the business of the poet, I think, to create rather than recreate. It’s what’s on the page that’s important, not the stimulus that gave rise to it.
Can you talk a bit about being a poet in two languages, Irish and English? Translation aside, how closely related is your poetry in the two languages? Are their subjects that seem more at home or more suited to one or other language?
I suppose the first thing to say is that English was and remains my first language. That’s a matter of fact, not necessarily a matter of choice. I speak, read and write more instinctively and more fluently in English than in Irish. When I began to write, in my late teens, I tended to write mainly in Irish, for ideological reasons. When I started to write again, in my thirties, aspects of that ideological commitment had faded, and I wrote solely in English. Both choices were limiting, and both exclusivist. I began to write again in Irish, especially when the “starter lines” I spoke about earlier suggested themselves in Irish, or in echoes of Irish. These echoes are especially strong where I live, which is residually a strong Gaeltacht area, and whose landscape, culture and history speak to me in Irish more than in English. So the subject and originating circumstances usually now determine the language in which I write, as well as any social or linguistic situation which may have given rise to the poem.
On a slightly different note, I find it puzzling, and indeed a matter of regret, that poets who are capable of writing in both languages so seldom do so. Of course I understand that poetry needs sources with cultural and linguistic depth that goes beyond competence, but I cannot help thinking that the choice is still often influenced – in both linguistic directions – by a hangover from the nationalistic and political takeover of the Gaelic Revival , which I believe has done great damage to the language. I greatly regret, for example, that Michael Hartnett bade A Farewell to English rather than simply making Irish welcome. Further back, I think it’s a great pity that Douglas Hyde – who opposed the nationalistic hijacking of Irish – did not write “The Necessity for Gaelicising Ireland” rather than “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”.
Let it be said, of course, that those who would dismiss our Gaelic inheritance, for either ideological or meretriciously pragmatic reasons, do no service to our cultural life. Irish life and Irish poetry should celebrate the possibility of being genuinely bilingual, and not decide to close one eye in order to favour the other.
Many Irish language poets (who speak fluent English) prefer to have others translate their work, perhaps as a way to keep the energy within the language. How do you approach that task with regard to your own poems, a number of which appear in your new book as they did in earlier volumes?
To be honest, translating myself was a matter of necessity as much as of choice – there was no queue of translators lining up to take on the work! But really I approach the task as I do when I’m translating the poems of, say, Cathal Ó Searcaigh or Gabriel Rosenstock. That is to respect the work, to be as close as possible to the original in meaning, line structure, sound patterns and so forth, while at the same time producing a poem which works in its own right. Obviously, as far as rhyme or other sound patterns is concerned, this can mean finding equivalence rather than exact reflection. The same applies to idioms, metaphors and so on. As a rule of thumb, if I feel I can’t do that, I try to avoid translating the poem.
Some years back you edited the anthology Voices at the World’s Edge, a volume of poetry and prose (with photographs) inspired by the visits under your guidance of a number of poets to Skellig Michael, a place that’s part of the physical and mental landscape you inhabit. If one could put aside the crassness of turning the Skelligs into a kind of monastic Disneyland, as some Government ministers seem determined to do, how would you describe their real value in contemporary Ireland? Do you think we’ve lost the ability to admire and cherish places we are unable to master?
The island isn’t actually visible from my house, as it lies just behind Bolus Head, the northern headland of the two which enclose Ballinskelligs Bay, or Bá na Scealg, on the edge of which I live. But I suppose you could say that for a long time I have had an imaginative line of sight to Skellig, and that it has been central to my imaginative and poetic world for most of my writing life.
The value of Skellig Michael, even in a country which is increasingly post-religious, is primarily spiritual. In other words, it provides an entrance into otherness, otherness of time and place, otherness which I have seen have a profound effect on believers and atheists alike.
And of course there is the extraordinary wildlife and physical beauty of the place, which are part of that spiritual dimension, along with its role in mythology, history, folklore and the various combinations of all three which animate our perceptions of it. The commoditisation xxx of this extraordinary and place is indeed crass. One of the most shameful things I have seen in respect to Sceilg Mhichíl is a tourism promotion film, for which Fáilte Ireland actually paid €25,000 to Disney Lucas, and in which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht spoke. Neither she nor anybody else in the film even mentioned that there was an intact Early Christian monastic site on the island. It’s only quality, the viewers are implicitly told, is how well it fits into the Star Wars narrative. It would be shocking were Donald Trump to say it. To have a government with this mentality – and this went to the highest level of government – is profoundly disturbing. Significantly J.J. Abrams expressed amazement in the film that he had been permitted to film on Skellig. He must have been amazed at the gombeen mentality that secretly gave him that permission.
Your new book takes its title from a line by Hopkins. And Hopkins is something of a guiding presence in a good deal of your writing. What is it you admire in him? Is his influence more marked in your English language writing?
I had always liked Hopkins, from schooldays on. I admire his open and absorbent sensibility, and I recognise, even though I no longer share, his fear-ridden and guilt-ridden Catholicism. He makes great poetry out of feelings and thoughts that I grew up with. I am also fascinated by his intelligence and craft. It seems to me that he combines the sensibility of a romantic poet with the intelligence and craft of a metaphysical poet. When I did an MA with the Open University after retiring from teaching in 1990, I wrote a dissertation on the influence of his feelings of exile and alienation on his Dublin poems. So I read his work fairly intensively at that time. And around the same time, on Skellig Michael, I looked into an abyss (I can be terrified of height) and Hopkins’s lines leaped into my mind:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
That led to my long sequence “Hopkins on Skellig Michael” where my obsession with Skellig coalesced with my enforced obsession with Hopkins. I should make it clear that Hopkins never went there, but I used an imaginary overnight retreat by Hopkins to explore Hopkins’s mind and work, while physically exploring the island.
As you say, Hopkins is an overt presence in this new collection, especially in “Of Paint and Clay and Words”, a line of which gives the collection its name. As regards his general influence on my writing, I’m sure there is, in both languages. But I think that’s for others to trace. It would feel presumptuous for me to do so.
The Scottish Gaelic poet Somhairle MacGill-Eain / Sorley Maclean has been another significant influence, and you walked in his footsteps, literally and metaphorically, when you translated his collected poems into Irish (Ó Choill go Barr Ghéarain, Coiscéim, 2013) a couple of years back. There’s great love of and understanding of place in his work, and great sadness at what is lost. Is it too much, do you think, to suggest that great poetry always walks a line between celebration and elegy?
Somhairle, whom I had the privilege of meeting a few times, is certainly an influence, in both languages. I think he was by far the greatest Gaelic poet, Irish or Scottish, of his era. That’s why I took the decision, against all good sense and reason, to translate his collected poems into Irish. I was very aware that the potential readership of poetry in a threatened minority language translated into a sister threatened minority language would be of interest to a minority of a minority of a minority. But I got enormous satisfaction from it, despite it being such challenging work over a period of three years.
I have also dedicated two poems to him, one in English and another in Irish. And, although the connections is disguised rather than overt, the poem ‘The Music Master and the Poet’ in my new collection is based on a story the poet and musicologist John Purser, who lives on Skye, told me about himself and Somhairle.
I also got great satisfaction out of working with my son, Éanna de Buis, on his film Ar Lorg Shomhairle: In Sorley’s Footsteps in which we traced Somhairle’s poetry in the landscape of Skye and Raasay which stimulated so much of his poetry, even though he rarely took landscape description as a subject for his poems. But he embodied love poems, political poems and historical poems in his landscape, in works of enormous power, beauty and above all, integrity.
I think there is a great deal of truth in what you say about elegy and celebration in great poetry. I’ll pass on whether or not it applies to all great poetry, but it certainly applies to many great works of art, be they literary, dramatic, musical, visual or whatever. And I would certainly think that all elegy necessarily implies celebration.
That sense of both celebration and elegy is certainly evident in the poem sequence here about Tech Amergin, the arts centre in which you and your wife Fíona were very much involved for many years. Arguments like this often, and rightly, take place in the public arena of a local newspaper. What are you hopes and intentions in giving it a new life in verse?
That sequence, which I found extraordinarily difficult to write, and still find difficult to read aloud, started out as an outburst of rage and of contempt for the bureaucracy which, in an act of corporate revenge and vindictiveness, got rid of the voluntary group which for a number of years, on a completely voluntary basis, had run a high-quality, wide-ranging arts programme at a tiny cost, and at no cost to the educational committee which held legal ownership of the centre, again entirely due to local voluntary effort. At the moment, four years later, there is a minimal programme which is a shadow of what there used to be.
The detail of that deliberate destruction of an arts programme is for another day. But as I was writing the poem, I realised that merely to vent my anger and contempt might give me temporary satisfaction, but would tell a very limited story. So I decided also to celebrate what there had been, and to try to show a little of how precious it had been in the community, and how the bureaucratic bullying which lay behind the destruction of that preciousness hurt the community which the bureaucracy nominally served. I hope the poem speaks for the belief that all communities are enriched by access to the arts, and becomes a plea for that access to be universal.
Link: On A Turning Wing by Paddy Bushe
To coincide with the launch of her new collection of poems, Geomantic, we link here to a recording of a wide-ranging conversation between the poet and UCD Adjunct Professor Jody Allen Randolph, in an event that took place at The National Library of Ireland, in April 2016, during the course of which Meehan reads and discusses many of the poems in the book.
Theo Dorgan is the guest on this week’s Poetry Programme (Saturday 20 February at 7:30 pm, RTÉ Radio 1), reading from his most recent collection Nine Bright Shiners (Dedalus Press, 2014), his translations of Maram al-Masri’s Barefoot Souls, and previewing the forthcoming Mountains to Sea literary festival.
The show will also be available to listen back to online at http://www.rte.ie/radio1/the-poetry-programme
Patrick Deeley shares his thoughts on poetry with Aoife Byrne, following the publication of Groundswell, his New and Selected Poems
(Interview first published in July 2013)
Do you have a particular method of writing?
Each collection seems to tie in with a particular period of five or six years in my life. I have to live a bit, to gather fresh experiences as raw materials for poems. So for example the new work in Groundswell, recently published, has to do with my ongoing preoccupations – landscape that’s both rural and urban, stories from history and modernity, meditations on nature and folklore – but now as well there are poems that dwell on ageing, on art and music, on the sustaining of love over time and on the nourishment that comes from a long-lasting love. These themes have come more and more to the forefront.
“I write mainly at night. I enjoy the quietness. The poem often starts with an image, and I build on this and see where it goes.”
I love the physicality of being in the world. I plunge in. Images come of that sensual engagement, but then there’s narrative as well. If I’m lucky the poem gathers to some kind of earned wisdom or insight. After the rush of the initial draft I have a fair idea whether there’s something worth keeping or not. Then I edit. This job of editing is about as much fun as trying to extract a thistle thorn from your finger with a sewing needle – but crucial if the poem is to have a chance.
How has growing up in Ireland influenced your poetry?
I spent my childhood in rural East Galway in the late 1950s and early 1960s. My father was mad about machines and timber. He had a sawmill and a carpentry workshop where he made all manner of things – hurleys, furniture, cartwheels, farm implements, even coffins at one stage. I loved watching him shaping wood. My mother as well as being a home-maker did much of the farming. Part of the farm consisted of a Callows or wetland meadow, with its own specialised flora and fauna. I skived off there just to avoid work. Both the beauty and solitude grew on me, and influenced my poems, later – I saw nature in its raw state, up close, at first hand. But the skills my father possessed, and the lives of local people who lived round about us, and their colloquial speech, also chimed with me when I began to write.
My grandmother made ballads. Seumas O’Kelly, a relation of my father’s, wrote the highly regarded novella, The Weaver’s Grave. But there were few books in our house. My parents were pragmatic. They worked hard. They loved talk, the oral tradition. I began to write only after I’d moved to Dublin to train as a teacher. The home place and the memories came back to me unsentimentally. I enjoyed the quickness and the freedom of city life, and that also has shaped my poems. I still return to County Galway every so often, to meet my family. It’s the trigger of childhood memories, but when I splice these with later experiences and events from the present the poem happens out of that.
Landscape is sometimes still the spur, but I’m more interested in how we’ve harnessed and transformed it. My own memories, as well as more general notions about the primordial, can work as a starting point, but the poem must catch and connect the old world up with the possibilities of now. That, for me, is the challenge and the excitement. Somebody remarked that you have to keep glancing around and behind you while reading my poems. I like the implication, the ghost lurking in the machine of the poem at any moment liable to jump out.
Are there any particular themes that, as a poet, you feel compelled to write about?
Yes. To do with nature, but not simply as nature poems, more a case of how we impact on the earth and how the earth impacts on us. Groundswell: New and Selected has five sections and these sections have themes in common as well as specific themes of their own. In the first section, ‘The Hidden Village’, I address my early life and the lives of my neighbours in Foxhall, the townland where I was born.
In ‘King of the Wood’, trees are the compulsion, for themselves and for the myths and folktales associated with them. These are frequently given a modern twist or written at a slant. My father lost his life in a tree-felling accident, and maybe it was a working out of grief at what had happened that brought me to face up to trees, their beauty and their versatility, their panoply of legends and their mystery, and the sense of loss I felt for my father, with his sawmill and workshop and the machines and implements he had put his hand to left behind as a reminder of him.
In ‘The Flowing Bones’ section I examine aspects of the earth and its creatures at ground level, to find out what makes them tick, and I focus more on city life as well as on the increasing urbanisation of rural Ireland over the past decade or so.
In the fourth section, ‘Fear Bréige’, I’m having a lash at the recent economic disasters that befell our country – using as catalyst a rudimentary scarecrow or ‘Fear Bréige’ who finds himself in Dublin, living with some builders and made to serve as an ineffectual witness of the entire boom and bust.
And in Groundswell, the substantial batch of new poems that comprise the fifth section of the book, well… I’ve talked about some of the themes there earlier.
Has your idea of poetry changed since you started writing?
“I think poetry – the reading and the writing of it – helps to enrich and develop our consciousness.”
In my classroom in Ballyfermot when I was a teacher I encouraged the children to write poems in their own language and out of their own experience, for precisely this sense of personal enrichment – not just in terms of vocabulary but because poetry helps expand our ‘creative space’, where alternative possibilities in the way we live our lives can occur to us.
For my own part, each poem is always a beginning, a shot in the dark. It’s a more studied undertaking now, less fun perhaps because I’m trying to ratchet it up in terms of stretching the language as fully as I can, and deepening the layers of meaning or potential meaning, and aiming for beautiful expression always, even when the world the poem confronts is distasteful or unfair or considered ugly. I hope that the ‘argument’ in my poems has caught up with the imagery, that the wonder remains, and that the payoff for the reader is in finding more pleasure, greater reward in reading the poems.
Do you think that the core ingredient of a poem is that it should be read aloud in order to be fully appreciated?
It depends on the poem, I think. Some poems are slow-burn, and need a good mulling over. Others demand the carry of the air. Others still may fit both forms of presentation. People who attend poetry readings often say that the poem read aloud by the poet enables them to appreciate it more. But then, reading poems aloud to an audience is its own knack, one that not every poet can manage effectively.
What do you think constitutes a successful reading?
A big and happy crowd held spellbound by a poet performing at the top of his or her powers?
Are there any other poets to whose work you continually return?
“There are several poets I admire, but what I tend to do is return to certain poems which I consider to be great and which I never tire of reading.”
I admire the way Hopkins mints a language to match his restless search, and the passion of John Donne expressed with tremendous technical excellence. The pure vulnerability of Theodore Roethke appeals to me, his lyricism hitting the spot, taking you there. I met him once, when I was a child. He bought drinks for my father and the other men in John Joe Broderick’s pub in Kilrickle.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Making Way, a novel by Theo Dorgan, and Savage Solitude, a book about the nature of being alone, by Máighréad Medbh. I’m also reading current issues of The Stinging Fly, Poetry Ireland Review and The Shop – but not just because I happen to have poems in them!
Are there any creative mediums that you’d like to pursue that you haven’t yet?
Recently I took early retirement from the job of primary school principal in order to devote more time to writing. Memoir interests me. At some stage I’d like to write about my father’s life – spent, as he would have it, “following tractors and various other contraptions”. I’ve had works of fiction for young people published by O’Brien Press, and if or when the poems leave me alone I may go back to that.
Which other contemporary Irish writers do you admire?
I admire far too many contemporary Irish writers to even begin to mention just a few.
Do you often find yourself in the company of other poets? If so, how do you think this might influence your work?
I don’t often meet other poets, except at the occasional book launch or festival. I never discuss my work with them – apart from with my editor, Pat Boran – nor do they discuss their work with me. I do feel that we recognise each other’s struggle, however, and the odd word of praise back or forth for work published does matter, especially from someone whose own work you admire.
Do you think the reading public has any preconceptions about poetry? If so, do you think that they are correct presuppositions?
The poetry reading public is small but passionate about poetry. I really don’t know what presuppositions there may be out there generally or even among poetry followers, but people who attend poetry readings seem well informed about the contemporary scene. What I would hope for are more informed anthologists, some of whom seem led by media perceptions of ‘who matters’ and ‘whose work is important’. I would in common with other poets also welcome more space for reviews and critical attention for poetry.
Do you use the Internet to find new poetry? If so, where do you go?
I go to various sites including that of The Munster Literature Festival and The Irish Literary Times. Naturally I go to the Dedalus Press website for their ‘Poem of the Month’ and to see what’s up. I often use the Internet to locate the work especially of the poets of old, when I can’t find their poems in books, but I still buy a fair amount of poetry books. I’ve a roomful of them, going back over thirty years.
What about some advice for aspiring Irish poets?
Apart from the obvious things such as persevering at the craft and reading the work of proven poets, I’d say follow your own path, but with an open mind and out of an emotional imperative.
What is it about poetry in particular that attracts you as a writer?
“Writing poems helps me to stay open to the world. I enjoy the pressure it puts me under, and the pleasure when the poem catches fire. It’s a solitary task and while I tend to be gregarious the solitariness of poem-making draws me in.”
As a child looking at nature, I often fell into a trance. People say of the new poems in Groundswell that the wonder is still there. The poems help me come to terms with things, in a sense preserve the experiences and the wonder. Writing poems is for me an affirmation of the world and of my place in it. And the world, for all its faults and failings, deserves to be sung – passionately, beautifully, even in the cracked voice of a poet.
3 Poems from Groundswell: New and Selected Poems
Again we find ourselves carried away by the thought
of having discovered each other. And in
your garden now this monkey-puzzle, fossil mother
of suburbia, suggests South America.
Wild, we both say, in the parlance of today
or yesterday. Except it all started ages ago – the way
we talked to beat the band, the love play
we wanted to make before the diplodocus that peeped
shyly round a tree could be taken for a common
streetlamp, the blundering brontosaurus
trembling hedge and tarmac become – in a heartbeat
or a time-slip – our last bus back, the one
we might run to catch or contrive to miss on purpose.
Perspectives through sound: a blackbird’s
oath, sworn from a chimney-stack;
the mellifluous coos of woodpigeons
conjuring sunbeams amid high ivy clusters;
a robin’s pipe, happening to approve
of cotoneaster berries. But if the tremulous,
piercing notes of the thrush
are expansions of space and time, rolling me
wide and far, I still hear the magpie’s
screeched assertion from a wall overlooking
the covered-in quarry, that all was
winter yesterday, was stone the day before.
Apollo did the dirt, slew poor old serpent god Python,
whose corpse gradually decomposed – the smell,
initially horrible, had tempered itself by the time
the Sibyl breathed it in, and was now an entrancing perfume.
Rubbish, say the experts, that Delphic whiff
was naturally occurring ethylene. But what a gas, still,
what prophecies came to shape the destinies
of peasants and kings trying to live up or down to them.
And if my wetlands will-o’-the-wisp must turn
to methane, or luminosities glissading my skin as I rise
from the turlough are to pass for algal
fluorescence, they’ve long since exerted their influence.
Here is ground and groundswell, fit matter
for a day’s dalliance or a lifetime spent deliberately looking.
Here we speak to each other because of the river –
not the fact of the river but the mood it pushes,
the clay-coloured flood so deep the heron must step
aside from it, the water-hen retreat under St. Patrick’s cabbage.
And, fresh as Hopkins saw it, ‘Kingfishers catch
fire’, their orange bellies flaring from a blue-plumed bush.