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Poetry Affair by Polina Cosgrave

Polina Cosgrave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Mutsuo Takahashi receives Seamus Heaney Award, Japan

Mutsuo Takahashi

We are delighted to report that Mutsuo Takahashi, whose On Two Shores: New and Selected Poems Dedalus published back in 2006 (and reissued only a few months ago in a handsome hardback edition) has been announced as the inaugural recipient of the Seamus Heaney Award, Japan, an award which “recognises distinguished contribution to literary relations between Ireland and Japan.”

Congratulations to Takahashi-san, and to his translators Mitsuko Ohno and Frank Sewell, and to Nobuaki Tochigi who contributed the book’s Introduction.

Mutsuo Takahashi’s On Two Shores was the first bilingual Japanese-English poetry book published in Ireland. It is a significant part of our own ongoing literary relations with Japan, which includes Irene de Angelis and Joseph Woods’ major anthology Our Shared Japan (2007), Mikiro Sasaki’s Sky Navigation Homeward (2019) and our forthcoming anthology of 100 classical Japanese poems, due later in 2020, from Nell Regan and James Hadley.
The full text of the announcement from the Embassy of Ireland in Japan may be found HERE.
Poetry Matters: Spread the Word!
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Dedalus Press 2020 Vision

selection of books - Dedalus Press 2020 Vision

First a brief recap of the year just ended, then back to the future!

Before we consider the Dedalus Press 2020 vision, let’s take a brief look back at the year just ended.

Bogusia Wardein reading

2019: What A Year That Was

With new collections of poetry from Mary Noonan, Pat Boran, Catherine Phil MacCarthy and Patrick Deeley, Mikiro Sasaki, Enda Wyley and Ross Thompson, and our biggest project of the year, the publication of Writing Home: The ‘New Irish’ Poets, this year more than ever we feel we’ve helped redefine the meaning of the phrase ‘new writing from Ireland’.

Writing Home poets group photograph - Dedalus Press 2020 Vision

WRITING HOME feature in The Irish Times

Writing Home signatures

The Dedalus Press 2020 Vision

THE YEAR AHEAD is every bit as exciting and adventurous. With the first new books already set for publication in early February, our line up for 2020 includes new collections by Enda Coyle-Greene, Leeanne Quinn, Doireann Ní Ghriofa, Gerry Murphy and Gerard Smyth, the much-anticipated Selected Poems of Paula Meehan, the English language debut of Russian-born Polina Cosgrave (one of the contributors to Writing Home), an anthology of 100 classical Japanese poems translated into English by Nell Regan and James Hanley, and a two-volume publication from Paddy Bushe featuring a new collection in English and his selected poems in Irish, accompanied by the author’s own translations.

Patrick Deeley reading - Dedalus Press 2020 Vision

We’ve long been convinced that Ireland is ideally placed to act as a bridge between Europe and the New World, not only to promote our own writers to an international audience, but also to play a central role in the global poetry conversation. We look forward to further exploring these connections in the year (and decade!) ahead.

Enda Wyley and Ross Thompson - Dedalus Press

Become a Friend or Subscriber

BECOME A FRIEND OR SUBSCRIBER to the Dedalus Press and support us in our mission to Spread the Word.

Ranging from €100 to €300 annually, there are three basic levels of support, Paperback, Hardback and Friend, all of which see all new books (a minimum of 8 in the coming year, and where possible signed by the authors) dispatched to subscribers in the week of publication. Any additional, occasional or special publications during the year are also automatically included at no extra cost.

In recognition of their extra level of support, Friends also receive an exclusive Limited Edition publication, not otherwise for sale, comprising new work by poets associated with the press.

selection of books - Dedalus Press 2020 Vision
Mikiro Sasaki Reading

Subscriptions are for a period of one year (Subscribers can choose whether to begin with the next or the most recent Dedalus Press publications). And, in what we think should be standard practice in such matters, Subscriptions DO NOT automatically renew: instead we are more than happy to send a polite reminder to subscribers when their current subscription comes due for renewal.

For more details of the various options available, or to sign up for a Subscription for yourself, or indeed a gift Subscription for a friend or loved one, please see the full details on the Dedalus Press website here.

In any case, thank you for your interest and support during what has been one of our busiest years to date. We hope we can look forward to your continued support in the Dedalus Press 2020 vision in the year to come.

YOUTUBE VIDEO: A brief overview of the work of the Dedalus Press, featuring clips of readings by Enda Wyley, Rafael Mendes, Polina Cosgrave, John O’Donnell, Bogusia Wardein, Mikiro Sasaki, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Theo Dorgan, Jessica Traynor, Evgeny Shtorn, John Kelly, Nidhi Zak and Macdara Woods.