Interview by Brendan Guildea

Do you think poetry, as a medium, is dead to the masses?

In Ireland, poetry is more respected than read. But the fact that it is respected means that there is a favourable environment in which to write. In the so-called ‘advanced’ industrial western countries, it is viewed as an irrelevant medium for the 21st century. This is not yet true of Ireland, where we had a history of poetry as subversive allegory – Ireland personified as a beautiful maiden – and, in the case of people like Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, poetry as protest against the passing of the old Gaelic order. Then there is the patriotic poetry associated with the Young Irelanders and the fact that the leadership of the 1916 rebellion included at least three poets: Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and my own county man from Tipperary, Thomas McDonagh. W.B. Yeats was heavily influenced by an old Fenian, John O’Leary. The Ulster ‘Troubles’ brought Northern poets like Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley to the attention of a wider public than normal. The combined result of all these historical factors is an environment in which poetry is regarded as relatively normal and even potentially valuable. That sense of normality makes Ireland a positive place for poetry, much more so than the inimical, hostile and alienating environments you find in other western countries.

How has being a successful published poet shaped and affected your life? Would you say you get special treatment at all?

I’ve had a job in the civil service since I was 16. Someone sporting a black broad-brimmed hat and playing the artist would not be welcomed in my workplace, where getting on with the job is all that counts and artistic alibis have no force. In the community at large, one is occasionally asked for feedback on a sheaf of unpublished poems; but, for the most part, people don’t pay the least attention to who you are and that suits me perfectly well. I’m absolutely comfortable in my anonymity.

What glamour comes with being a poet?

Poets should aspire to something more worthy of their calling than glamour. They should not even be embarrassed to aspire to lofty concepts like Truth.

How can one fit writing poetry into a life of work?

If anything, it’s an advantage to have a job because it gives you a context for your writing; it broadens your experience; it grants you a living language on which to draw; it provides endless insights into ‘ordinary life’. Problems arise only in finding time to fulfil reading engagements and for work on criticism and reviews. An example of a task which it would be difficult to complete with a full-time job was my Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations, which contains thousands of poetry quotations that were never collected by anybody else. The idea was to avoid replicating what one finds in other reference books and to create an entirely new reference book comprised of fresh and recent material.
When I interviewed Thomas Kinsella for Poetry Ireland Review, he told me that his years as a civil servant had taught him how best to organise his work and his time; the bureaucratic life has certainly taught me a great deal about using my time as economically as possible. Only in the last couple of decades have poets begun to see poetry as a profession rather than as a calling, something for which formal third-level training is necessary, as though it needed regulation like medicine or law.

Do you write best at any particular time of day or in any particular environment?

If you are in the grip of a really good idea nothing will stop you. Some poets indulge in dandified superstitions and are unable to begin writing in the absence of some triggering smell or some favourite ivory-inlaid writing table. But poetry has been written by people in the most abject circumstances, in the course of horrendous incarceration, in poverty, and adrift in remote arctic gulags. A true poem will transcend the circumstances of its making.
But if an ideal situation is an option, it will naturally enough be one where the more quiet there is, the more early morning it is, the more free of distraction you are, the better; but I suspect that these needs relate more to the conscious business of revision than the more unconscious, instinctive and all-absorbing act of writing itself. Pressure can actually lead to inspiration, in fact. It’s often at the moment when you are least able to actually respond that you are tested by some prompt you receive from the muse. If you happen to be in the middle of a meeting, say, then you can scrawl down a quick mnemonic note and successfully build on it later.

Do you go through hundreds of drafts until you’re satisfied a poem is finished?

It’s possible to over-revise, especially if, in the process, you are extinguishing the initial spark, losing the initial spontaneity of the poem. As the French poet, Paul Valéry famously remarked: “No poem is ever completed, only abandoned.” But Valéry’s remark begs the question of how best to tell that the poem on which you are working should now be abandoned. A poet’s critical judgement needs to be as sharp as his or her writing skills. You ought, ideally, to be your own toughest judge, your own most objective arbiter.

How do you work a moment of insight or inspiration into a poem?

I would tend to leave aside the initial fragmentary lines and phrases and, when I returned to them, would hope to be able to tell from experience whether the material was really promising enough to be worthwhile shaping into a poem.

So you ignore your quick note but try to work on its central concept?

No. The poem’s inspiration – a word which, for all its whiff of antiquity, must still serve for what I have in mind – might still not be complete. The note you scrawled may simply be the start of something which requires a separate inspiration for its completion. Another kind of poem – the ideal kind, the most exhilarating – is the one where everything comes together in one wave, fully formed, and all you need to do is write it down and dust it off. Much more common, however, is a third category where you think you have the most marvellous material, but the whole thing falls flat once the actual writing gets underway. To your great frustration and disappointment, you realise that nothing will come of attempts to salvage it. Best not only to abandon it, but to dump it too.

Would you ever leave a poem uncompleted because you were having trouble finding a single word to complete it perfectly?

Very often I will draw on a particular idiom. I might mimic the language of business, say; corporate language of that kind will obviously require its own idiom. So I have to make sure, as if it were a drama, that I am consistent in my deployment of that idiom. The changing of a word might simply be for the sake of consistency. However, at that stage the poem is already essentially either lost or won.

Tell the story of how your first book got to the published.

When I put together my first book-length typescript (a callow and feeble collection, which I now detest), the most established publisher was the Dolmen Press. They had published, in very stylish volumes, the work of Austin Clarke, Padraic Fallon, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Richard Murphy and Michael Hartnett. So I thought, I should start with Dolmen, although I knew nobody at all in the company and no one had offered to put in a word on my behalf. One morning at work, a letter of reply arrived. The envelope was aglow with Louis Le Brocquy’s lovely red logo of a dolmen. I tore it open and can still recall the phrase used by Liam Miller, the Dolmen Press founder: he said he was ‘vividly impressed’ by the poems and that, if Arts Council support was forthcoming, they certainly would publish them. With the presumption of youth, I assumed that this was how the world worked. You package up your poems, despatch them off to a good publisher and receive an automatic acceptance. If only things were that simple…

What advice would you offer those with aspirations of one day being a published poet?

Every young poet has no choice other than to establish some track record in the literary journals before submitting a book to a publisher. Doing so will also provide vital editorial feedback, even if it comes in the stark form of rejection slips. This is all part of the normal apprenticeship and should not inhibit anyone who is truly dedicated to the art of poetry – someone, that is, who is driven to write poetry rather than to be a poet.

Published in Icarus (Trinity College, Dublin), Volume 58, No. 3, May 2008.