Interview by Mark Thwaite

You say [in Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams] that what you recall from school about poetry is a physical reaction to language. Is that still the case now? Is that the first way that you judge the success of a poem?

In Emily Dickinson’s much-cited touchstone for a poem, she feels “physically as if the top of my head were taken off”. A.E. Housman applies a bristling skin test to poetry, another famous example of a physical criterion for the efficacy of a poem. Goosebumps and decapitation are not the whole story, though. The physical aspect is the one that’s easiest to be sure about – it registers on your pulse rate, after all, and is the one that’s least embarrassing to talk about. But the deepest reactions to a great poem will – pace Emily Dickinson – actually be over the top.

I know I am in the grip of a true poem when I can hardly bear to read it calmly at first, so all-embracing and far-reaching is its instantaneous effect on me. I realise I am about to meet with psychic turbulence; undergo a vast excitation of mind, soul and body that will turn me outside in. This is not something I can face lightly. I need to adjust and acclimatise – cool down, in short – before I feel capable of responding adequately to the emotional, musical and verbal demands of the poem. I avert my eyes for a while, blink in dazzlement or take a short walk… Robert Frost describes the experience exactly: “The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken a mortal wound. That he will never get over it.”

Does your poetry “descend” or do you work and work at each and every word and line?

“Descend”, in this context, is a word with a lofty rather than lowly air about it. I recoil from it somewhat, lest it seem pretentious or self-aggrandising – as if the poet were party to some gilded angelic annunciation or received tongues of fire like an apostle in an illuminated manuscript. Yet, the word is not to be altogether dismissed or disparaged. Like a lot of people, I am completely passive in my writing of poetry. Unless I sense the rhythms, see the images and hear the words spontaneously, I am helpless. I cannot force my hand; cannot create a poem by wilfully manipulating my pen across the white expanses of the page – it simply has to be prompted. Usually, what is termed “inspiration” means that the ingredients of the poem are gathered for you and you must then concoct a suitable recipe. There are rare and wonderful moments, though, when the entire poem is served in one delicious, steaming hot course by a Muse in the guise of a discreet waitress who knows exactly which of today’s “specials” will perfectly match your appetite. I never try to devise tricks for artificially triggering off a poem: experience has taught me that to do so is a complete waste of time, resulting in an unconvincing forgery. I have no interest in writing any poem I am able to resist – and poetry can manage very well without my fakes and out-takes.

Beckett, I think it was, said something about how as an Irish writer writing in English he was already writing in a foreign language. Do you feel that way? Is their something peculiar about Irish English, its rhythms and language, that you bring to your work?

I speak Irish (Gaelic) passably well and make a point of listening to the Irish language radio station – enduring, in the process, my share of accordion bands, dentally-challenged balladeers and over-eager discussions about the level at which the next Government grant for Irish-speaking districts will be pitched. I’m certainly aware of Irish as an ancestral language ghosting my sensibility in certain ways; but whether or not it is ghost-writing my poems I cannot tell. Having lived in Ireland all my life, I can hardly be anything but Irish – Irish in ways that are properly invisible to me. My inclination, in any event, is to play down my Irishness rather than whip it up. Nothing is more potentially damaging to the Irish writer than buying in to the myth that we have some monopoly on colourful locutions and the so-called “gift of the gab”; too many Irish writers have fallen prey to such delusions.

Any Irish poets (indeed any poets of any nationality) that we should be looking out for?

2005 is the centenary year of Padraic Fallon’s birth. He published only one book of poems in his 69 years of life: that book, appearing under the barest of titles Poems, was actually published just a few months before his death. But his work has certainly not been difficult to find since then. His poetry – a Collected Poems and a selection called A Look in the Mirror – was published in the UK by Carcanet, who recently issued his iridescent radio plays. The Collected Poems is introduced by Seamus Heaney, no less, and A Look in the Mirror by Eavan Boland, one of Fallon’s most loyal and persuasive advocates. Eamon Grennan, Peter Sirr and Neil Corcoran have written excellently about his work; my own case for Fallon appears in my essay collection, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams. We are all convinced of his importance as a bridge between Yeats and later Irish poets, between Gaelic Ireland and modern Ireland; convinced too that he is an immensely readable and rewarding poet in his own right. Yet, neither in Ireland or anywhere else is Fallon’s work really known.

Canal-bank festivals, radio and TV documentaries, newspaper features and special issues of magazines, commemorative readings in the Gate Theatre in Dublin and the National Concert Hall, not to mention an emerald-green postage stamp, marked the Patrick Kavanagh centenary last year. There are poetry awards in his name, a visitor’s centre at his birthplace, guided coach tours of his heartland, an annual literary festival in his honour… I love Kavanagh’s work and don’t grudge him one handful of his well-deserved applause; but Fallon, his quieter but no less gifted contemporary, deserves a big hand also.

Among living Irish poets, our most underrated is Joe Sheerin, whose tragicomic voice blurts out deep and dark truths. Elves in the Wainscotting (Oxford Poets / Carcanet, 2002) is a droll and troubling masterwork by this Leitrim-born poet who has lived in England for most of his life.

Czeslaw Milosz called Simone Weil and Oscar Milosz “writers in whose school I obediently studied”. Who, in this sense, schooled you?

Bertolt Brecht. The poet rather than the playwright. And, as a non-speaker of German I’m afraid, the translated poet in John Willett’s Poems 1913 – 1956, rather than the unmediated poet in the original German. He constitutes an entire school in himself (unruly pupils included) – the headmaster laconic and lapidary; his teaching assistants ranging from scathing satirists to subtle psalmists.

I have deliberately been a poor student of Bertolt Brecht’s life, knowing I would be totally out of sympathy with his post-war political posturing and his hypocritical behaviour in various spheres. Ours is a fiercely judgmental age in which we are encouraged to think the worst of every writer (if only to make ourselves feel morally superior). With Brecht, I concentrate my time and attention on what is the very best thing about him as a writer: his incontrovertible greatness as a wry, wise, humane poet and consummate craftsman.

What does receiving the American Academy of Arts & Letters E. M. Forster Award mean to you?

The poet C.K. Williams, who judged the 2005 E.M. Forster Award with the playwright John Guare and the novelist Alison Lurie, recently remarked that “A friend of mine once said, ‘The fear of failure is the common cold of the artistic personality.’ Once you win a prize, it puts a dent in that – at least for a few hours!” It was of course an enormous encouragement and surprise to find three distinguished American writers, with whom I had no previous communication of any kind, air mailing me news of an award on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In fact, the very existence of the Forster Award was news to me – I had no idea what it was or that I was eligible, let alone that I was being seriously considered.

Do you still work for Irish Customs?

You’d have to ask my boss! But, Yes is the answer – though not for much longer. As a result of the decentralisation of my office to my native Tipperary, I am about to be transferred to a new (and, as yet, unspecified) role in Ireland’s labyrinthine Revenue organisation (I have declared a preference for remaining in Dublin and moving to work in the strategy, planning, policy-making areas).

Before Customs, I managed the Stamp Duties adjudication office in Dublin Castle. My first job – at the age of 16 – was in the Death Duties office. Literary people who know of my Customs connection tend to flatteringly invoke names like Chaucer and Melville. Alas, one does not become a Melville any more than one becomes a Bartleby simply by working in a Customs House. Padraic Fallon, by the way, worked for Irish Customs – though, if what I’ve heard is true, “work” might be too strenuous a word with which to burden his role in a sleepy coastal town where ships requiring Customs clearance scarcely ever slipped into the silting harbour.

I have found my day-jobs variously fulfilling and frustrating, educating and enervating. You cannot be sure that one word you have written as a poet is any good; and I have never had the kind of certainty about my writing which would have permitted me to put poetry at the full-time centre of my life. To seek to earn a livelihood from poetry-related activity – to put the Muse out to work – would have been nothing short of hubris for me. Yet one needs time, quiet and concentration to discover what one is capable of as a poet. Having spent over thirty years in busy full-time jobs, I have more recently – thanks to the generosity and encouragement of the Lannan Foundation – been experiencing the luxury of a part-time working routine; achieving at last the perfect balance between life and art, between my Customs desk with its reams of laws, tariffs, regulations and instructions and my poetry desk where the pages are blank, instructions are irrelevant and every new poem is a law unto itself.

What are you working on now? What is coming next?

A UK letterpress, Happy Dragons, is about to produce a chapbook containing my prose-poetry sequence 50 O’Clock; the final version of the poem is – in Webspeak – “still under construction”. I am one of five Irish poets liberally represented in an imminent American-published anthology The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry 1 (Wake Forest University Press). My compilation of contemporary quotations about poetry and poets is scheduled for publication in 2006 by Bloodaxe Books (who commissioned it) – my hope is that this book will interest anyone reading, writing or teaching poetry and of course lovers of pithy quotes and quips of all kinds. There’s an Anvil anthology in the offing also. Muse willing, a further collection of my poems may eventually cohere. Other projects are in the pipeline too but I don’t want to, as it were, choke the pipe by spilling too many beans.

How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?

I put all my poetry on the long finger and the long hand: the long finger because I try to let the idea for a poem marinate as long as possible in the juices of the subconscious between the initial impulse and the initial writing; the long hand, because I cling superstitiously to the commonplace notion that there is some stimulative and creative connection between the movement of the hand and the flow of the imagination. Where the computer is very useful is in displaying the architecture of the poem – allowing you to play with alternative forms and test various line-lengths far less laboriously than in the rattling good old days of the Smith Corona with its end-of-line ringtone. My computer superstitions do not extend to critical articles – or to website questionnaires for that matter. I am typing as I speak…

What are you favourite websites?

I haven’t really developed webbed feet or Web fingers to any great extent. I’m a paddler rather than a surfer. But Poetry Daily has been my favourite daily dip – love at first site! – since we clicked together several years ago. Like a good poem, the site contains nothing that is superfluous; yet everything essential is there: essays and poems, news and interviews, broadcasts and lists of new publications. The editing is discreet and discerning, eclectic and selective, a model of its kind. I keep a watchful eye on some other excellent sites, including The Page, Contemporary Poetry Review and Poetry Hut Blog. George Szirtes’s high-energy personal site combines the diary of a distinguished poet and translator with ruminations on art and reflections on life and politics: a fascinating new genre is unscrolling there.

What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer?

My favourite book – no doubt about it – is The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse, edited by Emrys Jones. Luckily, I bought the hardback when it first appeared in 1991 – otherwise it would have disintegrated from use by now. This is the grounding in poetry I missed as a result of having studied Law rather than English at university. To read Elizabethan poets is like being present at poetry’s Big Bang. Was there ever a period when language was more inventive, more improvised, more alive? And I love the zing and zest with which these poets wrestled with poetry in other languages, permanently enriching and influencing English literature in the process.

What book do you wish you had written?

I can’t honestly say I am much given to wishing I had written some book or other. I am more inclined to admire a great work than to envy or covet it. And if I admire it sufficiently, I will want to write about it rather than actually wish to have written it. However, I am sometimes miffed to discover that a poet has beaten me to the publishing post with a poem on a theme I was already exploring. In that sense, there are perhaps occasions when I wish I had written or published something sooner.

Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?

The obvious: remember there is no one “correct” way of becoming a writer. As somebody who has never in my life been inside a poetry workshop or creative writing class, either as student or tutor, I resist the idea that all aspiring writers need to somehow “qualify” as artists – as if, to follow the hierarchical logic of the creative writing institutions, those with a doctorate in writing could expect ipso facto to write better (or command higher royalties!) than those with a mere master’s degree or none at all. The very quirks and eccentricities which a workshop will probably discourage may in fact be the aspiring writer’s most valuable capital in the longer term. Would-be literary Samsons should be wary of enrolling in a hairdressing school.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I have too many bad memories of overly-long poetry readings to linger any longer at this podium. I’ll tidy away the question marks and thank my host and those of you who came along. Thanks for your company. Drinks, anyone?, July 2005.