Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sarah Clancy -A Q & A Session with the author of Thanks for Nothing, Hippie and Stacey and the Mechanical Bull

March 1 to March 31
Q and A Session with Sarah Clancy
author of
Stacey and the Mechanical Bull and 
Thanks for Nothing, Hippies

I first became familiar with the work of Sarah Clancey, Galway, through reading two of her short stories.  I have already published and posted on one of them, "Hold the Front Page" (the story is here) and I will post another very soon.  I am very proud to say these are her first published short stories, after three books of poetry.  

I thank Sarah Clancey for her very interesting answers to my questions.   Her answers contain lots of reading suggestions and she give us some very welcome additional insights into the workings of creative writing workshops in Galway.  Her insights are fascinating.  You should read her response when I asked her if you could do a remake of Roberto Bolano's satire of Latin American writers, Nazi Literature of the Amercas set in Galway, one of the truly great literary cities of the world.

You can purchase Sarah Clancey's books at the webpage of her publisher, Salmon Poetry, one of Ireland's premier publishers.

Author Data

Sarah Clancy has been shortlisted for several poetry prizes including the Listowel Collection of Poetry Competition and the Patrick Kavanagh Award. Her first book of poetry, Stacey and the Mechanical Bull, was published by Lapwing Press Belfast in December 2010 and a further selections of her work were published in 2011 & 2012 by Doire Press Galway. Her second collection of poetry 'Thanks for Nothing, Hippies' Salmon Poetry 2012 was launched at the Cuirt International Festival of literature last year and has been very well received   Her poems have been published in The Moth Magazine, The Stinging Fly,Revival Poetry Journal, The Stony Thursday Book, The Poetry Bus, Irish Left Review and have been translated and published in Mexico and Slovenia.  She was the runner up in the North Beach Nights Grand Slam Series 2010 and 2011, and was the winner of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature Grand Slam 2011.She was an invited guest at the 2011 Vilenica Festival of Literature in Slovenia and at the Cork Spring Poetry Festival and in Spring 2012 her poem “I Crept Out” received second prize in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition.

Question and Answer Session with Sarah Clancey

Who are some of the contemporary short story writers you admire? If you had to say, who do you regard as the three best ever short story writers?

Richard Ford, Al Kennedy, Eduardo Galeano, Gabriel Garcia Marquez , Gerard Donavan, E Annie Proulx, Jane Gardam, Ali Smith, Roborto Bolano, James Martyn Joyce, Kevin Barry, William Wall, Mary Costello, Bernard Mc Laverty, William Trevor,  Etc etc etc etc  Regarding the best ever, it would be impossible really not to begin with James Joyce for Dubliners, and I’d go from there in a roundabout way to Raymond Carver and Somerset Maugham or Borges. 

2. I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish and alcohol plays a much bigger part in the Irish stories. How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish culture.

'Hold the Front Page is actually set in Britain, though that may not be apparent, the press involved in the story are from there, though I agree the speaker’s tongue has been loosened by alcohol. An outsider should probably take Irish drinking for what it is. I think it says very straightforwardly that the consumption of alcohol is common and prevalent in Ireland. It is an activity that I am fond of myself on occasion. We can of course go and look to colonialism and the emasculation of our men for the cause, or to the weather, or to the fictitious melancholy Irish soul or to a multitude of other reasons that may all have something to them. In Ireland we famously have a ‘poor’ relationship with alcohol, albeit one that people cross continents to join us in,  and  in fact many of them return to where they are from and build replicas of Irish drinking venues all over the world. Certainly our drinking causes harm in many families, and in particular to many young people.  It is also a major factor in depression which is prevalent here and I don’t mean to dismiss the seriousness of that at all, however people do not drink to cause problems, nor in search of depression, they drink because they like it and because it is habit and for the most part, it is fun. 

Drinking in Ireland i.e the act of swallowing alcohol is the exact same as in many other countries and in particular in ex-pat communities of people who live abroad. However from my own experience of travelling, drinking as a pastime or night out abroad is far less enjoyable than the same enterprise is in Ireland. For example I think of New Zealand with its big screen sports-bars, of Australian bars with poker machines lit up in the corners and haunted by gamblers, of the US and its pitchers of flavourless beer, of men-filled double door saloons in Mexico, of sleazy concrete places in the dry state of Goa in India that one must enter through an apartment block, etc etc you get the picture and in some ways the fact that many bars here are hospitable, warm, reasonably clean and set up for conversation or music is probably a factor.  Note that I am old enough not to have to run the gamut of night clubs anymore and so the places I chose to frequent are maybe more cosy than those a younger age group inhabits.

3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work.
 I claimed in my post on your work that some of your stories are text book cases of this theme. Why do you think this came to play so strongly in your work?

I don’t think this is the case in the particular stories of mine that you have published though it may be true in others, in "Sausage" and "Hold the Front Page, I think you’ll find instead the absence of any mention of  the characters who are adults, having children at all. I like writing about ‘atomised people’ i.e those who have a particular perspective that their own life doesn’t challenge. As you will have noted both of the main characters in the stories you have are at the least a little eccentric and strong family ties tend to rein in or act as a weight on the behaviour of eccentrics. Also in a sideways answer to this question, I am not a great analyst or critic of my own work, where I get my pleasure and fulfilment in writing is in telling the story or in constructing the poem, in the language, rhythm imagination and feel of it rather than its sociological derivations. Declan Kiberd may well be totally correct in his theory, but for me I am choosing to write creatively as best I can rather than theoretically.  I also normally read that way, as a reader accepting and engaging with what the writer wrote without necessarily second guessing it.

4. when did you start writing?

 I am actually more of a reader than a writer but I would say that it’s nearly four years now since I applied myself to my own writing with any degree of seriousness or effort.

5. I enjoyed our conversation on Facebook about Roberto Bolano-as you

read his Nazi Literature in the Americans did your mind flash to a version of that set in Galway?

I love Bolano, I am kind of obsessed with him, but seeing as how I have spent time in both Mexico city and on the area of the Costa Brava in Spain that he writes about it is those places that the writing took me to. The chat if I remember was about the ‘Visceral Realists’ in The Savage Detectives, and those guys remind me of every single type of attempted organisation by humans in the world. 

7. Tell us a bit about your non-academic non literary work experience please

I have been working since I was about 14 or 15 and really there’s not time enough to tell you all of my work. I have a poem about it 

‘Hippy Get a Job’ you can read it here below however to the list in the poem you can now add, Youth-worker, Human Rights observer, Tour Guide in Ireland, Lecturer and work-shop Facilitator and a few other things as well.

9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?

I am not sure we have? We have produced a lot of writers for sure but maybe not so very many ‘great’ ones.  I suspect though our love of writing comes from our love of talking; talking, storytelling and the telling of extraordinary lies.

10. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:

" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."

No I don’t, I wish I did though.

11. Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?

Well I can only speak for myself in this really and I would say yes, the sense that I am from an old place and an enduring place is one that grounds me and also stops me from taking myself too seriously, i.e gives me a sense of my own transience.

12. The role model for the modern poet seems to be a writer who lives life at the edge. Going back to Bolano, he said in "Leave it all Again" (an essay founding a movement called infarealism) that poets should abandon the coffehouses and the universities and "take the part of sharpshooters, the lonesome cowboys..the spat upon supermarket shoppers in their massive individual collective disunctives-the cunning, the lonely, the unnoticed and dispised"- do you see this as good advise or does it lead to a confusion which suggests quality poetry can arise only from what would conventionally be called a disturbed psyche. I noticed Ezra pound is often mentioned by Galway poets. Does this push too much toward poetry as preformance art with the poet try to emulate the over the edge rock stars?

There are a lot of questions in that question. Do I see Bolano’s advice as good? I never believe anything he says; he’s a downright liar but liars are often the most truthful amongst us and I love them. For me poetry is a subversion, something expressed that you can’t or won’t or don’t know how to in a conventional sense. I am adventurous so I love the advice above but nope I don’t think it’s necessary to live an extreme and dangerous life to write good poetry but it might be necessary to be open to extreme and dangerous thoughts and ideas...I will think about that.  I have never met a writer who did not have a disturbed psyche, but then neither have I met a vet or a car park attendant or a parent etc etc etc who feels at ease ( to misquote Paul Simon)   

I don’t have any issue with ‘rock star’ poets though rock stars mightn’t like being emulated? J To my mind the joys of poetry and self expression should be encouraged rather than restricted, performance is not a secondary or lesser art form it is only a different one, but people, poets, critics, parents, lovers, anyone  should welcome it if it can help to bring people towards creative self-expression  and fulfilment. People often say that performance poets can get away with poor writing if they perform well and that might be true, but it offers us no counter argument for the acres of print pages of woeful verse that someone thought worth writing, worth publishing and reading; let everyone do what they want so long as it harms no one else, that's a decent motto for most things I think including poetry.

13. Do you feel Aosdana is the best use of the Irish government’s limited funds to promote the arts or do you think the money could be better spent in another way?

I don’t know really about Aosdana, I am too new to the game to be concerned with that, though there are also other funding opportunities bursaries and things for artists and writers, however this government has no funds other than the funds we give it in taxes or from our national resources, and I entirely object to their use of billions of this money and future such money to bail out our defunct banking system. When a government pays financial speculators in preference to special needs assistants we have far more pressing concerns than what it does with the few quid for Aosdana.

14. Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels?  

That depends on what a contemporary Irish novel is; Is it John Banville’s The Sea? If so no. Is it Colm Tobin’s Brooklyn? If so no. Is it Colm Mc Cann in Let the Great World Spin? If so no. Is it Keith Ridgeway’s British policemen in Hawthorn and Child? Again if so; no.

I would need you to give me a few names of contemporary novels that do contain such characters to see if he is still alive and well...

15. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature:

Hmm, the contemporary poetry in Ireland is about anything and everything now, and rightly, it is also starting to include more and more work by first generation immigrants which is helping to blow some more of the cobwebs from it.  I think many very traditional concepts have shaped or contributed to Irish literature; landscape, spirituality, death, religion, love, nationalism, fascism, the sea, censorship, migration, poverty, wealth, violence, war, oppression, music, wildlife,  jealousy, pettiness, beauty, philosophising, endless lists of influence exist depending on where you begin. If you begin with legends and folklore you will find plenty of hubris and rabble rousing, and valedictory tales, if you move to things like Merriman’s The Midnight court, you’ll find an epic celebration of bawdiness, merrymaking and the battles between the sexes albeit all taking place against the back drop of some imagined bleak future for Ireland. To my mind and I am not an expert at all I would say you could find work that supports or contradicts Yeats’ theory in equal measure.  Also I think in some ways perhaps a poet is not needed as much for victory speeches, but they may indeed find a role in seeing what is not seen and reporting or noting uncommon suffering.

16. Tell us a bit please about your academic background please

I finished school originally at around 16 and began working immediately with horses, training and buying and selling them, I did go to an Agricultural College place for a while and got some horse riding instructor qualifications and then I worked first with horses, then in industry, and then in various other things and other countries including in a travelling cinema for a number of years. In my 30s then I began to re-enter the world of education and studied firstly Community Development, then Human Rights Law and eventually did a Master’s in Public Advocacy and Activism

17. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers? 

 I think people have a role to play in contemporary Ireland, and poets are not excused from this. In some senses our abdication from the responsibility of being ever vigilant over the state and our ‘representatives’ has been a factor in allowing our economy deteriorate until the people who live in this country lack the basics needed for a fulfilling life, this does not excuse those who made and are making corrupt and flawed decisions, we know the culprits and unfortunately are still allowing them to make important and long lasting decisions. That said I think creativity is often better when it’s directed towards whatever moves and inspires it and so the difference between the work and the person is probably the issue here, not whether the writing itself needs to be ‘political’ in topic.


18. "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right? Kiberd, Declan ). Inventing Ireland (p. 646).

I don’t really know what ‘the English’ think of us or who in fact the English are, are they West Indians in London? Manchester Irish?  In some ways that statement seems to me to be some form of an excuse or a diminution of the greed and adventurism of expansionist colonialism; any individual or institution who wishes to inflict harm on another usually somehow de-humanises that person for themselves through conditions, labels and categories. This has been true for slavery, for the holocaust, in Rwanda where those to be slaughtered were called cockroaches, it’s still true in the new empire’s weasel words like ‘collateral damage’ and ‘nation building. ‘ ‘Barbarous, Magical’ etc all seem designed to highlight difference and so be a means of providing the excuse needed for people to be treated as non-people. My writing is not for that purpose, but in the unlikely event that someone finds a way to use it to tell empire to cop the hell on that’s fine with me.

19. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.

I think they should have whatever they want. I have an issue with the word ‘Granted’ in that question, I mean who grants who what is the whole issue in a nutshell. But seriously I think, if the spokespeople for the various Traveller communities in Ireland have identified that achieving recognition for their status as an ethnic minority would help them to access the rights and resources they need to combat generations of stigma then of course they should organise to get that or any other thing they identify as necessary .  I have often had my own reservations about this, as I don’t like this state to legislate for ‘difference’ but rather for inclusion but really it’s not up to me, respecting other people’s dignity involves not thinking that I know better than they do, particularly about issues they are the ones dealing with. In the words of the Zapatista movement in Mexico, I would like a world where many worlds fit.

21. Death, natural and otherwise is a central factor in your stories and it seems to me to play a bigger factor in the Irish short story than other cultures-can you talk about this a bit please?

I think death often isn’t death in my stories, it’s a way of examining the futility of a lot of the trivia that torments us and makes up the fabric of our lives. In the poems it’s a little different, it’s both representative of violence in general and specific about people I know who risked or lived and then lost their lives.

22. I have posted on a number of books published by Doire Press and Salmon-what do you find most gratifying in dealing with them and what, if any elements of frustration did you experience?

also published a book with Lapwing in Belfast. Each experience was different but all of those publishers are similar in one way and that is that they have a genuine interest in promotion of poetry and the imagination and the bravery to publish what is not exactly a bestselling genre in tough economic times, and though I and probably they, had plenty vague disagreements or panics about what I was publishing I count myself privileged to have had such opportunities- I am still at the stage where I am grateful and excited that my work gets published at all! The publications with Doire Press came about because I was runner up in a competition that they run twice, so it’s not that I have been swapping publishers or anything.  Jessie Lendennie from Salmon Poetry, who I am now with had already agreed to publish my collection Hippies, when the Doire press publication came about.

23. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland where would you live?

I’ve lived in loads of countries for various periods of time, I love everywhere and would and will go to as many different places as possible/

24. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?

Oh too many ideas. I am not too fussed about rich, more about what I might experience and understand by it. I would go to the Paris Commune and see what the crack was there ;-)

25. I know you have attended creative writing work shops in Galway-please tell those of us who have never had or never will be able to have this experience a bit about what the best things about them are? If you gave a workshop what would be your biggest goal, besides any economic considerations.

I facilitate loads of different types of workshops – not literary now, but for other issues and I would say my considerations would be the same; to create the atmosphere and conditions whereby people could learn themselves.  I attended the Galway Arts Centre Workshops in Galway; these are facilitated by Galway poet Kevin Higgins who has been a great source of encouragement, enthusiasm and help since the very first day I brought a poem there. How they work is everyone brings something they are working on and each participant that has a suggestion for an improvement on a poem someone else has written puts it forward for discussion, sometimes others will disagree and sometimes the writer of the piece will prefer their own version but usually the poem will have had a few rough edges knocked off and had its first public airing by the end of the session.  That is what happens in the workshop as in the technique or method used, however what really happens is a group of people reinforce the validity of creative self expression for each other, they provide encouragement, comradeship and also in exposing their raw or rough poems they take risks with each other that are not a part of normal casual relationships and as a result a whole network of supportive people is created, who with very few exceptions are all delighted when one of our/their number achieves something or even just writes a really good poem. I couldn’t recommend the workshop process more. I don’t go at the moment and that is the same with many others they flit in and out depending on what else they have going on and on where they are with their work.

26. Flash Fiction-how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits? Do you see twitter as somehow leading to playwrights keeping conversations shorter than in years past?

I don’t know really, Somerset Maugham, Kafka, and William Boroughs all wrote very short fictional pieces with not a twitter in sight. I tend to be a bit long winded rather than a writer of flash fiction. I like short pieces of unconnected fiction – this differs from Flash fiction I think in that it’s not confined by the rules of having to have had a plot and activity happen. I suppose they are snippets. I have been writing a lot of these recently and find them addictive like something overheard that you have no context, beginning or end to.  

27. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?

I’d say it’s important that we are an island. A lot of good work though comes from the midlands and north midlands – think Pat Kavanagh, John Mc Gahren, Marina Carr etc etc so maybe less than we might think. Us poets are always on about the sea but you know that’s kind of an obligation...

28. Irish writers work in the shadows of the great giants of world literature, how do you think this impacts the neophyte writer?

I would say a mixture of permission and intimidation, the literary legends give us permission to be writers, and they also intimidate us out of thinking we’ll ever be any good. This though, I would say is not only true in Ireland. If I was a Chilean it might be Neruda or Nicanor Parra I was busy feeling inferior to

29. Quick Pick Questions

a. Whitman or Yeats - Whitman

b. dogs or cats- Dogs

c. best city to inspire a writer-London or Dublin - Neither

d. favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner? Oh Breakfast with good coffee

e. RTE or BBC , Neither? I don’t have access to BBC unless I’m in a hotel or something. I quite like Al Jazeera.

30. Loaded question coming from me-through out the world there are fewer outlets for book reviews as Sunday Supplements to Newspaper close down and the print world loses to the internet. Professional book reviewers and academic often say that book bloggers are a negative force in that they can post what ever they want with no check on them and in most cases they provide no sense of their own credentials and background and feel no need to prove at all they are right. Of course book bloggers such as myself say they are just concerned in that book bloggers will do for free, and often better because they have a real passion for something, than paid reviewers do and they just chalk it up to fear of losing their jobs. How do you see the book blog as a vehicle for promoting literature versus professional critics?  

I think the more different sources and formats for discussion of books the better and I admire what you have been doing as I do several other blogs like the Poethead one I linked above.

30. OK let us close out on this note-what is your reaction these lines from 
Michael O'Loughlin, a famous Irish poet? 

I was born to the stink of whiskey and failure

And the scattered corpse of the real.

This is my childhood and country:

The cynical knowing smile

Plastered onto ignorance

Ideals untarnished and deadly

Because never translated to action

And everywhere

The sick glorification of failure.

Our white marble statues were draped in purple

The bars of the prison were born in our eyes

And if reality ever existed

It was a rotten tooth

That couldn't be removed.

I love Michael, and his partner Judith who is a great poet too. I think there is a danger in allowing any poem to be taken as a definitive statement of how a poet feels about something for all time.  When I write it is a feeling at particular time, in a particular place(s) or about a particular thing and may have changed in an instant. The poem then records how I felt at that time. So in response to Michael's lines below, they certainly resonate and ring true for how I have felt about this country at times but not always and I wouldn’t like to second guess him but he might not feel like that everyday ?. 

End of Q and A

I offer again my great thanks for Sarah Clancey for taking the time to answer my questions.

Dave Lordan has a very interesting interview with her in The Irish Left Review.  

I will shortly publish another of her short stories so look for that soon.


Billy O'Callaghan said...

Some interesting answers here. I've been enjoying Sarah's poetry a lot, this past year or so. Please keep these Q&As going, Mel. They are very insightful!

Mel u said...


there are at least 15 more Q and A sessions in the works-

I am learning so much from them