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

Monday, April 22, 2013

John MacKenna A Question and Answer Session With the Author of Clare, "The Fallen", "The Corner Boys" and many other works


by John Mackenna

Something about her harks back to the bog
and a moonlit, summer night
with the sky opening itself
to whatever the darkness offers.

Something in the sad, momentary drift
of her eyes to the window,
hints at a day in February,
perhaps the last day of that month,

when the weather was wild as nakedness,
the wind tossing madly,
and no one could even guess
at the pain inside her heart.

She goes on searching for the laughter,
the promise of this long summer night.

A summer Sunday at the start of singing June,
wet and warm, the sky a ball of lead.
I see her on the lane, her red umbrella
a shelter from the rain, the possibility of life.

Each afternoon she walks this path, to the very end,
to where the tar gives way and sinks into
the faltering hardcore and then into the
ninety-thousand years of turf and history with

its brides’ bouquets of Columbine, its chronicles
of groping love, backbroken labour
and weighted flesh, buried like stones
in black bogholes by one passion or another .

And she never ventures out onto the bog. Instead, she looks,
and turns and walks back to her garden and her God.

a long time ago,
a man spoke to her in the twilight.
His voice was low and she had to strain
to catch his words above the breeze.

They were standing at the gable of a shed.
He said: I want to kiss you, bogwoman,
I want to kiss your ears, your mouth, your neck,
your nipples, your belly, your thighs, your cunt.

Especially your cunt
where I can taste the way you fucked me.
She knows that if she told someone,
they’d say she’d dreamt it all in some mad dream.

But this was not a dream,
this has a taste beyond imagination.

Another time, a long way from home
and from the things that were familiar,
she saw an African woman at a bus stop
on the King’s Road. It was summertime.

The woman’s skin reminded her
of how the evening sky dilutes in bog pools,
letting its colours linger with the promise
of long days still to come. And she

walked up to the silent, motionless woman
and touched the side of her shining face
and the woman smiled and held her hand
for an enduring moment. Two souls at sea,

each far from a homeland and from a time
when life was more than simply memory.

The warm earth that is hardly earth
folds about the shadow of her skin.
The sun’s hotness draws blood to her face
but her vision remains dead to its light.

A sudden breeze lifts and drops dark mould
in pools that were and will be stagnant;
the frozen heads of seeded cotton
nod and check and nod again.

The whole flat world is tanned,
Even the glint of sun off water
comes back mute. Her eyes are brown,
her skin, her hair, her fingernails.

She doesn’t move, the kiss of heat
smiles on her smiling mouth.

("Bogwoman" is protected by international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without the permission of the author.  I offer my thanks to John MacKenna for allowing me to share this beautiful work with my readers.)

Author Biography

John MacKenna is the author of seventeen books – short-stories, novels, memoir, history and biography. He is a winner of the Irish Times Fiction Award; the C Day Lewis Award; the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and his most recent novel, The Space Between Us, was short-listed for the Kerry Book of the Year Award. His books have been translated into several languages. He is also a winner of a Jacob’s Radio Award for his documentary work with the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen. He teaches in NUI Maynooth.

1.Who are some of the contemporary writers you admire? If you could hear a reading by three famous dead poets, who would you prefer

The living writers I particularly admire are Billy Collins, Brendan Kennelly, Tony Harrison and Alice Munro but if we extend contemporary to mean writers who were alive in my lifetime I'd certainly add Raymond Carver and Dennis O'Driscoll.
Readings by dead poets - interesting question - Thomas Hardy; Raymond Carver and I'd certainly like to hear the Bard!

2.  I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection).  It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey.   Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American.  There are rude sayings like “God Created Whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world” and “Without Guinness the birth rate in Ireland would be near zero”.  What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?.   It seems to me from my reading of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen without drinking.  

I don't have a theory about this but it both maddens and saddens me. It's a perception but one to which many Irish writers and readers have added an enthusiasm. Alcohol has contributed nothing beyond destruction to the Irish psyche and Irish literature. The gombeen mentality of "aren't we great, we drank 77 pints and blah blah blah" is bullshit and is simply a mask for a hugely destructive problem that negatively affects hundreds of thousands of people in this country.  Perhaps it's an inferiority complex - a need to prove to the world that we're great fun and that our country runs on alcohol. I can point to that sense of inferiority as a cause but I'm not sure if it's the only cause. It angers me greatly that we have this stupid relationship (in and out of literature) with alcohol

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 found it very interesting in reading Pico Iyer’s introduction to a collection of 21th century Japanese short stories that he said the collection, Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs:  The Best 21th Century Short Stories from Japan says the subtitle for the collection could be “Absent Fathers and Lost Kids”.  

Like all sweeping generalisations, this need to find a dominant theme is founded on some kind of wish to corral or define Irish literature - as though Irish literature were that easily defined. Frank O'Connor explored the theme but so have writers across the world - it's not just an Irish or a contemprary theme - and there are a hundred other consuming themes in Irish literature - violence; nationalism; alcohol; familes; nationhood; lonelieness; emigration; migration; depression; suicide; sex; religion; faith ....
I have written both in my memoir Things You Should Know; in my short story collection A Year of Our Lives and in the current poetry collection Where Sadness Begins about my relationship as a son with my father and as a father with my children but it's not the only and nor is it the predominant theme of any of the books - other than the memoir.

4.  In one of his most remember radio addresses to the nation, Irish President Eamon de Valera said “The Irish genius has always stressed spiritual values.  That is the characteristic that fits the Irish in a special manner for the task of of helping to save western civilization”.  I somehow have come to strongly feel this through my readings of Irish literature.  Do you think there is still truth in what de Valera said?  In her Trespassers:  A Memoir (my source for this quote, Julia O’Faolain suggest this may have been part of a Fascists agenda so I guess we are to take this as a two edged sword of some kind.   There is no specific answer for this question-I am just seeking your reaction.   

Firstly, I have no idea what DeValera's definition of genius is or was and, given the destruction rained on this nation by the party he founded, I'm not sure I care. As for the second sentence I think it's flowery bullshit with no real meaning beyond an aspirational picture that Dev waved now and again to keep this country on the path he had seen when he looked into his heart and decided what the people wanted. Ironically, while he was fighting the Blueshirts (fascists of the 30's in Ireland) he was also developing his own very narrow view of what this country needed. The fact that he signed a book of condolence for Hitler says the rest. Nor do I think Western civilization needed us to save it - we turned our backs on the Jews with our neutrality. However, I do believe most writers have a spiritual element, in the sense that they seek something lasting, something powerful within and something redemptive - but, again, I don't think that's a specifically Irish thing.

5.   The Fall of Celtic Tiger, the Irish Economy,has caused a lot of pain and misery.  Is there a positive side to this?  what lessons for the future can writers take to their work?  has it in any sense brought people closer to values other than consumerism?  Is it just another day in the life of the Irish?

Is there a positive side - of course! Irish politicians and bankers continue to be paid above the odds and to avoid the pain the rest of us are enduring. The banks continue to make enormous profits. The Labour (God help us) Party continues to prop up a right wing government for the benefit of its own ministers and their salaries and pensions. All beneficial if you're in the loop!!!
I'm wary of writers "learning lessons" - there's a danger that literature becomes propaganda in those circumstances. But writers see what's happening, they write about people, people are suffering so that suffering appears in novels, poems, on stage, in film...
As for people finding values beyond consumerism - well artists rarely benefit from the consumer boost - but, in the wider population, the suicide rate has increased greatly so in that way it continues to bring people - friends and extended families - closer to that darkness. I don't see any great spiritual awakening, if that's what you mean.

6.   A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart
Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if he Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read?  One of the most references poets is Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life.   Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life?  why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse.    (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)

I don't know that writers need chaotic lives - I think if you write there is a natural or innate chaos that makes you pursue ideas and characters and responses but most writers I know live ordinary lives. I dig the garden, I teach, I act , I write, I walk the dog but, yes, I have drawn on the chaos of my own life - a chaos often caused by myself - for inspiration. I write out of the darkness rather than the light. But to return to my earlier point - I don't believe writers can draw much of worth from alcohol (or any drug) before it (or they) suck the life from the writer.

7.   you were a producer for RTE radio for a long time-I am fascinated by the depth of cultural offerings fo RTE (but I find there webpage confusing and I have not been really able to listen to  it online.)  what were some of your best experiences as an RTE producer, what were some of the worst?

I was given a great deal of freedom to work alone creating programmes both in the literary and religious areas. I got to make programmes with great lyricists and musicians like Cohen and Simon; with great writers like Douglas Dunn and Alan Sillitoe; with great activists like Pete Seeger. I got to make series with the Amish and Shaker people. I got to make a documentary series with a young mother of three in the last weeks of her life - all great privileges. The very rare disapppointment was finding the occasional person whom I admired who was less than gracious but (ironically) I could count those occasions on two fingers!

8.    Tell us something about your educational background, please.

Schooling was in the local village primary school and at the Redemporist College in Limerick (boarding) for second level (a juniorate for those considering the priesthood). I took English and History in UCD and then did my H Dip (teaching qualification). I taught in secondary schools for seven years before joining RTE and I now lecture in Media and Creative Writing in NUI Maynooth. I love teaching with a passion.

9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?  Or is this a myth? my opinion

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 have a hope but not a belief in another world (without fairies) ...I'd like to see my brother again and finish that unfinished conversation on the beach in Virginia

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?   

I doubt it very much - both as an historian and a writer I really doubt it...

12.   You have produced award winning documentaries on two American religious groups-The Shakers and the Amish-tell us a bit about what drew you to these communities?  what lessons to they have to offer post Celtic Tiger Ireland?

Their differences from the "norm" in Ireland (Catholicism/Anglicanism). Plus, in the case of the Shakers, I saw a wonderful one-woman play called Shaker (on the life of their founder Mother Ann Lee) which got me really interested. The seven living Shakers I met greatly impressed me.
The Amish were interesting but surprisingly conservative - but I assume that's part of their survival technique. 

13.  It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, some with PhDs.  Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce  in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published.   Will the day of the amateur writer who comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?

I can only speak for the course on which I teach in NUI Maynooth and both Suzanne Power (my co-facilitator) and myself are at pains to avoid the creation of an homogenous group. We are there to facilitate (not to teach) those who wish to write. While ideas and characters and poems and stories flow the originality will always surface.

14.  All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net present a country of amazing beauty.  How much does this saturation in natural beauty impact the writing of the residents?

Again, speaking for myself, the landscape is the constant character in everything I write - and so it would be if I lived in Arizona or Canada or Holland.

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.   It is interesting to me that the American short story writers most admired by Irish writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter all came from the American south, the only part of American to be crushed in a war.   Does defeat bring wisdom more than victory?

The people who have always interested me in life and writing are the losers. In secondary school, I volunteered to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and my English teacher regularly told me I always admired the underdog.
The novel I'm currently working on is about corner boys in the village in which I grew up - single, middle-aged, unemployed, despised men on the periphery. These are the people who fascinate me - perhaps because I've always felt myself to be on the edge of society - partly through shyness, partly because both my parents were "blow-ins" in the village in which I grew up.

16.   Do you see writing short stories as kind of like practice for novels?  which form do you think is more of a challenge to achieve quality work and to get noticed as a writer? You are a very prolific writer and very highly regarded in several genres.  Do you see yourself just as a writer or do you see yourself as primarily a poet who writes the other forms as he needs to?

Absolutely not - the short story is not a castrated novel. It's a totally independent and demanding and beautiful form.
Getting published/noticed as a short-stiry writer is much more difficult.
I see myself as a writer - sometimes of poems, sometimes plays, sometimes novels and sometimes short-stories, sometimes of history. I love the variety

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 all writers need society - the only ones who don't are the dead ones.
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 (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646).   It is interesting to me in that not to long ago many white Americans viewed African Americans as very skilled at music and dancing but otherwise inferior and barbaric.

Again, I find this academic theorising pointless. It's close to the line that advocates that writers should be propagandists - writers write about the things that make them passionate - sometimes that's politics or history, mostly it's not.

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'm not sure I can adequately answer this - I've done some workshops with traveller women but I have no clear view of the lives of male travellers.

20.  In his book “The Commitments” Roddy Doyle has a lead character  say, as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”.  There is a lot of self loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle.  Is this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a father, mother or brother or wife and kill an outsider who says the same thing or is it really how people feel?  I do not see this level of self hate in other literatures.   There is nothing like it, for example, in the literature of the Philippines.  Talk a bit about how you feel or think about this.

I don't take it very seriously. I think there's this divide in every country. I think most citizens of capital cities see themselves as much more sophisticated than the peasantry living in the rest of the country. I'm a peasant in that regard and happy to be one.


21.   You teach at the University Level Creative Writing, what are the biggest hurdles students face in learning to express themselves.  In your career have you seen a general decline in basic literacy as American and UK professors report?   

The biggest hurdles (like all writers) are fear and, in the university context, an over reliance on the academic approach to writing.
I can't say I've seen a decline.

22.   There is a lot of resistance to E -readers. I personally love reading on my IPAD.  I prefer the reading experience and I loved being able to take a library of books on trips.  How do you feel the shift to E-reading is going to impact future generations of writers and readers.   Will the wonderful sense of sitting in your house surrounded by old books you loved and ones you still have yet to read be lost one day?

I'm sitting here surrounded by books. I don't have an IPAD....enough said?

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

Flagstaff, Arizona - I spent a day there once and loved it - it even had a vegetarian restaurant.


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

I'd go back and spend a month with my late brother in North Carolina and Virginia - just to be with him, to laugh, to listen, to talk.

25.  If someone were to ask you what you regard as your best novel, best short story, best poem and best play was, could you single out works for them?

I think I could - Clare is the novel; The Fallen is the story; Crows is the poem and Corner Boys is the play

26.  You have done a good bit of work that makes uses of the songs and poetry of Leonard Cohen, what attracts you to his words?  

The truth in them; the honesty in them; the beauty in them - and he's a really nice man...which helps

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

I hate the sea because I fear the question...

28.  When you are outside of Ireland, besides friends and family, what do you miss the most?  What are you glad to be away from?
I  miss the familiarity of the landscape. I'm glad to be away from our politicians

29. Quick Pick Questions
a. John Synge or Beckett-? Neither
b. dogs or cats - Dogs
c.  best city to inspire a writer-London or Dublin - neither, I'm not a city lover
d.  favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner? - breakfast
e. RTE or BBC - RTE OF COURSE!!!!!! 
f. Yeats or Whitman - Whitman
g.  Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption? I'm a vegetarian of 34 years so none of the above
h. night or day - night

30. OK let us close out on this note-what is your reaction these lines from 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.
Michael O'Loughlin

I'd like to sit down and talk it through with you, Michael


I offer my great thanks to John Mackenna for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and well considered answers.

Salmon Poetry   You can learn more about his work and purchase his latest collection on the webpage of his publisher, Salmon Poetry.

Mel u

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