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

Sunday, April 28, 2013

John Saunders Question and Answer Session Author of After the Accident and Chance

March 1 to April 28
John Saunders

John Saunders’ first collection ‘After the Accident’ was published in 2010 by Lapwing Press, Belfast. His poems have appeared in Revival, The Moth Magazine, Crannog, Prairie Schooner Literary Journal (Nebraska), Sharp Review, The Stony Thursday Book, Boyne Berries, The New Binary Press Anthology of Poetry, Volume 1, Riposte, and on line, The Smoking Poet, Minus Nine Squared, The First Cut, The Weary Blues, Burning Bush 2, Weekenders, Poetry Bus and poetry 24.  
John is one of three featured poets in  Measuring,  Dedalus New Writers published by Dedalus Press in May 2012. He is a member of the Hibernian Poetry Workshop and a graduate of the Faber Becoming a Poet 2010 course.
His second full collection Chance was published in April 2013 by New Binary Press.
John is the Director of Shine, a national voluntary mental health organisation.

Web Site of New Binary Publishing where you can find more information on After the Accident

Two poems by John Saunders


He wanted me to show
where you could
have entered,
as if the rush of water
would wash up an answer
or your bare foot-prints
offer an impression.
Only the reeds clumped
against the bank
made a sound,
spoke in whispers,
shared their secret
with the wind
that blew down river
and sang your absence.


 (For Nalini )
 She washes the rag so that it can be used again,
tidies her hair in the stippled glass of shame,
makes good her small place of work and life.
She screams a million screams, cannot believe
the unbelievable, imagines her grandmothers,
spirit is looking down on her, urging her
to be strong, that luck comes to the good.

She hides her scarred face as they enter,
smiles as they leave, wishes them a worthy life.
On a good day she has enough to eat and drink,
is able to pay the dark haired hot money men,
can ignore the groaning pain, shun salted weeping.
She knows that tears are only the indulgence
of those who haven’t suffered enough

I thank John Saunders for allowing me to post these two wonderful poems.  Both of these works are protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published in any fashion without the approval of the author.

John Saunders

1.  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.  In your time outside of Ireland, do you see drinking to have less of a role in daily life than in Ireland?  In Your work as director of Shine, you must see in great volume and variety the consequences of this heavy reliance on alcohol-or is it a symptom and not a cause-are the hard economic times increasing reliance on alcohol?

The Irish have a reputation for drinking which is often reflected in literature, drama, film and television. To some extent it is a stereotype but like all stereotypes is grounded in some truth.

The history of the Irish is a harsh one of invasion, colonisation, war, poverty, a somewhat difficult climate. All off these things lend themselves to a cultural fabric which in Ireland’s case includes drink. Most social activity in Ireland revolves around the pub or drink in general. There is for example, a connection between alcohol advertising and sport and culture for example which needs to change. Its deeply embedded in Irish society I’m afraid. Many will remember the photo that shot around the world when Barak Obama visited Ireland- the one with him drinking a pint of Guinness in a pub. In fact we have exported the idea. There must be very few cities in the world where you cannot find an Irish pub. That said the sociologists tell us that Ireland is no worse than many other countries such as France, Spain and Italy. The significant difference in Ireland is the extent of binge Drinking. Most Europeans spread their drinking over the day and week. The Irish might pack it all into a weekend or a couple of nights.
I n my professional work I have seen the worst side of alcohol unfortunately. Many people who have severe mental health problems can exacerbate their situation by drinking. We know for example depression is worsened by alcohol. We also know that many people who die by suicide have consumed large volumes of drink.
Its not surprising that drink features so prominently in Irish Literature.


2.  Who are some contemporary poets you admire?  If you could hear three dead poets read their work who would you pick?

Naturally I am very influenced by Seamus Heaney whose work I love.
I also admire writers like Simon Armitage, Robin Robertson, Carol Anne Duffy, and from USA Charles Simic , Sharon Olds and a million others. I like poetry to have a sense of mystery which makes you search for possible alternative meanings.

Of the dead poets, I’d like to listen to Philip Larkin, Elisabeth Bishop and John Keats. I’m curious about Keats as he was born in Moorefield’s in London and must have had a cockney accent.

3.   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?   

I think once we get over this recession Ireland will be a better place to live. I think the Celtic Tiger killed many of the values of old Ireland such as an appreciation of culture, place and identity. We wanted to be like Europe and the America’s and we couldn’t be.  The Irish have a unique identity which is know the world over. We should value and love it. As I said earlier we are used to hard times and we will get through.

4.   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.)

It seems to me that many of the greats of music and art burn out early. You mentioned some but think of people like Keats ( although it was TB), Elvis Presley, Billie Holiday and so on.
In one sense I agree, a chaotic life would seem to be the fuel of good poetry but of course many of our great poets have lived to a good old age and led largely ordinary lives.

5.    Tell us about your educational background

I started my working like caring for people with disabilities and moved into managerial roles developing services  in disability and mental health. I have educational qualifications in Management and economics.

6.    What are some of your favorite movies?  What was the last movie you saw, the last novel you read?  Do you watch much TV or have favorite programs?

Favourite movies include Kubrick’s 201 A Space Odyssey and the Woody Allan films, I watch TV, nothing too heavy, although I like the Sky Arts Channels. The last book I read and really enjoyed is Richard Ford’s Canada, a truly epic story well told in the style of John Irving who is my favourite contemporary novalist

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

No I don’t think it is a myth. We were once truly the land of saints and scholars.  We are an old country dating back to the Pre Christian era and I think we have built up a collective historical wisdom which has always served us well in producing great writers, from the monks who wrote the book of Kells to the great writers of the last three centuries.
I think our history of oppression has something to do with our creative spirit, as if we always want to break the rules.

8. (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 believe in fairies but aren’t they a great subject for poems, stories and songs! I have no belief in a life other than what we experience but contrarily I look to metaphysics as a source of inspiration for my work.

9.  I will be touring the West of Ireland as part of my first ever Irish trip with my brother.  What are the highlights?  What are the literary must do places?

You have to see Counties Wicklow, Kerry, Galway and Cork. To be honest there are beautiful parts in every Irish county.
For Literature try to get to one of the many Literary Festivals of Poetry and prose. We have dozens of them each year. For symbolism visit Yeats’s gravesite in Sligo.

10.  How did you get involved with the work of Shine?  Tell us a bit about Shine’s community outreach activity, please.

I’ve worked with Shine since 2001 when I was engaged as CEO. Shine helps and supports people to make a significant recovery from serious mental illness. We believe that everyone can make some degree of recovery and become valued members of society. Like many places in the world Ireland has had a history of custodial care for those people with mental illness and little effort was made to help people recover. Times have changed and we are working hard to change attitudes and behaviours. We also work with families which is a unique function of Shine . People often forget how much families are affected when a person becomes mentally ill.

11. 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?   

I think there is something in your question. Colonised and defeated cultures in my opinion often deliver up great culture, for example American Black music, the literature of Latin America, the Irish, and the Polish and so on. Perhaps good literature grows from pain, and oppression.

How can a love of reading help get us through hard times?  

Reading brings education, wisdom, culture and an appreciation of who you are and where you stand in the greater world. You can also ignore what’s going on around you!

13. 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 sometimes think poets can be seen as like the canaries in the coal mines of society, they feel the dangers first.  Are poets kind of like your early warning signels?

I have always believed that poets are of their world and they can and must comment on the place they find themselves in. That’s why I am in favour of political and protest poetry, for example. Poets are often able to put their poetic finger on the pulse of a society or point out the scars and abscesses of the land they live in. The canaries in the Coalmines are a good metaphor. That said I am conscious that poetry alone has its limits. Who was it said ‘ a poem never stopped a tank’?

14.   Tell us a bit about your non-literary, non-teaching work experience, please, outside of Shine.

To be honest my life is Shine, writing and family. I am the father of two small boys so life is a constant juggling between all three.

15.  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.  

One of the characteristics of the Irish is the tendency to put the next person down. I think it comes from a mix of colonial think and Irish Catholic theology. My generation was raised to respect authority and constantly defer to a Catholic Church so maybe we have developed a cultural low self-esteem where we cannot think of ourselves as good enough. Certainly in small town Ireland of the last century there was a sense of envy if someone did well. A sense of ‘who does he think he is’ for do being successful.  It’s part of being a small closed society. Brindsley McNamara’s book,  ‘The Valley of the Squinting Windows’ exemplifies this attitude.

16.   How dependent are Irish writers on government support?     How big would the impact on Irish poetry  be if all government aid were cut to zero?  What good effects might this have?  Some also suggest that government aid to writers is a way of buying acquiescence in the status quo.  Do you see any truth in that?   

No I don’t’ believe that is true. Many writers are very dependent on Government support and in general modern Ireland has been very supportive of writers and artists. We have a very generous tax exemption system for artists and a support mechanism called Aosdana.
Of course without these supports many writers would not be able to survive and in the case of poetry  there would be a dramatic reduction in published books if Government support was eliminated.

17.    What advice would you give people who feel they are being pushed to the breaking point by the current crisis in the economy of Ireland?  

Be brave . Realise that economics is a cyclical process,  Good times follow bad times and so on . Look for help if you need it and remember some day you might be the one to offer help to someone else.

18.   When you are outside of Ireland, besides friends or family, what do you miss the most?  what are you frankly glad to be away from for a while?

I miss the sense of being part of the familiar where people say hello on the street and are friendly. I like to get away from the wet windy weather.

19.   If someone from outside of Ireland were to ask you what are the top 5 or so contemporary Irish novels one should read to get a feel for the country, what would you advise them?   Irish poetry beyond William Butler Yeats-how do I start becoming familiar with it?  Who are some must read Irish poets?   

To get a feel for modern Ireland read Roddy Doyle and Maeve Binchy,
In poetry, Paula Meehan, Rita Anne Higgins, Ciaran Carson, Tony Curtis,  and of course Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon.

20.   What do you consider your finest work as a poet?  What do you strive for in your poetry?

I cannot really answer this question. I am the worst judge of my own poetry.  I strive for perfection like everyone else but have not achieved it yet. I hope as time progresses my work improves.

21.   How can poets and writers help people cope with what you indicate is the current mental health crisis in Ireland?   What can the government do to help?   

In times of crisis people often turn to literature particularly poetry. For example in bereavement.  I think this is an important function of poetry. It’s as if it allows us to lift ourselves above the crisis and learn to cope better with it. I was at a funeral recently of an aunt where I was asked to read one of her favourite poems. I think those attending found great solace in this action.. Sometimes poetry replaces prayer. People also celebrate with poetry and that’s a great tribute to poetry.
As for Government the best it can do is not to see the arts as a luxury of a wealthy society but rather as an essential thread of all societies to be nourished and supported. Teaching kids to read and appreciate (poetry and prose) is for example, one of the finest skills you can give them to help them cope with life.

22. Quick Pick Questions
a.  tablets or laptops?  Laptops
b. dogs or cats    Dogs
c.  best way for you personally to relax when stressed?  A good Spanish Red
d.  favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner?  Dinner
e. RTE or BBC  BBC
f. Yeats or Whitman  Yeats
g.  Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption?  The latter
h. night or day.   night
i  Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights?  Difficult choice
j-best way to experience a new poem-hear the author read it or read it in a quiet undisturbed place?  I like to hear the author.
k.  favorite singer?    Bob Dylan


I give my great thanks to John Saunders for taking the time to provide us with these very interesting responses. I commend him for his work with the Shine Organization.

Mel u

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