March 1 to April 14
Q & A Session
In The Library of Lost Objects
Today I am happy to present a Q and A Session by Noel Duffy (his bio is below the poem). It truly should be required reading by anyone with an interest in contemporary literature, Irish culture, MA in Creative Writing Programs and modern poetry.
1.Who are some of the contemporary writers you admire? If you could hear reading by three famous dead poets, who would you prefer?
Well, I would love to have heard Robert Lowell read, but I have a tape cassette of a reading he did in late 1976, just months before he died, so I do have a sense of what being at a Lowell event would be like. I’d really loved to have heard Yeats read (though he was noted as a bad reader of his work) and perhaps – to cast back to a time before recording – Walt Whitman! There are so many good writers here it is hard to pick a few. Of the senior poets I think Thomas Kinsella and John Montague deserve to be read more widely beyond Ireland, though that’s not to say they have an exclusively native readership. Regarding my peers (or near-peers), David Butler’s Via Crucis, Grace Wells’ When God’s Away Doing Better Things, and Mark Granier’s Fade Street are collections I’ve enjoyed very much recently. Oh, and my old boss at Poetry Ireland, Theo Dorgan’s, recent collection Greek was very good indeed. But I could easily name a dozen more (and I may, in fact, try slip a few other names in under the radar as we go!)
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. Does drinking play a big part in any of your poems?
I think drinking may be more present in our fiction than in our poetry, though there is of course that famous poem by the 18th Century Irish poet Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna ‘An Bonnán Buí’ which was translated by Irish patriot Thomas MacDonagh as ‘The Yellow Bittern’. Here’s a flavour:
O yellow bittern I pity your lot,
Though they say that a sot like myself is curst –
I was sober a while, but I’ll drink and be wise
For fear I should die in the end of thirst.
I should say there was a strong abstinence movement in Ireland in the 20s and 30s called The Pioneer Movement and both my parents took their oath and never drank. Not once in their whole lives! So maybe we’re a culture of extremes – or were – on this question. As far as I can remember, I don’t mention alcohol in any of my poems.
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.
This seems a rather convenient and large generalisation to me, though again I think it may hold some truth for prose writers here rather than the poets. (I’m trying to think of one where this was a dominant theme and can’t). I read Paula Meehan’s very fine collection Painting Rain recently and there were a number of powerful pieces about her father. In my collection, In the Library of Lost Objects, there are again a number of poems about my father. I think in both Paula’s and my collections the father is not absent in the sense Kiberd means, I think, but rather there is an attempt to make sense of this relationship for both of us. For me, my father passing away as I wrote the book influenced this. But certainly, it is only his absence in death that is the issue – not in life.
4. How has your training in experimental physics impact your writing?
It’s difficult to pin down in terms of my poetic style, I think. Like most writers starting out, I wrote impressionistic musings that meant more to me than anyone else. In around 1994 (I graduated in ’92) Pat Boran lent me Heaney’s collection Seeing Things and that disabused me of the idea that form was the same as conformity – or other such notions I held at the time. So a kind of formal design entered my work at this time and perhaps this appealed to the ordered mind of a physics graduate. I remember soaking up the poetics of Heaney’s old mentor Philip Hobsbaum in his brilliant book Metre, Rhythm & Verse Forms, for example. That was my grounding in poetic form. That said, I was a passionate physics student and that came through in terms of my subject-matter very early on. My first published poem in 1995 (which appears in my first collection) ‘Apple’ was about Newton and more poems followed on Galileo and Einstein, as well as pieces about irrational numbers (it’s true!), palaeontology, geology, astronomy, as well as natural history. For me, with some very notable exceptions, the canvass of poetry seemed to be getting rather small when, say, compared with the Romantic movement. For me, science offers the grand backdrop. At the same time, I also wrote poems about more intimate matters such as love and grief and these are placed against this grand narrative as no less smaller in their way. That’s the best way, I think, that I can describe the balance I try juggle in my work: the large and the intimate, side by side and interconnected. I should say that in my forthcoming collection, On Light & Carbon, I’m more directly preoccupied with the physics of light (and its metaphorical meanings) and perhaps natural history has been replaced with human history, for the most part.
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?
I think it has changed our society and has certainly not been another day in the life of the nation. You could forgive the Irish for getting a little carried away with the new prosperity (not having seen much of it before) but we did lose something of our character in the process. Yes, I think a reckoning is being reached, though sometimes I feel some of the reaction to this crisis has been lazy. Some (mostly opposition) politicians (and the people who buy the message) seem to think there’s a girl called Dorothy with a dog called Toto who will call on the good witch to sprinkle fairy-dust over our woes and that we can avoid all the consequences such as cutbacks in welfare and other areas. Sadly this isn’t true. But more about fairies later.
5a. 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. If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet? (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)
It is perhaps true that being a writer is not an average kind of job to pursue and almost by definition leads to an insecure and perhaps chaotic life in some regards. That said, I don’t think being a writer exempts you from your responsibilities as a human being. I love the poetry of Rimbaud, but not so much the man, the little I know of his life. I think we need to be also very careful about fetishizing the early deaths of certain, great writers. There was that whole generation of mid-century American poets such as Berryman, Roethke, Plath and Sexton who took their own lives. By any measure this is a tragedy and not something to be seen as necessary to their poetic identities. They all also had other people in their lives who had to live with the outcome of these tragedies (rather than the symposia about them) so it pisses me off slightly when this is romanticised or seen as a necessary sacrifice for their art. Personally, I wish Sylvia Plath and another poet I admire, Weldon Kees, had come through that very painful time in their life and continued writing into their mid- and late-years. That said, these things happened, and perhaps there is an extra psychic toll exacted on the artist that can sometimes overwhelm.
6. You have a MA in creative writing from the University of Ireland at Galway (as do a lot of the writers I have posted about) and you have also taught students in the program. Tell us about some of the best things about the program and what changes could be made. I was recently chatting with a writer friend who suggested that MA programs in writing were starting to somehow homogeneous l writers, especially in America dominated by the University of Iowa writers program. Will this domination of literature by MA writers eventually mean that people without these degrees will not be taken seriously and will be effectively locked out by editors who all have MA degrees? Will it lead to the stagnation of literature?
To answer the last part of the question first, I do worry about the dominance of MAs in Writing and the effect they are having on the literary tradition. As you mention, I hold such a qualification and I found it a very enjoyable and useful experience. In a sense, it gave me permission for a year to just focus on my writing. Our course encouraged us to try our hand at all forms of writing, so that’s when I started writing fiction, non-fiction, drama and film scripts. Ultimately though, my excitement in these forms perhaps spread me too thin as a writer, with my poetry stalling for a while as a result. But to get to the bigger question, I do believe – and this is particularly the case in the States, I feel – that having an MFA seems to be a necessity these days to break in as a poet. Personally, I find that troubling as the only measure of creative work is the work itself. Qualifications are secondary to that. If editors narrow their choices to those with MAs from prestigious institutions I fear some really talented writers will be lost in the system. I met a young American poet recently, who I thought showed genuine potential. There was a very elegant, almost Elizabethan quality to what she wrote. She told me after I gave her some notes, that she couldn’t get on to a writing programme and was told her poetry was old fashioned because it employed rhetorical and musical effects. I was quite appalled to see someone with such a talent not being nurtured and, in fact, discouraged. So, and I know this is a little controversial, I feel American poetry in particular – now so dominated by these programmes – has become strangely homogenous as you suggest with the almost prose mode heavily favoured. People are no longer writing for people I fear, but often other poets and the academic establishment. I think that influence is creeping in here, as well as the UK, and it makes me uneasy.
7. Tell us a bit about your non-academic non literary work experience please
Well, I’ve done all kinds of strange jobs along the way. When at school I worked as a ‘lounge boy’ in a pub and was famed for the amount of orders I could remember at one time. I also once worked as a cleaner in a dental hospital (as well as the dental impressions librarian) when I was student, which meant getting up at 5am. Still, it was good to have 4 hours work done before lectures started. I’ve also worked as a typesetter for a few years, which makes me very fussy when it comes to book design as my publisher will attest. My mainstay – apart from some teaching – has been working in libraries, though I recently spent a few years writing for Ireland’s biggest soap opera. That was a much more interesting experience than I would’ve guessed.
8. The severe decline of the Irish economy since the fall of the Celtic Tiger has caused much pain and misery-what lessons can be learned from this? is there a good side to this or is it all bad? can poets help people to see the core values in life transcend consumerism?
I’d like to think so, but it brings you to that famous question by Auden, ‘Does poetry make anything happen?’ Perhaps, in a small way, it can present a different type of value and meaning in life above and beyond material gain. I’ve noticed that the literary scene here seems to have picked up, with many more readings – small and large – happening around the city and indeed the country. One thing I’ll add about the boom and bust. The actor John Hurt said he left Ireland because the famous conversation in taverns had been replaced by people talking about the latest property they had bought in the Costa Del Greed. After the crash, it was very easy just to blame it all on the politicians and banks. I will agree that they were instrumental in the woes we face, but so was the greed of individuals who must also acknowledge that they were exploiting other economies by buying apartments in Hungary of wherever other emerging economies. Everyone seemed to be a happy capitalist back then. Lately, everyone seems to be veering left. I feel like saying, you can’t have it both ways. Anyway, perhaps the cold shower we’re experiencing right now is driving people to ask more important questions about their lives and naturally as a poet, I feel literature and the arts can bring us back to more essential values – in some way. That is my hope, at least.
9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?
I’m sure others have written about this is a more considered way, but I think two factors may be at play. The first was the very high esteem in which bards were held in Ireland – and indeed, the irony that the great poet Spenser was given the task by Cromwell of wiping them out. So poetry has always been important to our culture. The second factor is Yeats. Irish poetry reached a high watermark with him and to write after Yeats was a major challenge. Fortunately, we’ve been graced with three or four generations of excellent writers since, both in poetry and prose. I think of Kavanagh, of Kinsellas and Montague coming through in the 50s and 60s; and obviously that golden generation of the 60s including Heaney, Mahon, Boland, Longley to begin a long list. So, when the bar is set that high, not just once but several times, you have to try to aspire to be at least as dedicated as these fine writers. I think another crucial aspect is that our culture respects the arts – and particularly writers – to an unusual extent. For a nation of our size, we certainly punch above our weight. That said, we also have a strong tradition in the visual arts, music and even contemporary dance, which can sometimes get overshadowed by the attention our writers receive.
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."
Ha, you would’ve ever guessed that of Beckett! I like the Galway woman’s reply, which in a way, I will echo here. I don’t believe in fairies, despite my grandmother being a fantastic teller of tales concerning fairy-folk, the divil (as we say in Dublin) and ghosts. I think we’ve become very literal in modern society in certain crucial ways and have lost our understanding of non-literal knowledge. For example, I had a debate with a friend recently about how I didn’t think public nudity is an expression of human liberation. I said, one of the things that marks the emergence of modern homo sapiens is that we ritually buried our dead and covered our genitalia, as mating rituals for humans are far more complex than animals. I know this echoes the biblical story of Adam and Eve (and thus may seem regressive) but I think both the ‘myth’ and the anthropology tell us the same thing, but by different means. An important part of my new collection is to try show the complexity of human experience through science, art, personal experience and, finally, the mythic interpretation of certain experiences. I think this problem cuts both ways in contemporary society with the rise of literal-minded Christians on the one hand (creationists and so on) and literal-minded scientists such as Richard Dawkins on the other. I hope to navigate my way through these two polarities in some way, as I try to tease out the greater truth encoded in myth, as well as in science, in my new collection.
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?
Perhaps. The fact that Ireland was a largely agrarian culture till this century means that that connection lived on, on some level. For me, this is a rich period for my imagination. In a long poem in the new collection, I deal with Neolithic Ireland, particularly the standing stones inscribed with those unique serried lines and dashes (an early alphabet known as Ogham). Strangely though, Ireland was one of the last places in Europe to be inhabited, but its position as a remote island nation (which we discuss more below) perhaps helped to retain that ancient past for longer than many other industrial European societies.
12. When you write, do you picture somehow a potential audience or do you just write?
My brother is a very good mountain cyclist and is particular fearless on the downhill stretches. We were talking recently and I told him when I write I get a similarly intense buzz. You don’t stop to think, ‘What’s the next word here?’ you just have to make an instinctive call. The one difference is if he makes a bad call he could break his arm. I can rewrite! But to answer your question more fully, I’m mostly preoccupied with the content and music of the poem and am not really thinking of an audience at that point. Certainly, as you move a manuscript towards completion, you are more mindful that people will read – and indeed – judge this. In the end, though, you still need to choose what you think is best for the poem rather than take other considerations into account – i.e. is it fashionable to say that, for example?
13. Please explain to total outsiders like how important government grants to writers are to Irish literature? who decided who gets a grant?
Well, they are very important, particularly if you are deep in a body of work. I received an Arts Council bursary last year to finish my second collection and obviously that allowed me time to just focus on writing. Three poets would have sat on the panel to decide who received the grants, as I understand it. The reality is, though, that you may get one every five years so they are not a means of yearly income that you can rely on. Ireland is fairly unique in also having a body called Aosdána, where the elected members receive a stipend every year for the rest of their lives. At first, it was used primarily to take care of the financial well-being of older artists, but is now often given to artists in mid-career. The Irish do respect the arts, even in these straightened times.
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? Rude question-is the performance poet a version of this?
I don’t want to judge as I’ve been on the dole a few times over the years! Like many people, let alone writers, of my generation, I’m rather tired of the staid ‘stage Irishman’ image, but we Irish are as guilty as anyone else for perpetuating this. You know, we are one of the hi-tech capitals of the world now!
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
Yes, certainly the culture of martyrdom was strong in Ireland, and maybe still is. When you are up against the imperial might of Great Britain and have a series of failed insurrections, that’s perhaps natural. But we gained our independence in 1921, which is quite a long time ago now. My grandfather fought in that war and I’m proud of the risk he took to his own life in doing so. Yet, he never inculcated his children with the martyr mentality. I guess I, in turn, have never really saw it as part of my living reality, though obviously the escalation of the euphemistically named ‘troubles’ in the north in the 70s overshadowed my childhood. It was a complex time to have a ‘patriot’ grandfather. As an adolescent I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the IRA tactics in the 80s and, as for their presence in Dublin, they were noted drug-dealers and racketeers, extracting ‘protection money’ from small businesses for ‘the cause’. Their legitimacy became very murky at that time and I remember my dad asking me not to talk too openly about my grandfather’s ‘rebel’ past at that time. I wrote a long memoir piece for The Dublin Review about all this.
16. Are the skill sets of a script writer radically different from those of a poet or short story writer? do script writers dream of Hollywood ?
Yes, I think any narrative form such as script writing is quite different from those of poetry. That said, I dislike the term ‘collection’ of poems as it suggests a loose batch of unrelated material. Perhaps one thing I learnt from my time writing screenplays is that narrative/emotional arcs are the most essential thing in storytelling. I believe these skills are transferable on some level and I like to think that my first collection (and my second when it arrives in the autumn) exploit some of these ideas by creating a unified suite of poems: if you like a, ‘book’ of poems rather than a loose gathering. To give an example. For my current collection I wrote over 70 poems. Only 36 made the cut. Some just weren’t good enough, but there are others I like very much but which didn’t suit the overall design of the book. And to come finally to the last part of your question: yes, of course. Every scriptwriter imagines a meeting in some swanky hotel in LA. In reality, I realised my sensibility was a tad literary for film and while a few of my scripts garnered interest I realised a few years ago that the interest had petered out and that I simply wasn’t willing to do endless rewrites with the promise of later investment. I actually feel my life has been hugely simplified by no longer chasing that illusive dream of having a film made!
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? One of the characters in Savage Detective by Roberto Bolano, set in Mexico city and centering on poets, says that the main reason poets read at work shops is to meet the way disproportional number of women to come to them-is this just stupid?
There’s that funny scene in The Dead Poets’ Society where Robin Williams’ character asks his earnest students, why do poets write poetry. They give all these high-blown answers and he retorts, “No, it is to woo women.” Actually, I don’t believe that, but there may be an hint of reality to it as observed in certain poets’ biographies! Truthfully, I do think poetry has a social role, but that’s not the same as saying poetry has to engage entirely in social issues. In a way, the news deals with that, so in my poetry I hope to excite the readers’ imagination to places they might not go, such as the moment Galileo discovers the moons of Jupiter, or observing dragonflies darting from point to point on a canal in high summer. I have a line in a screenplay where a character says to another, “You’re not the type of person who looks up very often, are you?” Maybe, that’s what I’m trying to do with my poetry: make people look up and engage in things beyond the everyday stresses we all face.
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).
That’s a good point. I think plain factual histories miss the point a little. When I was writing the piece about my grandfather’s time in the IRA, what I found most insightful and illuminating was Sean O’Casey’s so-called Dublin Trilogy, as well as Ernie O’Malley’s first-hand account of his time as an IRA commander (incidentally he became great friends with Hemmingway). There’s no doubt the British wanted it both ways with the Irish on some level. Barbarous imbeciles incapable of governing themselves on the one hand; and repositories of a magical worldview that had been lost in an ever-increasingly industrialised Britain. I still find to this day that some English (and also German) folk who have settled in Ireland cling to this romantic, yet subtly patronising, image of us and refuse to acknowledge that we are now a European nation and not ‘theme park Eire’, representing a more romantic and less complicated time.
20. My brother and I will be making our first ever trip to Ireland in May so I am being rude and asking people for recommendations.
a. Near Trinity University - best book store? I want to buy short story collections and anthologies of poetry
It would have to be Books Upstairs on College Green, opposite the front gates of Trinity. They are great supporters of contemporary Irish writing, and poetry in particular. Very few of the major chains carry new poetry. They only stock the big names as we all know poetry doesn’t jump off the shelves. Books Upstairs take pride in stocking new titles and drawing attention to them.
b. best fish and chips in Dublin
Beshoff’s on Westmoreland Street is pretty good, though Burdocks may edge them out.
c. good places for a fairly priced pint near the university?
I’ve become good friends with the Newcastle poet, Keith Armstrong (who travels here fairly frequently) and we always meet for an afternoon pint in The Palace Bar, just on the edge of Tempe Bar. It was the haunt of Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan, Paddy Kavanagh and iconic journalists such a Con Houlihan - that hard-drinking generation of Irish writers! That’s worth a visit!
d. best literary tourist experience in Dublin
I’d say just take your chances and go to any number of readings going on in the city that week – large or small!
e. best splurge restaurant?
I don’t eat out much so I don’t know!
21. When you are outside Ireland, besides family and friends what do you miss most besides friends and family? what are you glad to be away from for a while?
The weather usually. Actually, I love travel and there are some poems about a trip I took to Morocco in my first collection. What always hits me when I return is the red-brick buildings here. There is something about the way our quite northern light plays off these, that I love. I suppose what I’m glad to be away from most is routine. You return with fresher eyes for sure and I also always enjoy encountering other cultures, whether that be in Morocco or Latvia. I inter-railed across (mostly) Eastern Europe in 1992 and I caught that part of the world at a time when it was undergoing immense change. I feel grateful to have caught a glimpse of that, especially Berlin.
22. Do you prefer ereading or traditional books?
I don’t have an eReader so I guess I’m still devoted to the book as a physical object. Having said that I’ve crossed the Rubicon with music and I’ve no doubt that the eBook will be the de facto way of reading in the future – if it isn’t moving that way already.
23. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland where would you live?
You know, I think I’d choose here every time. It’s in my blood. But it would be nice to have a small house somewhere to get away from the winters. Maybe Marrakesh for a very different experience of life – and weather!
24. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
Gosh, your questions are getting ever more imaginative! I’ve written a very long poem for my second collection that is really a meditation on art and friendship as explored through a series of archaeological objects. One section deals with ancient Ireland and Ogham inscriptions; another with Viking Dublin. However, another section – based around two Roman coins my father left me – echoes a deep passion for the ancient world. So I think I might hole up in Rome at the height of the Empire for a few days at least. The scientist in me, though, would love to go back to the first decades of the twentieth century to witness the formulation of quantum mechanics and general relativity, which marked huge shifts in our view of the universe. The poetry was pretty good around that time too, so a trip to Paris would be on the cards also!
25. Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please.
I have and some have been more memorable than others. Doing early workshops with Pat Boran and Paula Meehan were really exciting. Those first experiences really stand out because you’re soaking up so much as an aspiring poet. I once did a masterclass with a famous poet, who just talked about his battle with depression for two hours. That wasn’t so instructive! I’d say beyond that (and perhaps moving beyond the point where I started) to teach creative writing as been, at times, a very rewarding experience. You manage to communicate some tricky idea, or see a young writer really spark to life. I sometimes feel that the person who gained the most in that room was me. Having said that, I do notice that quite a few writers (even published ones) remain in creative writing groups for years. Personally I think, at a certain point, you have to cut the apron strings and go out on your own. In the end, that’s the moment when you have confidence in your own voice.
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’m not on Twitter, so I don’t really know. There have always been playwrights (at least in the 20th century) who could be very terse and sharp in their dialogue. I think of Mamet and Pinter, to name just two. Will social media change writing? Probably, though perhaps not in just this sense. I will say, we must be careful about brevity. There’s a danger that we will move closer to the ad man than the poet in this. It seems to me, poetry is there as an antidote to the constant, quick messages sent into our brains with deliberate intent – mostly encouraging us to buy things we may or may not need. Oh, how I hate Edward Bernes (Freud’s grandson) in so many ways. See Adam Curtis’ thought-provoking documentary Century of the Self as the case against this abuse of psychological insight in the field of marketing. The series Madmen deals with this brilliantly – in the odd episode I’ve seen of it.
27. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?
It struck me recently that being an island nation has an impact on our collective psyches. This has been heightened further for me in recent weeks, by moving to a flat on Dublin bay. I think island nations are quite homogenous in certain ways and from a purely naturalist’s point of view, we have a quite unique wildlife and climate as a result. Having said that, we’ve experienced our first real wave of emigration over the last ten or so years and with air-travel, seas are now invisible boundaries. I think both these things have changed us and our response to what was once our near isolation.
[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?] Answered above
29. Quick Pick Questions
a. John Synge or Beckett-?
Sam Beckett, every time.
b. dogs or cats
Dogs. Cats just take love. Dogs give some back.
c. best city to inspire a writer – London or Dublin
Since I live and write in Dublin it seems a perfectly satisfactory place to write for me! I would say, though, that having a publisher in London has helped to get my collection noticed there – perhaps more than if I had an Irish publisher. So, I think you can still live in Dublin and have a presence ‘over the pond’ as we say, as well. So, I kind of have the best of both worlds, in a sense..
d. favorite meal to eat out – breakfast, lunch or dinner?
I don’t eat breakfast, so it would have to be lunch.
e. RTE or BBC
Well, the BBC is the best broadcaster in the world, but I think RTE do a great job given the size of the funds available to them. I think the fact we have British television here means they must compete as best they can. Their factual strand is especially good. Hidden Histories and Arts Lives series spring to mind.
f. Yeats or Whitman
Oh, that’s a tough one as I love them both, for very different reasons. Yeats the master technician; Whitman the great poet of incantation. Toss a coin time...
g. Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption?
There was a KFC very near to where I used to live. I missed it when it closed its doors.
h. night or day
Well, I used to be a night owl and generally stayed up till 4am. These days I go to bed early, so I’d have to say the afternoon is my most productive time for writing these days.
i. A unified Ireland? a good idea or as dumb as it gets?Complex question that one. I think we’ve pushed past three decades of pain and strife (for both communities there) and I think most people are grateful for peace more than anything, though that’s not to say everyone – on either side – likes this movement towards mutual civility. I think Sinn Fein’s recent calls for a referendum on the issue are very premature (and I say that in the full knowledge of my grandfather’s wish for such an outcome). Normalisation of relations and something resembling mutual respect are the key goal at this moment, I feel.
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
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 like Michael’s work very much but I don’t identify with this poem especially. It’s a good poem and he does capture something of the Irish psyche, but I have a more optimistic view, in truth. It’s just not my experience of contemporary Irish life as I’ve experienced it, where I find a growing confidence in opposition to historical and personal senses of failure. As a (relatively) young poet I feel it is time, in many ways, to leave the past alone and look forward towards what we might become – as opposed to what we were. I think that’s true of every culture that doesn’t get stagnant. As Yeats’ put it in a different context, the poetic tradition - and indeed life - is a “living stream”. It’s the goal of my work, if I can achieve it, to be part of that ongoing conversation about our future, more so than our past.
I really learned a lot in these very interesting, well informed, and thought provoking responses. I am grateful to Noel Duffy for taking the time to participate in such a generous way in Irish Short Story Month-
I really enjoyed this post. No. 6 raises an issue that is topical. I attended a Creative Writing course as well, which I gained from immensely. But there is indeed a risk that the results and standards emerging from some of these courses may become 'dogma' and merely perpetuate an aesthetic canon that has long parted ways with unpredictable creativity...
Great interview. I love the notion and the idea of juggling "the large and the intimate, side by side and interconnected."
With regards the 6th question, I feel that creative writing courses at university level can offer a wonderful space (with fellow writers) in which to explore your identity as a writer and also hone the craft of writing.
I think how that craft evolves can be influenced but is not necessarily "shaped" or "produced" by the institution, the group or, indeed, oneself. It perhaps boils down to attitude and the reasons behind doing a course - is it the output or the process, the writing or the publication or, indeed, a combination?
I can't comment on American poetry specifically, as Noel has raised it, but I do feel that "unpredictable creativity" as the last poster as said, can still - and must - happen. And I think it does happen either with an academic qualification in creative writing or without one.
Very interesting piece here with so many insightful observations. I'm secretly enviiour of Noel's science background as I come from a generation that had to choose between arts and sciences and was told that i couldn't do Physics A level with English literatrure and History. Heigh-ho! I remain profoundly ignorant.
On the 6th question, I have only recently taken part in wiriting workshops. I was kind of "talked into" taking part and was very reluctant to do it. Probably a mix of arrogance and insecurity made me think that it might be a destructive influence on my fragile grasp of poetry. I've done two now and got two more coming up over the next two months. It has been truly inspiring but then I was lucky to be asked to do these by poet Ruth O'Callaghan who with a mix of sensitivity and brutality got me to move outside of my comfort zone. I agree with Noel though that, one day soon, I need to stand on my own feet poetically I've never been a fan of academic shall speak to academic.
Great to read such studied answers to these interesting questions.
Noel is a serious and independent thinker and I always enjoy his interviews. From my own experience of the M.Phil in Trinity I can't imagine most of those writers present would be of conforming disposition and would resist any attempt to make their work homogenous. For me a real writer will go their own way no matter what they're told. A writer is made by what they read and they choose their own reading. If someone is very suggestible they probably won't be a writer for long. I don't believe you need a masters or doctorate, but the discussions helped my work at the time. I can't comment about American poetry in general. It's unfortunate about that poet's experience, but any application to a course, lit journal, publisher etc can always be rejected for the wrong reasons, depending on the individuals judging. She should keep trying & certainly keep writing.
Shauna and Valerie, thanks for your very well-made comments. I knew question 6 was going to get me in trouble! I agree that MAa in Writing can be very helpful and supportive environments. When I did mine my confidence was at an ebb as a writer and the encouragement and guidance i got was very helpful at that time. I guess, my worry is more about the proliferation of such courses, particularly stateside - but which is slowly happening in the UK and Ireland as well with more and more courses now. There may be a parallel with art schools here. I know a number of artist friends who attended prestigious institutions and and conceptual art completely dominated - and to do anything else was not seen as serious work. I like some conceptual art, but think variety is the essence. I guess I'm wondering if a similar process has occurred with MAs in the states, where musicality of language and a more formal poetics is quite out of vogue. Still, I gained a great deal from my MA and agree with Valerie that a good writer will not be bent into a shape they weren't comfortable with. For me at this stage in my writing, it's very important to have poets I trust to whom I can show work and get feedback. So I'm saying we should live in our own vacuum as writers. But in the end, I'd like to think we're judged by our writing and not where we did an MA. I know this is a tricky issue and again, I appreciate your correctives to my slightly provocative answer to that particular question!
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