The Irish Quarter
Last year during Irish Short Story Week Year Two, I was lucky enough to read and post on an excellent short story by Kate Dempsey, "Saturday's Kiss". I am delighted to be able to present her answers to some of my questions.
Kate Dempsey writes fiction and poetry and lives in Ireland. She has been collecting jobs for her author biography since she could read. She has worked as a coffee grinder, a terrible waitress in Woolworths, a Harrods shop assistant, a computer programmer, a technical writer, a writer in schools and a mother. She's lived in England, Scotland, The Netherlands, South West USA and now in Ireland.
These diverse jobs and homes are reflected in her witty, observational writing, which is widely published in Ireland and the UK. Her short stories have been broadcast on RTE Radio and published in the Poolbeg Anthology 'Do The Write Thing.' She was shortlisted for the Hennessey New Irish Writing award three times and her poetry in many magazines and anthologies. She runs the Poetry Divas Collective, a glittering group of women who blur the wobbly boundaries between page and stage at cool events all over Ireland
Her first novel, The Story of Plan B, was shortlisted for the London Book Fair. You can purchase it as an E book here
She has also published a collection of poems, Some Poems.
Her blog, Emerging Writer, is a very good source of information about literary happenings in Ireland and a great place to find lots of reading ideas. It is also about her personal life as an emerging writer. She is very perceptive and funny and I will be following her blog and writing career from now on.
1. Please tell us who some short story writers you find yourself often returning to are? Do you have anything like a favorite short story? Who are some contemporary short story writers you admire? In no particular order, I love Kevin Barry ‘There are Little Kingdoms,’ Canadian genius, Alice Munro, Madcap US writer Miranda July, Raymond Carver is taut perfection, Katharine Mansfield who manages to be relevant today, Angela Carter wrote amazing magical realism and pro-women stories and US writer Andrew Kaufman who has the best titles. I’d better stop now. I do enjoy the short stories recorded and then analysed by The New Yorker magazine, Check out Bullet in the Brain and also The Lottery. Classic and classy American. 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. Is anything like this a factor in your work? Coming from outside, alcohol abuse is noticeable in Ireland. Drinking in moderation is less noticeable. Many (most?) social occasions here do involve alcohol and some people do not seem to be able to enjoy them without over-indulging, to the extent that they plan to be plastered and hungover before they even start. Why would you plan to get sick? However, plenty of people can and do have conversations with little or no alcohol involved. Both types are in Irish literature. Alcohol abuse is by no means restricted to Ireland. Much literature from all over the west include it as part of the social landscape. Irvin Walsh, Jack Kerouac, Evelyn Waugh, Helen Fielding, Tennessee Williams to select a diverse list. Is it a factor in my work? Not much in my fiction. The odd episode. I have a poem called Stupid Things Done When Drunk, many tales of which I have stolen from other people. 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? How does this manifest itself in your work? In your wonderful short story “Saturday’s Kiss” the woman in the story refers to her husband (they have sons) as her “biggest boy”, when she goes out on her own on a Saturday, he calls her three times with questions like “where is my wallet?”-is he being depicted as basically a nice but weak father with the wife gradually being moved into a motherly role toward him as he becomes increasingly helpless without her? I don’t think he’s right. Maybe he reads different modern Irish literature to me. With the increase of marriage breakups, the single parent family is becoming more commonplace. There is a generation of children in some sectors of society, most noticeably in the US, who are growing up with no father figures, sometimes for the second generation, and that has to affect the children. In my short story, Saturday’s Kiss, the husband character is only just touched on. Certainly there must be something lacking in their relationship that his wife develops such a yen for a kiss. Equally though, he could have an inkling that she needs him to need her. 4. Who are some contemporary poets you admire? If you could hear three dead poets read their work who would you pick? That’s hard to answer and get everyone in. I know a lot of poets and I’d be hesitant mentioning some and not others. Of poets I don’t know, I’d highlight Simon Armitage and Wendy Cope as huge influences. Kate Tempest is amazing. Other poets I’d like to know more include Mark Grist, Kathryn Simmonds, Jane Clarke, Ian McMillan, David Mohan, Anne Sexton, Pat Boran and Billy Collins. I am also taken with the Dutch poet Vrouwkje Tuinman and I’ve worked with her on some translations, which is very cool. Dead Poets? Well, Dylan Thomas but preferably with Richard Burton doing the actual reading. If I can’t have that, how about Adrian Mitchell or, no, Edwin Morgan the Scottish poet. Then I have to insist on William Shakespeare. Wouldn’t that be fantastic. Stratford is only down the road from Coventry where I grew up so I feel an affinity. I’d like to say Philip Larkin as he was born there but I have read that he’s not the most exciting reader so how about e e cummings? 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 am a glass half full kind of person. There's a positive side to most things, unless you're slap bang on the receiving end. What lessons can writers take? Well, poetry doesn't pay. But it never has. Unless you win the Noble Prize. People are more selective about which poetry publications they buy and some magazines have gone to the wall. Established publishers are more selective, less adventurous on taking on untried, untested writers. But there are always new publishers springing up, although some of questionable quality, both content and printing. More poetry is now published online now, another recession friendly option. But quantity and quality do not necessarily go hand in hand here either. Has the recession brought people closer to values other than consumerism? Was consumerism ever a value? i suppose some people who used to be materialistic are now less so. You do see evidence of people trying harder to buy local goods in local businesses which has to be good for the community. I’ve been through recessions before. Though each recession and each recovery is different. Some people and some communities never really recover. 6. A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many know 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.) There is a school of thought that you have to be slightly off kilter if not out and out crazy to be an artist. There are many examples (Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh, Lord Byron) but some are steady as she goes (Jane Austen, Philip Larkin, Chekov). To be an artist though, it’s better to be open to new things, chaotic or otherwise. I am a strong believer in putting myself outside my comfort zone every now and then. It doesn’t always work out, it’s sometimes a disaster but it enlivens. Imagine what other work those who died too young could have produced if they’d survived longer. 7. Tell us about your educational background? I went to a huge mixed, multi-cultural city comprehensive school in Coventry. Most students were groomed to apprentice at the car factories (the boys) or as service workers like secretaries and hairdressers. But the industry was collapsing around the city and it was a depressed time with high unemployment. My year was very academic and four of us won places at Oxbridge, unheard of in those parts. I loved my Physics degree and my time at Oxford but I couldn’t see myself going into research or teaching so I went into IT. 8. 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? Choosing a favourite movie is like choosing your favourite biscuit. It’s a game we sometimes play in the car and the list is different every time. For now let’s say Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Singing In The Rain, Pulp Fiction for Tarantino, Down By Law, Moon, The Blues Brothers, Lost in Translation, Subway (for my foreign film) and O Brother Where Art Thou for my Cohen Brothers film. We have only just got Sky at home and a Sky box. It’s like magic. You don’t ever have to watch an advert again. I watch Doctor Who (especially good when written by Stephen Moffat), Sherlock (Russell Davies) Mad Men (Characters and fashion), Game of Thrones (Dialogue is fantastic) also any Scandinavian noir on BBC4 Saturday 9pm. I love Star Trek too, all series. Someone lent me the boxset of The Wire which was gobsmackingly good. HBO. I enjoy genealogy of Who Do You Think You Are, anything with Professor Brian Cox and/or Dara O’Briain and guiltily The Great British BakeOff. 9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers? Or is this a myth? Myth 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." I’d say no but not out loud. And then I remember that I have actually seen a leprechaun. At the Cliffs of Moher. 11. You, according to your bio, were born in Coventry England, you have lived before Ireland in England, Scotland, the Southwest USA (please tell us where) and in the Netherlands. How did you wind up in Ireland? What place do you think of as home? I grew up in England and Scotland. I was living and working in The Netherlands and met my Irish husband there. We lived for a couple of years in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An amazing state, huge, mountains, deserts, snakes, spiders, sunshine, snow, cacti with arms sticking out, roadrunners, cowboys with pickup trucks and real native American Indians. Then we moved to Ireland where everything is green and ...moist. 12. Tell us something about the poetry group for women you belong to, Poetry Divas, please? What some of common themes do you see among the poets in the group? Do you support each other emotionally as well as in terms of work? If you were to read 100 short poems, and half were by men and half women, do you think you could pick the sex of the author above 60 percent of the time? The Poetry Divas are well published poets in our own right. We perform our own poetry but it is not enough for us that a poem works well out loud, it has to also work well on the page. We craft and recraft to get it right. We learn a lot from performing, I think. A poem can get a good reaction one night with one audience and another night, the atmosphere is completely different. We have learnt to read the room. We wear tiaras and feather boas. The idea being to read in places and to people who wouldn’t hear much poetry, who would be resistant. The idea being that it they are looking at our sparkly outfits, maybe they’ll listen too. We have had people come up to us after events saying they hadn’t heard any poetry since school and that they’d been surprised how much they enjoyed it. Also, there is a tendency for spoken word events to be biased towards men and we like to redress the balance somewhat. Identifying the gender of a poet is hit and miss. I suspect that less experienced poets who be more identifiable by their subject matter but as a trained scientist, I’d need to see some statistically significant studies to know for sure. 13. It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, as you do from UCD, 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 without any formal literary training be a thing of the past soon, if it is not already so? Often I see reviews, especially of American short story writers saying the writers work is standard University of Iowa writing-I don’t know what this means but it sounds like writers are being forced into standards acceptable to professors of creative writing. I don’t have any writing qualifications. I would love to do an MA but I don’t have the money and I work full time with a family and mortgage to support so it’s out of the question for me. I have done various workshops and courses and I definitely recommend them for writers when they are starting out. After some time though, I wonder what they can offer that you haven’t heard before. There is a danger that students write to please their tutors or their fellow workshop students and that is a recipe for everyone writing the same. No one wants that. You have to find your own voice, not ventriloquise other writers. I think that’s what they mean by standard University of Iowa writing. I wonder is it more prevalent in the US than in Europe? But teaching keeps many full times writers in employment and writers have to eat. They in turn inevitably can end up promoting upcoming writers who write they way they do. It’s like interviewers picking the interviewee who is most like themselves.
I have to believe though that original voices from writers without formal training still cut through the slushpiles and gatekeepers. And will continue to do so. You have to be an optimist to edit magazines and organise competitions and readings and that passion for writing is what keeps us all reading, writing and submitting. 14. What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”. Is the beauty of Ireland is two edged comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this? 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 country Does it inspire and defeat at the same time? I’m not sure I follow what she means. Too much natural beauty stunts creativity? I don’t think so. Ireland is made up of lots of sorts of spaces, some beautiful, some not so much but if you look hard enough, there is beauty in everything. Why would that defeat anyone or anything? 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? Save me from another popular song about emigrating because of the famine and leaving mammy behind. And enough of the gloomy, wretched Irish family stories with weak fathers (see above) gritty, sexually repressed mammies, loads of snot-ridden downtrodden children, whiskey, abusive, meglomaniac priests and taking the boat. Certainly there are stories of defeats throughout Irish history but there’s a lot to celebrate now. Get over it and uplift me! 16. Aosdana? to many it seems a mystery? Is it the best use of Ireland’s funds to promote literature? is it closed in Elitism? Some of the members are super big name writers, do they get a subsidy from the government? Of course if they decide one day to admit book bloggers based in the Philippines to membership I will say it is the greatest thing in the world but is it really also a way for the government to buy the silence of writers? Samuel Johnson said a pension was pay for a traitor from his government for committing treason, but when offered one he took it. On the other hand are those who repudiate it just jealous? Aosdana appears from the outside at least to be an old boys’ club, biased towards establishment figures and an unbalanced representation of Ireland’s artistic communities. Last week the members voted in 3 more men. Plus ca change. The 250 members get a stipend to continue doing what they do. There are some who believe that as it is a government handout, the members do play politic somewhat but I’m not so sure this is the case. It’s more to do with the human factor that people tend to hire or vote in people who are like themselves. Of course I am jealous. I would love for someone to pay me to be a full time writer. I received a grant from the Arts Council and another from South Dublin County Council a couple of years ago which was so useful for me. Unless you have a patron, time for writing is so precious. 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 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 signals? A social role? That’s a tough one. Probably no. I think poets and other artists should not feel they have to cover social issues, should not have to tick the politic boxes. Having said that though, poets don't and shouldn't live in a bubble. The effects of social change will filter out in their work. Even unintentionally. Also the readers will read it through their own filters and see parallels even when there are none. But if poets were early warning systems, financial analysts would buy racks of contemporary poetry. I wish they did but I don’t think they do. 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. History is written by the winners, in the case of Elizabethan history, that would be the English. I'm not sure the Elizabethans regarded any Irish as poetic and magical. Maybe the Victorians did. Actually the magical part is more likely to be the Irish diaspora who spread the tales to America and other destinations. All emigrants romanticise and elegise the places and the history or their origin. At least to outsiders. Maybe within their own families, within their own communities they are more likely to recognise the negative side of the places and people they left behind. 19. Tell us a bit about your non-literary work experience please. What does your diverse work experience bring to your work? I am a total tech-head. Love numbers, computers etc. I worked in IT for years, in silicon chip plants, biopharma and insurance. Now I work in the techy side of reinsurance. Reinsurance, you may not know, is the sexy version insurance. I often work with words too. In fabs, for example, if you don't use precise and clear wording, people can get hurt. Sometimes I make my emails rhyme so it's a two way influence. I have also taught creative writing in primary and secondary schools as well as to adults. I get a huge kick out of this and can't do it now as often as I would like because of time pressure. I always learn something new from my students, especially the kids. Their brains work differently. Anything is still possible. 20. In his book The Commitments Roddy Doyle has a main 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. The Commitments was set in 1980. Ireland was a different country then. Dublin was a very different city and Barrytown (Kilbarrack) was run down, full of unemployment and not surprising self loathing but always mixed in with gobs of self belief and lashings of humour. Is there self loathing in other literature? What about The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe or American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis? I don't think it's an Irish thing. Maybe a middle aged man thing? 21. Please tell us how your time as a technical writer and your scientific education informs your writing. In one of your readings you spoke of the perceived tensions between the sensibilities of a scientist and a poet-can these be combined or does society need both? Science and especially physics I find amazing. Physicists are always looking for the most elegant solution to problems, which means beauty and simplicity. I love that the biggest stuff, astronomy, nebulas, galaxies, neutron stars, black holes, event horizons, reflect the smallest teeniest stuff, quarks, spins, leptons, photons, fields. There is definitely more room for poetry in science and vice versa. And technical writing just means using the right words in the right place. Concise, correct and unambiguous. Which is poetry. Except maybe the ambiguity. Poets love dual/treble/quadruple meanings for words. 22. Have you attended literary workshops? if so please share your experiences with us a bit. I have attended quite a few workshops and courses over the years. I think I got more out of them earlier on. At this stage, I feel I have heard most things before. Show don't tell. Lose the first stanza. Titles should add something. There should be layers of meaning. Reading out loud is crucial. The quality of the teaching is crucial. I have been to workshops with a Work in PRogress poems and come out with no suggestions to improve it. Bit of a waste of my time. I am a member of two writing groups, which are great for feedback and for support. I recommend this to everyone. They are both more focused on fiction though so it anyone can point me to a Dublin based poetry one, let me know! 24. My brother and I will be making our first ever trip to Ireland in May so I am seeking a bit of advice- a. best place near Trinity University for fish and chips Beshoffs b. best place for a fairly priced pint Probably a student bar in Trinity? But I'd recommend Keoghs on South Anne St for Guinness. c. best two museums Totally depends what interests you. My favourites would be The Science Gallery (in Trinity) and the National Gallery. d. best non-chain book store Gutterbook shop in Cows Lane, Temple Bar, BOoks Upstairs by Trinity and The Winding Stair on the quays by Hapenny Bridge.. e. best place for good old fashioned Irish food? Stumped. The 'Oirish food' restaurants are usually aimed at tourists and generally aren't much good. Near Trinity hotel there's the Science Gallery cafe and The Grand Social on the quays does a good stew. The Winding Stair is supposed to be good. f. best place to hear traditional Irish music? There can be good bands in O'Donoghue's pub and the one across the street. Foleys is it? But if you're visiting Co Clare, there's a greater choice. 24. 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? Outside of Ireland and the UK, has to be a good cup of tea, made in a teapot with boiling water. Glad to be away from? Manky pub wine. Whinging and moaning about the state of the country, especially on RTE. 26. 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? Kevin Barry short stories. Maybe the comedy novels Ross O'Carroll Kelly are close enough to the bone! Marian Keyes covers quite a lot of ground. Don't let the frothy book covers put you off. 27. an experiment for this question-, make up a question and answer it please. What are your hopes for 2013? I hope to get a publisher to take on my poetry collection. And I'd like to finish my novel. 28. I want to get much more into contemporary Irish poetry, I have read nearly nothing beyond Yeats, where do I start? who are five essential modern poets? Essential Modern Irish Poets? I wouldn't be an expert. Probably those on the school Leaving Cert, Famous Seamus (Heaney) Eavan Boland Derek Mahon Michael Hartnett and Patrick Kavanagh if you count poets who are dead. Or more modern Rita Ann Higgins, Dennis O'Driscoll, Paul Durcan, Paul Muldoon, Paula Meehan 29. Quick Pick Questions a. tablets or laptops? Laptops b. dogs or cats Cats - It's the self centreness. c. best way for you personally to relax when stressed? Lie down with a G&T d. favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner? All of the above. Someone else cooks and clears up? e. RTE or BBC BBC f. Yeats or Whitman Whitman g. Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption? Other than the coffee, never go in. h. night or day for what? i Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? Neither. Ruined by a bad English teacher. j-best way to experience a new poem-hear the author read it or read it in a quiet undisturbed place? Both, Read it with the poet reading it. k. favorite singer? Bjork (today, tomorrow it would be a different answer) l. Opera, country music, slow love songs, rock or does it depend on what kind of mood you are in? Rock usually though I'm going to the Opera tonight. End
I offer my great thanks to Kate Dempsey for taking the time to provide us with such interesting answers. I hope to follow her writing career as best I can.