You published your first volume with Raven Arts Press in 1981. Obviously Randolph Healy had been involved with Raven in the early days, but did you feel much of an affinity with the other poets associated with the Press at that time? Was there a Raven style do you think? Also, were you aware of New Writers Press and the work of Michael Smith and Trevor Joyce at that stage?
In 1982/3 my wife and I and our little daughter were living in a cottage behind the Meath Hospital near Mike and Irene Smith. Michael was very generous with books and chat and I simply devoured the NWP output. But I had been reading and getting the Press’s books and The Lace Curtain through the 70s, mainly at the Eblana bookshop, if I remember. I didn’t meet Trevor Joyce at that time – had he moved to Cork by then? We were not to meet until the mid-‘90s. And that was in America.
Raven Arts was a lark. We did tours around the country, which was very ambitious really, given the resources available to the press. The Grapevine Arts Centre was GHQ, a rickety old house in North Frederick St. Sandy Fitzgerald ran the centre. Thom McGinty – yet to become The Diceman – lived there. I helped convene a workshop at the Grapevine. We also made a tape in the then state-of-the-art studio in St. Pat’s Teacher Training College in Drumcondra. I motored to the gig in Brian Lynch’s battered mini and we recorded together. I’m still in touch with Brian off and on. And with Philip Casey too. Though I knew Philip from the early Funge Festivals in Gorey, which predates any involvement with Raven. A Raven style? I was not conscious of doing anything of the sort myself. There was a concentration on urban content as opposed to the rural, which was fine by me, but no radical overhaul of approaches to the art itself beyond a change of content. Which is where we part company I suppose.
It was in that cottage behind the Meath Hospital that I began work on 5 Freedoms of Movement. By then, of course, I was reading UK and US ‘experimental’ poetry.
After the first volume you published more in the UK. Would you have found the influence of British poets at that stage stronger than that of, say, poets from the US or elsewhere?
Well I was getting US poetry as well as UK material through Alan Halsey’s Poetry Bookshop and Peter Riley’s outlet. And American poetics too was filtering through in say Ken Edwards’ Reality Studio magazine and Pete Hodgkiss’s Poetry Information. Oh yes, and Tim Longville’s excellent Grosseteste Press and Review. I think it was there I first read David Antin and Tom Raworth. And Cid Corman in Kyoto was giving me all sorts of contacts. People like Robert Lax in Greece. It was a twin opening out. And very exciting. And did several things simultaneously for me. First, it rendered the personal, anecdotal lyric quaint, archaic and hollow. Then it filled me with wonder that so few could see that the Emperor Had No Clothes. Then it made me think seriously about the reception of art, how it is framed, how universities and publishing houses omit and edit, producing generations of ‘well-read’ readers who read everything outside that narrow range, if they ever read outside it at all, as ‘bad art’. And the almost comic machinery of the Poetry Prize and the review pages chugging along supporting the façade. Roy Fisher has a delightfully mordant prose poem on that.
So you see, it was a great boon to live in a virtual aesthetic gulag, getting news from the Free World (which isn’t ‘free’ at all of course) and to have my own space in which to begin to make my own sense of it all. A very privileged place for any artist to be: to work alone, unhindered, and fired by delight and stimulation. On the negative side, it meant I couldn’t publish in Ireland for decades.
When you read your work, it seems to me that you try to present it in a way that makes it as accessible as possible. Is this deliberate? And do you think that some of your poems lend themselves more to public readings than others?
Mystification for its own sake has a limited value. I feel a responsibility to the work to live in the voice. Of course, it’s only one dimension, the bulk of poetry lives in the reader’s mind as an imagined voice, faint or strong. Readings can be frustrating for the poet whose unit of composition is the book, not the poem. It’s a compromise from the word go. And it gives the false impression that these excerpts are little stand-alones.
You taught English as a foreign language for many years. Do you think that influenced your relationship with English and has this had a knock-on influence on your poetry?
Meeting people from different cultures is always a pleasure. Meeting them in the context of learning’s even better, and learning a language even better again. It also brings you very close to the gaps and flaws, as well as the good things, in teaching methods and the thinking around what language and learning are. What was buzzing around in the 70s when I started was teaching and learning a language by the ‘communication’ method. This came up for abrupt scrutiny when I got my first class of Japanese students who grew up on head-down note-taking, who deemed it rude to ask a teacher a question – thus implying that the teacher was no good – and where the women underperformed so that the male students would not lose face. I’ve also been at it for so long now that I’ve seen language change considerably, language itself, the actual lexis in usage and pronunciation. This only underscores what I’ve always felt: that stasis is an illusion; we live in/on a [fast]-flowing river. No great discovery there, I know, but why then spend your life making frozen little anecdotes about your beloved or your granny or your dog and calling it poetry? And teaching courses to encourage more generations to write that kind of stuff? So, yes, my living and livelihood intermesh with my writing.
Who do you read now? What authors do you find most exciting?
I read a helluva lot and a lot of it in no particular order. Looking round my desk I see Ham & Jam and A Pearl by Peter Meilleur who writes under the name ‘Childe Roland’, which I really enjoyed getting back to. To my right a pile of books: a 1904 edition of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, Billy Mills’ new book Imaginary Gardens, Catherine Walsh’s Astonished Birds, a book on Irish butterflies, Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, Thoreau’s Waldon with woodcuts by the UK artist Ethelbert White, some Gary Snyder books, E.J.H. Corner’s The Life of Plants, Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro, an excellent book on lichens and some Matthew Mead books. To my left there’s a biology book, two books on narratology, T. A. Clark’s Ways Through Bracken from Jargon and a Zanzotto book. Clark and Zanzotto are poets I have the utmost respect for and who’ve given me endless pleasure over the years. But that’ll give you some idea of the ‘eclectic’ [chaotic?] mix involved.
Interviewer: John Kearns