Thursday, January 14, 2016

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Prelude from New York

Prelude an urbane name for a new, urbane, New York-based journal of poetry edited by Stu Watson and Robert C. L. Crawford. Issue 1 included work by the doyenne of New York poetry, John Ashbury, the ubiquitous John Kinsella and many young American poets who are fast becoming crucial names on the scene. Issue 2 of which I have been lucky to receive a contributor’s copy is a beast of a book, over 300 pages long, handsomely-designed and printed to the best standards on quality paper, heavy enough to use as a weapon of defence against any approaching mugger.

How it’s financed is a mystery to me – it must cost a fortune and doesn’t seem to be supported by any university or foundation. Aside from great poetry it contains readable, compelling, intelligent essays from the editors and others on subjects such as Ashbury in Paris, Wallace Stevens’s relationship with rhyme, the poetics of awareness and forms of rhythm. Poets I admire keeping me company in this issue include Catherine Maya Popa, Rae Armantrout and Katy Lederer. But I’m also intrigued by many names new to me such as Jennifer Soong, Matt Longabucca and Marissa Crawford to name a few.

The contents of this issue can also be accessed for free through their website where you can also find extra content.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tragedy in Paris

This poem of mine was highly commended in this year's Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition by judge Kim Moore. It treats the complex and complicated political reactions which can result from tragedies such as yesterday's; understandable reactions but jejune and not entirely desirable.

Song of a Maid

Aged eight it came to me in a dream
I had been Joan of Arc in a previous life
and at twelve a tarot reader off Charing
Cross Road, with lightning and rain

smiting the pavement, confirmed it.
My spread was a fascia of swords and staves
and all the war-making cards with faces.
God appears to have forsaken me in this life:

I cannot ride a horse or speak French.
The closest I ever get to wearing armour
is my corduroy duffle coat donned on a turbulent day.
I visited an earl’s great country house so

I could touch his ancestor’s steel breastplates.
When nobody was looking I left the smears
of my fingers and palms. Babysitting
is the highest service I have risen to.

I am fourteen years old. I feel time running
away like a spoilt dog. One child I mind
Oliver, has curls and luminous eyes
of lapis lazuli lifted from a Medici tempera.

His nappies reek of myrrh and frankincense.
And with a shirred gaze he stares often
beyond my shoulder in awe. If I could turn
fast as light, I know I would see the Virgin

waiting for the moment to speak, to intone
on the will of her Son; on what I should say
when I call on the Queen or summon
David Cameron or when Francois Hollande

seeks out my counsel. Then I will need no horses.
A helicopter gunship will be my chariot
and I will venture forth to dispense
God’s indubitable works.    

Friday, November 6, 2015

My Advice on the Four Best Ways to Fuck-up Your Own Poetry Reading

1        Make like it's 1983

Strange to think it, but there are still poets out there who deliver their poems in a monotonous monotone. Most of them tend to be over fifty years of age. Last century (literally) it was de rigeur to give a poetry reading in a monotone – I guess it was a reaction against the way many actors can mangle a poem as they declaim it. Most poets hate the way most actors read poetry. Somebody wise once observed that most poets, when saying a poem aloud, do so by moving from consonant to consonant whereas most actors move from vowel to vowel. Jeremy Irons is a lovely man but he is the stereotypical example of an actor who knows how to destroy a poem, especially one by Yeats, by stretching out every vowel like a dog’s yowl. Anyhow last century the way most poets mitigated against this particular trauma was to put no feeling at all or variation of tone into the public reading of a poem. To inject feeling into a poem was believed to get between the audience and the poem; to impose an interpretation. It was believed by many that if you delivered a poem in a monotone the audience could concentrate specifically on the words and react in their own chosen way as they might by absorbing words straight off the page.

Famously Paul Celan met with sneering disapproval when he read his poems in the traditional Eastern European shamanistic style (with feeling) to a group of German poets in Hamburg in 1952. One observer said Celan had sounded just like Goebbels, another said he sounded like he was singing in the synagogue. Amazingly, this attitude to reading poetry was not confined by the borders of Germany – it was fairly common throughout the English-speaking world too and was the most dominant reading style right up to the beginning of this century.

Slam and performance poetry shook the whole scene up – demonstrating how large audiences would react better to a bit of life in your voice as you declaimed your poem. Sadly there are still older poets who make it like it’s 1983 – often brilliant, insightful, exciting poets on the page who destroy their own reputations as soon as they open their mouths in a crowded auditorium – these days even frequent readers of poetry, even gifted, sophisticated younger ‘page’ poets no longer possess the ability to ‘read’ a poem aurally in a monotone. Monotone poets rarely receive repeat invitations to read and curators elsewhere get to hear how boring they sound and drop them from their thoughts too.

2       Go over time

Nothing causes a festival or reading series curator to get more easily incensed than going over time. The more over time you go the more incensed they will be. Going way over time at a poetry reading is as offensive as pulling down your pants and defecating on stage. If you are reading before other poets you are eating into their time, you are upsetting a very carefully planned programme, you are displaying contempt for the audience, your fellow performers and the person who afforded you a time slot in the first place. It is always best to get off the stage leaving the audience wishing they heard more from you because once they no longer feel that, you have delivered too much of yourself and have overstayed your welcome. Aside from just not caring what you do and how it can impinge on other people there  appear to be three main reasons why people go overtime:
1       a)      The poet who thinks “They love me – I should stay up here all night.” – A dangerous delusion.
2       b)      The poet who thinks  “Shit, they hate what I have read so far – if I keep reading, one of my poems will eventually persuade them what a genius I am. “  - A dangerous delusion  
                 C) The poet who lives in a different space-time continuum. This person knows that he has only twenty minutes to read, fully intends to keep within that time limit but because he really isn’t present on this planet is deluded into believing three minutes is only a minute long – he has failed to take the advice to plan out his programme, time the duration of each poem so that his list can be completed within the allotted time OR he does, but fails to take into consideration the huge amount of time he takes up with introductions and explanations which brings us onto the third best way to fuck-up your poetry reading.

3 Do an introduction like that parodied by Dennis O’Driscoll. 

Some poets do wonderful introductions. Some poets do introductions that are way better and more entertaining than their poems – this has led others who don’t have the same talent to attempt to emulate them. They usually end up sounding like the poet parodied in Denis O’Driscoll’s poem The Next Poem.

4 Spend the whole reading avoiding all your best poems

I have been amazed the number of times I have seen poets decide to avoid reading their best poems. I once published a book by a brilliant poet. The book included much anthologised and discussed poems. But by the time the book was published the poet was bored of them himself. He decided to read the poems in the book which were never anthologised or widely discussed - the audience was left underwhelmed.  On another occasion a very famous American poet came to read in Ireland for the first time to a large audience. The audience was divided in three 1) people who were familiar with his work, loved his work and knew he was genius 2) people who had heard he was supposed to be genius but hadn't encountered the work before and came to find out what all the fuss was about 3) people who knew nothing about him at all. The famous American poet decided on that night to present himself to a completely strange audience by avoiding all the poems which had made him famous and beloved. Three months before he had acquired a new dog; was head over heels in love with dog. Had written a twenty poem sequence about the new dog. These were the only poems he read all night. All three sections of the audience were left very disappointed. I also came across a poet who read poems  about his cat all night - he was a far better poet than his cat poems but it just goes to show you don't need to be a dog lover to fuck-up your own poetry reading.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

How I met Roy Keane

This article was first published in the Cork Evening Echo in 2006

I hate sports. There’s no more succinct way of putting it. Whenever sports comes on the television I change the channel. I dump the sports supplements of newspapers straight in the bin. Sometimes I feel guilty  for the waste of paper, the sacrifice some tree has made and I try to pass it on to somebody else. Last Sunday I noticed two squad cars parked outside the newsagent, I started to dump the supplements I never read: the driving section, the travel pages, the property supplement and the appointments advert section. I pause before dumping the sports section. I tap on the squad car’s window and ask the vigilant Garda Siocana inside if he would like it as I never read it. He politely refuses. I wonder has he turned it down because 1) he prefers to read the sports supplement from a different paper 2) he doesn’t want to fraternize with civilians 3) he thinks I’m trying to chat him up and doesn’t want to encourage me 4) he is just like me and hates sport. Somehow I think the last option is the least likely.
I know I am not alone in being a straight man who hates sport but I also know I’m in a definite miniscule minority.
Everywhere I go I’m interrogated with: Whatchya think o’ the match bouyyy? There was a match? I reply. My only inkling that Scotland were playing Ireland recently was when there was a news story dealing with the chagrin of Scottish fans having to drink in a smoke-free pub. But exactly what were they fans of? Soccer? Hockey? Tiddley winks? I had no idea. Many people are astonished at my level of ignorance but it’s amazing how much of this kind of thing can pass you by when you don’t read the back pages of the newspaper and switch TV channels as soon as Tony O’Donoghue comes on the telly. Not that I have anything against Tony O’Donoghue. I went to school with the guy and know he can be really interesting when he isn’t talking about games which involve balls or fields of crew-cut grass painted with white lines.
About twelve years ago I met Roy Keane and I had no idea who he was. I was working in a bookshop at the time. Late one weekday evening when there weren’t too many customers I was approached at the desk by this really fit-looking young man with a marvelous Cork accent. He radiated a peculiar vibe. Academically, it’s interesting how I understood exactly what that vibe meant because I had never really come across it before. The vibe meant: I don’t know who you are but you obviously know who I am. Now I have to make it clear there was nothing arrogant or caca-headed about this vibe. The young man couldn’t have been more pleasant, well-mannered or respectful. Any parent would be proud of the demeanour of this young man, but there was the unmistakable presumption on his part that I knew who he was. Of course I hadn’t a clue.  I thought to myself, well, if he’s that famous and I haven’t a clue who he is, he must be a sportsman. At that stage I had no idea that any Cork man played for a major English soccer team so I presumed he must have been a member of the Cork Hurling or Football team. I’ve since learned who he was of course. Roy Keane is now iconic, literally ( a photograph of him hangs in the Crawford Municipal Gallery, the same photo will feature on the cover of an Irish poetry journal in June) and he appears on all sorts of non-sports news stories. Plus I have to admit, in spite of everything, some atavistic tribalist compulsion made sure I took an interest in Ireland’s participation in the last two world cups – all without reading the back pages of newspapers mind.
Generally I get very peeved when sports stories start appearing on the front pages of newspapers – don’t the feckers have enough space at the back I reason.
Occasionally sport impinges in a pleasurable way on my life. Theo Dorgan, the Cork poet, has written a very good poem about some hurler who, funnily enough has the same name as the bridge next to the Opera House. In the poem he discusses the legendary skill of this apparently famous hurler. What’s most impressive to me of course is the poetic skill with which Dorgan describes the hurler.
Another pleasurable sporting experience was when I walked into a pub in Barrack Street and noticed all the male customers staring at the television set like zombies. I looked to see what was so hypnotic and got hooked myself. It was the middle of Wimbledon and there was this very nice looking young woman making all sorts of interesting movements across the screen. Soon a pair of names flashed up. One I’ve forgotten forever, the other etched itself onto my brain: Anna Kournikova. I don’t think there were too many tennis fans in the pub that day. I’ve since learnt Anna Kournikova isn’t actually a good tennis player, however I didn’t learn it from Tony O’Donoghue or the back pages of a newspaper.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dermot Healy R.I.P.

The last time I introduced Dermot Healy in 2012 he was so taken with what I said, he asked for a copy of it afterwards.  As a tribute to him on the occasion of his shocking, untimely death. I reproduce it here:

It’s 27 years since I first introduced Dermot Healy to a Cork audience. He had by that stage published two books, a collection of Short Stories Banished Misfortune and a novel Fighting with Shadows. What attracted me to him back then, through his collection of stories was a demonstrated commitment to real storytelling without compromising on the side of art. Here was a writer who wanted to entertain while at the same time losing no sight of the fact, that language is no mere conveyance for stories or ideas but an entity in and of itself which requires proper attention and manipulation. Right from the beginning he has written in a way which combines a realist’s appreciation of the actual, true experience of the various social milieus he has been a part of, with a poet’s appreciation that truth is often better conveyed through the methodology of myth and described through metaphor. The business of writing, by which I mean Creative Writing, used to  sit uneasily with the academic faculties of university English Departments during the 80's and when I invited Dermot Healy, in my capacity as an undergraduate auditor of the English Literature Society to UCC  in 1985 their reaction was a “Who he?”
I’m delighted to say no one can now say “Who he?” about Dermot Healy. But Dermot had to wait another decade before he achieved commercial success with A Goat’s Song in 1994. Not that he had been silent in the ten years between the publication of his first and second novels. In that time he published his first collection of poetry with the Gallery Press, produced several plays including a screenplay for Cathal Black’s Our Boys.
He is also one of those writers who has spent much time working hard for the benefit of other writers  -  through his editorship of the journal Force 10 and his curatorship of the literary festival of the same name. He is also a generous sharer of his wisdom and knowledge as a writer through the many workshops he provides, regularly in his own community and occasionally at festivals up and down the country. In short, Dermot Healy’s success as a writer not only stems from his genius but through hard work and hard living, persevering especially through the early years against the uninterest and lack of appreciation a writer of demonstrable genius can encounter.

All together he has now published four novels, a collection of short stories, five poetry collections produced over ten plays and been involved in several film projects. Over thirty years after he first started publishing short stories and winning Hennessy Awards Dermot Healy still demonstrates a commitment to entertain without compromising his integrity with language and it is for that reason we are a very lucky audience to be able to hear him here tonight.