Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Best Irish Poetry 2010

The fourth issue of Best of Irish Poetry has just been published. It is a handsome looking volume featuring a photo by Russian Evgeniy Shaman. It appears to be from the same photoshoot as the image in my blog banner.
This year it is edited by Matthew Sweeney who does a good job of casting an insider/outsider eye on the Irish poetry scene. Matthew has spent most of the last twenty years moving in the poetry circles of Britain and Germany and in his introduction admits pleasant surprise to discover for the first time poetry imprints such as Doghouse, Arlen House and Bradshaw Books. He has done a great job not only in selecting poems published in Irish literary journals but also poems by Irish poets in periodicals from across Britain and North America. The big names known to non-specialist readers such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley are here along with other established names such as Pearse Hutchinson, Kerry Hardie, John F. Deane and Eamon Grennan. Women are well represented especially from the younger generation such as Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn and Leanne O’Sullivan. There are also poets here who will be previously unknown to even the most expert reader of contemporary Irish poetry. 12 euro in the shops. It is available at a special price of ten euro from

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Beggars for Capitalism

The artists’ tax exemption scheme should be scrapped and replaced with an arrangement where artists are assessed on all their income over a five-year period. None of us likes paying taxes, yet, proverbially at least they are as inevitable as death. Taxes are what we rely on to pay for health care, education provision, culture spend and much else besides.
I’m opposed to the Artists’ tax exemption scheme because I believe it is morally indefensible and not of real benefit to real artists anyhow. Most artists in Ireland do not earn enough to pay taxes and most people who benefit from the artist’s tax exemption are not artists. Bono is not an artist: he is a composer of pop ephemera and no qualification is necessary to dismiss Celia Ahern (millionaire chicklit author and Mrs to another millionaire pop ephemerist) as an artist. The argument that these millionaires and others should be exempt from tax while an individual on the minimum wage supporting an unemployed spouse and children in rented accommodation should contribute tax towards the funds needed to provide policing, roads, street lighting etc. that these millionaires also benefit from is morally indefensible.

Most poets, visual artists, dramatists etc do not earn enough from their imagination to make a living, let alone pay taxes. If someone does not earn enough to pay taxes, then they don’t pay taxes, nothing could be simpler than that fact. The less money you earn, the less complicated your relationship to tax is. The problem for most artists who do earn enough to pay tax is that they have good years followed by fallow years. A novel which earns its author €200,000 in a single year may have taken five or more years to write. It would not be unusual for this to be the only significant earning for a novelist in a long, long time. Assessed over a five year period these earning would equal an annual salary of 40,000 a year – the average industrial earnings. Someone on this wage with a single parent or marriage tax allowance would currently face annual deductions of about 5,000 euro. If the novelist deducted as business expenses her spend on computer and peripheral costs, stationery, post, phone, internet, web design etc. she could arguably reduce her tax liability to close to zero. I would propose that the artist/poet/novelist be assessed on their earnings over a five year period to allow for this situation. In any case most artists would still not earn enough from their creative efforts to pay tax.
Currently, if you are a writer who earns from giving readings or lectures or workshops you are obliged to declare these earnings for tax purposes. Most writers earn more from readings and workshops than they do from royalties. If all of a writer’s earnings, not just royalties, were assessed over a five year period, most writers would legally benefit more than from the present situation – and they would still be paying their fair share of tax – the same as anyone else on the same earnings level.
If all the millionaires and other high earners benefiting from the artist’s tax exemption paid their fair share the government would have more money available to increase bursaries to those artists who need them.
One of the biggest drawbacks in the current system is that not the Arts Council, not Aosdana, nor any artists’ representative organisation is consulted by the Revenue as to who should qualify for the exemption. The Revenue decide for themselves. And the sort of individual who is benefiting most often is bringing the scheme and the reputation of the arts sector in to disrepute. Why should a professional historian already receiving an exorbitant salary or pension from a university qualify for a tax exemption on his book royalties? Why should a brainless popular broadcaster whose book was ghostwritten? Why shouldn’t “ordinary tax payers” be enraged when they hear of these examples? Why should anyone on a good income from whatever source not pay their fair share of tax?

Artists are codding themselves by supporting the tax exemption scheme. Most of them will never earn enough to be charged tax and if there were fewer tax exemptions in all spheres of Irish life there would be more money in state coffers to provide for artist bursaries, grants, commissions etc.

Artists are special in the irregularity of their earnings – this reality should be accommodated by assessing them for tax over a five year period, not by exempting them entirely and obliging even poorer people to shoulder the burden of financing state services on artists’ behalf.

The average artist or writer who supports the current tax exemption scheme is like a street beggar who supports extreme capitalism just in case he one day becomes a millionaire.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lolita proves Lyne is a Langer

In spite of being a Nabokov fan since the age of seventeen (the short story collection Tyrants Destroyed being my first purchase. The story “Music” and the one about the cocainist remain my favourites) I spent twelve years avoiding viewing Adrian Lyne’s “movie” Lolita. In 1986 I had been dragged to see 9 and one half weeks by my future ex-wife. It was a cause celebre of a film in spite of not being the sort of material to excite the average Sundance film festival aficionado. It was in fact cinematically illiterate.
So when I heard in 1995 Langer Lyne had decided to adapt Lolita for the screen I groaned like a goat in labour. When it was released in 1997 I avoided it like the proverbial plague. I avoided it in the cinema. I avoided it on television, I avoided it in the video cassette and later DVD emporia. I avoided buying it at full price. I avoided buying it at discount price. I avoided buying it in any ten for the price of one dvd promotion sales. I would even have avoided accepting it as a freebie giveaway with a Sunday broadsheet had it been offered that way.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1960’s adaptation was a less than adequate representation of the novel but was a very successfully realised film with its own artistic qualities. At the very least it captured the dark irony and malevolent humour of Nabokov.
Last week Lyne’s crime against aesthetes and anti-paedophiles was broadcast on film four and I decided to record it on my skybox (the European version of a tivo whatsit).
I lasted six minutes before I decided to fast forward through the rest of the movie. Lyne’s movie was not without its redeeming features. There were at least two. 1st it portrayed Lolita as an innocent prepubescent at the start of the story, thereby underscoring the tragedy of her abuse (something Kubrick missed out on) The second redeeming feature was the casting of the American character actor (whose name I’ve never learned) in the role of Quilty. Everything else about the film was vomit-inducing.
Ironically Lyne’s version tracks the arc of Nabokov’s plot more faithfully than Kubrick’s, proving if proof were necessary that the appeal of Nabokov’s novel is not in its subject matter. Its appeal resides in its language, in its structure/form; in its dark, dark humour juxtaposed with the subject matter.
A further irony to Lyne’s “movie” is that whenever he believes he needs to sexually arouse the viewer he attempts it by presenting an animated parody of a Balthus painting where his leading actress’s long legs are on display in all sorts of configuration. Fast forwarding reveals that a good 15% of the film is taken up with this sort of crap. The irony of this Lyne stratagem is that Nabokov wrote an earlier novel called Laughter in the Dark which features an idiot of an anti-hero whose life ambition is to produce animated films where the paintings of the great masters come to life.
Nabokov would piss himself with laughter watching this movie if he wasn’t already spouting blood from every orifice with apoplexy.
Last point: Jeremy Irons might be a nice man but what a ham. He makes the worst Humbert Humbert. I’m convinced he’s the reason I didn’t like the film Swann’s Way. Try to visualise Irons in the Daniel Day Lewis role in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and you’ll understand exactly what I mean. He recently murdered some Yeats' poems by declamation on Irish radio.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Joyce Estate to sue Enda Kenny

The Joyce Estate has announced that it is to sue Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael for infringement of copyright. They say that at the post Lisbon referendum press conference Kenny's declamation of the word "yes" consecutively four times was a shameless plagiarism of Molly Bloom's soliloquy. Lawyers for Stephen Joyce said: "Saying 'yes' three times consecutively is arguably an infringement, but in such cases we have been leniant. However when Mr Kenny decided to say 'yes' four consecutive times it was a 'yes' too far and my client had no alternative but to intervene and safeguard his intellectual property rights. Arguably James Joyce's moral rights as an author have also been sullied by Mr Kenny uttering the words without the correct intonation but we will not be pursuing that matter at this juncture."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Read it and Weep

I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry reading this so I did both. (Blog title is link)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Speech delivered for the launch of Leanne O'Sullivan's latest book Cailleach (Bloodaxe 2009)

Leanne O’Sullivan is a very popular person. Not every poet is a popular person so that’s something worth mentioning and not every popular person is a good poet, but there are some poets whose popularity exceeds their talent, underscoring how rare it is to find a poet whose talent matches her popularity. Leanne has distinguished herself through her talent from a young age. Before the advent of Leanne and Billy Ramsell on the scene it looked as if a great twenty year outflow of poetic talent from Cork and from UCC had come to an end. After a greatly disappointing decade of silence, people took pleasure from the simple existence of these two young poets striving to make things happen on the page. One older poet who at a certain point hadn’t yet read Leanne and who I think like many of us had been jaded by the constant stream in these islands of good-looking young women pushed upon us as the new Sylvia Plath, Nuala Ni Dhomnaill or Medbh McGuckian; this older poet turned to me and one evening asked “But is she any good?”
I responded with great feeling in my voice “She’s more than good. She’s the real thing.”
What did I base this opinion on? Certainly not the garland of prizes she had won before the age of twenty or the breadth of specialist publications she had been published in. Because quite frankly I know of some wonderful poets who have not won prizes or who have not even published widely in journals before producing a book. Nor was it because of the famous endorsers, the likes of Billy Collins, because frankly I’ve known of young poets being endorsed for all the wrong reasons.
My opinion was based on the poems in Waiting for my Clothes (Bloodaxe 2004) those poems revealed a poet with a wonderful sense of metaphor with a facility for bringing into being sentences, cadences of the most wonderful felicity, a unique poetic expression which signalled the arrival of a new original, found voice.
There was a time when the making of myth wasn’t about the concealing of truth but the revealing of truth, the sort of truth which cannot be accounted for through the discourse of fact. A physical geographer could tell us many things about the Beara peninsula, the location of dormant volcanoes, the point where one type of rock beds down with another, it could be a description peppered with words such as drumlins and moraines, locutions such as “major tectonic lineaments” or “lithospheric “block” boundaries”, sounds not without their poetic possibilities, but which appearing at the point of a professional academic’s nib contain little of the truth we turn to myth and poetry for.

In Cailleach Leanne O’Sullivan performs a poetic operation which involves the resurrection and resuscitation of old local myths which have not had the currency of national sagas. These myths have arguably had more life in them than the stories of Lir and Fionn and Setanta and Grainne precisely because they haven’t been codified but have continued to grow and morph in the mouths of generations of Beara locals. It was the function of myth before the centuries of scientific authority eradicated myth from most of our lives, to grow and evolve and adapt to changing circumstances in life and it was always in the minds of poets that Myth reached its full truth-bearing potential.

In Cailleach we have a living breathing part of Ireland whose truth is encapsulated in a language which makes no allowances for The Celtic Tiger. The ephemeral nature of the Tiger economy is acknowledged in a truthful account of the Beara peninsula without reference to bungalows and holiday villas, BMW motors and combine harvesters, without reference to a young immersing themselves in take-away curries and Bacardi Breezers. The fisherman whom the Cailleach lusts and loves doesn’t work on a factory ship.

Much of the discourse of Celtic Tiger Ireland will soon be redundant and in a generation or two incomprehensible to anyone not a social historian. In Cailleach Leanne O’Sullivan has couched her new myths in a language which will be more enduring, enduring when it tells us of waves sweeping out like bursting glass or the milk-warm scent of cattle being woven into someone’s clothes.

Eavan Boland talks about the place that happened and the place that happened to you, a third place is the place which is the object of the word happened where writer is the subject. After tonight Beara isn’t merely the place that happened to Leanne O’Sullivan, it’s the place Leanne O’Sullivan happened to.

And if I didn’t have the respect an Irish poet has for the fermented juice of the vine, I would at this very moment be shattering a bottle of Champagne over this book about a jagged, shardy peninsula, shaped itself like a giant, tectonic ship, thrusting into the ocean.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Introduction to poetry reading Shanghai March 14th 2009

A complaint which has been heard by everyone who has spent a lifetime professionally around books, whether as a librarian or bookseller, editor or book reviewer, is from the occasional individual who claims that they can never read novels because they are not true, that they can only read factual forms such as histories, biographies, travelogues etc.

Well of course most if not all people in this room will recognise the naivety of such a statement, because we know that not all histories, biographies etc. are strictly factual. Yet the stated complaint illustrates perfectly a recurring problem for many readers; the inability to understand the difference between truth and fact.

Take two recent news stories: the United States dispatching a flotilla of destroyers to the South China Seas in the past few days and Prime Minister Wen, commenting publicly for the first time about the investment of trillions of Chinese foreign reserves in US debt and the caution of the Chinese authorities in the face of the precarious American ability to repay that debt; these two events are undeniable facts, but their presentation in close juxtaposition in a text speaks volumes about the truth of Sino-American relations. Now if these two events had never occurred, arguably a novelist or a poet could still have written about them, actually invented them, presented them in the same way and even as invented non-factual events in a writer’s imagination they would have still conveyed the same truth behind Sino-American relations.

This is how writers convey the truth all the time through non-facts. Historically the truth has often been portrayed through myth and in ancient myth, events were rarely portrayed in a realistic way, so if we hired an ancient writer of myths to relate the events of the last couple of days, he might write about a huge pod of enormous whales containing entire armies of American soldiers in their bellies or a Prime Minister Wen whose tongue was possessed by a spirit or a ghost with an agenda of its own, making the Prime Minister speak as he did.

Myth received a very bad name in the West in the 18th and 19th Century because during the Enlightenment there was this huge pressure, wherever the intellect operated, to verify all truths as verifiable facts. This is how fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible and Koran emerged. In the minds of these people Adam and Eve actually existed, because fundamentalists cannot get their minds around truth that is not expressed through fact. Political fundamentalists have this problem too.

The Marxist-Leninist regimes of Europe provided the greatest service to Western literature by resurrecting the use of myth in the work of poets as a means to portraying the truth. Because the apparatchiks were unable to decode surrealist and expressionist literary techniques many Polish, Czech, Bulgarian and Estonian poets were able to write without compromising their own truth or attracting the eye of the censor.

The great thing about such contemporary myth-making techniques is that they can be used in the service of conveying not just political truths but personal truths and that is what I am mainly doing in my most recent book Making Music – where there are many poems linked through the shared extended metaphoric possibilities presented by angels.

I will read first from this new book which was completed by the printers last Monday when I was already in Shanghai, so unfortunately I don’t have copies with me but they are available to purchase through my website I will then read from Perplexed Skin and I do have copies of that with me.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Gregory Orr, Palm Beach Poetry Festival and Restoration Topiary

Apologies to the one or two people who started to care about this blog. I'm afraid the pressures of readying several books for the printers (including my own next offering) and the organisational demands of a poetry festival just finished, led me to neglect this particular responsibility. But here we go again.....
I found the Palm Beach Poetry Festival by chance. Last year I had Ilya Kaminski as a guest in Cork and he recommended a festival in the Florida Keys as a good place to do a gig. “Just Google ‘Florida’ and ‘Poetry Festival’,” he said. That’s how I found the Palm Beach Poetry Festival’s website. Straight away what intrigued me about it was how it was structured around a large number of week-long workshops – about ten or twelve running simultaneously. I had been to festivals across Europe and had never come across this set-up. It was like it was a festival of workshops with readings tacked on. The punters’ fees were in the order of over $700. I made a mental note that I would follow it up one of these years.

When I read late last year that Gregory Orr was one of the workshop leaders this year I knew 2009 was when I had to go. I had picked up a copy of Orr’s The Red House in the late 80s and it had had a tremendous effect on me. Here was a poetry which was structurally, linguistically and formally so simple but which yet had huge resonance. In many ways it was antithetical to much of my own very wordy work of that period, but in other ways it had much in common with the 20th Century German poets who had staked out huge territory in my own personal, private anthology of great poets and poems – poets such as Gottfried Benn, Georg Trakl and of course Paul Celan. Orr’s The Red House whispered the qualities of poetry into every fibre of my being, yet I had to acknowledge at the same time that this was writing which most poetry editors in these islands would fail to recognise as poetry.

Even big, established names such as Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes were, in the mid to late 80’s receiving reviews in the British press accusing their latest European and American influenced work of being technically sloppy. While the work of Zbigniew Herbert, Marin Sorescu and Miroslav Holub was much admired in these islands any British or Irish poet who published work similar in structure was dismissed as technically incompetent. Poetry was deemed to be not achieved unless there was a noticeable rhythmical character with stanzas neat and uniform as Restoration topiary.

So in 1989, greatly invigorated by my reading of Gregory Orr, I found myself writing the first poems in what would become a nine poem sequence “The Garden”. I believed at the time it was some of the best work I had ever done. A few of the poems appeared in Poetry Ireland Review but generally the sequence was met with a “What the fuck are you up to, Pat?” response, even from people I knew were generally sympathetic to me.
I had to wait another nineteen years before the sequence was published in its entirety. An anthologist selected work of mine in the early 90s but rejected these poems in utter incomprehension. I started to believe I had made a huge misstep and for many complex reasons stopped writing completely for about six years. How I started to write again is a subject for another blog.

Nineteen years later when I had finally found a publisher willing to risk more than a chapbook with me I had practically forgotten I had written “The Garden”. It tumbled out of an old computer file almost at the last minute, in time for me to stick it into the manuscript with a “What the fuck?” shrug of my shoulders. When the book was published, its different parts had many admirers, reflecting their different tastes but one reviewer did single out “The Garden” as the best achievement in the book and the sequence was translated and published in its entirety in Estonia’s leading poetry journal, (in a slot which had been filled by Billy Collins the previous quarter). All this belated attention for “the Garden” led to very mixed feelings for me. On the one hand I felt happy and vindicated for the young poet who had produced it twenty years previously - on the other hand I felt sadness and deep regret that the young poet who created those poems had stopped working for six years, almost for life, because he lived in a community of poetry which led him to believe what he was writing was worthless.

The chance to meet Gregory Orr, to take a week of workshops with the poet whose work had inspired a walk down “The Garden” path and to combine it with my other reasons for going to the Palm Beach Poetry Festival was too much to resist.

My other main reason for going was to study the business model of the festival, how in hell did they succeed in bringing almost 100 people thousands of miles across America to one place, each spending thousands of dollars in the process? Was it a model worth replicating in Ireland? Who were these people? How did they hear about it? What would it take to attract them to Ireland for something similar?

Armed with funds from my day job and a generous Arts Council travel grant I went off to find out. I knew there were personal risks in going to meet Greg Orr. I had met poetry heroes before and had sometimes been disappointed to discover the person in the flesh, I’m thinking now in particular of a famous Irish poet who had a drinking problem and was completely obnoxious with it. Glad to say he has been on the dry for over a decade now and is perfectly charming and convivial as a result. But I knew that liking Gregory Orr’s poetry was no guarantee that I was going to like Gregory Orr in person.

To be continued……
Read more on Orr here

Friday, January 2, 2009

Angel Patriot

There is a black feathered angel who has skin as pale as bleached vellum. His eyes are the blue of synthetic ice. He wanders the parquet floors of the Crawford Art Gallery sniffing at the post-nineteenth century exhibits: the canvasses which proclaim “God is dead” and the conceptual installations which disdain craft and persistence. That first time he was astonished by my own open-mouthed perceiving of him and immediately raised a frosted finger to his lips so the nearby class of long robed Limerick convent girls would learn nothing of him. “I have three arias and five choral symphonies running simultaneously in the chambers of my many cerebra.” he confided, but still had a spare string of neurones to listen to me. All I had were the usual inquiries which he patiently answered for the first time in decades. His name could not be annunciated but sounded only by running a silver comb through the final three feathers of an angel’s right wingtip. Early in the Godless century he had been the guardian of a gifted boy who yearned to paint but was so poor he could draw only by scraping slate flagstones with flints of lime. In his short life the boy haunted the gallery and expired of consumption here one afternoon. The angel had stayed ever since. “Are you a painter?” he said, his face filled with concern for himself. Why after a century of anonymity should he be open now to the probing of my eyes? When I confessed to being a poet, and a minor one to boot, he was appalled. “But I have no interest in poetry.” I calmed him by assuring him I had no need of his guarding and would not make him leave the gallery. “I’m Godless too,” I told him. The mixture of relief and disgust expressed simultaneously on his face was beyond the reach of any actor. We still meet whenever I call in. Lately he was taken by the Daniel Maclise exhibition. When I told him Maclise was described as being of the British School in the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay he became apoplectic. Angels have nationality too it seems.

(from Making Music, forthcoming 2009)