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7 Questions on Poetry: Patrick Kehoe

7 Questions on Poetry, answered by Patrick Kehoe, poet and arts journalist. His most recent collections of poems are Places to Sleep (Salmon Poetry, 2018) and The Cask of Moonlight (Dedalus Press, 2014).

Do you remember How, or When, or even Why you started writing poems (as opposed to songs, say, or fiction)?

I recall writing poems that were like company or friends to me, at St Peter’s College around 1972 in a blue notebook. I recall pleasure in particular from a poem I wrote about the evening sky changing in the month of October outside the study room windows into night. A great passage through dusk, twilight.

The poem was, I could see, close in its imagery to what I wanted, which engendered a peculiar satisfaction. Such versifying was predicated on the fact that I was conscious of being in boarding school for a five-year sentence and that my freedom was compromised. The view from the study room window was akin to Oscar Wilde’s ‘tent of blue’ as seen from the confines of Reading Gaol. 

Five years is a huge block of time in the middle of your early adolescence. It was not relevant that you got home for holidays, you could not be philosophical about time passing quickly, as one ruefully is when one is much older. 

So poetry was an imaginative liberation. It is strange that when you endure – or enjoy, as I sometimes did – those days, that one day they will seem so long ago, so much an afterthought.

Rather than doing my study, I loved watching the light fade and the way bits of cloud turned red and then lost the red, or yellow faded somewhere else. I put these visual elements into a poem called ‘Seasons at Saint Peters’ in my book The Cask of Moonlight. 


Do you have a favourite poet, or even a favourite poem? A poem you think everyone should read, even know by heart?

I recall in 1973/1974 my friend Eamonn Wall had a few of those Modern European Poets selections from Penguin which I wish they would reissue in exactly the same livery now 40 years on. Jiménez shared a volume with Machado, there was a selection of Mallarmé.


I have only two or three of such volumes but I am very fond of the first half of my Selected Eugenio Montale, the earlier poems, from Ossi di Seppia (Bones of the Cuttlefish) and other early to mid-period work. It’s a peuce-covered slim volume purchased in Copenhagen in 1977. 


In general, would you say that you write to expand on an image or idea or to compress and focus it?


How much do you edit? How much do you know where you’re going and how much do you blindly feel your way?

It’s like a sprint to the finish and I know it will be a short sprint, i.e. a short poem, so there is no real pressure. Once done and let rest for a day or so, I realise I must go back to the start again and forget the sprinting. Rather, crawl on my hands and feet around the words as though they were obstacles, but also turnstiles letting me in when I select the right one.


What’s your relationship with ‘received forms’ (the sonnet, ballad, villanelle etc)? Are there other non-traditional form restrictions you place on your work?

All I know is my apprenticeship as a songwriter served me usefully for writing poems that generally try to sing in free verse. Reading some of my poems back, I note only odd corners and bits of them seem to sing, other parts are avowedly technical, as it were. Yet I suppose the pieces seem to fit in the end, the unmusical usages and the musical, it’s an oddly functioning alloy.

Have you ever been a part of a writing workshop and, if so, what do you think you gained from it. If not, is there any reason why not?

I went to a songwriting workshop once that Sonny Condell gave in Dun Laoghaire and cannot recall much, bar his explanation of how putting his guitar into different tunings prompted new songs. 
John Martyn used to avoid standard tuning and it yielded similar results. I do not know how that applies to poetry, I think it doesn’t for myself, but it may be a paradigm for someone who experiments with different metrical forms.
As to any kind of workshop, I am sure they have proved very valuable to many a writer. The best workshop though might be the talented English teacher. 

A great deal of your poetry is concerned with / based in, Barcelona in the 1970s. Is there something about that place and period that has a special ‘hold’ on you? Is the distance from it (in time and space) a help or a hindrance?

Is the distance from Barcelona a help or a hindrance? I love that question, it is a fundamental question with regard to poetry which involves any decent poet’s recall of childhood or youth. 
The distance is almost axiomatic, if that is the phrase, to the writing and the imaginative invention, so I suppose distance helps. 
Then again, I return to Barcelona every few years or so and it is like hauling in another net of fresh fish and the poems then don’t need to refer to some notional long ago at all. 
In my most recent book, Places to Sleep there is a poem called ‘Sant Martí’. Three years ago or so, on a short break in the city, I could walk around the district of that name, unfamiliar to me, around noon, say. 
I made the streets my own in writing by what I think is a reasonably commendable attempt to describe the colour of the light in March as it fell on those nondescript pale walls in a district, some distance away from the tourist end. The hotel was there, hence the poem, a pleasing serendipity to me.
I find new inspirations each time. The hold is very peculiar to me, and yet I only lived there for two years. 
There was a definable trajectory though and it is important that I do not spell it out. There is in fact already sufficient narrative in quite a few poems.
That trajectory began with trying to carve out a living in a city where you could not ask people a question about directions in English on the street, or ask for a meal in English in a restaurant. You had no choice but to take on the mask that speaking a foreign language involves. The mask makes you a different entity and I hope somehow that it is part of whatever I do in verse.


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The Shipping Forecast

In this short essay, reproduced from The Deep Heart’s Core, poet JOHN O’DONNELL revisits his poem ‘The Shipping Forecast’, among those included in Sunlight: New and Selected Poems (May 2018).

LIKE PROSPECTORS, poets are always anxious to know if what they’ve unearthed this time is the real thing. We make our marks and see how they compare; and there are so many other marks already, from others who for centuries have been panning for gold in the same seam.

Some poems, we know, are no more than fool’s gold, their brassy yellow quickly losing its glister, though sadly not always before they’ve made their way into print; it’s often difficult at the time of writing to tell.

It was Touchstone himself who said “the truest poetry is the most feigning”, in As You Like It, and, as a clown, he should know, planted as he is by Shakespeare to call things as they are rather than as we might like them to be. He would make a useful editor, standing at our shoulders as we write; mostly shaking his head sadly, but occasionally — very occasionally — crying “Yes!”

I’ve chosen ‘The Shipping Forecast’ from my first collection Some Other Country as my touchstone poem because, although it was written nearly twenty years ago, it’s a poem that still makes me say “Yes”. It combines, in the sonnet form I love, many of the themes I’ve returned to often, the struggle to grow up, the father-son relationship, and the sea.

John F. Kennedy suggested we all have in our veins “the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears”. I’m sure there are scientists who disagree. But like a lot of what Kennedy said, it feels right, as I hope this poem does; and if someone years from now sifting through my poems stop at this one, I hope they’ll agree.

The Shipping Forecast

for my father

Tied up at the pier in darkened harbour
the two of us below, in cabin’s amber
light; me surly in a sleeping-bag, fifteen,
and you, past midnight, calmly tuning in
to the Shipping Forecast, Long Wave’s
crackle, hiss, until you find the voice.
What’s next for us: rain or fair? There are
warnings of gales in Rockall and Finisterre.
So near now, just this teak bulkhead
between us, and yet so apart, battened
hatches as another low approaches, the high
over Azores as distant as a man is from a boy.
I think of my own boat one day, the deep.
Beside me the sea snores, turns over in its sleep.


Photo © Pat Boran

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Monsoon Diary: The Cover Story

JOSEPH WOODS on the story behind the cover of his new book of poems, Monsoon Diary

For me, there’s a certain serendipity to the book cover of Monsoon Diary.

Last December Pat Boran was in touch about the book and ideas for the cover, as a precursor to knuckling down to the text and its arrangement. I was clear about one thing; given the book’s context, I wanted a contemporary photo, something urban, downtown Yangon and rain-drenched as befits the testing monsoon.

I was convinced I had taken the right image, but a search through my own photos didn’t quite reveal what I wanted and so we played around with a few images including one, sourced by Pat, of a rain-splattered windscreen with people obscured and crossing a road. We were getting close and agreed we wanted to avoid touristic golden temples and pagodas. But given that Myanmar, or Burma, in literature is known as ‘The Golden Land’, I did want yellow in the cover or a ‘Yellow Book’ of sorts? It’s also, simply, my favourite colour. I approached a few photographers with a request, ‘urban and in the rain’, but got no real takers, until I contacted a pal in Yangon, Shane Brady, an Irish Yangonophile who often accompanied me on bookshop searches in the city and was already a dedicatee of one of the poems, ‘Sundays in Rangoon’, in the book.

I was clear about one thing; given the book’s context, I wanted a contemporary photo, something urban, downtown Yangon and rain-drenched as befits the testing monsoon.

He bounced back immediately with an iPhone picture he’d taken of the Chin Tsong Palace with monsoon clouds heaving and swirling above it. I knew we had the image and atmosphere, especially since the building had intrigued me for virtually all my time in Yangon.

For our first year in Yangon, my family lived in a neighbourhood more densely populated than Dacca which was not ideal for rearing a toddler, but a half-crown of sonnets, Let us fly away to the famed cities of Asia, arose from that experience. In our second year, we moved to Golden Valley, a neighbourhood behind the Chin Tsong Palace, and from the back of our house we could see its tiered tower. Golden Valley was the traditional neighbourhood for colonials, and during Myanmar’s long stagnation and isolation, for retired military colonels – and now, expatriates with families.

 I tried getting into the grounds of the palace on a few occasions but was politely turned away at the entrance by a guard, until one day I brought my daughter in her stroller and no one seemed to mind. After numerous visits to the grounds, one afternoon, knowing that in Burma it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, I left the stroller outside the palace and we walked in. I had my camera and we explored the elaborately carved teak stairs and I photographed the once fabled, now empty and sadly dilapidated interior. There were murals of Chinese scenes that are incongruously the work of imported English artists, Ernest and Dod Procter who went on to better things.

After numerous visits to the grounds, one afternoon, knowing that in Burma it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, I left the stroller outside the palace and we walked in.

The palace was the project of its eponymous owner Lim Chin Tsong, a fabulously wealthy Chinese merchant who intended it as a lavish residence. Work began in 1917 and was only completed in 1920, so we are in the midst of its centenary. Within a year of its completion, Lim Chin Tsong’s fortune had folded and he was broke for the few years before his death in 1923. The building has had many different fortunes since, as a hotel, a broadcasting house for the occupying Japanese forces, and now houses, rather half-heartedly, a school for the Fine Arts.

And there’s a further serendipity, the great Irish chronicler of Burma, Maurice Collis (whose life I’ve been pursuing and writing), once stayed here on his return to Burma in 1937, to write a travel book, Lords of the Sunset. He recounts reaching ‘The House on the Island’ by sampan or boat and is even photographed in the ‘Island Garden’ grounds in the book. This suggests that either the nearby (to the right of the photo) Kandawgyi Lake must have once extended around the palace, or, more likely, the grounds of the palace once extended to the lake shore.

Occasionally, while living in Golden Valley, I took a 6 a.m. constitutional by that lake, and walking behind the palace I’d sometimes see the rising sun spilling through the top storey, which, while empty, must remain one of the most coveted 360-degree views over Yangon.

I was delighted, too, that Shane in his picture had captured in the foreground a game of chinlon, a kind of kickboxing version of volleyball played with bare feet and a hard rattan ball. That game and the curious colour tints added to what Pat rightly pointed out was a Hieronymus Bosch effect. As for that yellow cover? Well, the book’s title is in imperial yellow.

MONSOON DIARY by Joseph Woods is published by Dedalus Press in April 2018