Do you remember the first poem you wrote or what prompted it?
Paddy Bushe in email conversation with Pat Boran about his latest collection of poems, On a Turning Wing, winner of the 2017 Irish Times Poetry Now Award
How important is place to your writing life, both in terms of subject matter and your actual modus operandi, the locations where poems come to you and/or get written down?
Place is of primary significance in my poems, probably the element which is most essential to them. I think this may be because I grew up in a Dublin suburb to which I felt no familial or imaginative ties, and that I have a consequent yearning to be integrated into place, to be a part of place. Of course the result is a willed, creative process rather than an organic, natural one, and this feeds into my poetry. I can place the genesis of most of my poems, a genesis or place that may disappear in the poem itself, but which is very much part of how it develops and survives – if it does. Love poems, political poems, poems about the nature of art – all of these can begin as a kind of invocation of place. For many years most of my work was ‘placed’ in Iveragh in South Kerry, my adoptive home. In more recent times my focus has widened, but usually with Iveragh not too far in the back of my mind.
Your poems are often ‘set’ far from home, reflecting your interest in travel and, in particular, hill-climbing and mountain-trekking. Are you actively writing, note-taking for instance, when you’re on the move? Can you make final versions in situations like that, or is it a case of poetry being something ‘recollected in tranquillity’, as Wordsworth had it?
I’m always full of good intentions about using notebooks, voice recorders, cameras and so forth. But I’m afraid I’m highly disorganised and unsystematic. Notebooks tend to be lost or neglected fairly quickly, and voice recorders gloriously blank when I return. I do find a camera useful as an aide-memoire, and even a stimulus for some new insight after a trip. Sometimes I get a reasonably complete draft of a poem. But my poems usually “stew” for quite a while after the spark first comes, generally in the form of a line or three which move around in my mind for weeks on end. So yes, I’m actively writing, but perhaps in a way that others wouldn’t notice. That’s my usual method – if that’s not too much of an overstatement – whether my work is placed at home or away.
Of course it’s not just in seemingly adventurous things activities like trekking or visiting formerly remote places (is anywhere really remote today?) that inspiration is to be found – galleries in Madrid or Paris, or conversations with musicians and poets in the extraordinary landscape of An tEilean Sgitheanach (The Isle of Skye) can stimulate poems. The genesis and working-out of most poems is humdrum enough, as it is, I imagine, for most poems by most poets. All of which is really to partially concur with Wordsworth’s ‘recollected in tranquillity’ formulation.
It’s the business of the poet, I think, to create rather than recreate. It’s what’s on the page that’s important, not the stimulus that gave rise to it.
Can you talk a bit about being a poet in two languages, Irish and English? Translation aside, how closely related is your poetry in the two languages? Are their subjects that seem more at home or more suited to one or other language?
I suppose the first thing to say is that English was and remains my first language. That’s a matter of fact, not necessarily a matter of choice. I speak, read and write more instinctively and more fluently in English than in Irish. When I began to write, in my late teens, I tended to write mainly in Irish, for ideological reasons. When I started to write again, in my thirties, aspects of that ideological commitment had faded, and I wrote solely in English. Both choices were limiting, and both exclusivist. I began to write again in Irish, especially when the “starter lines” I spoke about earlier suggested themselves in Irish, or in echoes of Irish. These echoes are especially strong where I live, which is residually a strong Gaeltacht area, and whose landscape, culture and history speak to me in Irish more than in English. So the subject and originating circumstances usually now determine the language in which I write, as well as any social or linguistic situation which may have given rise to the poem.
On a slightly different note, I find it puzzling, and indeed a matter of regret, that poets who are capable of writing in both languages so seldom do so. Of course I understand that poetry needs sources with cultural and linguistic depth that goes beyond competence, but I cannot help thinking that the choice is still often influenced – in both linguistic directions – by a hangover from the nationalistic and political takeover of the Gaelic Revival , which I believe has done great damage to the language. I greatly regret, for example, that Michael Hartnett bade A Farewell to English rather than simply making Irish welcome. Further back, I think it’s a great pity that Douglas Hyde – who opposed the nationalistic hijacking of Irish – did not write “The Necessity for Gaelicising Ireland” rather than “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”.
Let it be said, of course, that those who would dismiss our Gaelic inheritance, for either ideological or meretriciously pragmatic reasons, do no service to our cultural life. Irish life and Irish poetry should celebrate the possibility of being genuinely bilingual, and not decide to close one eye in order to favour the other.
Many Irish language poets (who speak fluent English) prefer to have others translate their work, perhaps as a way to keep the energy within the language. How do you approach that task with regard to your own poems, a number of which appear in your new book as they did in earlier volumes?
To be honest, translating myself was a matter of necessity as much as of choice – there was no queue of translators lining up to take on the work! But really I approach the task as I do when I’m translating the poems of, say, Cathal Ó Searcaigh or Gabriel Rosenstock. That is to respect the work, to be as close as possible to the original in meaning, line structure, sound patterns and so forth, while at the same time producing a poem which works in its own right. Obviously, as far as rhyme or other sound patterns is concerned, this can mean finding equivalence rather than exact reflection. The same applies to idioms, metaphors and so on. As a rule of thumb, if I feel I can’t do that, I try to avoid translating the poem.
Some years back you edited the anthology Voices at the World’s Edge, a volume of poetry and prose (with photographs) inspired by the visits under your guidance of a number of poets to Skellig Michael, a place that’s part of the physical and mental landscape you inhabit. If one could put aside the crassness of turning the Skelligs into a kind of monastic Disneyland, as some Government ministers seem determined to do, how would you describe their real value in contemporary Ireland? Do you think we’ve lost the ability to admire and cherish places we are unable to master?
The island isn’t actually visible from my house, as it lies just behind Bolus Head, the northern headland of the two which enclose Ballinskelligs Bay, or Bá na Scealg, on the edge of which I live. But I suppose you could say that for a long time I have had an imaginative line of sight to Skellig, and that it has been central to my imaginative and poetic world for most of my writing life.
The value of Skellig Michael, even in a country which is increasingly post-religious, is primarily spiritual. In other words, it provides an entrance into otherness, otherness of time and place, otherness which I have seen have a profound effect on believers and atheists alike.
And of course there is the extraordinary wildlife and physical beauty of the place, which are part of that spiritual dimension, along with its role in mythology, history, folklore and the various combinations of all three which animate our perceptions of it. The commoditisation xxx of this extraordinary and place is indeed crass. One of the most shameful things I have seen in respect to Sceilg Mhichíl is a tourism promotion film, for which Fáilte Ireland actually paid €25,000 to Disney Lucas, and in which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht spoke. Neither she nor anybody else in the film even mentioned that there was an intact Early Christian monastic site on the island. It’s only quality, the viewers are implicitly told, is how well it fits into the Star Wars narrative. It would be shocking were Donald Trump to say it. To have a government with this mentality – and this went to the highest level of government – is profoundly disturbing. Significantly J.J. Abrams expressed amazement in the film that he had been permitted to film on Skellig. He must have been amazed at the gombeen mentality that secretly gave him that permission.
Your new book takes its title from a line by Hopkins. And Hopkins is something of a guiding presence in a good deal of your writing. What is it you admire in him? Is his influence more marked in your English language writing?
I had always liked Hopkins, from schooldays on. I admire his open and absorbent sensibility, and I recognise, even though I no longer share, his fear-ridden and guilt-ridden Catholicism. He makes great poetry out of feelings and thoughts that I grew up with. I am also fascinated by his intelligence and craft. It seems to me that he combines the sensibility of a romantic poet with the intelligence and craft of a metaphysical poet. When I did an MA with the Open University after retiring from teaching in 1990, I wrote a dissertation on the influence of his feelings of exile and alienation on his Dublin poems. So I read his work fairly intensively at that time. And around the same time, on Skellig Michael, I looked into an abyss (I can be terrified of height) and Hopkins’s lines leaped into my mind:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
That led to my long sequence “Hopkins on Skellig Michael” where my obsession with Skellig coalesced with my enforced obsession with Hopkins. I should make it clear that Hopkins never went there, but I used an imaginary overnight retreat by Hopkins to explore Hopkins’s mind and work, while physically exploring the island.
As you say, Hopkins is an overt presence in this new collection, especially in “Of Paint and Clay and Words”, a line of which gives the collection its name. As regards his general influence on my writing, I’m sure there is, in both languages. But I think that’s for others to trace. It would feel presumptuous for me to do so.
The Scottish Gaelic poet Somhairle MacGill-Eain / Sorley Maclean has been another significant influence, and you walked in his footsteps, literally and metaphorically, when you translated his collected poems into Irish (Ó Choill go Barr Ghéarain, Coiscéim, 2013) a couple of years back. There’s great love of and understanding of place in his work, and great sadness at what is lost. Is it too much, do you think, to suggest that great poetry always walks a line between celebration and elegy?
Somhairle, whom I had the privilege of meeting a few times, is certainly an influence, in both languages. I think he was by far the greatest Gaelic poet, Irish or Scottish, of his era. That’s why I took the decision, against all good sense and reason, to translate his collected poems into Irish. I was very aware that the potential readership of poetry in a threatened minority language translated into a sister threatened minority language would be of interest to a minority of a minority of a minority. But I got enormous satisfaction from it, despite it being such challenging work over a period of three years.
I have also dedicated two poems to him, one in English and another in Irish. And, although the connections is disguised rather than overt, the poem ‘The Music Master and the Poet’ in my new collection is based on a story the poet and musicologist John Purser, who lives on Skye, told me about himself and Somhairle.
I also got great satisfaction out of working with my son, Éanna de Buis, on his film Ar Lorg Shomhairle: In Sorley’s Footsteps in which we traced Somhairle’s poetry in the landscape of Skye and Raasay which stimulated so much of his poetry, even though he rarely took landscape description as a subject for his poems. But he embodied love poems, political poems and historical poems in his landscape, in works of enormous power, beauty and above all, integrity.
I think there is a great deal of truth in what you say about elegy and celebration in great poetry. I’ll pass on whether or not it applies to all great poetry, but it certainly applies to many great works of art, be they literary, dramatic, musical, visual or whatever. And I would certainly think that all elegy necessarily implies celebration.
That sense of both celebration and elegy is certainly evident in the poem sequence here about Tech Amergin, the arts centre in which you and your wife Fíona were very much involved for many years. Arguments like this often, and rightly, take place in the public arena of a local newspaper. What are you hopes and intentions in giving it a new life in verse?
That sequence, which I found extraordinarily difficult to write, and still find difficult to read aloud, started out as an outburst of rage and of contempt for the bureaucracy which, in an act of corporate revenge and vindictiveness, got rid of the voluntary group which for a number of years, on a completely voluntary basis, had run a high-quality, wide-ranging arts programme at a tiny cost, and at no cost to the educational committee which held legal ownership of the centre, again entirely due to local voluntary effort. At the moment, four years later, there is a minimal programme which is a shadow of what there used to be.
The detail of that deliberate destruction of an arts programme is for another day. But as I was writing the poem, I realised that merely to vent my anger and contempt might give me temporary satisfaction, but would tell a very limited story. So I decided also to celebrate what there had been, and to try to show a little of how precious it had been in the community, and how the bureaucratic bullying which lay behind the destruction of that preciousness hurt the community which the bureaucracy nominally served. I hope the poem speaks for the belief that all communities are enriched by access to the arts, and becomes a plea for that access to be universal.
Link: On A Turning Wing by Paddy Bushe
To coincide with the launch of her new collection of poems, Geomantic, on November 14, we link here to a recording of a wide-ranging conversation between the poet and UCD Adjunct Professor Jody Allen Randolph, in an event that took place at The National Library of Ireland, in April 2016, during the course of which Meehan reads and discusses many of the poems in the book.
Theo Dorgan is the guest on this week’s Poetry Programme (Saturday 20 February at 7:30 pm, RTÉ Radio 1), reading from his most recent collection Nine Bright Shiners (Dedalus Press, 2014), his translations of Maram al-Masri’s Barefoot Souls, and previewing the forthcoming Mountains to Sea literary festival.
The show will also be available to listen back to online at http://www.rte.ie/radio1/the-poetry-programme
Patrick Deeley shares his thoughts on poetry with Aoife Byrne, following the publication of Groundswell, his New and Selected Poems
(Interview first published in July 2013)
Do you have a particular method of writing?
Each collection seems to tie in with a particular period of five or six years in my life. I have to live a bit, to gather fresh experiences as raw materials for poems. So for example the new work in Groundswell, recently published, has to do with my ongoing preoccupations – landscape that’s both rural and urban, stories from history and modernity, meditations on nature and folklore – but now as well there are poems that dwell on ageing, on art and music, on the sustaining of love over time and on the nourishment that comes from a long-lasting love. These themes have come more and more to the forefront.
“I write mainly at night. I enjoy the quietness. The poem often starts with an image, and I build on this and see where it goes.”
I love the physicality of being in the world. I plunge in. Images come of that sensual engagement, but then there’s narrative as well. If I’m lucky the poem gathers to some kind of earned wisdom or insight. After the rush of the initial draft I have a fair idea whether there’s something worth keeping or not. Then I edit. This job of editing is about as much fun as trying to extract a thistle thorn from your finger with a sewing needle – but crucial if the poem is to have a chance.
How has growing up in Ireland influenced your poetry?
I spent my childhood in rural East Galway in the late 1950s and early 1960s. My father was mad about machines and timber. He had a sawmill and a carpentry workshop where he made all manner of things – hurleys, furniture, cartwheels, farm implements, even coffins at one stage. I loved watching him shaping wood. My mother as well as being a home-maker did much of the farming. Part of the farm consisted of a Callows or wetland meadow, with its own specialised flora and fauna. I skived off there just to avoid work. Both the beauty and solitude grew on me, and influenced my poems, later – I saw nature in its raw state, up close, at first hand. But the skills my father possessed, and the lives of local people who lived round about us, and their colloquial speech, also chimed with me when I began to write.
My grandmother made ballads. Seumas O’Kelly, a relation of my father’s, wrote the highly regarded novella, The Weaver’s Grave. But there were few books in our house. My parents were pragmatic. They worked hard. They loved talk, the oral tradition. I began to write only after I’d moved to Dublin to train as a teacher. The home place and the memories came back to me unsentimentally. I enjoyed the quickness and the freedom of city life, and that also has shaped my poems. I still return to County Galway every so often, to meet my family. It’s the trigger of childhood memories, but when I splice these with later experiences and events from the present the poem happens out of that.
Landscape is sometimes still the spur, but I’m more interested in how we’ve harnessed and transformed it. My own memories, as well as more general notions about the primordial, can work as a starting point, but the poem must catch and connect the old world up with the possibilities of now. That, for me, is the challenge and the excitement. Somebody remarked that you have to keep glancing around and behind you while reading my poems. I like the implication, the ghost lurking in the machine of the poem at any moment liable to jump out.
Are there any particular themes that, as a poet, you feel compelled to write about?
Yes. To do with nature, but not simply as nature poems, more a case of how we impact on the earth and how the earth impacts on us. Groundswell: New and Selected has five sections and these sections have themes in common as well as specific themes of their own. In the first section, ‘The Hidden Village’, I address my early life and the lives of my neighbours in Foxhall, the townland where I was born.
In ‘King of the Wood’, trees are the compulsion, for themselves and for the myths and folktales associated with them. These are frequently given a modern twist or written at a slant. My father lost his life in a tree-felling accident, and maybe it was a working out of grief at what had happened that brought me to face up to trees, their beauty and their versatility, their panoply of legends and their mystery, and the sense of loss I felt for my father, with his sawmill and workshop and the machines and implements he had put his hand to left behind as a reminder of him.
In ‘The Flowing Bones’ section I examine aspects of the earth and its creatures at ground level, to find out what makes them tick, and I focus more on city life as well as on the increasing urbanisation of rural Ireland over the past decade or so.
In the fourth section, ‘Fear Bréige’, I’m having a lash at the recent economic disasters that befell our country – using as catalyst a rudimentary scarecrow or ‘Fear Bréige’ who finds himself in Dublin, living with some builders and made to serve as an ineffectual witness of the entire boom and bust.
And in Groundswell, the substantial batch of new poems that comprise the fifth section of the book, well… I’ve talked about some of the themes there earlier.
Has your idea of poetry changed since you started writing?
“I think poetry – the reading and the writing of it – helps to enrich and develop our consciousness.”
In my classroom in Ballyfermot when I was a teacher I encouraged the children to write poems in their own language and out of their own experience, for precisely this sense of personal enrichment – not just in terms of vocabulary but because poetry helps expand our ‘creative space’, where alternative possibilities in the way we live our lives can occur to us.
For my own part, each poem is always a beginning, a shot in the dark. It’s a more studied undertaking now, less fun perhaps because I’m trying to ratchet it up in terms of stretching the language as fully as I can, and deepening the layers of meaning or potential meaning, and aiming for beautiful expression always, even when the world the poem confronts is distasteful or unfair or considered ugly. I hope that the ‘argument’ in my poems has caught up with the imagery, that the wonder remains, and that the payoff for the reader is in finding more pleasure, greater reward in reading the poems.
Do you think that the core ingredient of a poem is that it should be read aloud in order to be fully appreciated?
It depends on the poem, I think. Some poems are slow-burn, and need a good mulling over. Others demand the carry of the air. Others still may fit both forms of presentation. People who attend poetry readings often say that the poem read aloud by the poet enables them to appreciate it more. But then, reading poems aloud to an audience is its own knack, one that not every poet can manage effectively.
What do you think constitutes a successful reading?
A big and happy crowd held spellbound by a poet performing at the top of his or her powers?
Are there any other poets to whose work you continually return?
“There are several poets I admire, but what I tend to do is return to certain poems which I consider to be great and which I never tire of reading.”
I admire the way Hopkins mints a language to match his restless search, and the passion of John Donne expressed with tremendous technical excellence. The pure vulnerability of Theodore Roethke appeals to me, his lyricism hitting the spot, taking you there. I met him once, when I was a child. He bought drinks for my father and the other men in John Joe Broderick’s pub in Kilrickle.
I’m reading Making Way, a novel by Theo Dorgan, and Savage Solitude, a book about the nature of being alone, by Máighréad Medbh. I’m also reading current issues of The Stinging Fly, Poetry Ireland Review and The Shop – but not just because I happen to have poems in them!
Are there any creative mediums that you’d like to pursue that you haven’t yet?
Recently I took early retirement from the job of primary school principal in order to devote more time to writing. Memoir interests me. At some stage I’d like to write about my father’s life – spent, as he would have it, “following tractors and various other contraptions”. I’ve had works of fiction for young people published by O’Brien Press, and if or when the poems leave me alone I may go back to that.
Which other contemporary Irish writers do you admire?
I admire far too many contemporary Irish writers to even begin to mention just a few.
Do you often find yourself in the company of other poets? If so, how do you think this might influence your work?
I don’t often meet other poets, except at the occasional book launch or festival. I never discuss my work with them – apart from with my editor, Pat Boran – nor do they discuss their work with me. I do feel that we recognise each other’s struggle, however, and the odd word of praise back or forth for work published does matter, especially from someone whose own work you admire.
Do you think the reading public has any preconceptions about poetry? If so, do you think that they are correct presuppositions?
The poetry reading public is small but passionate about poetry. I really don’t know what presuppositions there may be out there generally or even among poetry followers, but people who attend poetry readings seem well informed about the contemporary scene. What I would hope for are more informed anthologists, some of whom seem led by media perceptions of ‘who matters’ and ‘whose work is important’. I would in common with other poets also welcome more space for reviews and critical attention for poetry.
Do you use the Internet to find new poetry? If so, where do you go?
I go to various sites including that of The Munster Literature Festival and The Irish Literary Times. Naturally I go to the Dedalus Press website for their ‘Poem of the Month’ and to see what’s up. I often use the Internet to locate the work especially of the poets of old, when I can’t find their poems in books, but I still buy a fair amount of poetry books. I’ve a roomful of them, going back over thirty years.
What about some advice for aspiring Irish poets?
Apart from the obvious things such as persevering at the craft and reading the work of proven poets, I’d say follow your own path, but with an open mind and out of an emotional imperative.
What is it about poetry in particular that attracts you as a writer?
“Writing poems helps me to stay open to the world. I enjoy the pressure it puts me under, and the pleasure when the poem catches fire. It’s a solitary task and while I tend to be gregarious the solitariness of poem-making draws me in.”
As a child looking at nature, I often fell into a trance. People say of the new poems in Groundswell that the wonder is still there. The poems help me come to terms with things, in a sense preserve the experiences and the wonder. Writing poems is for me an affirmation of the world and of my place in it. And the world, for all its faults and failings, deserves to be sung – passionately, beautifully, even in the cracked voice of a poet.
3 Poems from Groundswell: New and Selected Poems
Again we find ourselves carried away by the thought
of having discovered each other. And in
your garden now this monkey-puzzle, fossil mother
of suburbia, suggests South America.
Wild, we both say, in the parlance of today
or yesterday. Except it all started ages ago – the way
we talked to beat the band, the love play
we wanted to make before the diplodocus that peeped
shyly round a tree could be taken for a common
streetlamp, the blundering brontosaurus
trembling hedge and tarmac become – in a heartbeat
or a time-slip – our last bus back, the one
we might run to catch or contrive to miss on purpose.
Perspectives through sound: a blackbird’s
oath, sworn from a chimney-stack;
the mellifluous coos of woodpigeons
conjuring sunbeams amid high ivy clusters;
a robin’s pipe, happening to approve
of cotoneaster berries. But if the tremulous,
piercing notes of the thrush
are expansions of space and time, rolling me
wide and far, I still hear the magpie’s
screeched assertion from a wall overlooking
the covered-in quarry, that all was
winter yesterday, was stone the day before.
Apollo did the dirt, slew poor old serpent god Python,
whose corpse gradually decomposed – the smell,
initially horrible, had tempered itself by the time
the Sibyl breathed it in, and was now an entrancing perfume.
Rubbish, say the experts, that Delphic whiff
was naturally occurring ethylene. But what a gas, still,
what prophecies came to shape the destinies
of peasants and kings trying to live up or down to them.
And if my wetlands will-o’-the-wisp must turn
to methane, or luminosities glissading my skin as I rise
from the turlough are to pass for algal
fluorescence, they’ve long since exerted their influence.
Here is ground and groundswell, fit matter
for a day’s dalliance or a lifetime spent deliberately looking.
Here we speak to each other because of the river –
not the fact of the river but the mood it pushes,
the clay-coloured flood so deep the heron must step
aside from it, the water-hen retreat under St. Patrick’s cabbage.
And, fresh as Hopkins saw it, ‘Kingfishers catch
fire’, their orange bellies flaring from a blue-plumed bush.