A big welcome to the Women Rule Writer blog, Adam, I always love to host poets here.
Tell us a little about your new poetry collection Silent Music.
The title poem 'Silent Music' refers to an experimental piece of silence by the avante garde composer, John Cage. I was struck by this idea of an orchestra taking to the stage with instruments and then not playing them, as was British composer Mike Batt, who did something similar. In one of the most bizarre cases Cage's music publishers tried to sue Batt. You would think copyrighting silence would be impossible, but Batt ended up paying an out of court six-figure sum. So silence really is golden. So there are poems in the collection which explore these different aspects of silence, which is an element of poetry in itself - as Coleridge said, 'heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter; - and there are poems which explore different aspects of music, which is another another element of poetry.
Music is referenced hugely in your poetry, with name checks to the likes of Bob Dylan. Does music influence your poetry?
I love music and used to play various percussion instrument before poetry. So I suppose it has to influence my poetry somewhere. At a very early age I enjoyed learning the lyrics from songs from my mum's record collection. Often I would write down the lyrics so I could learn them off by heart and then I would have ago at my own music lyrics and then later rap songs, when hip-hop came along. I suppose that was my start into creative writing, although I didn't know it then. But music is not something I use consciously to inspire or influence me. I find reading, walking and silence more conducive now.
The music referred to in the collection is often how music is used in more bizarre, profound and terrifying ways. Such as the poem 'Chamber Music' which is about Nazi officers listening to Schubert as they sent Jews to their death. As for Dylan, he's one of my favourite poets but I think our styles are very different! - That said I'm sure one or two of his amazing one-liners have seeped into my subconscious and have been recycled and regurgitated somewhere along my lines.
You like to play tricks with form – some of the poems read from bottom to top. One poem, ‘Telepathy’ is a title only with a blank page as the body of the piece. Can you talk a little about this kind of experimentation?
Yes I enjoy experimenting trying to make up new forms. Part of the fun of poetry is that you can experiment and play with ideas and stretch the notions of what language and literature can do.
It's also one of the challenges of any artist, I think - to try and do something different. I think when we read we naturally enter the psychic part of our imagination. I thought the idea of a telepathy poem being blank on the page would be fun and fitting with the collection's theme. The collection also has a mirror poem in it where the second stanza is a reflection of the first stanza with the lines reversed. I also invented some upside-down poems that have to be read from the bottom-up. The sequence are all about things that travel up, such as bubbles in a glass of champagne, smoke from a pipe and a snake being charmed etc... I like the idea of a poem moving up the page, as often inspiration seems to bubble up from inside.
To me, your poetry is modern and urban. Does this description sit well with you?
Yes I'm glad it comes across as modern. Pound's sound advice has always stuck in my head: 'Make it new'. I think it's important that writers talk about the world as it is around them. Whitman, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Lawrence, Woolf, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett - the list is endless - were modern for their times so we must surely do the same in our day and age. There are still a few people who believe that to write poetry you must use trite rhyme, archaic words and inverted sentences - which I think is wrong. As wonderful as Mozart is - you don't get modern composers trying to sound like him. That said, poets and writers from the past have formed the foundations of where literature is today, so they still speak to us. That's one of the wonderful things about writing - although writers may be dead for hundreds of years we can still be in dialogue with them through their work.
The urban feel you speak of is intriguing, as while I've visited many cities I've never lived in one. I've spent most of my life in the country. In England I lived on the edge of Ashdown forest - and for the last eight years during the making of this book I was living deep in the wilds of West Cork. I think you are right though, there is an urban slant to the poems. Just because one lives in the country doesn't mean one is a Luddite though. With modern technology we can be in the bustle of a city in a matter of a few hours, or within the comfort of our home with the press of a button we're connected to the world. The first poem in the collection 'Google Earth' for example, came from going on the computer programme for the first time at a friend's house in London. The idea for the poem came to me afterwards when I opened up A Midsummer Night's Dream and my eyes fell on this monologue by Theseus in which he says, 'The poet's eye in fine frenzy rolling doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.' I was immediately inspired after that, it seemed the perfect description for what I'd just experienced. I pilfered some line from the monologue which fitted into the poem. As Desmond O'Grady says - if you are going to steal, steal from the best!
You teach creative writing. For myself, I find teaching very time consuming but I always learn from it and enjoy it. How do you feel about teaching? Does it help your own work at all?
Yes teaching can be a bit time consuming. I'm not sure if it helps with my own work, but at least it's in tune with what I do. I enjoy teaching but I wouldn't like it to become more prominent than my own writing time. To help people with their writing is a privilege. I believe in the old mentoring system, many Irish writers have been so helpful and encouraging towards me as I was beginning, so it's nice when I can give something back. At the moment I'm teaching creative writing solely online at www.creativewritingink.ie. It's fun, as from my home I can be in touch with people all over the world. At the moment I have students in Korea, France, Canada - as well as Ireland.
Why do you write?
That's a good and strange question - as writing is such a big part of my life, it's become part of the fabric of my being... Gosh that sounds pretentious, but I can't imagine a life without it. I love reading and writing poetry there is nothing more engrossing. I strongly believe in the magical quality of words, that they have transformative and transcendental powers. So I write to try and capture some of that magic - I suppose. That said it can drive you crazy sometimes... it's easy to think that there are so many more talented writers out there and that you are wasting your time. And then out of nowhere you produce something and it feels right, complete and inevitable. And something tells you inside that you are doing the right thing... And you go along with it and keep chasing that feeling - that momentary concentration of consciousness, awareness - again and again and again! It's very addictive!
What’s your writing process? Morning or night? Longhand or laptop? etc.
Morning usually. I keep office hours, though I'm on 24 hour call, ha, ha. I think it's important to have a routine with writing to go about it as a sculptor would day to day with a piece of clay. But the morning time is when I do the most creative writing usually, things slow down after lunch.
I always begin in longhand. Writing very fast and roughly letting my imagination go off on tangents and run wild. It's harder to do that if you are doing it straight on computer I find. The trouble with seeing your work on a screen immediately is that it can look too finished too quickly.
Who is the writer that you most admire?
I admire so many living and dead, I can't get enough of Ted Hughes at the moment! But I suppose if I was pushed to pick one today I'd say Seamus Heaney. He is not just one of the finest poets who's ever lived but also one of the art's finest ambassadors; a truly humble and gentle man. - And his essays are as sublime as his poetry. There is a deep earthy truth and integrity to Heaney, I feel so lucky to be alive at the same time as him. He is the high priest of poetry, the top file.
Which poet/poem would you like to see on the Leaving Cert course?
I'm quite happy by the selection of poets on the leaving cert, I think... there are a good number now of contemporary poets which is a good thing. I wouldn't mind being one some day! I would be more concerned though with how poetry and many of the creative arts are taught generally at secondary level. There isn't enough creativity in education!
What/where is your favourite bookshop?
Kinsale bookshop Co Cork. In Cork city, Vibes and Scribes. in Dublin, Books Upstairs (opposite Trinity) has a vast selection of poetry and drama. In the UK Hall's bookshop Tunbridge Wells - a beautiful old world shop that's been open for over a hundred years. In New York, Strand. I love old book shops.
What one piece of advice would you offer to beginner writers?
I don't think reading can be stressed enough as advice! Poetry is one of the few arts where many beginners think they can be successful poets without reading it.
But as advice for writing it I'd say – take risks, be brave on the page.
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,Theseus from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.
doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.
Act V Scene 1
We started in Africa, the world at our fingertips,
dropped in on your house in Zimbabwe; threading
our way north out of Harare into the suburbs,
magnifying the streets – the forms of things unknown,
till we spotted your mum’s white Mercedes parked
in the driveway; seeming – more strange than true,
the three of us huddled round a monitor in Streatham,
you pointed out the swimming pool and stables.
We whizzed out, looking down on our blue planet,
then like gods – zoomed in towards Ireland –
taking the road west from Cork to Kinsale,
following the Bandon river through Innishannon,
turning off and leapfrogging over farms
to find our home framed in fields of barley;
enlarged the display to see our sycamore’s leaves
waving back. Then with the touch of a button,
we were smack bang in Central London,
tracing our footsteps earlier in the day, walking
the wobbly bridge between St Paul’s and Tate Modern;
the London Eye staring majestically over the Thames.
South through Brixton into Streatham –
one sees more devils than vast hell can hold –
the blank expressions of millions of roofs gazing
squarely up at us, while we made our way down
the avenue, as if we were trying to sneak up
on ourselves; till there we were right outside the door:
the lunatic, the lover and the poet – peeping through
the computer screen like a window to our souls.