Wednesday, 18 July 2012


Today I interview Dublin poet Colm Keegan whose début collection Don't Go There is just out from Salmon. Colm was the All Ireland Slam Poetry Champion in 2010. He also writes short stories and screenplays and has been shortlisted four times for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award for both poetry and fiction. In 2011 he was nominated for the Absolut Fringe’s ‘Little Gem’ Award for the play Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About (co-written with Kalle Ryan and Stephen James Smith) which is touring 2012/2013.  He is a poetry/arts reviewer and contributing poet for RTE Radio One’s nightly arts show ARENA and co-founder of ‘Nighthawks at the Cobalt’. He blogs here.

Colm Keegan
Welcome, Colm. There’s a contrast and companionship between the collection’s first two poems, one echoing Kavanagh the other Yeats. Talk to me about influence. Who are the poets that you actively admire?

'Stoney Grey Soiled' is obviously as close a copy as I could manage of the Kavanagh original. It’s a poem I really love that has stayed with me since my teens. I was blown away by Kavanagh in school, mostly because I could understand him and relate to him.
As for the Yeats influence in the second poem (hazelnuts, I think), if you see it, it’s probably there, but it’s completely unintentional.

The poems are very different and are together in the book for that contrast. They typify my experience of life in Dublin, as hard and grey and cold as it is exploding with hope and growth.

To be honest, I’d say Soundings has influenced me more than Yeats or Kavanagh individually. Maybe more than any other poet becasue it’s an anthology, and a little ambassador for the art and value of poetry in itself.  I can remember reading Soundings on the first night in my first flat after leaving home. I should have been knocking back tequila’s like a proper bachelor but instead I was feeling very alone and finding solace in 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'.

The thing that influences me most is that seam of magic that runs through Soundings and continuously through all great poetry. The same line that runs though a good song, a great novel, a gorgeous landscape, they all influence me in the same way, and it’s that that most inspires me.

Theo Dorgan said once that a poet gets to write one or two great poems, and Soundings has the one or two great poets of many greats. And today in Dublin and Ireland you see the same thing, a living scene, a performing anthology which is great if you’re after that inspiration. I see it in so many contemporary poets too who I’ve either read or seen perform live. I won’t name names because we’ll be here all day.

You’re an urban poet. You wrote about living in a flat in Ballymun: ‘...all tired clichés of urban bleakness aside/on a sunny day it was still amazing/to have a house up in the sky.’ Does the title ‘urban poet’ sit well with you?

I’d take urban anyday. I can’t deny that I’m a product of an urban Dublin environment. The 'working class' tag irks the little scanger in me though (who has a chip on his shoulder about getting thrown out of shops for wearing Air Max), but I like urban. Urban feels cosmopolitan, maybe a bit too ahead of Dublin though. Dublin Urban is a very strange thing, Dublin Urban means waking up with a herd of horses grazing in your garden. At times Dublin is like a city invented by magic realists.

You are also a political poet in the sense of highlighting the hard things that suburban life in poor areas of Dublin can mean for adults and children alike. Have you always been socially aware or did that come with age?

I don’t think I’m political as such. I’m not coming out of the traps with an agenda or planning on changing peoples minds. But I suppose I am socially aware, if that means I notice what’s going on around me. At times it’s hard to miss it. I think I’ve always been like that too. That awareness ties into the watchfulness you’re talking about in the next question.

The confusion of childhood shines through in poems like ‘Miss Piggy’, ‘Taxidermy’, ‘What a Man’ and ‘Woman’ (a poem that brought tears to my eyes). The child narrator is very watchful around the difficult man-woman relationships described. How hard (or not) did you find these poems to write?

Those type of poems weren’t hard to write at all. Most of them came not from a conscious desire to write about anything but more of catching a feeling or a memory that hadn’t come back for a long time. All of the poems you mention actually came out of thinking about one thing and being struck by another, and the little shock of that is usually the poem itself.

‘Memorial’ is a beautiful poem, beautifully constructed, about another pointless murder of a young Dublin man. Is it about a specific incident or is it remembering one of the many? (See the bottom of this post to read 'Memorial'.)

Thanks for saying it’s beautiful, Nuala, that means a lot as so much work went into that poem. I wrote it many times, always flowing chronologically and ending with the murder, and it never felt right. I think the real problem was I ‘wanted’ to write it instead of being prompted as in the poems mentioned above. I resisted the urge to reverse it for a long time but eventually gave in. In the end I think it was the right thing to do and the poem feels truer to me for it.

It is and it isn’t about a specific incident. I either go to work along the canal or along the Luas line. Whichever way I go, I pass a series of shrines to murder victims, all young men who died violently, either drug related shootings or stabbings, so i think about those boys everyday. But it’s also in direct response to what happened to Daniel McAnaspie I think - what happened to him, and his family's search for him, from the time he went missing to when he was found, was on my mind for a long time. Especially how young he was.

You write fiction as well as poetry. Can you tell us what the novel that you are writing will be about?

I don’t really say much about it. But the novel is about West Dublin I suppose, all that’s gorgeous and horrible about the urban sprawl, the green areas in between and everything that could and does go on there.

Which fiction writers make you think, ‘Yes!’?

John Steinbeck, Stephen King, Tobias Wolff, Chuck Palahniuk, Kevin Barry (his short stories). When I started writing, Colum McCann was the writer who inspired me most.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Not really. Just make sure you’re inspired I suppose. Don’t look for permission and turn off the internet.

Colm is reading this week in Clondalkin Library, 7pm Thursday 19th July (with John Murphy)

He is also reading at Nighthawks at the Guinness Storehouse, Saturday 21st July. Details here.



‘If poetry could truly tell it backwards, then it would.’ Carol Ann Duffy

They say in memory of you
there is a blessed bouquet tied
to the last in a row of lampposts
that shine their lights on
wasteground near your home.

The flowers go from wilted
to vibrant before being untied slowly
and taken down by your mother
who walks backwards into town.
Go back a few days more to her
and all your family gathering,
standing around you silently
in the field and watching.

You’re removed from plastic.
Eyes closed, you’re slid
into a drainage ditch, where
from dawn to when the cowslip
closes to midnight and beyond, heat
creeps from the grass into your body.

In the dark three men will come
with tools they use to pour
blood and bits into your stomach.
While you rise up and scream
they watch the muck and grass
leaving your three striped tracksuit.

They suck the pain and damage
from your bruises with their fists
and turn it into angry shouts
they swallow while their tools
are quietly hidden in their pockets.

Together you all run back in time,
past the lampposts into a garden,
the weeds all crooked and unkempt,
shrinking back from them before
they skip in through the back door,
returning to the shadows
of a house filled with your friends:
young good-looking boys and girls
music and a party starting
as soon as you step in.

© Colm Keegan

(Poem reproduced by kind permission of Salmon Poetry.)


Afric McGlinchey said...

Great interview, both of you. Nuala, it's so refreshing to see an interviewer really engaging with a collection before coming up with questions. And Colm, love your natural, real style.

Rachel Fenton said...

Really enjoyable interview but the poem ther had me in pieces - so powerfully written. And the form is stunning, but mostly it resonated a lot. My big brother was a heroin addict from 14 to 30 and for most of my teens, the fear of him ending up in a ditch was all I could think about. This brought the fear back. Such good writing and palpable investment in the subject.

Louise said...

Great interview Nuala and Colm, loved the closing poem, and also the one I remember from Carol Ann Duffy,where life was stolen by war - looking backwards in this way captures the sense of loss and utter waste when life is taken so tragically from someone who we often forget was once young, brave and full of hope.