What is your earliest memory of poetry at home or in school?
From Ancient Volumes of the Children’s Encyclopaedia, with beautiful black and white illustrations. Mainly narrative poems, tales of derring-do, like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I have a clear memory of sitting on the step of our house in Manchester and checking out the names of the Constellations from the same book. In Grammar school I was lucky to have great English teachers who encouraged us to read and write poetry, although I didn’t have the confidence to write much at school. The poets I was reading could do it so much better: Eliot, Shakespeare, Donne, Hughes, Plath. One poem that really sticks in my mind was the anti-hunting poem “Sport” by W.H. Davis and also the Lancashire dialect poem Welcome Bonny Brid by Samuel Laycock, which made me realise that poetry could speak with my accent. I studied Latin and Greek too and I loved Catullus, as well as the Greek Poets.
Is there a particular poet, poem or book of poems that was, for you, like discovering rock n’ roll for the very first time? Can you describe what it was like?
This answer is a bit skewed for me by the fact that I studied Ancient Greek at University so spent much of that time reading greek poets. I loved Homer and think I got my love of poetic rhythms there, and particularly Sappho for her seeming simplicity and depth. When I came to Ireland 25 years ago I read Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and loved her work. I was frustrated that I couldn’t read it in the original so began to learn Irish so I could. My favourite was Ní Féidir Liom Luí Anseo Níos Mó.
The rock n’ roll moment was when doing an MA in Poetry Studies at Mater Dei in Dublin about four years ago. I was sent links for a lecture I missed. I clicked on one and heard Basil Bunting’s BriggFlatts for the first time, spoken by him. I was so excited by the simplicity and energy in the language and by encountering the poem for the first time by ear. I studied the poem in-depth and wrote a paper on Bunting, who I admire hugely. I love his belief that poetry is language at its most condensed and that every word must be weighed and considered repeatedly, and that poetry should be spoken aloud: “lines of sound written on the air.” I was already writing and had realised I preferred to use simple words with layers of meaning, so hearing and reading Briggflatts was like a homecoming.
What was your first “Eureka!” moment in writing and publishing poetry; the moment when you realized “Hey, I’m actually on to something here!” in terms of your work coming together and first getting accepted and published in magazines and journals?
I’d been published a few times when I sent in 10 poems to the Cork Literary Review Manuscript Competition in 2012. I was amazed to be long-listed and was writing a lot as I was doing an MA in Poetry Studies and I was reading, eating and breathing poetry. I was gob-smacked to be short-listed and didn’t hear anything for ages so I presumed I hadn’t got any further. I got a phone call while I was in the office in work to say I’d won. It took them about ten minutes to convince me. I got off the phone and said to a colleague, “My God, I can’t believe it! Up to this moment I thought my poetry might well be rubbish!
What is the most memorable poetry reading that you have attended and why?
When I was at University in Liverpool in the early eighties I saw John Cage at the Everyman, performing with Merce Cunningham. I was absolutely perplexed! And yet I still remember his voice and the rhythm he followed when he said ( I think) “What will you give me to tell you…” He sat at a desk with an old telephone on it. It rang intermittently and he picked up the receiver and then immediately hung up!
Most recently, and without much perplexity, I saw Mark Doty at the Newcastle Poetry Festival this year, reading from Deep Lane. The way he read was electrifying but didn’t get in the way of the wonderful words. I’ve read Deep Lane many times since. It makes me want to push my own work further.
Finally, if you could own and keep just three collections of poetry on your bookshelf- excluding, of course, your own- which collections would they be and why?
Deep Lane for the fantastic images, and for the honesty and love he brings to simple things, like his dog or the local barber or the sneakers a young man is wearing, but also for the way he spaces his work, the line breaks and stanzas which seems to add fresh air to the words. A heady mixture! I’d keep Briggflatts for its language and music, the weaving of past and present, and the feeling of belonging it gives me. I’m just reading Painting Rain by Paula Meehan. I love the rhythms and rhymes, the well-chosen words, her plain speaking and groundedness, her stories. I’ve heard her read a few times recently and her voice is with me as I read. What a companion! So I’ll take those three. I’d want poets from the past too. Shakespeare, Donne, George Herbert, Blake. It’s very hard to be limited to three!