New features: The Saturday Song, The Sunday Poem

As of this weekend, I’ll be running two regular, weekly features on music and literature: The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem

Keep an eye out for two weekly music and literature features that I’ll be running, as of this weekend: The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem

SO I’m going to start uploading some new, regular features to run along my published work.

Every weekend, I’ll post up The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem on their respective days. These features will consist of a detailed, critical analysis of a song and poem, applying music theory and literary theory / poetic terminology to the song / poem in question, though done so- I hope- in a way that is entertaining, at the very least.

Every song that I feature will have either a Soundcloud or Spotify link embedded in the feature. For copyright reasons, it won’t be possible to post an entire poem on the site, though I will encourage readers to dig out the poem in their libraries and, indeed, from their own bookshelves. Certainly, I will list the collections and anthologies in which the chosen poem is published.

Another feature that I am toying with is The Friday Film, which would be written in the same tone as The Saturday Songs and The Sunday Poem. The Friday Film, however, is a longer term idea that I may develop, depending on the success of the The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem. 

This week’s Saturday Song will be Vampire Weekend’s Obvious Bicycle.

This week’s Sunday Poem will be Simon Armitage’s The Shout. 

If there are songs and / or poems that you would like to see covered, please comment below with your suggestions.

Poetry review: Chance by John Saunders

Chance by John Saunders

Chance by John Saunders

New Binary Press, 80pp, €8. ISBN 978-0-9574661-7-3

John Saunders has secrets to tell. The Offaly poet’s second collection, Chance, follows 2010’s After the Accident (Lapwing) and it confirms Saunders’ abilities to zoom- in on seemingly innocuous occurrences from memory and from the present day, probing their significance with lyric intensity. It is Saunders’ balancing of strong, formal control with slow- burning, poignant, public utterance to craft poems that recall the chief influences that shine through in these poems; namely Paul Durcan, Billy Colllins and Philip Larkin.

The title poem of Chance, a beautifully achieved Shakespearean sonnet, flows effortlessly- and somewhat ironically- against the central theme of the poem: repression. The poem reaches beyond “that small scullery” that Saunders describes, probing what progress is and what progress isn’t (“…an afterthought to the old run down house, now rubble, / where we sat each evening without doubt”) and explores temporary satisfaction and reluctant acceptance with a formal symmetry befitting of the sonnet form, playing “…the ever present rain / that slapped the window panes” against “our dinners / that when eaten, made us flush / with warmth”.

Saunders’ observational poems may well begin in “that small scullery” and, like the spider depicted on the front cover of Chance, Saunders weaves webs from the scullery to other places of significance for the poet. Remarkably, hotels recur, again and again, which may be linked to Saunders’ role as Director of Shine: the national organisation for supporting those individuals affected by ill mental health. The poet’s take on hotels, however, is multi- dimensional: in ‘Monday Night, Lawlor’s Hotel’, an unflinching eye is set on a regional hotel (“snuffle of beer stained carpet, the meat and two veg / of provincial life overlaid / by Latte and Lavage”). For Saunders, a hotel is an arena for social commentary.

Conversely, ‘In The Victoria Hotel’ is a poem that celebrates intimacy. The classy and elegant ‘Victoria Hotel’ is in sharp contrast to the provincial, “meat and two veg” of ‘Lawlor’s Hotel’. In ‘…Victoria…’, however, physical intimacy fights against moral harmony; the two lovers “…make love in the company of guilt, / shelter weakness in our hearts, / give safety to dangerous thoughts”. Like ‘Chance’, Saunders creates tension between two things that should, in theory, be in harmony, though it is what is not being said- what is not being expressed by the characters that populate his poems- that creates a lyric intensity that rewards upon repeated readings.

Though Saunders focuses his poetic observations indiscriminately, he does, however, fall prey to jaded clichés that he fails to sidestep (consider “our past, present and future / haunted by the shadow of waste, / the deep scar of regret” from ‘Monday Night, Lawlor’s Hotel’). Similarly, in ‘I Listen to Joni Mitchell on My iPod at a Science Lecture’, “mind- blowing” describes the cosmos.

The hard- won and beautifully crafted intimacy of Saunders’ best poems in Chance are compromised by the length of the book (at 68 poems, it is, perhaps, thirty poems longer than it ought to be) and by po- biz name- dropping (there are dedications to Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Eleanor Hooker and an acknowledgement to Paul Durcan) that creates a distance between the poet and the reader that sacrifices the raw honesty and moral fortitude that Saunders’ poems achieve.

All of which, of course, is not enough to take away from some marvellous poems. The success of the book’s final poem, ‘Score’, is that it feels as if the entire collection is leading up to what can only be described as the raw, poetic utterance promised from early- on in the collection; the poems that precede ‘Score’ are all holding back the deeper truth that are revealed in ‘Score’, a poem full of the intimate observations that characterise Saunders’ best work.

From Page to Screen / From Screen to Page: WritersWebTV Launches in Dublin, Today

WritersWebTV: A fresh, vibrant, Irish start- up that’s thinking outside the box.

LAUNCHING their website today, WritersWebTV is about to turn the creative writing industry on its head and offer a fresh challenge to those already working in the industry and, in a broader sense, those working in the arts in Ireland.

Established by Live Training Ltd., WritersWebTV is a new Irish start- up originating in Dublin, having developed what can only be described as a world- first innovation in online education and resources for writers. WritersWebTV will be live- streaming interactive creative writing workshops from a multi- camera broadcast studio in Dublin, from Saturday 28th September. The inaugural workshop will be Writing for Children and Young Adults.

With workshops led by Vanessa O’Loughlin (founder of writing.ie), an in- studio panel will consider key elements of fiction writing and furnish viewers with tips, advice and actionable insights to help them improve their writing and get it on the path to publication.

Vanessa O’Loughlin: WritersWebTV workshop facilitator and founder of writing.ie.

Mrs O’Loughlin will lead the workshops in front of a limited in- studio audience of aspiring writers, as well as online viewers who can ask questions, participate in workshop exercises and comment online through Twitter, Facebook and email, with aspiring writers receiving on- screen feedback from in- studio writers and tutors.

Viewers can watch full, one- day workshops free of charge on WritersWebTV, when viewed live; to watch or revisit the course at a later date, viewers will be charged for a video workshop / tutorial / course, which viewers can keep and re-watch indefinitely.

Personally, I predict that the model that WritersWebTV have developed may very well set the precedent for existing MA Creative Writing programs, which already offer off- campus online programs for international students, though without the level of slick, sophisticated, broadcast quality offered by WritersWebTV.

I also believe that Moodle courses will soon be considered outmoded and obsolete if writers’ centres, universities, publishing houses and self- employed creative writing tutors follow the WritersWebTV model, which they may very well do in the years ahead.

If WritersWebTV achieves only one thing, though, it may be that it puts paid to the excuses that aspiring writers often contrive for their lack of creative output: “I have young children and they take up all my time. I can never make workshops in town.” / “I don’t have the time to write.” / “I can’t find a workshop that works for me”. Yep, I’ve heard ’em all, too.

So is WritersWebTV another gimmick from the creative writing / publishing / arts industries, or is it the model that will define the future of the creative writing / publishing / arts industries?

Would you, as an aspiring writer, use WritersWebTV?

Comment is free.

Interview: Deirdre Madden, Irish Novelist

Originally featured in the print edition of The Irish Post, Tuesday 30th, 2013.

Timeless talent: Antrim novelist Deirdre Madden

STRIDING to our meeting place from across Trinity College Dublin, Deirdre Madden, once widely characterised as a uniquely North of Ireland novelist (no doubt as result of her remarkable and best- known work, One By One in the Darkness, set during the week of the IRA ceasefire in 1994) appears to be at one with the Southern capital. The Antrim native, who has lived in Dublin for decades, now, with her husband, poet Harry Clifton, teaches Creative Writing at Trinity College.

Having completed novel number eight, Time Present and Time Past, I ask Madden, described by Sebastian Barry as “The constant genius of Irish letters”, if her move to Dublin and her post as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the college’s Oscar Wilde Centre for Writing have made the process of writing novels any easier.

“I suppose it doesn’t get easier; it just feels different. You’re always changing what you’re writing about. My writing habits have definitely changed. I used to write primarily at night and I don’t do that anymore, now; I tend to write, more, now, in the morning. I suppose in the same way you are piecing things together. The more you write, the more your confidence does grow. But it’s a very slow process and you are trying to balance everything. It’s not always easy, so I am very happy to get this latest book finished.”

“When I’m teaching my students, I suppose some of the things I would advise are straightforward. I always tell my students to read their work aloud at least four times in a row during the drafting process; you pick up on the flow of the sentence- if too long, or not flowing smoothly. Reading is so important. If you’re trying something, you try to think of who else is doing what you’re doing. I think I read more as a writer now than I would have done as I was younger. It takes me a while to figure out what I have. The ideas for characters, for narratives are always hazy and you’re always interested in developing them. The more you work on those ideas, the more you put them through the mill, the more that they become clearer and concrete towards the end of the novel. You always ask why: why is this person important, why do they live here…”

Time Present, Time Past is set, largely, in Dublin during 2006, the Celtic Tiger economy still roaring with the end to those heady days just over the hill. The protagonist, Fintan Terrence Buckley, is a 47- year- old solicitor living in the leafy suburbs of south Dublin, who’s new- found interest in photography sparks an interest in the past and how it is that we think about the past. Photography features as strongly in Madden’s latest novel as music does in, say, Nick Hornby’s Hi- Fidelity; photography is almost, you might say, another character in the book. I ask Madden why photography, of all of her interests, became such a huge part of the novel’s narrative.

I think that we sometimes find the past can seem further away from where it is.

“It’s something that a lot of people have remarked on. I’ve always loved old black and white photographs and I became aware that colour photography had been developed much earlier than had been commonly thought. In a way, I’ve always preferred black and white portraits; they just feel more dramatic. And I became interested in how colour photography and colour photographs had been taken at times in history that I hadn’t been aware of. An example I would give is of a photograph from WW1: if you see those photo’s in black and white, they look very dramatic, very austere, but if you see them in color- and these are actual photographs in colour that haven’t been improved or impressed with a color filter- they’re so immediate, more contemporary, much more closer to us. That was what really interested me in featuring it so prominently in the novel. I mean the photograph on the cover of the book is actually a photograph from 1907 and that’s an original colour and I find that quite strange; I think that we sometimes find the past can seem further away from where it is. That whole way of how we view the past, how we picture the past is interesting to me. And I though that photographs worked as a good medium to discuss that particular view.”

Running alongside Madden’s interest in photography is the theme of progress, which appears again and again in the novel. Madden seems to be examining what progress actually is and whether what we think is progress is actually a step forward in the right direction. In the final third of the novel, for example, we are brought to the North of Ireland, where Fintan and his sister Martina visit their grandparent’s old house, only to discover their cousin Edward has flattened the land and intents to erect a “decent, modern house”.

Though Madden stresses that she did not intend to write a Celtic Tiger novel (“novelists are not journalists”), it is hard, in the current economic climate, not to read a book set in Dublin in 2006 and think of the difference between now and then; Madden agrees and she compares and contrasts life in Ireland between “the two days”.

“I think people gained a lot during the Celtic Tiger years, but I also think that we lost a lot. People did travel more widely; they were able to take sun holidays more often, buy houses, etc. But as result, people became a lot more insular and so there was always a step back. The quality of life, now, has, obviously changed quite a bit; people are not as brash, impatient and, sometimes, rude in shops and restaurants…that whole mercenary thing, which I think that they were during the Celtic Tiger years.  People have calmed down a bit, now, so there are few things like that, which perhaps we are now reflecting on. We’ve also become more and more interested in making things, particularly this resurgence in baking, in boutique shops in pop- up shops and markets. So every time you have progress, you lose something; every time you take step back, you gain something.”

Everywhere feels new to me; whether I’m in Dublin, in the North, wherever I am. I’m always interested in everything

It’s on this note that I ask Madden if she feels the same way about writing as she does about the theme of progress in Time Present, Time Past; if there’s any relationship between the perceived progress during the Celtic Years and the perceived progress in writing a novel. Pausing, she carefully considers the question.

“It takes me a while to figure out what it is that I actually have. The ideas for characters, for narratives are always hazy and you’re always interested in developing them. The more you work on those ideas, the more you put them through the mill, the more that they become clearer and concrete towards the end of the novel. You always ask why: why is this person important, why do they live here…There are times, of course, that you can go down the wrong road when an idea leads you astray; I think that most writers don’t like talking about that because it’s such a horrible experience. It’s like tossing a coin; toss a coin and the odds of it coming up heads or tails is 50/50. No matter how many times you toss it and if it comes up heads every time, logic dictates to you that, even if it comes up “heads” 10 times in a row, it should, eventually, come up “tails”. But that isn’t true. You can convince yourself that “ok, I’ve spent 6-12 months on this; the longer that I work at it, it’s bound to come good at some point” But that can leave you disappointed. You accept that instead of losing time, that you have to ask “why does this not work”. You have to know what went wrong. If you don’t, you’ll do it again. The relation of time and effort isn’t always equal.”

As the interview is finishing and we get up to leave and walk out to an unusually sunny day in Dublin, I ask Madden if, as a northerner living in Dublin for as long as she has, Dublin feels still new to her and if it felt fresh to her having written a novel set in Dublin; she smiles, looking down one of the city’s many Georgian streets. “Everywhere feels new to me; whether I’m in Dublin, in the North, wherever I am. I’m always interested in everything; I’m interested in what people are wearing, what the traffic is like, what people are eating…the whole fabric of life really interests me. I feel very much at home here, but when I’m traveling I find everything interesting.”

On that note, Madden returns to the gates of Trinity College, leaving me with a impression that she is, as a novelist, of her time and yet timeless; a juxtaposition that wouldn’t be out of place in one her own novels.

Time Present and Time Past is out now from Faber

Fiction Review: Time Present And Time Past by Deirdre Madden

Originally featured in the print edition editions of The Irish Post on Tuesday  June 18th, 2013.

Timeless talent: Antrim novelist Deirdre Madden

Faber and Faber, 224pp, £12.99, ISBN-13: 978-0571290864

FOR some time now, Dublin- based Antrim novelist Deirdre Madden has established herself as one of Ireland’s most consistent and skilled living writers. She first broke through in earnest with One By One in the Darkness (Faber, 1996), an unforgettable account of a week in the lives of three sisters during the IRA ceasefire in 1994.

Madden’s ninth and latest effort, Time Present and Time Past, is mostly set in the leafy, middle- class Dublin suburb of Howth during 2006. Fintan Terrence Buckley, a 47-year-old lawyer based in south Dublin, seems to live the comfortable life of the average Dubliner in the affluent days of the Celtic Tiger. After developing an interest in old auto chrome photographs, Fintan begins to experience strange states of altered consciousness and auditory hallucinations, which affect his sense of time and his interest in photography ultimately lends itself to an interest in how he remembers or imagines the past.

Through Buckley’s family- his fashionista sister Martina, daughter Lucy, his macho son, his judgmental brother Niall, mother Joan, his cousin Edward and a cast of many others- we get sense of the hidden histories that some or all of these characters harbor. Madden’s brilliance is in her ability to contrast the surface impressions of her characters with that which is really beneath their skin. This is most memorably executed in the back story of Buckley’s single sister, Martina, and that an indescribably violent act during her days living in London accounts for why she is single; Madden’s gift is in reconciling the past with the present, producing three- dimensional characters.

A central theme that ties the middle- aged, middle- class characters together is the theme of progress and analyzing what accounts for progress: is it better to move forward or move backwards into the past? Through small strokes, Madden sustains this rhetorical question over many pages; one such example being the friendship that Fintan strikes up with Conor, a wounded, desperate bachelor who is a father of one of Lucy’s friends who makes Fintan realize that he has, thankfully, none of the insecurities of Conor.

The most telling example of Madden’s central theme, however, is the episode set in the North of Ireland, where Fintan and Martina discover that their grandparent’s home has been destroyed by their cousin Edward in favor of  a more modern dwelling, which becomes an metaphor for the relationship that Irish people had with their past, their traditions during the Celtic Years and whether pouring concrete everywhere smeared over the cracks of our past.

At 224 pages, Time Present and Time Past- like it’s excellent predecessor, Molly Fox’s Birthday, and One By One in the Darkness- can, like Philip Roth’s later novels, be read in one sitting; in this sense, Madden both remembers and achieves that old adage applied to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; that it takes two hours to read and twenty years to forget.

Time Present And Time Past is out now.