Hibernian Writers: Kevin Conroy

Kevin Conroy

KEVIN CONROY was born in Dublin and is currently living in Kildare, has worked in U.K., Germany, Swaziland, South Africa, U.S. and Ireland as a teacher, professional engineer, manager in multinationals, executive coach and organisational psychologist.  His work has been published in The Moth, Southword, Burning Bush II, Writing4All – the best of 2010, Boyne Berries, The Blue Max Review and erbacce. Selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series in 2014, he was a prize-winner in Trocaire & Poetry Ireland Competition 2012, published  in  their  pamphlet ‘Imagining a Just and Free World’.

What is your earliest memory of poetry at home or in school?

My family motto is Maireann a scríobhtar  and my early published writing was adventure stories in Our Boys. Poetry didn’t fit with being an action man in Arbour Hill boxing club. It was for exams, except for one embarrassing performance on the school stage of Pearse’s “The Fool “. Years later I fell in love and poured derivative love poems into my journal. One escaped and was sent to the girl who is now my wife.

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?

It was more “uncovering” than “discovering”. Slowly from Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney to Robert Frost. Ger Quinn was a great teacher in U.C.D.’s part-time evening courses. I read Frost’s Collected Poems, Prose, Plays cover to cover. I discovered that a poem is not only putting technically excellent marks on a page or sounds in the air, but expressing the poet’s identity. It is an invitation to a person’s unique world. Concordance and authenticity is revealed (or not) by reading more of his/her work. Ever since, I read a poem first in order to see if I’ll reread it. The realisation that a poet is revealing his/her identity in every poem is one of the challenges for poet and reader. Currently, I come back to poems where something mysterious is emerging out of the author’s worldview that I recognise as having a truth that “resists the intelligence almost successfully.”  Kimberly Campanello’s “Orange on the Horizon” is an example.

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 considered writing poetry a solitary thing, a secret thing. Not consistent with the persona of a business man and engineer. Then Maggie Hurt Smith persuaded me to perform in public in the Twisted Pepper, Abbey St., Dublin. They clapped!  the Moth published my first poem and I discovered that an editor (Rebecca O’Connor) can be kind and helpful! And I chanced my arm elsewhere with success. But it was being selected as an emerging poet in Poetry Ireland Introductions Series 2014 that gave me permission to say I write poetry.

What is the most memorable poetry reading that you have attended and why?

It’s between Dennis O’Driscoll’s hilariously witty performance in Dún Laoghaire’s Poetry Now Festival (2003?) and Kimberly Campanello with composer Ben Dwyer on classical guitar in the Joyce Centre, 2014.

Kimberly voiced strange eerie sounds from her sheela-na-gig work, the room’s reverbational acoustics intensifying the effect. It was like the poet was communicating without words across time into an Irish past of the lost and disallowed, bypassing controlling powers with poetry that bridges to music. It was when I realised the source of great poetry is not necessarily words but vocal sound and visible marks.

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?

First – Dennis O’Driscoll’s “Dear Life” is a must – the title typically having double/triple meanings. I was M.D. of Oral B Labs living in Naas where Dennis lived. His work drew me in, at first, because he wrote about life at work – giving me ‘permission’ to do so too. When I came to know his utter conviction of the importance of poetry and what it can do in a technological world, I read everything he published and found an extraordinary person not only intelligent, witty, playful but deeply knowledgeable and widely recognised in the literary world. He would stop and chat about art (he was a Hon. Fellow of the RHA)and poetry on the street and, even though I didn’t know him well, he sent me books to read with a gracious note when I was recovering from an operation. His poetry has too often been bracketed as Larkinesque and language that is “the lyric equivalent of William Trevor”. Well, “Dear Life” poems such as  “Fabrications”, “Spare Us”, and “Our Father” are a testament to his lyrical quality. How beautiful is his praise for a God whose “special is//a sun-melt served on/a fragrant bed of/moist cut-grass; yesterday, a misty-eyed moon…drafting a summer dawn…/ profligate horizons,/ lofty skies, beyond which/other universes stack up..” and the wonder of the Big Bang – “the attention-grabbing/voicemail he recorded/ on day one: an opening/gambit that came out/of nowhere…bang /in the middle of nothing/…..the illuminated manuscripts/of galaxies, over which lovers/pore in the dark nights/of their infatuated souls.” This is lyric. There is his humour  in “Spare Us” and the bright intelligence of a poet holding contradictions in a single thought to disturb the meanings while keeping the poetry. Both the cold eye of domestic realism and the wonder of beautiful lyricism are there in his poems.

His poetry has metaphors and concerns deep into our current living working world, with humour and an edge that goes (cuts?) deep. This is a lifeline for me who teaches Technology Management knowing that both the physical and so-called social technology fused by business is taking over what philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls the life-world. He reaches that simplicity on the far side of complexity and includes the redress that calls for wonder and lyric.

Secondly, I would keep my Frost collection because his work lets me in as a writer of poems in a way that the unique perfection of poets such as Seamus Heaney don’t.  (However, his essays in The Redress of Poetry and collaboration with Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones are lasting influences).  Frost’s delight in ambiguity and his wisdom keep drawing me back to his work. He said poetry gives us “a clarification of life”, “a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget”. It is a universal art form across all cultures and the “sound of sense” has a vocal music uniquely human.  His “For Once then Something” has that imaginative mystery that fascinates me.

I have built my own anthology of top favourite poems. It has forty-eight poems including C.K. Williams, Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Muriel Rukeyser, Enda Wyley, Rhoetke, Elisabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Peter Sirr, Charles Bukowski, Donald Hall, Maggie Hurt Smith, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot. It is difficult to choose the third collection, but since I find that my current influences are mainly contemporary women poets, I choose Kimberly Campanello. Not her poetry collection, but her PhD thesis  “Writing the Sheela-na-gig: Semiotic Complexity, Ekphrasis, and Poetic Persona in the Poetry Collection Strange Country” .  Strange Country will be published by The Dreadful Press in October.

Kimberly’s work has drawn me into a world where the permissions of poetry fed by the apophatic free the imagination. Poetry that points to the inexpressible by referring to what it is not, honouring it with wonder and never-ending questions, aware that ultimate realities cannot be apprehended directly. But they may be pointed towards – “that great absence /In our lives, the empty silence /Within, the place where we go /Seeking, not in hope to/Arrive or find.” (R.S. Thomas)

This includes witness and redress for what is lost, disallowed, excluded.  Her work also interweaves art into ekphrastic poetry that involves a personal encounter with the piece of art that triggers vulnerability to uncertainties and possibly the unconscious. Iconographer Helen McIldowie-Jenkins has published my ekphrastic poem, “The Gilded Arch”, on her website. My interest in painting and icons leads me down this path, even though the change of direction may mean ‘emerging’ becomes ‘groping’ poet.

Kevin Conroy reads as part the Hibernian Writers group at the launch of The Lion Tamer Dreams of Office Work: An Anthology of poetry by Hibernian Writers on Tuesday 20th October at The Teacher’s Club.

Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet’ due on December 4th 2013

The news of The Gallery Press’ publication of Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays’ is a welcome reminder of the late critic’s remarkable gift for placing contemporary work in a broader, larger context, writes Philip Cummins

The late Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet’ is due from The Gallery Press on December 4th, 2013 almost a year after O’Driscoll’s premature passing.

THE TERM ‘POET- CRITIC’ is often used to describe a poet whose reputation as a literary critic is as remarkable as his/her’s reputation as a poet, even if their critical work is considered secondary to the poetry. In Dennis O’Driscoll’s case, O’Driscoll was the ultimate ‘critic- poet’: a writer whose brilliant critical essays have overshadowed his work as a poet.

Over the years, in fact, the copy of the Irish Times that would inevitably find itself on the kitchen table of the Cummins household of a Saturday morning would more often than not feature a large chunk of text cut out, much to my family’s annoyance and to the bemusement of regular visitors to our house. After I had finished pasting O’Driscoll’s most recent review to a scrapbook full of his Irish Times reviews, I would be promptly sent down to the local village to buy another copy of the Irish Times that wasn’t deformed by my geeky impulses.

O’Driscoll was a critic’s critic and, in a sense, he had developed and mastered a style that would be the envy of any arts critic. O’Driscoll understood the vital elements that were necessary for any arts review:

i) rigorous, academic- strength analysis of the work, always underpinned with good- quality thought,
ii) a placing of the work in the broader, larger context of contemporary literature and of the culture, and
iii) all of the above, conveyed in clear, concise and, ultimately, readable prose; the latter being a hurdle that many poets cannot cross as smoothly and effortlessly as O’Driscoll.

O’Driscoll’s collection of ‘Selected Prose Writings’, 2001’s Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, should, in my opinion, be required reading for anyone remotely interested in contemporary poetry and, one would hope, a collection of poetry criticism that schools and colleges in Ireland and Britain will reference. O’Driscoll’s review of Simon Armtiage’s Killing Time and Short and Sweet is a brilliant critique of not just the 1,000 line poem and anthology, respectively, in question, but also a vivid portrait of the position that Armitage, himself, occupied at the turn of the century and, to a certain extent, still occupies, to this day, in contemporary poetry.

Add to this O’Driscoll’s essay ‘A Map of Contemporary Irish Poetry’- a tight, concise and nuanced essay on contemporary Irish poetry towards the end of the twentieth century, published in Poetry during the same year that the Nobel Committee for Literature awarded Seamus Heaney the Nobel Prize for Literature- and what you have, again, is a critic- poet who understands the three vital aspects of arts criticism. A much- missed critic- poet, critic’s critic and reader’s reader.

Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet’ is due from The Gallery Press on December 4th, 2013.



The Shooting Gallery Press: A response to some of the reactions to my feature on contemporary Irish poetry for The Irish Post

That’s Charlie told…

OVER THE LAST NUMBER OF WEEKS, I’ve received no shortage of emails, text messages, tweets, comments on the site and words on the street from those people who felt strongly about my recent feature for The Irish Post on five contemporary Irish poets everyone should read, particularly about what they saw as glaring omissions on my part.

So allow me to make some points and clarifications about the list:

Firstly, I believe that credit is due to The Irish Post. Instead of featuring some vacuous, C- list Irish “celebrity”, an air- headed pop star who’s only key attribute is having been born with what his/her fans might perceive as “superior genetics”, or some steroidal- headed idiot who has upped- sticks and somehow managed to forge a career as an action- hero- movie- star in Hollywood, The Irish Post featured the late, great Seamus Heaney on the front page of Rí- Rá, The Irish Post‘s entertainment supplement, along with a 1,500 – 2,000 word, two- page spread, which profiled five contemporary Irish poets; for this, alone, The Irish Post must be commended.

While many readers may well have first read the feature on this site, it was originally featured in the print edition of RÍ- Rá, meaning, of course, that there was limited space for such a feature.

Tweet Poetry

The feature was not aimed at Ph.D candidates in Irish literature or even avid readers of contemporary poetry; rather, it was aimed at a general reader, specifically those many, many people who tweeted and re- tweeted lines from Seamus Heaney’s best- known and best- regarded poems and who, perhaps, have vivid memories of studying Seamus Heaney’s poetry during their secondary education, though are now out of the loop with contemporary Irish poetry.

If those millions and millions of people who quoted lines from Seamus Heaney’s poetry, following Heaney’s premature passing, were committed readers of contemporary poetry and regularly purchased books of poetry by living poets throughout the calendar year, poetry publishing would be a booming enterprise; it isn’t.

The list, then, was intended for those who may just be curious as to what else is out there, in terms of contemporary Irish poetry.

Picking the Poets

I picked five Irish poets from a short- list of twenty, which was a difficult process, to say the least. True, I could have featured all twenty poets, though I wouldn’t have been able to give a thorough introduction to all twenty poets. I chose, instead, to focus on five poets and profile those poets as thoroughly as possible within the limitations of a print publication.

Originally, the list comprised of Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Derek Mahon, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Michael Longley. All familiar names, suffice to say, and therein lied two of my deciding factors for the final list: four of these poets are from the north of Ireland and all five poets are now in their sixties / seventies.

Some readers criticised the final list for its lack of female poets: for this I make absolutely no apology, for the simple reason that gender was not- and never should be- a deciding factor in omissions or, for that matter, inclusions. Gender, quite simply, didn’t come into the equation when I was finalising the list; in that sense, I judged all of my inclusions and omissions equally.

There were other poets, too- remarkable talents, such as John Montague, Eavan Boland, Thomas Kinsella, Medbh McGuckian, Tom Paulin, Sinéad Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, Nick Laird, to name but a few- who didn’t make the cut as I didn’t want the list to be too focused on poets from the north and poets who belonged to Seamus Heaney’s generation, who are now headed towards the ‘Collected Poems’ stage of their careers.

I didn’t want to ignore poets from the south and I also didn’t want to ignore younger poets- now at the ‘Selected Poems’ stage- both of which are issues which readers have had with anthologies of Irish poetry that have been compiled in recent decades. Take, for example, Paul Muldoon’s The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1984) and, more recently, Professor Patrick Crotty’s The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry (2010).

Muldoon’s anthology has been criticised for being too Ulster- centric: seven of the ten poets featured were from the north of Ireland, which prompted Belfast- born poet Derek Mahon- writing in a review of Muldoon’s anthology for the Irish Times- to challenge Muldoon on what Mahon saw as Muldoon’s regional bias towards Ulster poets.

Mahon was not alone in his criticism of Muldoon’s anthology and the late Dennis O’Driscoll was equally as critical of Muldoon’s selections. Writing in his essay ‘A Map of Contemporary Irish Poetry’ O’Driscoll had this to say of Muldoon’s anthology:

“Muldoon’s selection, which excludes most of the significant poets from Southern Ireland, depicts the corpus of Irish poetry with a bloated Northern head on a spindly Southern body.”

Similarly, Patrick Crotty’s anthology was the subject of much criticism from Professor Clair Wills and, perhaps most memorably, Dublin- born poet Michael O’Loughlin- again, writing in the pages of the Irish Times and under the heading “Missing: Have You Seen These Poets?”– for what O’Loughlin viewed as Crotty’s “deliberate exclusion of an entire generation” of Irish poets.

The good news- dear readers- is  that yours truly will be profiling another five Irish poets in the coming days. 

So which Irish poets did I omit from my original list and why should he/she be included in the forthcoming list?

Make a case for inclusions here by commenting below and let me know which poets you think deserve special mention and why.

The list will go live later this week.