A People’s Poem for Limerick

From left Poet John W. Sexton, Mayor Michael Sheahan (Limerick) and Oran Ryan

A poem written by Limerick people and made up of words, phrases and lines submitted during the Limerick Writers’ Centre’s  recent poetry festival ‘April is Poetry Month in Limerick 2019’, was this week unveiled and presented to the mayor of Limerick Cllr. Michael Sheahan. 

The poem called ‘Limerick Is’ was unveiled at a ceremony in City Hall by John W. Sexton, an tOllamh (Poet Laureate) for Limerick during the festival, along with members of the Limerick Writers’ Centre. After the presentation of the framed poem Sexton recited it to those present. 

John W Sexton compiled the full length poem from over 10 A4 pages of submissions received during April this year. Sexton admitted that it was much harder to compile than he first imagined but was at pains to point out that every word in the poem was written by the people of Limerick.

As well as gracing the wall of the mayor’s office the poem has also been turned into a postcard, with the help of Limerick City and County Council’s tourism unit, and 5000 postcards will now be distributed to hotels and tourist spots in the region, where visitors can pick them up free of charge and use to send greetings from Limerick all over the world.  

The project is the brainchild of the Limerick Writers’ Centre, a voluntary not for profit organization, dedicated to promoting the literary and artistic heritage of Limerick.  Speaking at the unveiling Mr. Oran Ryan from the Centre, said that  there were over 1000 words, lines and phrases sent in covering every  aspect of Limerick from the  Treaty of Limerick to Ronan O’Gara and everything in between.  Some were funny, some vulgar others were just images or childhood memories. He congratulated poet John W. Sexton on his fantastic achievement of compiling the poem into a coordinated whole that is both poetic and makes sense. He went on to say that “there was something very moving about a poem written by so many people, as Limerick City is made up of so many voices with so many stories to tell, the poem reflects that diversity all within one memorable poem.”

In response Mayor Sheahan said it was “a brilliant and original idea and something he had not seen anywhere before.”  He praised the Limerick Writers’ Centre for their continuing contribution to the cultural life of the city, especially their literary activities and wished them success in securing funding for their nonstop good work in the future. 

Before reading the poem John W Sexton explained his rational and method he used to write the final poem: “Success in creating a crowd-sourced poem will always depend on the quality of the source material, but the problem for me was that there was so much material to choose from and only room for a fraction of it. Once I made my final choices, which still amounted to several pages more than I could use, I then went about finding connections between phrases so that I could order the lines into coherent verses. What resulted is, I think, a very good poem. Through the voices of Limerick’s people, the city found its own voice. The final poem, in my view, really is the city telling us who and what it is.”

Further Details: Dominic Taylor Mobile 087 2996409 limerickwriterscentre@gmail.com

Let the Good Times Roll

 

But when people say,
Did you always want to be a writer?,
I have to say no!
I always was a writer

Ursula le Guin

When I ask people ‘So, what’s your image of a writer?’, usually they talk about a guy. Even the women I ask, they tend to talk about a man. I don’t comment as it ruins the experiment, but blogging about it here, I guess that’s the image that gets grandfathered into our brains in a male-centric culture when we are young and impressionable. But that’s not all. If you do an internet search for ‘writer images’, they are mostly male. Then, I ask ‘So what else comes to mind?’

They usually report their writer-image is a kind of intense tweedy type. They see him wearing a jacket with elbow patches, or with swept back greyflecked distinguished hair, writing at a desk. Oh, also our literary type is also usually an academic working on a university campus teaching literature, not working in a bar or stacking shelves in your local Tesco.

I don’t buy this description. Firstly, I know as many women as men who are writers. Also my image of a writer is not so high profile. Maybe she’s out of shape from poor diet and zero exercise. Maybe my imaginary writer drinks too much and is stressed out from all the hours hunched in front of a computer working with little return. Maybe some of my imaginary writers are loners, starving and depressed in a windy garret tapping out another tome, perhaps. Or, addicted, perhaps heavily so.

Another writerly image that crops up is that of the performing artist. If you attend open mics or literary evenings, (which can be really good if you get good writers onstage), your image is of a writer is one standing up in front of a audience of forty or fifty in some back room of a bar or club performing.

Then we come to images of the mature and accomplished artists, also and very importantly, they are being paid for what they do. They have published well. Good times. Every artist worth their salt deserves this. But does that happen? Does every accomplished artist who produces good work get paid what they deserve? Of course not, and for a reason. I mean we think of art in terms of every other item produced in society. It is generally held that the laws of supply and demand determine quality. In other words, if you are a crappy writer, people won’t read you or publish you and thus, in true Darwinian mode, you get cut from the herd and become an editor. If you are hot (in the sense of being modern and contemporary and zeitgeisty and talented), then talent will out. Right? Well, I don’t think so. A twenty or thirty minute perusal of the quality of writing in a typical bookstore or library anywhere, will quash any such ideals. The rules of market economics do not apply when it comes to art, as opposed to in life.

So I moved from bookstores to the internet in my search for an answer to the

le guin
URSULA LE GUIN

question of what happens to literary talent. I read forums and Wikipedia and blogposts and in the end just for giggles I did a random google search for ‘literary rejection letters’, and one of the first that popped out was a letter Ursula K le Guin got back in ’68. Here it is:

Ursula K Le guin rejection letter

Now I am a fan of this writer. This particular novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which found a home elsewhere, is now regarded as a masterpiece, a trailblazer of feminist writing, a work which made a real contribution to the SF genre. It wound up winning the Nebula award, selling over a million copies and establishing Le Guin’s reputation. Reading this letter, and a few others, as well as considering the cloud of negativity surrounding writers beginning and trying to develop their careers, at this stage I confess I began to think a bit negatively about the struggles of newbie writers.

By this I mean – consider if Le Guin had given up with her novel after such a rejection. left hand darknessImagine if she decided instead to quit and run a pub in Lesser Chipping Buckworth (no such place), or took to the countryside in married dejection. Consider all the people she inspired, all the changes she wrought to peoples minds and hearts. I mean, we are talking here of a serious loss. But it didn’t happen, which is good news. On the contrary, millions of people are glad she went on and became the icon of SF writing she remained her entire life, and thereafter.

 

My point is, its easier, so far easier if we had a society that valued and nurtured new writers and artists instead of regarding them as dropouts or lazy or damaged dreamers, people who do not ‘pull their weight’. Having a really good writer in the family should be seen as like having a doctor or a politician or a business person in the family. How many aspiring writers have had to face the ire and disapproval of families and friends and the weight of societal judgement because they wanted to do something creative with their lives? The effects of such disapproval can be overwhelming.

Take disapproval. I mean, its such an innocuous sounding word, ‘disapproval’.  It whips up images of ones sainted great aunt clattering teacups and shaking her head as she tut tuts ones use of bad language or smoking weed out the back garden. This is different, though. Here I mean the kind of life altering cultural disapproval which though all pervasive, can be rather hard to pin down. Its the disapproval you get when turning up in church drunk or your mobile phone going off during a production of Hamlet, except much, much worse.  This is how one gets cut from the herd. You know they don’t want you yet you don’t know how you know that, or indeed what to do. For writers, type of disapproval can last a lifetime. It leads to deep self doubt. That in turn leads to a negative self image, which leads to depression which leads to self destructive behaviours. This is where the trouble starts. Self destructive behaviours borne of depression and self doubt are very painful indeed. Depression has certainly a marked chemical or genetic component, but it also has a societal aspect, a marked societal aspect. Our pain is framed by our world. If this pain goes on long enough, it naturally leads to one seeking relief. I’m talking here medicating such pain with drugs and alcohol. Too much medicating psychic pain with D. and A. often (not always though) leads to addiction. After that there’s nowhere to go but down. It can start a negative toxic spiral downwards into the kinds of dark places I have seen the finest talents dissolve.

So to go back to Le Guin for a moment. Ursula Le Guin getting those Novels published, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, was good for her and good for us all on levels we can begin to fathom anew. She had a brilliant career, and that brilliance shone long after she left us. In contrast I think here of other writers and artists who needed to get the good news of acceptance, not simply a publishing deal but the good word from society at large that what they were doing had value, yet didn’t. Their story did not end with good news. It was sad, bad news.

So we here not talking about simply giving our writers an encouraging hug. This is more like a ideological endorsement of the profound value of our creative communities, a value that includes a monetary value (sometimes very substantial) but an educational, political, and entertainment value. Books and art itself start conversations that change things, sometimes forever. Wherever we see repression of art we see the beginnings of a repressive society that kills the spirit of humanity and produces only propaganda and junk thinking. I am thinking of Donald Trumps killing off major arts grants at the beginning of his benighted presidency.

But here in Ireland the government, the Arts Council, and the Irish Writers Centre have a new initiative for established writers, whereby they can access social welfare payments and don’t have to hide the fact they are writers, or any other types of subterfuge. The full text of the pilot initiative is here. Its been taken up and established now a year later.
Now there are a few problems with this initiative. For instance the text states one has to be ‘genuinely seeking work’ in order to avail of the scheme. Does this mean the work of being a writer is not genuine work? What if you need something like the dole to finish a work that is of the quality of The Left hand of Darkness? Are we seeing shades of the old prejudice against the struggling writer, seen as a kind of layabout who will eventually shape up and see that real work lies elsewhere? Its one of those subtle indicators that might be worth looking at down the line.

Another problem with this otherwise laudatory scheme which is far sighted and worthy of promotion is the very questionable criterion of having to demonstrate that you earned half of last years income from writing. I doubt if there are many writers who need the dole to finish their books will be able to show that. In fact in Ireland unless you work round the clock doing gigs and writers in residence contracts as well as whatever royalties you earn will be able to demonstrate that level of income.
But those caveats aside, its good news. Its a sign, as the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said:
“Ireland is world-famous as a haven for art and artists who are central to our culture. This reputation for artistic achievement is part of our global USP. Promoting Ireland as a home for art and artists is central to my plans to double our global footprint in the years ahead. I believe it is only right that we allow for some flexibility within the social welfare system to allow artists to access social welfare supports when they need them. Up to now, artists have found it difficult to access social welfare and of course many artists take on extra jobs to support their livelihoods.

“Following extensive work between both Departments, with input from the Arts Council, this new mechanism will allow artists to be classified as self-employed for the purposes of accessing social welfare supports. The normal checks and balances will apply to ensure the initiative is not open to abuse, but my hope is that this will make it much easier for professional artists to access social welfare supports when they need them.”

(See here for further context) There is information on the scheme here and further information here.

NOWHERE TO GO BUT DOWN – Martin Egans ‘Sea Journey’

SEA JOURNEY

by

Martin A Egan

Lapwing Press 2013

One of the happier memories of my friend Martin Egan was listening to him both talk about  and read aloud many drafts of the poems that eventually became Sea Journey, a book that for as long as it has been in print, remains a huge favourite of mine. One of the many reasons I am penning this is the hope that it will remain in print for a long, long time and that many more will buy this excellent book. Reading it again, one can only imagine the quality of other possible tomes the poet would have produced if his health had remained as strong as his many gifts.

It is, to my mind, somewhat facile to interpret Egan’s poems in ‘Sea Journey’ as part of the ‘therapy oeuvre’, in other words a type of ventilation of ones own personal psychological and therapeutic experiences in poetic form, a kind of art therapy, or an exorcism of personal demons. Such types of poems, of course, have their place, as there really can be no limits or no rules for the material any artist uses for their art. In reading this complex, very humorous and tragic work, it is clear that Egan goes further, much further, than using art asea_journey_covers a type of therapy. Firstly there is no attempt on the artist’s part to employ any psychological categories in his descriptions depictions and storytelling. In fact, if anything Sea Journey travels into territories uncharted by either the recovery or addiction or abuse experience, three themes that, among others, also happen to populate the pages of the volume as a kind of marker on the road to his central theme. In the poem Middle Aged Rant, he complains he has been ‘more Psychoanalysed than any other single Middle-aged Man’ and that despite these explorations of his own addictions, obsessions, and family of origin issues, he doesn’t feel better, more resolved, or indeed nicer to children or small animals.

To linger for a moment on the therapeutic question, seeing as it is visible in Sea Journey, it might also be well argued that it is really not the job of therapy to provide answers to the questions of the meaning of life. It might equally be argued that the job of any therapeutic endeavour to bring us rather to the doorway of moral choice. To this question we need to look at the whole thrust of Egan’s endeavour in the book Sea Journey, for Egan constructs a complex moral backdrop to his artistic journey. His work is, among other things, a coruscating repudiation of the inauthentic life, meaning a life serving the needs of the ego, or the view that the achievement of fame or fortune or power or celebrity as a mark of a well lived life, or indeed any mode of existence the leaves us with an unexamined life.

“…I can smell them coming

These days from quite a ways off with their

Ego’s wobbling along behind them like a

Queen Bee’s ass in a hive…”

(Middle Aged Rant)

Egan’s many forays into various disciplines, be it song-writing, painting, poetry, singing, all of which he had considerable and much celebrated expertise, seems to have left the poet with something of a distaste for the ego driven success obsessed, so called stars ‘…famous people that think they are the shit’ (ibid). This is a world he journeys away from. The question remains as to where he is going, and the answer is this: we are going inwards and we are going downwards. Into a ‘terrible experience of loss and separation’ (Sea Journey)

The sea, the first word in the title of this volume, is long understood as a symbol of the unknown, the unexplored and the unconscious, and this is precisely where Egan takes us, into the world of pure consciousness, of memory and experience, all delivered to us largely in clear unadorned language. An artist with his technical skills could easily have delivered poems written in what we might term ‘high prosody’ using well-honed forms that have adorned the pages of countless excellent books of poetry. But his is a different agenda. Egan keeps it simple. Its all very rock and roll. Three chords and the truth. With him we get on the craft and, like Kurtz and Dante, we go down, down, deep into the undergrowth of the mind, the very heart of darkness and we look therein to find a world where there be

11808
Martin Egan

monsters, monsters that exist inside Egan, so he confesses. Monsters he sees in himself and he can find no redemption from it. ‘For myself, I never felt anything. But a gaping hole in my middle, Never saw God, or found Nirvana’ (Light Show) And this is how and why Sea Journey works. The idea is simple. The truth tells its own story. But the truth is hard to find, for we are always trying to deceive ourselves. Aside from the beauty and the clarity of the language there is a coruscatingly, at times unbearably honest depiction of his life and his relationships and his family experiences. This is the sea-journey, the second part of the title. We are going somewhere and as we go on its darker and scarier. But we don’t get lost. We don’t get lost only because we are in the hands of such a crafts person like Martin A. Egan. Our little bark does not become shipwrecked in a morass of solipsistic self-analysis, self-pity, self-loathing, and other dangerous obstacles to insight. Despite experiencing these emotions, these sirens, he ignores these comfort zones. This is where its at:

‘We became the haven for designated nutters

Compulsive wife-beaters, Drunks and thieves,

Covert rapists, addicts, self-pitying, crying after violence and sex

It was true that we knew, damn nearly next to nothing

Well, certainly I didn’t, I was always the best-read social cripple

In the marquees…’ (Light Show)

Humour is the ship we travel upon in this terrible land as we visit the worlds of drunks, addicts, rapists, wife beaters, adult survivors of child sexual abuse, and that one devastating poem about the suicide of Egan’s sister, someone he writes he hadn’t seen in decades, save for a brief somewhat dysfunctional meeting:

‘Three months later the ‘phone rang,

My brother told me,

She had killed herself.’ (Cowardice)

There is nowhere one can go with such devastating information. With every great tragedy there comes the accusations, the self accusations, and the search for someone or something to blame. A great void of sorrow and regret and sometimes irrational guilt, survivor guilt, opens up in one, and lasts for years until slowly the freeze begins to melt and life begins once more. But there is none of that in the work. Egan’s work remains dynamic. The effects of this tragedy are described, but the object of description remains clear and crisp as a fresh photograph. The beauty of the prosody is arresting:

All I can and ever will remember

Are the red and white roses

My older brother and I placed

On her coffin in the grave.

The coldness of her face,

I tentatively touched,

Staring at her perfect teeth —

And Egan carries on, as a true Beckettian (which he was) he knew the essential paradox of living – the tragedy of it, or rather the tragicomedy of it. Like Beckett, Egan knows one just can’t go on, and yet one goes on. He weeps at such honest beauty and, breathing deep and free (Candle), he seeks some type of redemption in saying it like it is, which is the job of the artist. In this he can feel a small margin of freedom. There is, according to Egan, no escape from living, nothing but the pure gift of the now, a now that has to be accepted, and despite all the pain it might offer, be embraced. Years spent outside contemporary society, failed marriages, failed relationships, lost loves, friends who came and went, loves that stayed, life on an island painting, song writing and time, so much time spent in the company that, like the writers, existed along the fringes of society. But he remembers it all. He remembers it and he celebrates it all here. ‘The tone of life, powering Soaring through my bones’ (Closure).

Like Patrick Mc Cabe, Mary Morrissy, and others, Martin Egan occupies and interesting and controversial place in Irish Literature and consciousness, whereby he recalls and embodies in his work some of the darker and more painful aspects of our cultural and societal past, the legacy of sexual abuse, addiction, family dysfunction. His work has the feel of seedy bars and dark rooms and squats where people, lost and at the very edge of things, huddle together and talk – but also that arrestingly beautiful and yet simultaneously desolate rural landscape where there is only the free air and a sense of no escape from a life that is going nowhere. This is the case, but Egan’s work captures more than anything the sheer tragedy that can visit individuals and families, and how that tragedy can with courage and humour and be both coped with and not consume one.

Beautiful prosody, searingly honest, very funny, and a gripping read, this is a must have for every lover of superb Irish poetry.

I finish with a few words from Dennis Greig, publisher from Lapwing poetry, speaking about Martin’s work. As I was writing this with no access to my library in the midst of metre deep snow in the south of Poland, he very kindly made the text available to me.

“For me, Martin’s poems depict some aspects of ‘our’ immediate post WW2
generation, the rebellion against statutory dictatorships as in Ireland and the UK etc., which in themselves curtailed liberty and social organisation. Unfortunately,
the hidden powers of educational institutions, religions and global capital
still have effect on all our lives and liberties. Martin was, like myself,
something of an outsider in the thick of things.”

(reprinted with Mr Greig’s kind permission)

You can get Sea Journey HERE

Eight things about reading at O Bheal in Cork that everyone should know

Ireland is replete with literary events and poetry readings. All literary events are literary, but not all of them are equal. O Bheal ( www.obheal.ie ) is a particularly good one, and it was a marvelously enjoyable evening for me.

1. Resistance is futile. You are made just so welcome. I am not a particularly nervous reader of my work (or indeed of anyone elses). That is, except about two minutes before I stand up. Then and only then do I generally get the most dreadful attack of nerves, which dissipates pretty quickly. Even if I were a sufferer from chronic stage fright, it wouldn’t matter. Paul Casey and his team of MC’s make one so welcome and comfortable. No need to be afraid.

2. Practice before. O Bheal, to my mind is an important reading. It had been over a year since I  had given a reading, so, feeling rusty, I prepared, maybe too much on reflection. I should have had more of an edge on me. Less smooth. Though when I turned up for the reading (way too early as it happened and wandered around Cork City for an hour) I was glad I had. One is reading to a discerning and humorous audience. If they don’t like the poem, they don’t clap. They aren’t rude or unreceptive or snobbish. Its clear, all too clear one is dealing with an audience who are there because they love poetry. I was relieved. I chose my words had my stuff ready, and read acceptably. So, even if you read twice a week every week, prepare yourself.

3. Its Not Trying to be Cool or Clever, It Just Is. O Bheal is run by writers and artists for writers, artists, and lovers of good writing. Terrible readings generally are either (a) over formalized or (b) over controlled by tradition or (c) given to a reactionary rebelliousness, or (d) so replete with establishment self congratulation true self expression is impossible. Real innovation exists somewhere between the twin horns of the dilemma of established tradition and innovation. O Bheal segues around this difficulty as it embraces both sides of the aisle. You can, within reason, read whatever you like, and nobody gets offended. I have had, in the past to temper my material to avoid giving offense to people. In actual fact, in order to avoid any such eventuality, I actually asked if there was any subject I might avoid so as to no offend anyone. I was told not to worry.

4. Winthrop Street in Cork is a Super Venue. Its not too big, not too small. Its a kind of Goldilocks venue, just the right size. Homely and welcoming, I loved it. Here’s a map:

5. Its Got a Good Mix. O Bheal combines an open mic, a featured reader, and what is known as the ‘five word challenge’. People suggest five words. and you have to make up a poem from the five words. The winner gets a pint free from the bar. Some of the poems are remarkable. My own offering was absolutely dire, by the way.

6. Its Social. Like Seven Towers events O Bheal has a strong social element. I got involved, despite being really tired from five hours traveling, and giving a reading, in all kinds of discussions about writing mostly. These included such arcane topics  as second century atheistic poetry in Muslim countries and Doris Lessings post colonial guilt. I got into my rooms about 2 AM, completely wrecked. Then I had the joy of listening to the loudest snoring I ever heard ever from downstairs. It sounded like the bed and breakfast had a dragon staying.

7. You get Paid and B&B. They put you up in a really nice B&B and they pay you. Enough said. This is important. Writers need to be paid. Thanks to Paul Casey and the team. Kudos.

8. The Reading. And heres my reading 8th June 2015 at O Bheal Winthrop Street. Cork

Enjoy, and check out the event. A great evening.

POSTER POEM BY COLIN DARDIS

 

COLIN DARDIS’ EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

 

image

 

So much of Irish contemporary poetry is to say the least disinteresting. It is tired, fearful of innovation, hopelessly swamped with a vast rich cultural and historical context that should give it a deep well of innovation to work from, a launching pad to new modes of self expression. Rather than doing this it this very context seems to be employed as a constraining factor, a series of carefully defined determinants as to what constitutes good poetry and at worst, what is and what is not poetry. This distressing precedent remains unhelped by the lack of real criticism in Ireland. We are after all a small island where everyone knows everyone else. Moreover, because of our complex and fractious history, we are reluctant to tell each other what we really think. This makes us even more reluctant to differentiate between honest criticism when it is given and politicking, or worse than politicking, being unprofessionally personal.  All this, this matrix of dissimulation and politeness, leads to the aforementioned conservatism and safeplaying when it comes to the arts. And this leads me to Colin Dardis’ Poster Poem.

Dardis’ poster poem reminds me more than anything of a crossover between the written word and a piece of installation art. Its simplicity, two inverted commas separated by an ellipsis followed by the final full stop at the end of the page, belies the complexity of the message being conveyed by this remarkable piece. The ellipsis is what I would first of all like to concentrate on. Used usually to either substitute for a repeated phrase in a sentence, when it is completely obvious to the reader what the message is, for instance in a dialogue between two people :

“I really wonder if you love me…”

And she smiled warmly.

In this context the smile from the second person fills in the blank caused by the ellipsis in the first sentence. In the context of the poster poem the context of the ellipsis is filled in by the title of the poem, in other words, POSTER POEM BY COLIN DARDIS. So what does this tell us? That the ellipsis itself within the quotation marks is the poem, a blank, a pause between something spoken and unspoken, followed by an end, a silence that is absolute. What could this possibly mean? This poem is about absence, about (to employ an Eliotian phrase) a raid on the inarticulate, an aporia, about the void that exists within and surrounding our existence, the questions we ask in these silences but cannot adequately muster words as yet to properly codify or even seek to answer (the work itself of the poet and the writer). For in speaking we speak about something, but also in speaking about something we have to articulate about that which is not, as all sentences have within themselves their borders and their definition. Thus Dardis has found in this remarkable piece a code to mark the emptiness within which we seek to define ourselves. the question remains of course whether or not this is poetry. The word poetry comes from the Greek term poeio, meaning I create, in terms of the use of imagery, words, symbols, word associations, rhythms, along with musical, tactile and alliterative associations. Overall a poems job is to give a picture of what it is to exist in the world. In terms of the analysis above this would be a poem delving into the negative space of language. It talks about the unspoken, that part of dialogue and description in which we the reader are called to experience the anxiety called out by this poem, and/or to fill in this space with our own minds and our own feelings and our own imaginations. I am reminded of the time I went down to the O Bheal readings in Cork City, MC’d by Paul Casey and someone, having been called to the mic to perform, stood up and smiled and closed their eyes for thirty seconds. Someone in the audience called on the person taking up the mic time to read a poem. The poet concerned replied : “I just did”, and sat down. No one knew what so say and the next poet was called to read.

Dardis’ poem is daring, interesting and innovative. It remains for me a very successful piece of art and a fine poem. Kudos.

 

Colin Dardis is a poet, editor and arts facilitator, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His work has been published in numerous anthologies, journals and zines throughout Ireland, the UK and the USA. His most recent collection, ‘Dōji: A Blunder‘ was released in Nov ’13, from Lapwing Publications.  Go Here for more info

Poet in Profile–Unabridged Interview with Oran Ryan by Ruairi Conneely

I’ve been tasked at times at NewsFour with writing about poetry and the Dublin Literary scene, insofar as I’m in frequent contact with it. However, the circumstances that lead me to interview Oran were simple and typical for a journalist: the assignment was dropped on me with only a day or two to research and produce the whole piece, from soup to nuts, and deliver it to deadline with pictures and all.

Oran and I are very good friends and I’m always eager to help him promote himself and share his thoughtfulness with the world at large. I think those with the talent to do so have something like a duty to be a voice for their readers’ inner lives. That’s why I write fiction when I can (aside from the journalist day job) and that’s why I think a lot of people are compelled to write fiction and research.They’re articulating not just for themselves but for their kindred spirits, who maybe a little less sure of their words or images. This is a big part of the much-mooted “shamanistic” function of Art, to my mind.


So, long story boring, I knew Oran would be a good subject, I was racing the clock, and I knew he had (has!) a poetry collection in the works.


What follows is the full original text I submitted to the NewsFour offices, which saw print in abridged form, in the June/July 2013 issue.

NewsFour, by the way, is the community newspaper for Dublin 4, covering Donnybrook, Sandymount, Irishtown, Ringsend, Ballsbridge and adjacent areas. We publish an issue every two months or so, of about 40 pages, free of charge, available around the Dublin 4 area and free of depressing garbage. www.newsfour.ie or find us on Facebook


Ruairi Conneely


There you go.

 

Poet’s Place: Oran Ryan

By Ruairi Conneely

It’s a pleasure to welcome you all to the freshly revived NewsFour Poetry Place! I’m Ruairi Conneely, a staff journalist here at your beloved community paper and, in my spare time, something of a jack-of-all-trades writer. Before journalism, I worked in the world of small press publishing, for an agency that specialised in poetry collections. I write poetry and short fiction and the curious among you can find me most months at the monthly Last Wednesday Open Mic where I frequently perform my work.

For my debut Poet’s Place column, I’ve elected to start with an unusual choice of subject. Oran Ryan is predominantly known as a novelist: his third novel ‘One Inch Punch’ was published to much fanfare in October 2012 and was mentioned in the Seanad by Senator David Norris for its hands-on treatment of the topic of bullying. However, Oran is also an extensively published and experienced poet. His work has been published in periodicals like Can Can, Poetry Ireland, the Iota Poetry Quarterly, the International Library of Poetry Journal and Anarchist Angel, to name just a few. He has a collection forthcoming from Seven Towers entitled ‘Portrait of An Atheist Monk At Prayer’. Accompanying his profile as an author, Oran trails behind him an interesting and complex personal biography: he was an ordained monk of the Capuchin Order for much of the 1980s before succumbing to his natural scepticism. He then entered into the study of Philosophy, then Psychology, psychoanalysis and the study of Language. Now he lives near the Docklands, in East Wall, with his wife Sarah and many dogs and cats. But where does poetry enter all this, I wondered?

Oran: “Well, I started to read poetry at a very young age and it was because my father would read poems to us. He was a big fan of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and he would read to me and my sisters the entirety of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, which was extraordinary. I would have been about 6 or 7 years old. Imagining what that poem describes was hallucinatory, overwhelming at that age. There was hardly a time after that when I wasn’t reading poetry.”

Where did the productive aspect begin for you? At what point did you begin to write your own?

“I started writing seriously – and getting published – in my teens and early twenties, and it was weird. I thought of myself predominantly as a religious person, not at all as an artist, but I always wrote some poetry. I had the impulse for my youth. After religion, I focussed on psychoanalysis and language and envisioned a career writing on these subject. So non-fiction, I suppose. Scholarly, academic texts.”

Let’s talk about style. Where do you take your cues for the voice and form of a poem?

“I don’t take linguistic cues from poetry itself but from everyday speech and use of language. People hide as much as they display in their everyday words and they often reveal their very deepest feelings unwittingly.”

So you don’t start with a style in mind?

“No, I start with a subject or image that has jumped out at me, and the style and voice, even the length of the poem, is determined from that starting point. I’m not opposed to formalism: sometimes I start with the most precise metre possible but Metre is a tool. Important to know but… well, I always have the Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetics handy. It’s a terrific reference work for formal matters but don’t let it rule your life.”

Is there an overlap between your poetry and your novels?

“Of course. Poets are writers – the bridge between poetry and prose is very short. The idea for my last novel started with a poetic phrase: ‘You’re out of time, Mr Prime, your tiny life’s a thin blue line.’ Mr Prime became Raymond Prime, who became Gordon Brock, the protagonist of what became ‘One Inch Punch’.”

To wrap up, tell us about your forthcoming collection. It’s been a long time coming.

“The collection is called ‘Portrait of An Atheist Monk at Prayer’ and it’s the gathering of many years work, some previously published, some not. I resisted the idea I should do a collection for many years because I didn’t feel it would really be complete. I felt I had more to learn. But recently, last year this started, I had the idea for a poem that became a series focusing in a character called Joe the Astronaut. Joe is a wounded hero for the new age we live in. He’s been to Space, he’s seen Infinity directly and it’s crushed his mind with its vastness. So now, returned to Earth, he writes about his experiences in the third person. He writes about his failures, his dreams, lost and former loves. He is the Atheist Monk of the title. He has seen but he cannot believe.”

Oran Ryan’s novels are available through Seven Towers at seventowers.ie. He blogs at oranryan.com

No really,do go on telling me how worthless being a writer is… I love Big Brother, honestly…

 

I am not by nature a political animal. I have no party political instincts, dislike the whole fakery of politics in any form, and regard most politicians with a visceral distrust I find a little disturbing even to myself. Yet I know writing is a profoundly political activity. It concerns itself with human behaviour, its foibles, its history and its destiny. Our dark side has been exposed more times by writers than any other art form. That being said, most writing is just not good. Sturgeon’s law especially holds true of literature.  So much of it is awful, derivative, conservative (in the sense of uncritically adhering to a body of historical values as opposed to conserving what is good from history), poorly constructed and lacking in depth of characterization. The notion of the cream rising to the top: rich, thick and guaranteed to make you sick, also comes to mind (a la Sam Beckett).

My view is that a real critical rigour is needed to address this problem, and its a serious problem – a rigour devoid of politics or vendettas or the kind of career building intellectually fashionable academic pettiness that makes one kind of writing in style and another passé. So much so called criticism is really one political or philosophical mind-set trying to take out someone on the opposing side of the political landscape, something funded or equally partisan. Without this criticism, this vigorous objective humanistic intellectualism around writing, we are looking at a deluge of blandness in future writing in which nothing of value will be said and even less worthwhile will be written. Ireland has produced some great writers. Most of them didn’t stay in Ireland. We need to foster a creative environment here, where so many come to imbibe the riches of our literature, where talent, from whatever section of this multicultural country it emerges, can evolve freely. Criticism is but one facet of this. You cannot put a value on writing but you can evaluate it. You can look at the structure, the story, the philosophy, the historical development of the form, the characterization and the development of the characters and the entire resolution of the story. But there is a problem with this approach. You cant do any of the above if you don’t understand the nature of writing. So the question is this: what is it that I am doing now, as I write this? What view do I have  of the nature of writing itself?

The purpose of writing is to communicate what it means to live in the world. To live in the world is to describe human behaviour in the world, which brings one back to the political nature of writing itself, its capacity to analyse, explain, explore, elucidate, speculate and postulate possible futures for humanity. In other words writing is revolutionary in its essence. That being said writing is in danger of being either commercialized – viewed as merely a product with a value, something that holds a value based on how wealthy the author is, or ghettoized – viewed as the esoteric workings of a special interest group with a rather odd hobby. Its a cliché how many writers of genius who died penniless, and its equally a cliché how many people with means, who seek to vent their creative side on a poetry collection or a novel.

I don’t mean in the least to disrespect those who turn to writing as a kind of hobby. Its cool, but this isn’t in the least where the forefront of writing should be at. Its really not a hobby. Writing or art in general should be at the centre of the cultural  and political discourse of a country. Its clearly not, and the reason why it is not is for many reasons. Firstly if you have a bunch of mercurial artists with a powerful media platform unleashing their critical and creative faculties, they pose a real and viable alternative to current political discourse. Better to have them tamed, give them money now and then, and ensure they are published in the smaller presses where they wont be read by too many people. There are of course a coterie of tame writers and distinguished artists who pose no real threat, may be wheeled onto various shows, write learned tomes and novels and articles, and will never step outside the party line. Secondly there is also a substantial deep rooted view that artists are pariahs on society (the ‘get yourself a real job’ argument). Writing is the most difficult of jobs, involving thousands of hours of labour to produce a finished piece. An academic can finish a PhD thesis with some chance of getting a teaching job somewhere. A writer can labour for years on a novel, or a poetry collection, or a play, get it published or produced, and well reviewed, but make nothing on it. As writers generally do not produce wealth (a small percentage do), have a tendency to self destruct (mostly due to being largely unsupported by society), and live rather dysfunctional lives (many have a panoply of addictions or psychological problems), they are viewed with disdain by the establishment. Many writers restrict their productivity by taking on full time work (some just have no option) than feel themselves to be a burden on their families and friends, an understandable move, but very bad for their creative output, and at times a serious loss to writing.

So this is a call to change things, and to put writing, all types of writing, back where it should be – front and centre of our culture. There is little appreciation seemingly of writing outside of it being a branch of the entertainment industry (‘Really, you write? That’s nice.  And can you make a living on that?’), and this is a critical flaw in how we live and who we are at this time in our history. We are being drowned in propaganda and writers have the skill set to exercise a critical voice on our various cultural and historical trends.

I end with a personal story to underline how writers are viewed. I recently signed on the dole, or as they like to term it now, Jobseekers Allowance in the Orwellian sounding Dept. of Social Protection, where one speaks to very nice very courteous people behind steel and plexiglass screens surrounded by security cameras and security guards. There are no toilets and everywhere is locked down tighter than a drum. You take a ticket and you wait and everyone nearby can hear what you are saying, no matter how good your stage whisper happens to be (mine is not good as I am used to projecting my voice to largish groups). Its a horrible experience, and its meant to be a horrible experience. After all, if it were a nice experience, it is argued, it might be considered an incentive to stay on the dole, which is a ridiculous argument for something that is a right rather than a privilege.

My own tiny droplet of horror in this river of human degradation ended with an interview with  grey man in a grey office who picked through my file asking me question after stupid question, told me I had spent too much money on an apartment, of lying to him, of wasting my life on a pointless pursuit (writing), and some rather unsavoury but explicit sexual innuendo about my private life. The gist of the conversation was that the only worthwhile art is that which makes money. The rest is a waste of time. This is the type of Psy Ops employed by these inspectors to influence behaviour, to undermine peoples self confidence during a difficult time (unemployment), and to get them to take any job so as to get them off the live register of unemployed. So many people experience this type of bureaucratic fascistic manipulation. I could write letters about my experience. I wont. But my point, I think, is well made anyhow by the grey man in the grey office.