I’ve been Director of Poetry Ireland for eleven years and recently my third book of poems Ocean Letters was published by Dedalus in May of this year.
How did you first get into poetry?
It was a teenage thing; I was first very interested in music and lyrics and this expanded into poetry and words essentially. I remember various obsessions when I was in my mid-teens from Dylan Thomas to Austin Clarke, Byron, Shelley and Beckett. I was also hugely interested in nature and kept notes on everything I saw, I was an avid birdwatcher and was always compiling lists and notes. I’ve only recently come to the conclusion that this fed into the poetry; observation, for one thing.
I sometimes think people write poetry because they’ve been frustrated at something else. In my case, what I really wanted to be was a zoologist but unfortunately I wanted to be a nineteenth century one and there weren’t very many openings for that kind of carry on.
A loss to the world of zoology. How did you progress to Poetry Ireland?
I’m not sure if it’s ‘progress’! I’ve had mixed careers. I was managing a language school in Dublin when I saw the job of Manager (not Director) advertised. I was writing and publishing poetry at the time and had done an MA a few years earlier in Poet’s House in Northern Ireland under the late James Simmons. I was also attending readings and was ‘involved’ somewhat in the poetry scene if you can call it that, but also slightly wary of throwing my oar into the administration of arts and literature and thinking it might have a negative effect on my own writing.
So did/does working at Poetry Ireland have a negative effect on your writing? And presumably some positive effects too?
I suppose the negative and oddly positive effect is that you sometimes eat, live and drink poetry. My day isn’t always about poetry though; there’s a team of seven people and the different strands to the organisation that ensure that – but there’s enough of it that sometimes the idea of going home, changing desks, and writing a poem is anathema. That said, I often put in a day behind the desk followed by an evening at a reading and go home and wind down by raiding the shelves for poetry! Four or five years ago, I found I stopped writing altogether and I took a complete break and went travelling with my wife for eight months and that got rid of the administration cobwebs or ‘toad work squat’ [ing].
The positive effects in terms of my own work is a constant engagement, reading and trying to keep up with the world of poetry and I’m sure that informs some of the work. On another level, you also get to personally engage with poets who often are impressive or wise and in a sense are the embodiment of a life or lives in poetry and that too is a source of inspiration and simple wellbeing.
How has Poetry Ireland evolved since you joined and what do you foresee coming in the next few years?
One thing that was on the agenda when I joined Poetry Ireland eleven years ago was the matter of 'premises' or finding a permanent home for the organisation. It remains so - despite the raft of building lunacy over the past ten years and including some regional arts centres that are virtually empty because operational or programming staffs were never properly provisioned for - we never got on that ladder or have been a beneficiary and we remain without a proper permanent home to house administration and performance space to function to the best of our abilities.
That aside, in all areas of the organisation I believe there has been radical development and improvements; we have three people working in education including not only delivering school visits but in delivering Writer in Residence programmes across the country. We have recently acquired the Writers in Libraries Scheme in addition to our two Writers in Schools and Residencies Schemes which greatly adds to our the suite of choices not just for partners but for writers themselves and of late we have been working in Northern Ireland delivering residencies north of the border.
In terms of publications, Poetry Ireland Review has undergone a radical design overhaul some years ago and with the independent support of the organisation and has seen its 100th issue since its foundation in 1981. That record coupled with its previous incarnations going back to the inaugural issue in 1948 and the establishment of the then, Poetry Ireland (the journal) edited by David Marcus make it one of the oldest poetry journals in Europe.
Our website is regarded as the de facto events literary listings website in the country but site does much more than that and is full of additional resources from 'getting published' through to offering advice to emerging poets and established poets and has discussion fora, twitter, etc.
Lastly our readings program is greatly enlarged and now encompasses more than 120 funded readings annually and in additional Poetry Ireland runs the 'Introductions' series which offers a showcase for emerging writers and All Ireland Poetry Day which programmes readings in every county in Ireland on the first Thursday in October.
You'd have thought there would be a spare, empty bankrupt business building available for you somewhere! For all the poets reading this who are working towards a collection, what advice would you give?
My advice would be to take your time, you've all the time in the world to get it right, if it's wrong or you're not happy with it, it's in print and on record. Get as many of the individual poems published in a variety of outlets to the point that you are making a selection from published poems in order to make the book. We get lots of queries in the office from people who want to publish a first book but who often haven't published a poem which seems the sensible place to start.
Greg Delanty estimated in Agenda some years ago (2005) that approximately 1400 poetry books or individual collections were published in the US every year which averages out at about 18 books a week. That makes it virtually impossible to be heard and in addition, 2,500 students are earning Creative Writing degrees every year and looking to get books published. Of course, it's not as crowded in Ireland but it's worth reading a couple of dozen first collections to try and determine what distinguishes one from another. It usually comes down to a new and interesting way of saying something or seeing things coupled with craft.
Thanks for that. What have you got coming up?
We've just had All Ireland Poetry Day on Thursday October 6th, now in its fourth year and where we organised poetry events in virtually every county in Ireland; highlights included specially commissioned poems delivered to patients in hospitals. Readings countrywide including open mic, broadcasts, bi-lingual, in Dublin airport and even on canoes in Portora, the list goes on but what was wonderful about it was the way different partners responded to the day.
Autumn is always our busiest season and we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Salmon Poetry with a gala night in the Unitarian Church. We're also about to appoint a new editor for Poetry Ireland Review which also has its 30th birthday this year.
Autumn also means Arts Council applications and as we're funding by both, we have two to compile and complete, it's a necessary chore and we're searching for a new home...so a busy time.