Saturday, 26 December 2015
An interview with poet, facilitator and director of O’Bhéal literary nights Paul Casey.
Hi Paul and welcome to emergingwriter. Where did the impetus to start Ó Bhéal come from?
Firstly from my favourite two words, Poetry and Cork. And then from many places. I was aware of the scarcity of consistent venues, places where poetry can develop in the long-term and thrive through regular exposure, engagement and debate. I wanted to see it made less frightening. And to build audiences based on the qualities and potentials of the art form itself, rather than on its therapeutic abilities, or hungry egos. I’m no therapist. I’m in it for the craft. It partly came from a strong desire to give something back to my home city. Cork has always been a source of immeasurable sensibility and has been very good to me over the years.
I ran a multilingual poetry gig in South Africa when teaching there from 2003-5, which became quite popular, and after that I emceed in Dublin for Gerry McNamara’s Write and Recite sessions, over a couple of years. Ó Bhéal was born in April ’07, when there was no regular poetry venue in Cork, which seemed odd, if even embarrassing, especially when visiting poets would ask about reading here. They were present in Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Belfast at the time, but not here. Not in the regular sense at least, although they had been so previously. Some lucky timing for me.
I imagined a job where I could fire on all cylinders and sustain the full skillset. Writing, editing, film, multimedia, languages and teaching all rolled up into one. It made sense to combine them into a form of poetry service, so that I could be submerged in every aspect of it, both for my own growth as a poet and to add to the available choices within the wider landscape of poetry, the same scape within which so many writers like you and I need to actually survive. And to thrive. And for other selfish reasons. To widen my own education in poetry. To get on with the business of poetry. To encourage my own and others’ voices to emerge confidently within an informed, responsive, encouraging and challenging environment. A venue for all levels of experience to mingle and spark discourse, from the absolute beginner, to the master.
I wanted to shake up some of the prevailing perceptions of poetry and imagined remedying those induced allergies, remnants of rote-riddled, antiquated education systems. To attend an event where the full spectrum of poetry’s wonders, in all their marvellous permutations, could be welcomed and appreciated (or not!), and perhaps render certain boundaries meaningless. A forum able to counter and dissolve notions of elitism, doctrinaire clique-isms, egomania and so on. After seeing too many venues suffer from ego-inflammation (one is too many), its contagions and absurd exclusivities, I developed a strong need to level the playing field in whatever way possible. A bit like what Kate Tempest has been on about recently, but also to depoliticize the space to some extent. Another aim was to promote a culture of emcees, self-regulated, both for the cultivation of good and respectful compère practice and to keep the personality of the event in a kind of ego-resilient state of flux.
Aside from the apparent benefits to poets and poetry, it’s a financial disaster, just as 99% of all poetry-related work tends to be. Now for the annual price of a short film, we could maintain ownership of one of the world’s most successful poetry programmes. And the merits prove multifold, in a venue where any member of the public can feel safe to engage, dip a toe or dive straight in, or simply enjoy. To not feel like an alien. To explore what’s possible in poetry, welcoming the spoken, written, traditional and far beyond, while being regularly exposed to a wide range of what’s really good. Pushing where it can go, what it can do, how it can marry. Ó Bhéal seemed the best way forward, although it’s far more demanding at this stage.
Kate Tempest was talking about intellectual snobbery amongst poets, which is common, but I have to say, also common in other walks of life. Of course there is a conflict between performance and written poetry. There is some terrible performance poetry that if performed well, goes down OK. But equally there is some dreadful page poetry that gets published and lauded based on the name. Good performance poetry has to stand up on its own merits on the page, but page poetry that doesn't perform well, or is never performed, is missing something.
I agree Kate. On all accounts.
So there are no egos at O'Bheal? How do you manage that?
There are plenty. We just keep them too busy with poetry overload. Mine included.
Can you be a bit more specific about the financial disaster of the organisation? What sources of income do you have? And what are your costs?
It’s an opportune series of questions, for which I’m grateful. Our drive for long-term funding is underway and we have just over a year left to secure Ó Bhéal’s life beyond ten years. The various Arts bodies have funded us consistently since 2007. These are, with current figures: The Arts Council (€3000 pa.), The Cork City Council (€2200 pa.) and Foras na Gaeilge (€2400 pa.). These are all down from previous years.
For 2016, the Arts Council increased their award to €5600, a welcome surprise and sorely needed relief for minimum fees. One difficulty of course is in having to spend 100% of any given budget with having only 50% up front. Tricky enough with irregular cash flow, but we're very grateful regardless and hope it's a sign of more permanent things to come. It may catch on even more yet, that in appreciating the foundations of poetry we surely honour the most valuable of our traditions. That the invaluable, cultural payback can never be quantified.
Over our first six years, Poetry Ireland would fund 3-4 readings per year @ €250 per reading, which allowed us to intersperse the programme with poets from the more established arenas. This has been reduced to €300 p.a., which goes entirely towards our Winter Warmer Festival (which cost €5600 this year).
Of course I’m acutely aware that these bodies are all under significant pressures of their own. Still, relatively speaking, it’s a lot cheaper than most arts budgets, especially considering the return. The rest of our income arrives via donations either through the donation jar, or through online campaigns.
Our new www.gofundme.com/saveobheal campaign explains this. We ultimately need to generate the equivalent of €40,000 per year for Ó Bhéal to continue beyond 2017. I’m certainly doing the work of at least four people. My plan B is that once our administrator is fully trained (and effectively reducing my hours), I should be able to squeeze in a part-time job somehow. It sounds like a world of full-time stress however - not unlike the present scenario. I teach night classes twice a year at the Cork College of Comm, which helped me in a small way to relieve the deficit when I was on the CE scheme, but now the Social takes back almost 95% of what I earn there.
At current rates and aside from my own ‘income’, Ó Bhéal is costing in and around €16,000-€18,000 per year, and we usually fall a couple of grand short of that, which I cover personally. And that’s with completely inadequate fees for poets. I’m on Jobseeker’s Allowance (CE Schemes last max 2-3 yrs per person), where at any moment I can be pulled on my ‘availability’ for work. It’s tenuous. I won’t manage beyond April ’17 without a wage, if I’m allowed continue for that long. If we don’t have any positive sign by this time next year, we’ll start to wind down. We won’t book anyone beyond the 10th Anniversary event - and will go out with a Bang! On the other hand, if we can secure a basic director’s wage plus at least a 20% increase in programme funding, we could be set for another five to ten years. I’m trying every avenue possible, including European funding.
The community has gradually taken on more of an active role in driving the programme. It’s more community-driven now than ever; we have a board of 12 members who meet four times a year to decide on guests and volunteer activities. A lot of these talented writers and artists jump on board when we need them to. Our international reputation and network is fairly established at this stage and growing fast. I don’t understand why we can’t seem to attract more serious funding attention. I do believe that the national value of the event will be very hard to replace. Impossible, in fact, without a great deal of expense. The logistics are immense. I even have to maintain two sets of accounts each year to retain access to funding. The Tax Year for the CRO and the Calendar Year for City Council funding. You can’t take your eye off the ball for a day.
How well is your Five Words competition going?
The Five Words International Comp is sailing along slowly but nicely. It’s attracting very good work. It hasn’t covered the associated costs yet, but is about 80% of the way there. It’s only in its third year, so with a little more encouragement and spreading of the word etc, it should create a small profit margin before too long. Then we can pay judges and up the prize money.
What about sponsorship? Is that a possibility?
Outside of our constant appeal to regular Arts funding bodies, in early 2015 we posted comprehensive appeals for sponsorship off to 150 corporate social responsibility officers, carefully picked from a database of 1000. We have since heard back from about forty of these, each whom have committed their budgets to various charities. Only Dunnes came through from the private sector, with 1000 euros for the Winter Warmer. We’ve recently set up an ongoing gofundme campaign, which has raised almost 700 euros.
Winter Warmer sponsorship is sought for each year at local level, via our board members and volunteers. This year’s Winter Warmer has mercifully been completely covered by (in order of contribution): The Long Valley, Rising Sons Breweries, Forum Publications, Foras na Gaeilge, Cork City Council, Poetry Ireland, UCC School of English, Arc Publications, The Quay-Co-op and Café Paradiso. But the Winter Warmer makes up only a tenth of Ó Bhéal’s annual remit.
The financials are gloomy. Tell me about your writing. You write in different forms, don't you? What have you been working on recently?
I’ve just sent off Virtual Tides to Salmon, due for launch in February at Munster Lit’s Cork Poetry Festival, all going well. Then at the AWP in L.A. The forms vary significantly more than in home more or less. There are prevailing themes, while narrative, tone and subject matter range far more broadly. It’s a fleet of traditional forms, sound poems, concrete poems, stone circle poems, lyric poems, prose-poetry, two didactions [sic] and an after poem – that probably sounds a bit motley crew but I’ve enjoyed being a lot more experimental, especially in terms of space on the page and shifting dimensions ... I’m very excited about it.
That sounds like a fascinating mix. What do you mean by a sound poem? And what is a didaction? And an after poem?
I use the term ‘sound poem’ loosely. The idea of poem as soundscape, rhythm and lyric gathering and building towards a sonic boom, is one which has gripped me for some time. Narrowing the poem’s proximity to music. Constructing the poem on a foundation of sound clusters, cloud-storming the topic’s associated sounds into alliterative, assonant and rhyming groups to gather the base material. It culminates in work which is more song than narrative. More orchestral than cerebral. While all poems are of course sound poems, in some sense, I have about half a dozen in the collection which are intensely sonic, hence the term (albeit probably too broad).
Didactions? Mea Culpa! That sounds quite lecturous. It must be from working with all those sound poems. I meant to write redactions - that peculiar breed of found poem that results in an entirely new and strange animal. Take a newspaper article that you’re drawn towards. Remove any words you don’t like. Keep going until you whittle it down to the bare essence of what you see most in it. Like redacted legal documents, omitting what you don’t want seen, but to coax out a hidden code, or image, etc. ‘After’ poems, some prefer to call ‘response’ poems or imitation poems. I rarely write them. When I do they’re usually tongue-in-cheek and just for fun – like, I Wandered Lonely as a Drunk, after Wordsworth, or The Song of Plundering Genghis, after Yeats - neither of which are in the collection. The ‘after’ poem is one made in the same style (and/or form) as another poet’s verse, often retaining lines or phrases from the original, and would without doubt be considered plagiarism without due reference to the original author. I’ve included one such ‘after’ poem, Inside the Bonsai, after Yehuda Amichai’s Inside the Apple.
That sounds like fun. Would you read the sound poems or almost sing them? I wonder would any of these be worth using as a workshop exercise?
One could do either I suppose, depending on the occasion. Reciting or reading poems aloud usually seems to ring somewhere in between song and speech. And more so one than the other, depending also on the context of presentation. It’s never quite melody, never quite oration. I’m open to adapting the emphasis though, the pace, timing of a piece etc, for musical accompaniment. And yes, it’s great for workshops! While kept busy assembling the musical components of the language, the poem takes form. It’s an effective, evocative constraint.
In all the time you've been running the O'Bheal, you must have heard all types of readers. What ones do you remember (for good or for bad. Non names!) How have they influenced you in your own reading? What tips would you have for other readers?
So many voices! I can remember something significant about most, if not all the poets we’ve presented. I believe that everything we’ve ever read or heard has influenced us in some small (or big!) way. Whether specific techniques or mechanisms, symbolic usage, exquisite lyrics, gripping narratives, hypnotic performances, satirical mastery, experimental genius, new possibilities in rhythm or form, or even the gravitas, courage and the sheer character of certain astonishing poets, I find it impossible to name a few. I imagine trying to do like steadying a kite in the cross-winds of five hundred perpetual gales and storms, each the bearer of countless poems and passive influences, residues of style and voice amalgamated through their own reading. I can’t tell what has or hasn’t influenced me anymore.
As mentioned, the subject and stylistic range of my work is very eclectic. My reading material has always been eclectic, as have my interests. But not so in my reading of poetry, until 2004. A dozen years ago I would have said Eliot, Yeats, Amergin, Shakespeare, Homer. Nothing contemporary whatsoever. To illustrate, in 2011 I was closing in on home more or less at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Three days into this fortnight-long residency, I suffered an acute anxiety of influence attack. Total panic. I couldn’t tell how much, if any, of my recent work was being influenced by what I had been reading or listening to. And my solution? So very typical of me – to plunge straight into the deep end. Purge the doubt before it grew into a monster. I must have been really desperate. Over the next three days I speed-read 196 collections from the Tyrone Guthrie poetry library, and by choosing one line from each book, formed fourteen cento-sonnets. That way, while smothered in a widespread and colourful tapestry of simultaneous influence, I could let the cards fall where they may and forget about how much of whom or what might be creeping in. To say who or what styles have influenced me any more than any others, would take some considerable reflection. I do believe strongly that there’s something in every poet’s work to learn from and appreciate, no matter how small, and in doing so one’s bag of tricks deepens. Sparks lead to sparks. One’s poet must be allowed to grow, be it consciously or otherwise.
You read 196 collections! Crikey. I doubt anyone else has done that in so short a time. Guinness Book of Records?
I’m in heaven when in seclusion for extended periods. And starved of it so much of the time. When I manage a two-week residency like at Annaghmakerrig, I average thirteen hours writing/reading per day. That would have meant five collections per hour over three days - but that’s trawling each book for just the one line. If I found it on page five, I’d move on. I don’t think Guinness would consider that reading!
Does your eclectic reading and interests come out in your writing? Any unusual topics in your recent poems?
It certainly does. It used to worry me, but now I relish in the variety. Since my first collection I’ve written about things like obsolescence, stone circles, environmentalism, foley artistry, bars, confined spaces, migration, the virtual, history in the present, joy, language, writing, music, war, fun, love, hypocrisy, inspiration, humanity - I could go on.
The Winter Warmer must be some undertaking. At least you have the experience of organising previous events. Where did you end up?
I woke up as director of an extensive poetry programme. Be careful what you wish for, right? But I awoke doing what I love most, albeit while treading water. The Winter Warmer takes up about a tenth of the year’s work, but is quickly becoming Ó Bhéal’s crown jewel. You’d think that after almost nine years of cultivating this, that the Arts Council would be taking us just a little more seriously. 90% of the festival budget is sourced from local business. This amounts to a little more than a third of our annual income, which has to cover the other fifty events. If Ó Bhéal can’t secure annual funding by its 10th anniversary, I’ll need to find a paid position somewhere (if I’m not forced to do so sooner) and the weekly series will end. If that happens, I’ll focus more on the festival, the competitions and the Unfinished Book project. I won’t have the time for any more unpaid work.
Considering that Ó Bhéal now has a paid employee with an office in the Civic Trust house, while its director lives off a portion of his Jobseeker’s Allowance, one phone call and all the cards could come tumbling down. Technically I could go to jail for running Ó Bhéal, while being ‘available and actively seeking work’. At least I wouldn’t have a rent problem, and would have loads of time to write.
You sound quite down about the financial future. What can we do to help?
Ah, I’m not so much down as frustrated with the funding bodies. Ó Bhéal keeps my spirits up all year round. I’ve no problem turning a new page if it comes to it, though I do love this particular formula. Know any rich patrons? No, seriously, the best way to help is to keep writing your best poems! Ó Bhéal wouldn’t - couldn’t exist without the continual rivers of excellence which often flood contemporary Irish poetry.
I don’t believe poets should have to be asked to fund their own platforms. Certainly not when they can hardly fund themselves. Should artists pay for galleries? Should comedians pay for the stage? Musicians for radio time? Filmmakers for screening time? I know it’s not the same, but we’re well aware there’s no viable commercial model for promoting or fostering poetry outside of universities. If anything, it’s upping the dialogue around the vitality of, and crucial need for poetry, which has any chance of improving this unique state of affairs. I don’t think it receives the respect or attention it ought to. Especially not in a country built upon poetry. Minds need to change. As do prevailing perceptions around its societal value.
As things are, about 20% of Ó Bhéal’s overall income comes from donations offered up by poets. That is more than enough help, and more than there should need to be. Poetry is an exception within the arts and the relevant ministries should acknowledge this overtly. Ó Bhéal now having a paid administrator is taking some pressure off now, so I’ll have a bit more time to turn over all those stones. It won’t be over till it’s well and truly over. And sure, 10 years is a good run.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about your collection, Virtual Tides? Are there any themes or threads running through it?
Reels and reels. Elemental, political, love, loss, the geographical, geological, musical, digital, spatial, even threads on existential awareness and states of unawareness. It’s certainly hungry for alternative perspective and solution, whether simpler or more complex. It considers how changing historical influence can affect our negotiations with people and the world. It seeks to elicit common sense and healthy concern, to consider things differently. If we’re doomed to be greedy, as a simple example, why not be greedy for a more pleasant world? It wants to remind us of the personal choice we can still make - to take responsibility - for just one small part of that overwhelming, tidal whole. On a political level it’s a call for a more visceral, melioristic approach to our faltering world, where solutions themselves are now rapidly becoming extinct.
Some of the poems in Virtual Tides attempt to tap into instinctual memory. They want to lure from the reader their latent ability to unleash a more ancient, holistic and more selfless form of intelligent functioning. To liberate a form of thinking dulled down by preoccupations layered over eras. Some of the echoes found across this suite of poems have their own effect, outside of the poems. It tries to reconnect the ever-more distanced reader to the actual world, to rely less upon, yet appreciate the virtual - for all it’s reflective and pragmatic benefits, so as to consider more than the self. That the self depends on the health of the whole. It hopes to challenge the hypocritical, the egocentric and explores self-imposed distancing and isolation. It even hopes to dispel the virtual entirely at some point, if just for a moment. I hope it offers a few different ways to think about things.
Paul will be reading from his collection at the always excellent Cork International Spring poetry Festival in February.