Niamh

Last Sunday(25th April) I was the guest on Niamh Bagnell’s regular Sunday Scrapbook proramme on our Lucan local ‘Liffey Sound’ station (96.4FM). It’s a weekly show at 4.00-5.00pm which features various writers dealing with various themes . The show has featured many excellent poets in the past few weeks (Raven, Anamaria Crowe-Serrano, Steve Conway, Ross hattaway…) so I had to be on my toes with at least passable stuff. You can hear the programe on <http://sundayscrapbook.blogspot.com>

I took ‘Politics & Poetry’ as a ‘theme’ because a lot of my work strays into

Me

 the worlds of buying and selling, marketing and hoarding, the environment, political partying (as distinct from just partying, though sometimes the two go together), the R-Word (we’re all not suppoesed to SAY that terrible word, remember?… because it might get even worse if we do), and all the things of the daily life we all must lead, whether we like it or not. And we have to like it because the alternative is … oblivion!  And who wants that? Nobody’s a Zen freak around here, right?

The oldest poem I dealt with was ‘Campaign’ from my first collection (‘Dispatches and Recollections’, publ. by Lapwing) way back in 1998. It was a reflection on some political work I was involved in around that time as a member of the Workers Party and examines the ins and outs of electioneering on behalf of a small left-wing party and the attempt to get across a ‘socialist’ message. If the poem draws any conclusions it’s probably that these types of attempts are really difficult, even given the high level of unemployment and job-losses that existed then, and exist now again. How much a party can spend on its campaigns is a huge factor, some would say the ONLY factor.

But don’t go away! It’s not all poems about party political politics on my radio show! There’re others on various topics, political yes, but in the sense of dealing with people and their concerns. One of these poems, written around the same time as ‘Campaign’ dealt with the headlong pursuit of consumerism which began in real earnest in Ireland around the end of the 80s when the mantra was The More We Spend the Better Off Everyone Will Be. Also I tried to get a dig in at the notion of ‘brands’ and ‘labels’. The poem was called ‘Come Live with me and be my Coke (TM)’ and it was published ina  UK magazine in 1994. Here it is:

COME LIVE WITH ME AND BE MY COKE (™)*

(or: The only good thing on the box is the ads)

I would arise and go where sun-tanned people

drink Seven-Up (™)* all day, chew Juicy Fruit (™)*,

where the requisites of life are very simple:

a swimsuit, a Swiss bank-account — and youth.

I long to chase Californian, unclad ladies

along a waters edge where palm trees lean,

then lie for hours in sun-creamed meditation

until it’s time for Sugar Puffs (™)* and cream.

Come live with me and be my Coke (™)*, my darling —

or better still I’ll climb up on the box —

Quick, before this adverts over, pull me

down and in and safe aboard your yacht!

We’ll drink our Coca-Cola (™)* in the sunshine

and soar the surf and talk of Dear Old Ireland (™)*

where it’s 1.00 am November (weather’s awful)

and the only thing that soars is unemployment.

*(TM) Registered Trade Mark. All rights reseved

And so it’s a big thank you to Niamh for her invitation. It was great to be on the show. Some of the other poems  will appear in my forthcoming book ‘And Suddenly the Sun Again’ to be published next month by Seven Towers Ltd. I absolutely expect you to run out and buy it.

Me again.

 

Gave a reading to a Creative Writing class at the DIT Kevin Street, on Wednesday last (21.04.’10). And what a great bunch they are! Very interested and appreciative as to how I came to write some specific poems and in what I had to say en route about the writing process and the importance of the spoken word. I took ‘Returning Swallows’ as an example to show how a poem grew from something my Co. Clare mother-in-law said when people told her she should try to stop the swallows coming back to nest again in the eaves of her newly-painted house. Quite an ‘eco-poem’, although I didn’t myself appreciate that slant at the time (It was published 1991 and written about 2 years previously. I include it at the end of this post). I also went through ‘The Orange Bus’, a poem based on a series of drawings my son did after a school outing when he was very young. I still find the innocence of the drawings very moving. Such complicated things set down in such simple ways!

I used my ‘Gloria Mundi’  poem (‘The Glory of the World’) to draw some poetic attempts out of the class– and I succeeded!– I told you they were great!  All three of these poems come from my first collection of 1998, ‘Dispatches and Recollections’ , which contains some of my earliest poems and, I think, some of my most direct and lyrical and I have always found they go down well in class.

Finally, we ended up with an ‘open mic’ based on five words called out at random. And such good stuff! So, thanks to Huda (Open Mic winner!) Martin, Matts, Leanne, Morgan and the several other wonderful people whose names I can’t remember. And of course a big THANK YOU to Dr Susan Norton, the class tutor, for having me in. A great two hours was had by all. So, well done, class, and I hope I’ve been some small help to you all. And GOOF LUCK in all your future exams!

RETURNING SWALLOWS

(for Mary O’Keeffe, Carrowkeal, Crusheen, Co.Clare)

 

What should I tell the swallows come from Egypt

to my eaves? That they can now no longer

count on reckless hospitality? My

younger neighbours, all grown modern-wise

about house-maintenance and the new emulsion paints

remark how nests besmirch the white facade

of this my house, new renovated. How

so easily one can rid the roof of all these

singing loafers never did a hand’s turn

all these years around the place but foul

the sills… Still, all these years to travel

from the Valley of the Kings to County Clare —

to wheel, dive, yearly find the selfsame spot

atop the brick, behind the gutter’s kind

projecting rim. And I, grown all these years

much better at divining miracles, can

merely stand out on the lawn at evening

marvelling at their punctuality, their

single-minded industry, their

self-assurance in the scheme of things.

(from ‘Dispatches and Recollections’, 1998, Lapwing (Belfast)

ISBN189847235 1

There is a type of  TV programme that shows ‘real-life’ car chases, with policemen who are absolutely determined to get their man (it’s always a man). They don’t give up, even when the quarry crashes the car,  jumps out and vaults several fences through back-yards and runs up and down narrow alleys. And all this this time he is being chased by several police officers, sometimes with dogs (you’re paying for all this as a taxpayer, so… ‘enjoy’). He is also followed from above by a night-time camera mounted on a helicopter. The camera has some kind of hi-tech night-time lens and this converts everything into a weird other-worldly scenario, in which houses, fences, roads and alleyways show up in varying blacks and greys, while our intrepid fugitive appears as a kind of vague human form in ghostly white. 

It never struck me before how much this night-time odyssey could be seen as a metaphor for Life itself.  How much the ghostly white smudge confronting various obstacles in its path could be … us, as we try to deal with our destinies. It didn’t strike, that is, until I read Niall O’Sullivan’s poem ‘The Limit’ some time ago in his collection ‘ you’re not singing anymore’. Of course I now wish I’d sat down and examined that premonition I had that there was more to this ‘real-life’ police-chase TV footage than just its ‘reality’. If I had, I might have written a poem just as good as Niall’s. But I didn’t. Damn him!

This poem appeared recently as a ‘poem of the week’ on the ‘flipped eye’ site (www.flippedeye.net), so you can read it and hear it there. By kind permission from Niall I also include it here:

The Limit

300ft above the Hanger Lane gyratory,

a police helicopter breaches the cusp of its jurisdiction

and sweeps from the sunset to the dusk

towards the crowded towers of the South Acton Estate.

The engine’s growl seeps into the bedroom

of my brother’s Acton flat,

I hate that sound, he says to me

as he changes baby Ossian.

Makes it feel like a police state.

I tell him about apolice chase show

I saw on TV, how those choppers are kitted out

with infra re heat seeking cameras

if one ever hooks onto you

the best thing to do is to keep running,

jump garden fences, kick guard dogs in the face,

ignore the shreds that rose bushes rip from your skin,

use one-way systems to your advantage

make that high-risk sprint across the motorway,

keep zig-zagging ’til that chopper runs out of fuel,

only then is it safe to hide and form your strategy.

Still, you could never escape that low hum

and the message it broadcasts into every living room,

which means nothing to baby Ossian,

four weeks on this earth and enchanted

by black paper shapes blu-tacced to the wall.

Let his happy monosyllables bless us all,

it’s still a while until he tests the vanity

of a newly minted tooth against

the rude geometry of a wooden block.

Let us keep our minds away from the sies until then.

Niall O'Sullivan

… Niall O’Sullivan, from his collection ‘you’re not singing anymore’, published by ‘flipped eye publishing’, London. Niall is the host of the weekly (Tuesdays) open mic ‘Poetry Unplugged’ at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street in London, which is always, ALWAYS, worth a visit.

The theme was ‘hair’, a bit unfair on older male poets like me, I thought. But not to worry… I read a few that mentioned hair, like the one from my forthcoming collection, a poem called ‘There is a hour of night’ and several others which featured something about hair. Others addressed the theme directly, for eg., Steve Conway with a short story called ‘Steve Always gets the Girl’. The seeming immodest title is actually NOT, but I can’t tell you more because it will probably feature sometime in his

Anamaria Crowe Serrano

 publications and I won’t spoil the suspense. Anamaria Crowe Serrano was in fine form and delivered a very moving piece in memory of a friend now deceased. Also she gave others including a ‘hair’ piece (pun!) from her book ‘Femispheres’. Eileen Keane gave a 150 word untitled piece and an extract from a novel in progress. Like me, her ‘hair’ contribution was a bit tenuous, but who cares? Did I hear right or is Ross Hattaway’s next collection going to be called ‘Pretending to be Dead’? Anyway

Ross Hattaway

he gave us ‘Notes on a case in Progress’ and Oran Ryan obliged with an extract from the ‘Death of Finn’, his novel on the intrigues and goings-on inside a religious order, and which is really well worth a read. It reminded me of that great novel by CP Snow caled ‘The Masters’. Bernie O Sullivan, modest as always (Steve please note) read just one poem, involving someone close to her who went through difficult times. A really enjoyable reading, all this, and I would say that, wouldn’t I? Well, I would… and I will. I really like the way these poets speak their poetry without that monotonous ‘poetry voice’ that is so common in ‘readings’.  And the way there is always room for a bit of fun during the session. ‘Fun’… and  poetry? Yes, it CAN happen…

Eileen Keane

The Winding Stair Bookshop on Bachelors Walk, Dublin

Another ‘Winding Stair’ open mic organised by Orla Martin. Lots of stuff on show, including some from Stephen James Smith (himself the organiser of the weekly ‘Glor’ open mic on Mondays in The International Bar) and Noel O’Briain. Noel gave a poem which was partly a history of the Irish literary scene up to and including the ‘Celtic Twilight’ and then an old-fashioned love sonnet (by ‘old-fashioned’ I mean that it was carefully wrought, rhymed perfectly, held its emotions in check until the last, and was

Ann Tannam

 immediately comprhensible. Somewhat different to some ‘modern’ sonnets I hear now and then). Ann Tannam (at last I’ve spelt her name right) gave some of her poems of everyday life, of which I thought ”Transported’ was particualry good. Great to see Noel Sweeney surfacing again to give his long, exquisitely rhymed poetry, and always without a script. (How does he do it!) ‘We’re all lambs to the slaughter. Who’s counting sheep?’ Also there was Nichalas  ‘Birch’ (I’m ashamed to say I have never gotten his name right in all the times we’ve met up since way back in Gerry McNamara’s ‘Write and Recite’ in Capel Street) who gave one of his renowned explosive performance which gave a new

Eileen O'Dea

twist on an old fairy tale. On the subject of unscripted performance– what can I say about Eileen O’Dea who gave an absolutely spell-binding rendition of part of Molly Bloom’s soliloquaoy. I looked around the room while she gave it and everyone was entranced. Liz mcSkeane gave a poem about the tourist tribulations of visiting the Egytian pyramids.  There was also music from Orla Martin other musicians, and a one-woman show from Nicole Rourke, and poetry and prose from lots of other people to whom I apologise for leaving out. And I won a 20 euro book token in the raffle, so thanks a lot to Orla Martin (whe wants to be a GAY ICON when she grows up) for a great night.

The incomparable Noel Sweeney

The ‘list’ poem is not really a poem at all, just a list of things the poet finds interesting and thinks you might find ‘interesting’ too. The hope is that the combined weght (or attractiveness, or ‘zaniness’, or whatever) of the images will act in an accumulative way on the reader’s head and ‘transport’ him/her … somewhere. In many cases the overall effect is one of tediousness and, if it is along poem, one finds one’s eye beginning to race down the ‘list’ to see if there is any ‘outcome’ to all this verbal pyrotechnics. I’m not faulting a poem that goes off into a list in the workings of its

Pauline Fayne

 discourse (Ginsberg’s stuff), or one that actually ends up somewhere (‘God’s Grandeur’ by Hopkins). It’s ones like Thomas Hood’s ‘November’ that I have in mind, although it IS mercifully short. A poet friend, Pauline Fayne, published something recently which sums of my views much better than I could sum them up myself:

CURES

For toothache, swollen knees

and writer’s block —

rum.

For food cravings, fantasists

and unrepentant bigots–

nettle soup.

For hot flushes, apathy

and adolescent mood swings–

cold showers.

For posers, bullies

and apprentice saints–

all of the above.

For uninspired poets–

list poems.

Pauline Fayne, by kind permission

(This poem was voted ‘Poem of the Year 2009’ in Michael Flanagan’s long-running ‘Riposte’ poetry broadsheet)

As usual with Graham Greene, the symbolism is complex. Even the title, ‘A Burnt-Out Case’, is laden with a two-fold significance. The novel is set in a leper colony where the term is used to describe a person cured of the disease but left badly crippled as a result. It soon becomes clear that the novel’s ‘hero’ also falls into this category, though the disease he suffered from was not leprosy.

I put the word ‘hero’ in inverts because Querry, a man with an unhappy past, can only be described as a hero since he is the person around whom the events of the novel unfold. He has arrived at this leper colony in West Africa and has chosen to stay there because the boat doesn’t go any further and he doesn’t feel like continuing on foot. It’s a Catholic church missionary outpost, and so cue lots of arguments and philosophisings centred around the ‘hero’s’ spiritual angst. I don’t find these theological excursions as interesting as I did when I first read this novel many years ago. I like to think that that is because I’ve ‘moved on‘, but it may be just that my mind is not as sharp as it was back then. Or maybe it’s just because I do not find it a cause for wonderment any more that a man who gains fame and success should become weary of the personal emptiness that often accompanies them. At the missionary outpost Querry becomes aware of how little the priest-administrators are concerned with spiritual debate and, as practical men, are more interested in alleviating the lot of the unfortunates in the ‘leprosaria’. In fact, the Superior of the mission is somewhat impatient of ‘philosophising‘: “When a man has nothing else to be proud of,” the Superior said, “he is proud of his spiritual problems…”. Nevertheless, there are important questions raised by the novelist as regards ‘personal fulfilment’ and what it takes to be at ease with oneself and to be at ease with others.

Don’t be put off by the ‘philosophy’. It’s still a great read, after all those years (first published 1961). And what a hand for metaphor! … “In the deep bush trees grew unnoticeably old through centuries and here and there one presently died, lying half-collapsed for while in the ropy arms of the lianas until sooner or later they gently lowered the corpse into the only space large enough to receive it, and that was the road, narrow like a coffin or a grave. There were no hearses to drag the corpse away; if it was to be removed at all it could only be by fire”.

The short-story collection, ‘The Last Word’, varies between stories which are really good and those which are barely interesting. The title story, ‘The Last Word’, is really good, as is ‘The Moment of Truth’. ‘The New House was the one that appealed to me most, maybe because I thought its main character resembled, in miniature as it were, the main character in ‘A Burnt-Out Case’ which I had just finished reading before starting this collection. My edition is the Penguin 1999, but the stories date from 1923 to 1989.