Photo credit: Simon Whitby Brown | Interview by Zoë Brigley
“I’d definitely consider writing poetry to be more a sculptor at the rock-face, at least at times, with a dash of the composer listening for the motifs, the rises and falls, and the music”
Even Small Birds Can Render Planets unto Ash
The water chopped beneath us, And the backwash of our salmon leap, In the heavy sun, Was a trail of crystals, Refractions of brightness Birthed into being By shuddering jolts, Each the ministry Of diesel power. And as the steel frame, which guarded us From breathlessness, threw itself Through thick arteries of hydrogen, And oxygen and coral-infused light, On the starboard side, a circus of puffins Bobbed on the breathing waves. Some threw a fit of flight, and lifted, light, Their slack frames into a furious fling- -ing of black pistons moving through the air, As if it were a heavy soup, And their beating wings a great machinery That could render even planets unto ash. Yet it was the others, In great improbabilities of scurrying new movement, That left me gasping at their impetuousness And vivifying life, as they paused, then ducked Beneath the waves, only to rise unto an apex of white foam. And their black wings beat against the lolling current, Along the white lines that bifurcated the luminescent tunnels Collapsing in their wake.
I like how the poem opens by using the short line, a strategy that usually draws the reader’s attention to specific words. How do you decide between a long or short line?
You’re very kind indeed, so my thanks, first of all.
To be fair – and you’re quite right on the strategic aspect of things – my process when it comes to short lines, versus long, when it comes to an opening line is actually much more ‘feel’; whereas the craft would come later, after the broadness of the work is sculpted and the hewing begins. I’d definitely consider writing poetry to be more a sculptor at the rock-face, at least at times, with a dash of the composer listening for the motifs, the rises and falls, and the music.
But, to put it into practical terms, I’d write the work, and be it short or long (and often the first line or two that I begin with, I cut, as they turn out to be scaffolding, rather than integral, and that which isn’t integral either to the meaning, the form, or the music, that must get cut) I’d then read through it several times, and watch the spacing, watch the flow, first seek words to chop out, read it aloud, find what falls and rises, and if I stumble, the reader stumbles, so anything I stumble over, gets cut…
But to the opening lines… well, really it’s all about how it looks on the page, does it have a ‘shape’, if so is that working in service, or is it, again, unimportant (and yep, if it is, cut) … so in this instance, as I recall, to provide an example, I did begin with a longer line, but it was sliced out bit by bit by bit until what remained was what needed to be said. Equally, the following lines were more ‘stacked-up’ together into a longer trail of sentences, but ultimately, each line spoke a single meaning, and the poem had the opportunity to breathe more, and the words to mean more, and the contemplative nature of the piece, its more naturalistic qualities, they got to shine more — hence the choice.
I also enjoy here how the focus is on the outside world. The only intrusion of self is at that moment of gasping which is perhaps a giving over to the world and its marvels. Was this intentional?
Thank you! And aye, absolutely, and well spotted.
Two answers needed here, to be fair.
The first is that I do not believe in the importance of the present still-lingering (though hopefully on its deathbed) zeitgeist for authenticity, or for the idea that which is ‘true’, or representative of the writer, or their origin, or their feeling, or their status, or the world they live in etc. etc… that it matters. I don’t believe that matters a jot. If anything, I think that approach to writing is a canker, one that rots language, that rots experimentation, that rots creativity, and creates pillars of narcissism and destroys the learning process of the poet, the writer, the musician, the artist… the human…
As I’ve said elsewhere, Fionn Mac Cumhaill did not have thighs the size of mountains or houses… yet it is more honest and true a description of Fionn than all others. Truth in art, knowing that art is artifice, is in the best representation of that which is to be represented or shown or explored or not represented. There is a far higher truth than absolute authenticity, and I loathe the moment that the ‘real’ became some sort of bizarre Russell-style approach to denotation alone. Put me in Frege’s camp, put me in the camp of art as artifice, the artist as creator of worlds, and art as vision. I believe art, at its best, is cut, cropped, chopped, stretched, elongated and played with, with one sole goal, that the piece itself is the best it is itself, for it is not me, it is its own. Art that strives to present the writer, the artist first and foremost, I’d call that kind of work art chopped down before its prime by vanity.
Now, this isn’t to say I don’t often write with, or love an ‘I’, in a work, more that I think this ‘I’, even if it is your ‘I’ (in my work, 99.99% of the time it isn’t, and I do love that, and prefer it that way in other work), that ‘I’ has, I believe, no bearing on reality. If the real story is that you had a coffee, say, and the work is best if you had tea, then you had tea. If the character is remembering how they were bullied, but the work is actually better to write if they were the bully … Change it. Change it. Change it. All work must be changed to service the art, and veracity bedamned. If you want absolute truth, well, one it’s impossible when it comes to anything to do with the individual’s vision of themselves — we’re composites all, sure – and two, read biography, write biography.
Art is best when it pursues a different truth, I believe.
Then onto the second part of your question, was my ‘I’ insertion intentional? Absolutely, and you’re quite right as to why.
It’s not ‘myself’, it’s ‘a self’, in response to the moment, gasping at the wonder… I mean, have ‘I’ been on a boat and observed puffins? Aye, I have indeed. Have I marveled? Aye. Though I laughed, rather than gasped, and the vision of this piece is nothing to do with that, although the inspiration is, in part, therefrom informed.
Its inclusion, the ‘I’, is a deliberate pause to invite the reader in, almost like a whirlpool, into imagining themselves that ‘I’, as a prelude to the conclusion.
I should add, rereading it now, a few years after writing it, I’d probably cut that line, mind you, and leave the human entirely out of the equation.
This poem comes from your recent collection Lilies on the Deathbed of Étaín and Other Poems. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
Woof. This is the hard question. It’s impossible, at least for me, to properly render art in a sharp clear sentence, but I’ll give a more elongated attempt a bash.
In its simplest form, Lilies is a collection, a certain number of pages long, where I tried to make the best words follow the best words in the best possible sequence to create meaning, images, sound, and vitally, music. It contains two long-form works, both experimental in form, sound, language, and mode, and four shorter form works, which I believe communicate well with the longer-form pieces, but also provide a window into the work that I do publish often in journals, which, by necessity, is of the shorter grain, even though the longer-form work is where I find most joy.
In a critical sense, the work has been reviewed widely now, and to unanimous acclaim, a fact which makes me hugely grateful and delighted. It is a true wonder to know that it has hit its mark, and it’s hugely heartening. I adore both reading and being part of the avant, and of sharing and being an Irish poet, writing, I believe, in our tradition, where language is truly a music and a form of play and reverie.
But, perhaps the question you’ve asked pertains most to the human.
On a human level, Lilies is a work that was borne out of a singular moment, as I’ve noted elsewhere, namely the final moment my oldest friend said goodbye to his mother, who had been ill for some time.
During the committal, the curtain closes twice, and on the second closure, despite the sheer passion and wonder and laughter and honesty and sincerity he brought to the day, he broke, and I saw him, and the word leapt to me: ‘Godstruck’, and I knew then, that I had to write about this, in my own way, though I knew not precisely how that would work. I also had to hope he didn’t hate me for it, after the fact 🙂 Thank God he adored it! I feel, or I hope I honoured the memory well. She was a wonderful woman.
As I write, in Lilies:
“Then the curtain fell. The committal. Then he fell. He snapped; he, a twig under the hunter’s boot; he, a reed torn by a careless child; he, later gathered by a mother duck to build a nest for her young; he, bereft of she beyond forgetting; she who had, through illness, long since forgotten him, she whose love was without end, until it was pregnant with ending and imbued of ash.
SO WITH ONE HEARTBEAT ONE STEADY MOMENT OF EXULTANT PLEASURE IN RAPTURE I AM BECOME THE SUM OF STARS AND BEYOND IT THE END ANEW TO END
He fell. Motherless. Motherless. He fell. And I have never seen anything so beautiful.
Ultimately, however, Lilies goes beyond this. It encompasses grief, loss, love, meaning, passion, change, nature, the city, love, women, men, a woman’s nature as a sexual being, sex, and all the while, interwoven throughout, is one of Ireland’s great but lesser known myth cycles, namely Tochmarc Étaíne, or the Wooing of Étaín.
Basically, it’s a hoot 🙂
Lastly, I’ll add one final word, and that, again, is my thanks.