Thursday, December 12, 2013

The new Southword (no 25) is online packed full of all sorts of literary goodies such as Molia Dumbleton’s O’Faolain Prize winning story The Way We Carried Ourselves, as well as brilliant stories by Danielle McLoughlin, Kevin Doyle, Ariel Berry, Aoife Fitzpatrick and Gaynell Gavin. There are over thirty great new poems by poets scattered across the globe from America’s West Coast to New York, Canada, Ireland, The United Kingdom, France and Pakistan. There’s also the essential Irish language supplement with new fiction, poems and reviews and a more extensive review section in English focussed on Munster writers.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Problem With Having Every Live Reading Recorded

The problem with having every live reading recorded these days, either in audio or video, is that if you read a new poem, which you have not yet submitted to a journal or a competition, it can get released on the web before the end of the week -   thus invalidating the requirement that the poem be previously unpublished. Most organisers of readings allow you to object to your segment being broadcast/posted, but to object sometimes seems curmudgeonly. It has long been a tradition that a poet could try out new poems on a live audience before submitting them for publication, but this is now becoming increasingly more difficult to do. At the Munster Literature Centre we video record events for archival reasons and if anything ends up on the web it is months or years afterwards.
I now NEVER read a poem to a live audience unless it has already been published.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Keats-Shelley Prize for Poetry 2013

I am happy to be the recipient of the 2013 Keats-Shelley Prize for Poetry. Since the age of twenty I have been finalist for various literary prizes including the Hennessy Awards, The Patrick Kavanagh Award, The Strong Award and the Keats-Shelley on a previous occasion. This is the first time I have actually won something and while at fifty years of age I am not as likely to let my ego run away with itself as it might have done if I had won as a twenty year old; winning is still sweet.
The English novelist Salley Vickers, whose first name derives from her father's admiration for W.B. Yeats, was the judge who generously chose my curiously simple poem 'Madra' (Gaelic/Irish for 'dog') as this year's winner. Congrats too to the runners-up this year Will Kemp and Polly Atkins.
Eleanor Fitzsimons took first prize in the essay category and in the competition's sixteen year history we are the first Irish winners. A link to download my poem can be found here:

Thursday, October 24, 2013

International Poets in Conversation

International Poets in Conversation Link Here

Ilya Kaminsky very generously invited me to Chicago to record at the Poetry Foundation an "International Poets in Conversation" podcast with a senior Irish poet of my choice. I chose Matthew Sweeney. The podcast series is part of an initiative by the Poetry Foundation to encourage poetry communities across the United States to programme poets from abroad. Our trip to Chicago was contingent on us being able to arrange at least three other readings - which we did in Brooklyn, Seattle, Berkeley and San Francisco. Here you can listen to us discuss Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin and Michael Hartnett among other Irish poets and also talk about the influence 20th Century German poetry had on our own work.
The link brings you to a page which lists previous recordings in the series including the likes of Adam Zagajewski, Kwame Dawes and two of my favourite younger poets - Belarussian Valzhyna Mort and German poet Jan Wagner who is Sweeney's translator. Also listed on the same page are recordings by American poets such as Philip Levine, Mark Doty and Eavan Boland.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Patrick Cotter Interview

Photo: Phoebe Wong September 2013

QUESTIONS FOR PATRICK COTTER, Poezija magazine, Zagreb, autumn 2013.
Damir Šodan

Charles Simic, American poet of Serbian origin, whom we both know, already announced in his book The World Doesn't End (1989) that "the time of minor poets is coming", those "whose fame will never reach beyond" their "closest family..."! Do you agree with the premise that perhaps "the golden age" of poetry is behind us, bearing in mind the incredible proliferation of the written word on the Net and the tsunami of various information rushing towards us every day? Will "blogetry" eventually replace "poetry"?

No. I would disagree that the golden age of poetry is behind us. With increasing literacy and greater educational opportunities in the world more and more people are coming to poetry – of course in a world with a population of nine billion those with a vested interest in poetry will always remain a minority but they are not dying away and new generations are not any less talented than the generations which have preceded them. Bad poetry has always been with us and always will be. I don’t just mean mediocre poetry or failed poetry written by committed practitioners but the sort of verse written by people who never read poetry. The internet initially gave bad poetry a higher profile but in the last decade many internet outlets for excellent poetry, exercising rigorous editorial control, have proliferated. I’m also heartened by the many brilliant, talented young people who emerge into poetry every year like fine wines reaching the market place. But I also believe that Simic may have been commenting here on the fact that the world has so many poets these days that even good poets, not singled out for genius of Nobel proportions, minor poets in other words, can remain unknown beyond the circle of two hundred who constitute their regular readership.

At the Cork Spring Poetry Festival while introducing our friend, American poet Gregory Orr, you mentioned that back in the day -- I think you meant the 80s -- when you discovered him quite by chance -- if I remember correctly -- the situation on the poetry scene in Britain and Ireland was far from inspiring for a young poet. What was the problem and have things changed for the better in the meantime?

What I meant to say was that they were uninspiring for me, personally, as a young poet, with my particular sensibilities. I came to reading adult poetry seriously through discovering the poetry of Gottfried Benn as a fifteen year old. I was excited by a form of poetry which did not depend on syllabics, metre or rhyme for shaping the line and as an adolescent I was also excited by the Gothic subject matter of Benn’s earliest poems – rats in the diaphragm, flowers in the wound, and all that. It led me in a direction via Celan, Rilke, Trakl, Zbigniew Herbert, Transtromer which dragged me further and further away from the tradition of poetry written in these islands. Later I discovered the Americans who had also been influenced by this path such as Gregory Orr, Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns, Mark Strand and others such as the Californian persona of Thom Gunn and the Ted Hughes of Crow who validated this aesthetic in the English language. When I was young it was a presumption of those in ascendancy that if you wrote like a European it was only because you were technically inept. But I find English a very poor language for rhyming in – most rhymes are predictable and make the language sound hackneyed and unsurprising.  Paul Muldoon has done brilliant work with pararhyme but in a way which is wholly his own and completely inimitable. The Irish poet Derek Mahon manages to write brilliant rhyming poetry by loading his lines with all sorts of other surprises. It is as if his poetry succeeds in spite of his rhymes. On the whole though rhyming in English leads to appalling poetry – and commonly practiced by individuals who have an underdeveloped interest in original subject matter.
Also as a city dweller I found the rural focus of much 70s and 80s Irish poetry wholly uninspiring. I might admire Seamus Heaney as a poet of genius but I never had the same pleasure from reading Heaney that I got from reading Celan, Simic or Herbert. Heaney promulgated the view that it is the purpose of poetry to assuage. I take a diametrically opposing view that it is the purpose of poetry to disconcert. The situation has hugely improved with the latest two generations of British poets under the influence of many of the European and American poets I mentioned.
In Ireland it is difficult still because Ireland is so small and it is easier for a small grouping to dominate. Poetry criticism here is totally focused on the subject of poetry’s relevance to Irish history or to feminism. Also, one publisher dominates the scene and this publisher is so ignorant of European poetry that he once described Paul Celan, in writing, as a great 20th Century Polish poet. I have had significant selections of my work translated into Estonian, Macedonian and Scandinavian languages but my own personal publishing history in Ireland has been on the fringes. Many European poets dream of being translated into English and achieving global fame but the reality is that the world of poetry publishing in English is vast - where it is easy for even a better than competent poet to go completely ignored.

There is quite a lot of humour and wit in your writing. You seem to appreciate -- as Leonard Cohen said when commenting on the Beatles' music -- the seriousness of the light-hearted approach! Is that something spontaneous in your case or are you consciously applying a certain effort there not to perhaps come across as too "heavy"?

Well, I never play for laughs. Any humour in my work emerges organically out of my absurdist outlook. If you write for laughs you end up with jokes not poetry and the problem with jokes is that they are not open to multiple interpretations. All great art is open to multiple interpretations and so too should anything which aspires to be art such as the poetry of even minor poets.
For me the world is absurd and anyone who fails to see that is failing to look at reality through their own eyes – they are buying into the prefabricated reality of others. The absurd naturally inspires laughter as a response, but not everyone laughs in the same place as with a joke. I believe humour in literature is a serious business. As Kundera demonstrated in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting humour can be an effective weapon against those who would choose to wield power through lies. Charles Simic has time and again argued that humour is an effective conveyance for edifying thought. Every life has its tragedies but mine are not in the order of a Celan or a Mandalstam. I could not convey their seriousness as plausibly as they do. I once thought the only way to write poetry was as Celan did. But I have not led the life which would allow me to write like Celan. It is part of a writer’s maturing to accept the writer he is rather than strive to be the writer he isn’t. So no, I have no deliberate strategy to avoid coming across as “heavy”. Lightness in being is the cross I must bear however unbearable others deem it to be.

I learned in Ireland that more and people are inclined to write in Gaelic, or Irish Gaelic language. I have personally met some authors who are capable of producing verse in it on a fairly satisfactory artistic level, such as Aifric Mac Aodha, or Paul Casey who told me about it over a couple of beers and since I don't know Gaelic, I have to take that his word on this. Where does this renewed interest in tradition come from in your opinion?   

For a long time the Irish language was the property of the extreme reactionaries who ran this country, who raped our children and hugged all the wealth to themselves, forcing generation after generation who might have brought about change to emigrate. The Roman Catholic Church once held a hegemonic position in Irish society analogous to the Communist Party in Central and Eastern Europe; the Irish language in the national education system was one of its tools for asserting that hegemony.
Things started to change in the 1980s when a new generation of Irish language poets came to prominence – a generation who would naturally have been disposed to being counter-authority. Also, many people not associated with the Catholic Church, the leading political parties and the high-paid mandarin civil service class began to reclaim the language for themselves and set up their own schools devoid of child rapists and cultural fascists. That rescuing of the language is manifesting itself now through a second generation of talented poets writing in Irish.

Over the years you were involved in the organisation of many literary festivals. Why do you think they are important, especially when it comes to poets? My Lithuanian colleague Eugenijus Ališanka believes that poets need a bit of reassurance and encouragement in a world that is primarily driven by the forces of capital and general pragmatism. He feels poetry festivals are places where poets can share some of their frustrations and exhilarations when it comes to writing something as 'useless' as poetry. I'm caricaturing it a bit, but nevertheless, what do you think?

Literary Festivals can be very beneficial when they take the shape described by Ališanka, and that is how I try to shape the festivals I curate and produce, where poets can meet one another and present one another with translation and travel opportunities and most importantly of all present to one another different ways of making a poem. Literary festivals are essential for enabling small nations to export their culture and identity. Culture is an effective tool of international diplomacy and poetry has been very effectively used by us Irish in gaining a foothold in China (I have edited the only anthology of foreign contemporary poetry translated and published in mainland China). The co-operative ventures between us and Chinese writers demonstrated trust and mutual respect and have led to closer relations between civil servants in both countries.
But I know of many literary festivals where the writer is treated merely as a commodity to attract the paying public through the door. They are invited to town, made to perform, paid and then shooed away before they cost any more money. This is a greater problem for festivals featuring novelists and memoirists than for specialist poetry festivals.  Another feature of literary festivals which host writers from many countries is that they are almost all in receipt of heavy government funding. In the USA where literary festivals rarely receive state funding very few writers from abroad are featured. The Americans can usually only afford to feature American writers (often without paying them or covering their expenses) encouraging a very insular, inward-looking culture where, outside the universities and major institutes, hardly anyone is paid well and everything is fairly amateur. I’m not a fan of funding culture primarily through capricious, private-sector charity (philanthropy – right-wing extremists call it, to distort the truth). I believe government funding is the only sustainable effective means.

You mentioned in our correspondence that you are a big fan of Richard Brautigan and that it's a pity that he has become largely forgotten. What's there in Brautigan that still appeals to you as both reader and creative writer?

Brautigan’s absurdist aesthetic appeals to me greatly still and in parts of his novels I think he has written poetry which will endure (particularly in Sombrero Fallout). Brautigan is a better poet writing in prose than he ever was working in verse. The protagonist of Dreaming of Babylon is as tragic and as beset by existential problems as any protagonist of Beckett’s. Brautigan has been missold as an elaborate jokester – disappointing people who seek situation comedy and keeping away readers of serious literature.

A dull and obvious question: when and how did you start writing poetry? Who were your early influences? 

As a nine year old my school class was asked to try to write a poem – the only time in thirteen years of school and by the only teacher who never beat a boy. I was surprised by what I wrote; a little poem about a witch and a mouse which rhymes. My enemies might claim it remains the best poem I’ve written. When I started to write seriously in my teens ... well I’ve already told you about that above.

And finally, W.H. Auden once famously said that "poetry makes nothing happen". Why do people still do it - write poetry?  

Because football is so boring.

But more seriously, Auden said this in the context of disowning his own poem ‘September 1939’. That statement had more to do with Auden trying to justify the revising of his own past and early oeuvre than anything else. It has often been seized upon by the enemies of poetry, but not exclusively. I think it was requoted by Paul Muldoon regarding the appropriateness or otherwise of politically-committed poetry in the context of Northern Ireland. Brecht’s poems did not prevent the destruction of Europe by Hitler. Mandalstam’s poetry did not prevent the destruction of Europe by Stalin. But those facts do not negate the value of either poet. Poetry can make plenty happen in the soul and saves lives that way.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Over Twenty-Five Million

In 2008 the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA announced that 92% of Americans had read no poetry in the previous twelve months. Some people repeated this fact as if to suggest that poetry was no longer a vital cultural force.
8% of the US population amounts to twenty-five and a half million people - over four times the number of Jews eliminated in the Holocaust.
If the Tea Party had its way all the tax dollars paid to facilitate the making and reading of poetry would be with-held. These people think nothing of creating a cultural holocaust and would dismiss the dozens of millions of people who think otherwise as an historical irrelevance.

Monday, February 25, 2013

What good is poetry to the economy?

In the 21st Century, age of austerity, state funding for culture is coming under increasing attack from right-wing economists who, to quote (as you know) Oscar Wilde, “know the cost of everything but the value of nothing”.

Most poets know all or part of the following quote from President John F. Kennedy

“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Not everyone knows the rest of the speech which was given in honour of Robert Frost after his death.

The context for the quote can be found here:

Kennedy begins by saying:

“Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.”

I believe that this is as an effective an argument in favour of poetry as any other. A strong economy may contribute to national strength but poetry contributes to the national spirit without which that strength is meaningless. In this consumerist age it’s a common mistake by some to expect poetry (and all human endeavours) to contribute to the economy. But the fact that poetry contributes to the national spirit ought to be justification enough for society to contribute economically to poetry.  For while the spirit may be divorced from the market place, the bodies which are inhabited by the spirit need physical sustenance. Society needs to make economic sacrifices for her poets because poets make economic sacrifices on behalf of society by choosing poetry over more venal & profitable pursuits.
Incidentally Kennedy made this speech about six hours before I was born (two weeks premature) after midnight, Irish time, October 27th 1963 - I heard his call

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gerald Stern and Graf Van Aefferden

Today I was reading the poems of the Pittsburgh Jew, Gerald Stern, whom I had once met, several years ago. His distinctive, cantor’s voice rung in my head as I read - and I took so much joy from his words and from the personality revealed through his words that I couldn’t help thinking again of Count Van Aefferden and the bitterness which had twisted his brain and curled his lips towards the end of his life.

I had served him a number of times as a bookseller and had always been struck by his good manners, curious of his German aristocratic title “Graf” coupled with the Dutch “Van”. His accent in English was unmistakably German – a language I had adored and had taught myself to a feeble leaving cert standard, spurred on by my love of the writings of Kafka and Paul Celan.
I remember the bizarre experience of my first time in a cake shop in Konstanz in 1983. How odd it seemed to use a language which had up to then been holy for me, because of its association with the poems of Paul Celan, how odd it seemed to use it for the daily commerce of purchasing pastries and so, words which had always seemed holy, seemed now as greasy as the brown pfennigs sliding about in the till.

Later, in my bookseller days I was always curious about German customers and spriched a few words ein paar worter with them whenever I could. The Graf became fond of me, appearing, in retrospect now, to overlook my black hair, my brown eyes. He must have been approaching 80 at the beginning of this century, his hair in a silver sidecrease, his blue eyes too rheumy to be ice-like.  His diminutiveness, the way he wore his hair, his kind of glasses, his gentleness all reminded me of my mother’s father – the dead grandfather I still loved, even after he curiously denied the Jewish heritage all the family was proud of.

After a number of pleasant encounters, one day the Graf came looking for Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s Ark.

I’m looking for Schindler’s Ark,” he announced, “I’ve looked in the history section but cannot find it."
I told him how it was written in the form of a novel so we kept it in the fiction section.

“Ah the fiction section”, he said. “Of course that’s where it belongs.” He spoke in a playful tone of voice, but the words raised the hair on the back of my neck. My front was turned to him and I genially asked:

“Oh so do you think the Schindler story is a little over-romanticised?”
“Oh yes,yes,yes,yes,yes,” he said.
“So you don’t believe it’s all true?”
“Oh, No. No,no,no,no.”
“Which parts do you think are untrue?”
“Oh all of it.”
“All of it?”
“Yes all of it.”

I knew if I revealed my true feelings he would stop revealing his real opinions.

“So you don’t believe in the holocaust?”
“Oh no.”
“You don’t believe six million Jews died?”
“Oh no not six million”.
I thought of the Bible's words ‘To save one man is to save the world’ which I had learned from the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

“Of course if just one million died that would still be quite a lot.” I said.
“After the war there was hunger there was typhus, people were dropping like flies,” he said.

“So you don’t believe there were gas chambers or ovens?”
“How could there have been ovens? There was not enough coal to burn in German homes. Zyklon-B was for exterminating lice – I myself was gassed with Zyklon-B. It’s just a story made up after the war so Israel could get money out of the Fatherland.”

He denied the holocaust so reasonably, dismissed the Shoah so lightly as one does a fairytale after all your milk teeth have gone.

“I myself was in a camp.” He said.
“You?” I said.
“Yes until 1948.”
“In the Soviet zone?” I asked.
“No the British zone.”

I wondered to myself what class of criminal the British kept locked up for three years after the war had ended. He said the war had been terrible for him. He bewailed his stolen youth. As Leonard Cohen might have asked where were the horns? How come no green saliva?  I asked him if he had fought on the Eastern Front. He said, no, the Western Front. I asked him what branch of the Wehrmacht he had fought with. He said the parachute regiment. I asked him if he had fought in Crete and he shook his head and seemed evasive in body language. The conversation came to an end.

I maintained the professional relationship that day, the habit of years of needing to, before the various varieties of monster which presented themselves in the guise of customer. But he was soon returning to me with leaflets printed by neo-Nazi groups. Months passed and he became more agitated, his personality was affected. One day he asked a colleague to show him an encyclopaedia. As she did so a page fell open on Einstein and the Graf’s index finger swooped on Einstein’s photograph like a Stuka.

“This book is no good that man is a Jew!”

After that I maintained no front and presented my raised hackles to him. One day he wanted to order a book only available in America. The chainstore I worked for was going through a period when orders to America were curtailed. I told him I couldn’t get it for him. When he protested I said there was nothing I could do, I was only following orders. He persisted several times I repeated the phrase ‘I’m only following orders,’ until he declaimed:

“I am a good customer of here.”

 A crowd had gathered, confidentially I gathered him close to my face and uttered softly, so softly: “Ja, aber wir haben auch viele gute Kunden die Juden sind.” (Yes but we also have many good customers who are Jews.)
He looked as if he were in the early stages of spontaneous combustion. After that day I never saw him again.  I went through several stages of grief with him, astonishment, anger, hatred. Today so many years later, reading the poems of Gerald Stern, drinking in Stern's affability, I pitied the Graf Van Aefferden, pitied him that he should deny himself such simple joys in life all because he hated Jews.  

What true Mensch could dislike Gerald Stern or deny himself the pleasure of his poems?