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
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? Ireland
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.