Saturday, October 11, 2014

How I met Roy Keane

This article was first published in the Cork Evening Echo in 2006

I hate sports. There’s no more succinct way of putting it. Whenever sports comes on the television I change the channel. I dump the sports supplements of newspapers straight in the bin. Sometimes I feel guilty  for the waste of paper, the sacrifice some tree has made and I try to pass it on to somebody else. Last Sunday I noticed two squad cars parked outside the newsagent, I started to dump the supplements I never read: the driving section, the travel pages, the property supplement and the appointments advert section. I pause before dumping the sports section. I tap on the squad car’s window and ask the vigilant Garda Siocana inside if he would like it as I never read it. He politely refuses. I wonder has he turned it down because 1) he prefers to read the sports supplement from a different paper 2) he doesn’t want to fraternize with civilians 3) he thinks I’m trying to chat him up and doesn’t want to encourage me 4) he is just like me and hates sport. Somehow I think the last option is the least likely.
I know I am not alone in being a straight man who hates sport but I also know I’m in a definite miniscule minority.
Everywhere I go I’m interrogated with: Whatchya think o’ the match bouyyy? There was a match? I reply. My only inkling that Scotland were playing Ireland recently was when there was a news story dealing with the chagrin of Scottish fans having to drink in a smoke-free pub. But exactly what were they fans of? Soccer? Hockey? Tiddley winks? I had no idea. Many people are astonished at my level of ignorance but it’s amazing how much of this kind of thing can pass you by when you don’t read the back pages of the newspaper and switch TV channels as soon as Tony O’Donoghue comes on the telly. Not that I have anything against Tony O’Donoghue. I went to school with the guy and know he can be really interesting when he isn’t talking about games which involve balls or fields of crew-cut grass painted with white lines.
About twelve years ago I met Roy Keane and I had no idea who he was. I was working in a bookshop at the time. Late one weekday evening when there weren’t too many customers I was approached at the desk by this really fit-looking young man with a marvelous Cork accent. He radiated a peculiar vibe. Academically, it’s interesting how I understood exactly what that vibe meant because I had never really come across it before. The vibe meant: I don’t know who you are but you obviously know who I am. Now I have to make it clear there was nothing arrogant or caca-headed about this vibe. The young man couldn’t have been more pleasant, well-mannered or respectful. Any parent would be proud of the demeanour of this young man, but there was the unmistakable presumption on his part that I knew who he was. Of course I hadn’t a clue.  I thought to myself, well, if he’s that famous and I haven’t a clue who he is, he must be a sportsman. At that stage I had no idea that any Cork man played for a major English soccer team so I presumed he must have been a member of the Cork Hurling or Football team. I’ve since learned who he was of course. Roy Keane is now iconic, literally ( a photograph of him hangs in the Crawford Municipal Gallery, the same photo will feature on the cover of an Irish poetry journal in June) and he appears on all sorts of non-sports news stories. Plus I have to admit, in spite of everything, some atavistic tribalist compulsion made sure I took an interest in Ireland’s participation in the last two world cups – all without reading the back pages of newspapers mind.
Generally I get very peeved when sports stories start appearing on the front pages of newspapers – don’t the feckers have enough space at the back I reason.
Occasionally sport impinges in a pleasurable way on my life. Theo Dorgan, the Cork poet, has written a very good poem about some hurler who, funnily enough has the same name as the bridge next to the Opera House. In the poem he discusses the legendary skill of this apparently famous hurler. What’s most impressive to me of course is the poetic skill with which Dorgan describes the hurler.
Another pleasurable sporting experience was when I walked into a pub in Barrack Street and noticed all the male customers staring at the television set like zombies. I looked to see what was so hypnotic and got hooked myself. It was the middle of Wimbledon and there was this very nice looking young woman making all sorts of interesting movements across the screen. Soon a pair of names flashed up. One I’ve forgotten forever, the other etched itself onto my brain: Anna Kournikova. I don’t think there were too many tennis fans in the pub that day. I’ve since learnt Anna Kournikova isn’t actually a good tennis player, however I didn’t learn it from Tony O’Donoghue or the back pages of a newspaper.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dermot Healy R.I.P.

The last time I introduced Dermot Healy in 2012 he was so taken with what I said, he asked for a copy of it afterwards.  As a tribute to him on the occasion of his shocking, untimely death. I reproduce it here:

It’s 27 years since I first introduced Dermot Healy to a Cork audience. He had by that stage published two books, a collection of Short Stories Banished Misfortune and a novel Fighting with Shadows. What attracted me to him back then, through his collection of stories was a demonstrated commitment to real storytelling without compromising on the side of art. Here was a writer who wanted to entertain while at the same time losing no sight of the fact, that language is no mere conveyance for stories or ideas but an entity in and of itself which requires proper attention and manipulation. Right from the beginning he has written in a way which combines a realist’s appreciation of the actual, true experience of the various social milieus he has been a part of, with a poet’s appreciation that truth is often better conveyed through the methodology of myth and described through metaphor. The business of writing, by which I mean Creative Writing, used to  sit uneasily with the academic faculties of university English Departments during the 80's and when I invited Dermot Healy, in my capacity as an undergraduate auditor of the English Literature Society to UCC  in 1985 their reaction was a “Who he?”
I’m delighted to say no one can now say “Who he?” about Dermot Healy. But Dermot had to wait another decade before he achieved commercial success with A Goat’s Song in 1994. Not that he had been silent in the ten years between the publication of his first and second novels. In that time he published his first collection of poetry with the Gallery Press, produced several plays including a screenplay for Cathal Black’s Our Boys.
He is also one of those writers who has spent much time working hard for the benefit of other writers  -  through his editorship of the journal Force 10 and his curatorship of the literary festival of the same name. He is also a generous sharer of his wisdom and knowledge as a writer through the many workshops he provides, regularly in his own community and occasionally at festivals up and down the country. In short, Dermot Healy’s success as a writer not only stems from his genius but through hard work and hard living, persevering especially through the early years against the uninterest and lack of appreciation a writer of demonstrable genius can encounter.

All together he has now published four novels, a collection of short stories, five poetry collections produced over ten plays and been involved in several film projects. Over thirty years after he first started publishing short stories and winning Hennessy Awards Dermot Healy still demonstrates a commitment to entertain without compromising his integrity with language and it is for that reason we are a very lucky audience to be able to hear him here tonight.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ambush Review (soldiers not included)

I’m delighted to have a poem in the latest Ambush Review. Ambush is a San Francisco based journal which comes out, miraculously, once a year without state subvention. It appears to be funded wholly through advertising and sales. Ambush is a handsome production which always includes full colour art work interspersed between the poems. 

All of the artwork in this issue is taken from comic book artists and there is an article on comic books by Brendan Cahill who is the designer behind the journal. It contains poems by Bay Area luminaries such as Maxine Chernoff and Jack Hirschman. There are translations from the Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican Spanish. Linda Norton, a leading light in San Francisco’s Irish-American literary community, has a wonderful essay in verse entitled ‘Begin in Blue’. 

My poem is called ‘Face’ and is set in the Buddhist retreat in Tassajara, in the mountains south of Carmel and Monterey. And I get a chance in the bio notes to assert the fact that I am of Californian descent. Some years ago I had great fun going to a church in the Noe Valley and declaring in my thickest Irish brogue: “I’m here to look up my roots!” Bob Booker and Patrick Cahill are the editors and they are sympathetic to submissions from across the globe. I submitted ‘Face’ about this time last year. Issue four isn’t yet featured on their website but extracts from the first three issues are and submission details can be found on

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Judge's Summation for 2014 O'Donoghue Prize Winners

There were nearly 1700 entries in this year's competition. Our bank had announced it could no longer process American, Australian or Canadian cheques for us so we could accept payment from overseas only through Paypal and this definitely led to a slightly lower number of entries than in previous years. Strong poems stood out easily from the rest through the sureness and authority of the poet's voice. There were more poems deserving of a shortlisting than I had space on the shortlist for so I added  another stratification of acknowledgement this year "Highly Commended" as distinct from "Shortlisted" and "Commended". Basically, highly commended poems were just as accomplished as many of the poems on the shortlist but lost out on a shortlisting due to the vagaries of my personal taste on decision day. Something else I noticed this year is that while
 a competition is always won by an individual poem, the authority of an overall submission can help an individual poem across the finish line and many of the finest poems shortlisted and highly commended this year were accompanied by other great work in the same submission.

Deciding on a winner in a poetry contest is not an infallible process.  I had difficulty deciding which of these two Maya Catherine Popa (USA) poems should be the winner. Initially I was pulled towards ‘The Bees Have Been Cancelled’ but approaching the deadline for making a decision I swung in favour of ‘Hummingbird’.  Both poems were part of a five poem submission which impressed with its confidence, its authority. Although I recognised the craft and accomplishment in the other three poems they were too discursive for my own particular taste and would never have won the O’Donoghue Prize this year. I mention them here to make a point about the vagaries of taste. Not only does taste play a part in a judge preferring one poet over another, it also plays a part in a particular judge or editor preferring poems over other poems by the same poet.

‘Hummingbird’ contains Ashberrian mysteries. We have no idea what the father is guilty of;  I have no idea what parable goes unfulfilled here, it may be one in common circulation I haven’t heard of yet or it may be one which comprises part of the poet’s own personal mythology, either way I am convinced as a reader of the appropriateness and poetic truth of the statement. An observation of a hummingbird which might merely educate and entertain on a zoological level is lifted onto another plain with the insight that the facts of the bird’s durability can inform the survival tactics of a person in crisis. The last three lines make words describe an experience which cannot be recounted through the language of factual reportage. How do you draw light from a wound? How does it guide the silence afterwards? It takes a skillful poet to convince us of the truth of such statements without us dismissing them as whimsy. I have been convinced.

 ‘The Bees Have Been Cancelled’ is a more straight-forward poem whose music I adore. In spite of it being arranged as a block of prose, it is one of the most musical poems in the competition, with a confident beat and euphonous consonance. It takes risks with language which pay off and surprise such as using ‘currency’ as a verb. Calling a bee an integer is also part of that language skill. Nowhere does the stretching of the language jolt you out of the hum of the poem.

I love the Mahonesque music of Paula Cunningham’s (Northern Ireland)‘The Weather in the Mournes’. That is not to say that the poem is derivative of Derek Mahon but that she exercises the same care for sound as her established Ulster compatriot. She also succeeds in presenting a depiction of the Irish landscape which avoids all the timeworn clichés which lesser hands have mined out of Heaney’s and Kavanagh’s original visions. As in Popa’s poems, assonance, consonance and alliteration have big parts to play here without sounding overworked or strained. The sounds delight the ear as much as the detailed descriptions do the mind’s eye.

Matthew Sweeney’s (Ireland) poem ‘Benito’ is an animal of a different sort from the poems of Popa and Cunningham. Where Popa and Cunningham make language sparkle, Sweeney shows how effective a poetic idiom free of ostentation can be. Like all the top fifty poems ‘Benito’ stood out from most of the submissions through its confidence and authority in language. ‘Benito’ is the sort of poetry which does not get lost in translation.  The language here is fully self-aware with a crafted subtle rhythm to the lines, but conveys its poetic truths in a way which is easily more transferrable to a different lexicon. Where Popa creates poetic truth with newly-coined locutions, Sweeney does it through parable. Where Popa alludes to parable Sweeney presents one whole. The recounting of fully-clothed otter hunting, brandy-swilling, arboreal pissing and trout with Espresso might all seem like mere whimsy if it didn't so skilfully accumulate into a metaphor for making the most of life against the background of unfulfilled promise and abject failure. The things each of us do every day to compensate for disappointment are usually more mundane and less adventurous than swimming after otters, awaking a whole forest with your song or seeking a good espresso to accompany your al fresco trout. Sweeney’s skill in this poem, as in so many of his poems is to address fundamental questions of existence without resort to the language of philosophical query; by reminding us how our ordinary lives mimic in outline the struggles of those with wilder experience. People who say Sweeney’s poems often lack metaphors and similes fail to see the wood for the trees. His poems are metaphors in their entirety.

Cithog is an Irish language term for left-hander. Up to the 1940s or 50s children in Irish schools would have been brutally beaten out of writing with their left hand – made to write with their right hand. Here is a poem by a young poet (Dean Browne, Ireland) who would have entered school in the 90s and who still felt it was an issue even then. The poem skilfully describes the process of laying words on a page old style (though not as old style as nibs and inkwells) and there is an old-fashioned feel to this poem, every word looks comfortable in its place, the syntax is neat and well-behaved unlike the handwriting it describes. In an Irish context it is unavoidable to read allusions to Heaney’s ‘Digging’ in this poem. The simple enough twist in the last two lines and the emotional conflict building up to it lift the poem out of being an example of mere description.

Faizel Deen (Canada) might be an almost namesake of Deane Browne but one can see from his poem that he hails from a completely different world. The language of ‘Museum’ is not neat and well-behaved in an English context. There is a playfulness here which entertains me, the juxtaposition of Western and Asian cultural icons might seem capricious but actually accurately reflects the globalised world we now find ourselves in. In spite of the disordered lineation not a word seems out of place.

Mark Fiddes’s (UK)  ‘Another Gravity’ won me over despite some of the rhymes being a little too familiar. I swallowed “honey” with “money” and “sweet” with “eat” because I liked “hers” with “saboteurs” and “sewn” with “stone”. English is such a rhyme-poor language it’s difficult to write a compelling, readable poem as well ordered as this one, but Fiddes avoids creating just another example of verbal topiary with his narrative and descriptive skills and his ability to turn such wonderful locutions such as “the shaded wall of a dream” and “harlequin tartan of our past”; the air thickening with the static of hate etc.

James Hughes’s (Australia) “The Breath in Things” is a poem which shares a marvelous delight in the music of words. Right from the beginning we know we are in the hands of a master word musician with “a scorched /Horse picked at scarce grass”. Hughes doesn't need end rhymes to prove his musical ear. Here we have a poem not of argument or narrative but of memories and sense impressions linked loosely in a way reader’s intuition assures us is right and unified also by the consistency of an authoritative voice.

Ian McEwen’s (UK) ‘In the Bottle’ delighted me with its music and skillful use of repetition as a device. The most successful song-like poem in the whole competition.

Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s (Ireland) ‘Juno Refuses to Look at Warhol’ builds up to the poetic insight often revealed through the fresh perspective of a child’s eye. Derek Mahon composed a two liner based on his infant daughter’s observation of sunlight reflected on a ceiling. Here Ni Chonchuir spins a charming narrative.

Meghann Plunkett’s (USA) ‘Eve’ parable is composed of language as gritty and robust as its conclusion. The rhythm and cadences of the poem are well measured.

Theadora Siranian’s (USA)‘Hitler’s Bathtub’ was one of a compelling four poem sequence submitted concerning the second world war photography of Lee Miller. As strong as all the poems were, this one worked best on its own – a wonderful example of how visual art can inspire poetry.

Mark Wagenaar’s (USA) ‘Broken Sonnet: Last Sketch’ - a strong rhythm beats through the arteries of these lines. The poem’s (broken) non-sentences subvert the expectations of tradition which the sonnet form evokes, much like how De Chirico’s surrealism subverted his classically proportioned paintings. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2013/14 Gregory O'Donoghue Prize Results

There were nearly 1700 entries this year. I will be issuing a judge's statement later. Congratulations to all mentioned here and a big thanks from me and the Munster Literature Centre to everyone who entered whose entry fees pay for the prizes and other programmes which benefit writers and poets.

1st Maya Catherine Popa, New York, USA for ‘Hummingbird’ (1000 euro)
2nd Paula Cunningham, Belfast, Northern Ireland for ‘The Weather in the Mournes’ (500 euro)
3rd Matthew Sweeney, Cork, Ireland for ‘Benito’ (250 euro)

Short Listed (all shortlisted poems will be published later this year in Southword, and will receive a publication fee of 30 euro)

Dean Browne, Cork, Ireland for ‘Cithóg’
Faizal Deen, Ontario, Canada for ‘Museum’
Mark Fiddes, London, UK for ‘Another Gravity’
James Hughes, Melbourne, Australia for ‘The Breath in Things’
Ian McEwen, Bedford, UK for ‘In the Bottle’
Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Galway, Ireland for ‘Juno Refuses to Look at Warhol’
Meghann Plunkett, New York, USA for ‘Eve’
Maya Catherine Popa, New York, USA for ‘The Bees Have Been Cancelled’
Theodora Siranian, Massachusetts,USA for ‘Hitler’s Bathtub’
Mark Wagenaar, Texas, USA for ‘Broken Sonnet: Last Sketch’

Highly Commended

J T Barbarese, USA
Judith Barrington, USA
Maria Isakova Bennett, UK
Brian M. Biggs, USA
Danielle Blau, USA
Charlotte Buckley, UK
Elaine Cosgrove, Ireland
Vanessa Couto Johnson, USA
Michael Farry, Ireland
Liz Gallagher, Spain
Victoria Kennefick, Ireland
Peter Kent, UK
Aisha Kishore, Isle of Man
Dave Lordan, Ireland
David McLaughlin, Ireland
Michael G. Rather, USA
Frank Russo, Australia
Rachael Pettus, Cyprus
Martin Sharry, Ireland
Lorna Shaughnessy, Ireland


Opal Palmer Adisa, Virgin Islands
LJ Allen, USA
Betsy Aoki, USA
Eric Berlin (no address)
C. Wade Bentley USA
David Butler, Ireland
Angela T. Carr, Ireland
Alvey Carragher, Ireland
A. Chakrabarti, France
Sarah Clancey, Ireland
Geraldine Clarkson UK
Tim Collins, Australia
Craig Cotter, USA
Maurice Devitt, Ireland
Michael Dooley, Ireland
James Faucette, USA
John Fitzgerald, Ireland
Kevin Foley, Ireland
Caroline Glen, Australia
Frank Golden, Ireland
Thomas Heffernan, USA
Niamh Hehir, Ireland
Michael Herron, Ireland
Tania Hershman, UK
Nancy Hoffman, USA
Eleanor Hooker, Ireland
Caoilinn Hughes, New Zealand
Janet Joyner, USA
Alisha Kaplan, USA
Susan Kelly, Ireland
Noel King, Ireland
Simon Lewis, Ireland
Michael McCarthy UK
Aifric McGlinchey, Ireland
B. McClatchey, USA
Michael McKimm, UK
Jim Maguire, Ireland
Eamon Mag Uidhir, Ireland
Madeleine Mac Namara, Ireland
Orla Martin, Ireland
Kim Moore, UK
Tom Moore, Ireland
Paddy Moran, Ireland
Judith Neale, USA
Jean O’Brien, Ireland
Mary O’Brien, Ireland
Karen O’Connor, Ireland
Hugh O’Donnell, Ireland
Gréagóir Ó Dúil, Ireland
Paul Perry, Ireland
Edward Power, Ireland
Michael Ray, Ireland
Marco Roberto Rinaldi, Italy
Helen Klein Ross, USA
Breda Wall Ryan, Ireland
John W. Sexton, Ireland
Colm Scully, Ireland
Michael Sheehan, Ireland
Laura Shore, Australia
Alison Thompson, Australia
Charles P R Tisdale, USA
Jose Varghese, India
Robert Watson, USA
John Whitworth, UK
Ian Wild, Ireland
Sherraine Pate Williams, USA
Kathleen Willard, USA
Landa Wo, Germany
Charles Wuest, USA