Birthdays, Buying & Blake
Question: You spent your twenty first birthday in England?
As I told ya, I had a handful of money, twenty pound a week which was a lot of money then. I went into the town to buy myself something for my birthday. I was going around that town for weeks and always got drawn back to the same place. I’d end up looking in the same window at the same thing, a shop called Angela’s, I had looked through the whole place and there was this big looking tape recorder, a big reel to reel job sitting in the window, with a mirror behind it and I saw meself looking into the window and looking right back out again. The recorder was brand new and in perfect condition sitting in the window, sure I had to get it, I went into the shop like a child after sweets. I bought it, paid nearly all my money for it and it had a microphone and a couple of cables and this maintenance manual. I wasn’t a great one for reading at that time, but I says to myself, I’ll read that manual cover to cover before I even switch it on, well I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t break it before I even got it going. I told you we were travelling in the van to work and the poetry came on the radio and my head hooks into it and the next thing I’m sitting in the digs with the recorder, trying to read this manual. The first section of the manual says Logic 7 Maintenance Manual. Now that’s ok but straight underneath that bit is underlined ‘Errata & Amendments’…. and there’s more information under that again about Head Alignment and Head Wiring and Pinch Roller and a few other words I thought I understood. I’m wondering to myself, what does the word ‘Errata’ mean? Head Wiring? Is it my head wiring that needs to be sorted out first before I can use this machine? I went round the digs and any of the fellas that weren’t drunk or asleep, I asked them all, what does ‘air rat ta’ mean, none of them could tell me but one of them says to me:, “Why don’t you buy a dictionary and find out.” So the following week I bought my first dictionary cost me fifteen bob and when I came back to the digs with it the same fella says to me “why didn’t you just go down to library and get it for free?” I stopped listening to him.
So I look this word Errata up and it tells me, see Erratum; and that means an error in printing or writing. So now I’m totally confused, apparently you can write mistakes and tis ok, they still get printed. Not only that but they’ll even come first. Well says I, no wonder there’s so much poetry getting printed. And I suppose that was really the first time that odd idea occurred to me, even I, could be a poet, some kind of poet.
Question: You were twenty one years old in 1963?
I bought that reel to reel tape recorder and there I was again, back at the centre of things keeping them all going, keeping them all entertained somehow, looking at this piece of electrical equipment or electronics, what everyone today calls technology. It just so easily recorded the present, and then I’d put it in the past. Then you could bring the past right back into the present by playing it. But as soon as anyone spoke into it, all they could think about was their future, what will I sound like when he plays this back? I looked at it and thought to myself, this is some sort of new type of machine for shifting time, this might be the future itself. When you think you might want to be a poet but you’re working with muck, dirt and machines all day and there’s people having accidents and getting injured or killed and all that stuff was going on, you’re looking for something to dream about, something better than where you are. Like most people in that situation I could only retreat into my own head most of the time, either memories or dreams. But then there was this yolk and it took me out of my head, it took what was in my head and it turned it into magnetic strips and bits of electricity, and I was hooked from the off. I saw the affects it’d have on other people, how as soon as they heard other people speaking or singing back into it, they’d try to improve themselves somehow, speak louder or more properly or even the opposite... there was a line of fucks Paddy Prendergast let out of him one time and we played it over and over back to him until we were all sick with the laughing, our stomachs were sore, and Paddy wasn’t the type of fella that says too much too often, but we had him on the box and he wasn’t a bit pleased for the first few times we played it back but he eventually saw the funny side and he ended up splitting his hole laughing with the rest of us, he also had the good sense not to ever do it again. I went back into the same shop for another tape when the first one was full up and the man there says to me: “we have a set of headphones that’ll work with that model you have and I can give you a deal on them”. Now while I said that the lads enjoyed the recordings and all, they didn’t want to know much more about it during the week when there were more hangovers than drinking money and I knew the headphones just had to come in handy. Manys a night I got the dictionary out and read a few words into the gramophone, after a while I started saying bits of what I thought might be poetry into it. I remembered what yer man said and one of the days I went down to the library and asked this women for a book of poetry, I was expecting her to just hand me a book I suppose but she came out from round the counter and took me down to a big bookshelf and showed me rows and rows of books of poetry. I smiled to myself and thanked her... but to be truthful the first thought that came into my head was: “there must be some amount of errata there.”
Question: So it was during that time in England you also began reading poetry?
I myself was, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Smeared with toil’. There were fractures in my life which saw some things enter and something leave, a space opened up to allow me to become something I hadn’t been before. The notions that occurred to me where new to me, I wondered where they came from, I thought, at least a few times, that I might be going some kind of mad. Then it struck me, mad or not, this is some sort of opportunity I’m being given here, if I’m mad, I could be excused for my madness, if I’m not really mad then I could at least be pitied for thinking or claiming I was. Once no harm came out of any of it, sure what harm would making poetry do, what harm could throwing myself into a new way, a different part of life, one I’d must have wanted all my life, what harm could come of it? I knew that I didn’t want to be anything other than what I already was, I just somehow became different to myself. I was recording myself talking and telling stories about my childhood on Achill and when I listen back to them, I’d end up sobbing and crying and me a full gown man.
Question: Can you tell me what other poets you read around that time?
Well I read everything I could get, from bad translations of Virgil and Homer to the beat poets that were coming out of America. I read the poetry in a very ad-hoc way, I didn’t plan it and I was too busy working hard on sites to take educating myself seriously, I must have made some sort of unconscious decision to not do it in a structured way. I read a lot of Poets from England because their works were more easily available to me at the time.
Question: You were also reading Yeats, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Blake?
I was reading Hopkins and Larkin on tea breaks and all the time wondering what would those fellas make of my scratching of the earth with big machines. I read Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ over and over again sitting in my cab, I thought it was very English, there was a lot perchance this, and thee and thou that, I got the dictionary out and went through it. I understood what it was about, and then I read it again and I saw more and more stuff in it, eventually it was about me, sitting there looking at nature and looking at myself in nature and having some sort of feeling of otherness and thinking to meself about my own obvious innate ability to create errata but somehow getting spurred on by it all. I could see that being a poet was possible even for someone as little schooled as I was. I was thinking to myself that maybe I shouldn’t be reading them because I might end up writing their poetry instead of mine. Still there was a powerful set of messages in it all and I struggled with the learning of it. I found myself wondering where my recorder was supposed to fit into all this. I had some kind of faith then, a faith not so much in man as some superior animal but as what can come through man. I was prepared for that, what seemed to be in Wordworth’s poem, a man as a poet seeing his own growing up. Feeling change that was going on inside and out. All that time Achill grew heavy in my memory, we had a small church but no Abbey, I wanted to find my own Tintern Abbey. I got restless then in England and I’d have to that it wasn’t the work or the fellas or even the dirty looks I got in the late seventies when all the IRA bombings were at their height. I was used to being treated as a second class citizen in England, I even began to feel guilty that it was this dead Englishman that was spurring me to return to my own roots on Achill, my own culture.