Interviews

Audio, Arcades & Adding

Question: In later years you have independently produced a series of compact disks that seems to want to preserve the culture on Achill that you've become so attached to?

I loved doing the CDs since the eighties, I did about seven of them, mostly stories and songs, I wasn’t keen in putting the poetry in there, I thought it just might confuse the thing, I also felt my own poetry was a far more personal thing. That fear was always in the background. I was glad I did those CDs because doing them introduced me to a whole new generation of people who I ended up discussing poetry and songs and life with. Then there was the technology they were using, when I did The Muckshiftin’ Game about The Moleskin Pinchers, that was the first time I had digital technology explained to me. That was a whole new Tintern Abbey, a whole new world, inside and out, beckoning me in there. I felt I was bringing back something, bringing it forth from my past and planting it afresh in Achill, I felt I was telling those stories that would only get shared if they were asked for. And no know seemed to know how to ask. There was a whole generation of men and women who left and never went back to Achill to tell their stories. Someone had to tell those ones too.

Question: Your sleeve notes on that CD says the following:

Welcome to the Muck Shifting Game. Listen to the songs about the pincher Kiddies, old time Navvies; the building trade equivalent of the ‘Shellback’ – the sailors who had no homes other than the ships they sailed in. The Pinchers never advised any of us younger men. ‘learn a trade, don’t settle for this’... They’d never take another man’s tools... Each had his own washed and spotless, tied up with a leather strap – their own ‘graft’ fork, foot iron. You’d know’d know them by the neck scarfs and moleskins, and the ‘Yorks’ and the hobnail boots. Tramp with the ‘Long Distance Men’ men who were unsuited to the new-style hostel accommodation, which was run along military lines, and often staffed by ex-servicemen. Only the Rowton Houses, such as Arlington, still retained to some degree the sort of semi-charitable system that had characterised the pre-war lodgings of the tramping fraternity.

You end those sleeve notes by saying: “March with the Tunnel Tigers, McAlpine’s Fusiliers and the Connacht men who built the ‘Big Ditch’ – the Manchester Ship Canal and the forgotten migrant workers of the last two centuries. Sing along with the celebrated Muckshifters of yesterday. Hooray”

Was that final ‘Hooray’ more than symbolic to you John Pat, as poet you obviously and deliberately choose that celebratory phrase to end your own direct engagement as a Muckshifter, it proved to be your own literal hooray signalling departure from manual work, you never picked up a shovel or a work tool after that?

Well the beauty and lure of words proved easier to take than the dirt of hard manual graft. I was growing up for a second time and I think that hooray was a celebration, and an exclamation, a way to remember and join in with the Muckshifter’s singing about experiences, some of which I had shared with them. Sometimes we sang those songs to keep our spirits up, sometimes we sang them because they were a bond without having to be stated or acknowledged as a bond, those common songs were a big part of our collective culture in their own right. They weren’t fancy or provoking, just simple songs we simply sang. After all that singing I did down tools but I haven’t given up on tools, it’s just that the tools I‘ve used in recent times involve electricity and gadgets and now computers, I’ve always loved gadgets, even just mechanical ones. I first encountered solenoids when I started fixing machines in my arcade in Achill. That growing fascination with machines started taking bloom back then. I’m jumping around a bit here but I remember explaining to one of the poets that came over to me in the nineties, he says to me how can you talk about inner vision and spiritual matters in the same breath as computers and machines John Pat? I says to him, if I take you over to the Minaun Cliffs and you see the deposits of metal and silicone in them, there’s loads of phrases about wild natural beauty and the hand of god and spiritual sustenance you’ll come out with, you might go on and on about the beauty of nature, how it provides direct sources of inspiration, just like almost everyone else that sees those magnificent cliffs. But when metals are taken out of cliffs like those and put into a machine, like silicon in computers, all of a sudden people say it’s unnatural and artificial, I wish someone could explain that to me, when it’s in the land it’s natural but when it’s out of the land it’s not. When the land gives it to us or allows us to take it, nature somehow leaves the scene? Those early poets I read, the translations of the Georgics of Virgil, they talked about working land with tools. Virgil even called them ‘weapons’, the first poets were well aware that there was a direct connection between a man and his tools, his nature and nature. So I think it a bit short sighted that we decided to make tools and machines something alien outside nature, when it’s usually nature that provided them in the first place. I’m getting on my high horse now, but for the last few decades people talk about their own brain in terms of a machine, what’s more natural to humans than their brains. I don’t see why machines aren’t part of our natural or even spiritual existence, like almost everything else, they too, in so many ways, come from the land.

Question: Tell me a little more about your arcade on Achill.

Before I came back to Achill after working for nearly three years straight, I met this Spanish fella over in England, he owned and ran a bookies I had the odd bet in. He had the back part of his building full of one-armed bandits and other push penny machines, (laughs) he kept calling it his arcadia. We went for a pint in the pub and he says to me, those machines in there are as good as minting money John Pat. So after a couple of pints I bought the whole lot off him. Went and rented a lorry the next day and drove them home to Achill, I set up an Arcade in what used to be a hay barn next to the family home. But then I had to find a way to get extra power to it. That nearly cost me as much as the slot machines. For a few weeks I thought I was making the new Las Vegas on Achill, until the wives and the mothers and the sisters started coming round complaining, I’d say I lost more in hand-outs then I made with the machines. I ended up switching the whole lot off and telling the boys not to bother coming back, the only machine I left on was this pinball table called ‘el toro’, it had Spanish bull pictures on it and I got a kick out of playing it while smoking a cigar and dreaming of what might have been. Of course like everything else about that arcade, it eventually packed in and didn’t work. But I was well fed up with getting defeated and letting myself down, so I set about fixing it and it was a simple enough sort of set up. Just take off the glass and there was one big board and underneath that were coloured wires, bulb holders, a few solenoids connected through buttons, to a couple of power supplies, and fuses to stop it blowing up or overheating. I was disappointed and amazed at the same time that such bits of electro-mechanical mechanisms could create such an experience of play. I was getting lost in a silver ball and flippers, in another remove, an otherworld, I was wondering out loud to myself about could things like this, electric games on tables, put me into that world of play, the same world I’d found myself in when I started writing poetry, could these sorts of contraptions do the same thing that poetry could do?.

Question: What can poetry do John Pat?

Just like you can shift the muck, move the dirt, poetry can move us, and I thought to myself but what if the poetry itself moves, could that mean something like we are somehow re-moved? If that could be the case how can we stay in there, in that moving poetry, in that poetry in motion? All wonderful words and phrases that suggested to me some kind of otherness, could that be a quality worth getting, a question worth pursuing, does the poem want to have its own qualities... What is a poem for? What’s the point of it ? I knew all about stories, I grew up washed in them, surrounded by them. Everyone on Achill had a story to tell and more to share if you asked them. I was always interested in stories and songs and rhymes and things and then poetry came into it and I started wondering about the shapes of poems and the pieces that made them up. I think it was at that point I started to think in terms of writing stories and writing poems and whether there was any point in writing a story when a poem might give us or tell us the same thing without so many words. And all along there’s the machines in my background, like seeing a child outside a corner shop, not asking for anything but knowing they’re there for a reason and wondering to myself what that reason was? So I have lots of fellas telling yarns and talking about this and that on my tapes and I’ve read the bit in the manual about rerecording and overdubbing and how I can edit these boys to nearly make them say stuff they didn’t really say. I had started going into book shops now more than the pub and that was some turn around. There’s great company in a book and with the education I had there was also a great challenge and even greater teaching. Back in England I was going into the same bookshop for about six months and the fella behind the counter says to me, maybe you’d be interested in reading this and he offered me ‘The Wasteland’ by that American living in England, T.S. Elliot, well I don’t have to tell you that opened a corridor in my imagination, and from that I found out about this other American called Pound and he wrote a book called the ABC of reading and I thought to myself that’s exactly what I need, I need to learn how to read properly. But clever old Pound he wasn’t that concerned with the way I was reading he was really telling me how I might start to write properly. I took an interest in him too and I saw that there were these connections between all these people who said they were poets. There were many connections between the writers and the poets. There were even connections between their poetry itself and other poetry and ideas written hundreds of years before them. It was like a club of some sort and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted, or if they’d let me, in. I knew to myself at that point that I’d either have to shit or get off the pot, I should either forget about it all altogether and just get on with my life without any of this poetry nonsense in it, or I’d have to jump in with both feet. It was Jesus calling Peter out of the boat or like when I was watching the sharks getting landed and gutted in Achill, I could just stand there, say nothing, play along or I could do what I felt I wanted to do back then but hadn’t the gumption to do. With all that was going on with the world I had this nagging at the back of my head saying it was important to do this, it was important for me but it was important for other reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. There were people stealing and borrowing from each other, giving and taking, and I wondered could I, inside myself, find something to give, something new or at least personal that others in turn might want to borrow? Back on Achill messing with bits of a pin ball table, I found myself in that sort of inside head space, playing away but almost praying, giving my own thinking and dreaming energy, adding fire to these thoughts about making things, creating things, making things available to other people to play with. I got an urge one day and I hadn’t any pen or paper, but I started writing on the inside walls of my arcade with an old can of paint I found from when I first did it up. It’s what eventually led me to making my first brick poems.