Interviews

Bricks, Shoeboxes, & Blindness

Question: Your flash poem Conditional Ceasefire 1973 started life as one of those Brick Poems?

Yes well all that trouble seemed to be getting worse up the north and while I had been treated worse than a dog by some people in Britain, I had also been inspired and welcomed by just as many more. I suppose the artificial nature of that divide that was causing so much pain and sorrow, started to genuinely irritate me. I was painting poems onto the walls of my arcade, while the official building of the peace line in Belfast was going on, I felt somebody was deliberately building walls between working people who were essentially the same on some level. I saw all the slogans they’d be writing on the walls, that would eventually be turned into murals and shit. And then one day in 1973 the IRA up the north announced a conditional ceasefire, that’s where that particular poem’s title comes from. I had written poems with paint on the wall inside the arcade and it occurred to me that I wanted to change parts of that poem, which meant I had to paint over certain bricks and then paint the changed words on them again. I just thought to myself why don’t I just leave certain bricks loose so If I need to change something I can take a brick out and put another one back in. I ended up building a new wall outside the arcade with a lot of loose bricks in it. But I only had so many bricks, so I ended up writing different words on either side and then swapping those bricks around to change the meanings.

Question: What can you say about how ‘The untimely Death of a Narrativist’ came about?

Well I didn’t know what a Narrativist was until this young enough poet came down to visit me on Achill one day. He said he was reading a fine book of poetry all about a naturalist and after we were reading and talking for a good while I started telling stories about bogs and people living the rural life on Achill. A nice enough wirey headed fella, he said he was talking to some other fella from Belfast, his father and I worked together in England. He said yer man had told him about a mayo storyteller type fella who’d go off from the road building and muckshifting every now and then to go into making stories and poetry on Achill – he heard I was a wee bit mad he said. We had a grand chat about this and that and I’m never sure what it is I’m doing at times like that, it all comes in and it all goes out. After spending years trying to figure out the correct and proper way for it come out, I came to understand it wasn’t really that part that mattered most to me. People hear what they want to hear and people see what they want to see. He asked me was I storyteller? I told him no. He asked was I a poet? I said I didn’t know for sure. He asked me would I be described as a Naturalist or even a Narrativist? I said describe away. His words stuck in my head. We were saying that poets write all sorts of poems, good, bad, terrible, epic and so on, while I was reading all those English poets there was a lot of them that wrote sonnets. I knew that sonnets were a way, to find out if you could be a poet, even a bad one. I had figured I’d write sonnets for a while and when I asked him what he thought about that, he said that was great idea, he asked would I show them old ones to him, so I went down and brought up a shoebox with about twenty in it. He told me about a French fella that cut his own sonnets up and wrote a billion of them and a fella in England that wrote a story in a box like mine, I always remember that other fella’s name, because it was B.S. Johnson, the B.S. obviously stuck in my head because the idea at the time of cutting up poems and putting them in boxes sounded a bit like bull shit. But when he went away, I ended up cutting mine up too and looking a lot at the box, thinking to myself, poems in the box or even on the box, how could that work out now?

Question: Can you explain why you used that word Narrativist?

Well I think it was originally a bit of a slip of the tongue or a slip of the pen, I might have meant naturalist in the first instance but ended up with a word with a letter v at the end, or close to the end of it, a jist of vist, v for something, I might be entirely wrong but as I felt I understood his word, it came from someone who knows and makes, things, some called narratives, a person putting bits of story together and then maybe pulling them apart again, looking for events, happenings, inside and out, those people, places, things and then threading those together into some kind of story that other people might understand. I made the sonnets as sets of threads to myself and my lived experience and I thought and felt that maybe I was just being clever trying to be poetic doing all that. But people come into your life for a reason, I wondered to myself, what was the reason that fella came here and in a short few hours educated me about other possibilities of poetry. I had to go down to the sound and get a pair of proper scissors after that.

Question: I asked you about other poets on Achill and you said you weren’t sure there were any. But John F. Deane was born there in 1943, a year after you, John went on to win a number of prestigious poetry prizes and actually founded ‘Poetry Ireland’ surely you’ve heard of him?

Well I have now, I might have met him, there’s plenty of people have trapsed through my house who said they were poets, and sure if it was prizes I wanted I would have bought raffle tickets. Should it matter who else is writing poetry to a poet when he’s writing himself? There’s always going to be someone somewhere writing poetry, if you started thinking about everyone else sure you’d do nothing yourself. You maybe start looking around if you start getting stuck, or when you’re trying to educate yourself. There was a fella one time came here and asked me was I interested in forming a school, I says sure I couldn’t stay in school when I was first there, why would I want to form one and go back. He kept asking me did I not see the sense in his request. He made a lota sense in what he said but it was his sense and it belonged to him. My sense was elsewhere and I already felt that just being here breathing meant that I was already in some kinda school and truthfully that idea of sense might be both the best and the worst way of learning anything, I looked back on how I started and there was no sense about any of it, it was about my own sense, my own sense of self, sense of the value of poetry, but it made no sense in the way he talked about sense. I was more about feeling sense than thinking sense. the core of everything I do is a belief, a belief in otherness, a real poem is about some kind of otherness, even an ordinary otherness, seen or unseen.