The first interview of the week: Galway (via Philadelphia) writer Susan Millar DuMars.
How long have you been writing?
I wrote my first poem at age eight (in school). I had my first poem published in ’94 – I was doing my MA in San Francisco at the time.
What was your first publication?
Well, it was a poem, and it appeared on the back page of one of those free magazines you can pick up in the supermarket, in SF. I think it was “Morning Kisses”, which is in my first collection, Big Pink Umbrella. It took me ages to work up the nerve to submit work anywhere. I was working in a dessert café at the time, and one evening Robin Williams came in for an espresso. He left me a dollar for a tip, and I decided to take this as an omen; I spent the dollar on postage and sent my first batch of poems out. Two of those first batch got taken; thank you, Robin Williams!
What have been the most significant developments, negative and positive if you like, in poetry in Ireland over the last 10 years or so?
Over the Edge, the readings series Kevin Higgins and I curate, had its tenth birthday this year; I’ve been writing the introduction to the forthcoming Over the Edge anthology, and that has caused me to think a lot about the past ten years in poetry. I think OTE was one of the leaders in a movement of opening up the Irish poetry scene; giving new writers a platform, encouraging established poets to read alongside, and interact with, newer poets. Ten years ago open mics were anarchic basement events with little connection to the world of “serious” published poets. Now, it’s common for literary events to showcase both leading poets and an open mic as well. There is more fluidity, more engagement between more and less published poets. I would certainly see this as a positive change, a way of keeping poetry vital and relevant.
Then poetry slams made their way here from the US. The slams were hugely popular for a time – I believe their appeal is waning now. Slams gave new writers another way to make their mark, but they also encouraged a return to the emphasis on poetry as a spoken art. Sound was important; current vernacular took its place beside more bookish language. Slams reminded us that there is an art to presenting a poem. I notice that even writers who scoffed at slam poetry when it arrived on these shores are now touring the country in twosomes, threesomes and troupes putting on performances of poetry which owe much to the influence of slam. Poetry being included in festivals like The Electric Picnic – an exciting development, and hard to imagine without slams coming first.
The result of an all-slam diet is, however, as unhealthy as eating from just one food group. As the slams have continued I’ve noticed a very small subset of slam poets have become ghettoized because they’ve been either unwilling or unable to investigate other styles of poetry. Strong poetry contains elements of both the political and the personal. Slam poets, in their laudable wish to be current and engage their audience, will sometimes forego one for the other. The result is either very personal soliloquies too navel-gazing to be understood; or political poems devoid of a personal engagement (what my husband has famously labelled the “rhyming attack with Iraq poems”).
Also, slam poems tend to be quite long, and I think this has had a big influence on modern page poetry. As I was editing the Over the Edge anthology I noticed a majority of poems submitted were more than a page long. There’s not a thing wrong with this; but neither is there anything wrong with a ten or twelve line poem so tightly constructed you could bounce pennies off it.
What do you think needs to happen, and what would you like to see happen, in Irish poetry over the next few years?
In the interest of balance, I’d like to see more of us returning to the short forms; shorter lines, shorter number of lines. I quite like the idea of compression in poetry.
We need to see poetry appreciation as an interactive process. All the reviewing shouldn’t be left to the Irish Times, you know? Let’s move away from the model of elites coming down off the mountain long enough to tell the rest of us what’s good.
We often hear in Ireland of the pull from either Boston or Berlin: what do you think, are we European writers in the English language or are we wholly steeped in the Anglosphere?
Here’s what I think: I’m an American, raised working class but educated to an unusual level for a working class individual. My mother is a Belfast Protestant and I live in the Republic of Ireland. And all of these things are in what I write. That is my voice. I tend to be attracted to other hybrid voices – French Canadian-Irish, Polish-Irish, South American-Irish, German-Irish. What I’m saying is, there is no “we”. There is you and there is me. We’re each an amalgamation of our roots and our influences. This renders your question unanswerable. The more multicultural Ireland becomes, the more beautiful her poetry becomes. At least, to me.
Finally, if you had to recommend one regular poetry event in Ireland to someone, what would it be?
Ha! Well, I’m going to do the bold self-promoting thing here and say Over the Edge, Galway. We’ve been at this for ten years, we’ve contributed a lot, and we’re still putting on events that are relevant, fresh, inspiring and fun.
However, it’s part of the OTE ethos to encourage the best of the emerging. In that cause, I’ll nominate North West Words, a wonderful organisation in Letterkenny. Their events are warm, relaxed, seamlessly organised and overflowing with talent. Get thee to Donegal!
Susan Millar DuMars is a writer and poet from Galway. She is the co-organiser, with her husband Kevin Higgins, of Over the Edge literary events in Galway. Her most recent book is ‘The God Thing’ (Salmon Poetry, 2013).