Our final interview in the series is, fittingly enough, with poet, critic & founder editor of the original Burning Bush magazine, Michael S. Begnal.
How long have you been writing? I started writing song lyrics in my teens, and not-very-good poetry in my late teens up to around age twenty. So maybe it’s better to ask when I started writing good (or at least readable) poetry, and I would say that would be from age twenty-one on. I am presently forty-seven.
What was your first publication? It was a poem in an American journal called Endless Mountains Review in 1988 or ’89.
What have been the most significant developments, negative and positive if you like, in poetry in Ireland over the last ten years or so? Well, it’s been almost ten years since the last Burning Bush print edition (Spring 2004). I’d like to think that TBB played some small role in opening up the Irish scene to new or different modes of poetry than what had been the norm for all intents and purposes up to that point. Of course there were other things going on. I think the publication of Trevor Joyce’s with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold (New Writers Press / Shearsman) in 2001 was a signal event, in that it was perhaps the first “experimental” collection to gain notice on a wider scale at that time. Michael Smith’s editorship of Poetry Ireland Review was also a big deal. He brought to public view some very important poets who had not had such a platform for a long time, along with new poets who might otherwise not have appeared there either. So, Joe Woods (former Director of Poetry Ireland) handing PIR over to Smith in 2002 was extremely significant. Wild Honey Press began in the late 1990s I think, and they continue to publish some really great stuff. I know I’m leaving out many people who have contributed positively to Irish poetry in recent years, but I would say that anyone who does something — puts out a book, a pamphlet, organizes a reading, takes a critical stand in an essay or review perhaps — without necessarily waiting for outside support or government funding — all of this stuff matters.
What do you think needs to happen, and what would you like to see happen, in Irish poetry over the next few years? Following on from my previous comment, I think people just need to do what they want to do. It’s great to have a publisher, for example. And believe me, I’m very thankful to have one. But if you don’t have one, or maybe perhaps as a prelude to getting one, there’s nothing wrong with forming a collective of sorts and putting out your own stuff, for your own circle, and perhaps in the process of sending that out it will get notice. It would be ideal to have Arts Council funding for your journal or project, but you don’t have to give up if you don’t have that. Poets existed for hundred, thousands of years, with or without official support. If you want to write, write. It’s great that the Arts Council exists and that the state even supports the arts at all, but if you don’t have funding, you just do it anyway, somehow. Bear in mind that I am not talking about vanity publishing. I’m talking about a group of writers getting together on a grassroots level to make something happen. And who knows where that will lead. Also, number two, people need to understand that coming down on a side in poetry and making an argument for it is a good thing. It doesn’t mean you ought to be insulting or disrespectful, but making a case for your position is a part of life, in my view. Don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but aesthetics is something that is contested and necessarily lends itself to debate.
We often hear in Ireland about the pull of either Boston or Berlin: are we European writers in the English language or are we wholly steeped in the Anglosphere? I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. What’s wrong with an Irish writer identifying as an Irish writer? It’s tough enough trying to figure out what that means. That said, since English is the majority language in Ireland, it’s a given that both American and other English-language poetries are easily available to Irish poets. Nothing wrong with that. There’s great poetry to be found everywhere, if you look hard enough. In regard to language, Continental poets are a bit further away for most, though I know that Ireland in general identifies with Europe far more than, say, England does. Of course, translation more or less obviates that difficulty, and I know some Irish poets who would strenuously assert their interest in French, Russian, Spanish, or Italian poetry. A further way to look at the question, instead of positing two outside poles, is to consider additionally the native Gaelic tradition, which is extremely rich, and the whole body of contemporary Irish-language poetry. Irish poets can draw on that too. But whatever it is that gets you going, you don’t necessarily have to categorise yourself as one thing or the other. We can draw on all sorts of influences and still be Irish, or (also in my case) American, or European, or just ourselves. “Irish” can mean many things, and it does.
What was the best or most memorable reading you’ve attended? There are any number of great readings I’ve seen at festivals like Cúirt or reading series wherever, in Ireland and America both. But I’m going to go back to a more local Galway history and say that the open-mic nights at the now long-defunct café Apostasy in the late 90s were memorable for reasons I suppose I’ve just mentioned earlier. While a lot of it was mind-numbingly bad, which you’ll have at any open-mic night, it provided a platform that allowed a grouping of sorts to come together and work some things out — our own poems in progress on the one hand, and larger questions on the other, for those who were serious anyway, like what next?
Michael S. Begnal has published four collections of poetry; his most recent is Future Blues, (Salmon Poetry, 2012). His poems, essays and reviews have appeared internationally in numerous journals and anthologies, in print and electronically. He blogs at www.mikebegnal.blogspot.com