Our series of short interviews with some of the writers who have contributed to the Burning Bush 2 over the past 18 months or so continues with Peadar O’Donoghue, poet and editor of The Poetry Bus magazine.
How long have you been writing? I started scribbling rubbish thirty years ago. Some would argue that I’m still scribbling rubbish! My writing was awfully intermittent and consistently awful. My better writing came along about 14 years ago and has, I like to think, improved along the way since then. I hope it has or else I’m fucked. Maybe you have to stand up and live before you can sit down and write? Life is the greatest poetry workshop, and it’s free.
What was your first publication? My first published poem was called ‘Us’ and appeared in Poetry Ireland Review Winter 2001. It’s a very short little ditty and I think the editor Maurice Harmon took pity on my ditty, in hope that I’d go away and leave him alone for a while. I am grateful to him for setting me on a path that has brought me more sense of fulfilment and joy than any other element (other than my immediate family), of my life – despite some truly soul-destroying (poetry) episodes along the way.
Poetry has been good to me, I owe it a lot, and I try to give something back. I really must also thank John and Hilary Wakeman, who have been hugely influential and supportive in a gentle and quiet yet powerful way. And, of course, the remarkable Jessie Lendennie, for being adventurous enough to publish my first collection Jewel last year. I know self-praise is no praise but I can’t recommend it highly enough; it is probably the most vital book of poetry since time began, or even earlier.
What have been the most significant developments, negative and positive if you like, in poetry in Ireland over the last 10 years or so? I think the internet has really opened things up. Writing (and even publishing) can be a fairly solitary pursuit and not everyone lives where they can get to meet other poets but now you can virtually meet almost anyone. It has provided a shiny new platform for new voices. The internet also gives you free access to international poets, ideas and magazines. The sky is no longer the limit.
I don’t think Salmon would have even heard of me let alone offered me a book deal if I hadn’t had a presence on Facebook and on my blog (totalfeckineejit). The Poetry Bus magazine also grew from a seed planted on the net. I think in general (and specifically from my experiences as an editor) that more women are now being published and that’s a good thing. There has, I believe, been a gender imbalance in Irish poetry that is levelling out a bit, bearing in mind that probably more men submit poems than women. It is brilliant (and much needed) that there are more quality poetry outlets than ever; online ones like Burning Bush 2 and print mags like The Poetry Bus. It means there are many more (much needed) opportunities for poets to be published. It is vital to have a variety of voices or we will stagnate and contract to the point where there is one single poet in a locked (and probably padded) room reading poems to a mirror and telling their reflection how great they are. The negativity is still there, I think. A riffed Henry Ford diktat adopted from the old guard still mutters: ‘You can have any opinion you like, so long as it’s ours’ and I think there’s a wavy but solid demarcation line of who can join in standing on top of the wall and who can’t. But fuck that, who cares? The walls are slowly but surely being torn down anyway. Grab a sledgehammer, join in, it’s fun! That the Burning Bush 2 is asking poets these questions is a positive move, a small but significant development. Up with this sort of thing Ted! Overall it is a very exciting time to be involved in poetry in Ireland, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times, let’s enjoy the ride.
What do you think needs to happen, and what would you like to see happen, in Irish poetry over the next few years? I’d like to see more people reading books and magazines of poetry, other than the poets themselves. Somehow we seemed to have alienated the poetry reader. Maybe this disaster was achieved by insisting that poetry is intellectually beyond most ordinary people and exclusively for the chosen few, instead of it being for, and relevant to, everyone. From my own experience almost a hundred years ago and from my sons currently, I don’t think schools exactly help either. I’d like to see more new, exciting, interesting poets being published, and more of these poets winning competitions – if we have to have competitions at all? If we do have to have them, why are they often €10 or more a pop?
Energy, anger, frustration and a sense of alienation were the catalysts that fuelled The Poetry Bus. A poet shouldn’t be too comfortable. Accord and cap-doffing is a dull recipe, it is friction that creates FIRE. So, less cosy coteries and more revolutionary zeal please.
We hear often in Ireland about the pull of either Boston or Berlin: what do you think, are we European writers in the English language or are we wholly steeped in the Anglosphere? None of the above. I think we’ve been wholly steeped in a tweedy-jacketed, shamrock sautéed fusion of hairy brogues and misty townlands, all served up from a chipper van at the side of the N17 on a three-legged stool of turf, puke, and poesy. And maybe there is a place for this, no doubt in fact. But I think we are reaching beyond that too, I hope so. I don’t necessarily think it is a European thing or even an Anglo one, I think we are finding our own new voice. And this new voice will chime with new tones, not just of ourselves, but those that have recently joined us and those that are beyond us. The world is a smaller place than ever.
Finally, if you had to recommend one regular poetry event in Ireland to someone, what would it be? It would take place weekly in every house in Ireland, people reading fantastic new poets in The Poetry Bus and listening to the accompanying CD in their favourite armchair. Once again, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Then go to The Medicine Sessions in Lismore (in County Waterford) or O’Bheal in Cork and hear live people speaking. At the former you’ll hear them singing too. What more could a biped want?