Have you known Seamus Heaney for long, Dennis? How did you become friends?
Years ago, I wrote that ‘Heaney’s lack of self-importance makes those he meets feel important, and there can scarcely be a reader left in Ireland who does not claim (based on a single encounter) to know him, or even to know him well (a status earned by a second meeting).’ Although Seamus Heaney and I have known each other for a long time – I attended the launch of his third collection, Wintering Out (1972), when I was eighteen; I interviewed him for a Dublin weekly journal at the time of his fortieth birthday in 1979 – I keep my distance in Stepping Stones. The book is about him, not about ‘us’, and, so, I am as invisible, as impersonal, as unobtrusive as possible in its pages.
What first gave you the idea for writing Stepping Stones?
I have a strong archival impulse – as was demonstrated by my two voluminous collections of contemporary quotations about poetry: The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006) and its American counterpart Quote Poet Unquote (Copper Canyon Press, 2008). Those books – in which Seamus Heaney is well represented – snatch from oblivion a plethora of definitions, ruminations and witticisms that would otherwise vanish on the airwaves or moulder in obscure little literary magazines. A similar motivation operated for Stepping Stones. Is there a more wise, profound and eloquent interviewee in poetry than Seamus Heaney? I wanted to capture his ideas at much greater length than other interviews had; to rescue reflections or recollections that would be absent from the record otherwise. My hope was that the book would present a three-dimensional portrait of the artist, a biography in all but name; by doing so in his own words, it would amount to a Heaney autobiography also.
Can you tell us how the interviews in Stepping Stones were conducted and over what time period?
Some parts of the book (Chapter 13, for instance) are transcripts of oral conversations, but most of the interviews were conducted in short written bursts between 2002 and 2007. At a time when Seamus Heaney was intensely preoccupied with more important things than dialoguing with me (he was composing the poems in District and Circle, drafting and delivering lectures, travelling abroad on literary and teaching duties, translating Sophocles’ Antigone for the Abbey Theatre as The Burial at Thebes, assembling his essays for Finders Keepers), it was not feasible to proceed in any other way. But each time the rare opportunity presented itself, he responded to my latest volley of questions at precisely the kind of fleet-footed, improvisatory pace that marks the best oral interviews. In any event, the written (usually e-mail) interview is now increasingly prevalent and has become the norm on literary websites. Long before the internet, some of the most enjoyable interviews came in written form: Philip Larkin’s Paris Review gem, for example, and Vladimir Nabokov’s masquerade.
Seamus Heaney is a poetic giant of our times – were you ever star-struck!?
Was and am. But I would opt for ‘awe-struck’ rather than ‘star-struck’ because his fame was most certainly not the spur that impelled me to retrace the trajectory of his life. I was every bit as much in awe of his genius when I interviewed him in his seventieth year as I was when I interviewed him as he was about to turn forty and publish Field Work. More so, actually – because, by the time of Stepping Stones, there was a much greater bibliography to marvel at.
Presumably you knew Heaney’s poetry intimately before you began interviewing him? To you, what are his great strengths as a poet?
His superlative gift for matching words with things, things with emotions. Possession of the richest and most individual vocabulary of any living writer helps, as does the capacity to constantly recreate himself as a poet – he cultivates fresh new laurels rather than resting on old, dry, brittle ones.
What were you most surprised to learn about the man and the poet as your interviews progressed?
Every page of Stepping Stones contains surprises – of description, reflection or recollection. Revelation? There are revelations aplenty too – Heaney’s passport not having been ‘green’ until he moved to the Republic of Ireland in the 1970s; his having been sounded out for the poet laureateship… But Stepping Stones is not so much The Book of Revelations as The Book of Impressions. It is dotted with pointillist clusters of evocative detail that gradually cohere into a life-size colour portrait.
Is Heaney an Irish poet? By that I mean is trying to understand something that we call Ireland essential to understanding Heaney’s work?
He is not just an Irish poet or a Northern Irish poet but a south County Derry poet, steeped in local lore, language and memories. Ulster dialect words, that have no currency in Tipperary where I grew up, are his gold standard for living language, against which other Englishes are judged, just as his apprehension of the eternal verities is grounded in the experiences of his Derry childhood. At the same time, Seamus Heaney is no more Irish than that other poet of the local, universal and eternal, James Joyce. Both men think locally and write globally.
What was the most difficult aspects of bringing Stepping Stones to life? How did you overcome them?
The most time-consuming part – and it is too trivial to merit more than the briefest of mentions – was the preparation of the editorial apparatus: dialect glossary, chronology, bibliography, biographical glossary. Fact-checking is as tedious as it is essential: an inaccuracy in a biography is as catastrophic as a misprint in a poem.
You are a poet yourself Dennis — is poetry inspiration or perspiration in your experience!?
99% inspiration and 1% perspiration. Philip Larkin, with his usual gnomic brilliance, encapsulates the matter with less sweat: ‘You cannot write a poem unless you have a poem to write.’
Did you have an idea in your mind of your “ideal” reader? Did you write specifically for them?
The essential part (the 99% bit) of writing a poem – seizing on the initial revelation of form, rhythm, image – is over so quickly that there is no time for thought of ‘the reader’ to enter into the process. ‘The reader’ may make an appearance in the course of revision (the 1% bit), if issues of clarity and comprehensibility arise as one begins to wonder how baffled or otherwise people will be by the more recondite aspects of the poem.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I edit a magazine. Not quite an anti-poetry magazine, but most certainly not a literary one – Tax Briefing, the technical journal of Ireland’s Revenue and Customs service, which analyses current developments in tax legislation and administration. Very popular with tax advisors and accountants, they phone me frequently to ask when the next issue is due. I wonder if poetry magazines attract such eager readers.
What are you working on now Dennis?
Michael Hamburger, who died in 2007, was one of my earliest and most revered literary mentors and friends. His translations are known but his other writings are unjustly overlooked. I have begun curating a Michael Hamburger Reader, with a view to exhibiting his most permanent work. That archival drive again!
Who is your favourite poet and who is your favourite prose writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
My favourite modern poet is Bertolt Brecht, to whose ‘Buckow Elegies’ Michael Hamburger introduced me. My favourite poetry anthologies are The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, edited by Emrys Jones, and Daniel Weissbort’s The Poetry of Survival. My favourite prose writers include Herman Melville, George Eliot and Henry James. A contemporary novel I admire is Beat Sterchi’s Blösch (dubbed ‘the Ulysses of the dairy cow’ by one of my friends); it has been translated from German by Michael Hofmann, one of the very best poets of my generation.
Do you have any tips for the aspiring poet!?
Poetry is a form of play. Play is a diversion from work. All play and no work will make Jack a dull poet.