Was Stepping Stones, your book of interviews with Seamus Heaney, intended to be more than a biography?
It would be more accurate to say that, at first, I had less than a biography in mind. My initial plan was simply to record as much as possible of Heaneyspeak, to capture for future generations – as well as contemporary readers – something of the social, personal Heaney. It’s certainly true that I wanted to preserve biographical data (stray memories, fugitive incidents, significant views that would otherwise go AWOL from the record); but the register of his everyday language was even more important to me. My hope was to present the man one meets away from the podium and the microphone; to offer Heaney’s public audience a private audience with the poet. The words foremost in my mind were ‘archive’ and ‘record’ rather than ‘biography’ or ‘memoir’.
The Q and A format is quite dramatic, theatrical because it is conversational and taking place in real time.
Having resolved – in the interests of full disclosure, as we bureaucrats say – to describe my working methods in the introduction to Stepping Stones, I knew that some reviewers would be peeved that much of the interview was conducted in writing. Their disappointment is misplaced: the book does not purport to be a conversation (it is carefully subtitled ‘Interviews with Seamus Heaney’); anyway, interviews conducted in writing outnumber other kinds nowadays and have become the default mode of the online age. There is very little difference between Chapter 13 of Stepping Stones – which is entirely oral – and the written chapters; had I not made my ‘full disclosure’, nobody would have noticed. Besides, numerous augmentations were made by Heaney, in person at my house and over the phone; these brought an additional conversational spontaneity to what were already sprightly and speedy responses. Commenting on the written format of the book, John Clarke – in a review for the New Zealand Listener – put it well: ‘There has been some criticism…from the Lilliputian cavalry on the basis that Heaney could have been put under more pressure by direct confrontation. Pay no attention. Heaney has long needed to find safe ground for open, relaxed and generous discourse. And incidentally, even when putting up the shutters, Heaney will go very nicely.’
Your line of questioning was clinical but not intrusive. Like a prompter in the wings.
Well, to maintain your theatrical metaphor, I would respond by saying that I very deliberately pared my own lines to the minimum. I have an aversion to interviewers whose questions and contentions hog more space than the poet’s responses – not to mention the interviewers who foist their opinions on the reader and generally attempt to outshine the interviewee (impossible with Seamus Heaney, in any case). In Stepping Stones, I keep a respectful distance, intrude only minimally, and never as much as once address the poet – or, in my introductory chapter, refer to him – on first-name terms. It’s not as though the interviewer is a kind of ‘running mate’ of the interviewee. You are more like a butler – as discreet and invisible as possible, carrying a tray of stimulants (but nothing so strong that your interlocutor will become tediously garrulous or recklessly incautious). This does not mean that difficult and searching questions are verboten. Not at all. I took Heaney into some sensitive and difficult territory.
Like Seamus Heaney, you are interested in Eastern European writing of the clinical, almost anti-poetic kind. Yet, his poetry is quite traditionally lyrical.
What he says about this in Stepping Stones is illuminating: ‘My way with words was very different. I would tend to “colour in” whereas they [the East European poets] were very much for the black-and-white line-drawing.’ My own position is a Pegasus of a different colour from Heaney’s; his seminal influences as a young poet included Patrick Kavanagh, Ted Hughes and especially Gerard Manley Hopkins. My discovery of Holub – and, very soon afterwards, of Vasko Popa, Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Janos Pilinszky, Tadeusz Rozewicz and numerous others – occurred at a much earlier and more impressionable age in my writing ‘career’ than in Heaney’s. Holub was my Hopkins; and I was more interested in Hughes’s versions of Pilinszky than in Hughes’s own poetry, which seemed to have lost its way at that time. I remain as devoted as ever to the work of the post-war East Europeans. My enthusiasm proved more solid than the Berlin Wall.
What is the state of East European poetry now? Has it lost its moral authority?
It did not lose its moral authority, it renounced it. Inevitably, understandably, the poets born in the fifties and sixties subscribed to a lighter (more playful, more personal, more irreverent) aesthetic than their war-dazed elders. The idea that a poet had some responsibility to address burning political and ethical issues was inimical to these younger poets; and, anyway, with the fall of the Wall, even their distinguished elders had – as the sardonic György Petri (one of the very best Hungarian poets) put it – lost their ‘favourite toy’ and, with it, much of their prophetic potential. The East European poet is now on an all too equal footing with his or her Western counterparts: equally ignored, equally unread, equally sidelined.
After 1989, the younger writers went on a kind of poetic binge. In Romania, when I visited in 1993, the former Young Pioneers of the Ceausescu era had morphed into fervent Young Postmoderns. In Poland, the ‘cool’ new poets were like the local franchises of an American poetry chain. The Frank O’Haraiska pastiche they concocted made for decidedly inferior fare, like cola based on beetroot. But things have moved on; and poets such as Tomasz Rózycki, Marzanna Kielar, Agnieszka Kuciak, Anna T. Szabó, Aleš Šteger and Petr Borkovec ensure that the lands of Kocbek, Holan, Weöres and Szymborska remain firmly on my ‘must read’ map. My current reading, in fact, includes Peregrinary – translations of Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki (born in Poland in 1962) whose death-chilled poetry is as unlike the New York School as cream cheese and bagels from kielbasa and cabbage.
You’re a ‘townie’ of course, unlike Heaney. Do you go back to Thurles much now?
I am a ‘townie’ only if you mean someone who did not grow up on a farm. Both of my parents had grown up on farms and our house, though little more than a mile from the metropolis of Thurles, was beyond the urban boundary and the street lights. No neighbours nearby. No houses visible from our gaunt two-storey structure on a loopy road between Thurles and Littleton. My Mill Road home place, insofar as I can judge, was as isolated as Seamus Heaney’s Mossbawn – the pitch-dark dash from town to home was a heart-thumping, fast-pedalling challenge for an imaginative young boy abroad on an eerie winter evening. Like the Heaney family, we had no piped water and kept drought at bay with a backyard hand-pump and big red-lead-painted barrels of rain water. Further down the road, three families without running water lugged buckets of drinking water from a shallow stream, to which they had to travel half a mile each way. We had no TV, no phone or record player, at any stage of my childhood. Mine was not an Amish upbringing (the family Volkswagen was our buggy); but it was certainly an austere and puritanical one, complete with cold washes, glowing chilblains, sputtering pink paraffin heaters, and interminable rosaries.
The town I return to these days has encroached on my birthplace; but it is pleasingly preserved in some respects. Paddy Doyle (brother of Jimmy Doyle, the crew-cutted hurling star), who administered some of my earliest ‘short back and sides’ haircuts, still wields his electric shears in exactly the same spot. Mrs Dempsey, who would make up brown-paper-and-twine parcels of crimplene dresses for my mother (now thirty-five years dead) to try ‘on appro’, still palely smiles behind the fabric-laden counter of the most unchanged drapery shop in Ireland. Institutions, commercial and clerical, such as Hayes’s Hotel and St Patrick’s College, stand their ground. In many places, though, I see the shops beneath the current shops: I have served Bilko’s chipper, the Milk Bar, Muck Gleeson’s sweet shop, Bertie Connaughton’s (famed for the best rhubarb tarts and ripple ice creams in the town), and all my other vanished haunts with personal preservation orders. I suppose I could best summarise my Thurles visits in John Montague’s lines:
…I assume old ways of walk and work
So easily, yet feel the sadness of return
To what seems still, though changing.
The most telling thing, though, to add about Thurles is that it was a truly industrious – even industrial – town in my childhood: Irish Sugar, Erin Foods, Phoenix Yarns, Dwan’s Minerals, O’Meara’s Minerals and Suir Valley Ice-Cream (‘Suir Valley for Sure Value’) were significant employers. By the time the ‘Celtic Tiger’ began to roar, each of these enterprises had been shut down or scaled down; the town now lives on a combination of illusion and the spending power of EU-aided farmers from the hinterland. The Thurles Tiger earned its stripes in the fifties and sixties.
The loss of your parents early in life coloured your world view. That experience is mirrored in Thomas McCarthy’s poetry – yet you both adopted radically different personas.
Two exact contemporaries from Munster – one from a Tipperary backwater, the other from the Waterford Blackwater – were bound to feel some bond, a bond deepened by the early loss of parents you mention and even by our having common publishers (first books with Dolmen Press and subsequent collections from Peter Jay’s Anvil Press). But McCarthy’s work was far more achieved than mine – think of fully-realised poems of the standard of ‘Daedalus, the Maker’ and ‘State Funeral’ from a poet of his youth. His debut, The First Convention, is the assured work of an incipient master, my Kist poems the trial-pieces of a gauche apprentice. He has gone on standard-setting, and is a much more personal poet than I am: less austere, less detached, a writer steeped in the hubbub of history, politics and arcane lore. The word ‘I’ – no trouble to McCarthy, though his work is anything but egotistical – is the most recalcitrant one in my vocabulary, the least comfortable and yielding…
You went into the civil service at the age of sixteen and have worked there ever since – a CV that would surprise today’s students.
Yes, like Thomas McCarthy in Cork City Libraries, I have remained a worker-poet. Having very little of the artist in me, I could never have presented myself to the world, with a straight face, as a professional poet – poetry has always been something of a furtive pursuit for me. My job, a practical necessity, has taught me an immense amount about how the world operates at boardroom, courthouse, tribunal, government and EU levels. It has also been instructive to me in cumulatively significant ways – in understanding human relations, in organising time, in handling legal matters. Energy-sapping though my roles have been – for example, as departmental co-ordinator for Ireland’s 1996 Presidency of the EU, and as long-time manager of the Stamp Duties office – I was far better fitted for them than for a role as creative writing teacher or workshop director.
You have remarked that the writing of poetry must be accommodated into a life. Could you elaborate on what you mean?
Wasn’t it Saint Benedict who exhorted his monks to partake in the ‘the common lot of mankind’? I am a Benedictine insofar as I aspire, in my fumbling way, to his formula of ‘daily work, harmonious living with others, and spiritual reading’. Poets have a tendency to shun the workaday world and either to withdraw into isolation or to gravitate towards the creative writing departments. One could hardly chide Emily Dickinson for, as it were, selecting her own non-society. Coming from a patrician Massachusetts family, she was free to choose a way of life that indulged her eccentricities; fortunately, she was capable of transforming her vision of life into high-resolution verbal images, even at a distance from the normal daily round. But in talent and temperament Dickinson was a once-off; and I can’t help feeling that contemporary poetry might be a bit less solipsistic and, in some cases also, less esoteric if poets inhabited less specialised and rarefied milieus. A non-literary job provides a writer not just with a vital pay cheque that spares you from hackwork, but also supplies a useful context and language in which to ground your poetry. Still, I’m extremely wary of laying down laws for others; ‘the heart has its reasons’ and so does the Muse.
What are you reading at the moment?
I finally read Paradise Lost in full last year – with mixed impressions (all that is Milton definitely does not glitter) and I usually have a Shakespeare cassette ready for a command performance at the press of the ‘Play’ button on my ultra-retro Walkman: Two Gentlemen of Verona is in repertoire at present, playing nightly, as it were, at the Walkman Theatre. I am re-reading Michael Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry in preparation for an anthology I proposed to Anvil Press: a much-needed ‘Michael Hamburger Reader’. Hamburger was a critic of genius; I also look forward to revisiting his poems, along with his meticulous translations of Hölderlin, Trakl, Brecht, Celan and other German poets I revere. I am enjoying Sarah Ruden’s translation of The Aeneid – the most quietly convincing and elegantly economic Aeneid of our time – and To the Castle and Back, the memoirs of a longstanding hero of mine, Vaclav Havel. I recently bought David Hinton’s Mountain Home, an anthology of the ‘wilderness poetry of ancient China’ (my idea of perfect escapist reading!); and – for its craft, characterisation and imagery – I was captivated and unsettled by Adam Foulds’s dark verse novel, The Broken World.
Which contemporary critical voices do you trust?
The current standard of reviewing strikes me as reassuringly high. I am always impressed by the willingness of underpaid and under-read reviewers to engage at the deepest levels with contemporary poetry (where of course similar pay scales and readership figures prevail). Literary journals – doomed in the online era though these civilising agents may be – contain serious essay-length considerations of poetry, many of them written by academics, who – contrary to caricature – are by no means exclusively given to jargon-ridden prose. Outside of universities, there are first-rate critics – Adam Kirsch is the most forthright, intelligent and deeply-read poet-critic since the masterful W.H. Auden and Randall Jarrell – and there are lots of commentators reviewing and blogging and arguing with a passion that evinces the continued vibrancy of poetry. Nonetheless, if book reviewing were to retreat entirely from newspapers to blogs and dedicated literary websites, or indeed if newspapers themselves were to become obsolete, this would be a very great loss. Book reviews too should be part of the ‘daily lot’ – or the daily fare, at least – of the commuter, the horseracing fan and the sudoku puzzler. I am praying to Saint Benedict that serious newspapers – with the liberal education they provide to non-specialist readers – will survive our century, but I fear they are doomed: a case perhaps to be referred on appeal to Saint Jude!
Any hobbies? Do you support the Tipperary team?
I am sorry to confess that, although I grew up among G.A.A. diehards, I have never entered a sports arena of any kind since the obligatory ‘games’ at school came to a merciful end for me in May 1970. I have never watched a soccer or rugby game in my entire life – I don’t even know the basic rules. My great passion, after poetry, is for visual art. While clocking up the air miles during my ten years as an Irish Customs delegate at EU and Eurocustoms meetings, I did the rounds of the local galleries on their late-opening nights. My richest and finest hours included time spent in Seville with Zurbarán, after a CITES training course on stemming illicit trade in endangered species, and at retrospectives elsewhere of painters as utterly different as the racy Félicien Rops and the demure Jan Vermeer, who converted paint into silence.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a house without a television that I have an extremely low TV tolerance; but I could not live without radio. BBC Radio 3 has been my conservatoire since I first came within its broadcasting ambit in my teens: it is to this great station I owe my love of Bach, Purcell, Schubert, Mahler and my discovery of contemporary composers like Lutoslawski, Carter, Del Tredici and Tavener. And I am indebted to BBC Radio 4 for the smattering of knowledge I have gained (from ‘In Our Time’) on everything from the Fibonacci sequence to the fall of Carthage. Professor David Reynolds’s recent series on American history has been an education. Documentaries, plays, World Service news, business programmes presented by Peter Day, and arts programmes (‘The Poetry Programme’, ‘The Arts Show’, ‘Off the Shelf’, ‘Artzone’, ‘Night Waves’, ‘Arts Extra’, ‘Front Row’, ‘The Strand’ – the whole lot) are meat and drink to me. And, speaking of meat and drink, I enjoy my unsophisticated attempts at cooking – though my spouse, Julie O’Callaghan, is a more versatile cook (a superb verse chef too – her first collection was called Edible Anecdotes).
Do you and Julie read each other’s work?
As her readers will know – and she deserves far more of those – Julie has one of the most acute ears in the business, so she is the ideal person to pinpoint a bogus or pretentious note. She reads much more fiction than poetry and is not in the least impressed by a poem which is dull, banal or rhetorical. Her base language is American rather than Irish; this in itself – besides our entirely different personalities and preoccupations – ensures that we do not jam each other’s poetry signals. Still, a relationship built on poetry alone, would certainly not have lasted since 1974 when we first met in a basement theatre in Dublin. Auspiciously enough, this Lantern Theatre encounter took place at a reading by the future author of The Haw Lantern, Seamus Heaney. His aptly-named Finders Keepers is dedicated to us both – our marriage blessing.
Do you have a trusted reader of your work?
No. Other than Julie, I never inflict my work in progress on anybody. I always have more doubts of my own than I can handle, without accommodating further critical voices also. And I wouldn’t dream of asking anyone for an advance blurb; writers of poetry should be far more measured in their language than copywriters. Blurbs are glorified advertising slogans.
Having written so much about office life and the business world, in ‘The Bottom Line’ and elsewhere, the current economic crisis must be grist to your mill?
Poetry is most convincing when its elements have been lived. You can research a novel, dress your characters in borrowed robes, and stuff their mouths with appropriated speech. However, language itself – rather than character, plot and dialogue – is at the heart of poetry and it is very difficult to commandeer words which elicit no personal echo. In my Stamp Duty years, when I specialised in the taxation of company reorganisations and amalgamations, negotiations with financial controllers and banking executives frequently arose. In Customs, we were constantly in touch with what we called ‘the trade’ – I was a member of the Customs Consultative Committee, on which exporters, hauliers, chambers of commerce etc. were represented. My Muse, therefore, is a fluent speaker of business jargon. Of what we can speak, we need not be silent.
Finally, to last things… I’m intrigued by how few poets believe in an afterlife, or indeed any class of God. Where do you stand on this question?
I would incline towards ticking the ‘non non-believer’ box on the God questionnaire. I shrink from the big affirmations, the thundering assertions, the breast-beating credos. Yet, I am not without deeply-held convictions and principles, among which is a recognition of the possibility, indeed probability, that some guiding or creative force operates in the universe, though I cannot assign words, let alone characteristics, to it. It is impossible, anyway, to speak meaningfully about things way beyond our intellectual, whatever about intuitive or imaginative, reach. ‘Of what we cannot speak…’ The notion that space, time, matter and energy suddenly sprang out of nothing is about as plausible as virgin birth; but, as we speed along our own globally-warmed path to nothingness, we seem hell-bent on uncreating the world.
I was a devout youth, a daily Mass-goer during my school holidays (without the least family or teacher pressure), and an occasional caller at the then-bustling St Patrick’s seminary, where lively discussion in book-lined rooms was always possible. Although I never – not for one second – seriously considered training for the priesthood, I was intrigued by the big metaphysical questions and entranced by the profound and subtle language of ritual. I still occasionally buy The Furrow and Doctrine and Life, and my poems are imbued with biblical allusions. Virtually every one of my collections contains poems addressing the God question: from ‘Prayer’ in Kist to ‘Intercession’ and ‘The Call’ in Reality Check. My poem, ‘Missing God’, is not a mere exercise in religious nostalgia. Paul Celan’s ‘Tenebrae’ and ‘Psalm’ are among the glories – and the glorias – of the non-non-believer’s hymnal:
Praised be your name, No one.
For your sake
we shall flower.
Any thoughts on your personal legacy to literature?
It is easier to believe in God than in oneself… Very little of the poetry of the present will feature in the reading material of the future; so I have every confidence that my writings will die intestate: an ironic fate, given that my first civil service posting was to the Estate Duty Office, where, for thirteen years, legacies were my bread and butter!
Published in Cork Literary Review, Volume XIII, 2009, edited by Eugene O’Connell.