Welcome to my new blog

Hi there.

I'm a writer and freelance teacher and editor with an addiction to new technology.

Having haphazardly kept a blog elsewhere over the past couple of years, I'm determined to start afresh with this one. The challenge will be to keep it updated, interesting and relevant. Time will tell.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Kind Words and Coronets

Like many writers with new books out there, I've been living in the suspended animation of anxiously awaiting the first book review to appear. While there have been many nice comments about the collection in person, via text, twitter, facebook direct messaging, there's nothing quite like the gravity of the printed word to concentrate the mind.

I'd love to claim a lofty disdain to all reviews, good and bad. But I've never been much of a liar - I lost my first book dedication in a poker game, after all. So I will admit that I cherish every nice thing said about my work, and promptly forget every single positive word uttered and written in the face of a negative notice. I'm not sure if that's human nature or simply my own neurosis at play, but it's a fact either way.

So I'm pleased to report that the first review in print appeared in the Irish Times on Saturday, and that poet and critic John McAuliffe had some nice things to say. You can read the full text of the review, which also discussed new books by Kerry Hardie, Theo Dorgan, Gerard Dawe and Jess Traynor, here.

But before you click the above link and disappear away from this blog, I thought I'd reproduce (with his permission) the stunningly kind introduction that the marvellous poet Damian Smyth gave to my work at the recent launch in No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast. It still stuns me that anyone would pay me so great a compliment as to notice what I've been up to, poetically. But Damian, as anyone who knows him will attest, is a very special kind of person. Anyway, here's what he says:

A few years back, Nessa O'Mahony hurriedly slipped a volume of poems into my hand in the National Library in Dublin while we were jointly labouring for the arts at an event there. Equally hurriedly, because as usual in Dublin or anywhere I was making a beeline for the train at an inopportune hour and with slim chance of making it, she had inscribed it simply for me.

Now you should understand that I first met Nessa away back in the mid 1990s when neither of us, I think, had come to any real terms with poetry but we were both, even then, at work with it at a remove, both bizarrely in PR, me with the Arts Council in Belfast and she with An Chomhairle Ealaion.

There were poems or rumours of poems. And much activity I think in the years between. Activity which I have to confess was already smart and cute, in the best sense, and digital and contemporary in a way, 15 years ago, most of my generation would not, could not, have recognised. There was the steady accretion of a reputation on her part; the National Women's a Poetry Competition in 1997, short listings in the Kavanagh and Hennessy prizes; a volume of poems, Bar Talk, from Italics Press, in 1999; the sense I would say of a fugitive imagination, unexpected, charged unusually with an inner frankness amid formal poise and the opposite of ostentation and self-regard; the respect of emerging writers testified to time and again in bulletins from creative writing zones and masterclasses. That generous artefact which is the Electric Acorn, surely one of if not the first genuinely digital literary magazine in Ireland, which she edited. And in individual poems themselves, the sound of skills being gathered in.

Then in 2009, she published a book I encountered directly on my own accord. In Sight of Home is a verse-novel; it is also an epistolary narrative; it is also a work of excavation and recovery; of leaving and returning, with gains and losses; and also - and also - a work which introduces the reader to a kind of Nessa doppelgänger.

Our spirit guide in the novel-poem is a young Dublin writer who uncovers an archive of letters and re-narrates their exchanges in her own terms in our own day. It is one of those works which is truly appalling in its originality: making things happen to the reader on a variety of unexpected platforms, none of them conventional or predictable.

It is, frankly, an intimidating book in its framing, the techniques on show, its imaginative range. But it represented what you could call 'a run at' themes and contexts for which, I think we can see now, the earlier experimentation, the daring, the risk-taking of her digital and fugitive imagination, was quietly preparing her.

On the train back to Belfast, I read the volume of poems she had given me, twice at one sitting. First, as usual from back to front - it's an OCD thing - and again in its intended sequence. Trapping A Ghost was and is, as they say, an eye-opener. Published in 2005, it sits on the other side of In Sight of Home as her new collection - the one we are gathered this evening to celebrate - sits on the near side of that book.

Look. There is so much slabber about poems and poetry. There is a thing called a writer's career. It is not a nebulous term. What happens is, first poems and then a pamphlet or collection, set up a kind of community of common conviction. Conversations between poems from, as it were, different eras of a life; first poems find their most appropriate readers and often their sternest critics among the cluster of later poems; it is a stern moment when later poems, even the most recent and most proud, find themselves under the scrutiny of earlier works. Nonetheless, the conversations are irresistible, inevitable; always - always - fruitful; and always, weirdly, utterly anonymous. Poems don't give a damn whose they are; just that they are and are, in a peculiarly vain way, still valid, still loved. Later poems reassure them they are still beautiful.

Anonymity is the key. That is what happens when a body of work, a corpus, gathers itself over time. It is irresistible in its action. This may seem fanciful, or some manner of whimsy. But as with most things, it is when the action gets interfered with that the truth of the observation is visible. Hence the sensation currently underway regarding Derek Mahon's revisions of his own famous earlier poems in more recent editions of selected and collected poems. In that instance, the poet still believes his or her authorship supersedes the aesthetic rights of the poems to live and flourish in their own tongue. It is a rough lesson but the poet will surely find, once he or she has passed out of the moral reckoning, that the poems reassert their rights and the appropriate versions will endure.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Trapping A Ghost, which is a collection of poems about family and history and context and Ireland and loss and love, sustained and enervating lyrics which are bereft and difficult, disturbed by absence and bothered too by the excitement of an adventurous future, is itself augmented and nuanced and challenged and blown open by In Sight of Home - who knew? More than any other artform - I believe this as an article of faith - poetry when it is good pushes through the intensity of the personal and private into the anonymous world dragging the intensity with it but exposing it to the commonwealth of all our experience. It is why poetry makes us feel a thing as if it were our own; we are not the spectator at events affecting others, but are ourselves made players.

So this is what I am here to say about this poet and this collection. Both her previous mature courageous artistic ventures now, I think, find another cadence, another variety of utterance, another interlocutor which is challenging and robust, both fixed and unfixed, concerned intimately both with history and its opposite - not forgetfulness, but, in fact, love.

Her Father's Daughter is an impressive volume.

There is so much tempting about family and historical matters and their intersection, especially when there is an obvious deeper cultural seam which will be disturbed as a matter of course once the writing begins, but it is extremely difficult to get at the actual living core of that interface. One might think one is getting there, simply by naming and uttering, and that does have a validity of its own; but to move comfortably and with assurance within that deeper material is a challenge. Its the sort of thing that only becomes apparent when one is lured into the imaginative recreation poem by poem, in the experience of reading, and as one discovers the point of origin shifting, the perspectives altering. All of that occurs with Her Fathers Daughter, resurrections of a kind.

The other side is to render personal tribute and recollection in the appropriately intense way without those becoming simply ciphers for ‘biggerthemes. Again, this is managed so well in the book. Much of that is down to the ethical structure arrived at early on in the process, I think, whereby the historical elements survived in their melancholy aspect which they always have, being past and where the blending of more recent, personal matters loss, love rise against that backdrop of history still being made.

In short, it works both lyrically and as narrative, if that makes any sense. I wont dwell on how good many of the poems are because they register quality in so many ways (The Long Goodbye, ‘Visitor, ‘Accident & Emergency, ‘Walking Stick, ‘Casting Lots, ‘Portrait of the Artists Father) and because singling any out – as I’ve just done gives precedence to those when in fact all the poems are working their passage with more or less intensity and with more or less lyricism. Not all poems need have a drum roll at the end to be poems.

This book is a cohesive thing, more in the character of a long poemthan Nessa’s other books and that brings another note to the work as a whole. The cumulative meditation across poems is a wonderful thing and it is present here and should be acknowledged and I hope we will hear some of that accumulation this evening.

Maturity, confidence, an achieved voice, dexterity among the debris (historical, emotional), bringing to the long dead and persistently silent all the freshness of contemporary loss and love. The old cautious punctiliousness of poetry is never more exhilarating than this. What a wonderful thing to have put on record.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Blog trotting

I'm going to be sharing this space with some fellow writers over the coming months as it's always interesting to see what other people are up to.

The marvellous Lia Mills, whose novel, Fallen (Penguin 2014), had me captivated earlier this year, has interviewed me over on her blog - Given that her own novel is set in 1916 Dublin, she was interested to talk to me about my own views of history and creative writing. You can read the results over on Lia's blog Libran Writer here.

I'm also going to be talking to British novelist S.J. Holloway about his forthcoming novel The Words We Use Are Black and White, which will be released in November. Simon and I will be doing a joint reading in Bangor Library, Bangor, North Wales, in early December and he'll be coming over to read at the Irish Writers Centre in February, along with the wonderful Nerys Williams. You can read all about Simon here:

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Uncovering a Hidden History 

For much of my life, I had absolutely no idea that my grandfather, Michael McCann, had fought in the First World War. I grew up with the image of him as the archetypal Irish nationalist hero of the first decades of the twentieth century. A brooding photograph of him in Free State Army uniform and flat-topped army cap dominated the dresser in my mother’s kitchen; stories of his escapades in the War of Independence and the Civil War were an integral part of family lore. But there was no mention of the earlier conflict my grandfather was involved in, as a Lance Corporal for the Royal Munster Fusiliers. His experience, like that of so many of the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who fought in World War I, had been quietly obliterated from the official narrative. There was no room in the nationalist mythology for any stories about those who fought for other causes.

When I began to research my grandfather’s life in greater detail, in preparation for a memoir I hoped to write about him, I first turned to the obvious sources to flesh out the information I already had about his campaigns in the War of Independence and the Civil War. The Irish Military Archives were very helpful in finding Witness Statements that mentioned my grandfather, and his role in the various arson attacks in the North East of England that led to his imprisonment in Parkhurst in 1920. Newspaper cuttings testified to his involvement in ambushes during the Irish Civil War. The Garda Archives were able to provide me with an A4 sheet detailing his subsequent career as a Detective Inspector with the newly established Garda Siochána.

It was when I was trawling through genealogy websites to see if I could get more information about my grandfather’s family, who were small farmers in a townland called Derryronane in County Mayo, that the greatest surprise was uncovered. By this stage I knew he’d fought in the Great War – my uncle Liam had given me the one artefact linking my grandfather to the British Army: his soldier’s pay-book and wallet. But it wasn’t until I visited the genealogy website, and came across a posting from a complete stranger who was also seeking information about the Derryronane McCanns, that I got the visual evidence. The stranger turned out to be my second cousin – a direct descendant of my grandfather’s brother, John – and after we had exchanged emails he offered to send me various family photos.

When the email arrived with the PDF attachment, I casually scrolled through the old black and white photos of people who were vaguely familiar and others who were completely new to me. Then I came across one that brought me up short. A young man in British Army uniform poses with ceremonial cane, right-hand resting on the back of a tall, mahogany and leather chair. The pale eyes stare out quizzically with an expression I’ve often seen on the face of my elder brother, Tom. I knew, without having to be told, that this was a photograph of my grandfather, Michael McCann.

My mother, Mai, who is a marvellous raconteur, and who, at the age of 85, has an extraordinary memory for events that happened decades ago, had never seen that photograph, nor had any of her surviving siblings. I can only conclude that he sent it as a postcard to his family back on the farm in Derryronane, and that it was kept in his brother’s family and taken to the UK when a niece emigrated there sometime in the 1940s. I can’t imagine that it was ever displayed proudly on a mantelpiece; in post-independent Ireland, few were prepared to speak openly about family members who had fought for King and Country. So much had happened in the intervening years – a country divided by traumatic Civil War and attempting to come to terms with all the violence and petty hatreds that conflict had unleashed. Small wonder they adopted the classic Irish strategy of ‘whatever you say, say nothing.’

My grandfather must have seen extraordinary things in his early life but remained reticent throughout his later years. The various injuries (shrapnel wounds to the leg and wrist, a toe shot off) were the physical manifestation but there was little evidence of the mental suffering. One can only imagine the sort of post-traumatic stress he would have suffered, and was forced to contain within himself.
That tension between the public and the private expressions of identity captured my imagination; rather than memoir, I began to think about poems that might explore that tension. That was the genesis of this new collection which presents a parallel sequence of poems, one relating to my relationship with my own father, who died from a long illness during the making of the book; the second exploring the life of my grandfather, whose story slowly emerges through my mother's memories, and my own research. I was delighted when my publisher agreed to put Granddad’s World War I photo on the cover.

I’ve no idea what Michael McCann would make of the book: puzzlement, perhaps, or annoyance that anyone was making much of what he himself had discounted or kept to himself. But I do hope that he might understand the motivation of the writer: to tell the story of a heroism typical of his generation, a heroism in danger of being forgotten once this decade of commemoration concludes.

Her Father’s Daughter
is published by Salmon Poetry (Co. Clare). Further information is available on http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=344&a=12

Monday, August 18, 2014

Back to school time 2014

It must be the chiller winds and browning leaves, not to mention the crab apples ripening on the tree outside my window, but thoughts turn to the new academic year, and the various courses I'll be teaching.

As I write, there are still some spaces available on the 10-week Finding the Story Course which I facilitate at the Irish Writers Centre in Parnell Square. It's a day-time course, running from 11am to 1pm and starting on Wednesday 24th September. I look at all aspects of narrative - structure, characterisation, use of imagery, setting as well as the various genre and forms available. There'll be a follow on course in the Spring but Finding the Story is also pretty self-contained. You'll get more details, and booking forms etc, on http://www.writerscentre.ie/html/courses/Autumn2014/findingthestory_omahony.html

There's also still time to book a slot in the Open University's Advanced Creative Writing Course A363. This course focusses on dramatic techniques and how they can be adapted to all forms of writing and is a follow on from the OU's Creative Writing A215 course. This is a substantial commitment, as it takes place over a full academic year, from October to May, and it involves a number of assignments that require you to write, adapt, critique, but by the end of the course you are guaranteed to have produced a body of work, and will have got significant one to one feedback from me as course tutor. This course is a mixture of face to face tutorials (2) and online tutorials, as well as ongoing forum discussion via Moodle. More details are to be found on http://www.open.ac.uk/courses/modules/a363

Friday, February 1, 2013

A poem for the first day of Spring????

St Brigid’s Day, Woodside Road

For Fiona Curran

It’s just as well we didn’t bet our souls on it.
This first day of pagan spring dawns white,
the two-day fall blanking out pavements,
children making hay of it with snowballs.
One attempts, Sisyphus-style, to roll a boulder heavier
than his bodyweight up the embankment.
Mothers in tracksuits supervise from front-doors,
fathers, scrapers in hand, track warily round cars.
Sane people stay indoors, waiting for the equinox
and the met office to make it official.
But I brave the frost, looking for some augury or other,
find it in a melted six inch square in Vi’s planter.
I hunker down for a closer look, then bow before
green shoots tangled in a perfect plaited cross.

(from Her Father's Daughter, forthcoming from Salmon Poetry, 2014)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

He disappeared in the dead of winter

Auden was talking about Yeats here, but it's equally apt in the case of the great Dennis O'Driscoll, who died on 24th December at the unbearably young age of 58. Dennis had an extraordinary talent of making everyone feel like they were his good friend; he embodied courtesy in a world where it was rare and never forgot to acknowledge in that lovely large cursive handwriting of his anything he felt deserved to be acknowledged. I'm incredibly proud that his last signed book for me - his collection Dear Life published by Anvil this Summer - mentioned a 'valued friendship'; I did nothing to deserve it, God knows, but Dennis was generous that way.

I reviewed Dear Life for a UK literary journal; the review, written last July, was sadly confident that Dennis would have many years of productive retirement ahead of him. I reproduce it here as one last, sad, tribute to a very great poet and a very great man.


Dear Life by Dennis O’Driscoll, 112pp, £9.95, Anvil Press Poetry, Neptune House, 70 Royal Hill, London SE10 8RF. www.anvilpresspoetry.com

I don’t remember many texts I studied at school, but for some reason Charles Lamb’s ‘The Superannuated Man’ has stayed with me; there is something chilling about his description of the impact of working for a living: ‘I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul’. Reading Dennis O’Driscoll’s new collection (his ninth), I wonder whether he might share the sentiment. O’Driscoll recently retired from the Irish civil service so now has the time to ponder on what life offers when one is released from the bondages of employment. He treats this major transition with characteristic causticity:

     I forfeited my rightful place at the tea-break table.
     An I’m Boss mug expectorating on the draining board.
     The Man United one Tipp-Exed with a name.
     A plastic milk container on which Stats is scrawled.
                                                            [‘Retirement’ from ‘Revenue Customs’]

That verb ‘expectorate’ is the key to O’Driscoll’s understated genius; it lifts what might otherwise seem pure documentary onto another level entirely.
     O’Driscoll’s mordant wit informs many of these poems, particularly those that dissect the clichés in the popular culture of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. In ‘Fair Game’, the target is ‘The elephant in the room’ – we’ve ignored a lot of those over here. In ‘Compo’, he forensically skewers the cult of anger that is equally prevalent:

     Be absolutely apopletic.
     Fuming mad.
     Lobby. Picket. Hector.
     Threaten to bring your case
     to the highest tribunal in the land.

O’Driscoll’s approach to humour is similar to that of US poet Billy Collins; he pursues an idea far beyond its logical conclusion and forces the reader, in the process, to reconsider everything she has taken as a given.
     But beyond the humour is a darker thread, an almost despairing recognition that mankind has what he calls in the poem ‘Spare Us’, an ‘built-in obsolescence’, both on a general level – ‘Consign us to the past / Find solutions to what baffled us. / Put us down to experience’ (from ‘Not The Dead’) – and on a personal one. Some poems relate to illness and to the resulting awareness of transience:

     The tally of years
     added up so rapidly
     it appeared I had
     been short-changed,
     tricked by sleight
     of hand, fallen victim
     to false bookkeeping.
                        [‘Time Enough’]

Yet O’Driscoll is a poet always prepared to see the other side of the argument, as the poem ‘Admissions’ attests:

     Before you do down life again,
     badmouth a world that never lives up
     to its billing, recall how glorious it seemed,
     your unwillingness to let go, that evening
     you were driven to Admissions.

For this poet, each ‘shabby sight’ ‘gleams with some ameliorating / feature’ and this preparedness to accept imperfection is the prevailing tone of the penultimate, title poem.

     [ …….. ] Leaves swirl around my feet now in a crinkled tin-
     foil din. Thousands of leaves. A sybil’s mixed signals, they shift
     positions, shuffle their decks like tarot packs, gyrate sugges-
     tively. I go on my knees in search. Keep on drawing blanks.
                                                            [‘Dear Life’]

This is a thoughtful, funny, sad and ultimately moving book of poems. I recommend it whole-heartedly.