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.

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 clich├ęs 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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Nest Big Thing (with thanks to Noel Duffy)

The next big thing

The wonderful poet and fiction-writer Noel Duffy set me a challenge a few weeks back to follow him in this literary chain, where writers talk about forthcoming books. You can read his splendid account at http://noelduffy.blogspot.ie/

1)     What is the working title of your next book?
My next collection of poems is provisionally titled Her Father’s Daughter, which is the way that I’ve been imagining it over the past couple of years. But I wouldn’t rule out that changing before the book actually gets published. Titles are slippery things, intimately connected with both the mood of the poems, but also with the prevailing mood of the writer, which can change like the weather. I remember finding it very difficult to find the title of my last collection, Trapping A Ghost (Bluechrome 2005). There was no individual poem title that seemed to capture its spirit, and I don’t know how many times I read it through before seeing an individual line from a poem that seemed to offer the best potential as a book title. And then it seemed to have been to have always been the title. Strange, but true.

2)     Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’ve been meditating about father –daughter relationships for at least the last seven years, and probably for much longer than that, because family relationships have always been an obsession in my poetry. But the impetus for this exploration was my father’s first serious illness which, oddly, began this day 7 years ago, when he collapsed with a pulmonary embolism and was rushed to hospital, where he wasn’t expected to survive. We spent those anguished and terrified days all through Christmas and the New Year at St. James’s Hospital Intensive Care Unit; that bare little room with the drinks machine that never worked and the flickering cathode lights has stayed with me ever since. He recovered from that, but had suffered so much of what the doctors termed ‘collateral damage’ that his remaining few years were dogged with illness. So I guess I began a prolonged period of grieving him, or preparing to let him go (he died in June 2010) and that’s what generated many of the poems. But gradually I got perspective to see wider patterns; I’d separately been fascinated by my maternal grandfather, many of whose stories I’d heard from my mother, so I began to see a connection between two sets of father-daughter relationships, and that’s how the book was really born.

3)     What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a collection of poems, some lyric, some narrative. I always find myself wanting to tell stories but need the compression that poetry provides at the same time.

4)     What actors would you choose to play the part of the characters in the movie rendition?
These questions are rather geared towards fiction, I suspect, and yet I can imagine a movie treatment of my grandfather’s story, at least. I think Aidan Quinn would render him very well; the same intensity, the same pale blue Irish eyes that can chill and warm at the same time.

5)     What is a one-line synopsis of your book?
I’ve spoken about the lure of compression in poetry so I should find that question easy, shouldn’t I? And yet!!! Well, it’s a book about relationships and the patterns they create and engrain, as well as about the ability to love while knowing one is going to lose somebody.

6)     Will your book be self-published or represented by an agent?
As my good friend Noel Duffy said in his interview, you’d never find an agent with a vocation for representing poets. That reminds me of an agents’ tea party organised by the Creative Writing faculty at the University of East Anglia, where I did my Masters in 2003. There were some very heavy-hitters invited down from London to meet the cream of the writing talent in my year, and there were some amazing novelists then – Tash Aw, Naomi Alderman and our own Aifric Campbell to name just three. But it was made clear to us poets that there wasn’t any point in us attending the Tea Party because the agents had no interest in meeting us. So we were left to gaze in, like the poor children outside the toyshop at Christmas. Very poignant. I’m hoping the collection will be published by Salmon, who published my last book.

7)     How long did it take you to write a first draft of the manuscript?
As I said earlier, I’d been writing many of these poems for several years, but the real work of pulling them together into book form began about three years ago, after I’d published the verse novel. Then it became a process of ordering and re-ordering, which may continue for a wee while yet.

8)     What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Poets are always writing about their parents, aren’t they? One book that certainly influenced me, though I’d never reach its wonderful heights, was Kerry Hardie’s amazing collection The Sky Didn’t Fall, written about her own father’s death. I loved the complete lack of self-pity, the honesty and bravery and utter beauty of that book.

9)     Who or what inspired you to write this book?
As should be evident from previous answers, my wonderful father, Donal J. O’Mahony, and my amazing mother, Mai O’Mahony, who is an extraordinary story-teller and who has a staggering memory for events that took place up to 80 years ago. She has always been my inspiration.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
I always find it hard to answer that question, because why should anyone else care about my own concerns. But we all have people we love and might lose, or might have lost, and many of us in Ireland share a connection with a generation of extraordinary men and women who went about fighting for the ideals they believed in with quietness and integrity. So hopefully my book might resonate in some way with those sorts of readers.

I am now passing the baton in this extended literary relay race to novelist, poet, blogger and performer Kate Dempsey. Here’s her bio:
Kate Dempsey writes fiction and poetry and lives in Ireland. She has been collecting jobs for her author biography since she could read. She has worked as a coffee grinder, a terrible waitress in Woolworths, a Harrods shop assistant, a computer programmer, a technical writer, a writer in schools and a mother. She's lived in England, Scotland, The Netherlands, South West USA and now in Ireland.

These diverse jobs and homes are reflected in her witty, observational writing, which is widely published in Ireland and the UK. Her short stories have been broadcast on RTE Radio and published in the Poolbeg Anthology 'Do The Write Thing.' She was shortlisted for the Hennessey New Irish Writing award three times and her poetry in many magazines and anthologies. She runs the Poetry Divas Collective, a glittering group of women who blur the wobbly boundaries between page and stage at cool events all over Ireland.

Her first novel, The Story of Plan B, was shortlisted for the London Book Fair LitIdol.

Where to find Kate Dempsey online