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TRANSFORM THE FUTURE:

Poet Dave Lordan interviewed by Southword's Jennifer Matthews.

 

 

Editor's disclaimer:

The opinions expressed in this interview are not shared in their entirety by the editorial team of Southword
or the Board of the Munster Literature Centre.

 

 

 

Dave LordanDave Lordan was born in Derby, England, in 1975, and grew up in Clonakilty in West Cork. In 2004 he was awarded an Arts Council bursary and in 2005 he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry. His collections are The Boy in the Ring (Cliffs of Moher, Salmon Poetry, 2007), which won the Strong Award for best first collection by an Irish writer and was shortlisted for the Irish Times poetry prize; and Invitation to a Sacrifice (Salmon Poetry, 2010). Eigse Riada theatre company produced his first play, Jo Bangles, at the Mill Theatre, Dundrum in 2010. He has lived in Holland, Greece and Italy, and now resides in Greystones, Co Wicklow.

 

 

Jennifer MatthewsJennifer Matthews writes poetry and book reviews, and is editor of the Long Story Short literary journal. Her poetry has been published in The Stinging Fly, Mslexia, Revival, Necessary Fiction, Poetry Salzburg, Foma & Fontanelles and Cork Literary Review, Poetry International Web and anthologised in Dedalus's collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places (2010). In 2012 she read at Electric Picnic with Poetry Ireland, and had a poem shortlisted by Gwyneth Lewis in the Bridport poetry competition. Her poetry was recognised in both the 2013 and 2014 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year competitions.

 

 

 

 

 

JM:      Can you tell me about your first impulse to write—how old were you, and was it a story or poem or some other literary creature, and what made you want to write it?

 

DL:      Of necessity, I lived in an imaginary world for years before I started to write. In that world, which I shared with my childhood best friend, I   was the joint chieftain of a nomadic tribe of children who lived in a post-apocalyptic realm in which no-one over the age of 12 was allowed to exist. These pre-literary impulses to play and to run away were wedded in my early teens to the impulse to record my life and I started to write poems about my feelings and personal incidents and also a certain amount of dream poems. I found this to be a great spiritual relief and psychological benefit. I was able, perhaps instinctively – who knows? – and in an extremely naïve and derivative way of course, to scan and rhyme and versify without too much effort. When I shared the work with my friends I got positive feedback and so I kept going.

 

JM:      Does this childhood tribalism experience have an influence on the eponymous poem ‘Lost Tribe of Wicklow Mountains’? Although the poem’s subject seems to focus adults, there is an imaginative playfulness and magic in it that calls to mind a child-like vulnerability that doesn’t leave us, no matter how old we get.

 

DL:      Not only this poem, but the whole book, and probably everything I write, is connected with that childhood immersion in a self-generated alterity. The imagination exists and with it we can attempt reckon with the past, confront or escape or compute the present, creatively figure out ways to transform the future, dream without limits or responsibilities atall. The ambition, therefore, is to channel all these separately generative and yes paradoxical aspects of the poetic imagination –  the redemptive; the resistant; the illusionary; the playful; the prophetic – into my poetry, as best I can.

 

JM:      Where are we at with poetry in Ireland—are you satisfied with the kind of work being published and promoted here? Is there a direction you’d like to see poetry moving in, stylistically? Is there anything you’d like to see more or less of?

 

DL:      I think people should write poetry as they choose to write it of course. I prefer poems written by poets who obsessively and wide-rangingly read and study poetry themselves and it's always obvious who they are, and who they aren't. There's plenty of interesting work being written by poets you could call Irish one way or another, although for me there's a difference between Diaspora poets, poets based in the North, poets based in Southern Ireland, poets writing in the Irish language, poets writing in Hiberno-English, poets writing in D4/BBC English, poets writing in the newly arrived immigrant languages etc, etc. There's admirable talent, energy, commitment to poetry across these many poetic Irelands.

 

But we have out-of-date and out-of-sync Haughey-Era institutional framework around poetry in Ireland which doesn't live up to or even understand this situation of diversity. It's shameful that, unlike actors or visual artists for example, we poets don't have a democratic representative body which can argue the case for the cultural value of poetry and why we should as a society invest in supporting poetry far more than we do—as a critical artform, not as an adjunct of Bord Failte. If poetry is left in the hands of arts administrators, who naturally pursue their own career interests quite distinct  from those of poets and other artists, the main public face of irish poetry is bound to be as marketing material, and poetry as a critical art form will be pushed even further into the silent margins.

 

The elephant in the room here is Poetry Ireland, a non-membership, non-democratic, and – most absurdly of all – non-poet run, quango organization set up in the early 1980s, in the atmosphere of the early 80s, and to serve the professional networks established or being established at that time and who, hardly coincidentally, still form the orthodox hierarchy here. After the death of Heaney, and with the obvious exceptions, we are on a pretty level playing field artistically between the generations in Irish poetry and it would surely be appropriate to see this reflected in how poetry is funded, administrated, promoted at home and abroad and so on. In my opinion Poetry Ireland should be wound down and its largely administrative and ceremonial functions absorbed back into the Arts Council, where they belong.

 

The freed-up funding should be used to support badly needed mentoring programs for emerging poets and even more badly needed long-term supports for peer-recognised poets in mid-career, to support the work of those in arts admin who have genuine curatorial interest in poetry, to put long-term money behind the many local and DIY initiatives around the country which support poets and poetry audiences enthusiastically but which need sustainable funding to last . We are a state dreamed up and then acted into being by the wordy deeds of poets, by politically active dissident outspoken poets, and the present state owes poets a lot more, better, and fairer institutional support than they currently get.

 

JM:      Do you think it's useful to have a publication like Poetry Ireland Review as an aspirational beacon to those who are trying to have their poems published? 

 

DL:      Ah…PIR. Did you get their recent special issue on the life of Jesus? Wonderful, wasn't it? I have it on my special shelf for publicly funded hagiographic poetry. It's sandwiched between Poetry Iran Review's special issue on the life of Muhammed and Poetry North Korea’s special issue on the life of Kim Il Sung. And I’m delighted PIR did Jesus    for the simple reason that we don’t hear enough of Jesus in Ireland, do we? I’m hoping they’ll do one on Padre Pio next. And maybe one on family values after that. Or one in praise of the Nuns of Tuam. And beside the buffoonery of a Jesus issue, the idea of a ‘journal of record’ is a very 1980’s notion, if not 1880‘s, and a very pompous  and inaccurate one at that. I’ve had work published in PIR and am glad of it of course—but I recently had a piece in The Penny Dreadful and that made me a lot happier to be frank. Great operation, The Penny Dreadful, and again, I think we need to realise that, whatever the situation in 1981, in Charlie Haughey’s Eire, when perhaps there was an argument for a ‘journal of record’, there certainly isn’t now, in our far more diverse and interesting Ireland, one ‘journal of record’ but many and diverse journals of record and most of them, if we are going on aesthetic grounds alone, have at least an equal claim to the PIR for funding support .

 

JM:      Earlier in this conversation, you spoke of the value you see in ‘peer-recognised’ poets. Do you feel there’s a disparity between writers who are acknowledged to be gifted by fellow writers, and those who receive funding/publication/recognition by the institutional framework?

 

DL:      I mean poets who have generated a discourse about their work, among writing peers, critics, the poetry reading public, beyond their immediate circle of influence. I don't mean how many likes you get on Facebook or even how many YouTube views you have. Poetry would be way too easy, and frankly a waste of time and space, if 'peer-recognised' were perverted to mean most popular in cyber-space.

 

Someone who has thought deeply about poetry, who knows the tradition as well as the contemporary poescapes, thinking deeply about your poetry—that is peer recognition. I think the funding model has been wildly successful in fiction by the way and the Arts Council should be congratulated hugely on the effort and the vision they have put in there. However, they obviously don't have the same interest or expertise in poetry—the fact that they outsource the funding to a quango is evidence enough of this. In fiction (and in visual arts I’m told) the backing often goes to the young, fresh, up-and-coming, the subversive, etc. In poetry it largely doesn't, the safe bets get most of the backing, even when they are three-legged jennets that have been limping backwards for years, which begs interesting questions about policy formation etc—see above.

 

JM:      With the introductory quote by Vasari in ‘Lost Tribe’, you indicate that the material in your latest collection is a departure from your previous work. What kind of changes are taking place in your writing?

 

DL:      I think change is an absolute necessity for any artist, and those who don't change substantially from work to work are simply not being artists. I'm trying to shift the locus of my work from the self and towards the other, to step out of the frame in other words, and even when inside the frame to not be the main subject or locus of the poem.

 

I'm becoming more interested in classical and traditional forms and  poetics and maybe this interest will deepen although I am prone to sudden changes of direction so maybe it won't. The main thing I am      interested in is how to write in artistically fresh and even original ways about issues of public concern – which are also very much my own  genuine private concern – in poems that strike a chord and provoke a reaction among as large an audience as possible.

 

I quote Vasari on Di Cosimo because Di Cosimo represents the ideal of the artist for me – an ideal which may be impossible to even approach in our world – one who separates absolutely from throng and celebrity, survives on boiled eggs, and produces lasting work on eternal themes with a wide audience in a variety of forms. I admire Irish poets like Thomas Kinsella and Kerry Hardie who have chosen the poetic life of dedicated, quasi-hermetic retreat, and who speak  so profoundly and beautifully from the far margins of our culture, when they are good and ready to speak. I wonder how to combine that artistic hermeticism within which the book and the page  and the attention to poetic tradition remain  sacred, with building a sizable and challenging audience in that vast contemporary world now lying beyond the normal reach of the poetry book.

 

While retaining a huge respect and attention to the artistic centrality of poetry that has been written down and is being written down, one key activity for me lies in collaboration, with other like-minded artists working in more distributable forms such as film and sound art, as well as doing as many public readings as possible and doing justice to my poems when I do. I have had very good collaborations recently withPadraig Burke of Irish Writers Centre in Video, and with Bernard Clarke of Lyric FM in Sound Art. And I am constantly lucky with the range of readings I am invited to give. This fruitful and necessary –  but also risky and difficult – hybridizing of the art of poetry as we have safely inherited it from past times with engagement with the political, technological and cultural realities of the present is what I am most interested in. One foot on the solid bank of  tradition, the other in the river of ceaseless change. "Amphibious", as Billy Ramsell says, or "the swerving writer" as Graham Allen puts it.

 

JM:      Which poems would you personally recommend as life-savers?

 

DL:      You know that's a good question. I think it would be a different prescription for everyone, and they would have to find it for themselves. I believe poetry is life-enhancing overall I guess. You couldn't do better, to start off with, as a general prescription for Irish readers these days, than the Roman stoics and satirists, who seem to have lived in the same kind of corrupt, decadent, nepotistic, sickeningly hypocritical public world as the modern-day Irish—poets of scathing and fearless eloquence  like Juvenal, Martial, Catullus, Persius etc.

 

JM:      What are poems good for? What can they do—both for the individual, and for society?

 

DL:      Reading poems or listening to poems or writing poems or reciting poems makes us smarter, more empathetic, more knowledgeable and connects us to both our deepest inner selves and to a universal cultural activity which all humans in all times and all places have had access to. You'd be mad not to have poetry in your life. Poetry is a great teacher of both the follies and the glories of humankind. It's the greatest product of human culture and is accessible to absolutely everyone who gives it a real go. It is a refuge of hope and meaning in hopeless and meaningless times. Get into it. Get into it deep. It's worth the effort.

 

©2015 Dave Lordan & Jennifer Matthews

 

 

Author Links

 

Dave Lordan home page

Jennifer Matthews at Poetry International Web

Review of Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains by Jennifer Matthews

 

 

 

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