Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nude Makes Landfall in Dundalk

Got your attention, haven't I?

Today, I am delighted to welcome
Nuala Ní Chonchúir and her wonderful new collection of short stories, 'Nude' from Salt Publishing to my humble blog. I have to say, I've read them very quickly, because I was pulled into them very easily. Always a good sign, when you can't tear yourself away from a book.

Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in County Galway. Her third short fiction collection Nude was published by Salt in September 2009. She is one of four winners of the 2009 Templar Poetry Pamphlet and Collection competition. Her pamphlet Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car will be published in November. Nuala's website is: www.nualanichonchuir.com

Pull up a comfy armchair there Nuala, here's a very large mug of strong writer's tea and some homemade scones & blackberry jam (freshly picked from the Cooley Peninsula on Sunday!). Tuck in!

Hi Barbara and big thanks for having me here at your blog. I know and admire your own work, so I’m honoured to be here.

Thank you Nuala, now down to questions: firstly, how and where do characters come from, for you? Do you find characters re-visiting you or is it the other way around, do you like to tease out other nuances of them in related stories?

Gosh, that’s hard to answer because, in a sense, there’s no one way that characters ‘arrive’ to me. Sometimes I have a sense of someone or a relationship between two people and I want to write about them. Take Magda and Jackson in the story ‘Jackson & Jerusalem’. She’s an older woman artist and he’s a teenager who models for her; I liked the idea of that dynamic – a friendship across generations/sexes. I based the physical descriptions on my own son when he was a bit younger. Magda isn’t based on anyone but she’s very real to me. She’s also featured in the story ‘Madonna Irlanda’ as a younger woman; if I like a character, it’s irresistible to write more about them.

Other times characters arrive like a voice in my ear – I hear their voices and I work from there.

How do you delineate so well between older and younger characters, such as Jackson and Magda in 'Jackson and Jerusalem'? Do you find it hard to switch between the headspace needed to make each character live and breathe in the rounded manner that they do?

I’m glad you think I do it well...I was one of those children who preferred the company of adults; I loved listening to their conversation. I had my poor neighbours plagued as a child, always in their houses talking to them. I find younger people harder to relate to but having kids myself has given me some understanding of what makes them tick. All of that knowledge gets ploughed into fiction, I guess – into my characters.

My stories are generally from one POV so there isn’t really a problem switching headspace. I’m not sure that I find it problematic anyway. It’s fun to get inside the heads of people who are nothing like you; I enjoy that escape thoroughly.

Have you ever experienced great difficulty with a story - say for example, getting the ending right, or losing your way through the story? I ask this, because I find your stories are so absorbingly complete and well-imagined, that I can't imagine difficulties!

Yes, lots of difficulties! I don’t plot so I never have a clue what’s going to happen next. I used to almost fear endings but I’m more relaxed about them now.

And I suppose only the stories that work get into the book. I start, and then abandon, lots of stories – some just don’t lift off the page. I’ve written plenty of what Richard Ford calls ‘minor aesthetic nullities’. I’m rarely happy with anything. There are a handful of stories in Nude that I really love – the rest I just like, in whole or in part. But it doesn’t matter what I think – it’s impossible to be objective about your own work – I just hope that readers enjoy them.

Are you compelled to write or can you save ideas for work, for later on when you get the chance? Which method works better for you?

Writing is a compulsion for some people and I’m one of them; I’m always in writing mode. Henry James said, ‘Be one of those people on whom nothing is lost’. I think I am one of them – I seem to notice a lot and, as I notice things, I’m writing a narrative in my head. I presume all writers are the same.

Lately though, with my new baby and with promoting Nude, I’m too tired and busy to write anything more than the bones of a few poems. I want to be writing above all else, but the headspace is just not there. So, instead, I take notes!

Thanks so much for having me here, Barbara, and for your great questions. Next week my virtual tour takes me to Petina Gappah’s blog in Geneva, via Zimbabwe, which is where Petina is from. Do join us!

Thank you for coming by, Nuala, it's been a pleasure and I hope that Nude garners the attention it deserves.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Sparks on Arthur's Day

I’m very pleased to welcome Ben Wilkinson to my humble blog today, on what turns out to be Arthur’s Day. We’ve just missed the 17:59 time slot, but still, raise yourself a nice, slowly-poured creamy-headed pint of porter with me, pull up a stool and we’ll get down to some poetry appreciation.

Ben Wilkinson was born in Stafford in 1985 and studied English and Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. He is currently completing an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University.

His poems have appeared in a wide variety of publications including Poetry Review, Poetry London, Magma, and the TLS. He has also reviewed poetry for Poetry Review, Stand and the TLS, and writes critical perspectives of contemporary poets for the British Council’s Contemporary Writers website.

His first pamphlet of poems, The Sparks, was published in 2008 as part of Tall-Lighthouse’s Pilot scheme, showcasing the best British poets under 30.

Wilkinson: to an outlier, it’s a name that whispers steel and Sheffield, and makes you think of a certain set of double crossed swords. But, before you wince, Ben Wilkinson crosses pens, not swords (perhaps there’s a new coat of arms) and makes Sparks with his pen. Hmm, does that remind you of anyone else in the poetry world? Digging..?

I really liked a great deal about The Sparks when it arrived in the post, so much so that I felt a little discontented that there wasn’t more to read, to contextualise the poems as part of a larger body of work. That is sometimes the shortfall of the pamphlet; a delicious taste that leaves you wanting (a little like fine-dining).

Still, there’s more than enough to show Wilkinson’s dexterity with words. My favourite is ‘Byroads’, a poem I can actually see in my head. I see it as a filmic slow-run film, intriguing in the way that Derry based artist Willie Doherty's work is. Doherty's art explores the complexities of living in a divided society, and I think this poem gets under that skin in a similar way.

In ‘Byroads', there are moments capturing a state of mind, or just a state. Or is it? I see the colours, borders and 'unapproved roads' (yeah, yer man is definitely to the forefront of my mind now) in the poem, and my mind fills in the rest: the north of Ireland and that not-so-simple-situation once you’ve looked.

Hanging baskets frosted white
in the orange blur of a maple wood dusk,
ice stalactite rigid towards the pavements.

The firing of some gun from the wood's
clearing. A bus rumbles on, coughing,
and a local makes his turn at the pub's carpark.

Living goes on despite the divides, but surface stillness betrays its depths. Like Doherty, there is a juxtaposition of image and language, through which a careful reader can extract a deeper meaning. This is but one example of Ben’s restraint, all the more remarkable given that sometimes our younger selves can tend towards a brashness that some might construe as vivid talent, and others showiness.

Anyway, intrigued by Ben’s pamphlet, I sent him some questions by email, to give us all a wee insight into what makes him tick poetry-wise.

When did you realise that poetry was going to be such a major part of your life? Was it in school or university?

Hi Barbara – thanks for featuring The Sparks on your blog. I suppose I first ‘found’ poetry in school, around my late teens. Something clicked while reading the stuff I was studying back then (Larkin, Hughes, Duffy, Armitage – the usual poetry taught in English comprehensives). And I guess at first, that ‘something’ was nothing more than a feeling that “this is doing things which, in my experience, prose isn’t capable of”. But over time, my interest in poetry grew into a sort of secret obsession, and I started privately reading as much poetry as I could, particularly twentieth century and contemporary stuff. I was also tentatively writing stuff at the same time – mainly while I was studying for my A-levels.

Things changed when I went to university. I joined the poetry society there and found likeminded people to share my interests with. A bunch of us would meet once a week for a couple of hours – sharing work by poets we’d recently discovered, playing writing games, reading our poems to each other and occasionally swapping drafts. I carried on attending these meetings until the end of my time at uni. How useful the group was to my actual writing, I don’t know, but it was good fun and I met some interesting people, and it introduced me to some great poetry. By my second year, I was pretty much convinced that poetry wasn’t going to leave me alone, even if I wanted it to.

What’s the best buzz you ever got from a poem - one you’ve written and one you’ve read.

Though I compulsively edit poems and am rarely satisfied with them (beyond the initial, distorted euphoria experienced after naively thinking I’ve just finished one), I have written a few things which buck this trend. ‘Filter’, a poem in The Sparks and my first to appear in Poetry Review (so something of a confidence-boosting milestone), was written in the summer after my second year at university. It emerged over the course of about an hour, almost fully formed – so much so that, unlike most other poems in the pamphlet, it is still pretty much identical to when I first saved it onto the computer, aside a few alterations. That was a really satisfying poem to write – the lines almost just seemed to appear, as if I’d been subconsciously preparing to write the thing for ages. If you’ve ever written a poem in that way – and I reckon most poets have at some time – you’ll know what I mean. For me at least, it doesn’t happen very often.

The best buzz I ever got from a poem… that’s a difficult one. I enjoy many poems for the unique experience they offer, so it’s hard to narrow it down beyond a handful. But I have to pick Philip Larkin’s ‘Here’, simply because when I first read his collection The Whitsun Weddings, and particularly that poem, it made me realise that in the right hands, poetry could encompass, reconcile, and attempt to make sense out of anything and everything. It could switch seemingly effortlessly between the totally insignificant and trivial and the utterly profound and existential (and often pull apart the false boundaries between these). Of course, I now realise the limits to Larkin’s style, but as a young lad I found poems such as ‘Here’ made me see poetry in a completely new way, and helped to validate my own first attempts at writing.

But I might also be tempted to choose Mick Imlah’s ‘Tusking’, simply because, despite having had little influence on my own work that I’m aware of, it is such a haunting and beautiful and absorbing poem it refuses to leave me alone. Memorability is an important factor. I want the initial buzz of the first reading, but I also want that feeling to carry on and make me return to the poem later; for it to persist and stick in my thoughts, even if it’s just a stanza or a few lines. What I reckon all great poems have in common is that persuasive musicality and distinctiveness, but also an intoxicating emotional and intellectual potency. They also have a (perhaps deceptive) sense of necessity and purpose – as if they almost willed themselves to be written.

Do you play word games, like Scrabble, and if so, what's the highest score you've ever had with one word (can you remember it)?

I used to play Scrabble quite a lot – with my grandparents as a young kid, and occasionally with friends when I was in my teens – but I don’t so much anymore. I guess I like to think I was – and still am – pretty good at it, so I suppose my highest score for one word was halfway decent. I don’t remember it though. Besides, the thing with Scrabble, as I’m sure you know, is that an impressively complex or obscure word doesn’t always equal an impressive score. My highest score probably involved placing something really boring, but creating new words from existing words in the process, while landing on a triple word square or whatever. It wasn’t “quixotry” though, I’m afraid.

Who have been the most important poets you have come across?

It depends what we mean by ‘important’. If we’re talking about which poets I think have had the most noticeable influence and effect on my work, I’d say Eliot, Auden, Larkin and Gunn have all been very important. More contemporary poets would include Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Michael Hofmann, Glyn Maxwell, Roddy Lumsden, Carol Ann Duffy and Paul Farley – essentially, those poets which I feel are most interestingly engaged with the British lyric tradition. In my own work, I’ve always been interested in attempting to combine a colloquial, everyday register with an inventive use of poetic diction, syntax, rhythm and form – particularly segueing from one to the other (and sometimes back again) in a single poem.

But I read much more widely than that list perhaps suggests, and poets whose work currently interests me include Christopher Middleton, James Lasdun, Frederick Seidel and Todd Boss. I’m not one for factions or ideas about ‘where poetry is headed’. Michael Donaghy – who is so eminently quotable that anyone even remotely interested in poetry should read his recently published collected prose – once pointed out that “art has no direction”. That makes sense to me. All poets are plodding along together, trying to write the best poetry they can, with only instinct to guide them. I think Donaghy also rightly said that you can always tell bad poetry because it’s always bad in the same ways, whereas a good poem surprises and delights in unexpected, inventive and often artful ways. For that reason, I’m always interested to read widely, and uncover new and different approaches to writing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

All Ireland National Poetry Day, Oct 1st

Last year saw the inauguration of a National Poetry Day in Ireland, by Poetry Ireland, in celebration of 30 years of that organisation serving the Irish poetry reading public. Every county in Ireland held at least one poetry event, be it reading or workshop and it proved to be a great success.

You may remember me blogging about it last year
, as I was invited to be one of three poets representing Louth, along with Patrick Chapman and Patrick Dillon. We first did an outside broadcast at Dundalk Arts Office in the morning with Harry Lee of Dundalk Daily on Dundalk FM 100, and then gave a lunchtime reading at Dundalk Town Hall.

This year, I was (honoured and privileged to be) asked by Louth County Arts Office to curate the events for Louth, so this year, we've got all sorts of events in Dundalk, Drogheda and Carlingford, happening on the one day, Thursday October 1st 2009. If you're round and about, come one, come all!

Dundalk: Lunchtime reading, at 1pm in the library, Dundalk Institute of Technology, with Susan Connolly and Barbara Smith, Dublin Road, Dundalk. T. 042 9392950

Drogheda: Evening Poetry Slam, at 8pm in Boyne Books, Narrow West St. Drogheda with special guest, Dixie Nugent. T. 041 9875140

Carlingford: Evening reading, at 8pm, with Catherine Ann Cullen, The Trinity Church Heritage Centre; a beautifully restored medieval church in the picturesque setting of Carlingford, County Louth. T. 042 9392950

Other events:
Dundalk F.M Radio and Harry Lee of Dundalk Daily will celebrate National Poetry Day from 10.00. am to 12.00. pm, including live readings by Dundalk Writers Group with Barbara Smith at 11.00. am.

Sandy Sneddon will read from his collection of children's poem's in Drogheda Library, Stockwell Street, for selected schools at 11am.

So, it's all happening here, isn't it? If you know of a poetry event in Ireland happening near you on NPD, October 1st, why not tell us all about it in the comments box?

Ask not what your county can do for you, and all that jazz... or poetry... :)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Gimme Some Extra Energy...

There are times lately when I find myself looking back fondly to the days of study at home, slow-cooked casseroles and a slightly guilty feeling at being able to spend some time online catching up with what writing friends and colleagues are up to.

This is because my life seems to have seriously stepped up a gear! I'm doing hours teaching for Meath VEC delivering classes to adults. This is all on the back of the creative writing classes that I began with, oh two years ago..?(!)

So now my days are full of me bashing the keyboard on my computer, form filling, and making session plans and schemes of work... Oh, don't you just love the chalk face - it's no wonder that teachers look forward to their summer holidays; I'm seriously knackered and we're only two weeks into courses.

In other news, I've received a commission to write a poem. Just one poem - imagine! Much more about this closer to the time when it comes to fruition... exciting stuff, eh?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

I survived Electric Picnic...

and lived to tell the tale.

My tale involved wellies, lots of mud and an inordinate amount of walking. I think I may have shed a few pounds this weekend too. And my blisters have blisters..!

It was brilliant. I arrived (after three hours walking around outside) on Saturday afternoon to support writer Kate Dempsey's children's writing workshop in the Kids area, where we and Niamh B helped some very imaginative retellings of fairytales come to life on the page.

I caught a quick blast of Rita Ann Higgins on the Literary State in the Mindfield area, followed by Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan reading from William Burroughs' iconic classic, Naked Lunch.

The rain managed to hold off and later on I caught the last ten minutes of Billy Bragg's set in the Crawdaddy big-top tent. Billy hasn't changed a bit, still angry and still giving out about politics and capitalism, but still giving us a fresh take on it all, aided by his lonesome electric guitar.

Later after a quick chill-session watching a bit of Heath Ledger in Dark Knight, I watched Imelda May, with mi amigas from the Divas (and hubs!), and we enjoyed the tight band, complete with slicked hair, and rockabilly shirts - ooh and a strummed double bass.

Highlight of Saturday: Madness. Even better second time around, their saxophonist is bonkers and Suggs, well, is Suggs. We had prime positions for this hour-long gig, and the band actually started early - and encored late! Yay, "Madness, Madness, they call it Madness..."

Sunday was a much wetter affair, alas, with our own Poetry Divas collective kicking off the day's lineup on the Literary Stage. Photos here, courtesy of EW - thanks! Can you see the state of my wellies?

Some of us Divas went off to the Body and Soul area, to hit the Bog Cottage with more poetry, and that random hit seemed to go down very well, after some session muscians kindly allowed to us to read.

Later I enjoyed the Poetry Chicks' set on the Spoken Word stage, being ably managed by Marty Mulligan - also saw Raven, Miceal Kearney, Billy Ramsell and Maighread Medbh in the crowd relaxing on cushions and taking in the show.

Long story short: the mud was really sucky and mucky. It took me an hour to find my car afterwards, and I had to get a very nice gentleman on a tractor to drag me out of the field - backwards - adding a new twist to that expression, 'looking like I've been dragged through a hedge backwards...

I'd do it again though!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Electric Picnic - here I come!

I confess: I am an EP virgin, as in, I've never been. This weekend, I not only get to go there, I get to perform there too, as part of the Poetry Divas collective.

Things to expect: me airing my boobs again..! Great poetry, and from the website: 'sequins, sparkles, tiaras and willies plentifully mixed among metaphors, similes and sonnets." I kid you not about the 'willies'!

When: Sunday September 6th at 12 midday.

Where: Art Council Literary Stage, Electric Picnic, Stradbally Co. Laois.

So nice to be sharing the bill with wondrous writers as well as ... ooh, Billy Bragg, Brian Wilson, Bat for Lashes, Lamb... oh my - who let me out for the weekend...

See ye on the far side! Pictures to follow :)