Q1. I’m curious about the process of putting a book together ‑ do you discover that certain poems seem to gather themselves into a collection ‑ or is the process of choosing more difficult?
I’m of the view that putting a collection together is exactly that ‑ a shaping of individual poems into a coherence which is itself valuable, tells its own story. It takes me ages to get to that point and sometimes it feels that the shape isn’t right, so you have to break it all up again and start all over. But with Mickey Finn’s Air, I had a strong sense of where I wanted to start, with “Déjà vu”, and where I wanted to end, with the American sequence “Another Country”. The book fell into place between these poems more or less, with some jiggling around. I also had a feeling that this collection was, in a way, paralleling my last book, Points West (2008) ‑ like the second half of a play.
Q2. Why did you choose “Mickey Finn’s Air” as the title poem of the book?
I was back in Galway with my wife last year on a fellowship at the university and we revisited many of the places we’d known there in the 1970s and after, where we lived for so long and the people we knew then, some very well, some who were from the West but who were moving on or passing through. It was an amazing time. Galway was still very much a market town, everyone kind of knew everyone else and the music scene was uncomplicated by the hyper-professionalism of today. It was I suppose a more innocent time. Mickey Finn was a great fiddler who played around the city bars. We knew him slightly. I was very taken by his fiddle-playing. Anyways, one Sunday morning I was heading to the west of the city, and Mickey had paused at O’Brien’s bridge. It was very blustery and as I approached him he looked drained so we both sort of shuffled across against the wind. It was a moment I completely forgot about until I wrote the poem about the territory of the canal-ways we had once lived by and knew so well around the old part of the town. When I read it to my wife in Galway she said it had to be the title of the next book. There you have it!
Q3. Two of the poems have dedicatees ‑ who were Norma and Terence Bradshaw? How do their poems fit with your relationship to them as people?
Norma was my mother and Terence her brother, my uncle. The poems came about thinking about them both and the worlds they and my sister and I grew up in. When they died within a few of years of each other I was struck by how their attitudes and views and the visual world that I associated with them had also gone in a way as well.
Q4. The poem “Shortcuts” is a magnificent journey through moments in a life; is all or part of it your life? And was this a difficult poem to construct?
I was asked to write something for Vacuum, the Northern magazine – about memories, I think it was. The first draft of “Shortcuts” was in prose but when I read it a couple of times at readings, and then started to go back over it, the more it looked like a poem. So it sorted itself into quatrains finally. I like the look of that. It changes gear three-quarters of the way through, as if the rhythms slow a little through the force of recollection, and then all those songs and poems and movies that are “books” and “titles” merge into lived things, not artificial, but integral parts of a lived life, like the wondrous pheasant stepping across the stone wall of the family home we had in the Galway countryside. I can see it still, plumage displayed, and that strange call. It was like a revelation!
Q5. There’s a tremendous feeling of nostalgia to many of the poems ‑ is it difficult to capture memory with poetry in a way that avoids sentimentality?
That’s down to the intention of the poem. I don’t like easy sentiment, and it is easy to do ‑ to play with people’s feelings. But nostalgia is a different matter. As Alice says, it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. Nostalgia is about the painful realities of living, and coping with loss, often of home, wherever that is. That’s why there’s a couple of poems in the book about the economic collapse which drove so many from their homes. Poetry for me is not about easy sentiment. It’s hard enough trying to write a decent poem, to get the words right to fit what it is you’re thinking and doing in a way that is interesting and pleasurable. To give it all away with an “ah, isn’t that nice” wouldn’t be my idea of success. Memory is a very complicated business that’s not just about the past; it’s about finding a route into the present as well and making necessary adjustments and judgements and then getting on with it. Poetry is an artful way of making that happen.
Mickey Finn’s Air is published by Gallery Press at €11.95.