Friday, February 18, 2011

Interview with poet Padraig Rooney - The long time of history, the short time we have to look at it

One late afternoon last autumn I met my friend, Irish poet  Padraig Rooney, in Baden, Switzerland.  Some international football game or other was taking place in Basel and the Swiss citizenry were doing duty before their television sets.  As we walked in the footsteps of Hermann Hesse we had the streets to ourselves.  We wandered through the medieval town, crossed a bridge that spanned the Rhine and found a deserted Michelin starred restaurant opposite the famous baths. There we chatted as we had our evening meal, the French windows open wide to the swollen river that thundered past. Padraig had brought the galley proofs for his new, third poetry collection - The Fever Wards.  The title is taken from his 2009 Strokestown Poetry Prize winning poem. In November 2010 The Fever Wards was published in the UK by Salt Publishing.

As we looked over the poems I began to quiz Padraig about his work and months later, having had the time to read and reread his marvellous and intriguing newest collection, I followed up my interrogation with an interview via email.

Padraig, your new collection has a great variety of form and length - sonnets to prose poems, a few lines to a few pages.  How does the form a poem will take come to you?  Do you plan it, decide, this will be a sonnet?  Have you ever rearranged a poem radically and discovered it works better in another form?

The form usually comes fairly early in the writing process. I went through a period of writing sonnets and wanted to see where that form would take me, how I could play with it, shape it to the particular occasion of the poem. I enjoyed toying with a kind of random rhyme. And now I’m wary of the sonnet form: its neatness, the way it can deaden the subject matter. Towards the end of writing the collection I got a kick out of very short poems. There’s a special pleasure in condensing so that nothing is extraneous. I can’t remember if I’ve rearranged a poem but I’ve certainly shortened them – I hope for the better. When I’m reading other people’s poems I often wish they’d stopped much earlier than they do, and when I turn the page and there’s more I feel a sense of dismay. It’s a miniature art form, so less is more.

Edward Hopper: Sun in an Empty Room

A number of the poems paint very vivid visual images.  There are references to Hopper and of course Émile Friant.  How would you describe the relationship between your work and art, specifically painting? 

For many years, until I was thirty or so, I painted. In my teens and twenties I thought of myself, without embarrassment, as an artist and knew all the art supply shops in Dublin and in Basel, where I lived during the summer of 1973, after leaving school. At school I studied art for five years, and I had good art teachers. With two friends we organized an arts collective called Artara – we held exhibitions in the local Assembly Rooms, ran a folk club, brought Irish poets such as Peter Fallon, Daniel Riordan and Matthew Sweeney down to Monaghan to read. The Woods Band and Clannad came to play. The day Picasso died I went to school dressed head to toe in black. In my last year at school I exhibited a couple of canvases at the old Project Art Centre and that summer I was in and out of the Kunstmuseum in Basel. The Beyeler Museum didn’t then exist but its early incarnation, the Galerie Beyeler, was on Bäumleingasse near the Munster where I saw a fantastic exhibition of Picasso’s lithographs in 1973. I used to wander around Basel sketching the friezes and the sculptures in the street. It’s strange now to look at a statue in the street and know I sketched it thirty-five years ago.
            So I’ve had a long and intense relationship with art, particularly painting. I like strongly visual poems. I like that about Elizabeth Bishop – who was also an accomplished watercolourist – the way she looks closely.  Poets frequently respond to Hopper because he’s rather poetic and enigmatic. If a painting grabs me it is usually because it corresponds to an underlying psychic terrain – that’s how the Friant poem came about.

Some poems seem to be influenced by places you've lived in - North Africa, Paris, Budapest, Thailand etc.  But there are of course the references to Ireland as well.  Would you describe yourself as an Irish poet?  Is there such a thing as Irish poetry?  How do you see yourself within this?  Joyce once said he had never left Dublin - could this apply to you at all?

Where to begin with this question? I would describe myself as an Irish poet, though I’m quite happy to drop the adjective. I’ve been out of Ireland longer than I’ve been in it and so my poetry will reflect that exile, as it were. I’m very fond of the French historian Fernand Braudel, for whom geography was at the back of history. Before there were nation states there were seas, mountains and valleys. In the same way Ireland is at the back of my poetry, though there are later overlays. There’s something attractive about fusing places in a poem – making the poem a new place. I’ve been very nomadic. It can lead to shallowness. I’ve taught the global nomad all my life, in a plethora of international schools, and do think that much is lost by not staying put – particularly in the area of language. Globlish is everywhere. If I had to choose an exemplar it might be Nabokov more so than Joyce: both created dream nations. Nabokov’s and Joyce’s English usage bears the mark of exile, a fusion quality, a twisted idiom, wrought, completely their own.

Padraig Rooney

The motifs - harbours, antiquity, encounters remembered years after the event - these all occur and reoccur in this collection, and had me thinking of Cavafy.  And then I came across the poem ‘Cavafyesque’.  Am I right in noticing a Cavafy influence?  Is this deliberate - how does it work?

I’ve just had a look at my old Cavafy Poems in the Chatto & Windus edition and see that Des Hogan sent it to me from London in April 1979. He’d visited me in Paris and must have realized I didn’t know the Alexandrian master. So Des turned me on to ‘these beautiful, painful poems’. It was the erotic, streetwise poems I liked then, their risky, revealing quality, and only later the reflections on Hellenic history. And then I just liked them all. They were seminal when I was coming out – that you could capture the fleeting trace of encounters, of places, in a few laconic lines. “Half past twelve. How the years have passed.” They showed what you could do with a bandage and a bit of iodine. Of course Cavafy wasn’t at home, either, in Alexandria. I went there once, to his apartment. It’s now a small, underfunded museum. His is a very distinctive voice.

I see a number of binary motifs repeated, binding the collection together e.g references to wetness, dampness on the one hand, and dryness, aridness on the other. The tropics and the desert.  The sea and stone. Clay and dust.  Is this deliberate?

Partly. When I was writing the poems in the book I found myself making these big leaps across time. The desert was there, a dream desert. I spent a year in the Sahara desert in 1977, six hundred kilometers south of Algiers. My novel Oasis was about that terrain and I thought I’d done with it, but no. The peculiar quality mangrove must have, its roots in salt water, its head in the air – that attracted me. I just have spent so much time in the tropics. I don’t know how deliberate all this is. It’s all a kind of psycho-geography. When you’re working on a book you half-consciously stumble on your own terrain, the terrain that feels right for you, that expresses your voice.

There is a strong sense of melancholy that permeates the poems.  Loss, age, impermanence. For instance, "The Tow Horses" captures what I mean. Is this a theme, would you say?

Going back to what I said about Cavafy, his voice has that reflective quality too – the long time of history, the short time we have to look at it. Those themes you mention would make their presence felt for most poets of a certain age, nel mezzo del cammin. If those themes didn’t surface, you would wonder. Death is all over this book: the reaper is rampant. But he’s a Nick Cave reaper. There are humourous poems in the book too. You can temper melancholy with humour, particularly black humour.

There is also a strong sense of wonder.  I found the lines: "a god of gas created us/from mud to understand the living" almost emblematic for the collection.  Any comment on that?

That particular poem came out of a visit to a national park along the coast of Thailand, a mangrove reclamation area with boardwalks running through it, so in the evening you could see how it is a fascinating hardscrabble biosphere. At the time of the tsunami I was in Thailand, though up north, and we felt the tremor, a couple of thousand kilometers from the epicenter. There is a half-conscious attempt, in the line you mention, to reconcile the Big Bangers with the God delusionists. And, cruelly, the stripping of the mangrove forests increases vulnerability to the sea. But looking at the horrific footage of the tsunami (or indeed the World Trade Centre footage) there is a curious resemblance to the mangrove swamp: the scurrying for cover, for purchase, the drowning in dust.

Padraig's poem "Bone Bed" appeared in The Financial Times (print only version), but you can read it in the online magazine nthposition.

To read Padraig's poem "The Ordination Meal", click here.

Padraig and Matthew Sweeney will be reading from their newest collections at the University of Berne on March 25th, organized by the Swiss-British Club.  Padraig will be giving a reading in Zürich on September 6th at the James Joyce Foundation.

Padraig's work will be included in a volume, The Captain's Tower, to be published in May in honour of Bob Dylan's 70th birthday.

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