After reading your bio and website, I think you must be one of the busiest poets around at the moment. You must love what you do, but how do you fit everything in?
Geraldine O’Kane, who co-runs Poetry NI with myself, we both love poetry, and we both love seeing other people grow and develop in their writing and their discovery of poetry. So I guess if you are really passionate about something, you just find the time and energy somehow. Poetry has been very important in helping me deal with my depression: it’s created social circles and new friends, and given me a sense of self-worth, so although at times it might feel busy, it still feels vital.
You champion local poets and co-run Poetry NI. What’s the poetry scene like in Belfast at the moment?
Belfast, for a long time, had very few opportunities for poets outside of the Universities. Purely Poetry, our open mic night, has been running for over six years now, and back when we started, poetry wasn’t really seen as something to do on a night. Now, thankfully, more and more places are seeing poetry as viable, something that audiences want. We still have a long way to go – what Dublin has on in the space of a week would easily outnumber what happens in Belfast in a month. But it’s improving slowly.
As an editor and publisher you must see and read a lot of work. In some cases, you might be the first person to see it. What’s it like discovering new poetry and poets?
I think as an editor, you have to have a responsibility to discover new writers and showcase them. You can’t just publish your mates. It’s amazing to publish someone, perhaps for the very first time, and then a few years down the line, see how they have advanced. We’re fortunate in having our Purely Poetry open mic night, with new readers coming and being able to hear their work. But we are also wary of being too Belfast-centric, and want to push more North West and rural voices moving ahead.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read. Simple as that. You can’t be a writer if you don’t intake words and revel in the output of others. Join your local library. If you’ve a student, definitely read beyond what’s just on your course reading list. Subject yourself indiscriminately to books, read widely with an open mind, and don’t be afraid to try out writers that might be completely different from your own style or what you’ve read before.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to create bad art. Not everything you pen has to be prize-winning. As long as you are engaging with that creative element, and exercising your brain, the really good stuff will come eventually.
What inspires you to write? (If you have time!)
Often, I write to try and make sense of things, either of what is happening in the world, or simply how I see my own place in it. My own mental health impacts on what I might write about; often, it’s just feelings and behaviour. But I guess like most other writers, I just react to what I see and experience. Anything really can be inspiration, from a news article to the shape of a cloud, from falling in love, to making a cup of tea.
What works are you reading at the moment? and what or who would you recommend us to read?
I’ve just finished Joan Newmann’s new collection, Dead End (Summer Palace Press, 2018). All the poems muse on death to a degree, some with black humour, some with a startling candour. It’s fantastic, and I definitely recommend checking it out. I also finished reading a collection from Hungarian poet Attila József while on the train the other day. I was in the middle of Lost for Words by John Humphrys too, although I have to say some of his recent comments in the news has put me off that…
For recently released poetry, two of the best collections I read last year were Ruth Carr’s Feather and Bone (Arlen House), inspired by the lives of Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Ann McCracken, and Michael Farry’s The Age of Glass (Revival Press).
You’re involved in so many projects. (One of my favourites is Panning for Poems, I love the design aspect.) Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment, or what’s coming up for you in the future?
Panning For Poems is Geraldine’s project: Geraldine greatly enjoys micropoetry, so she wanted to give a platform to that which didn’t necessarily deal in formal structures like haiku, tanka, etc. All the poems are printable on one A4 sheet, to fold up and keep in your pocket or bag in case of a poetry emergency!
Otherwise, Purely Poetry and FourXFour Poetry Journal are continuing as normal. The next issue of FourXFour will be out for Poetry Day Ireland, on 21st March. We’ll also be looking at doing some more live readings and slams, and ideally, we will want to release more chapbooks through Pen Points Press.
I noticed that a lot of the projects you’re involved in make poetry very accessible for readers. (FourXFour, micropoetry journals and P.O.E.T. – Poets Opposing Evil Trump are all available freely as pdfs on the Poetry NI website.) Do you think poetry is becoming more accessible than ever before?
PDFs are an easy and cheap way for us to distribute poetry. Distribution is a massive challenge. If you publish a book, how do you get it out there, to the wider reading audience? Online publishing allows you to circumnavigate that issue somewhat, but importantly, poets still need to earn a living; there needs to be a paying market alongside what is being freely accessed. So hundreds of people might download a free PDF, but if you charge for it, what happens then? Hopefully, if it’s really strong writing, people will still be willing to pay, and help a poet buy a notebook or pay the rent.
I’ve always loved poetry, so I’m biased, but I’m interested if you’ve seen or noticed a rise in the popularity of poetry in the last few years? Do you think poetry is becoming more political?
Poetry has always been political – ask Plato and Socrates. Poetry has been used through the centuries to make political points and to rebuff them. It goes back to accessibility – instead of printing a poem and nailing it to the door of your town hall, or handing them out in the market square, you now upload it, or tweet, or blog, Youtube, Soundcloud, etc. Poetry isn’t becoming more political, just more people are exposed to it, which is a damn good thing.
Would you like to share one of your poems with us?
Thank you. This one was originally published in Abridged, and will be in my upcoming collection, the x of y, available from Eyewear Publishing later this year.
We group instruments of sleep about us:
gum shield, throat spray, ear plugs, bodies given
in set agreement.
In Summer, we require less than our skins.
Dreams ruptured from the heat; stray images,
kindling for the stars.
Come November, additives of blanket,
socks, pepper the bed with one poppy red
hot water bottle.
We take up our positions, defenders
to each other’s rampart. Security
of unified arms.
Soon, you are drowsy; I begin the slow
pilot of my torso towards the moon,
moods tucked around us.
We go to our little deaths together,
awaiting the morphine touch of Somnus.
These are our soft times.