Dave Lordan: A lot of the collection takes place, or at least longs for, a pre-Trouble's Belfast. What draws you back to reflecting on that period, so distant from us all in so many ways, at this stage of your career?
Gerald Dawe: The opening of Mickey Finn's Air is set in a retrospective of my childhood home in north Belfast. It all came to me in a rush one day as I was walking through the town and had a strong feeling of sensing my late uncle's presence. We were very close when I was a young fella growing up in late fifties, sixties. He was a bit of a dude really. Anyway, I had been clearing out the house my mother lived in from the early seventies and both she and her brother, were on my mind since both had died within a few years of each other. There was a personal loss that needed expression and it found a kind of focus in the home we shared back then. I've been fascinated by the way in which time moves on and how experiences remain; or simply disappear until something prods them back into mind. I'm not really interested in the past, and I certainly have never 'longed' to return there in reality! But the connection between the past and the present - emotionally, politically - I find that fascinating. The opening part of Mickey Finn's Air comes out of that.
DL: Can you tell us about the title and the title poem. Who is Mickey Finn and what is his air? What connection do they have to your idea of poetry overall and to the aesthetics of this collection in particular?
GD: The title refers to a musician, a fiddler, who was very well known in Galway in the seventies. I knew him only slightly; we'd hear him in the bars around town at the weekends and the like. He was wonderfully gifted. So far as I know about these things he experimented somewhat with traditional Irish music and tried out new things. My wife and I lived in the old part of Galway for several years and when we were there in 2013 for a few months it brought a lot back. I recalled walking down 'the west' one Saturday or Sunday, late morning, and as I approached O'Brien's Bridge I saw Mickey Finn standing there. It was very blustery and the Corrib was in full spate, in fact it was almost flooding the banks down from the Salmon Weir Bridge. We exchanged a few words. He looked hesitant on his feet so we both sort of steered each other across, against the wind and over the racing river. It came to me again and I wrote the poem. When I read it to my wife she thought it should be the title for the book I was working on. There you have it. The poem is about the forgotten things and how we have to keep going no matter what the adversity. I also figure the poem is in praise of an artist I didn't really know but whose music stays alive because of its energy and vitality and I think that is about as far as I can go on about the 'aesthetics'. Mickey died quite young so the poem is a tribute really to him.
DL: ‘For Sale’ takes place in a bleak atmosphere of ruin, amnesia, isolation, death – a dark underworld - is there something you feel your poetry can rescue from such darkness by entering into it, something you can bring to light? What is the purpose in such bringing to light (or perhaps maintaining in light)?
GD: 'For Sale' is a poem that records the life of a woman my mother knew who lived in a house at the end of a terrace of typical redbrick Belfast houses. When she died the house was, as we say, 'gutted'. I took a look in one day and was amazed to see it - like a time-capsule. Nothing had been changed in half a century and more. Like many of her generation WW2 had taken (so the story went) her beloved and she had remained on her own in the house. I imagined her moving in there at the beginning impressed by the trees along the avenue, and the customs of the time, almost all gone now, of those curtains on the front doors in Mark Rothko-like colours and designs. And I guess I had Lowell's 'For Sale' in the back of my mind somewhere but without the personal investment of his poem. My poem is simply trying to capture the way in which those terraces contained a way of life that was looked after by different services - the laundry, the coal man, the local store deliveries etc - and the necessary 'proper' look of things being in order, orderly, notwithstanding what was actually the emotional or personal reality behind it all. 'For Sale' commemorates those lives without sentimentalising them. They're a hardy, stoical people. I'm drawn to the way things look, and the gaps between that and what they seem to be; and that may well be on the dark side too.
DL: ‘The Last Summer’- Against the ruins and the passing away we have the continuity of poetic tradition (by which i mean its readers as well as its writers and critics) allowing us perhaps to travel through time, to manipulate time and the past for pour own, human, purposes?
GD: I'm still not 100% certain I have 'The Last Summer' right but it fits one of the ideas that recurs in 'Mickey Finn's Air' - the way books, music, art, all that - the way these things 'become' us. Things we read, or watch, or listen to, are really like what we are, so they lose their identity as 'Literature' or 'Art' and become part of our identity. I came across the anthology the poem starts off with and it struck me as I noticed the different markings that had been written over it on the margins, exclamation marks, and the like, that the book was a sort of alive, and had been well read or at least well used. So I tried to imagine those who had the book over time and how their lives mirrored the duration of the book itself, before it was taken out of circulation - WITHDRAWN as the stamp has it. Poetry is a way of maintaining the flow. Some way or another poetry, word of mouth, rote-kerning, song - keeps feelings and ideas alive. That's it's great strength and pleasure. If the language fits the task it lifts off and is unforgettable.
DL: This is your ninth collection. What keeps you going as a poet? What's the secret of poetic longevity?
GD: I started to publish when I was quite young, in my late teens and writing poetry was something I knew I always wanted to do simply because I loved reading it. As you grow up you realise its not that simple. You need to have the desire, the need to write but you also need to have the skill and commitment to learn how to do it well, or better. You can teach yourself as much as you can but the world - the real world, I mean, not the 'literary world' - will teach you everything you need to know provided you are attentive. I have gone through patches when the poems don't add up, when nothing really seems to be working and its always difficult, its always a worry. When I was in my late 20s for instance, there was a period of about seven years or so , a period of transition, that led to few poems but a lot of adjustment in my life which in turn produced its own writing and that became my second collection, The Lundys Letter , which Gallery published thirty years ago in 1985. I've never been one of those lucky poets who can write lots of material, although one of the things that pleased me about 'Mickey Finn's air' is the 'bulkier' and longer poems work ok alongside the sequences like 'The Bells of St Nicholas' and the American sequence 'Another Country' that concludes the book. There is no 'secret' to writing but hard work, good fortune, and keeping a realistic sense of perspective on one's ambition and expectations.I've never been one to look over my shoulder at who's doing what or where the next poem will come from. I am mulling over some new things and a bit surprised by their edginess. Mickey Finn's Air is in my mind partner to Points West (2008) which was a more political, 'out there' book, particularly regarding the political violence of recent years. Mickey Finn's Air is a calmer, perhaps more contemplative book because on a personal level I lost several people who were very close to me in quite a short space of a few years and that impels its own emotional response.
DL:You've spoken previously of the importance of the 'quiet' poet. What does this mean? Is there too much noise, too much razzmatazz associated with poetry these days?
GD: There are poets who don't handle the public sphere so well, maybe there are much fewer today than in previous years. What I meant by the 'quiet poet' is someone like Elizabeth Bishop. You need to go to her to understand what's happening. She doesn't make it easy. Also: the volume of readings, festivals, the business of 'getting known' as Krapp says, the performance side of writing has taken over the literary scene largely. It has a great value in making poetry available in an open setting but the downside is that poets can end up sounding more like entertainers with their signature tunes. It can also mean writing with that general audience in mind. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this but it can obscure the other different, indeed, more difficult or thoughtful poetry from being accessed and appreciated. I'm all for razzmatazz but not as the only game in town. I dislike the notion that poetry has to concede any ground whatsoever for the sake of fashion.
DL: Has the death of Seamus Heaney had an impact on the mood of your poetry?
GD: Seamus's death was such a shock. We were in Belfast at the funeral of my step-father when I was told. It was desperate. Seamus was a wonderful man who I knew not very well but in recent years we saw more of each other. His presence as I've said elsewhere was like an older brother. I catch myself now and then wondering about him, and reading his work brings his voice very much back to me. I know it very well and respect it and also what Seamus did for poetry worldwide. Poetry had attention because of Seamus. His last books - District and Circle, Human Chain - were among his best and the early individual volumes I have I treasure like everyone else. He brought a kind of brightness with him both personally and intellectually. There was also a sense of devilment, fun and irreverence that may well have been overlooked by the range and depth of grief at his death.
DL: Is there a presiding myth that holds a particular fascination for you and influences your work, as the myths of pre-celtic Ireland did for Yeats?
GD: No myth, I'm afraid. I saw as a young man at first hand what 'myths' do and nothing I have read about Irish, European or world history since leads me to believe that 'myths' - once they are no longer lived realities - are anything other than reasons for overpowering others, usually by violence. 'Torc' in Mickey Finn's Air tries to say something about the bounty of Celtic art but not as a source of myth. No, more as symbols of time, art, perseverance, glory; as 'something to sustain you' as Elizabeth Bishop says.
Dave Lordan's Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains is published by Salmon Poetry.