Paul McMahon

An Interview

James Meredith

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Paul McMahon is a Poet and Playwright from Belfast. His poetry has been published in The Threepenny Review, The Salt Anthology of New Writing, The Montreal International Poetry Prize Global Anthology, The Atlanta Review, Crab Creek Review, Fusion/Berklee College of Music, The Keats-Shelley Review, Agenda, Ambit, Orbis, The Interpreters House, The Alan Stillitoe Anthology/ "More Raw Material", The Moth, Southword, Revival, The Stony Thursday Book, Crannog, Abridged, ROPES, Hennessy New Irish Writing/ Irish Independent, The Irish Examiner, Poetry Salzburg Review, and others.

Currently nominated for the Forward Prize for poetry, his poetry prizes include first prize in The Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize, 2015, (judge: Carol Ann Duffy), The Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, 2012, (judge: Matthew Sweeney), The Nottingham Open Poetry Prize, 2012, (judge: Neil Astley), The Westport Poetry Prize, 2012, (judge: Dermot Healy), The Golden Pen Poetry Prize, 2011, and second prize in both The Basil Bunting Poetry Award, 2012, (judge: August Kleinzahler –United States Poet Laureate) and The Salt International Poetry Prize, 2013, (judges: Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery).

He received a Bursary Award, for poetry, from The Arts Council of Ireland (2013) and a SIAP Bursary Award, for poetry, from The Arts Council of Northern Ireland (2015). He was selected for The Poetry Ireland Introductions Series (2014), The Cork Spring Poetry Festival Pre-booked Readings (2015), and was a featured poet at The New Writers’ Salon at the Listowel Writers’ Festival (2015). His poetry has also been broadcast on RTE radio. His unpublished poetry collection has been a finalist in the Fool for Poetry Chapbook Prize (2015), short-listed for the Listowel Poetry Collection Prize (2015), and was given a Special Commendation in The Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award (2015) His full-length play, True Zero, has been short-listed for The Old Vic 12 (2015), Short-listed, 5th place, for the Eamon Keane Full-Length Play Award (2012), Long-listed for the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize (2011), and Short-listed, last 4, for The New Directions Playwriting Prize (2014). Other plays include The Glasshouse (part of ‘Arrivals’ from Terra Nova Productions, 2014), The Blueprint (Dublin Fringe Theatre Festival), and Parallels (Muscailt Theatre Festival, Galway).

James Meredith: You’ve been nominated for this year’s Forward Prize in The Single Poem Category. How did you come to be nominated?

Paul McMahon: Poetry journals and poetry competitions in the UK and Ireland are asked by The Forward Prize Committee to nominate the best poetry they have published in the previous year. The co-ordinator of the Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize nominated my poem, ‘Tom’s Pouch of Cure-Stones,’ which I was delighted to hear.

JM: For a poet who has yet to publish a full-length collection, you’ve won a lot of poetry prizes. And when you consider that the judges have included poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy (The Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize 2015), Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley (the Nottingham Open Poetry Prize), US Poet Laureate August Kleinzahletr (The Basil Bunting Poetry Award), and the late, great Dermot Healy (The Westport Poetry Prize 2012), that must give you a great feeling of achievement.

PM: I can’t lie – it does feel good. But, more importantly, it encourages me to keep going, to write more, which is a great thing. 

JM: When can we expect to see your poetry collection published?

PM: I thought the first collection was ready about four years ago but it wasn’t. The craft side needed a lot of work. It is more or less ready now but I’m going to sit on it for a while before sending it anywhere – just in case. Dermot Healy very kindly edited a draft of it a few years ago, shortly before the great man sadly passed away. “It’s a slow process,” he told me. “Don’t be in a rush to send it out before it’s ready.” And he was right, It still needed more work.

JM: As well as the poetry prizes, you’ve been widely published in anthologies and journals. Does this help with having a full-length collection considered for publication?

PM: Definitely so – if the individual poems aren’t published individually in the good journals then it has to be assumed that those editors turned them down. It is a long road but the work improves with rejection.

JM: You were born and grew up in West Belfast during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Does much of your work look back on that time?

PM: It does, most definitely. There is a whole mine of Belfast experiences that feed into my poems. Belfast in the 70’s and the 80’s was a very alive place. I once asked Dermot Healy if he thought that conflict was father to creativity, and he said, “Of course it is! Sure look at Belfast during the troubles. Everybody wanted to go there to read. There was a war on – the place was full of energy.”

There were that many bombs going off and people were being killed regularly, I remember saying to myself, “Jesus, I might get shot here.” And I imagine a lot of people had that thought. And considering that I was shot at and also blown ten feet by a hand grenade during Michael Stone’s attack on Milltown Cemetery in 1988 it was not such a ridiculous thought to have.

It all feeds into the work. The resulting poem from that experience ended up as a documentary-style poem which won the Nottingham Open Poetry Prize in 2012.

When I was growing up my father, who simply owned an off-licence in the wrong part of town, had four serious assassination attempts on his life – one being a Bonnie and Clyde style machine gun attack which riddled the side of his car with bullets as he waited for the lights to turn green. Another time he actually disarmed the gunman who walked into the Off-licence he owned on the Shankill Road. So, the tangibility of mortality was palpable. But, all that said, I can’t think of a more remarkable place for an Irish writer to grow up than Belfast during the Troubles.

JM: How did you first become interested in poetry and writing?

PM: I suppose it began when I was about five years old. I was out playing on the street with a few friends and we started saying street-rhymes, and I cut in with: “And I’m a poet and I don’t know it.” It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning. I walked around for the next days in a daze, repeating the phrase like a mantra – and I suppose I’m still repeating it.

My father was very fond of poetry. He could recite a lot of poetry from memory, and he wrote a little poetry too – he had one poem published in Ireland’s Own. Anytime he spoke of things that happened in Monaghan (where he was from), the story would have been interjected with, “Oh, the poets would be writing about that.” So, since I was a child, these “poets” were the normal chroniclers of history; it was, for me, another of the normalities of the world.

I remember the day, when I was about eight, my father told me that the Greeks wrote poetry too. This information had a shocking and slightly disturbing effect on me – up until that point I had just taken it for granted that writing poetry was something that only the Irish did.

JM: What inspired you to begin writing yourself?

PM: Although poetry was in my head as a word, and an idea, since I was about five, I didn’t start actually writing poetry, or reading it, until I was about fifteen. It was after hearing my English teacher, Dermot Campfield, reciting Seamus Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’ in the classroom. I was sitting at the back dreaming, when my attention was caught by Dermot pacing back and forth in front of the blackboard. He had transformed into this strange beast, book in hand, spitting out words, saliva spraying all over the place, and this strange language coming out with it. It was another of those eureka moments. “This is it,” I shouted to myself, “this is poetry!” Up until that point poetry only existed as an intangible mythology in my mind. This was the moment when I saw its presence in the world, alive and kicking. After school I bolted home to write my first poem.

It quickly became my personal form of Zen, my way or dealing with things. For example, my appendix burst when I was five and I had a flatline on the operating table. The full reality of that clinical death-experience, “the corridor and the rooms…”, came back to haunt me when I was about sixteen. But, by writing about it I was able to get my head around it.

JM: You spent quite a few years of your young manhood traveling. How did these experiences feed into your work?

PM: Travelling is definitely a huge part of my life. I’ve travelled through India many times, Thailand, Russia and South-East Asia, spent a year and half in Mexico and South America, lived in Berlin, Sweden, Switzerland, London. I lived in Prague for a number of years during its heyday of the mid to late nineties. I was buying artisan stuff in South America, India and Mexico and then selling it on the streets of Prague without a licence so that opened me up to all sorts of bizarre scenarios, haggling with the cops over the daily bribe and so on. On those trips around the world I found myself in three pretty hairy earthquakes – one of which ended up as another documentary-style poem that won The Golden Pen Poetry Prize in 2011.

JM: Where do you live now?

PM: At the moment I’m living between Sligo, Belfast and Cork. There’s a great poetry scene in Cork spearheaded by The Munster Literature Centre, a powerhouse who offer space to writing groups, and who also organise the Cork Poetry Festival every February that brings in poets from all over the world.

JM: You somehow managed in amongst all the traveling to complete an MA in Creative Writing at NUI Galway, qualifying with first class honours. How did this help your writing?

PM: Yes, it did. We were forced to constantly re-edit, to polish and re-polish again and again. Having great writers setting the bar is invaluable.

JM: It wasn’t until about 6 years ago that you began having work published. Had you been writing and submitting whilst you were traveling and living abroad?

PM: I was always writing but never sending out for publication. The truth is I only began submitting my work because of the fear that I would lose it. In the middle of 2010, in Sligo, the computer which contained all my writing crashed. The only back up I had was a memory stick and I couldn't find it. Twenty five years of work had suddenly vanished – two unfinished novels, two unfinished non-fiction books, and all I had left of 25 years worth of poetry. I wandered about like a ghost for days.

And this wasn't the first disaster. A year before that my brother Kieran had been storing all the notebooks I had written – everything from the age of 17 – in black bags, about ten of them, in his cellar in Berlin and his neighbour mistook them for rubbish and threw them all in a skip. That should have served as a warning.

About a week after my computer crashed I was staring out the window when an image of myself sitting in an internet cafe flashed into my mind. I called a cab to get me to the internet cafe as quick as I could. The memory stick had been handed in. Only about half of my work was on the memory stick but I felt like the luckiest man alive.

“There’s only one way to get my writing safe,” I told myself, “and that’s to publish it.” So I started sending my poetry out and started getting a few surprising acceptances. Then, in the summer of 2011, I entered a poetry competition and, to my amazement, I won it. So I starting to enter a few more.

JM: How do ideas for poetry come to you? Do you have a particular writing process?

PM: I can have an idea for a poem in my head for over a year. I won’t force it. I won’t touch it until the first line suddenly appears in my head, loud and clear, and I know that’s it. I’ll rush for pen and paper and the first draft will usually pour out in one go. But this is where the real work begins. It’s as though a joyrider has skidded a rusty banger into my garage and I’ll set to work on it, panel beating it into shape, its own shape. Night and day I’ll be in there working under a caged bulb clipped onto the open bonnet. It might be months before I can hand the keys back to the joyrider and wave him off. And, after he speeds off, the long wait begins again. I’ll pace outside the garage door with my ear cocked for the sound of wheel-spinning in the next street. And when the first faint waft of burning rubber drifts down the path I’ll stand back out of the way and turn on the light – crash repairs, open night and day. 

JM: Although you’re based in the Republic of Ireland, do you have much contact with the Northern Irish poetry scene?

PM: I haven’t read in Belfast before but hopefully I’ll get that chance in the near future.

JM: What do you think of the Irish poetry scene as it is today? Is there much opportunity to publish North or South?

PM: The Irish poetry scene is very much alive, I think. There’s lots of opportunities both North and South with the Poetry Ireland Introductions, the Cork Spring Poetry Festival Pre-booked Readings, the ACES scheme), and lots of journals like Southword, The Moth, Poetry Ireland Review, Crannog, Abridged, The Stinging Fly and The Honest Ulsterman, all great avenues for writers. There is also a strong link with the UK. The journals over there are very open to Irish poets. The editors of the Poetry Review, Agenda, and The Interpreters House all have links to Ireland. Other good ones are Poetry London, Ambit, Orbis, Rialto, PN Review, and Acumen. It’s another of the many great things that Seamus Heaney did – he bound all the poetry traditions together, opened all doors.

JM:  As well as a poet you’re also a playwright, with your play True Zero having been recently shortlisted for The Old Vic 12 (2015) amongst other shortlists and longlists. Your short play The Glasshouse played Belfast and toured NI as part of ‘Arrivals’ from Terra Nova Productions in 2014, and you’ve also had plays at the Dublin Fringe Festival and the Muscailt Theatre Festival, Galway. Is it difficult to have plays taken up by companies, either in Ireland or beyond? How would you describe your theatrical work?

PM: It’s extremely difficult to get professional theatres to produce new plays. I had the privilege of working extensively with Graham Whybrow of the Royal Court Theatre on my last play, True Zero, polishing it line-by-line, so hopefully it will pace the boards sometime soon.  

JM: What’s next for you? Any publications or theatrical endeavours on the horizon in 2016? 

PM: I’ve been invited to read at the Cuirt Literature Festival in Galway this April and have been invited back over to London by City Lit in Covent Garden to give more poetry workshops in Keats House. I’ve a few poems appearing at the moment in The Interpreters House and in The Irish Times on the 27th Feb with The Hennessy New Irish Writing.

In the meantime I’ll keep listening out for the sound of wheels spinning in the next street, keep the garage door open and the light on – crash repairs, open night and day.