John Moynes is a satirist by profession, a former Leinster Slam Poetry Champion, and author of A Limerick A Day on broadsheet.ie. He speaks to Colin Dardis about this first collection, Scenes of Moderate Violence, written “around the time that politics stopped being funny”.
Colin Dardis: Hi John, congratulations on the new book. You’ve released the collection through Unbound, a crowdfunding publishing platform; everyone who pledged their support is named in the book. How did you find the process of releasing a book through this method?
John Moynes: There’s an upside and a downside to this model. The upside is that the book happened, and Unbound gave me good advice and let me have the final say on everything. They also have a good distribution network, which always helps. The downside is you have to sell a load of books in advance. Selling books of poetry is always tough, and when you ask people to pay over the odds right now for a book they’ll get in the next year or so, it is even tougher.
CD: The subtitle of the collection is ‘Old Poems From The Future’; is this a nod to your style of blending traditional poetic forms with the modern sensibility of spoken word? It feels like an appropriate description.
JM: In this journal I feel obliged to be honest, so here’s what happened. When we got to the stage of the publication process they sent me a questionnaire about what I wanted the cover to look like. I know nothing about graphic design, so thought I should get out of the way and let the experts do their thing. One of the questions was what subtitle I wanted. I’d never intended one, but I was in a hurry so I threw that in. And yes, it’s a nod to the fact that I’m a rather old fashioned poet, and I like traditional forms. But there’s also spaceships and lasers and time travelling cowboys, so the future bit works as well.
CD: A lot of the poems in the collection are self-referential: aware they are poems, or of the presence of a fallible poet, who calls their poems “mere trifles” and “always will love Failure”. The talent on offer is evident, so where does this self-deprecatory tone come from; is it a way to stay modest?
JM: Look, I called the poems “mere trifles to learn/ And recite in a bar.” It’s a bit of self-deprecation before I instruct the reader to memorise my work and bark it at others. So the tone comes from my years in stand-up comedy, where you constantly flip from being the loser to the winner. The other reason I said that in the first poem is to let people who don’t usually read poetry know that this is a book you don’t need a PhD to understand.
CD: You use structured verse forms such as sonnets, villanelles, etc., employ tight rhyme schemes, in fact boldly exploit rhyme at a time when most Irish poets are engaged with blank verse. What attracted you to find this style, and is form in poetry a dying art?
JM: When I started writing poetry again I’d had years selling my words. It’s very easy to tell if something is a joke or not. It’s very easy to tell if something is a television show or not. If you’re sitting at home writing blank verse and you haven’t shown it to anyone, there’s no way to tell if it works or not. But a sonnet is a sonnet and I could tell if it worked and I would know if the story worked. So early on everything was formal, and everything rhymed. Also, I just like rhyme. Then one day I was on a train with John Cummins and he asked why I never wrote blank verse. I said “I can’t write blank verse because I wouldn’t know where to stop.” He told me I’d just done it. So I relaxed a bit after that.
CD: Some poems also seem to be commentary of the wider poetry scene as a whole, as at least how poetry is perceived and received: ‘It Must Be A Lovely Feeling’ talks of poets going unpaid for their work; a reading in “Ireland’s most expensive nightclub roaring about the wrong socialism to people who don’t and won’t need the safety it offers”; you defiantly state “I won’t write poems for poets who’ve studied the classics”. Where do you feel poetry is at in the wider public eye?
JM: Poetry is the wider public eye as a mote. While the slam poetry scene has done wonders in terms of persuading people to go out and listen to verse, the fact is that poetry in Ireland is less popular than cricket. I’d prefer if more people read poetry. I want to write poems that people who don’t subscribe to the London Review of Books will remember. And I want them to be good poems, and obviously I want to bury a bunch of other things that people will or will not find. But while poetry is not as big as it should be right now, in Dublin alone we have Erin Fornoff, Kerrie O’Brien, Stephen James Smith, and Lewis Kenny. There’s a surplus of talent.
CD: The wonderful ‘The Ballad of Tim Berners-Lee’ laments the capabilities of the World Wide Web being reduced to an arena for online bullying and trolls. Being someone who has currently tweeted over 100,000 times(!), are you comfortable with having an online profile for your writing?
JM: In fairness I haven’t tweeted 100,000 thousand times about poetry. At least seven tweets were about something else. And yes, you need an online profile unless you’re already hugely successful. That’s just how it works now. I also generally enjoy my Twitter experience. I know there’s a lot of unpleasantness online but I avoid it by having a pale cock.
CD: You have a strong claim as Ireland’s most read living poet, largely due to the popular ‘A Limerick A Day’ series on broadsheet.ie. Have you got to the stage yet where some days you despair at the thought of having to conjure up another limerick on the news?
JM: Thank you, but I’m still not convinced that limericks count as poetry. They’re definitely verse. I’ve ended up in the odd position of having written more than 1600 limericks and almost none of them are dirty. That feels like a wasted achievement. But yes, every weekday I wake up and look at the news and have to find a story that isn’t a tragedy and wasn’t also the main news yesterday. These days it’s just Brexit and other tragedies. I’m struggling to find cute stories about skateboarding ducks in Mullingar.
CD: There’s a lot of
humour in the book, as one might expect from yourself, but the poems also
explore darker themes, such as ‘On Barton Road’ which deals with a late night
encounter where you are mistakenly perceived as violent threat, and ‘Tuam’. Is
it difficult to go into these areas where perhaps humour is not, or indeed
should not, be expected?
JM: No. It wasn’t. One of the things I like about poetry is being able to talk about dark things honestly. I worked for a while doing comedy shows about mental health. It was all done very seriously and properly through the wonderful organisation See Change, and apparently it raised awareness and all that. But the thing about being depressed is that it isn’t funny. So poetry gave me a way to talk better about things. And I will always tell jokes, but this is better.
Scenes of Moderate Violence is available now from Unbound, ISBN 9781789650372, £8.99
Colin Dardis’s new collection, The Dogs of Humanity, is forthcoming from Fly on the Wall Present in August ’19.