Janet Phillips, ‘Raw and Rural’ [interview with Tom French] at Poetry Society (Winter 2002-03)

[Source: See ‘Raw and Rural’, Poetry Society [interview] (Winter 2002-03) online.]

Tom French won the 2002 Forward Prize for Best First Collection for his book, Touching the Bones. Born in 1966, he lives in Dublin and works for the library service in County Wicklow. Here he tells Janet Phillips about writing, influences and plans for the future.

JP: First of all, congratulations on winning the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. This isn’t the only prize you’ve been awarded: there’s also the inaugural Ted McNulty prize. What difference have these prizes made to you?
TF: Thank you. I think one good thing is, that, especially at the beginning, when you are finding out and uncertain, it’s a big boost to know that a judge or judges, whose writing you know and admire, read your work and considered it good enough to earn a prize. The second good thing is that if the prize includes some money you get to buy time to write. Winning a prize also helps to convince family and friends that all that time holed up upstairs hasn’t been entirely misspent.

JP:Did you write poetry at school or at university?
TF: The annual school poetry competition for The Feast of the Immaculate Conception had two entries, flowery overblown stuff written in red, blue, black and green ink. Most of the craft involved was remembering which colour pen to use next. Fonsie Scanlan and I split the prize.
 I did European Studies at a technological institute that became a university so humanities had a lot of ground to make up and the library budget did not extend to slim volumes of contemporary verse. I was reading poems then but it never crossed my mind that I could do it too.

JP:Have you been on any particularly helpful writing courses or retreats?
TF: I spent some time living in rural places which were retreats in themselves and have attended weekly workshops given by writers in residence. A mentoring scheme would be of great use to young writers – regular communication with an older writer who knows the ropes and is willing to share his/her knowledge. Nothing like that exists at the moment.

JP: How did Touching the Bones come to be published by Gallery?
TF: A letter out of the blue from Peter Fallon expressing interest on the basis of poems he’d seen in various places. A couple of years later, after more poems in various places, a meeting to establish some area of agreement and to draw up a list of poems that would definitely be in and those that were definitely out. Then a period during which Jiffy envelopes passed between us – lines needed to be strengthened, facts checked, punctuation sorted out. Then the galleys and first mention of a publication date.

JP: Touching the Bones is threaded with themes of bearing witness to hardship, death, and “the line dividing death from life”. Does this hold a particular fascination for you?
TF: I heard Antonia Byatt in an interview once talk about being hurt into writing and it was a family tragedy that got me started. Also an interview with Marguerite Duras, speaking of the death of her brother at a young age, saying, “je ne pouvias pas absolument accepter le mort de ce jeune homme”. I always knew it was unacceptable but it was nice to hear someone, apart from myself, saying it. And poems seemed to be a way of saying it. The impulse to write elegies for the more natural deaths that have happened was out of a desire not to be struck dumb by absence.

JP:Your long poem, “Pity the Bastards”, which Justin Quinn described as “something of an Irish ’Howl’” in Poetry Review, first appeared in Metre. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to write this poem?
TF: After the first few false starts, I had a rush of blood to the head that lasted two weeks which I spent continuously trying to write it. It was a full-time occupation, fuelled by a kind of sleepless excitement. After the first week, when I thought it was finished, I brought it home and showed it to my friend Andrew Bennett. His advice was not to leave them [the protagonists] on water since that isn’t where they belong. So I stuck at it. By the end of the second week Andrew was satisfied that it ended properly and I needed sleep. Afterwards I felt I had done something good but couldn’t be sure.

JP: Several of the poems in Touching the Bones are about family members – do you draw on childhood experiences for subject matter in your poetry?
TF: Subject matter is a hard thing to pin down. I don’t think the poems I’ve tried to write so far draw on childhood experience, but I probably only think that because I wrote them. The only things I remember about childhood are things I’ve been told, so it might be closer to reportage than anything else. It’s true that ’Father’ and ’brother’ have been very potent words up to now, but I think I’m getting over them. In the same week the book was published my son was born. Doesn’t Martin Amis write in Experience that when your own child is born you forgive your father everything? That must be what I’m doing at the moment.

JP: The collection also seems steeped in rural traditions, from knowing how to get cream to rise in the churn to why you shouldn’t stare at robins – did you want to record this heritage?
TF: I grew up in what John McGahern calls “the fortress of the occupier”, a police barracks in a small village in Tipperary. Hundreds of them were built in the ’fifties so I have the strange experience now of seeing the house I grew up in everywhere. A snib on a door in my sister’s bedroom connected the business end to the domestic end. My father was happier cutting turf than summonsing his neighbours for having too much ragwort in their fields.
We worked on farms during the summer and went back to boarding school for the rest of the year, so our banks of youth were in no real danger of being burgled. I’ve got as much of my country lore from books as from the horse’s mouth and I haven’t set out to record any rural heritage but if, in the process of trying to write a poem, it presents itself for recording I am happy to oblige.

JP: There’s a beautiful poem, “Hip”, in the collection, a love poem with a pleasing symmetry to it. This poem appeared in a magazine with the title “Love Poem” and I notice you have reworked the line-breaks – is it possible for you to explain why you did this?
TF: I’m delighted you think that poem is beautiful. I wanted it to be. The editor’s positive touch was to suggest a less explicit title and to tighten it up. What I had in mind was a poem made of one sentence and one full stop. When it was published first it had a trailing line that made it appear as if it wasn’t as finished as it could be. In trying to integrate that line into a more symmetrical stanza structure some lines got re-broken, for the better I think. In its present shape it looks and sounds more of a piece, with nothing left out or left over. Usually, I try not to tinker with poems that have survived my earlier attempts at writing them.

JP:Many of your poems have a formal structure – which uses rhyme or regular stanzas, or splits the poem into numbered sections. Is there a form in which you feel happiest writing?
TF: The first line determines how the rest might follow, but there’s no one form. The rules of metre and rhyme and stanza are useful in that they stop the poem wandering off the page into the wild blue yonder. Often I start out consciously trying to borrow from some stanza shape that was pleasing to read and end up with something else. There’s always room for coincidence and chance and getting lucky.

JP: Do you enjoy reading your work to an audience?
TF: I had the pleasure of introducing two experienced writers at the annual poetry festival in Galway and was heartened to find them both in the green room before going on, shaking like leaves. Whatever the fear is it doesn’t go away.
Reading to an audience is both terrifying and instructive. It puts a poem under pressure to be uttered in public and if there are flaws they are more likely to be heard in public that when you are sitting at home mumbling the lines to yourself. I heard myself being spoken of once at a poetry festival as “one of the performers” and that made me think twice. I read the poems the way I think they sound, but I would never go so far as to try to perform them.
The main pleasure I get from attending readings is that of recognition, the page in one’s head and the voice in the room simultaneously.

JP: What’s your writing environment like?
TF: I was experimenting with using a laptop until relatively recently when it vanished without trace … now I’m back to pen and paper. The danger of the word processor is that it can make a poem look more finished that it really is. And that function it has called UNDELETE is slightly worrying. One version is laid down over another until you lose track of where you started.
A sign that a poem is going well is when there are lots of lines crossed out and lots of versions of the poem written out. It’s easier to see then which are the lines that continue to survive each revision and which were non-runners from the word go.

JP:Has your experience of working overseas (U.S., Spain, France) had any influence on your writing?
TF: I wish it had. In the U.S. I worked on building sites and in France on a small dairy farm and in Spain teaching English. None of those experiences have found their way into poems but I have been chancing my arm at a bit of translating recently. Even if you don’t wind up with a poem, you learn a lot about the poem that you are trying to translate.

JP: Your work has been described as being in the “Kavanagh – Heaney – Montague tradition of raw rural reminiscence” (Books Ireland). Could you say which poets have influenced you the most? Do you ever feel overshadowed by an older generation of poets?
TF:That’s some triumvirate! And some tradition. Every poem that has an impact on you can’t help but influence you, you think, “I’d love to be able to do something like that”. Lots of poems by the three you mention, and lots more besides, have elicited that reaction. I don’t know if I have felt the anxiety of influence all that strongly. My old man could also handle a slean. I like the “raw” and the “rural” but “reminiscence” strikes me as being a step too far. My generation has been lucky to have so many exemplars of how to live in the world and still make poems.

JP: Which poets have you read recently?
Any that I can lay my hands on – Vona Groarke’s Flight, James Wright’s Collected Poems, John McAuliffe’s A Better Life, Rodney Jones, A.E. Stallings. I’m looking forward to Ciaran Carson’s Inferno.

JP: Finally, may I ask what you are working on at the moment?
Recently I’ve been trying to work out a poem about the accidental meeting between a trainee sniffer dog and the ghost of a soldier in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, one searching for a medal for bravery his fellow soldiers buried in the grounds as a practical joke (which he failed to find while he was still alive), and the other for a kilo of hash in a zip-lock bag. At the moment, though, it’s still just a yarn.

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