Peter Anny-Nzekwue, ‘The Big Conversation with Michael O’Loughlin’, in Dublin Quarterly International Literary Review (June-Aug. 2011).

[ Source: The Dublin Quarterly International Literary Review (June-Aug. 2011) - online; accessed 20.08.2011.]

Anny-Nzekwue engages O’Loughlin, one of the most important Irish poets of his generation, on his writings and philosophy of life.

Q: Your first published work, Stalingrad: The Street Dictionary, a collection of poetry, was in 1980, at the age of 22. At what point, before the publication, did you realise that you have a creative gift and decide to pursue a professional career in writing?

A: I started writing poetry at the age of about sixteen or seventeen! I was always very bookish and interested in literature, so it never felt that I was in a decision-making situation. It just was the way I was. I started publishing poems in magazines in College and then there was Raven Arts Press, which published my first book. It just seemed the thing to do. With regard to writing as a professional career, however, the situation is more complicated.

I’m not sure why, but I thought the idea of being a professional writer was a bit crass. It seemed to me to lack seriousness, and I was a very serious young man. I tended to be dismissive of the literary world, such as it was. I felt that writing was something like a vocation, almost religious, but that as a citizen you needed to do something useful for society. And as a student of Baudelaire, I was sure that literature, if you do it properly, will always put you at odds with society. For those reasons, I decided to study psychology, with the long term goal of helping people. Literature would be a spare time thing, as it was for Gottfried Benn and other people I admired. However, as I became engrossed in psychology, and I did love it, I wondered if it would be possible to serve two masters. I decided at that stage that it would be better to do something else, which did not engage you very much, to support yourself as a writer, like Spinoza grinding lenses. I did a bit of teaching but that too palled very soon. In retrospect I probably should have stayed in academe, but I was too restless for that. So I suppose I have by default become a professional writer, in that most of my income is derived from related activities, like teaching creative writing, and so on. But I still think ’poet’ is a strange career description. A journalist is a professional writer.

Q: You are mostly referred to as a poet, but your oeuvre cuts across all genres having published poetry and also a collection of short fiction, The Inside Story and a critical essay, After Kavanagh: Patrick Kavanagh and the Discourse of Contemporary Irish Poetry . How then would you balance your role as a poet and fiction writer with that of a critic?

A: I’ve never really distinguished between my activities as a writer of poetry, prose, screenplays and criticism even translations. To me, it’s all a question of how the subject matter or the initial impulse presents itself. I suppose, ultimately I see everything I write as part of the same project.

Q: In February 2011, you chaired a panel of discussion organised by Irish Centre on how the current economic meltdown in Ireland has affected the creative impulse of modern Irish writers (The panel consisted of Nadine O’Regan, books and arts editor of the Sunday Business Post; Sean Love, co-founder and director of Fighting Words (formerly of Amnesty Ireland); author Claire Kilroy; and Gerry Smyth, poet and managing editor of the Irish Times), in which you have been severally quoted to have averred that modern Ireland has nothing to inspire writers. Could you please elaborate more on this?

A: That’s not quite accurate! The title of the debate was: does Modern Ireland have anything to inspire modern writers?

It was a question, rather than a statement. The idea was to get writers and other involved parties to discuss the subject matter of modern Irish writing and how that subject matter is influenced by expectations of publishers, agents, reviewers, publicists and the reading public. It wasn’t entirely successful, I think. Such debates in Ireland rarely are because the tradition of debate here is the Sinn Fein style: you go in with your shtick and you stick to your guns. Nobody really listens to the other speakers, or tries to look at the question objectively. It seems obvious that many of the more popular Irish writers nowadays have been writing about another Ireland, the Ireland of the 20s, the 30s, the 50s, emigration, rural Ireland, etc, as opposed to the current realities. But I didn’t think we should be too programmatic, the writer will write about what he wants but that does not mean we should ignore the market expectations. Obviously, Irish writing can go in any direction. However, to anticipate your later question somewhat, it does seem bizarre that the actual issues in Ireland seem to have been absent for a long time from the mainstream of Irish literature, if not the more marginal works. There is a tradition of American writers say, from Saul Bellow up to Franzen (whose work I’m not a big fan of) and really great writers like De Lillo and Auster, of writing about the pressing social realities. In Ireland we don’t do that, we tend to look to economists and newspaper columnists, radio people and so on. Hopefully, that will change but it will be a long drawn put process. God preserve us from the Celtic Tiger novel!

Q: In your article in Irish Times entitled, “MISSING: Have you seen these poets?” you quoted Kavanagh to have said that he belonged to “a generation whose purpose was to have no purpose.” Do you view this as an appropriate description of the modern Irish poet?

A: What Kavanagh said was that his purpose was to have no purpose.

In my essay After Kavanagh I argued that this liberated the Irish poet from the weight of cultural expectations, so that we could develop in any direction we wanted. I still think that is true, but it’s the critical reception which is still lagging behind. When I hear talk of traditions, identities and so on, I reach for my revolver. I just thought that Crotty’s choice of contemporary poets was so bizarre and eccentric that I wanted to explore the rationale behind his choices. After the article appeared a lot of people wrote to me and offered explanations. One plausible one suggested a certain prejudice against Dublin “intellectuals”, against people who don’t focus on the single well-made poem. That may be true, as I personally tend to admire people for other reasons. It is true that there are kinds of Irish poetry, which still meet resistance. It’s always going to be difficult to come up with an anthology that pleases everyone. But Irish poetry is short of good anthologies, so it’s a pity.

Q: A major criticism of Irish writers generally is that they were not very critical of the state, and failed to expose the brewing troubles during the Celtic Tiger era, as a writer yourself do you not feel implicated by such criticism?

A: Yes, I do feel implicated, but I think it’s less pressing for poets. As a novelist, part of your job description is to deal with social realities. As a poet, it’s more complicated. It has always been a particular dilemma for me. I do feel strongly drawn to such subjects, but as a poet, I’m the opposite. I regard myself very much as a poet who depends on inspiration, a muse poet if you like. My conscious mind may prefer something else, but I have to go where the poetry goes. I do identify somewhat with Brecht’s argument with himself, about whether to write about the housepainter’s speeches or the apple tree, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. However, I’m always looking for a way to get more life into poetry, the old Yeatsian hunger for unity.

Q: Taking into consideration the current economic situation of Ireland, what should be the role of the art and the artist, not just in explaining the disturbing realities of post-Celtic Tiger, but in its economic recovery?

A: I think the role of the artists is what it always has been, that is, to do his job as best he can. I don’t think the artist has any role in Ireland economic recovery the spiritual reconstruction of Ireland is another war altogether. All this talk of Brand Ireland makes me a bit queasy. It will all end in tears. The job of the artist is to confront society with a different reality, and not reinforce stereotypes. There is a very, very subtle form of censorship involved here. It is not as open as saying that work which represents Ireland in a negative way is not exportable, but in the coming years I think that is definitely something which will have an affect. One thing that strikes me, as someone who lived abroad for many years, is how low a threshold we Irish have for self criticism. The mark of a mature society will be when we actively encourage opposition to the accepted social realities. There are many Irish writers who while they have created work of real artistic value, do encourage the cosiness, the consensus. I’m thinking in particular of theatre, which is the biggest offender. In general, poetry doesn’t figure very highly in this because nobody actually reads it, and when they do, they don’t usually read it properly. But again, I think the crunch has yet to come.

Q: For several decades you lived abroad, in your own words, “padding through the olive groves of Catalonia and chasing it along the frozen canals of Amsterdam.” For this, therefore, it s fair to assert that you belong to the league of eminent writers who were once in exile. In that sense, how much of your exilic experience is deployed in shaping the aesthetic construct of your latest collection of poetry, In This Life, particularly the engaging voice of the fictional Latvian poet, Mikelis Norgelis, an immigrant to Ireland.

A: I left Ireland around 1979, but I think I was just confirming what I had always felt, I always felt like an exile in Ireland. Leaving Ireland to me was not a big drama, it was just a continuation.

As a child and youth, I was always conscious of being on the edge of a city, on the edge of a country which was on the edge of a continent. To me, what people would call exile was just going home. The European tradition, in the broadest sense, was and is home to me. But there are dynamics active in the work, certainly. In the beginning, you feel like a European in Ireland, that is a form of internal exile, and you write about this. Then you go to Europe, say, and write about Ireland. You are an Irishman in exile in Europe. And then eventually there comes a moment where you are neither. That’s quite a difficult moment because you can no longer fall back on a ready-made traditon, the essentialist fallacy or its opposite. I felt I had reached that point after the publication of Another Nation. But it’s also liberation. I have always regarded myself as a European, whether in Dublin or Paris. The actual country is secondary. As is the English language, because I’m aware that Englishman has become the lingua franca of a whole new tradition, of people writing in English, and people writing in order to be translated into English. I have always translated a lot and it does make you acutely aware of the contingency of language. Much of In This Life is permeated with that double sense of exile from everything but a curious sense of being at home in displacements. You can only be at home in a culture, not in a place. That’s why In This Life is full of references to Judaism or Jews, to Paul Celan and Walter Benjamin. I have no interests in the actual Jewish culture, but the relation of Judaism to Europe is a metaphor for state of being, to reduce it to a formula: Jew = exile = poetry. Just as the kabbalah is a giant metaphor for the human condition, for the creation of the world and our place in it.

On returning to Ireland I was immediately struck, and exhilarated by, the influx of immigrants into Ireland particularly from Eastern European. I felt that the word was becoming flesh, my metaphors were becoming real. The consequences for the culture here in Ireland are enormous. Imagine, if you will, children born in Ireland, that is, Irish children, who grow up with Latvian and Irish as their first languages, for example, and English as their lingua franca. It puts paid to the whole notions of Irish culture and Anglo-Irish and all that rubbish. Imagine that the next Yeats to be born in Ireland has that background. What language will he write in? What department will they teach his work in? It’s very exciting. And out of that grew Mikelis Norgelis. He was the imagined poet of the future, and a way for me to write about those development in Ireland in a way that felt real and challenging. Obviously I was aware of Pessoa and his heteronyms, as a model. Mikelis is me, yet he’s not me. He’s me in translation or vice versa.

Q: As a poet who teaches creative writing in different writers’ workshops, what advice would you give to emerging poets that they can find their poetic voice and master their craft?

A: It’s hard to give an accurate answer to that question. ’Teaching’ creative writing is a tricky business. Michael Longley put it very well once. He said it consists of three parts: one third craft, that is, the actual nuts and bolts of language and form. Which you don’t need to be a poet to teach. The next third is gossip about other writers, which is essential practical information. And the last third, the most difficult, the most ineffable, is instilling a sense of vocation. Every serious teacher of creative writing tries to combine these three things, with greater or lesser degrees of success. I take the teaching of creative writing very seriously, and I put a lot of work and myself into it. It is great to try and guide and prod people in different directions and watch them blossom. But there are no formulae, no right answers. You try to make each individual as good as he or she can be. And that can require very different tactics. With some people it’s just a matter of saying: go away and read Isaac Babel, or Frank O’Hara. Some need mentoring, some need very harsh criticism. But for the poet himself trying to develop a voice, the important thing, as every teacher will tell you, is to read. Read everyone and don’t write until you think you have something new to add. But beyond that, just follow your own inclination. And be very hard on yourself. A writer is a kind of soldier, and as Jacob Frank says, a soldier has no rules. The only ones are the one you impose on yourself.

Q: In his seminal essay, “Why Write?”, Jean Paul-Sartre argues that art is either a flight or a means of conquering. Paul-Sartre’s argument borders on the aesthetic function of art. In this regard, what does art mean to you: art for art’s sake or art as a tool for social engineering?

A: It’s not an either/or situation, and Sartre, if you don’t mind me saying, could be a bit of an idiot. A very interesting writer but often wrong-headed. I am all in favour of social engineering, it’s a necessary corollary of social democracy, and the only way to introduce equality of opportunity into society. But it’s battlefields are architecture, administration, politics, the law. Poetry is art for art’s sake, I suppose, and the history of poetry and politics only proves that.

Q: Finally, what is your philosophy of life, and how have you reflected this philosophy in your work?

A: I don’t know if I have a philosophy of life as such, but Philosophy has always been very important to me. I studied philosophy in the 1970s with very inspiring teachers, and the works of Plato, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche certainly formed my view of life and my approach to it. Later on, Adorno was very important for me. But the nearest thing I have to a philosophy of life is Elias Canetti’s aphorism: experience makes you stupid. Which is another way of saying, as Kavanagh said, that you should always trust your pure impulses.

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