Ben Parker [editor], “Bookgeek interview with Bernard O’Donoghue” (17 June 2011).

[ Source: online; accessed 02.07.2011]

Bernard O’Donoghue was born in Cullen, Co. Cork in 1945. He is a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, where he teaches Medieval English. He has published five collections of poetry including The Weakness (1991), Gunpowder (winner of the 1995 Whitbread Award for Poetry), Here Nor There (1999) and Outliving (2003). His latest collection is Farmer’s Cross.

Are you a bookgeek?
Yes, I have been a bookgeek all my life – from borrowing books in childhood from the Carnegie Library in Millstreet Co Cork, to prowling secondhand shops – the Lee bookstore in Cork, and Gibbs’s bookshop (which also sold secondhand records) in Manchester every Saturday morning when I lived there. I am about to be turfed out of my college room in Oxford which means the sprawling piles and shelves of books here have to be accommodated somewhere else or – mostly – given to Oxfam. There is a strange graph which, having gone increasingly upward in book purchases, suddenly dives downward to the point where they are all gone – which, I suppose, is death! Another cheerful conceit.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you”ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
I think the best advice I have had (and keep passing on) is that you can’t force it. Writer’s block doesn’t really apply to short poems – if you haven’t got anything to write about, don’t try. You can’t write too little.

Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
Two kinds really. Everyone of my generation was influenced by Larkin’s cool, ironic, self-mocking vernacular. But I am generally prompted into writing (if I am) by medieval things – maybe because they are at a safe distance: Dante, Old English elegies, Chaucer. I like humorous writing (J. K. Jerome, Flann O’Brien, Joyce) or very serious writing, preferably about death. But nothing in between. I love the tangled syntax of John Donne – but that’s not an influence or anything.

Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
I certainly don’t write for myself. That seems to me about as interesting as talking to yourself. But I don’t think I have a very particular audience in mind either: there are people whose good opinion is very important to me – my family, some people in Ireland who can measure the genuineness of what I write. Or at least that is what I feel. I am always astonished and grateful for any response to things I have written. You write in solitude, so there isn’t much sense – or prospect – of anyone else reading it.

Where do you write, and why?
Where I write: I mostly write in snatched moments at my teaching desk. I retire this September, so I don’t know where I will write then. I tend to write when I am on my own, but in a place where there are normally other people. I think the way we live in society and alone at the same time is a very compelling idea.

Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
The book I most wish I had written: it’s a difficult question because for various reasons – laziness, lack of seriousness and application, and so on – there aren’t many books I could imagine myself having the energy and dedication to write. I mean to write Dante you’d have to be Dante – and you wouldn’t want that, much less aspire to it. I’d quite like to have written Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno. That is deeply sympathetic and somehow within the compass of a normal person. Lots of individual poems it would be great to have written: Yeats’s “Broken Dreams”, Heaney’s Clonmacnoise poem, lots of Donne’s Elegies. But that’s just saying what my favourite poems are.

The poems in Farmers Cross have strong thematic links. Is this because you worked consciously towards the book as a whole? Or did suitable poems simply coalesce over a number of years?
It’s a bit of both really. All those poems about travel and places. I think most of what I write nowadays seems to be in that area. But the strong thematic links were partly reinforced by my editor at Faber, Matthew Hollis, who has a wonderful sense of congruence.

Two poems in Farmers Cross use quotes from King Lear as epigraphs. Was this play particularly important to you during the writing processes?
It wasn’t so much during the writing process: but I did it for A Level, and again as a set text for my BA Finals, so I know it pretty well by heart still. I think it is the greatest single work of literature I know. A piece of literature that is as powerfully effective and emotional as music – like Schubert or the late Quartets.

Many of your poems look back to the County Cork landscape of your childhood. Do you return there to rekindle your imagination, or are the poems themselves your way of returning?
No, I go back to Co Cork all the time. But the poems tend to be set in the past: both my childhood and that kind of elegiac, archaeological past that the West of Ireland is so rich in. Last year I spent a weekend on Scellig Michael (through the good offices of Paddy Bushe). It was like living, literally, in a different world and life.

You have said before that you are against “confessional poetry”, yet your poetry seems deeply rooted in personal experience. Do you purposefully hold back certain elements in order to maintain a distance between yourself and the narrator of each poem?
 What I mean by the “confessional poetry” I am against is the kind of personal narrative where the first person is entirely at the centre: the poems whose significance seems to me that “this happened to me and I was there”: the “growth of a poet’s mind”, sort of thing. I am really not interested in that at all: I am interested in events and things – and sometimes of course you have to be in the poem to witness that. But it’s better if not!

Is your approach to the writing of a translation that will appear alongside original poems in your own collection different to that used when writing a stand-alone work, such as your Sir Gawain?
I am a bit uneasy about translation altogether: I don’t think I have a gift for it (in the way that, say, Ciaran Carson clearly has). To warrant its place in a book, the translation has to be very – even inevitably – linked to the overall theme. Like the “Casella” from Dante in the new book, which is a revisiting of the “Ter Conatus” theme where living people try to touch the dead.

A number of the poems in Farmers Cross recall the oral roots of poetry. Does the spoken element of poetry have an important role in your own writing?
The spoken roots of language is immensely important to me – especially the stories and songs that circulated in my County Cork childhood. They provide a kind of vividness or strangeness that makes the language spark into life – or should.

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