Welcome to Noel Duffy for the second part of our conversation about On Carbon & Light.
Noel, following on from the last interview, I’d like to focus on some of the poems. I am interested, in particular, in ‘Timepieces’. Tell me about the genesis of this long poem.
You know, there are a lot of poems about love or death or other subjects (I’ve written about them myself, of course) but very few about friendship, which is a bit odd when you consider the importance of friends in our lives. So this piece is about a friendship my dad struck up with a labourer at Dublin Bus, then known as CIE, where he worked in the late 70s. This man, PJ, turned out to be a respected amateur antiquarian and coin collector and drew my dad into his interests and they formed a great friendship through this, going to coin fares at the weekend or PJ coming over to teach my dad Ogham, which I explore in one section. Another crucial element to the poem is my perspective. It is really an initiation into both the adult world of male friendship, as well as how it awoke in me the excitement of the imagined past. I think it’s ultimately saying something about the power of art – both in terms of my dad and PJs story and my attempt to tell it.
So, I wanted this poem to be, in a sense, a kind of intimate epic, playing the ‘everyday’ notion of friendship against seemingly grand historical backdrops, such as Viking Dublin, or Imperial Rome. I’m reminded of Patrick Kavanagh’s great poem ‘Epic’, which centres on a dispute between two farmers over a land boundary and how Homer ghosts whispers to him “I made the Iliad from such / A local row…”. This sentiment is central to the poem and is echoed in the final lines of the Viking section where my dad and PJ had found a Viking child’s leather show in the waste ground where the city council were dumping the soil removed from the Wood Quay site:
It was to me as this frail object found, opened
a clearing in my mind: the prow of a longship
approached from the horizon with its cargo
of stories. I leaned down close and listened.
So the events are first real-life ones, made epic in the telling – even if the language in this case is not what you might expect in an ‘epic’. So it is a narrative poem, certainly, but a fractured narrative reflecting the nature of memory, both personal and collective.
Did the writing of ‘Timepieces’ evolve as you wrote it or did the idea come to you as a whole? I’m particularly interested in the back and forth of memory, imagined and real.
Well, this was the one poem in the collection not written in the way I describe last week. For a start it’s a long piece of 300 lines, so that put it on a different footing. In a way, the approach was similar to two long poems in sections from my first collection. I tried to come at the subject matter in a non-linear way and attack it from several angles, with jumps in perspective across sections. I found the shape of the poem came quite quickly, say within three or four weeks. This poem does something similar to those earlier long pieces, creating a fractured narrative of sorts that moves backwards and forward in time – both in the historical settings and the timeframe of the friendship itself. So its jumps and shimmies about us, mixing the history and the story of the friendship.
But by attempting to create this intimacy between the local and the historical, I also tried to use a quite casual, yet intimate, tone and the nature of the poetry had to reflect that. So much of the poem is written in a relaxed conversational and invitational voice. So is that poetry or prose? Some would say the latter, but I’d argue that I’m using a – let’s call it – flat-footed line, where the rhythm isn’t strident (for the most part) and the music of the piece is quiet and muted, though certainly still poetry. The challenge of rewriting this kind of ‘casual’ line, is that it is extremely tricky to get just right and, indeed, for it not to drift into prose. So, it actually took a long time to achieve that effect, massaging the music rather than imposing it. That really was quite a challenge. The other major issue was that with such rich subject-matter, there was so much more detail I included early on but had to cut in rewriting so that the poem didn’t get weighed down with too much narrative information. It’s long, but I knew I needed to keep it moving also. So, it took time to get that balance right also.
How do you feel a long poem like this fits into the collection as a whole?
At about the mid-way point in writing the collection I had a lot of poems and started gathering them into some kind of coherent collection, which gave writing after that point a clearer focus. ‘Timepieces’ was actually one of the last poems to be written and accounts for nearly a quarter of the entire collection. As I said earlier, this work is less lyrical than that in my first collection, but I realized ‘Timepieces’ is the poem that grounds the book in some important way. It is key in that sense, so I wanted that grounding to occur in the first half of the book, bringing us to the midpoint before moving into the second half, which mostly deals with hitting forty and the questions that also asks of you, both personally and philosophically. So Timepieces is a poem, in the end, that contains so many ideas and motifs explored elsewhere in the collection, that it feels very central to the effect of the whole book.
Thanks so much, Shauna, for asking such interesting questions. It was especially nice to get to talk at length about ‘Timepieces’. I really hope you, and others, will enjoy that poem, and the collection as a whole.
You’re welcome, Noel and I wish you all the best with the collection. On Carbon & Light will be published tomorrow, 10th October by Ward Wood Publishing and launched by Theo Dorgan in November. See www.noelduffy.net for further details.