Welcome, Ron. I’d like to learn more about you as poet. It wasn’t a straightforward road to publication – with life, and family, and all that involves in between – or perhaps your poet self was waiting for the ‘right’ moment? And that moment came in 2015 with the publication of Distance.
Thank you for having me on your blog Shauna; it’s a real pleasure for me.
Yes, coming to the point where I can justify calling myself a poet has been a journey. As a teenager I wrote with a romantic view of the world, with all brittle intensity of first love. However, this view didn’t hold out under the pressure of a job, paying a mortgage and bringing up four children. Perhaps I didn’t have the skill-set then to move my poetry to the next level. For many years I wrote poems of celebration or of consolation for friends and family at times of birth, marriages and death. Writing these occasional poems, with all the honesty and directness I could manage, became the basis for the way I write today. But I really only started to write seriously, I mean to seriously consider my life in terms of poetry, about five years ago when I began an MPhil at the University of South Wales.
Tell me about the MPhil in Creative Writing. How did meeting other poets – both emerging and professional – and the workshop process help in the creation of Distance? I’m thinking here of how the collection is structured thematically: divided into parts or sections – ‘Time Travel’, ‘The Beloved’, ‘New Oceans’ and ‘The World Will Break Your Heart’.
To meet such a talented and (to me) very young group of poets at that very first workshop in Wales was quite a shock to the system. My first reaction was, ‘Oh my God! My poetry is nothing like theirs!’ It was some time before I realised that this difference was something to treasure. The workshops and the mentoring of people like Professor Philip Gross, helped to raise the level of my poetry. I began to enter and do well in competitions but at that point I didn’t know these poems would come to make up Distance. When I came to arrange the collection, I saw that I had tackled different aspects of something I am very interested in – distance in time and space – and divided the collection along those lines.
Your poems touch on detail wonderfully – clothes that echo time and place, body language that brings us deeper into character, and dialogue that captures an age. Those visual details sit sharply against the sound and beat of the poems that sometimes beg to be read aloud. I’m thinking here of the shawl and the lane in ‘Chicken’ and the animals and clip clop as the movement in ‘Moving’, and the words of the son in ‘Fathers and Sons’.
My Aunt Babbie wore a shawl, black as midnight
In a country lane […]
Her legs were gone and she used mine to round-up
The chickens condemned for Saturday’s Market.
Thank you Shauna; these poems get some of the best audience reactions. I believe I would have been able to write these poems as a young man but not in such detail. I would have skipped the detail for the emotional fix. Now I try to use detail to ‘recover the time,’ as Patrick Kavanagh said, and leave the emotions to the reader.
And that technique works so well, Ron. Also, the passing of time – and of people – is a recurrent theme in the collection. From the very moving and very Irish ‘Letter’, or ‘Upstairs’ to the Amelia set of poems in the exotic ‘New Oceans’ part of Distance. Was this a conscious decision or did the themes present themselves once you had the poems ready?
I do use memory in my poetry to build bridges and reconnect to places and individuals. With the ‘Amelia’ poems in the section ‘New Oceans’ was my attempt to connect to somewhere I knew nothing about but I was sure the I would find the same problems that that we all face. I did quite a lot of research before I wrote anything at all. But once Amelia became a real person to me, the rest of her family simply walked in and introduced themselves.
How interesting that the rest of her family arrived first! But ordinary life – and death – is here, too. I’m thinking of the rhythms in ‘Clocking Out’ and the unsentimental shock of the moving ‘Burying Angels’.
Writing poetry I am reminded that there is really nothing ‘ordinary’ about life; it is wonderfully immense and though some find no hope in death, yet there is consolation and caring even there. However big the theme, I believe the structure of the poem needs to be obvious and at the same time hidden. In the same way we look at a building; we know that bricks and mortar hold everything together but that’s not what we see when we see a building that is our home. A good poem should be like that.
You’ve stated that poetry can help bridge the distance between people. Can you talk about that a little – the role of poetry in today’s society where the sound bite is king?
The distance between people in families and communities is a state of mind and therefore subject to change. Good poetry, like good music, gets past the modern defences we have built to keep ourselves safe from being hurt by the outside world. When we read good poetry, the reader and the poet are connected because they identify each other as human. This identification helps bring people closer. I try very hard not to put anything obtuse or complex between myself and the reader.
Lastly – what’s on your Christmas book wish list?
This has been a great year for poetry in Ireland and I believe I have most of the books launched this year. Here I would like to give a shout out for Breda Wall Ryan’s In a Hare’s Eye (Doire Press) and Jane Clarke’s The River (Bloodaxe). I would like to recommend John F. Deane’s wonderful book Give Dust a Tongue (Columba), it would make a great Christmas present. If anyone would like a hint, Matthew Sweeney’s latest Inquisition Lane, looks good. At the moment I’m reading T S Eliot’s annotated works – (a birthday present from my wife Cathy) – two wonderful, weighty tomes but impossible to hold upright and read in bed!
You can keep up with Ron’s poetry and upcoming readings on www.roncareypoetry.com