Collaboration & Community: Artists & Writers

I was delighted to be asked to participate in preparatory creative writing workshops with Clogh Writers as part of their collaborative project Handling Fossils with visual artist Sarah Lincoln (Sarah, pictured, right below with writer Jane Meally).

At a mesmerising event last night, guests were treated to visual interpretations  of the land around north Kilkenny by way of a mixture of Sarah’s still photography and film and invited to digest poetry and prose written and read aloud by Clogh Writers group.

We were brought into the magical world of fossils – underfoot, embedded in the landscape and yet not always visible – and wonder.

The readings were interspersed by exciting visuals which asked rather than answered questions about how we view and engage with our past – and the land around us.

In particular, Willie-Joe Meally’s recital of his poetry powerfully echoed the beauty of the accompanying pamphlet which featured one of Sarah’s arresting images of him holding a piece of coal. (see picture at top of the page)

After the presentation of Handling Fossils I made my way to the back of the community hall where guests were invited to handle some of the tools used to mine coal and find fossils, and, even more interesting, examine some of the fossils.

Collaboration between communities and across landscapes bring exciting creative results – and last night’s celebratory event in Clogh Community Hall in Kilkenny was certainly testament to that.

Connect with Sarah Lincoln and her work by taking a look at her website.

Poet Gabriel Fitzmaurice on ‘Will you be my friend?’



‘The Irish A.A. Milne’ – Declan Kiberd.

I’m delighted to welcome Gabriel Fitzmaurice for a Q&A session on my blog. Welcome, Gabriel.

SG: Congratulations on the launch of Will You Be My Friend? at the 2016 Listowel Writers’ Week. Will You Be My Friend strikes me as a poetry collection that will be picked up again and again – not unlike Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Tell me, Gabriel, how did you manage the selection process of poems from your previous collections. Did you involve readers, or family, or did you select your own favourites?

I chose my own favourites from my children’s books in the English language. (I have written a couple of books for children as Gaeilge too). In choosing, I took into account the poems that go down well when I read them to children in schools, libraries, bookshops etc. I also had adults, Moms and Dads, Nanas and Grandads etc as well as the general reading public in mind as, to quote the writer and journalist Billy Keane, “these poems cross over to adults as well”. And, as you say, adults “secretly enjoy them” – particularly the naughty ones!

SG: I think that’s the key, Gabriel! I have to say, many of the poems are deceptively clever. I’m thinking here of ‘What’s a Tourist’ which works on so many levels. Do these type poems come easily to you or are they about drafting and editing?

You say that the poems are “deceptively clever”. A lot of people feel that way about my poems, my poems for adults too. I try to make my poems readable, enjoyable and accessible. I believe that poetry should give pleasure as well as making one think. Sometimes the poems can be read on a number of levels which is OK too: some words have multiple meanings, for instance. The first draft of a poem comes easily to me. I am inspired to write, thank God – I don’t say “I must sit down and write a poem now”. A phrase, a line, a verse possess me and I simply have to get it down – be that when I’m driving my car (I pull over and write) or in my bed (I’ll get up in the middle of the night if it comes to me in a dream). Then the hard work begins. I edit, change, edit to make my meaning as clear as I can make it. This can take a long time until I’m finally satisfied. Sometimes I’m lucky – the poem comes clean onto the page at the first draft. “What’s a Tourist?” is one such poem. I was in class one day and the cigire (the inspector) was questioning my class about Geography. He was boring them silly. When he asked them “What’s a tourist” one young boy had enough and said “a man with a camera taking photos of a cow”. Just like that. I just wrote down what he said!

SG: It often takes a child to say it as it is, I think! You touch on bodily functions in poems like ‘Diarrhorea’, ‘Shampoo’, ‘Bursting Pimples’ and ‘Pooh’. Children of a certain age love, and adults squirm but secretly laugh at them. Yet they deal with situations that we’ve all found ourselves in or witnessed happen to another person. How do you find these poems go down when you read them to a crowd?

I write about things that matter to real people, be they children, adults or myself. I remember the rhymes we had in the schoolyard when I was growing up in the 1950s and early ‘60s. They were real poetry, ours alone and some of them were VERY rude. We loved them all the more as they were our secret, not to be shared with adults. That’s what I try to do with my naughty rhymes. Children LOVE them. I visit a lot of schools, and learning support teachers constantly tell me that when reluctant readers give up on reading they still take great pleasure in my really rotten rhymes!

SG: It’s great to see children react to your poems – and, as you say, it’s often the rhymes and the rhythms that reluctant readers connect with. Sometimes these same children might even try extending your verses or writing their own. ‘Imagination’ is wonderfully inspirational. Was encouraging the creation of poetry one of your aims when you were gathering poems for this collection?

The poems are child-friendly and children love them. When I’m asked about writing for children vis-a-vis writing for adults I reply: “when I write for children I enter a child’s mind; when I write for adults, I get to know my own”. I hope that my poems will help children to cope with their own emotions – happiness, sadness, loss, death etc etc. When I give workshops, the children react to them and write their own poems under their influence.

SG: I think my children would love to attend one of your workshops! You cover a range of human emotions from the tragic death in ‘A little girl visits her brother’s grave’ to the amusing ‘School tour’ song that will be so familiar to readers, and the ‘A young child learns to writer’, again, so familiar, and the ‘Lonely Day’. Do you think that poetry mirrors life and that perhaps it could be a source of solace, or even company to young, and old?

Yes it does – if it’s any good. Seamus Heaney once said that poetry should be strong enough to help. I have been asked to write poems for funerals, mortuary cards, wedding anniversaries, people going into exile, exiles returning home, birthdays, football victories etc. Poems can help us deal with all sorts of occasions.

SG: I like that idea, that it cannot be ‘just’ a poem, that it has to be ‘strong enough to help’. Finally, Gabriel, tell me about the beautiful illustrations by artist Karen Vaughan. I was particularly taken with her interpretation of ‘Messing around.’

Karen Vaughan designed my covers for Liberties Press and I was delighted when they asked her to illustrate “Will You Be My Friend?” I LOVE her illustrations as I’m sure the children (and adults) will too. My only problem is that there are not enough of them, they are so good.

Yes, hopefully we will see more of her illustrations alongside more of your work soon – though you have said this might be your last collection but time will tell.

Thanks, Gabriel for such honest answers and readers can purchase Will You be My Friend? from Liberties Press here.


Interview: Poet Daragh Bradish

I’m delighted to feature Dublin poet Daragh Bradish on my blog and chat about his poetry collection Easter in March, which was published by Liberties Press this March.


Welcome, Daragh. Tell me about the structure of this fine collection. It begins with the wonderful ‘Easter in March’ one of my favourite and one which curiously reminds me of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova – ‘so you fill up with imitations of a life’. And then we follow three, sequential parts within which are poems which explore the extraordinariness alongside the everyday of what it means to exist.

Thanks, Shauna – it’s good to talk.

I’m delighted you mention structure at the start and the title poem.  I suppose the collection, with the exception of one or two poems existed for about a year before I submitted it to a publisher, and yet I knew it was strangely incomplete.

I found the process of shaping a collection unsettling. The poems were not written with a collection in mind. Of course I wanted a ‘first’ but I was not working with a definite programme. I had ideas which I had sought to express, but how do you give diverse ideas a overall shape?

Getting it right was very important to me. Fortunately, as with so much else in the creative life the problem solved itself.  When I had finished the poem ‘Easter in March’ I knew that it contained the touchstone for everything that follows. I remember thinking I have a collection even if it never gets published. It opens with just two key words: ‘It recurs’

I used the Rilke quote at the front of the book to set up the metaphor of circuits which underpins the collection. You mentioned Akhmatova which is interesting as I have been drawn more and more to the great Russian masters, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva,  and Akhmatova, though I’m not aware of any direct influence on my own writing here.


You studied fine arts, Daragh, and in some way the poems have the touch of a fine brush – the way textures and colours permeate each poem and how the visual is used as a way to bring us further into the detail and the emotional world. Do you think your formal study has had a particular influence on your poetry?

An interesting question Shauna. All in all I think reading, and reading a lot, both poetry and prose, has been more important. Although an appreciation of beauty was something I imbibed through studying visual arts. The Rilke quote is taken from his ‘Letters on Cezanne’, and some of the poems are directly inspired by paintings and photographs. I do look closely at things and I stand back a bit.

Yes, I like that juxtaposition of observing both closely and from a distance. I very much enjoyed the role memory plays and how it seems to be the backbone to these poems. Indeed, Paula Meehan described you as a ‘tender memorialist’. I’m thinking here of ‘Radio Drifters’ and ‘Sounds That Are Bright’ in the first section. And if I may quote a few lines from ‘Radio Drifters’ that illustrate – for me anyhow – the power of the sensory memory of sound:

This unexpected lift of tenderness/in airborne song/awaking magic motion in our lives

And from ‘Sounds That Are Bright’

Since you are gone it is your singing voice I hear…..This then is your returning gift to me. Once more,/today I rose from plucking weeds, and standing back, sore,/heard the sounds of past-loved summers sung.

I find it interesting as so many of us put the emphasis on visual or olfactory memory and yet, as you capture in these poems memories are often pushed into present by music, and as you show us in ‘Pathfinder’ and ‘Gift Maker’, also by tactile memory.

Yes, there is a lot of music going on in the poetry, both in inspiration and in the language I try to work with. Music has always evoked memory for me. It’s pretty well instantaneous the way it works really. You might be sitting in the car watching the world about its business when something comes on the radio and transports you off to another time and place. It’s great, you can’t get penalty points for thought travel, not yet anyway. There are so many routes into past, sometimes it can be as simple as the feel of sun on your skin. I think often a number of things are happening simultaneously.

That’s true; the connections between emotional and sensory memory often involve a number of things happening simultaneously. I also love how emotions – past and present – unfurl through our connection with everyday objects, particularly objects of purpose. I’m thinking here of the railings in the tender ‘Turnabout in the Age of Recovery’:

I used to paint old crumbling bars for days,/working my brushes through scrolls and trellises

And how you remind us that we sometimes arrive – almost unconsciously or magically – at a point:

I have come without arrangement to this place,/finding myself in the vicinity of want.

And I’m thinking of how we see life almost as if through lenses of a camera or a microscope, something that you capture beautifully in ‘Small Lives’.

Thanks, Shauna. I think that when you are writing about emotion you need to be very careful not to allow sentiment the upper hand. To me poetry is about conveying emotion, hoping to evoke a response in your reader. So constraint is crucial to the exercise. The use of concrete detail is really important in anchoring to the world as we all recognise it. Of course you need to be sparse in the amount of detail you use. ‘Small Lives’ are two of the shortest, or is it one of the shortest poems I ever written, I intended to be part of a longer sequence, but it sort of told me it was finished, and I went with that.

Even in times of sorrow and grief, beauty is present in your poetry. If, as Dostoevsky wrote, ‘beauty will save the world’, do you think that poetry can do the same?

I’d like to believe that it could. It certainly enriches this life. Solzhenitsyn references that Dostoevsky quote in his Nobel acceptance speech. What he has to say about the role of the writer and art is very interesting, well worth checking out.

Can poetry do the same? I don’t know. In the end its’ our relationships that  redeem us, and poetry can open doors, breaks through walls, pushes shutters apart. It has a role to play in presenting an alternative voice to all that noise they keep throwing at us and which we have to contend with. I think it can in some way heal the tormented soul.  So it’s not a bad start to make in setting the world to rights.

Lastly, Daragh, what books are you reading at the moment?

Christian Wiman’s   ‘By Bright Abyss’; Annie Dillard’s essay collection ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’; In poetry, ‘The Shadow of Sirius’ by W.S.Merwin, and ‘Only So Far’ by another wonderful American poet Robert Cording who deserves to be much better known both sides of the Atlantic.

Annie Dillard’s a favourite of mine! So, any books that you have abandoned? Or do you tend to plough through them regardless?

Do I ever give up on a read?  Yes, life is too short to waste.

Readers will be interested to hear about any poetry readings you have coming up and any thoughts on your next collection?

No plans as yet. I do have a body of poems I didn’t feel right for Easter In March, and I’m working on a sequence on Boris Pasternak.

Reading at the Pearse Meseum, Rathfarnham with Maggie O’Dwyer  and Ron Carey 14th May, and at O Bheal, Cork on 30th May

Thank you, once again, Daragh, for such engagement with my questions, to Liberties Press for the collection, and I very much look forward to reading more of your work in the near future, and hopefully, hearing you read!

Daragh Bradish
Daragh Bradish