In a world on fire, poetry, along with much else of value in our society, can seem vulnerable to the flames (and powerless before their might). And yet, more and more, I find myself turning to poets for consolation, provocation, and the hard truths needed to navigate contemporary history. They’ve become my guides, restoring my belief in poetry as a small, often fragile, but still durable counterweight to the inhumanity that so wracks our ailing planet. Even the most solitary (or, indeed, despairing) of poems presumes the presence, somewhere, of other people with the capacity for recognition and understanding. It's possible that our collective future as a species-in-nature will come to depend on the existence of exactly that kind of community.
It was partly in the hope of testing and exploring such questions that I decided, a few years ago, to set up Island’s Edge Poetry, an online archive of interviews with Irish poets, whose work (in my view) has helped to keep the light alive. Island’s Edge now features twenty-eight interviews, with a final few more planned for the coming months.
When I started the website, the idea was to try to create a collective memoir of Irish poetry now, as narrated by some of its foremost practitioners. In many ways, of course, this was an impossible task. I didn’t have the time or energy to interview every poet in Ireland, and even if I had, my own concerns and (occasionally fruitful) biases tended to affect the flow of the conversations when they happened. As a reader, I’m generally curious, for example, about the overlap between form and content, poem and politics, in a manner that some people may find tiresome. My own feeling is that poets do not (and cannot) live only in their poems – that they belong to the world and are enriched by their engagement with it – and this filters my approach as a prospective interviewer. To that extent, there may also be an element of automatic self-portraiture in the exchanges gathered here, limiting their value as an impartial record, but at the same time (I hope) adding flavour and insight.
In any case, I’ve now had the pleasure of corresponding with a wide range of poets, from relative new-comers (writers who had yet to publish a full collection when we spoke) to acknowledged masters of the craft. Although far from complete – whatever that might look like – the collection also spans Ireland’s ‘spoken word’ and ‘printed page’ poetries, which are often presumed – mistakenly, in my opinion – to be separate spheres, or mutually at odds. In the archive, deep-delving memorialists of modern life (such as Peter Sirr and Maurice Scully) sit alongside proletarian prophets (like Karl Parkinson), as well as queer- and feminist-influenced philosophers-in-verse (from Sarah Clancy to Mary O’Donnell), and others, whose rich back-catalogue of poetic innovations perhaps eludes any of those specific categories. One of the great delights of compiling Island’s Edge, in fact, has been to encounter this democracy of the voice as it emerged over the interviews in their entirety: to hear wordsmiths of various political and literary dispositions letting rip, contradicting me and one another, with a fierce and sometimes fractious eloquence all their own.
As such, and in a small way, Island’s Edge offers a series of perspectives on the changes that have been wrought and won in Irish society over the past decade or so, from women’s reproductive rights to marriage equality. At times, the interviews likewise provide a glimpse into areas of social and cultural life that are still in need of reform or redress, including in the arts sector, which has witnessed a number of campaigns in recent years highlighting imbalances and alleged abuses of power. In the interviews, these issues often have a personal weight. One poet recalls once being told by a “young man [speaking] with the supreme confidence of young men, ‘Your poems are for women, I write for everyone.’”. Another relates the generative struggle between speech and silence in her work to “the ways in which women and children have been made vulnerable by institutions of the Irish State” over the past century. A third discusses poetry explicitly as a “call-to-battle, which is meant to lift people’s hearts so they can go on living and fighting for a better situation”.
Environmental anxieties stalk the archive. Why write (and how do we live) in the face of ecological catastrophe and potential extinction? One writer’s answer is a reflection on the “ginko tree”, which was “the only form of life to survive the [nuclear] bombing” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. “Having written a series of very gloomy ‘end-of-the-world’ poems”, another poet remarks, “I am now thinking that a celebration of what we are set to lose might be a more effective way of working.” Hope and horror seem to exist in recurring dialectical tension. “Literature”, we’re informed by one clear-eyed apocalypticist, “needs to be obscene in order to reflect the world with any degree of accuracy.”
All this being said, even as the website has expanded I’ve found myself lamenting the gaps and omissions that populate it. Bombarded by a volley of (perhaps too-earnest) questions, not all of the many poets I approached were available to participate in the interview process, for a range of reasons. And then there were others whom I would have loved to correspond with, but could not: Dermot Healy, for instance; or Derek Mahon, whose late poetry, fascinatingly, explored a range of anti-capitalist positions and philosophies, in opposition to what he called “the bedlam of acquisitive force / That rules us, and would rule the universe”; or Eavan Boland, who consistently bore witness to the credo that there can be “no meaning to an art form with its grand designs unless it allows the humane to shape the invented, the way gravity is said to bend starlight.” These figures have now departed, each of them “no more a person / now” (to quote W. H. Auden) “but a whole climate of opinion // under whom we conduct our different lives.”
Island’s Edge, then, is lit by loss and absence, just as much as it serves as a (partial) repository for the energies and intricacies shaping Irish poetry today. In this respect, the archive is merely an extension of the world it comes from, and exists in a similar state of process and formation. In the words of the late Brendan Kennelly (another ghost):
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.