David Butler is a multi-award winning novelist, poet, short-story writer and playwright. The most recent of his three published novels, City of Dis (New Island), was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2015. His second poetry collection, All the Barbaric Glass, was published in March 2017 by Doire Press. He recently completed a Per Cent Literary Arts Commission for Blackrock Library. Arlen House is to bring out his second short story collection in 2019. Literary prizes include the Maria Edgeworth (twice), ITT/Red Line and Fish International Award for the short story, the Scottish Community Drama, Cork Arts Theatre and British Theatre Challenge awards for drama, and the Féile Filíochta, Ted McNulty, Brendan Kennelly, Phizfest, Poetry Ireland/Trocaire and Baileborough awards for poetry. In 2017 RTE broadcast his radio play ‘Vigil’ for their Drama on One slot. David tutors regularly at the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin.
Q: In your poem, ‘Father’, you describe “a watery time / in which the hours gradually dissolve” and which seems to separate past from present, father from son. Strangely, perhaps, I associate this image with a line from another water-lit work of yours, ‘Blackrock Sequence’, where “memory soars over towers” and is “driven like rivets” to hold down “the hem of the bay.” I wonder if either or both of these poems offer a glimpse of what Poetry (with a capital P!) is all about, for you, the poem offering a way of turning what seems to be elusive (a memory, say) into something suddenly more solid or reachable? Can you comment on these pieces, and on where your desire to write comes from?
A: I try never to write (or even think of) poetry with a capital P. Nor do I think the appellation poet a helpful one. Anyone who begins a sentence with “We poets…” deserves a kick up the backside! As a reader/listener, the kinds of poetry that interest me are those that put a premium on craft, on originality of perspective and idiom, on the acoustic possibilities of language. As a writer who dabbles across the genre, poetry is the form in which I allow myself to deal directly with concerns and emotions, without feeling the need to fictionalise or distance.
‘Father’ is a case in point. When I’ve explored the issue of a parent’s dementia in a short story (‘Home Truths’) and a radio-play (‘The Prodigal’), I found it necessary to fictionalise, altering the dynamic of the siblings and even the gender of the parent. In writing 'Father’ (and ‘Alzheimer’s’ and 'These Are the Dead Days’ from the same collection) I felt no need for a distancing device – my father is my father in these poems, just as my mother is my mother in ‘Watcher’, and my sister my sister in ‘Cancer’.
Your question touches on the idea of the elusive, and I think that’s spot on. Poetry, like all art, is a fight against the elusive and the ephemeral; in Kavanagh’s phrase, an attempt to “snatch out of time the passionate transitory.” Alzheimer’s is the opposite, an erosion of memory and identity; in my father’s case, “memory, once so sharp, / has lost its stylus, and slides across the surface / leaving no impression but vague anxiety / that something isn’t right.” Jess Traynor has a remarkable poem that conflates her parent’s loss of memory with the contemporary destruction by Islamic State vandals of Nimrud.
Memory is also at the centre of the ‘Blackrock Sequence’ poems, though here I’m moving beyond the personal to interrogate cultural memory. The sequence explores the various layers of archaeological, geological, historical, linguistic and cultural heritage of the strip of coastline following the old Atmospheric Railway from Booterstown Saltmarsh to the Forty Foot. Of course, it’s a truism that our identities are so bound up with native culture and language that in writing of one we necessarily write of the other.
Q: You’ve said before that most of the physical act of writing actually consists of “(compulsive) rewriting.” With this in mind, I’m curious to know what it generally feels like to write a poem: Is it primarily an instinctive process? Is there also an element (as I think you suggest above) of conscious self-disciplining and -correction? And are these two compulsions in tension with one another?
A: When compulsions are not in tension, creative writing as often as not falls flat. When I’m writing fiction or drama, rewriting very often takes place in my head as I rehearse and revise voices until the nuances come together. Character is idiom.
In the kind of direct poetry I write – by which I mean that I don’t invent personae such as J Alfred Prufrock or Ricardo Reis – the revision is very much in terms of lexis and syntax. Firstly, one wants to find freshness in imagery – the old idea of poetry as a war against cliché. Secondly, the heart of a poem is its acoustic. This is a matter of rhythm, of assonance, of enjambment. An individual poem might go through twenty or thirty drafts, and it is not necessarily the final draft among these that is the most satisfactory and ends up published. Like many writers and artists, I find it impossible to resist the urge to revisit and tinker, even after publication.
Q: Sylvia Plath once summarised her literary credo with the exhortation that she be “let [to] live, love, and say it well in good sentences”. As a writer, of course, Sylvia Plath did a great deal more than that – but I wonder whether you could still respond to her formulation, and possibly offer one of your own. Do you find yourself as a writer needing to be “let” alone to work, for example – free not just from company, say, but from political demands? I ask because when I read that line from Plath’s journals, I was reminded of your poem, ‘And Then The Sun Broke Through’, in which while life-at-large (“an outrage; an airstrike”) is happening elsewhere, the persona uncovers a way into life-up-close, saying: “This / Is how it is to live: the wind blowing / The charcoal of crows’ feathers; / The rent in the clouds; oblique tines beating / Sudden ochre out of a sullen ocean.” Can you comment on this poem, and perhaps more broadly on the space poetry creates for itself in your own day-to-day routine?
A: Another interesting question! The impetus behind All the Barbaric Glass as a collection is to attempt, in a media-obsessed world, to reconnect with the real. The opening stanza of the opening poem, ‘Breaking’, sets out the manifesto:
There are times you need
to step outside the colloquy;
to mute the looping newsfeed,
the tinnitus of the immediate.
Times, to step out from
the shadows criss-crossing
all the barbaric glass.
For me, the “barbaric glass” (a phrase borrowed from Wallace Stevens) includes the full panoply of screens we have latterly become addicted to. The poem you mention, ‘And Then The Sun Broke Through’, contends that a local scrap between gulls and crows (taking place outside the window where my writing-desk sits) has as much or more reality than the claim of the newsfeed that this is what it is to live.
Plath’s exhortation that she be “let [to] live, love, and say it well in good sentences” is apt in that it emphasises the link between the lived life and the poetry arising out of it. Political poetry is at its most powerful when it is located at the intersection between the political and the personal – think of Yeats railing against old age, or Eavan Boland’s interrogations of suburbia. Sloganeering about bailouts and banks, however passionately, is the stuff of graffiti. If anything, political poetry demands more craft and imagination than other forms. Paula Meehan’s haunting ‘The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks’ is an outstanding example of what can be uniquely achieved by poetry entering into cultural conscience.
Q: Have you read much of Sylvia Plath’s poetry? I’m interested to hear about the poets (contemporary or otherwise) whose work has affected or resonated with you in lasting ways. Can you give us any indication of the figures you find yourself returning to as a reader, and why you do?
A: Sylvia Plath, together with Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, were the triumvirate of poets who dominated my imagination through my teens and early twenties – though the triumvirate of Cohen, Waits and Dylan have had arguably as much impact. Of the three poets mentioned, it’s Plath I return to most frequently. In particular I’m fascinated by her acoustic – her method of having a poem cohere through jittery assonance, as for example: “Viciousness in the kitchen! / The potatoes hiss. / It is all Hollywood, windowless, / the fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine” (Lesbos) or “The illusion of a Greek necessity / flows in the scrolls of her toga”, from her final poem, ‘Edge’.
Like most poets, I’m fascinated by language, its limitations and possibilities. A subset of this fascination is translation. Three foreign language poets I return to are Rilke, Pessoa and, more recently, Khodasevich. Dedalus brought out a collection of my translations of the inimitable Pessoa in 2004, and I translated a number of Khodasevich’s poems for Metre magazine. Unfortunately my German isn’t up to translating Rilke, whose method of interrogating the object remains exemplary. Though the register is very different, Elizabeth Bishop it seems to me, has a comparably intense focus, as does Eamon Grennan.
Incidentally, my considered opinion on Bob Dylan’s becoming a Nobel laureate is that it should have been Tom Waits.
Q: The topic of literary influence also raises the question of your own wider writing life. Your noir-ish narrative, City of Dis, was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award 2015, for example, while your play ‘Blue Love’ was shortlisted for RTÉ’s P. J. O’Connor award 2016. Do you find yourself having to adjust to a different head-space and process when you’re working in prose and drama (as compared to poetry)? I’m curious to know how these different projects and writing modes interact with one another, perhaps even stimulate and support one another, in your experience.
A: In my praxis, there’s a lot of traffic between the forms of fiction and drama. Partly, this is because my fiction is voice driven. Even when not first-person narrative, I tend to write what’s called close-third. As mentioned above, I believe that character is idiom – Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses are perhaps the most profound treatments of this idea, the first tracing the role of language(s) in forming Steven Dedalus’ character, the latter in forming Dublin’s character – language being here understood to include all sorts of fragments, from slang to song to ballad to advertising jingle.
The play ‘Blue Love’ began life as a section of a novel-in-progress, discarding its narrative to push the idea – though with drama, one has the added complexity of performance to consider. There tends to be less traffic between these forms and poetry. Poetry is the form I have least control of. It would not be unusual for six months to go by without the inspiration for a single poem. Then, like buses, three might arrive together. If six months passed without a drama or story, I think you’d be fishing me out of the sea!
Q: Lastly, I understand that you’re one of the founders and organisers of the Bray Literary Festival (Wicklow). Congratulations on assembling such a vibrant and eclectic line-up of events last year! Are there adequate and appropriate state supports for this kind of initiative, do you find? Can you tell us about the original motive for setting up the festival, and how you brought everything together to make it happen from then?
A: Credit for this, and for the monthly Staccato spoken-word event we’ve been hosting since 2015, goes squarely to my better half, Tanya Farrelly. Staccato receives no funding whatsoever. But then, it’s a free event with no reading fees, and Toner’s have been very good in allowing us to use their venue. When she came up with the idea of hosting an annual literary festival in Bray, Tanya was determined that all participants should receive a reading fee. Since the Arts Council look for a track record before allocating funding, this meant we had to go door to door to local businesses to look for sponsorship. Fortunately we managed to cover the costs, and as the festival was a success, funding has been secured for 2018 from the Arts Council.
As to whether there is appropriate state support for writers, that’s something of a vexed question. The arcana of how funding is allocated and whether there are coteries and cabals at work dominates most of the debate in this country. And it was ever thus. For me, the bottom line is, you write because you have to. If you allow yourself become distracted by who is a member of Aosdána or who gets invited to read at a half-dozen festivals, you won’t do your writing any favours. And writing needs all the favours it can get!