Kevin Graham lives and works in Dublin. He graduated from DCU with a BSc in Applied Computational Linguistics and his poems have appeared in various magazines, as well as radio.
Kevin has received two bursaries in literature from An Chomhairle Ealaíon / The Arts Council, Ireland and has been featured poet in The Stinging Fly.
In 2016 The Smithereens Press published his e-chapbook Traces. He is working on his first collection.
Q: Robert Pinsky has spoken of poetry emerging out “the play of what’s regular and what’s wild”. Does this idea – the productive tension between what you say and how you say it – manifest itself in your work at all? You can answer as a (former) linguistics student if you like! In any case, I only ask because one of the most impressive qualities of your poetry for me is its ability to maintain a certain standard of formal care, but without compromising the emotional experience described. Do you find the ‘regularity’ of poetic form to be helpful (rather than restrictive) in your writing practice?
A: I’d go along with Pinsky alright. Other poets have said similar things. Andrew Motion talks about “linking that side of our minds which is writerly, readerly, and that side of our minds which frankly hasn’t a clue what’s going on in this primeval swamp, until suddenly, instantly, they’re together, and the hairs go up on the back of your neck.” Which is sort of a reworking of Keats’ negative capacity. It’s difficult to be objective about your own work, but for me it’s the excitement of only half-knowing where it’s going. A self-delighting Emily Dickinson comes to mind. Formal poetry (old fashioned as that may sound) usually forces the writer to use a word he or she hadn’t anticipated. That word tends to be far more interesting than the one that was at the front of the brain, within immediate reach. It forces the mind to adjust as it moves, at the same time pursuing the original impulse of the poem. I don’t see it as constrictive or shutting down the line, but as a tool to drive the thing forward. It also has that trick of fooling time by braiding similar-sounding words down the margin of a page which, when read out loud – as poetry should be – makes them chime and seems to create a kind of order… Having said all that, I’ve read enough to know great poems don’t need to rhyme!
Q: Out of curiosity, have you read much of Robert Pinsky’s work? I’d like to hear more about the writers – of poetry or anything else – whom you find yourself gravitating towards in your spare time. In a similar vein, I’d be interested to know what sparked your own desire to write – how this happened, and whether you’ve developed a fuller sense of craft and process since then.
A: As it happens I bought his Selected Poems a few months ago. Aside from poets like Bishop and Frost I’ve read relatively little American poetry (for shame). I picked up a tome of Richard Wilbur’s recently who sadly died last October. I read American fiction writers but the poets tend to be Irish or British. I’m not sure why exactly. There are many poets whose lyrical work I especially admire and they would include the likes of Michael Longley, Jacob Polley, Vona Groarke, Caitriona O’Reilly and many more. I return to certain poets and poems for the sheer pleasure of the language. Michael Donaghy’s ‘Black Ice and Rain’ always knocks me out. Or it might be Neruda. I’m always looking to discover something new in the writing. I’m a bit of a magpie: picking up, putting down; I don’t sit and read poems for hours. Does anyone? I read magazines and journals too – Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly. For years I preferred playing music but the appreciation for poems was there from a young age. The impulse to try and write them came later and stemmed from the simple joy of reading them. Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney. Whole universes were crammed inside those little boxes running down the page. By the end, the world was made new again. That line in ‘Among School Children’: “Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind / and took a mess of shadows for its meat?” I never thought experience could be put in those terms. The actual physical writing of poems remains a mystery to me though. Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn’t. But it’s the desire to wring something true from language that makes you sit back at the desk.
Q: In your poem, ‘Do You Remember?’, you write of a “disappearing world where we are only drops / under an ocean of helpless stars” – a world which in the poem feels both universal and local, beautiful but fragile. I wonder if this is a strain that can be found throughout your work, and which in a certain sense may even motivate your writing – the desire to acknowledge experiences that you feel to be palpable and present, but know to be distant and “disappearing”. Can you comment on this dynamic that animates your work (if you think it does)? I have in mind pieces like ‘Elegy for a Friend’ or ‘Passerby’, in which you describe “waiting / for the parting grass to show what lay there.” The online chapbook you brought out with Smithereens Press in 2016, similarly, is called Traces.
A: I’m attracted to the liminal, I suppose. You might be driving at something I don’t really realise I’m doing when I’m writing which is in some small way trying to acknowledge the shifts and paradoxes of being in the world. That we live and breathe and die. Poetry has a brilliant capacity to compress fairly complex ideas into a relatively short space, even if those ideas are contradictory or sometimes don’t even seem to make sense at all. When a good poem carries off the page, there’s a frisson that occurs, an electricity that runs through the logic of the brain. High art does that. Personally, my favourite kind of writing is quiet and doesn’t draw too much attention to itself; poetry that works hard in or around an idea and seems to unearth something by the end of it. ‘At the Fishhouses’ by Bishop comes to mind. The last line in that poem is masterful. I like the idea that she didn’t know it was coming; that she was simply reasoning out her argument and arriving there naturally:
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
Q: Can you give us an insight into what the process of putting Traces together was like? Specifically, I’m interested to know how the art of assembling a manuscript compares to the act of writing per se. Is there a self-consciousness to each activity, do you find, and if so what changes when you move between them?
A: It’s certainly harder than I thought it would be. The act of writing poems can be both frustrating and exhilarating but ultimately it’s always positive because it can go anywhere. The process of putting poems together is altogether different and involves mulling over these things you’ve knocked out for reasons you can’t quite fathom. The idea of putting them in some kind of order just seems impossible, unless you’re a writer that has been writing with a specific theme in mind or known trajectory. The heat that brought the poems into the world in the first place seems to cool when you’re sifting through them and I, at least, am guilty of going off more than one poem. I definitely benefit from an independent eye. Ken Keating was very helpful and patient with Traces.
Q: This website was set up as a space for Irish poets to share some thoughts about their writing – and yet more and more, reading your work and others’, I find myself doubting whether the classification of Irish is a relevant one. Your poems, certainly, seem as attuned to anglophone writing in the UK and America than to any Ireland-specific ‘canon’ – although many of them are sensitive, at the same time, to the familiarity and particularity of various places from your life. Can you offer any clarifying thoughts on this?
A: I think the impulse to write poetry is the same the world over, but the output of any individual poet has references to where they’re from built in to the language they use. Dialect and idioms can be very specific. A native-ness creeps in – for example a particular type of flower, a bird. But word choice is both deliberate and accidental. Kavanagh put lots of place names into his poems which had its own kind of music. And there they are all these years later. I tend to avoid littering poems with place names (you could prove me wrong yet). I think I’m more interested in how a place or time makes you feel or how it’s affected you in some way. The “passionate transitory” as Kavanagh puts it. One of the many things I admire about your own poetry, Ciaran, is its ability to consider specific European works of art, 20th-century figures or political situations and ghost into those landscapes using your own voice with such ease. It automatically transports us as the reader to a time and place outside of our own which is always interesting.