Maurice Scully is an Irish poet who has published over a dozen volumes of work, a selection of which may be found in Doing the Same in English (Dedalus Press, 2008) and A Tour of the Lattice (Veer Books, 2011). Airs (2022) and a revised edition of Things That Happen (2020) are published by Shearsman Books.
Born in Ireland in 1952, Scully lived and travelled in Ireland, Italy, and Africa before returning to live with his family in Dublin.
He is a member of Aosdána.
Q. William Carlos Williams once asserted that “No one / can understand what makes the present age / what it is. They are mystified by certain / insistences.” Do you agree (i.e. might something similar be true today)? And how does this concern poetry (if it does)? Part of the reason I ask is that I tend to think of Williams’s book-length poem, Paterson, as a response to that predicament: as an effort to challenge and dismantle some of the mystifications, literary and political, he perceived in the culture around him. To my eye (rightly or wrongly) your work performs a similar service, in its process and in some of the particularities it registers. What do you make of this proposition?
A. Lived life is mystifying in the instant, for sure. As it flows quickly into ‘past’ the framing impulse kicks in. This concerns all art. In my own case, I’m temperamentally inclined towards the porous & so would be drawn to dissolve the frame. Flexible form is an ideal. WCW felt that too I think. I suppose there is a tension between the fixed & the fluid in a great deal of modern poetry. Paterson was a favourite book of my youth.
Q. Is there a relationship, for you, between form and multiplicity, each vying to incorporate or reflect the other? Throughout your writing, “the tenacious little details of daily getting by” interrupt and redirect the flow of the poem, opening it up to new textures and orientations, but at the same time seem to
Or as another segment has it (in Airs): “– decades – doctorates – / centuries / of the”
of the species –
A. This relates to Q1. Suppleness of eye & mind is my ideal avenue of pleasure in art. The ‘flow of the poem’ – your phrase, a good one – is energised by where it was made & when.
Q. While preparing for this exchange, before diving into your work I decided to revisit (as a kind of warm-up) some ‘experimental’ poetries by other writers, including Charles Olson and J. H. Prynne. Your own back-catalogue, however, features a wide range of literary echoes, including from the likes of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, and others who were certainly innovative in their time, but today are generally thought of as mainstream or canonical. Was I too quick to draw a dividing line between ‘the experimental’ and ‘the traditional’ (whatever these categories might signify)? Are there any specific figures/schools/bodies of work that have fired your curiosity recently?
A. I don’t lose sleep over the experimental/trad issue. That’s for others to judge. And after all the theoretical kerfuffle it boils down in the end to individual sensibility. But ah, you say, sensibility is shaped by culture. And culture is a mysterious force. And so we go round the mulberry bush.
Firing curiosity? Well, what’s on my desk right now … Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands, David Lees’s & Alberto Zilli’s Moths, Ian Parsons’s A Vulture Landscape, Martin Williams’s When the Sahara Was Green, William Bronk’s Life Supports, two Tristan Gooley books (The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs & Wild Signs & Star Paths), Erica van Horn’s We still Have the Telephone, Don Delillo’s White Noise, Alison Sim’s Pleasures & Pastimes in Tudor England, T. A. Clark’s The Threadbare Coat, Matthew Mead’sThe Autumn-Born in Autumn, Paul Falkowski Life’s Engines… & that’s not the half of it.
Q. Critics have noted how the “binary of capital and art […] punctuates” Things That Happen, a book attuned to the nuances and frustrations of “life as an artist in capitalist Ireland” (among much else, as the title suggests). Could you comment on this interpretation? Now that it’s been gathered and revised in a landmark single volume, how do you feel about things that happen in 2022?
A. Well, yes. I’m happy to get out from under the shadow of the mountain range of Things That Happen. I’ve written several books since it was finished in 2006 [for the single vol edition in 2020 I did revise & correct it in 2019/20]. I believe the subsequent stand-alone books – Humming, Several Dances, Play Book, Airs & a 5th that has been in train for some years now – are separate in character & intent from the preceding & from each other. Others think otherwise, but I believe this is a trick of the light. If I felt I was writing One Thing all of my life I’d feel trapped & unhappy. I’d been preoccupied with how to be an artist & raise a young family & have a livelihood that would be temperamentally suitable & productive. Post-Things That Happen, the work has other preoccupations: how to honour a departed sibling’s life without making a ‘colourful story’ of it, in Humming, how to blend art forms in Several Dances, how to play with the tradition & survive it in Play Book, how to reflect on a life spent in art in the recent book Airs.
Q. I’m interested in the ‘Irishness’ invoked and included in the assessment of your work above. Likewise, I’m conscious of the fact that you yourself – remarking on Doing the Same in English, the “sampler” of your work published by Dedalus Press in 2008 – have said you “would very much like to have readers in Ireland, my native country after all” (you do!). Does Ireland (or, indeed, the Irish language) anchor or rupture your poetry in a generative way? Do you think of yourself and your work as Irish?
A. I am Irish, it’s just a given. The work, well that belongs to the Anglophone world. A good deal of my reading has no bearing on the country at all. Wherever I am I tend to let the surrounds seep in & don’t resist with an I-am-of-Ireland filter. I suppose in that sense I’m no nationalist, more a ‘planet-earthist’.