Simon Lewis’ first collection, Jewtown, was a finalist in the Shine/Strong Award in 2017.
In 2015 he was the winner of the Hennessey Prize for Emerging Poetry and runner-up in the Patrick Kavanagh Prize.
His second collection, Ah, Men!, was published in 2019.
You can find out more about Simon on http://simonlewis.ie/.
Q: Reading your latest collection, Ah, Men!, I was reminded of a line from Brian Friel’s play, Translations: that “words are signals… they’re not immortal.” To me, at least, your poems often seem to point beyond themselves, in the sense that they are keen to identify the gaps and disjunctions in memory and relationships, sketching out the experiences that ordinarily remain unspoken. “City rearing has no currency here / in this place, where acreage is king”, the speaker (on holiday in the countryside) recognises in one poem, ‘Circle Time’. Another, ‘Wedding Photographer’, clinches shut with a close-focused image of “fathers with pink faces, never looking / at the groom, gripping their daughter’s hand.” Can you shed light on this dynamic in your work? And as I’ve mentioned it, do you have any immediate response to Mr Friel’s suggestion above (that “words are signals”)?
A: I think all human interactions are probably signals – whether they are words or non-verbal communications. The father gripping his daughter’s hand in ‘Wedding Photographer’ won’t utter a word but it is hopefully clear to the reader that this gesture says everything about how he is feeling. In my poems, in this collection, I am trying to observe the Irish male closely. I want to know how he really feels about life in the 21st century where the rules have (rightly) changed. Should you let your own child beat you in a penalty shoot out? (‘Shoot Out’) Can a man drink from a pink mug? (‘Visiting Dad’) Why would a man only slur the name of his brother as his final words? (‘My Brother is Sick’) And what message, or signals, do these actions give? I’d like to think different people will have different answers to those questions.
Q: For all the observational sensitivity and detail of their approach, the poems in Ah, Men! can be breath-stopping in their recognition of physicality and even violence as markers of the personal scenarios described. Is this a fair comment, in your opinion (it may not be!)? One piece, ‘Street Theatre’, depicts a homophobic attack, the speaker “wincing through each raucous kick to my head” before the perpetrators “swagger off, roaring their chant / ‘poofter, homo, faggot’. Another, ‘Indications that Labour was Imminent’, by contrast seems to pivot on the connection between a father-to-be’s attempted sympathy for his partner and the visceral bodily experiences of pregnancy and labour that she undergoes. For you, is poetry a space where bodies find a voice? And did you deliberately set out to address (or simply to include) scenes like the above in the poetic tapestry of Ah Men!, or did those pieces arrive more or less independently of any pre-formulated scheme?
A: When I started this collection, I simply wanted to try and find snapshots of what it might be like to be a male in Ireland in the 21st century. The poems came from many places, some of them from my own life, others from newspaper stories, and a few from who-knows-where! There was no intention to pick particular aspects of masculinity although I did want a balance. I had written almost 200 poems that could have sneaked into the collection but these were chosen as being as authentic as I felt I could be.
Q: Do you consider yourself a political poet? And what do you make of this category (‘the political’) as a way of classifying or approaching poetry? I ask because it seems that both your first and second collections speak to contemporary social concerns (in Ireland, as well as farther afield). Jewtown offers a humane, deep-delving portrait of Cork’s Jewish area and community from the late nineteenth century onwards, the poems’ process of recollection and re-imagining also serving (I think) as a kind of tribute: to lives seldom acknowledged in Irish history and poetry, and to a communal story often shadowed by the threat and actuality of anti-Semitism (which is experiencing a resurgence today, unfortunately). Likewise Ah, Men! has arrived at a moment when the patterns and effects of toxic masculinity are coming under slowly increasing critical scrutiny, in both political and cultural spheres. Can you provide some commentary here?
A: I hardly consider myself a poet, never mind a political one! However, I may have gotten ‘lucky’ that both books came out at times when the world was having wider discussions. When Jewtown came out, the subject of migration was very much in the foreground, especially with the Syrian refugee crisis. Ah, Men! was published right in the middle of the conversations around toxic masculinity. For me, I find it easier to write with some sort of concept weaving its way throughout and these were two areas I was interested in writing about. I’ve heard someone say that all poetry is political – I don’t think I agree with that – but I think poetry can explore political, social and cultural issues. There’s definitely a growing number of poets, especially in the performance space, that have brought an interesting dimension to poetry and much of it is political in nature. I like it a lot.
Q: At the level of craft, your work has a cleanliness and understated elegance which seem just as distinctive as the themes you attend to. The clarity of vision in the poems seems carried by their language and rhythm, line-by-line; and you’ve also deployed overtly technical forms, such as the sestina (‘The Last Words’). Are questions of form and technique important to you as a poet (for example, do they have a decisive influence on you when you’re writing)? And could you give us some insight into your creative process in general?
A: I am a bit of a fan of form in poetry. It might be the computer scientist in me – as a former ‘coder’ I often think of poems in the same way as I do a piece of software. For example, I derive great pleasure when I’m able to strip out an unnecessary word from a line in a poem to make that line look similar in length to the rest of the lines in the poem. I love it when I find an interesting rhyme or when the pieces fit together when writing a sestina. Almost every poem I write, I feel, tries to fit into some sort of form. However, I tend not to start off thinking of using a particular form; after a little bit, it feels like it needs to be a sonnet or a terza rima or whatever. Most of my poems, at some point, in their journey fall into a form but many of them become a freer style of verse.
I also like using simple language, possibly because I don’t have a huge vocabulary, but also I enjoy the challenge of using everyday words with the hope of making a reader laugh and better if that is followed up with a metaphorical punch in the stomach.
Q: Ireland is currently emerging from its months-long Covid-19 lockdown, during which I know you were proactive in organising and hosting the (highly recommended!) online series of poetry readings, The Holding Cell. Can you tell us where the idea for the readings came from, and why, with the outburst of a global pandemic, you turned to poetry? Also, given how vividly your poems portray (and perhaps draw inspiration from) day-to-day life, I’m also curious to know how the crisis and resulting lockdown affected your own writing and reading habits, if at all. Has it been a creatively stimulating period (however counter-intuitive that may sound)?
A: The Holding Cell was born from a panic that my wife and I were not going to be able to go to the many festivals we’d usually go to where we’d get our ‘fix’ of poetry and fiction. We decided that it might be a good idea to see if writers would be willing to give a live reading from their homes to give us as close to the same feel as we might have going along to a real live event. It was really important to us that the reading would be live because, for us, we wanted those accidental things that happen at readings – the unintended anecdote, the stumbling over a sentence, all the things that give authenticity to a live event rather than a polished pre-recorded video (although I really enjoyed the DECAMERON series.)
The crisis, unfortunately, was not a creative one for me. My real job overwhelmed whatever time I had and I found myself unable to find much time to write. I’m not sure if I would have been able to write anything anyway. I rely on observing human interactions for inspiration and I didn’t see anyone outside of my household for almost 4 months. If I was to write anything about the pandemic, it would likely have been about things like the awkwardness of wearing a facemask for the first time, or trying desperately to avoid other shoppers in a supermarket, or the guilty feeling of leaving the 2km radius just to have a different walking route. Maybe I should get going on them when things become quieter!