Michael Donaghy

Michael Donaghy

Winner of the most prominent poetry prizes in Britain, Michael Donaghy represents the fresh generation of poets worldwide. The care with which every line is perfected in Donaghy's poems is exemplary and his attitude and élan towards poetry in general is often boy-like. Displaying the wit and elegance in verse, he deserves his reputation as a 'poet's poet'.

NICHOLAS COBIC: You first came to the UK in 1985. What made you want to come in the first place?

MICHAEL DONAGHY: The food. Just kidding. I moved here to be near my girlfriend.

How has the London poetry scene changed since 1985?

To address the country in general: some old poets have died, the performance poetry scenes have flourished, in the nineties there was a poetry boom manufactured by the publishers which proved successful in raising the profile of poetry, more women are being published, and just lately, the marginalized avant-garde are again raising their profile.

As far as London in particular is concerned, it's become ever so slightly less important as the centre of literary activity on this island.

You decided to drop out from the judging panel for this year's Forward Prize. Why did that happen?

There were allegations of bias. A pretty absurd idea if you think about it carefully. If you are talking about the awarding of government contracts, for example, the word 'bias' is scandalous. But in something subjective like an arts prize you want the judges to be true to their tastes. That's what they're paid for.

The suggestion that a poet judging the prize is going to favour his or her friend's book over one he or she knows to be superior strikes me as silly. Especially as there were five judges involved and the voting is confidential.

But once the allegations of bias were made, my involvement was bound to come up because two of us on the panel were published by Picador, which is no surprise, and it could just as easily have been two poets published by Faber and Faber.

After the allegations were made it suddenly became an issue. I dropped out so that the judges wouldn't have to worry about accusations during the second part of judging.

Do these accusations surprise you?

No they don't surprise me coming from that particular source. It is a small scene and people have rivalries. All the accusations came from one source.

Mind you, that source had a genuine point to make about eddies of literary taste. The people who run these prizes tend to draw on the same stock of poets to judge the awards. Eventually, things are bound to run in little circles. But this is emphatically not the poet's responsibility. What credibility would a prize have if the judges said 'I think X's book is the best, but let's give the prize to Y because she never gets prizes or to Z because he needs the money'?

In your opinion, who are the most promising new poets?

I see a lot of work that intrigues me, particularly young women poets, but I'm more interested in promising old poets.

Who are the old promising poets that interest you?

Over here Peter Porter and Roy Fisher. In America poets Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur, have new collections out. They are both in their eighties, and their books are very strong.

Are there poets out there that get more attention than they deserve? Why does this happen?

That kind of thing happens for a number of reasons. Poets don't usually have literary agents, as the poetry scene is pretty small, but once in a while a poet manages to get in with a literary agent, so you may find a poet that no one has ever heard of in all broadsheet newspapers with page long reviews and being hailed as a genius.

Another reason may be because a poet has done some good work in the past and has perhaps won lots of literary prizes. In this instance, prize and notoriety are acting on the attention of public and journalists like gravity and mass. The more attention has been paid towards a particular poet in the past, the more is going to be paid. Even evident mediocrity cannot escape from the black hole of media attention.

What is the shortest way to success?

Always carry a spoon in case it rains soup.

What would be your advise to a non-established poet that wishes to be known?

Assassinate a public figure.

Does poetry come from the unconscious?

I'm not sure I believe in the unconscious. The Interpretation Of Dreams was published in 1900 and as of today there's still no scientific evidence for the existence of the phenomenon as it's described by Freud or Jung. But of course I acknowledge the existence of the irrational, of subliminal urges, the places we go when we dream, the sudden insight, lateral thinking, etc. However, I believe the fully conscious mind engages all of the above.

Do you think that mistakes too make a poet?

It may indeed be a mistake to be a poet.

What is your favourite poem in Conjure?

I like them all.

What were your inspirations whilst writing Conjure?

It's hard for me to say now, as it's two years since I wrote it. The initial catalyst that starts me writing a poem is neither here or there, but once the idea comes and the whole machine of a poem starts working, the poem has its own momentum. There are poems in Conjure that took over seven years.

After the success of Conjure, when can readers expect to see your next collection of poetry?

Let's see, the first two took five years apiece and Conjure took me seven years. I'd say seven to ten years.

What was the last thing that made you laugh?

Your eighth question, above.

What projects are you currently working on?

I'm working on a novel and editing two anthologies for Faber - a selection of Andrew Marvell and 101 poems about Childhood.

As well as being a poet, you are also a musician. Does music inspire your poetry? Does poetry inspire your music?

I've only alluded to Irish music and Irishness in a handful of poems in order to approach issues of orality, sentimentality, nationality and memory. I've used other musics: 'Footage from the Interior' draws on African log drumming, 'Down' on the Blues, in 'Theodora Theodora' I use Rembetika, in 'The Palm' it's the jazz, and in 'Ramon Fernandez' I allude to partisan songs of the Spanish Civil War. But I knew that once I broached the matter of Irishness or Irish folk music I'd be labelled 'the Irish American musician poet' so I avoided writing those poems until my second collection.

I've often been asked to explain on the relationship between traditional music and my writing. There isn't one really. I just happen to play the flute a bit and I've written a couple of poems exploring Irish traditions.

But if pressed I'll concede there is a common root in orality. The music I play survives in an aural tradition, whether or not it may also be packaged as a product nowadays, its essential nature belongs to the free exchange of tunes among non-professional musicians who learned from their families and communities and who play for the love of playing, for each other and for dancers.

Most of the musicians I know don't read music and they've picked up their vast repertoires of jigs and reels hundreds of tunes and variations by ear. And this is the original situation of verse. The mnemonic groove established by a traditional musical form like a reel or a blues or a raga is analogous to the traditional oral mnemonics of poetry.

There's a great similarity between, say, a sonnet and a jig, as they both have a particular form and can consequently be held in the mind. Every sonnet is one sense like every other sonnet and I think this is the original situation with verse. It is the information storage for pre-literate culture. It exists today because it reaches the part of our mind that prose can't reach.

What is for you the best part of day for writing?

Now that I have a six-year old son, the past six years was hard to find a quiet space for writing. Any time my family is out of the house, I have to snatch time to write.

To what extent can a translation change a poem and how much freedom should a translator have to stray from the original?

Frost remarked that 'Poetry is what is lost in translation', and what he means is the very subtle connotations of every word cannot possibly be translated from one language to another, so the resonance between words and the music between words which matter so much to the poem, cannot be translated

Poets throughout history have tried heroically to do this. Pound was the first to introduce the notion of versions. He would often work from a prose translation and turn it into a poem by Ezra Pound, but 'After an Egyptian poem' for example.

If you call it a version you are entitled to stray as much as you like. If, however you want to call it a translation, your duty is to communicate as much as possible and as closely as possible. In the end all translations are versions of the original.

How do you prepare for your poetry readings?

I don't sit down and memorise poems. By the time I finish a poem I usually have it memorised. I used to prepare for poetry readings by drinking as much as possible, because I was so nervous. I don't do that at all now. I guess I don't really prepare for readings at all. Sometimes I write a list of poems that I intend to read.

Do you still sometimes get nervous?

No. I overcame it by habit.

If you were a soldier, what rank would you want to be?

When I was about 17 I had to take, as all students a test in which you would have to rate from 1 to 100 all these careers. I remember that I had marks of below zero for being in the army. I could never imagine being a soldier.

How will new technological inventions change poetry?

Here we come dangerously close to actually trying to give a definition of poetry.

The word 'poetry' means a made thing and doesn't define anything. People generally take it as an art form of combining words. Beyond that everything is up for grabs. The more exact term is 'verse'. It exists today in relation to voice, body, speech, presence and memory. Some new forms of technology, like the Internet, are wonderful at distributing poetry. There are ways of playing games with words on the Internet and thus create your own poems.

Personally I regard it as more of a game than an art form. The essential nature of verse will not change as it has been the same since pre-historic times.

Poets have tried to use computers to write poems. No doubt, someday computers will be made to fall in love and have sex, so I guess they will write poems to each other as well.

If you were frozen and then defrosted in 50 years, what would you do?

See if my books are still around.

Interview: Nicholas Cobic


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