Interview with poet Adam White
Adam White is from Youghal, Co. Cork. After many years working as a carpenter/joiner in Ireland and in France, he studied English and French at NUI Galway, where he began reading and writing poetry. He has recited his poetry at venues in Galway, Tipperary and Cork, at the Electric Picnic, and at venues in Italy, England and France. His first collection, Accurate Measurements, was published by Doire Press of Connemara, in April 2013, and shortlisted for a Forward prize for best first collection. At present he is living in Normandy.
His poems are inspired by his travels in and out of Ireland, by the value of the work we do in making sense of our lives, and by the love of doing a beautiful task well. But his poetry is also about the craft of writing, about the poet’s search for, and delight in, the words that come closest to what we feel we have to say.
Welcome Adam and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. How did you first get into poetry?
Though I liked the few poems I had come across when I was younger, and especially liked song lyrics, I had to go to university, and to get into reading poetry regularly, to want to start writing.
I like the way it was actually a chance thing, or the result of the coming together of certain circumstances. In the final year of my English degree I asked to be put into a seminar on the short story, as I was reading a lot of those (I never read poetry in uni up until this point). Well they put me into the modern Irish poetry seminar instead, probably to make up the numbers, and we had to read all the big Irish poets of the last fifty years. I loved it. At this time a friend of mine told me that there were poetry “slams” on once a month in the Crane Bar in Galway. These were the North Beach Nights, run by John Walsh and Lisa Frank of Doire Press. So we went along to see what a poetry slam was and I found out that it was really just reciting your two poems (you needed two to enter the slam) any way you choose to. I went home and wrote two and brought them with me to the following month’s slam.
The thing is, the quality of the poetry we were reading and discussing in the seminar was such that you got to distinguish between a good poem and a poor poem; it just helped you to refine your taste in poetry. So I wasn’t going to go along to the slam with poor poems. I did my best and John was impressed! I found Seamus Heaney’s stuff about farm life and making things, like butter, or a thatched roof, very interesting, so I wrote a poem about roofing a house (I used to be a carpenter). Between getting on so well at the slam, and being encouraged by John and Lisa to keep it up, and reading for the seminar, I’d caught some kind of poetry bug, and still have it four years later.
I remember liking John Montague’s love poems, but it was really Seamus Heaney’s first two collections that I read over and over again and continue to read now. I love the childhood poems at the beginning in Death of a Naturalist and then ‘Trout’ and ‘Waterfall’, where I first saw how good he is at describing movement. I always look for poems with characters, or people, in them, so I often go back to early poems like ‘Docker’, and then ‘The Forge’, ‘Thatcher’, The Wife’s Tale’ and ‘Mother’ in Door into the Dark. Any poems where physical work is described, or even mentioned, stuck with me, as that is really into in my own poems, so ones with fishermen, or ‘Churning Day’, about making butter, left their mark. As soon as the course was finished I bought some more of his books, but I suppose the books where you discover a poet and what he is trying to do will always remain the special ones.
There is really only one poem in the book that was written with slam in mind. It’s written in two paragraphs, no line breaks, so it’s easy to find. I wrote it to a rhythm I had in mind, almost like you’d write lyrics to an existing piece of music, and it was specifically for the Cúirt slam in the Roisin Dubh in Galway.I don’t really like the idea of “slamming” poetry at all (I’ve been to too many slams where the poet is just trying to get people to laugh). I prefer reciting poems that are genuinely important to me, from memory if it’s required, and trying to get that right, doing justice to the poem, and pausing if/where necessary, which isn’t as easy as I thought it would be (I suppose you know that). I much prefer readings to slams, although at the slams you can usually get a pint or two in. Rarely at readings.
I got a message from Lisa to call her at the house whenever I got the chance. When school was finished (I was working in a secondary school in Normandy at the time) I did, and she told me about being chosen for the shortlist. I had never heard of the Forward Prizes, and didn’t know what John and Lisa had entered my book for, of if they had entered it for any prize. So this was all very sudden, as I was just getting used to the fact I had a book out and sending it to friends and family.I’m sure Doire got some orders on their site, and I managed to sell some down in Cork as a result of being in the Examiner and Irish Times (which was a direct result of the Forward shortlist).
I was invited to a festival in Italy. I think the nomination had something to do with that, or with Dani Gill at the Galway Arts Centre thinking of me when the people in Italy said to her that they were looking for someone to come over from Galway. That was a great time.
Looks like you’ve been moving around quite a bit. Where are you now?
Yes, I left Galway in the summer of 2010. I got a two-year contract at the uni in Angers, and moved up to Normandy after that. We moved further north this September (following the work), and now live just outside Honfleur, which is just across the river from the big city/port of Le Havre. But the aim is to get more work down south and move again in the summer. With a bit of luck it’ll be the last move.
Down south for the summer, the opposite of the snowgeese. Are you carpentering?
When I say down south, it’s not the south of France I mean! More the south of the north of France.
No carpentry right now, no. I did a year of that in Brittany a while back, but now it seems (like Ireland) to be a bad time for the building trades, and anyone I called up said they were not taking anyone on, more letting people go. So I got some work teaching English at a secondary school. I did spend July in Germany though, reroofing a house my brother just bought. That was great. Great weather. A lot of work. We worked for a month without a day off.
Your carpentry inspired some poems. Has your teaching?
No, the teaching hasn’t inspired any poems. The teaching is too much working with the head, and not enough working with the hands, whereas that’s where many, or most, of the poems come from.
Are you writing? Are there other English language writers around?
Writing away, yes. I quickly had an idea for a second book, so have got stuck into that. Not that I’m writing lots, or quickly, but I do feel I’m going somewhere with it. I’ve only been in this region since September, so don’t know many people, and don’t know any writers. The only English language writers I ever met in France were in Paris. They run monthly bilingual readings.
What have you got coming up?
Not much coming up now really on the poetry front. Lisa at Doire is trying to get some people they’ve published into readings/festivals, but nothing is sure for now. I’ve heard of a couple of bilingual festivals in France, but have yet to contact them. Just writing now, and after all the stuff that went on in August, September and October (a lot of flying), which was great to be involved in, it’s actually nice to get back to normal life.
Which would you recommend for writers who are starting out now?
I would say read anything you like, but read it devotedly, until you’ve learned something from it. I did the same with Ted Hughes when I discovered his poetry. I read him every day until I got a sense of what he was doing, of the kind of atmosphere he was trying to create. I would recommend learning different things from very different poets, for example comparing Ted Hughes with Philip Larkin by reading a lot of one after reading a lot of the other.
I would say it’s not really possible to be a writer without being a reader first. I know it sounds obvious, but I also know some people who struggle to write, but never seem to read.
Thanks very much and a Happy New Year
KATE DEMPSEY runs writing.ie's Poetic License blog and is our poetry guru. She is a writer and a blogger living in Maynooth. She writes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and is widely published in Ireland and abroad, in magazines, anthologies and on the radio. She fits this around her family and a full time job, writing on the sofa, on the train and in that little coffeeshop on the corner.
Poetry can be a solitary activity and she appreciates the support she received from the online community, particularly when starting out. She is excited about continuing the dialogue with her blog here.