Interview with poet Billy Ramsell
Billy Ramsell was born in Cork in 1977 and educated at the North Monastery and UCC. He holds the Chair of Ireland Bursary for 2013 and has been shortlisted for several other prizes. He edits the Irish section of the Poetry International website and recently judged the Shine Strong award for best first collection by an Irish poet. He has been invited to read his work at many festivals and literary events around the world. Complicated Pleasures, his first collection, was published by the Dedalus Press in 2007 and a second, The Architect’s Dream of Winter, is forthcoming. He lives in Cork where he co-runs an educational publishing company.
Hello Billy and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.
How did you first get into poetry?
It began for me in Barcelona in September of the year 2000. I’d just moved there, to the village-like suburb of Gracia, and I was renting a room from what had to be Spain’s most boring woman. Montse. I’ve never managed to meet an interesting woman with that name. I was still making good my arrival in the city. I spoke only the tiniest amount of Spanish and precisely two words of Catalan. I knew no one of course, though that changed after a few months when I managed to land a job in one of the world’s worst language schools. In such isolated circumstances you tend to turn inwards. Or at least that’s what happened to me. I watched poetry -and the composition of poetry, the self-pleasuring interiority the craft – become increasingly important to my mental health.
Those were the circumstances in which I wrote my first published poem, which was entitled ‘An Otter’. It came out in The Shop the following September, during the week of the 9/11 attacks. I was back in Ireland then, working in a call centre. Bertie Ahern gave everybody the Friday off; a national day of mourning entirely appropriate to the atrocity we’d all remotely witnessed.
I woke that morning in a friend’s apartment on Barrack Street. She had the strangest accommodation; sort of a disused auctioneer’s office with flat colourless mushrooms sprouting in the corners. I’ll always remember coming to in her living room that Friday. I’d been drinking fairly heavily the night before and I awoke to a peculiar sense of disembodiment, mingled with the conviction that I was in my own bed somewhere else.
I walked into Waterstone’s that morning and came upon a copy of The Shop with my poem in it. I was thrilled. I had no idea I’d been accepted. I walked around the block before purchasing a copy,
I’d dabbled in a number of different areas before poetry. I’d been in a band. I’d written several acts of what was surely the worst play in the history of Irish letters. It was about a once-successful but long-broken-up band reuniting to play at their drummer’s funeral. I’d written a few poems.
One thing I knew for certain is that I was no scholar: At college I was willing to read almost any book in the library on almost any subject; architecture, marketing, chemistry. You name it. However, once a given title was prescribed or placed on any kind of official reading list, I found myself almost physically unable to take it off the shelf. It was a kind of allergy. I overcame it in the end and managed to do a reasonable amount of course-related study. But it was always minimal and always a struggle.
That’s one of the great things about poetry. It rewards wide, broad and deep reading, especially into topics normally considered non-poetic; information technology for instance, or population studies. But you don’t have to pursue knowledge in any structured way. You can follow your nose, hunt and gather. You’re building a silo of facts and fantasies, of theories and information, which can be used to fuel and nourish your creative work. The richer such a storehouse becomes, the less the poet has to draw from the accidents of his or her biography.
I suppose it’d fair to say an interest in poetry was always native to my operating system. By ‘poetry’ here I suppose mean the micro level interaction of linguistic elements: the crunch of certain consonant clusters, the interplay of fricatives, what might be described as the pentameter’s inevitable cadence and so on.
I guess some brains ship with software for recognizing and responding to such things, just as others are optimised for plot or character psychology or for manipulating musical intervals. It was only while living in Barcelona, however, that I seriously applied myself to the craft of actually making poems. And it’s a ridiculously finicky, fiddly and miniaturist business: like making superbly-detailed ships in empty bottles.
Love this. Spain’s most boring woman…
What do you mean by: I awoke to a peculiar sense of disembodiment, mingled with the conviction that I was in my own bed somewhere else.
There had been and would be other memorable awakenings, more or less traumatic or tragicomic. But that’s one that sticks out. It was, I guess, a combination of the chemicals in my system and the quicksand-armchair in which I’d nodded off. Or maybe the room was filled with fungal spores from the mushrooms in the corner. I don’t know. But for whatever reason I seemed to float at some length and with unusual potency right at the meniscus between sleep and waking. For a few seconds I felt almost capable of shaping the waking world the way you can sometimes manipulate dreams; that I might will myself to wake up anywhere: Limerick, the Taj Mahal, Las Vegas. Of course half my half-asleep self knew that this was all nonsense. But that didn’t matter. It was an incredible moment. Impossible to convey, really. I’ll never forget it.
Did The Shop not tell you you’d been selected? Actually, that’s happened to me a couple of times. Not with the Shop though. It’s all the sweeter, I think
It was indeed a sweet one. I’d been living in Spain when I submitted and I suppose by the time their acceptance reached my Spanish address I’d moved back to Ireland. As late as 2001, the bulk of such correspondence took place via the old snail-mail. It’s kind of hard to believe now.
Someone asked me this recently and I thought it was interesting, “If you could see a dead poet reading, which 3 would you pick?” Obviously they would be alive….
Well let me go right back to basics and choose Amergin, the bard who accompanied the initial Celtic invasion of Ireland. They say his verses soothed the very ocean. That’s a performance worth checking out, eh? The original slam champion.
My second choice is James Clarence Mangan, just because he’s probably Irish poetry’s greatest enigma, and I’d wrap it up with the wheezy aspirations of Seán Ó Riordáin. Can I be greedy and ask Beckett to be MC for the night? I think they’d all get along. It’d be some evening. Well, I think Beckett and Ó Riordáin would get along.
We’ll let you have Beckett. Can you tell me a bit about Poetry International? How did you get involved?
Poetry International Web is an online project based in Rotterdam, an offshoot or adjunct of the long-running eponymous festival. The project was founded in 2002 and has gradually attracted contributing editors from around the world: from Denmark, the United Kingdom, Iran, India and so forth. Ireland joined the club in 2005. We’re excited because it now looks like France are finally coming on board too; that’s a major poetry vacuum plugged.
Each contributing country is awarded a number of ‘slots’ per year during which they forward material to the central editorial staff in the Netherlands to be processed and uploaded to the site. At the moment Ireland has three such slots: one in January, one in June and one in November. Or thereabouts.
I have funding to fill those slots with the work of eight poets: six writing in English, generously funded by the Munster Literature Centre, and two writing in Irish, generously funded by Foras na Gaeilge. It’s more or less a condition of the project that everyone involved be paid for their work. Except me. Like several other national editors, I’m a volunteer.
The Irish domain is administered by the Munster Literature Centre and until January 2012 was edited by its director Patrick Cotter. Then I took over. I’ve tried to impose my stamp on it but the constraints of space and funding make it frustrating.
Y’see it’s’ all about balance. In both the English and Irish categories I can’t just add my favourite poets or indeed the poets with the greatest critical reputations. It’s got to be fairly evenly measured between old and young, famous and not so famous, straight and gay, emigrant and immigrant, conservative and experimental, Dublin-based or otherwise. And so on. My goal is to be representative rather than canonical.
Who have you chosen for Poetry International already and are you allowed to say who is coming up?
It’s been a good mix so far I think: Dave Lordan, Máire Mhac an tSaoí, Mary O’Donoghue, Harry Clifton, Simon Ó Faoláin, Trevor Joyce, Bríd Ni Mhorain, and Paul Perry. I’d like to think it reflects at least some of the Irish scene’s diversity.
In July we had Alan Gillis and Eileen Sheehan. After that who knows?
What do you enjoy doing outside of poetry? Do you find it crosses over?
I’m a sports fan and you’d be surprised how often that seems to make its way into my writing. I’m also a small bit of history bore but strangely enough historical characters and situations never seem to feature in my stuff. In about 2008 I rediscovered music in a big way, especially trad and electronic/modern classical/ambient stuff. I’d be happy if that particular interest came through in the work, an attraction to noises, patterns, acoustic images and so on.
I run as far and as frequently as I can and in recent years that’s become a big part of my approach to writing. Of course the endorphins and adrenaline provide a creative boost. But it’s amazing what drifts across the mental heads up display when you start to motor, when you start to push it in that rhythmic way: stray words and phrases, idea-germs, ways out of compositional problems. I highly recommend it.
Lastly, what have you got coming up yourself?
Well I just judged the Strong / Shine Award for best first collection by an Irish poet, which was an enjoyable but challenging experience; it’s hard to trust your refereeing instincts when you’re sole arbiter, there’s no linesmen, umpires or replay-technology to act as sounding board for your decision-making process. And in this instance there were some agonising decisions to be made. I must admit though that in the end I’m delighted with the winner: Michelle O’Sullivan is a special poet, one who has applied herself to the art-form with unusual seriousness and zeal.
Now that’s out of the way I’m focused on seeing my next book, The Architect’s Dream of Winter, through the final stages of production. It’ll hopefully be coming out with Dedalus Press in the next couple of months.
There’s a few other bits and pieces too: putting together the next upload for Poetry International, completing a couple of modesty overdue reviews, helping as best I can to organise The Winter Warmer, a weekend of poetry in Cork this November that’s being produced by O Bheal. And there’s another big project waiting the wings that I’m excited about but can’t really discuss yet…
I’ve got a few outings coming up as well. I was delighted to be reading at the Bandon Arts Festival alongside Matthew Sweeney in September. I’ll also be appearing at the Model Gallery in Sligo as part of Kate Ellis’s Resound collective, which is an ongoing collaboration involving music, art and spoken word and is an incredible project to be involved in. Then I’m off to the Poetry Africa festival in Durban. After that it’ll be time to sit down, shut up and try to write a few poems.
Thanks a million, Billy and good luck with all of that.
Here are some links to Billy’s poetry in wordlegs
and on his website
and in southword
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.