Iggy was born in Coleraine and is a Professor of Physics in Trinity College, Dublin. He has published two collections of poetry, The King of Suburbia and Safe House, with Dedalus Press. The King of Suburbia won the inaugural Glen Dimplex New Writers Award for Poetry. Other awards include the Hennessy Award for Poetry and The Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary. I have presented my poetry at writers’ festivals in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Europe, North America and Australasia.
I met Iggy McGovern at the café in the Science Gallery – nice food, nice staff but a bit noisy. Good mushroom soup and the stew has been recommended.
Welcome to writing.ie, Iggy. First, how did you start getting into poetry?
It’s a while ago so the story has become more of a myth. I had become very boring and my wife sent me out to become more interesting. I did a night class in creative writing in Newtown Park Avenue School, Blackrock. It was run by John Kelly, who is still teaching. We covered everything, poetry, stories, scripts. I had the idea that I would write short stories. At the end he gave everyone report cards. On mine he wrote that I would never be a short story writer and to try poetry. I do still try short stories, but I’m no use at it. Some of my poems are like short stories, though, very short stories.
Do you find going to workshops useful?
I have been to other workshops since. A particularly good one was with the poet, Michael Longley. Every year the writer in residence in Trinity offers a series of workshops for which you can apply. I particularly liked the way he ran it. He didn’t let us fall upon each other’s work like mad dogs. He would make comments but we were not invited to do so. There were no amateur critics looking at amateur writers. Until last day, that is and I’m not sure if he contrived it. He asked one person if she liked another person’s work. She said No. He looked at his watch and said we’d run out of time and should we go to the pub.
I also enjoyed a workshop from the wonderful Australian poet, Les Murray. He just sat there and we talked about poetry. He did most of the talking. And at the end, he looked down and saw the folder of poems that we had all submitted. He said he’d take them back with him and send us his comments. We all assumed that would be the last we saw of them but he was as good as his word. And he kept one of my poems for an anthology he was editing.
Do you recommend writers take classes?
Yes, find a good, general creative writing course. Be aware, though, that you can become addicted to going to course after course, which is unhealthy.
What was your first publication?
I think it was Poetry Ireland Review. I had a mentor who fed me information on what to do in my writing career. The next step was to send poems in. It wasn’t a great poem but I felt great! Another piece of advice worth passing on is that once a poem is published, it’s out of the running for submitting to competitions. So if you have a poem you think has the potential to win a prize, hold it back. And don’t send to two places at once. It may be accepted by both and then you have to extricate yourself.
How was your first collection The King of Suburbia picked up by the Dedalus Press?
Dedalus Press was changing its editorship from John F Deane to Pat Boran and Pat was aware of my work, having published some of my poems when he was editor of Poetry Ireland Review. It was his first collection as editor so there was double celebration when it won the inaugural Glen Dimplex Award in 2006.
The Science Gallery is where the Science and Arts talks of Ignite Dublin take place. I told Iggy about my talk there in December which mentioned guerrilla poetry, International Put Your Poem In A Shop Month (IPYPIASM) and other poetry in public spaces.
I had a poem on the Dart once. I wasn’t using the Dart at all at the time and didn’t want to buy a ticket to go and see it. Someone told me it was on display in Tara Street station. I told the guard at the barrier that a friend of mine had a poem I wanted to see. I’m sure he knew it was mine! It was called Joggers, from my first collection.
Did you stand around and watch for people reading it?
No. But someone had noticed it. There was a big wodge of gum stuck in the middle. It was an honest response. Many responses are dishonest – “I love your work,” “I’ve read all your books.”
I have read all your books, Iggy.
And I’ve read yours!
I don’t know if Poems on the Dart is still going. It was organised by Jonathan Williams, the literary agent. I did wonder if I got an agent whether I’d get more bookings but mostly I find festivals and events are word of mouth. For Electric Picnic, I was asked by Poetry Ireland. I regret that I didn’t make more use of the ticket.
I think the joy of Electric Picnic is that you never see all that you hoped to see but you always see things that you never planned or expected.
I did see one comedian that I really enjoyed, I didn’t plan that.
One of my favourite events recently was in Aghamore Co Mayo near Knock, a festival called The Kenny-Naughton Autumn School. The location was an old pub that closed down in the 1960’s. It had been inherited by a teetotaller and he’d just shut the door and left it, sold on the license. It was just as it was back in the 1960s. The bottles and bar are all still there. Again, it was word of mouth that they asked me from an Irish musician I met in Oxford
There’s a good description of the festival herehttp://literaryexplorer.webdelsol.com/westireland/westireland.html
What was your biggest crowd?
In New Zealand. There were maybe 200 people though I couldn’t see them for the lights; this was at the Auckland Writers and Readers festival. I did a reading and they interviewed me. Again the connections came from the residency I did in Australia in the Blue Mountains. That was a 4 week residency as part of my sabbatical in La Trobe University in Melbourne. It was an unusual combination of physics and poetry. Science and arts is on the rise.
You write a lot in form. Why is that?
I find it quite difficult not to write in form. And people will tell you that freeform is much more difficult. But I like the constraint. How do you know when a poem is over? When you’ve filled up 14 lines.
How do you say what you want to say but still stay in the form?
I supposed lots of the things I want to say are not that portentous, not the biggest thing in town, so my thoughts can be easily shaped. I may be guilty that the form is more interesting than the words. But the idea does come first when I’m starting a new poem.
I don’t go in for big ideas. I’m not sure what good it does. It can easily turn into polemic and I don’t think polemic and poetry belong together. Why would you do that? You’re not raising consciousness, if you’re ranting. I also don’t like the idea of using someone else’s pain. Writing in form is maybe a way of keeping all that at bay.
I have a couple of ranting poems. They probably work better as performance pieces than on the page. What advice do you have for writers who are starting out?
Remember that the fun is in the writing. Once you have a poem, you’ve had your fun already. Anything else is extra, a bonus, the sending out and all that.
What are you working on at the moment?
A sequence of sonnets. I wanted my next effort to be more coherent. My first two books were more loose. There was one section in my second book made up of letters to my grandfather; that was more coherent and people seemed to like that.
I know what you mean. I’m trying to write more poems that are not just about me.
Poems that are not about yourself are always about yourself, ultimately.
This sonnet sequence is based on the life of William Rowan Hamilton. He was an Irish scientist, mathematician and poet in the 19th Century Dublin. He was a friend of Wordsworth.
Each sonnet is from the point of view of a person who interacted with him, real people, like a talking head. There are four sections – Geometry, Algebra, Metaphysics and Poetry. Each section has 16 sonnets, 14 talking heads, headed by a sonnet written as a personification of Geometry, Poetry etc. And the last sonnet in each section is written as Death. That’s my favourite character.