Interview with writer John MacKenna
Hi John and welcome to writing.ie. First question. How did you first get into poetry?
Going way, way back – in secondary school in Limerick I had two inspirational English teachers – both Redemptorist priests – Patrick MacGowan and Ray Kearns. They both inspired and urged me to read poetry – not just what was “on the course” but a wide range of writers they recommended. They’d loan me books, give me photocopies of poems, steer me in directions. And as I wanted to write I began with poems – and I was given the chance to read the work in public – at school concerts and so on. And then, in 1968, one of the poems was published in Young Citizen magazine and the thrill of publication made me want to go on writing.
Do remember any of the poems that you read and enjoyed early on?
Oh I do. The ones that stick in my mind most clearly are Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar and The Listeners by Walter de la Mare. I remember Ray Kearns passionately talking about how Tennyson had got the energy and the motion of the turn of the tide into that poem and that was a revelation to me. And the de la Mare poem was just so full of magic and taught me that writing doesn’t need to answer questions, it just needs to ask questions. The others that stayed with me were The Old Ships; The Lost Leader; Tintern Abbey; Spring and Fall and poems by Francis Ledwidge.
That’s interesting. The Listeners is a poem that comes up often. Also The Highwayman.
Do you remember this first published poem?
The first published poem was called Glory to the New Born King – it was a piece of political verse about poverty and the state of the world, written in rhyming couplets. I still have a copy of the piece in a scrapbook – that and a play written for the 1916 celebrations in 1966, a play called I See His Blood. That was staged in the school too.
The poem was published in 1968 (I think) in a then monthly national magazine for schools called Young Citizen … it was part of the backup material for Civics (a curriculum subject at the time)
You work in many forms. Do you mix that up simultaneously? When you are writing, say, poetry, are you also writing other forms? And do you ever have an idea that moves from one form to another?
I don’t tend to work on two long-term prose works at the same time. I am regularly working on poems or ideas for poems while I’m also working on prose but only once, really, have I worked on two long and serious prose pieces at once and it didn’t work for me – neither made any progress. In terms of moving ideas – that regularly happens. A lot of story ideas come from poems; plays have morphed into stories and even novels. Often, at the end of the run of a play, I’ll feel there’s more to be said. It happened most recently with the play Redemption Song which became – in an expanded form – the novel Joseph (New Island).
How did this most recent poetry collection, By the Light of Four Moons, come about? How long were you working on it?
I had seen a number of Doire Press publications and was really impressed by the way they looked and read. I sent a collection of poems – too many for one book – to Doire and they expressed interest. The poems had been written for the most part in the previous three years – with a few older ones. As the collection progressed, I added some new work as it emerged and some of the earlier submission disappeared. I think John (Walsh) and Lisa (Frank) found a lot of my poems very short but that’s how I write. Once I approached John & Lisa their enthusiasm was fantastic and they were hugely supportive
Congratulations on the publication of your collection. Did you find any themes or threads going through it?
When I began to put a shape on the collection I found that the poems fell, generally, into four categories. So I began to look at the idea of sections (out of which came the title By the Light of Four Moons, borrowed from a phrase by Robert Frost).
The four sections that emerged dealt with personal issues; the day to day challenges of the world as we meet it and as it awaits us; the world of nature and, finally, spiritual issues – including a sequence drawn from the Old Testament – stories from there that I had reinterpreted through verse.
That’s sounds very organic. What is your approach to writing? Where do you write?
I tend to work to a schedule – a self-imposed or publisher imposed deadline is best for me. And when I’m working to that schedule – I’m talking prose rather than poems here – I work from 9 to 1 and 2 to 4 and I tend to come back in the evening to look over what the day has produced. That’s probably the most enjoyable part, seeing the produce of the day. It’s a bit like looking out over the garden in spring and feeling some small sense of achievement. I mostly write with music playing – music that I’ve chosen as suitable to the mood of what I’m working on. I’m blessed to have a study in which to work – an upstairs room that’s full of books (and sometimes the paraphernalia of plays). And out my window I see our garden, and the Millennium Park beyond, that and then the Ridge – a hill range overlooking south Carlow.
I can’t really work away from home – yes I carry a notebook and jot ideas but the notion of going to a writers’ retreat wouldn’t do anything for me.
I once rented a house for a month to work in solitude on a book. In the four weeks I wrote one paragraph. Sometimes my wife and fellow writer, Angela Keogh, is at her work across the room from me. That works well. My constant companion in my writing is Leonard, our Greyhound/Labrador – he oversees every word.
What are you working on now and any plans coming up?
I’m working on a commissioned children’s book at the moment – an adaptation of Ernest Shackleton’s South. It’s for an English company, Good Reads, who have a series of classics adapted for younger readers. After that I’m back to a book of memoir about my late brother.
Any more chances for people to hear you read from your recent collection?
I’m doing a series of readings from my own and my favourite books around Kildare libraries over the coming month – so I’ll be reading some poems from By the Light of Four Moons at those events.
- Sept. 2nd Wednesday – Athy – 11am
- Sept. 9th Wednesday- Kildare – 11am
- – Newbridge – 2:30pm
- Sept. 16th Wednesday – Naas – 11am
- Sept. 17th Thursday – Maynooth – 11am
- Sept. 22nd Tuesday – Celbridge – 11am
- Sept. 23rd Wednesday – Leixlip – 11am
And then back on the road with the play Lucinda Sly (the last woman to have been publicly hanged in Ireland). This is our second tour with this play – first was in the spring:
- Sept 23rd Wednesday – Town Hall Galway
- Sept 25th Friday – Tuar Ard, Moate, Co Westmeath
- Sept 26th Saturday – Coolgreaney Co Wexford
- Sept 29th Tuesday – Dunamaise Theatre Portlaoise
- Oct 2nd Friday – Mill Theatre Dundrum Co Dublin
- Oct 8th Thursday – The Garage Monaghan
- Oct 10th Saturday – Central Arts Waterford
- Oct 16th Friday – Friar’s Gate Kilmallock
- Oct 17th Saturday – Briery Gap Macroom
- Oct 31st Saturday – Croc an Oir Mullinahone
- Nov 6th Friday – VISUAL Carlow
Thanks John and good luck with your tour.
John MacKenna is the author of sixteen books – novels, short-stories, memoir, biography and poetry. He has also written a number of stage and radio plays and is a frequent contributor to RTE Radio 1. His most recent publications are the novel Joseph (New Island) and the poetry collection By the light of Four Moons (Doire Press). His stage play Lucinda Sly is currently on a second nationwide tour.
He is a winner of the Hennessy, Irish Times and C Day Lewis Literary Awards and was nominated for the position of Irish Fiction Laureate. He is a regular contributor to Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1.
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.