Flying High: Kate Dempsey meets Pat Boran | Magazine | Interviews | Poets

By Kate Dempsey

Pat Boran is a poet, fiction writer, publisher and radio broadcaster, as well as the editor of the highly respected Dedalus Press. Here he chats to Kate Dempsey.

Pat has been well known in the poetry world for many years now and has published four collections of poetry: The Unwound Clock (1990), which won the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, Familiar Things(1993), The Shape of Water (1996) and As the Hand, the Glove(2001). His New and Selected Poems was first published by Salt Publishing, UK, in 2005 and reissued by Dedalus in 2007. In 2007 Pat Boran was elected to the membership of Aosdána. In 2008 he received the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry in St. Paul, MN, USA.

Thanks very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to Could you introduce yourself to the readers please?

Well, I’m a poet and non-fiction writer (memoir, observation pieces) who sometimes also writes fiction (for both adults and children). I’ve done a small bit of TV presenting the books programme Undercover, and have presented the RTE radio programmes The Enchanted Way and The Poetry Programme over the last few years as well as a short period as a fill-in presenter on Rattlebag.

I was Programme Director of the Dublin Writers Festival for a number of years and, since 2005, have been the editor and publisher of The Dedalus Press,  one of the longest running literary presses in the country (25 years old last year) and, by coincidence, also my own poetry publisher. (Maybe it is that only poets would take on the job of running a poetry press!)

As well as producing books and organising events for the press, I also produce an occasional podcast (AudioRoom: New Writing from Ireland, available on iTunes Link) and contribute occasional reviews and pieces to literary publications. I like to be busy and feel it’s part of my calling to engage with writing and publishing in a broad variety of ways.

But I’m also careful to give myself time and space for my own writing. To date I’ve published over a dozen books of poetry, translations, fiction and non-fiction, among the most recent being New and Selected Poems (2007)and the memoir The Invisible Prison (2009).

You’ve seem to have been part of the Irish poetry scene for a long time. How did you first get into poetry?

My first contact with the poetry world was a period of volunteering for Poetry Ireland. I was, like most people I knew at the time, unemployed in the mid 80s and early 90s, and wanted to keep myself occupied and stimulated, so rather than completely giving myself to my own writing 24 hours a day (not always a great idea for a poet), it seemed to me wise to connect in some way with the larger literary world.

To some extent the best poems write themselves (though one does have to create one’s own luck, and to be ready when it happens), and for that reason spending too much time with one’s own obsessions is not always the best thing. There’s also the fact that, nowadays certainly, most poets do other things, have other professions, and I think in general that’s a good thing. The range of experience represented in poetry is expanded when someone who actually knows something about science, or gardening or cookery feels able to join the larger conversation and make a contribution to it. Maybe it’s a good thing that there are so few ‘full-time’ poets.

Having said all that, in the early years especially I had no real intention of pursuing poetry. In truth, I think I wanted to develop as a songwriter, and my first efforts with writing were in making songs (few of which survived in my affections!) For one thing I suppose I enjoyed the immediacy of playing music, of sharing and communicating with other musicians on a live basis. But in time the impulse seemed to take me towards the words and away from the music (though playing music, as a hobby, is still a major part of my creative day and it may well be that I’ll go back in that direction at a later stage).

What do you consider your highlights so far?

It’s hard to think in terms of highlights because the real (brief) thrills are when something seems to work or to click into place, especially if a poem has been resisting for a while.

It’s of course reassuring when one wins a prize or some kind of other recognition, but in truth the only thing that will satisfy the urge and desire to write is those occasional moments of discovery, when the pen seems to have a mind of its own and all the writer has to do is to keep up. Some people call it ‘inspiration’; musicians might call it something closer to ‘jamming’ or ‘improvising’. But the real highlights of a writing life are when one connects with that sense of something bigger, when one feels in tune with it.

The great Emily Dickinson wrote 1775 poems, only 7 of which were published in her lifetime, and all of them anonymously. Of course, hers is an extreme example of finding the highlights and the validation in the poems themselves. But it should serve to remind anyone setting out to write a poem that the audience (such as it is) may not be one’s peers or social circle at all. Though most of the best poems are made from the language of their time, poetry sometimes has much more on its mind than the poet may be able to recognise in the moment.

As a jobbing poet, you’ve worn many more hats than just a writing poems one. Which hat did you or do you enjoy wearing the most? 

I would choose writing over almost anything else, though I very much enjoy the compensatory aspect of other kinds of work.

At times the form (and genres) of my writing has changed considerably over the years, depending on the situation I found myself in, the company I was keeping, the books and voices I was being exposed to. In that sense, writing is not independent of a life.

I’m an autodidact (in that I never attended university) and for that reason I suppose I’ve always made an extra effort to keep myself abreast of what’s going on around me, getting involved in a wide range of literary pursuits because that’s what I most wanted to learn about.

There’s a stereotype of the poet as ineffectual and perhaps not terribly reliable, the last person you’d call if you needed a tyre changed or a pipe unblocked. I’ve always resisted that notion, being wary of anything that relegates poets or poetry to the category of obscure irrelevance or high priesthood.

I love poetry because it seems to me the most vital and compelling use of language, because it’s condensed and largely portable, because it informs and guides and entertains and occasionally seems to shine a light into the heart of life’s mystery. For that reason, I want to keep the link between it and the lived life as strong and direct as possible.

I suppose I’ve made a conscious decision over the past twenty or so years to make my living from writing-related activities, convinced as I am of the importance of writing and reading for the culture, and consoled sometimes when my own writing is not at its best that at least my work with and for other writers contributes to the greater good.

Dedalus Press is one of Ireland’s leading poetry presses. How has the press evolved since you became editor and what do you foresee coming in the next few years?

Dedalus was already 19 years old when I took over. It was the beginning of a time of great changes in the publishing world, changes which have continued apace.

As a sometime musician (and busker in my earlier days), I’ve always been interested in the way music finds its way to its audience and I suppose I wondered if a similar approach could be taken with poetry publishing.

Book design, typesetting internet publishing and publicity, all of these were new arcane arts to me, but I like the idea of taking on new things and trying to figure them out. In a way, much of the most exciting innovation in publishing (as in the music industry) has come from small presses, in part because they are more flexible, because they’ve always had to work smarter and be more innovative than the major imprints for whom almost all change is treated with suspicion.

The age and gender profile of Dedalus didn’t seem to me to represent the Irish poetry world as I now knew it, and so that has changed considerably over the last few years. The look and tone of the books, too, is bound to echo my own views and tastes, though I have always felt that a publisher’s ‘house style’ need not be (and perhaps should not be) maintained at the cost of innovation, risk, even experiment.

I suppose I see Dedalus as an opportunity to celebrate some of the broad range of poetry styles being produced in Ireland. Some poets write verse (ie regular forms), some do not. I do not believe that these cannot be represented by the same publisher. Neither do I believe that the internet is the enemy of book publishing. The mission is to bring what one believes is good writing to the widest possible audience. As that audience moves and grows and perhaps looks for poetry elsewhere, so too must the publisher move and grow, and sometimes attempt to anticipate change.

At the moment the audience for eBooks, for instance, is growing exponentially, though there is little sign (as yet) that poetry readers are entirely happy with the way the lines and stanzas of poems are liable to be mangled or wholly ignored by e-reading devices. When and as that changes, I expect that Dedalus will be increasingly involved in those changes. But we will remain committed to readings and physical events based around Dedalus books. The digital complements the physical but doesn’t do away with the very real need for it. (Video did not after all kill the radio star, despite what the hit song predicted!)

For all the poets reading this who are working towards a collection, what do you look for and what would stop you reading?

Risk. Difference. Strangeness. Perhaps a certain sense of ambition or forward motion. These would be part of what I want to see.

The vast majority of the manuscripts I hesitate over but then feel I cannot publish have good individual poems in them. They fall down, however, in that many of the poems could have come from anyone, anywhere. They’ve often been over-written, over-revised, had too many of the compelling edges knocked off them in a poetry workshop.

Every editor or publisher wants to find something new and strong and original and good. But, as Dr Johnson said of a ‘good and original’ manuscript he once received: the parts that are original are not good and the parts that are good are not original.

When an unsolicited manuscript arrives it’s often possible to tell, almost right away, whether it’s going to be interesting or not. There’s something about the poet who types everything in capitals, or in computer cursive script, or who adorns the margins with clip art, something that says the poems are going to feel perfunctory at best, that all of the creative energy has gone into the wrapping, the presentation. Simple is the way to go.

Send the strongest poems and only those. Make an editor ask for more: it so rarely happens. And remember that most poetry editors and publishers, as I suppose I’ve already made clear, are people who do it for the love of it and often for very little or no personal reward. If they are ‘the experts’, they are experts only insofar as they probably read more manuscripts than anyone else and therefore are probably going to be less forgiving than your mother or husband or sister of your obvious weaknesses.

That said, if an editor doesn’t like your work, and if you’re PRETTY SURE you’ve written something that deserves to be read (and, no, there isn’t any fail-proof test of genius), send it off somewhere else. But do read the journals or publications of the editor you’re writing to: there are tastes and fashions and styles in poetry as in everything else. Sending sonnets to a haiku journal is the poetic equivalent of trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle.

Dedalus Press guidelines:

What have you got coming up both at Dedalus and for yourself?

At Dedalus I have new collections of poems on the way from Eva Bourke , Katherine Duffy  and Gerard Fanning and after that from Joseph Woods  and Macdara Woods

I’m working on a small publication (bilingual French and English) for a Dedalus event in Paris on Bloomsday coming, and after the summer (the summer is when poetry publishers, or this poetry publisher at least, catches up on the books he actually WANTS to read), in early autumn I’ll publish an anthology I’m working on at this very moment, poetry and prose fiction to raise awareness of the charity organisationShine, helping people with mental ill-health.

‘Despite the recession,’ as the slogan on one recent Dedalus postcard puts it, ‘poetry’s never looked so good.’ That can be read in a number of ways. I hope that Dedalus books have a confidence and a professionalism that can represent Irish writing at home and abroad. But poetry is also looking good in the sense that the citizens of this country have been so mistreated by so many arms and agents of the state in recent times; the integrity and importance of poetry and the arts stands in stark contrast to the grubby dark-dealing of the bankers and speculators and politicians who licensed their rampage through our heritage.

These are difficult times for us all, and, as paltry resources become even more scarce, perhaps crucial times for poetry, creative writing and the arts.

It’s great to see come online and help, as the new technology can do, to make new links and solidify the existing connections between the many parishes of good writing that make up this tiny island of ours.


About the author

© Kate Dempsey for 2011

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