BALANCING ACTS: Gerald Dawe in conversation with Eleanor Doorley

ED: To begin with, I would like to expand on some themes that popped up in your 1992 essay ‘Rights of Passage’ (The World as Province: Selected Prose, 2009) regarding the act of balancing teaching with writing. Can you expand on the relationship between them?

GD: Teaching is all about planning as much as anything else. It’s about managing your time and preparing well in advance so that students know that there’s a narrative that you’ve plotted for them and you can take them step by step by step. So you need to plan well in advance, a little bit like writing. I mean, there are parallels. I’ve never been one of those writers who can just sit down and write a book of poems on the spot. I have to plot and plan. A lot of the work of writing is actually in the planning. And then, for prose it’s somewhat different, it’s more, almost mechanical. But, as a poet, you’re working on the principle that something matters sufficiently enough, that it has enough voltage that it’s going to convey itself on the page as a poem. And then you go back to it and try and get it right. So revision is a key part of that. When you use a word like revision, immediately you start thinking about exams and so on. I suppose there are parallels. The real issue between a poet’s life and managing to live in that imaginative space and the mechanical demands (and I don’t mean that in any belittling way);  I mean the technical, the pedagogical and technical demands of being in a particular place in a particular time and facing five, fifty, five-hundred students and their demands. It’s an emotional thing too.

Now that I’m coming to the end of my career as a teacher, I can look back over almost forty years, it’s hard to believe, I find it a shock even saying it. But, I’m still nervous. I still get excited, I still get, you know, anxious and all that after all these years. So, it’s similar with writing, if it matters to you, you get nervous about how the reaction’s going to be and how people are going to read the work and are they going to understand what you’re writing about? And it’s the same in the classroom. Are they going to understand what you’re saying, are you making yourself clear? Do these things matter as much to them as they do to you? Are you overstating things? Are you boring them senseless? Are they ahead of you? I’ve often found, and I’m not saying this just to be happy-clappy, that students teach me more when we get going and the class becomes a conversation. It really is a dynamic relationship. You’re a pathfinder, that’s really all you are. The more you try not to intercede between the students and the material, but just more or less guide them, the better. I think the days of the great teacher, you know the sort of personality who sat on a chair and dispensed grand words, are gone. The commercial and economic pressures on students now to perform and to move on; these pressures have taken over. In some environments it’s gotten to the point where students are almost like consumers and I think that’s wrong. I mean university is a cultural environment of intellectual challenge. It’s exhilarating:  the opportunity that you have of four years, or three, some, one or two, to have that kind of time to sit and read and to meet people of like minds or not like minds.

When I think about the relationship between being a poet and being a teacher, they do cross over a lot. At the crux of it all, it’s about managing your energy levels and your time, and trying to make sure that you don’t try and squeeze too much in, and keep your own prejudices, your own sense of self out of the frame.

ED: Poets and writers are often deemed to be representatives of the voices of their respective nations. As outlined in your ‘Prologue: The News from Poems’ (How’s the Poetry Going, 1991), you talk about the responsibility of the poet to form a clear, well-defined stream of thought summarising the diversity of voices emerging from the state at a given time. Can you talk a little bit more about this?

G: Well, actually, I don’t know what I meant by that, looking back now. But I think what I was trying to say and it’s something that has  been on my mind as a writer, and as a student of literature; as a ‘maker’ of writing, as someone who tries to produce material that is readable and challenging at the same time. I think what I was trying to say, not that the writer has to perform at some ‘spokesperson’ level, they’re in service to no one but themselves, but that maybe that at different times, writers are confronted with political or historical challenges and crises. Unbeknownst to myself, I found myself in that situation in the late 1960s and early 70s growing up in Belfast as someone in his early twenties. It was all a bit of a shock really and it took me the guts of ten years to come to terms with it, that the place that I had known growing up, I used to hang out with my mates, and go to school and dances and libraries, wherever, that it had all become the site of a war, a sectarian war. And I think that took time to sort out, how you adapt to that. So when I used the word ‘responsibility’, maybe it was a bit po-faced and self-important, but what I was trying to say was there is an obligation on writers, not to respond to a political crisis, but in some way to get to the emotional and human heart at its source, why is this happening? In other words, to have some kind of rational, reasonable response to what’s going on, and if that conveys itself into the writing, good and well, if not, there’s no problem. It’s not that the writer ‘has to’ respond as a writer, but that he or she has a responsibility to try and get some reasonable answer to why what’s happening is happening, and if that feeds itself into the work, good and well. Your writing will never become important because you’re writing about important things. It doesn’t vindicate or authorise the quality of your work. Only the writing can do that. Only the imaginative and artistic rate of the work can do that. But as a citizen, and as someone who has got maybe the value of other literatures that they know or familiarity with other cultures… if you can bring that to bear as a context by which a crisis which a people, a city, a country or a nation is going through, well then   that should help illuminate the situation. That’s really all I was trying to get at.

ED: What’s your opinion on the statement that Irish writers should be confined to writing about Ireland?

GD: Disagree totally.

ED: That comes through in your work.

GD: Yes. I think that that’s daft to be honest. I mean, a writer, no matter where he or she is from should be ‘confined’ only to what they can do well. Subject matter or where you’re from should never dominate. That would be a crazy notion. Of course, it did exist, in places like the Soviet Union, the writers who were applauded and lauded were those who wrote about an idealised version of the Soviet Union. I don’t know what kind of literature is being produced in the fundamentalist areas of the Middle East, but I’m sure that anywhere you find fundamentalist or totalitarian regimes you’re going to find writers being persecuted if they don’t write about what they’re told to. And in our own society, not on that level by all means, but there were writers who were applauded because they wrote in an acceptable fashion about subject matter that was conducive to the emerging state; the Irish Free State. And those that took a different view, a slightly more wry or critical or sceptical view of the distortions of Irish society in the twentieth century, they were ‘remaindered’, they were isolated, they were marginalised. But we’re coming back to realise that their work is as valuable as the others, and vice versa.

ED: For writers like Beckett and Joyce, distance equalled clarity, and seeing Ireland through foreign eyes was beneficial to their work. Did you find that this was the case when you were abroad? Is place and identity a major fact in your writing?

GD: Beckett remarked on that, he had to leave Dublin because he was terrified if he didn’t, he would die of drink or words to that effect. I think that the Dublin of the 1930s which he moved out of was a paradigm for other writers; Joyce left, and before him Oscar Wilde, and a little later Sean O’Casey, Beckett… The list of Irish writers who didn’t spend their mature years in Ireland is quite significant, it’s not that way now, but certainly during the early decades of  the twentieth century, that was the case. They felt antipathy towards Irish society at that time. There’s no golden rule in these things, being a writer, you do what’s best for your work, but you also have to make a living, and for many writers it wasn’t possible to make a living through their work. They had to take on other jobs, like Joyce of course, until he found some patronage later on in life.

I had a sense of wanting to find out about Ireland as if it were a different country. Most of my generation would’ve gone east, to Scotland or England or further afield, to the States or to Europe. But for some reason, I don’t quite understand why, I wanted to go west, and I ended up going to the West of Ireland. I felt that I put enough distance between myself and my own ground. And I could actually look at it, when I was looking at it, from that little bit of distance. But I remember Paul Muldoon saying – and thinking it was very true – that it doesn’t matter how far away you are from the subject, it’s what you make of it where you are. And in this day of globalisation and so on, the journeying back and forth of the Ryanair generation, it makes no difference now, it’s what’s in your head and in your heart really that matters.

These issues of exile and so on are not appropriate to the ‘Western’ generation now. They’re appropriate to this generation that on the move – in Syria, where they’re under the bombardment of brutality and dictatorships. We can’t compare with that, it would be indecent even to pretend to. But I certainly know that when I left Northern Ireland, when I left Belfast, it was in a war situation, and anytime I went back, my family was still there, my friends were still there, there was always a slight frisson that I had left. It rankled with me but I could understand why.

But to go back to the terms of your question, is place and identity a major fact in my writing: place, yes definitely. Most of my poems are located in specific landscapes, in fact not too far away from where we’re sitting in Dun Laoghaire. I’ve written many poems about this part of South County Dublin, and about Galway, about Belfast, about Mayo, where my wife’s from, and also places where I’ve lived temporarily, like Switzerland, Italy and the East Coast of America, and also places that I’ve travelled in and through over the years, particularly in the 80s and 90s, like Poland and Czechoslovakia, or what was Czechoslovakia. I’m interested in place, partly because of what it is, the look of a place, the civic landscape and so on, but I’m particularly interested in how history is inscribed in place, and the multi-identities and narratives that are wrapped up in a landscape; in a coast, in a city, in a small urban village like where we are in Dún Laoghaire, that intrigues me. I suppose if I was to be asked directly what interests me most, it’s not so much place, it’s time, and how time moves in and through places; what time leaves in its wake; what remains. And it’s interesting, you know, that word ‘remains’, it refers both to the body’s remains but also to mountains as they are cut open and shift, their remains are there; reminds me too of that wonderful novel The Remains of the Day. So, yes I’m interested in place, but I think it’s only for what it tells us about history. And I’m not really interested in trying to find out about any one particular identity. I love the notion of multi-identities, of hybridity, of things moving in and out of different shapes and becoming different from what they once were.

ED: Speaking of these writers and influences in general, Van Morrison appears a good bit throughout your oeuvre. In an  Irish Times interview with Fintan O’Toole, he discusses how his past self clashes with that of his present self. Whereas you state, and I quote, that “the greatest influence on a writer is the past”. Does the past hold you back in any way?

GD: Well, I think it holds you back if it becomes obsessive and you lose your present sense of self in nostalgia, a kind of sweetening of the past. But of course, nostalgia, when you look at it etymologically isn’t that. Nostalgia is about the pain of home, nostos – home, and algia – pain.

The past really is a subject for me. I’m interested, again, to link in with what we said earlier, because of the continuity that flows, or does not flow from the past in to the present. I think Van Morrison’s point is absolutely right. Your past can short-circuit your present. It can get to the point where in fact you can’t re-identity with who you once were. You’ve moved on, you’ve become different.

Now, clearly, there’s a vast difference between Van Morrison’s past achievements and the rest of us in so far as his achievements in his early albums like Astral Weeks are classic iconic achievements. And, I know that there is a sense in which people expect him to keep on reproducing them, but you cannot, you cannot go back. The conditions are completely different. He’s different in needs, different in mindset, different in experience. He’s grown into a different writer, a different artist, and that’s what we all do. Sometimes a writer can get imprisoned by the achievements of the past, and that’s scary. But it’s also scary too, to move on, and try new things, knowing full well that many of your readers will actually want you to do what you did before again, and that’s not really what it’s about. You have to take them with you, such as they are. Whatever they’re in their tens, or twenties, their hundreds, their thousands or their millions, as is the case for some artists and writers. I think you have to be very careful when you turn to the past. What is it you’re turning to? But more importantly – why you are turning to it.

My sense is that this connects in with some of the stuff we’ve been talking about in relationship to the teaching. My sense is that the past is never over. John Donne is as close to me as Ishiguro. D.H. Lawrence is as close to me as reading John Banville. History is like a flowing tide, it just moves through, and the notion that there’s some kind of Berlin Wall between now and then, literature is not like that. This is one of its greatest distinctions.

ED: Emigration is still a major issue in Ireland. So I want to circle back to our initial topic of teaching within an academic setting like a college environment. The epigraph to your most recent collection of poetry; Mickey Finn’s Air (2014) is from the American poet Frank O’Hara: “Each day’s light has more significance these days”. Do you think that this statement is applicable to the university setting and do you think that modern day students can, or rather should, adopt this as a kind of mantra or slogan?

GD: The idea of optimism, yes. Having worked hard to get into university and achieved what was required to be there, students should have a self-confident understanding of themselves and of their peers and to enjoy it. If it’s not fun, it’s not working. Now obviously there’s pressure with exams and all the rest of it but the real drive for university is to enjoy yourself; to grow intellectually, to meet friends, and to take on a kind of cultural leadership role, to enlarge the cultural options available in this country, and also, be confident enough to criticise that which isn’t good. So I’d be all for optimism, absolutely. Obviously, this all depends on temperament and individual idiosyncrasies and so on. But this generation, of which you’re a part, has everything to look forward to, optimistically. This country is getting back on its feet again after a terrible collapse. I think we’re probably still trying to cope with the moral dimensions of that, whatever about its legal and political fallout.

But for the younger generation, you have everything to be optimistic about, you’ve got a fair wind behind you, and the world really will listen to Irish students and their self-belief and their convictions because my experience, having taught elsewhere and been involved in literary scenes in many parts of the world, is that we have an extraordinary, well-read cohort of students. They’re not frightened of the big novels, they’re not frightened of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, and they’re not overrun by the contemporary. But as for Frank O’Hara, “each day’s light has more significance these days”, absolutely, that should be a mantra!  But more importantly, it’d also be very good to read Frank O’Hara. He’s a poet of great light and levity and wonderful turn of phrase.

ED: What is your opinion on the future of poetry? How relevant is it today?

GD: I think there’ll always be poetry, but I do think, and I’ve thought about this over the last few years quite a bit, that the authority of poetry has in some way or another been under pressure, culturally and intellectually. I think the impact of the internet is relevant here. I think the marriage of festivals, entertainment, ‘infotainment’ and the desire to create an event out of poetry has, in a way, produced a different kind of expectation about what a poet is or a poem does. The poem that is perhaps more enigmatic, which is less forthcoming from a spoken verse point of view, the art of that kind of poetry is becoming less accepted, and the notion of the poem being something that is sung or spoken, in a way closer to entertainment, that has become preeminent. So, there is an issue there. Also, I think the whole marketing of poetry and its place in the world is undergoing change, and this happens periodically. The wheels are always turning. There is a sense in which marketing and PR and so on has almost become a substitute for critical filtering and the kind of confident questioning of the style and form of poetry as an art form. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing; I’m merely saying that this is happening. And I know somebody has said the older generation of poets have been, in a way, shunted to the side because their work is more challenging at a deeper, artistic level. But this happens, fashions come and go. How relevant is it today? Poetry is, to paraphrase dear old Seamus Heaney: poetry is “the music of what happens”. I think he was channelling other great aphorisms in that it’s news which stays news. You can go back to a ninth century poem or poet, you can go into the fourteenth century, the twentieth century, and it’s as if it was written yesterday.

ED: Finally, a rather fun one to finish up on, what’s one thing you wish you had known as a fresher in university?

GD: I thought about this in anticipation of you asking the question, and my answer is very simple. I’ve even written it down; “what’s one thing you wish you had known as a fresher in university?” Answer: “That the time flies by, and that the friends you make can often go their own way. But most importantly, that the time flies by. Seize the day. Enjoy it as best you can as it passes very quickly”.

I didn’t really keep that in mind. I now know that to live in the moment is as important as planning. I notice that students plan much more now. Don’t let surprise not become a part of your life. The unpredictable is something that can be very thrilling and exciting.

Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire September 8th 2015 

Gerald Dawe is an Irish poet and professor of English at Trinity College Dublin. His recent books include Selected Poems (2012), Mickey Finn’s Air (2014), Of War and War’s Alarms: Reflections on Modern Irish Writing (2015) and The Stoic Man: Poetry Memoirs (2015).

Eleanor Doorley is a Senior Freshman student at Trinity College Dublin where she studies English. She is Deputy Editor of the University’s School of English newsletter, The Quill.

Gerald Dawe has three new poems in Issue Five of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.