The last time The Anglo-Celt spoke to award winning Cavan writer Dermot Healy, who sadly passed away on Monday, June 30, it was ahead of an All-Ireland Poetry Day event. Dermot talked to Damian McCarney about his views on poetry, hearing Ted Hughes live and losing poems.
Anglo-Celt: How would you rate the health of poetry in Ireland at the moment?
Dermot Healy: No written word is at the moment in a healthy position -there’s a fall off and that’s felt all over the place. But there’s uncanny people who have great memories. I know older men and women who can recite away for ages; so sometimes it stays in the memory. The reading has to be done at some stage, but often times it’s oral history. Oral meaning it’s handed on from mouth to mouth.
AC: In your back catalogue of work, you have novels, short stories and poetry - what determines whether you are going to write a poem or a novel?
DH: A novel is worked on every day without stop; a poem comes out of no place -and it doesn’t come during the period you are doing prose -it may do, but generally not. It’s a totally different discipline. It comes as an arrival on the spot and you have to get it down. Then you let it sit for a while and go back to it and make any changes your subconscious might have made over the period. A lot of the times the first version remains more or less the same.
And sometimes you don’t write them down because they come too early in the morning or too late at night.
AC: Have you ever lost a poem that you would have been proud of but didn’t write it down?
DH: I’ve lost quite a few.
AC: Any that you think could have ranked amongst your best?
DH: Well the thing is your memory doesn’t know afterwards. But it does come as nearly a finished event. And then you return to it.
AC: You were saying you wouldn’t be receptive to poetry when you are in the throes of writing a novel.
DH: The novel is an event of every day, so your mind is concentrating on that all of the time. But you stop and so you switch to the other discipline and when you switch to that discipline you stay with it for a while. The poetry comes now and then, not all of the time.
AC: Which do you find more rewarding?
DH: All. The short stories, the poems, the plays -the whole lot. They are different periods of your life. You’d often find reading books of poems late into the night and then the following night to switch to reading a novel.
AC: Which poets do you enjoy reading?
DH: Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney. I go way into the past. I have a book that I love The Rattle Bag -a book done by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes and it goes into all the poetry from the very beginning to the modern and I would use it quite often as the basis of workshops.
AC: Are you ever profoundly moved by a poem?
DH: Profoundly moved? Sometimes I’m just left staring at the page and listen to it again -like there’s one by Shakespeare that goes:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.
That would come to me every so often, and I did that at school, but it haunts me. There’s things like that and it sticks in the mind. It’s a vault of memory.
AC: Is it more of an intellectual appreciation or is it emotional?
DH: It’s not intellectual. Sometimes you need to read it again and again to get the meaning, and in that sense it is intellectual. Sometimes it is emotional. It can be a combination of both I suppose. That would be true.
AC: For Poetry Day do you have an idea of the selection you are going to read?
DH: I might take a look at some of the ones I have written over the last couple of years. Some of them and maybe some of the old.
AC: Are there themes that you are compelled to return to in your poetry?
DH: The looking at nature; the listening to voices. A visual and oral world.
AC: What about contemporary issues? Presumably - like every other citizen -you have moments of anger over what’s happened to the country. Do you have moments when you are compelled to write about current events.
DH: I suppose I do sometimes. I would have written about Northern Ireland when it was going on.
Sometimes you are visited by it. Generally it is coming from the visual world, and the argument could be going on out there. So in other words the symbol, the metaphor is actually in, sometimes, the nature poems.
One of the people I used to read an awful lot when I was working in London with Securicor was Dylan Thomas - I remember reading for maybe six months at a time. He was someone who gave me the beat and the timing. It’s very close to music. It’s like an old ancient rhythm
comes up even though you don’t know it at the time. A lot of the time I’ve done gigs with musicians and I really enjoy doing it -the beat of music is sometimes in it -maybe always in it.
AC: Whenever you read poets you admire, do you read them out loud?
DH: Not really, until it’s settled in. I would sometimes possibly but then I used to hear quite a lot of poets. I remember going to hear Ted Hughes and all, so I hear them in their voice.
I was actually at the opening night of Crow [Hughes’ epic poem]. I was just enthralled; couldn’t wait to get the book. Then it enters into your blood stream.
AC: Describe Hughes reciting it.
DH: That was a long long time ago, in the ‘60s. Id have been 17-18, maybe a little bit more. It was wonderful. You wandered with his mind through the landscape, through the imagery and waited for the next bit. And the next bit suggested another bit, and then another bit.
It was amazing how one led to another. It was like listening to a story in song.
AC: What are you working on at the minute?
DH: I’ve just finished a new book of poems and I’ve been at that a good while. Hopefully it will rise up in the distance.
AC: Is it nature that dominates that work?
DH: I suppose it is, there’s a few pollitical things in it and a few other things -I can’t go into it until it’s out. There’s all kinds of different forms and approaches and they’ve been going for I suppose nine, maybe ten years as well.
I write in my notebook when I’m a passenger in a car. You be looking out the window taking notes, taking notes, taking notes. That happened recently in Cork I wrote the whole way up in the car -I wrote from the time we left Kinsale until we arrived in Sligo. That can sometimes happen because you’re an observer.
You’d be surprised at the things you see looking out the window of a car -‘Caution - children approaching’ [laughs]. Do you know what I mean? There’s all these strange signals that you take for granted, but if you write them down it gives them another meaning.