As part of our Poetry Day Ireland celebrations, presented in association with Poetry Ireland, we present a comprehensive interview with former Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award and Michael Hartnett Award winner Peter Sirr.

Peter Sirr's collections with The Gallery Press are Marginal Zones (1984), Talk, Talk (1987), Ways of Falling (1991), The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange (1995), Bring Everything (2000), Selected Poems and Nonetheless (both 2004), The Thing Is (2009), and The Rooms (2014). A novel for children, Black Wreath, was published by O’Brien Press in 2014. His awards include the O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry (1998) and the Michael Hartnett Award (2011). A member of Aosdána, he lives in Dublin where he works as a freelance writer and translator.

Ailbhe Darcy: For a little while recently you began to publish Graph again, the magazine you edited from 1986 to 1998 with Michael Cronin and Barra Ó Seaghda. It’s a project that you’ve described as responding to a debilitating consensus in public debate and to the need for dissent. Is the same true of your poetry – do you feel that poetry has a role in dissent?

Peter Sirr: Well, you could argue that poetry is of its nature a form of dissent, an activity on the fringe of consensus. And of course we’re all political beings, in lots of ways. But for me poetry doesn’t necessarily come from a place of dissent as such; it may be there in some way, but it doesn’t proceed from that, it doesn’t start off as a political act in that direct or thought out or coherent kind of way. It’s much more instinctive, emotional, imaginative. Often, the more ostensibly political a poem is, the less likely it is to succeed. If you start by saying, 'I want to write poems about ...’, or ‘I want to write an anti-war poem’, the palpable design can destroy it. Yet, at the same time you are political, you feel of course that it’s part of who you are as a person, so in some way that makes its way in. But it makes its way in a bit obliquely, I think.

AD: One way in which I would have thought of your poetry as political is in its interest in marginality: many of the characters in your first book are marginal, and of course the title of that first book is Marginal Zones.

PS: I was very interested then in lots of different kinds of marginality, whether it was specific marginal experience or the experience of language and marginality: the experience, for instance, in the Gaeltacht in the west. That sense of marginality. And also how, in a strange way, in Ireland, marginality is almost privileged; marginality is part of the Irish identity. So it was that, and also the feeling that poetry itself is a kind of marginal activity. And maybe it was a personal thing as well: maybe the sense that what is most interesting in life is often the thing that’s most overlooked. So the first book approaches marginality very rhetorically in some ways. There’s the person who’s left behind when the apostles go out making their grand gestures, trying to lead an ordinary life after the event, that kind of aftermath. And there’s the linguist in the Connemara Gaeltacht, studying the declining language, who’s an interloper in this desolate, beautiful place that’s too wind-blown to sustain even a tree. That first collection is very literary: it draws on a tradition of marginality. I started off with a sense of poetry as a slightly grand gesture, and I think that evolved over time into a preoccupation with margins in some way, but it’s not exactly just that either – it gets complicated, because poetry is more to do with a quality of attention; you process your surroundings and realise what’s important, what’s interesting, or where you’re going, in the course of the poem.

All poetry, all writing, comes out of a sensibility, in that you can only write the poems that you can write. And whatever tradition you come out of, it's in some sense predetermined.

The essential question is always: what are you trying to do when you write a poem? You never set out to do something, you never sit down and say, Right, I’m going to write about this or that. You’re trying to get beyond yourself, and beyond the immediately circumstantial, you’re trying to realise something or to see into the heart of something. So whatever the ostensible subject of the poem is, that is what’s going on, that attempt to get beyond it, to get to what is beyond.

AD: That takes me where I want to go, in a way, which is to religion. When we were talking earlier you said that you aren’t religious, that your family isn’t religious. Yet there is a sense of the immanent divine in your poetry, throughout your poetry. And while for the most part there aren’t explicit references to religion in your poetry, there are moments where you explicitly turn to the culture, at least, of Christianity. In your first book, for example, there are those rewritings of Bible stories.

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PS: Yes, I’m interested in the religious impulse. When I say I’m not religious, I suppose I dislike all organised religions, of every kind, and I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. But I think anybody who’s grown up in this country, in this culture, is saturated in years of aesthetic Christianity, and that interests me. And though I wouldn’t want poetry to be a kind of ersatz religion, yet the impulse to create anything is religious in that it’s an attempt to get beyond the self, it’s an engagement with the cosmos in some way.

AD: In Bring Everything, 'Gospels’ begins as a love poem to a woman, but moves into these various experiments in living, which seemed concerned with finding a way to live fully in the material world. I read it as a rethinking of the idea from Christianity that you have to divorce yourself from the world.

PS: Yes, that’s what it is. I was interested in that kind of separation – partly, it’s the Jesus story, and this idea that you must leave your life, that’s how Christianity and other religions operate, you leave the world and go to this place that is somehow bigger than that. It’s this question of leaving everything behind that I was interested in: the notion of rejecting a world in order to gain a world. I was playing with that idea and the forces resisting that. There’s an imaginary male and an imaginary female figure, and a bit of a battle going on. On the one hand, ordinary reality and ordinary life, and on the other, this particular kind of spirituality that wants to leave everything, the unselfish impulse, I suppose. The poem asks, Is it actually possible? It’s something that comes back in other poems; it comes back later on in ‘Edge Songs’.

There are those lines, in ‘Gospels’, ‘morning returns the world / weare gathered here / to refuse it’ – you wake up and the world imposes all of its great reality on you, and you turn your back on it because you have a belief system. Most religions are built on denial, I suppose, or abnegation. This world is simply a trial that has to be undergone in order to get to the next one, whatever that is.

That’s what the poem is resisting. And then it gets to the end, where it starts to play with that, with an alternative – instead of ‘leave everything’, this figure comes and says ‘I want you to bring everything,’ lovers, children, beasts, cheques, stubs, phone bills, and all the junk – that’s the idea. That’s really what’s going on there. It’s trying to find a way to live in the world with some kind of spiritual meaning but refusing to deny everything that makes life intense and rich and full.

AD: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is another poet who’s been very dedicated to the relationship between religious tradition and the material world; you’ve written about her and praised her.

PS: A great poet. Eiléan is a very pure poet in many respects. She creates these artefacts that are strange and surprising, and puzzling sometimes – each poem is some kind of enclosed system, a self-sustaining system. You’re never quite sure: there are these voices coming and you’re never quite sure where they’re coming from, or quite what’s being said.

AD: When you write about Ní Chuilleanáin, you praise her and Medbh McGuckian for their capacity to let the poem take them, to cede control to the poem. In your own process, is that how you work, or do you begin with a sense of the whole?

PS: When I’m reading a poem, that’s the test that I would apply – that I expect a lot of people would apply. If you get to the end of a poem and you think that you could have predicted that from the beginning, then there’s something not very interesting going on. It’s better if you’re forced to read something again much more slowly and think, how did that happen? How did I end up there? How did that journey work? The various trajectories of poems from a point to somewhere surprising and unpredictable – that’s the job, in a way. That’s what you hope would happen.

AD: Can you say a bit about ‘China’? This poem is also in Bring Everything, and seems to contain an epiphany, a spiritual experience of some kind.

PS: It’s partly a memory of childhood. I think one of the reasons I write a lot about the city is the sense of multiplicity. ‘China’ is about the sense of multiple lives taking place in the same space, and throughout time. There’s that sense of thickly layered experience. History and archaeology are kind of an obsession for me, the sense that, if you lift up a paving, there are layers and layers of other experiences. The sense of routes, maps, cities, and all the journeys that have passed through them.

And the sense that, you know, one individual life is never the full story, that it takes place in this kind of continuum of existence. And that walking in parallel with us through life are all the other people we’ve been in our own lives, all our other selves. The childhood self, which doesn’t ever stop, which continues in parallel now with the older self. The membrane between past and present is very thin and permeable. I suppose that’s how memory works as well – memory is a constant admission of these other lives into the present. That’s what I was on about, if you like, in the poem ‘China’, which doesn’t really have much to do with China – the air seeming to thicken and another country pouring itself in, and suddenly you’re transported somewhere else. Or it could be, as it was in this case, a simple memory of a childhood street in a different city, Waterford in fact, just a memory of walking down that street as a child. Again, a completely inconsequential thing that doesn’t come announced. Or the sense that in any life there are moments when a door of perception, or whatever it is, opens and you can sort of see into things. That’s the way experience is, why should we think it’s anything different? We see these portals into all kinds of other perceptions and experiences. That’s what I meant by that sort of puzzling line at the end, the idea that we can’t live singly any more than the ‘light can fall on one place only’. We live multiply, inside of us.

AD: That idea of the city involving multiple worlds, multiple dimensions, and double lives, is found in a lot of postmodern novels – I’m thinking of Paul Auster’s New York trilogy, for an example.

PS: I’m completely fascinated by cities and by fiction about cities. At the moment I’m writing a review of Italo Calvino’s letters, so I’ve been reading Invisible Cities again, and I’m very taken by that book. It’s one of my favourite books of his and in general. I keep going back to the city as source of inspiration. Most recently in a poem like ‘The Mapmaker’s Song’, which plays with notions of completeness and incompleteness, thinking of John Rocque’s 1756 map of Dublin in which he claimed to have represented every single building in the city. And there are all kinds of great books about cities. B S Johnson’s first novel, Albert Angelo, about a supply teacher in London, is a fascinating look at that city. There’s a whole radical English poetic  tradition as well, people I really like, such as Roy Fisher – the Birmingham he doesn’t write about but tries to write with. I love that idea, of writing with the city.

There are all sorts of Irish people, too – everything from Ulysses onwards, there’s a great radical Irish tradition of writing about and with cities: Joyce, Kavanagh, McGahern, Kinsella of course, Trevor Joyce, MacNeice, Clarke ...

AD: Your interest in the city often centres around completeness and incompleteness: plans for the city that never come to fruition, architects’ designs that never get built, or plans that don’t work out as they should, such as the spire that has to be lopped off the church because it’s too tall and makes the city authorities uncomfortable.

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PS: There was a website called Dublin Unbuilt, it was created by architects and it showed plans for all these great buildings that were going to be built, a new cathedral that was going to be at the end of Capel Street, or whatever. They were drawn and planned for but just never made it, and I became really interested in these – it’s a kind of alternative world scenario. There’s something magical about cities because you can never define what is a city, the built environment and the human one. It is impossible. I used to live in different cities, in Milan and so on, and I used to constantly patrol them and try to get at them and understand them in some way. And I’d realise that each city is a deeply personal experience: everybody’s city is a different city.

People forget that in Ireland sometimes, because our notion of dinnseanchas tends to be wrapped up in the experience of the home place, and we’re very good at that, but it’s a specific kind of geographically defined space, whereas a city is a dynamic, shifting series of spaces that you don’t necessarily possess. I set out most mornings and I walk the length of the Grand Canal, and I think: this is my neighbourhood because I’ve made it my neighbourhood with my feet. It might not necessarily be my neighbours’ neighbourhood, because they might not go there, they might go off in the other direction, or their neighbourhood might be the few streets where they live. So everyone has a different city. I’m fascinated by that.

AD: Earlier you were resisting the idea that you’re a political poet, and yet this seems to me like a fundamentally political idea – the idea that an individual can rewrite the city, can create within a system.

PS: I don’t know why, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years thinking about that while I’ve been trying to write prose. I’ve been writing prose essays about the city and about trying to understand what the city means, and about what my experience of it means. And also looking at the history of the past of the city, looking at specific city streets and their past. Just trying to arrive at some kind of understanding of the individual’s relationship to a city.

When I'm reading a poem, that’s the test that I would apply – that I expect a lot of people would apply. If you get to the end of a poem and you think that you could have predicted that from the beginning, then there’s something not very interesting going on.

I suppose I have a lot of views and, I suppose, angers as well about what has happened to, or what happens to, cities in Ireland – our distrust of them. Which is all changing, because I think young people have a very different attitude to cities now, but when I grew up there was an utter distrust of the urban, the urban was dangerous. The city centre was where districts were poor, or where people were just provisionally passing through. The ideal was suburban or rural, and that’s what the establishment prized. So the inner core was left to rot for so long. And very gradually we moved away from that and started to prize it again.

But we still don’t prize it enough, I think. So I do, on that level, have lots of feelings about that, comparing cities in Ireland with other cities and getting a sense of what it could be like, you know when you go to Berlin or Amsterdam or Copenhagen or elsewhere ... And yet there’s this huge energy that Dublin has, that isn’t like other places.

AD: Compared with Bring Everything, the next book, Nonetheless, is a relatively celebratory collection, there’s a sense of settling down in it. I wonder if you’re tracing in some way the boom and then the bust.

PS: Well, the personal takes place in the context of the social, and I went to live in the centre of the city when there was this huge explosion of building developments and so on in the mid-nineties, and you couldn’t but be aware of that. On the one hand you were hit by the past, and on the other hand this contemporary grasping. I was very much aware of that, and it leaked into the writing. I’m not sure about ‘celebratory’ though; I always think that in some ways I’m far too restless to be blindly celebratory, so I’m not sure if Nonetheless is different in that sense to Bring Everything. I think there are moments in both collections that would resist a crude greed.

AD: ‘The Overgrown Path’ in The Thing Is has joy in it – it’s about the birth of your daughter – but there are also poems like ‘PPS’, which are more sinister, where you’re giving her up to the state.

PS: These are things that everybody feels, I’m sure. ‘PPS’ is about that moment when the postman drops in a letter, and it’s the assignment of the PPS number, the state’s first intervention in her life. It’s the intersection of the social with the personal. You’re going kind of googlyeyed with love for this little creature, and you realise she’s the state’s creature as well. Again it’s that thing of all these complex systems that are working away behind us. ‘The Overgrown Path’ – the title came from Janácˇek – was about a series of moments of power in a way, although really it’s a series of instinctive responses. Because a child is such a big experience in your life, your own life is so changed by it, and the consciousness out of which you’re writing changes. Everything is different. You’ve got a new perspective, and a new set of fears. There are all sorts of paradoxical impulses about that. There’s an intensity to it all; the child’s own first experiences, her first encounter with everything. You realise how a child sees everything differently, you envy that, want to be like that.

AD: The form that ‘The Overgrown Path’ takes, the sequence of short poems, is one that you return to again and again in your collections. Is it the openness of this form that you’re interested in? That it resists closure somehow?

PS: It’s a strange thing because I know I do that a lot; it’s not even a designed thing, necessarily. And ‘sequences’ is probably the wrong word for me, in the sense that a lot of them aren’t particularly sequential. I think of them more as gatherings of related impulses – that they talk to each other, the different parts often talk to each other. In the new book, The Rooms, there’s a long sequence again, or a gathering of sonnets which all talk to each other. It’s that Rimbaud sense of a poem never being finished but abandoned. It’s that sense of trying something, of coming at it from another angle. Maybe it’s a kind of indecisiveness – I know there’s something there, but I haven’t got at it yet. It’s a dangerous kind of thing, I’ve done this in lots of books – ‘A Journal’ in The Ledger, there’s the ‘Edge Songs’, ‘Death of a Travel Writer’ in Ways of Falling, there’s also the Catullus in The Thing Is.

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So, yes, it’s the openness. The closed, conventional lyric poem isn’t necessarily always the right form or hugely interesting, and though I do write short self-contained poems as well, there is something about open forms or undecided forms that attracts me. It’s about excitement and the sense that it’s a journey: there are points along the journey that you want to visit, but you don’t know how it’s going to end. That’s how it happens, but sometimes I resist it and I resent it and I go back and try to write a short little poem. So again the new book is a combination of all these kind of contradictory impulses.

AD: Are the sonnets rhymed?

PS: They’re not really, no. They’re not proper sonnets. There’s lots of internal rhyme going on, but they’re not really conventional sonnets, they’re fourteen-line poems pretending to be sonnets. I’m actually very interested in the craft, the making of a poem. I’m very interested in the possibilities of form, in shape and sound and measure, and I’m very conscious of the poem as a sound event and a visual event, an artefact built out of language. I have no interest in fetishising particular approaches or privileging one set of formal gestures over another. I like different kinds of poetry – I like formal poetry, I love Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Yeats, but I’m also deeply interested in the traditions that disrupt conventional form. I love Oppen and the Objectivists, stretches of Pound, Olson’s Maximus poems, Ed Dorn, or the questing kind of reinvention of people like Andrea Zanzotto or Anne Carson or Michael Haslam. I love what Jean Follain does, or Jacques Réda or Francis Ponge, and Roy Fisher, John Riley, Denise Riley, Brecht, Bishop – a pretty eclectic mix. I want everything in a way. I want to be able to use it all.

AD: Your poetry refuses to reconcile itself to either of the two ‘camps’ in Irish poetry, if you like. On one level your work is very much in the experimental, modernist tradition – but then it disqualifies itself completely by insisting on a coherent subject position, a lyric ‘I’.

PS: Yes, I’d be thrown out of most postmodernist poetry conferences for that! And I’d be thrown out of the other camp for being too messy. But again, your context – I’ve always resisted that notion of ‘Irish poetry’ because I find it boring and limiting. I hate the way in which things get viewed within a particular sort of national framework, which is often an identitarian kind of framework. For instance, you’re setting yourself up to have less attention paid to you if you don’t write about ostensibly Irish subject matter. You don’t write about the famine or you don’t write about the North, or whatever it’s going to be. There are all these expectations around what makes an Irish poet, and I don’t think of myself even as an Irish poet, if you take that as a phrase, because an awful lot of the people I’m interested in aren’t even Irish. We all construct our own traditions, and the tradition I’ve constructed for myself is what I identify with more than an Irish tradition. Equally, I’m not very interested in the mutual exclusivity and boring self-righteousness of ‘camps’. These divisions are about power rather than poetry, about dividing up the meagre spoils and trying to create little bastions of privilege.

AD: And yet in ‘Edge Songs’ you do court thinking about this divided or lost or fragmented Irish literary tradition.

PS: Yes: I have been interested in that from the beginning. One of the poems in that first book is ‘The Collector’s Marginalia’, about a linguist going to somewhere like Connemara and collecting the language. Which is why, years later, when I came across Mark Abley’s book Spoken Here, which is a kind of travel book where he visits endangered languages, I was very interested in that.

I went to a school where Irish was despised, where four people in the class were doing honours Irish or were interested in it. The discovery of Irish, if you like, was very important to me at the time, and I decided to go to university and study it, and immerse myself in Irish literature. ‘Edge Songs’ is a kind of a recovery of my own tradition; it came out of going back and re-reading that early Irish poetry and poetry in Latin, there’s a great tradition of Irish poetry written in other languages and Irish poetry that is about wandering abroad but also writing – I was playing with that idea as well. And I translate a good bit of poetry from Irish, so I have an engagement with that.

All poetry, all writing, comes out of a sensibility, in that you can only write the poems that you can write. And whatever tradition you come out of, it’s in some sense predetermined. You don’t consciously hunt out things because they’ll be exciting to you. They’re exciting to you because you have a particular sensibility. Your tradition is in part conscious, in part instinctive, in part using the things around you that you’re excited about or interested in.

That’s what happens. No one operates within a single framework, or if you do it’s boring. And I suppose I’ve seen a bit of that as an editor, where people will only write a single kind of poem and think that’s what being an Irish poet is.

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AD: Do you think of yourself as writing to an Irish audience?

PS: I don’t really have a developed sense of an audience at all. Prose has an audience, but as a poet you have a couple of fanatical followers maybe, if you’re lucky. Your audience is first of all yourself. You may have experienced this yourself Ailbhe, with your own first book – there may a small number of people who buy the book and an even smaller number who actually read it. But poetry’s a long game – I do believe that. Most things will disappear, it’s true; but in the same way that you have a conversation with a tradition, because you’re reading poems that are thousands of years old, maybe one poem of yours will survive.