NDP: Your Collected Poems was recently published. How does it feel to reach such a milestone?
Micheal O’Siadhail: I feel wonderfully privileged to be able to gather all 13 collections into one volume. It has helped me to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m going. It feels like both a recapitulation of my whole life and a springboard for new work.
NDP: Tell me about the striking portrait on the cover.
MO: That was commissioned from Mick O’Dea by the Crawford gallery. I spent a fascinating few weeks with Mick O’Dea, which lead to a deep friendship. Mick is a superb portrait artist.
NDP: I attended a beautiful reading of yours in Clonskeagh Castle. How do approach performing your poems?
MO: We must remember that poetry is fundamentally an oral art. Poems come to full life when spoken and heard. I never fail to be inspired by the interplay with an audience. I’m also intrigued by the similarity of an audience’s reaction in different cultures – from Tokyo to Saskatchewan. However, I should also make clear that my own reading and interpretation is not the only one. I sometimes hear my poems read by others in a way which reveals new angles to me.
NDP: In that reading, you used visual material along with your readings - Japanese characters, as I remember. How does visual art impact and work its way into your writing?
MO: The visual arts have always been vital for me. My late wife Bríd and I spent years building up a collection of contemporary Irish art.
Besides other poets, there are two other strands of inspiration. One is the theatre, which I have always found exciting and is in many ways close to poetry as an art. It too comes alive in the presence of an audience. But music has probably been even more fundamental to me and I’ve written a good deal inspired by classical music and jazz. Musicality is intrinsically related to poetry; we need only think of rhythm, assonance, alliteration and rhyme.
NDP: You have lived around the world and speak numerous languages. What does this kind of experience mean for you as an Irish poet?
MO: Tongues, the last collection included in my Collected Poems, in many ways sums up that experience. It culminates in a set of poems in gratitude to the people who inducted me into various languages and cultures. I feel both deeply rooted in Ireland – especially in Dublin – while at the same time being at home in Norway, England, Iceland, the United States, Japan and Canada.
NDP: What are the formal aspects you feel are characteristic of poetry, distinct from other kinds of writing?
MO: Most of the characteristics which sustain poetry – metaphor, similes along with rhythm, rhyme, assonance alliteration and so forth – may be present in really good prose but the density, distillation, heightened musicality, breadth of resonance and free play of imagination are markers of good poetry.
NDP: In 'Spirit of a Language,' you write
Word-spirit, soul of a language,
Speech-psyche, goblin tongue,
Genius of a past still within,
Old marvels shaping us
In echo-chambers of our ghosts,
Throwing across our centuries
Timbres of their own voice.
Ease and surety
of our given living-room.
Brokered gift of tongues.
To what extant does language shape who we are and frame our definitions of nationality?
MO: Yes, clearly to a certain degree language shapes who we are. However, it must not be exaggerated as linguists such as Whorf and Sapir tended to do. Languages are more porous, and we can learn other languages; I have been shaped by several languages.
As for nations, they are relative latecomers and have often included a variety of languages within their borders. I’m intrigued at the variety in this regard. There are one-language nations like Iceland or Japan – though Japanese ousted Ainu in Hokkaido. In the case of Spain, Spanish, Catalan,, Basque etc. coexist.
NDP: The 'Brokered gift of tongues' points to language as spoken, interpersonal communication - it also speaks to a sense of limitation in language. What are the limits of language as communication, or as poetic utterance?
MO: Of course, I’m fascinated by the many ways humans communicate: by gesture, body language, sign language, painting, music and so on. But I’m also very taken with their interplay and I’m convinced that poetry is enriched by all other forms of communication.
NDP: Which poets formed your earliest writing?
MO: It is a long list but if I were to choose a few: Shakespeare, Dante, Herbert, Karen Böye, Rilke, Herman Wildenwvey, Frost, or near home Patrick Kavanagh.
NDP: Which poets do you turn to now?
MO: More recently I admire Richard Wilbur, Denise Levertov, Mary O’Donnell, John Momtague as well as several of my contemporaries.
Micheal O’Siadhail was born in 1947. He was educated at Clongowes Wood College, Trinity College Dublin, and the University of Oslo. A full-time writer, he has published ten collections of poetry. He was awarded an Irish American Cultural Institute prize for poetry in 1982 and in 1998 the Marten Toonder prize for Literature. His poem suites, The Naked Flame, Summerfest and Earlsfort Suite were commissioned and set to music for performance and broadcasting.
His collections of poetry are The Leap Year (1978), Rungs of Time (1980), Belonging (1982), Springnight (1983), The Image Wheel (1985), The Chosen Garden (1990), Hail! Madam Jazz: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books,1992), A Fragile City (Bloodaxe Books, 1995), Our Double Time (Bloodaxe Books, 1998) Poems 1975-1995 – Hail! Madam Jazz: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1999), The Gossamer Wall (Bloodaxe Books and Time Being Books 2002), Love Life (Bloodaxe Books 2005), Globe (Bloodaxe Books 2007) andTongues (Bloodaxe Books 2010).
He has given poetry readings and broadcast extensively in Ireland, Britain, Europe and North America. In 1985 he was invited to give the Vernam Hull lecture at Harvard and the Trumbull Lecture at Yale University. He represented Ireland at the Poetry Society’s European Poetry Festival in London in 1981 and at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1997. He was writer-in-residence at the Yeats Summer School in 1991.
He has been a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin and a professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Among his many academic works are Learning Irish (Yale University Press 1988) and Modern Irish (Cambridge University Press 1989). He was a member of the Arts Council of the Republic of Ireland (1988-93) and of the Advisory Committee on Cultural Relations (1989 -97), a founder member of Aosdána (Academy of distinguished Irish artists) and a former editor of Poetry Ireland Review. He was the founding chairman of ILE (Ireland Literature Exchange).