Ten Questions with Conor O’Callaghan

Conor O’Callaghan

1. How and when did you get started as a writer?

Mid-to-early 1980s. I was a weird solitary kid. I have a copy of the Rattle Bag dated 1982, given to me by my father’s mother. It was the only gift she ever gave me. I recall being flummoxed by it. But now I think what an odd kid I must’ve been, for my Gran to think it ok to give me a poetry book apropos of nothing. It wasn’t even for a birthday. I recall also that her husband, my paternal grandfather, one Xmas gave my four brothers toy racing cars and me a bag of antique marbles. Hello? Clearly, I was a weirdo, and accepted the role the older I got. I had a poem in the weekend supplement of The Irish Times at the age of 21. Downhill from there …

2. Where do your ideas tend to come from?

Language. People are always giving you “ideas” for poems, often in the form of titles: “Unlucky in Love” or “Honeymoon on the Moon”. You should write a poem about that … Poets, by and large, get stirred into poetry by words or overheard phrases. Something about the structure of the phrase is moving. I keep a list in the back of my notebook of everyday phrases that seem to have images and/or metaphors in them. Recently, for example, I wrote a poem around the phrase “to look up”, as in a word you look up in a dictionary. But also, in there, seemed to be some star-gazing. A poem is an accumulation of such phrases, piled into a little bundle like a heap of pebbles. Often, I misremember song lyrics, and realize they’re wrong and think how much better my lyrics would be, and then think …

3. Are there particular ideas or themes that interest you or that keep resurfacing in your work?

My poems keep circling back on themselves. Details from one poem surface as the subject of the other, kind of thing. I have three different poems called “The Swimming Pool”. Then I learnt to swim, and then I almost drowned. Recently, I’ve written a big sprawling sonnet about the intake of breath each line-break represents, and how that’s like swimming. It wasn’t until close to the end of this poem that I realized it represents a return to something. Other than that, borders and thresholds and exile to some extent. I read Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn lately, about a young woman who emigrates to New York and then goes back to Ireland. The point, it seemed to me, was that there is never any way back, never any return route. The life you leave vanishes in your wake.

4. Do you plan your writing?

I do plan what I will be working on over any coming year, more so since I’ve started to write and publish prose. For example, all this year will be poems only. And probably half of next as well. I plan to write 20 odd poems between now and next summer. We’ll see.

5. Do you have a writing routine or any ‘rituals’ that you follow?

I write one poem every month. I call it my “Poem-a-Month Club”, of which I am the sole honorary life member. If I get to the end of a calendar year with a dozen new ones that I’m happy with, then that constitutes a bumper year. I’m a real plodder. Other than that, I write every day. That is, at some point, for 2 mins or 2 hours, I’ll sit at my notebook and scribble something. Every day: every single day…

6. Who are your favourite writers?

James Joyce, Paul Muldoon, Elisabeth Bishop, Richard Ford, John Updike, James Schuyler, WH Auden, Philip Larkin. Mixed bag.

7. Do you have an ideal reader?

I think any reader of poetry is ideal. Do I have a reader? Show me him/her and I reckon they’re going to look pretty ideal. The notion of the ideal reader is a version of the muse, and I’ve never been very mystical. I mean I do see how it can be inspiring to have a reader out there that you want to impress, but I seldom think in those terms.

The ideal reader is definitely not the groupie, which even poets have now and then! Twice it has happened to me that a complete stranger has come up and said, “Are you … are you really …?” And both times, after the initial chuffed feelings, I have stood there listening to them recite lines of mine from memory and thought “This person is crazy”!

8. What are you working on now?

A fourth book of poems, with the working title Among Other Things. Next year or the year after … I’ve just finished a novel, but am not optimistic about getting it published. I realized, like most snooty poets, I embarked on it thinking it’d be a doddle. Then halfway through, after sod all had happened and even then not very well, I thought, “This is hard …” How do they do it, those novelists? How do they keep all those plates spinning at once? The poet Hugo Williams once termed fiction “all that Frank retorted angrily stuff” and it is true that I found myself writing lines that I would have once thought myself way too good for.

9. What are you reading at the moment?

Two very different novels, both from the old days of Harvill Press. I Could Read the Sky is a gorgeous short novel by Timothy O’Grady, with photos by Steve Pyke, about Irish exile in England. Old territory, but very poetic and very beautiful. And Heart’s Journey in Winter by James Buchan. A Cold War thriller: man tries to save the world and falls in love with a doomed Eastern European beauty and world/woman get sort of mixed up in his head. Not usually my stuff, but the guy can seriously write.

10. What piece of advice would you give to new writers?

The one piece of advice I always offer young (ie even younger) writers is to make sure you have a nice pic on the back of your first book. Seriously. Mine’s a disaster. The photographer kept shouting, “Tilt your head back, open your mouth, shut your eyes …” And I kept shouting, “Are you sure this is going to look ok?”

Other than that, the best piece of serious advice I came across was in a piece written by a guy who studied under James Baldwin. There was a bash at the end of the course, and he went up to Baldwin and said, “Give me one piece of advice before I go off into the world.” He says Baldwin thought for a bit and then replied, “Whenever you find that you can do something as a writer, stop doing it.” I think that’s an excellent, but brutal, maxim to write by.