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23 January 2011 @ 04:17 pm
Interview with Frank Dullaghan  
Frank Dullaghan's collection On the Back of the Wind was published by Cinnamon in 2008 and is soon to be republished in an Italian translation. Frank, born in Dundalk, currently lives and works in Dubai and is working on another collection.

I pass hooded doorways, the opening mouth of the alley,
a slab of a wall with its back against the sky (the sky
with its fierce eyes). Here are passing places, portals,
touch-points, gaps in hedge or banked earth where the force
of the night is heavy.
                                        It is here I come on my father,
leaning over the wall of a bridge. I know him by the sweet smell
of his pipe, the smoke that softens the air between us.
He is listening, it seems, to the slap of the water
as if for some message, some resolution.
                                        He knows I am here but he says nothing,
keeps his back turned, as if to face me might change too much.

SHEENAGH: Something that interests me quite a lot is the ordering of poems in collections. In your collection On the Back of the Wind there are several poems about your father, and in particular about the state of affairs after someone's dead when you feel a great need to somehow establish communication with them, perhaps in a way that never happened during their lifetime. I'm thinking of poems like "Expurgatory", "How It Could Happen", "Man on the Moon", "One Frozen Winter", above all "Night", a personal favourite of mine. You chose to group a lot of these at the end of the book, which to me suggests something ongoing, whereas had they been near the start, it might have indicated something resolved, from which you'd moved on. But the one you chose to end on is "My Father's Suitcase", and this is a bit different from the ones I've mentioned, set during his lifetime, and it ends with the words

we would turn, start the slow walk home,
the heavy case in his hand.

Now this walk home is in fact a sort of failure, the result of a missed train, but the image of father and son walking home together, for all its hint of emotional as well as physical "baggage", is somehow a positive one. Can you say something about why you chose this one to end on?

FRANK:The poems in this first collection were written over a long period so I always knew that there would be a lot of poems about my father. In fact, the working title of the collection was originally 'Carrying My Father'. The poems you have mentioned, however, came in a rush in the 3 months prior to submitting the collection for publication. There did seem to be this need to take the poems beyond memories, beyond the physical, to explore what I was still carrying inside of me.

Although he was affectionate, my father was a private person and I never talked to him the way I talk to my adult sons. I believe now that he lacked self esteem, that he considered himself a failure, and was probably deeply unhappy towards the end - increasingly finding that the religious convictions he leaned upon no longer fully supported him. So there was a sort of communication gap and I suppose some of these poems were a way to try to bridge that gap. In many ways the poems just happened and I'm still reading them myself to fully understand their message.

In the poem "Night" I've tapped into my interest in the idea of doors, windows, gaps, passing places, cross-roads - places which seem to hold the potential for change, portals if entered may lead to unexpected places and no going back. It ties in with Irish mythology and folk tales too - the fairy forts untouched in the centre of fields, the ability to pass between the land of here and now and Tir na nOg.

As for the placing of the poems, they were originally going to sit at the beginning of the collection in a sort of family montage. But as the last poems came they were strongly different and I did have the sense of them not being quite closed down, not sufficiently done and dusted to sit at the start of the collection. Not that there was a lot of conscious thought to this. They just felt better at the close of the book. I chose the last poem "My Father's Suitcase" as a way to bring the poems back to the actual world, to anchor them somehow. And I suppose, I was trying in a way to find a way to close down that exploration and move on to other things. But of course that hasn't happened. I've found that I'm still exploring this area. Probably always will.

That last image in "My Father's Suitcase" that you quote, did feel right to me too, as a closing point. Certainly, it was to do with failure but a sort of shared failure. Perhaps it is part of that communication gap, I mentioned. It's as if this remembered image holds a non-verbal communication that was there but not fully understood at the time. I think a lot of the images of my father in these poems hold that kind of potential.

SHEENAGH Of course you were born in Ireland and I'm interested to know whether the enormously strong Irish literary tradition is a blessing or a curse - how does a new Irish poet carve out a territory without being immediately compared with this or that luminary, Heaney in particular? Or doesn't that worry you?

FRANK: This is a big difficulty. Trying to find your own voice in such a strong choir, particularly when many of your preoccupations are the same, is very hard. There were many strong 'Irish' poems that I left out of my first collection for this very reason. If they were the sort of thing that Heaney would do and do better, I'd have been inviting the wrong kinds of comparison. Nevertheless, my voice is still distinctly Irish, I believe, and I am grateful for the richness in language and imagery I've inherited. It was reading Yeats and Kavanagh that first brought me into the world of poetry and those are influences that are still there.

SHEENAGH: You live now in Dubai, which isn't a place I have seen chronicled much in poetry and would therefore seem like a bit of a gift as a subject. But it doesn't always work that way; Robert Louis Stevenson, in Samoa, wrote a great deal about Edinburgh. Have you in fact used your current locale much in your writing, or have you done an RLS and found that when in foreign parts you "see" your former home more clearly?

FRANK: I think that living in Dubai has certainly influenced my writing but the place itself hasn't featured (in much the same way that working in financial services hasn't featured). I always thought that these would be rich sources of material and I'm not sure why they are not. Of course, I have written poems on both. But they generally just don't stand up. Perhaps when this phase of my life is over, I'll come back and make sense of it all. I do think that being removed (by distance or time) does add clarity.

SHEENAGH I think you're right that this will probably happen later; in fact even RLS did eventually start writing about Samoa, presumably when it had osmosed through his system enough. One thing that's very present in your work is Irish and British weather; there's a fair amount of sleety, windy dampness in there! The climate in Dubai must be startlingly different and so must the quality of light; has it seeped through to any of your newer poems yet?

Talking of Dubai, again, what's its own literary life like? I don't mean expats like you, writing in other tongues, but its own native scene? Is there any way for folk like you to connect with that or is the linguistic/cultural barrier too daunting?

FRANK: That's an interesting thought about the weather. I'll have to look. I have written some poems based in Afghanistan that I may not have written if I had not been based here - some in a female voice too (for some unknown reason).

Dubai, like a lot of the Gulf states, has a strong poetic tradition and a vibrant poetry writing culture. But this is just for the classical models written in high Arabic. There are prizes of AED1,000,000 on TV for the annual best poet (that's about 180,000 pounds!). There are very few Arabs writing contemporary poetry. There's a vibrant performance poetry scene here in English though, with a lot of young Arabs. It's certainly as good as the performance scene in London or elsewhere. I'm now a standard part of this (there being little else). I'm hoping to break into some of the more local poetry groups but not speaking Arabic makes this difficult. I have had an indication that a reading at Zayed University women's campus may be in the offing later this year (there will be difficulty with some of my poems where sex is touched on "Fisherman's Tale", "The Morning After", "Drenched", "Secrets" etc - so that could lead to interesting debates on selling my book there). I have also read at the Fringe to the Dubai Literary Festival for the last two years and this year will be on the main ticket as part of the performance group ("Poeticians" - not my choice of name). I'm also a member of the Emirates Literary Group where I have started to introduce the idea of work-shopping and am in touch with the British Council who may be able to assist with the translation of some of my work into Arabic by introducing me to some translators who are interested - you never know.

SHEENAGH: How does it feel to know your collection is to be translated into Italian? Are you involved with it in any way and have you any Italian yourself - if not, is there a sense of helplessness, of having to let go of the poems in order to let them be re-created in other words?

FRANK: I sort of feel that once the poems have been published in English they are out there, public property, almost. I still care about them but I am not a linguist so will have to trust the translators. I have been told that they are good but I have no idea myself. My soon to be daughter-in-law is fluent in Italian, so I'll get some useful feedback that way.

It's also very early days, so I have no idea yet how the process will work. I expect that they will just do it all themselves. Some of the poems in my first collection were translated into Russian and published in a magazine in Siberia. I have a copy but as it is printed in Cyrillic, I just have no way of knowing. I'm just happy that the audience for my work has been expanded. The source is the English version and it will always come back to that, so I don't worry too much about it.

SHEENAGH: You've been an editor (of the magazine Seam) as well as a poet. That's the other side of the fence, and though we as poets know editors have a hard job too, it's hard to keep it in mind when you're waiting for a reply! How did it affect the way you saw things?

FRANK: In many ways the job of an editor is a thankless task so I have a lot of respect for editors. Choosing poems for an edition can be a very arbitrary affair - of course the writing first needs to be at a good level. After that, though, it can depend on the editors mood on the day, how the work fits with other poems accepted etc. I did always try to respond, however, within a reasonable timeframe - usually 1 month. I still find that there are very good journals that don't even bother to respond at all, despite the enclosed SAE. That is infuriating. I don't mind being rejected, that par for the course, but I do feel that responses should not take more than 3 months anywhere and certainly if you include an SAE you should not be ignored.

SHEENAGH: Yes, you did always respond promptly, and Seam was actually much better than most in that respect. Sometimes one sees newspaper commentators complaining that poets don't tackle the burning questions of the moment, don't respond to events as they happen, and it always occurs to me that if you're talking of paid publication, there's no way to do that, because unless you can talk a daily paper into publishing a topical poem, which you usually can't unless you're very well known, it won't be topical any more by the time it appears! On the day the Chilean miners were rescued, I wanted to write a poem about it, and I published it on my blog because I couldn't think how else to respond immediately to the event. I'd quite like poets to blog-publish more, but of course if you do, no editor will then consider it for a print mag, so you can't blame them for holding back. Have you ever considered blogging, either for the publicity or as a way of getting stuff out there more quickly?

FRANK: I have considered blogging but the truth is, I don't have the time. I generally work a 45 to 50 hour week, sometimes more. Keeping a blog would become a chore and that would be bad. I had hoped to have made enough money by 2010 to take early retirement and turn to full time writing, blog included, but my business failed and most of my savings with it (the other side of capitalist accumulation is capitalist loss - there's always risk). Now I need to work for at least the next 5 years if Marie and I are going to have a comfortable pension. So my writing has to fit in around work if it's going to happen. This means everything is slower. I have a novel completed but finding an agent is going to take time - and longer than usual as it will be snatched here and there as I can manage it. That too is life.

SHEENAGH: You work in a very different milieu from most poets I know. Poets have a distinct tendency to work in academia, or at least the public sector, and I sometimes think we tend to assume the whole world, or at least that part of it we can hope for as an audience, is like the folk we mostly mix with: liberal-minded, probably left-leaning in politics, more into arts than sciences and certainly not much into business. The world you work in must be very different from that; how has it influenced your writing?

FRANK: Well as you know, I'm not left-leaning though I do, generally, have liberal views. And, I suppose, the world of business and my successes in business (and my failures) have certainly informed my writing and will have given it a different set of reference points from which to develop. But there are pluses and minuses with this. On the positive side, I have access to a different world view, the skills and experience I have developed are non academic, pragmatic, pressured and, no doubt, spill over into my writing. Certainly, I find that I can write in very short, pressured, sessions because this is often the only writing time I have. There is also a level of drive, confidence, work-ethic that is probably different.

On the negative side, I don't mix that much with fellow poets and writers, I'm not in the "in crowd" or, indeed, much of a poetry crowd at all and, in fact, not really that well known as a poet. I do believe that this has meant that I have not been picked up in any of the anthologies or considered in any of the various groupings. Of course that is also because I'm not in the UK any more. But even when I was, this was the case. I do feel like a bit of an outsider and, as with any walk of life, networking is important if you want to be "in". So that is a big disadvantage. There is also a lack of critical feedback (unless you can find a good workshop group) and less ongoing reference points for many of the things that are important in a writer's life - critical essays, reviews, visiting writers, publishers, book fairs, the ability to meet some of the decision makers and become known to them etc.

I can do stuff to redress this balance, of course, and I'm not stating this as a complaint of any kind - it's just how life works. If I had been in academia, I would have had more time and opportunities. But I would probably have been writing a different kind of poetry too. We each have our own lives to live.

SHEENAGH: Yes, it seems to me that networking is more and more important for all writers, now that they're more or less expected to be their publisher's sales dept as well, and I suspect that this is all the harder because, in fact, "feeling like an outsider", as you put it, is the norm for writers. Don't we all hang about on the fringes of groups jotting down notes, rather than participating? Writers are observers, even voyeurs, by nature, yet these days they need to be, or pretend to be, the life and soul of the party in order to market their image and work. A recent post on my blog started a debate about this, in which the writer and publisher Adele Ward said some interesting things - see here.

Have you any theories on how we can do the marketing publishers want, yet still maintain that necessary distance from what we observe and record?

FRANK: Re authors being involved in marketing, I think it's inevitable. Most writing pays very little so publishers will commit little funds to marketing each book. The author needs to build his or her own brand. Some authors are very good at this but, I suspect, many of the better ones won't be. I do believe however, that it is now part of being a full time writer. Perhaps it should form part of what is covered in M Phil programs - how to write a press release; how to build press contacts; how to find an angle for a press story; setting up and maintaining a blog; using social network sites; how to get radio and TV interviews; how to handle interviews etc etc. It's tough though. Most writers just want to write. The thought of also having to market their wares may be too much. I guess, as in many endeavours, writers need to be able to split out the various aspects of their work - marketing is one part, feeding the kids and taking care of parents may be another. But that's life. Writers need to be able to find those quiet times to be creative, despite whatever other pressures there are.

The Silence

You can wear your silence like a room.
It will not stop you feeling lonely.

Look how your moon has cracked its head,
its light is pooling in the lake.

Your sky has lost all sense of where it's going,
its stars are overheating fast.

The fence that you have built to keep him out
throws shadows on your garden.

He walks street by street away, is destitute.
You can feel the silence harden.

The Interview

This is where the money's made - Wall Street, Broad Street,
New York Plaza. The buildings tilt your head back.

I've come to be interviewed for a job in London.
Flown in for the day, as if the people here have some gift,

of knowledge or benediction, that is worth the cost.
I'd lifted off at Heathrow, watched

as the airport shrank to a microchip.
The cloud top was a white cauliflower forest that darkened

as the night came on and the full moon gaped
above its fuzzy image, could not drop through.

Perhaps when you're that high, it's hard
to reflect upon the ground. I take the elevator up.

Offices with space and an unequalled view - Liberty, Ellis Island.
Here it is - opportunity, a figure rising from behind a desk.


We are coming into that time
when things are not fully themselves –
sky improperly dresses in glint and shadow,
buildings slant from the vertical,
birds toss themselves from bare branch to branch.
Even the voice smokes from the mouth
without its coat.
                                                       My mother
(remembered here from that photograph)
pegs a sheet to a line, the pebble-dashed wall
of the shed catching and breaking
the white light of morning behind her,
her mouth open but silent, her eyes
trying to hold what is already leaving.
Days not fully themselves.
                                     Neither now nor then.
When do we ever close the face of the past,
lay copper suns on its eyelids,
bind its bony fingers with rosary beads?
Nothing dies completely. On nights
like this even death
finds it hard to retain its certainty.


Cinnamon Press, who publish On the Back of the Wind

Frank reading two poems on YouTube

Frank's poem "Fairy Tales", online at the Ink, Sweat & Tears website.

"Seeing the Light", online at the Poeticians website.

"Flying in a pink leotard", online at the Glasgow review website.

Interview on Kurt Frenier's blog

Interview with Securities & Investment - don't worry, it's about poetry, not finance!

Review of On the Back of the Wind on Todd Swift's "Eyewear" blog.