This interview series poses one question over and over again to a slew of poets of various aesthetic modes. My intention is two-fold: to encourage these poets to examine and imagine whatever notions and natures they discern in their work, and to trace their thoughts about conceptual alternatives to the patterns and trajectories they perceive there. In thinking otherwise, against usual models or presiding instincts, they are free to delve into various realms of possibilities, creating fresh commentary on their current practice and procedures, and theoretical visions which might guide them ideally, provisionally, even counterintuitively. The prompt in some cases generates follow-up questions which the subject can agree to answer or just ignore, and keep silent (silence, too, is a kind of answer). After all, the free-play prospects my line of questioning wishes to pursue must also consider the poets’ freedom to take it on their terms, not my own.
Jon Curley: Can you envision what kinds of poems, whether structurally or thematically, you might consider writing beyond the realm of your past practice? Are there elements of poems outside your usual patterns and activities you might try to integrate into your work?
Derek Coyle: There are two ways of approaching an answer to this question, and that is to consider matters of form and content. I might start with form. If I have matured as a writer I would say that I have a growing conviction about the significance and power of form. I have been writing poems for many years (although only seriously for the past six years), and through this attempt to try and keep on writing poems I have come to appreciate the gift of poetic form. Maybe you have to have a certain amount of experience under your belt to appreciate this. At least, this has been my experience.
Form gives you “corners” in the construction of voice, places of stress and emphasis, in the form of line breaks and verse breaks, which help you construct a “voice” in any given piece, an important feature of a successful poem. I would like to work with this in a conscious and deliberate, maybe a more confident way, than I have in the past. I am not sure how much I will be able to achieve, but I will certainly try and work on my formal range. Increasingly, I have come to admire well-made poems, like “Perch” in Seamus Heaney’s Electric Light, for example. In this poem he gives us a series of balanced couplets, with delicate slant rhymes, but one of the most interesting formal features is the use of doubles to achieve an effect of balanced movement—”in the finland of perch, the fenland of alder”—suggesting the sideways motion of the fish in the water as it holds its place against the current. I admire the polish, the grace and poise of this poem. Can I say I would like to try and write something like that?
Recently, I have enjoyed working with couplets, tercets and quatrains, three big forms in contemporary poetry. Right now I seem to be writing in couplets quite easily. In time I would like to extend this if I can, to see what possibilities emerge through working with other forms. If I have learned anything over the years, it is that poetry is an intricate craft and there is a lot to be learned. Poetry is a wily beast with many beguiling and hidden dimensions that only emerge in time, after conscious attention and serious engagement over an extended period.
Thematically, in terms of subject and content, I have enjoyed working with art in recent years. Art, unlike music, gives the poet a concrete starting point, a visual image from which to begin, something to engage with. I have enjoyed looking at Edward Hopper and Caravaggio, but could easily look at other painters who interest me: Francis Bacon and David Hockney come to mind. I would like to do more work here, but then you need to move on too. Working with Hopper gave me an opportunity to write about the U.S. You might say: Why would an Irish poet be interested in this? Well, we have all been influenced by what we might call “the American century.” It seems to me that this is as true for Ireland as it is for the U.K., Germany, China and Japan. Still, Hopper’s work allowed me to pursue themes that interested me, and have for years: the working man, the submerged life of minorities (like gay and lesbian men and women), the “race” issue, etc. I have revealed my preoccupations, to use a very Heaneyesque word, by engaging with the images of Hopper. It was surprising, and yet pleasing to discover that this was possible.
Art is concrete, whilst music is abstract, and it is the wisdom of contemporary poetic practice, strongly influenced perhaps by the practice of Seamus Heaney that poetry works best in the concrete. Mind you, many of the poems in Seeing Things, wonderfully blend the two. Another contemporary I consider a serious poet, Mark Strand, writes superb abstract poems. So, it is possible. As an art form, I enjoy music more naturally than I do art, but music poses particular problems for the poet, but yet I would like to try and write about jazz, Miles Davis, maybe more popular artists like Bob Marley or Sam Cooke, and then there is the classical tradition: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. Still, music can confound very able artists. Irish poets often try to write about Ireland’s vibrant traditional music scene. I have felt this urge myself. Even as fine a poet as Michael Longley, despite several attempts, hasn’t really managed to pull this one off. Still, the challenge is there, could you write a poetic equivalent of a jig?
Longley is a poet I admire hugely. His last five books have been incredible. I think Snow Water is one of the best collections I have read by a contemporary. He has this delicate, understated style. Again, although conservative in temperament, he can take what we might call instructive risks. His poem “The Ice Cream Man” in Gorse Fires laments the murder of an ice cream man in Belfast during the Troubles, but ends with a list of fauna and flora found in the Burren, a bleak limestone landscape of western Ireland, suggesting life continues and that maybe litany and ritual can carry us over losses. The ending of this poem is a real surprise, one which risks losing many readers, but this element of risk and originality I admire—a desire to push beyond the obvious and usual.
Rather like the concept albums of the seventies in popular music, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, for example, there is a move in contemporary poetry towards themed collections. Heaney did it as early as 1975 with North, and yes, I like the idea of continuing a theme over a sequence of poems or a collection. The idea of “the city” interests me—a city rather like New York, maybe. The art in the city, events like the Stonewall Uprising, just the feel of concrete and glass. I have read Lorca’s letters home from New York, written when he was an exchange student in the city in 1928, and they contain many fascinating observations. He was blown away by radiators in his apartment block at Columbia, how much better they were than the coal braziers his people had back in Spain. What struck him, and I still think this a source of fascination, was how the world was to be found in New York. I still think the future might be conceived along the lines of a city like New York, but perhaps imagined in Beijing or Shanghai. How might poetry reflect these possibilities?
I often think about a very European book, set somewhere like Prague, apart from the obvious London, Paris or Rome. Arabic Europe and the Arab world in general is of interest for personal reasons: I had a romantic entanglement with someone from that neck of the woods once upon a time. I am a big admirer of the Greek Alexandrian poet Constantinos Cavafy, increasingly recognized as one of the great moderns. Some sort of homage is of interest. Cavafy pioneered a handling of sensuality that still needs to be pursued and mainstreamed, updated or continued in some way. His poems are a wonderful combination of sexuality, history and political intrigue, full of intelligence and passion; I return to them continually and I aspire to write something like that.
I’ve been to China (another relationship) and I have read the major (and some minor) poets of the Chinese tradition: Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei. And so, something Asian is of interest. There might be a very Irish book, but then I don’t feel I belong to the cultural or poetic world that produced John Montague and Seamus Heaney, and talking to younger friends and students, they don’t either. Heaney’s “squelch and slap of soggy peat” might be a phase in Irish poetry, despite the fact that my maternal grandfather owned a patch of bog and I knew that world as a child. I feel we are in different territory now in Ireland, poetically and socially, and who knows what this might mean in the long run? New ground always has to be broken. If I were to write of Irish myth and legend, it might be through a Cavafyesque lens and not a Yeatsian one.
Derek Coyle was born in County Kildare in 1971. He was awarded his PhD by the University of Glasgow in 2002. He has been shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award and the Bradshaw Prize, and, in 2012, he was a chosen poet for the Poetry Ireland “Introductions Series.” He published a chapbook, Time Signatures, in 2008. You can see an interview with him here. He lectures in English Literature and Irish Studies at Carlow College. He currently lives in Carlow, Ireland.