About ten years ago I attended a poetry reading, at a location I will not disclose here, in a vast hotel conference room. One of the poets was a nearly great poet, the other not so much. One was wearing a tweed jacket, or at least my memory chooses to dress them in tweed; the other was wearing a pair of curtains which I think my Mother would have liked for her big sitting room window. The room was full of people nodding gravely. A few of the audience were nodding off to sleep. Others were trying not to. It was a most worthy gathering, and I am grateful to the Irish government for paying my air fare and hotel bill.
The poetry readings I have co-organised with my wife Susan via Over The Edge literary events in Galway for the past two decades are nothing like this. For several years we organised successful Friday night poetry readings in a wine bar above a cheese shop. The room, I’m reliably informed, smelled of sweaty cheese, a smell to which I think I must have become immune because I ceased to notice it.
If our poetry readings don’t fill your nostrils with the smell of the bluer varieties of French cheeses, the fabulously uncomfortable plastic chairs in Westside Library, where we annually partner with Westside Arts Festival to organise Ireland’s largest literary open-mic, will at least make sure you stay awake. For many years we used to take visiting poets and writers to our local Turkish burger-and-kebab house after readings where I would usually dine on the most excellent curried chips. These days, for health reasons, I have to settle for Champagne and hors d’oeuvres at the House Hotel because the medication I am on for my dodgy lungs clashes unpleasantly with the cheaper varieties of food and alcohol. It’s a sacrifice. But one I’m prepared to make in the interests of literature.
Now don’t get me wrong, while the poetry readings we organise do aim to at all times keep our audience awake, they are not pseudo-Beatnik amateur hour affairs which are all about the MC’s male member. We have had many leading Irish poets and fiction writers take part in our events: Medbh McGuckian, Denis O’Driscoll, Colette Bryce, Eamon Grennan, Ken Bruen, Claire Kilroy, and Kevin Barry to name just a few. The radical thing we do, though, which neither the pseudo-Beatniks nor the crowd in that aforementioned giant hotel conference room appear to be interested in, is we platform raw new writers alongside the very established.
If Over The Edge was a religious rather than a literary movement, we would be some offshoot of the Quakers; everyone gets to have their moment, their say.
The crowd nodding off to sleep in that hotel conference room full of tweed and carpets call to mind the Catholic Mass, with its absurd hierarchies, peculiar outfits, and me there in the midst of it all trying not to smirk.
One of the featured readers at a recent Over The Edge: Open Reading is a young woman, just turned twenty, who first joined one of my poetry workshops four years ago while she was recovering from having deliberately jumped off a motorway bridge. She vanished for a bit after that term of workshops and then emailed me during the lockdown to ask if we could meet to discuss her poetry – she had been writing again, she said.
I said of course, when the Covid restrictions allowed, we must meet for coffee and she must bring some copies of her new poems. She said this wouldn’t be possible as she was only allowed out of the psychiatric unit at University Hospital Galway, where she was detained having almost died of an eating disorder, for half an hour each day, and she was not allowed, by order of court, to leave the hospital grounds. All of this is in the public domain, and she has written about her experiences.
I said I would come and meet her in the hospital grounds. We met, and sat on the grass outside the door of the psychiatric unit and discussed her new poems while two psychiatric nurses watched us from the door. One of the nurses said to her as I approached: “Yer man looks like a poet alright”.
I gave her some editing suggestions and came up with a few places where she might submit her poems for publication. She was a featured reader alongside a poet who has published three collections, and did great. Everyone was talking about her reading afterwards. She read for the same fifteen minutes Denis O’Driscoll and Medbh McGuckian read for.
Of course it is not because I am a good person that I organise literary readings. I do so because I am a poet myself. And also because I have a compulsive need to change things for what, I think, is the better.
Many poets who go into organising/“curating” events or become publishers tend in time to cease to really be active poets. I knew I had avoided this fate, and made it as a poet when, in 2013, I gave a reading on the floor of the AWP Conference in Boston; then headed to Amherst, Massachusetts to do another reading there.
While in Amherst I rather embarrassingly developed a pretty grossly distended testicle, which was an offshoot of a kidney infection I got because of the autoimmune disease I am beset with. I carried my swollen testicle onto a bus from Amherst to Springfield, Massachusetts then onto another bus to Boston and then put it on a plane to Dublin, along of course with the rest of me. Back in Galway, having visited a doctor and shown her the nature of my problem, I then did another poetry reading that evening, as I was scheduled to do, and then immediately took my testicle home to rest it.
Only real poets have to overcome such obstacles, I told myself, as I lay there in the bed and thought about the post-reading curried chips I was missing out on that night.
I was born in the UK, in London in 1967, though my parents were both from rural County Galway. We moved to Coventry, in the English West Midlands in 1970. I started school there the following year, when the Secretary of State for Education was one Margaret Hilda Thatcher who later went on to greater (or some would say worse) things. We moved back to Galway in 1974, just after I made my First Holy Communion in June 1974 at Sacred Heart Church on Harefield Road, next door to our school. Those years in Coventry are, in my mind, the years of my golden childhood.
after Cathy Song
I think when we die I go back to Coventry,
a version where it’s permanently 1973.
Where my cousin, Mary, is permanently five
and not yet our accountant.
We play cowboys and Indians
with small, plastic figurines who ride
tiny plastic horses. And the world is exactly
as it should be.
Where I’m permanently the miniature man
in the passenger seat of my Dad’s van
as we roar up the A45
to our weekly Thursday evening shop
at the One Stop on the verge of Birmingham.
Where I’m permanently playing
for the first time Sean South of Garryowen,
slightly out of sync with the others,
on my new button accordion
on the big stage at the Kerryman’s Club.
Where I’m permanently tumbling backwards
through the kitchen door’s glass
for the Sunday evening entertainment
of the entire family
and acquiring the one scar
that’s on the outside.
Where the old lady at the end of our street
is permanently putting
Vote Conservative in her front window
and I have no need to hate her.
The car factories down the road –
Rolls Royce, Chrysler, Jaguar –
are, in any case, permanently ruining
every other day for her
by walking “all out!”, on a show of hands.
The Secretary of State for Education
is permanently Margaret Hilda Thatcher, and despite
her technically being in charge of boys my size,
I’ve never heard of her.
Where I’m permanently learning my first few focail
in preparation for our return
to the place Mom and Dad call home.
I’m permanently correcting my tutor
for putting County Clare
in the wrong province of Connacht,
and at the age of barely six
am disgustingly pleased with myself.
Where everyone in our family
is still miraculously
talking to everyone else.
And the world is permanently
as it should be.
Though the reality in the world immediately beyond mine was anything but golden. There were proportionally more strikes in the car factories around Coventry and Birmingham in those years than at any other time in UK history. And the IRA campaign in Britain was intense in the West Midlands at that time. I learned to play the button accordion in lessons I took at the Kerryman’s Club, which was a big gathering point for the Irish in Coventry. The only tune I ever really learned off by heart was Roddy McCorley, also sometimes called ‘Sean South of Garryowen’. I only played the tune, and the words weren’t sung.
The original words of Roddy McCorley were replaced by those of the new version ‘Sean South’, in memory of an IRA volunteer of that name who was killed in a clash with the RUC during the IRA’s unsuccessful 1957 border campaign. I am sure I must have played that tune for at least a couple of MI5 agents who had to have been in attendance at the Kerryman’s Club in those years, if they were doing their job.
It was my first politico-cultural subversive act, though I wasn’t aware it at the time. I remember when we were coming back to live here we had sent most of the furniture ahead of us in a big van but we carried a big plastic bag full of my Dinky cars with us. At customs at Birmingham airport I put the bag down on the desk and it made a big metally rattle. The woman who was checking our bags jumped back in fright, clearly thinking the bag maybe contained something else of a metallic nature. They were jittery times. Though I didn’t mind.
The big difference when we got to Galway was there was much less to watch on television and there were no girls in our school. My school in Coventry had been a Catholic one but had both boys and girls. I have always been very much in favour of females. I think without females things become grey very quickly, especially institutions.
My school years in Galway were grey. Not a happy time. But then most people’s teenage years are not exactly happy. When I was ten I had what I now realise was my first political thought. We watched the series Roots on TV, we were living in the Rahoon Flats at the time. I vividly remember a scene in one of the later episodes when one of the black characters, a man, was being chased by three members of the Ku Klux Klan. One of them chased him down a dead end. But he managed to cut the KKK guy’s throat and escape. I was delighted.
I think ever since then I have more or less believed that political change won’t come by solely democratic, mainstream means. Which doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t vote, and all that. But it isn’t enough.
Within five years of watching that episode of Roots I was (at fifteen) a very active member of the Trotskyist group the Militant Tendency which at that point operated in both the Irish and British Labour Parties.
My link to the UK was still strong. My uncle Mick, my Mom’s brother, who had just moved back to Galway with his family from Coventry where he had worked in the Rolls Royce factory, explained to me what socialism was/is one evening in 1981. And I thought it sounded like a great idea.
It was the era of the rise to prominence of Tony Benn whose 1981 campaign for the Deputy Leadership of the British Labour Party was managed by Jeremy Corbyn. Unemployment was soaring in Ireland and in the UK, the golden age was over and Thatcher and Reagan were in power.
At the age of not quite seventeen I was elected Chair of Galway West Labour Youth. Our Labour TD in Galway was Michael D Higgins who was then seen as very much a left-wing radical, opposed to them going into coalition with Fine Gael.
In June 1984 I went on the huge demo in Galway against the visit of Ronald Reagan to Galway, during which UCG (now NUIG) gave Reagan an honorary degree; the following week a group of us went to a demonstration against a march by the National Front in Coleraine in the North. The UDA threw stones at our bus. It was great fun.
Later, I continued my activism when I moved to London in 1988. I was Chair of Enfield Against The Poll Tax in North London, and was very involved in that campaign.
In 1991, at the age of 24, I was expelled from the British Labour Party both for being a member of Militant (which had been banned by the Labour Party by then) and for my involvement in the poll tax non-payment campaign which, they said, amounted to “sustained activity to bring the Labour Party into disrepute”.
I did a little dance on the steps of Labour Party HQ after I was expelled. I was delighted. Such witch hunts are always inherently comical, as well of course as more than a bit tragic.
I know that in the United States you can’t exactly be expelled from either of the main parties in quite this way. But just think Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and you’re in the right territory for this.
There is always a committee, they always take themselves monumentally seriously, and they usually ask you some version of “are you or have you ever been?”.
Exactly twenty-four years later to the day after my expulsion, on 12 September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader with my vote, I had rejoined as an overseas member, which I was entitled to as I was born in the UK, to vote for him.
Towards the end of last year I was expelled from the British Labour Party again, this time for publishing the poem below in the magazine Socialist Appeal, which has lately been banned by the new party leadership.
I was expelled for publishing a poem about the absurdity of the sort of investigations which expel people. It is perhaps the greatest honour I could possible receive as a satirical poet.
Being expelled twice puts me in a seriously elite group; in fact I don’t know of anyone else who has managed to be expelled twice. If I live another thirty years, perhaps I’ll manage to be expelled again? I certainly hope so.
Each witch hunt is a tribute act to the last.
There is always a committee of three.
The gravity in the room is such
they struggle to manoeuvre
the enormity of their serious
faces in the door.
Except in the TV version,
there is hardly ever a microphone.
Though they will usually give you
a glass of water and, if you ask,
tea in a slightly chipped cup.
The better quality of witch hunt
will provide you with a plate
of sandwiches which, these days,
would likely include
coeliac and vegan options.
One member of the panel interviewing you
is always a man with a shaky voice
who obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing.
His wife thinks he’s at the garden centre.
Another is a woman trying
on a posh accent for size
who looks like she’s dreaming
of killing you
in some way that would give her
It is written,
somewhere deeper than law,
that no such committee
shall ever be constituted
unless it contains
at least one ex-hippy.
There is always the moment
when a pile of typed pages emerge
from an already opened envelope,
and one of them asks you:
how, then, do you explain this?
And the three of them sit there,
pretending it’s a real question.
And you realise this committee is history
paying you the huge compliment
of making you (and people like you)
the only item on the agenda;
that in asking you about what you said,
did, or typed on the mentioned dates,
they reveal themselves
like the black tree at the bottom of the garden
that only shows its true self in winter.
Ever since I started writing, in 1995/96, I have, to some extent, thought of myself as an infiltrator at large in the poetry world. I have always tried to take a double-sided approach to the poetry world. I refuse to unnecessarily concede territory to the pseudo-genteel types who think the poetry world – which in Ireland means hundreds of thousands of Euro in government money – belongs to people who write and think like them.
But also I don’t think one should be confined by, or allow oneself to be defined by, the existent literary world. So, I try to be an agent of change.
I also don’t have much time for those who complain about what isn’t being done but never try and make anything happen themselves; they remind me of old ladies who love complaining about their ailments but whenever a course of treatment is prescribed toddle off and try to get a second opinion, and then another twelve opinions after that.
My role as a literary organiser, about which more later, has been to always try and make happen the thing that no one else is exactly doing. I also take this approach to my own work as a poet. I have never had any interest in being a poet who is only read by other poets. But I do still submit poems to mainstream literary journals which are read mostly by poetry specialists. I no longer really have to do this; I have long since served my poetry ‘apprenticeship’.
I remember thinking around about 2010/11 that I had at that stage had poems published in pretty much all of the prestigious poetry publications in Ireland. And I now have a fairly wide readership outside the poetry journals.
But I refuse to accept that the space in poetry magazines is the sole property for the own use and benefit of what I call the posh poets.
At the same time, one needs to do one’s own thing, or one risks being defined by the sort of criteria which the posh little poets apply in an effort to make themselves look at least a little bit big.
Since about 2013 I have put a huge amount of effort into publishing my more topical poems in non-poetry specialist publications, both online and in print.
I never write a poem with a particular publication in mind. But once a poem is written I do put a bit of thought into where to initially send said poem.
I have tried, and had some success, to make my poetry part of a variety of left-wing political campaigns. It’s not that I think poetry changes the world, but I do think the world urgently has to change and that as that change is born – and its birth is clearly going to be a very difficult one – then a culture will grow up in parallel which supports and reinforces that change.
Since about 2013 I have worked to break out of the very restrictive, self-referential space the official poetry world can be. I was satirist-in-residence at The Bogman’s Cannon alternative literary blog in 2015 and 2016, during which time I successfully managed to alienate many of the right people.
Recently, I have regularly published poems on the satirical news site Broadsheet.ie and in Village.
By throwing off the potential poetry world straightjacket I have also found space to publish several poems satirising the Irish literary world itself, something hardly anyone else does.
I know some people think I have, to paraphrase Freddie Mercury, gone slightly mad over the past few years, but I am having great fun. And when I glimpse some of the monuments to their own sad egos who waddle about the place clinging for their tiny lives to the label ‘serious poet’, I think I’ve gone the right way.
They try to ignore you but from time to time something happens that makes you realise you are living rent free in their heads. And in terms of my ‘career’, it seems to be working.
I was delighted, and more than a little amused to hear the other week, that I received almost a dozen nominations for the esteemed position of Ireland Chair of Poetry. I don’t expect to get it this time. But eventually, to avoid embarrassment, the establishment will be forced to bestow a few kisses on my bottom. And I look forward to that. At my age – I turn 55 in April – one must take what pleasure comes one’s way.
Whenever I’m asked what sort of writer I am, the word “infiltrator” floats back. I have always felt like that, to a certain extent. For a time, after my second collection Time Gentlemen, Please was published in 2008, I thought I had found a way of making my peace with the mainstream lit-world which was happy enough to welcome me as a kind of charming, unthreatening reminder of a more politically engaged (they would say ‘idealistic’) age.
But, slowly, things as they have become post-2008 have put paid to all that. I think the world is in an incredibly dangerous place now.
There is a lot of talk about Russian oligarchs; I’m equally worried about Irish oligarchs, and American oligarchs, and British oligarchs.
The level of economic inequality has reached dangerous levels. Not to mention the coming climate catastrophe (or for that matter the greatly increased possibility of nuclear war).
In light of all this, the mainstream literary world seems to me to be a stunningly complacent place, laughably so a lot of the time. And the way it has spent the past few years manically dressing itself up in a kind of fake anti-racism, pseudo-feminism, and pretend LGBTQ+ advocacy in an effort to give itself a radical edge to hide its pretty chronic conformism is more than a little bit funny.
Of late I see myself as a writer in the Swift/ Brecht vein who finds the world right now a darkly thrilling place but the literary world about as exciting as a bout of constipation which seems determined to continue.
And of course in Ireland, given the governmental relationship with the arts, it’s a kind of state funded constipation.
When I go to literary festivals now, or observe them from afar, they so remind me of what it was like to be made go to Mass each Sunday as a young teenager and be surrounded by people who you knew couldn’t possibly believe the things they pretended to, if they thought about it for a minute, which most of them didn’t.
The mainstream literary world for the most part is intellectually dead, any sparks of light are at the fringes. And this is not just the case in Ireland, the UK and USA appear to be a different version of the same thing. There are a lot of frightened little people trying to create impressions.
I think right now I’m in revolt against all that. When I am hopeful I write the more politically engaged sort of satire that I’ve become known for. When I think they should just get on with it and drop the bomb and have done with it, I write poems like the one I published last year outlining the ten principles of the new world religion I plan to set up and make myself supreme leader of.
The Ten Great Wisdoms
Wit is a cocktail
in which the final ingredient
is a pair of scissors in the eye.
Patience is a wasp
wrestling a Bristol United supporter
for the last glass of cider in all Gloucestershire.
Reliability is a car with arthritis
and no steering wheel
on Corkscrew Hill.
Opinion is a dildo
made of several different flavours of ice-cream.
Politics is the choice between a cod-piece
that never fulfils its promise,
and a fridge full of amputated hands
that always keeps its.
Respite is HP Sauce,
or what you hope is HP Sauce,
and old episodes of Dr Who
in the Home for The Funny Peculiar.
Clarification is a debate between a watermelon
and an AK47 on a tablecloth so white
the Ku Klux Klan tried to steal it.
Discretion is a body which, impressively,
has not yet been found.
Your face, wondering where all this is going,
is the main street of a town
the day it’s everybody’s funeral
Truth is a paper-cut
no one but you knows is there.
Other times, when I get a dose of the political blues – and there’s a lot for a fifty-five-year-old Marxist with bad lungs to be blue about right now – I write poems about, among other things, the imagined aesthetic pleasure of sniffing other people’s underwear.
after Tim Emlyn Jones
Drink whiskey not because you think
it’ll fix your personality
but because the first sip always tastes
like the best glass of smoke available
this side of Hell, and makes your throat dream
of tomorrow morning’s pint
glass of water helping down
the greasiest bacon sandwich
in the history of grease.
Treat yourself to the occasional cigar
not because anyone’s granny said
there’s nothing like it
to clear out your lungs
but because, in a certain light –
namely the dark – it makes you look like
Che Guevara, if he’d lived
to lose ninety per cent of his hair.
Embrace the bitterness
of black tea without a single grain of sugar,
drink disgustingly strong coffee,
let it tarnish all your teeth.
And never sniff a bed sheet
or pair of knickers
for anything other than the sheer
aesthetic thrill of it.
I’ve never done most of the things described in that poem. But I bet those Irish poets who never write about such things do it all the time. Lucky bastards!
So my sense of myself as a writer is as someone who combines Marxism with sometimes writing poems about sniffing knickers. There should be an entire literary (or perhaps a psychotherapy) festival dedicated to finding the connection between the two. The social gatherings afterwards would be great craic.
I have made my living from poetry for the past twenty years. A rare enough thing, I know. I am an extremely dogged person once I get going down a particular path. And, despite some of my apparent raving in this article, I really like people. So myself and Susan [Millar DuMars], who is unlucky enough to be married to me, have kind of invented a template by which we make our living from teaching a wide variety of writing workshops.
I very much specialise in poetry. And, like most most self-employed people, I know I work myself too hard.
A crucial part of what we do is provide participants in our writing workshops with a platform via the Over The Edge readings we co-organise. We have found a way of making a living by making happen the things that no one else locally is exactly doing and sticking to it so it keeps on happening.
Next year we celebrate twenty years since the first Over The Edge: Open Reading. I am extremely lucky to have lived the life I have, I know that more and more as I go on.
Galway city where we as a family moved when I was seven years old, and to which I returned from London in 1994, is one of the subjects in my poetry. When was a teenager I found it, as I’ve said, a grey place. Then when I came back here from London in 1994, Galway was hitting its groovy phase.
A real Galwegian
Because when you watch the woman
sitting next to you writing an e-mail
in what looks like Korean, or find yourself asking
someone called Candy from Saskatchewan
for two bagels with cream-cheese,
it occasionally still hits you; how it’s
like the blink of an eyelid since, down this street,
the coffee was rotten, and a night out
just a pint of sad Smithwicks eventually
emerging in a withered hand
from a back-street hatch, a barman telling
a complaining Yank how the lock broken
on that toilet door has been that way
for nearly twenty years, and not
a single shit stolen yet.
Being a Galway person means I know all the scandals that have been hushed up, I know where many of the bodies are buried, and may even have, metaphorically speaking of course, buried one or two myself. Or at least had someone bury them for me.
Susan says it takes years for a real outsider – she grew up in Philadelphia – to decode the winks and nods which Galway often uses to mask its reality.
When you have grown up here, you know that code all too well. You also see how drastically the place has changed.
The saddest, and most angering, thing right now is the way the housing crisis, with rents soaring over €1,500, and cuts in social welfare for young people have made the path we took inaccessible to young writers now.
Galway is becoming a place that is so expensive to live in many young people just pass through it, to a certain extent leaving us with the old and the posh as main permanent residents. It would not be easy for a slightly disgraceful poet like me from a not very wealthy background like mine to make it in Galway right now.
This essay was originally commissioned by New Hibernia ReviewThe Journal of the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota.