Interview with Kevin McDermott

Tell me about the background of your poem, ‘The Great Blasket Island’.

The idea for ‘The Great Blasket Island’ came after watching a documentary by Muiris MacConaghaill on RTE television about islanders coming back (as in the poem) to see the houses where they grew up. The government had decided that the logistics for food/doctors/schools had become too difficult and that it would be more practical for everyone to move to the mainland.

It was extremely sad to watch the islanders as they went to their childhood houses and spoke about their lives on the island. It occurred to me then that this same scenario happened with most families as the children grew up and moved away. That you would go back as an adult to the house you grew up in and find it had all changed. Lots of families I know, including my own, became very dispersed with everyone living far away from each other and that was another factor I was talking about. It would be nice to think that this poem might speak for the new immigrants to Ireland also…

Your most recent book, The Book of Whispers, is written for young adults. Are children and young adults your preferred audience?

I’m not sure that I have a preferred audience. When you are trying to write poetry any audience is welcome! The Book of Whispers was quite an odd project because it came out of pure inspiration and was written very quickly. I had taken part in a very noisy poetry reading for children at a big theatre in London and it seemed to me that noise was all wrong for poetry. I think it should be a haven of quietness where you can hear yourself think.

My next book will be a selection of my adult poetry called Tell Me This is Normal – it will be out in the Spring of 2008.

You grew up in Chicago. What kind of childhood did you have?

I grew up in a big wooden house in what had once been in a rural part of Illinois. By the time my family came to live there – a hundred years later, in 1959 – it was part of the outskirts of Chicago. It had a big hay barn behind it to remind us all of what the area used to be like. We lived about five minutes from the beach on Lake Michigan and we spent all summer swimming and playing in the sand. I went to Elementary School (Primary) at St Ignatius Catholic School – Irish-Americans and children with Italian and Spanish names went there. I imagine it wasn’t a million miles away from the kind of school we might have attended in Ireland. I went to that school from the ages of 5 to 14. Our teachers were nuns from the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus. I was a member of the school choir and we gave lots of concerts and plays. Our school was big on playing basketball and we had a basketball tournament every year which was very important to us. It was the highlight of our school year. We had school Mass every Sunday – which was compulsory. Attendance was taken and a note was needed if you missed it.

My parents had seven children within ten years. I was the second child and the oldest girl, with quite a few chores to do (most of which involved watching children!). My parents were readers but didn’t really have much time to sit and read. My father, in the early days, was a High School teacher of English in the Chicago Public School system. He encouraged us to read. We used to go to the library a lot and sit looking through the children’s section to find the right book for us.

What are your earliest memories of reading?

I remember the early picture books very vividly. I loved the Madeline books (”Miss Clavelle turned out the light”) and I was a fan of the Babar books about a rather suave elephant and his family. One book which I loved when I was a little bit older was a book called Misty of Chincateague Island by Marguerite Henry. I wanted to go and watch the wild ponies being rounded up like in the story.

Did you have a favourite subject?

English was always my best subject – I enjoyed it more than any other class. That was probably because I was quite good at writing the stories and little articles we had to do for homework.

Was there a particular moment when you decided to become a writer?

I never really actually made a decision to be a writer – it all just happened. One moment which pushed me in that direction was when a High School teacher told us to write a poem for homework. Since we studied hardly any poetry, I only had a very vague notion about what a poem could be. I went home and wrote a poem in the shape of a tree – the branches were the various lines of the poem. Why I did that I have no idea – maybe it was because I was missing the elm tree that the City of Chicago had chopped down outside our house and it seemed like a good way to bring it back. The next day the teacher held up my poem to the class and told them that it was amazing poem and that I should write more. So I continued with poems in the shapes of cockroaches/pizzas/my hand/the sun/moon and this particular teacher said I should keep writing poetry. But I never wished to be a poet. It really is a mystery to me how that came about.

Who has influenced you most in your writing?

The person who has influenced my writing in the most profound way has been my husband Dennis O’Driscoll. He has been the best of teachers and editors. If a poem gets past his eye, I am always thrilled and happy. But it isn’t an easy thing to live up to his standards. It seems like a fairytale to me that we ever met and I am not sure I would have continued writing if I hadn’t met him. He just knows everything about poetry, and for someone like me who never did much poetry at school, it is a mystery how we ever met and stayed together. I literally owe him everything: books, publishers, readings, ideas, finished poems.

I try to learn from and love to read writers such as Czeslaw Milosz, Pablo Neruda, Chinese and Japanese Classical Poetry, early Irish Poetry written in monasteries, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift, Robert Hass, James Schuyler, John Berryman – but these are just some of the poets I love. One of the younger American poets I have been reading is Dean Young.

Do you think being a reader is important for a writer?

It would be impossible, really, to hope to be an artist or a painter or a composer without absorbing what the earlier generations had created – so reading is the most important part of learning how to be a poet. It also teaches you how extremely difficult it is to write a worthwhile poem.

What do you enjoy most about writing? What do you find hardest?

I enjoy the feeling of being so focused and oblivious to the outside world that time literally disappears and what might actually have been hours seems like a few minutes because things are going so well… That situation happens when you have a great idea and you’re trying so hard to get it down into a perfect blast of poetry. I always need to hurry in case something happens – the doorbell rings or I remember something I was supposed to be doing.

The hardest part about writing poetry is to keep doing it even when no one seems to care or you can’t think of any interesting ideas. It isn’t a popular art like novel-writing and most people can’t support themselves on the money they get from their poems. So you have to love it and keep telling yourself to sit down and have a go – even when it seems useless to keep trying. And, while it’s necessary to be hyper-sensitive when you write, you need to keep a tougher skin for when you head out into the world again.

Is Ireland a good place to be a writer?

Ireland must be about the best place in the world to write poetry. Irish people are taught to value poetry (even if they don’t exactly love reading it) and that makes such a huge difference because the people around you think it cool to be writing. Poetry in Ireland comes from an ancient tradition and it’s part of the culture. You don’t have to apologise for it. I can’t think of a better place to be writing.

What advice would you give to a young writer?

I only know how writing happened to me and that was like this: I sat and wrote – I have no idea why. I got a very little bit of early encouragement and after that I just always did it. My only advice would be to read as many different kinds of poetry as possible: all eras, countries, types. If you need to write – you will. It isn’t something that can be forced. I had no childhood dreams of being a writer, but I woke up one day to find I had published my first book.

‘The Great Blasket Island’ is on the list of Leaving Certificate prescribed poetry, Ordinary Level, for examination in 2009. Julie has worked in schools with Poetry Ireland’s Writers-in-Schools scheme.
Interview first published in Teaching English magazine, Autumn 2007