Wake: Up to Poetry
An Interview with Frank Ormsby on The Darkness of Snow
Frank Ormsby’s The Darkness of Snow is new this month, so WFU Press interns gathered to ask the poet more about the collection. Written in five parts, the poems explore vast territory from Ormsby’s childhood in Fermanagh, to life with Parkinson’s, to the difficulty of bearing witness in the face of atrocity. Here, the poet discusses poetic friendships, recurring themes in his poetry, and the anti-muse.
WFU Press: The title of the book comes from the last line of your poem “Storms,” a series of stanzas about havoc wreaked upon a plantation and its inhabitants. In the final stanza, the storm approaches the poet: “an apprentice blizzard, / wind-muscled, crazy, packed with the darkness of snow.” Why did you choose this title for the collection?
Ormsby: I like paradoxes because they have a kind of fidelity to the complex nature of existence. The internal checks and balances counter the impulse to over-simplify. I was also aware that images of darkness and light and of snow, in particular, would be a feature of the collection. Furthermore, Michael Longley gave it the thumbs up as a title!
In other interviews, you mention that it took time to be able to write about your Parkinson’s disease, but that you then felt liberated by the process. What finally allowed you to make poems about your experience of Parkinson’s?
The use of black humor gave the Parkinson’s poems an initial impetus, even though some of the earlier poems did not survive into the finished sequence. I enjoyed writing them and was able to persevere. Most of the poems were written in May and June of 2014, often at the rate of one or more a day. They generated an infectious energy that kept me focused.
We meet an unnamed speaker in “Crows Again” who complains about the recurrence of crows in your poems, perhaps second only to mentions of death. And in fact, crows often symbolize death in literature, which is maybe part of the joke. The poem is a good example of how you write about the subject with a mix of humor, nostalgia, and solemnity. Could you comment on the presence of death in your poetry and if it has changed over the years?
Death has been a key theme in all my collections, more often than not in the many elegies for my father, who died when I was twelve. (See “My Father Again” in The Darkness of Snow.) I don’t think my attitude to death has changed over the years. Death has always been and remains a melancholy presence. I wrote an (unpublished) tongue-in-cheek poem about the prevalence of death in my poetry.
The minute he knew death
had become his subject
he closed the big notebook
and dashed for the door.
There at the door was death
with his big notebook
and the smile of one who knows
he has found his subject.
Does the dark humor cancel out the oppressive element? The “he” of the poem wants to escape, as the title and the dash for the door suggest. But though he is, in a way, trapped, he does not seem unduly worried (maybe I am enjoying the formal structuring of the poem more than fearing death). An external reader might be the best commentator here.
I think of the unnamed speaker in “Crows Again” as a kind of anti-muse. She appears in a number of other (unpublished) poems complaining much more aggressively about the amount of snow in my poems and my obsession with gates and my fondness for the middle of fields. It gets to the point where I decide that I cannot show her my “rain poems” and indicate that I am looking for a new muse! I think of her as a comic sub-plot. “Crows Again” is the only one in this group that works as a poem, which is why the others will remain unpublished. Maybe “Crows Again” does embody a tentative recognition that death is a stronger presence than I would want it to be.
The middle section contains 26 poems about Irish paintings, some of which are written in the voice of the person looking at the painting, while others are written in the voice of the painting’s subject. Why did you include a section entirely about art, and how did you choose these particular paintings?
The section on Irish paintings goes back to an exhibition I attended in the Ulster Museum in the mid 1980s. I bought the catalogue (The Irish Impressionists: Irish Artists in France and Belgium 1850–1914 by Julian Campbell) and it gathered dust on my shelves for decades. We have a reproduction of John Lavery’s painting Under the Cherry Tree hanging in one of our rooms and it drew me back to the catalogue. I began to write poems based on the paintings and found the experience totally absorbing. My love of Impressionism fed the excitement, as did the enjoyment of inventive, paintings-based poems such as those in Paul Durcan’s collections Give Me Your Hand (1994), which was inspired by paintings in the National Gallery of London, and Crazy About Women (1991), published by the National Gallery of Ireland.
The choice of different voices was deliberate, and I take considerable liberties with some of the paintings, speculating, for example, about the figures in some paintings and imagining their lives. The paintings are all reproduced in the catalogue. The fact that they became a section of the book was due almost entirely to the way they exerted a natural pressure to be written. Occasionally they yielded links with themes elsewhere in the collection. Joseph Malachy Kavanagh’s painting Pursuing His Gentle Calling contains an image of “the way your dead father might surface / and oblige you to lose and bury him over and over.”
The final section, “The Willow Forest,” uses multiple viewpoints to tell the story of the trial of an accused person who has committed an atrocity in an unnamed village. Though the details feel specific, you never mention a place or names. Instead, we encounter the characters as generic “Witness” or “Accused” or “Interpreter.” Did you write this sequence with a specific historic event in mind?
No, I didn’t. I began writing it when we were on holiday in Croatia, and the whole atmosphere of the poem seems to me Balkan. I had memories of watching the trials of Balkan war criminals on TV, and around the time I wrote “The Willow Forest” there was much discussion in Northern Ireland about how to define a “victim” and about the possibilities of establishing a Truth Commission. I’m speculating that these were among the elements that fueled the poems. I kept the characters generic to give them a universal dimension and left some events murky (what part exactly was played by the undertaker’s son?) to suggest that the exact truth will remain elusive. As soon as I started writing, the narrative and the characters re-generated themselves for the 8–10 days it took to write the poems. As was the case with the painting poems, I was able to step freshly into the world of the poem every day.
You dedicate the book to Michael Longley “whose book this also is” and describe the “post-war ripening” of your long friendship in one of the poems. Can you tell us about your friendship with Michael Longley and other poets you mention by name in your book? How have they shaped your career, and how have these relationships changed over time?
When I came to Belfast as a student in 1966, I quickly became immersed in the creative life of the university area. The focal points were the Writers’ Group run by Seamus Heaney, The English Society at Queen’s University, which had regular poetry readings followed by gatherings in various pubs, and The Honest Ulsterman, edited by Michael Foley and me. Literary friendships flourished. My closest friends at the time were Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon and Conor Macauley, a colleague in the English Department at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (R.B.A.I. or Inst.) for over thirty years. I got to know Michael Longley when he was Literature Officer at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He was a staunch supporter of The Honest Ulsterman, which I edited at the time and which depended heavily on financial support from the Arts Council.
Later we met frequently for lunch in The Crown Bar and exchanged and discussed new poems. Some 25 or 30 years later, we continue to talk poetry, sport, politics, and much else. Medication has begun to replace poetry at the top of the agenda.
The same may be said of my friendships with Ciaran Carson and Conor Macauley. Meetings with Ciaran tend to be at literary events or when we go walking for health reasons in the Waterworks Park in North Belfast. Since Paul Muldoon settled in North America, I see very little of him. Still, I love them all and consider it one of the highlights of my life to have had such creative and intelligent and funny people as lifelong friends.
Frank Ormsby was the Head of English at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and taught for more than 30 years. He also served as editor of the Poetry Ireland Review and The Honest Ulsterman. He has published seven volumes of poetry and edited several anthologies. In 1992, he received the Cultural Traditions Award, given in memory of John Hewitt, and in 2002 he was given the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry. He is now retired, and co-edits the poetry journal The Yellow Nib with Leontia Flynn.
Ormsby’s newest collection, The Darkness of Snow, was published on October 1st.