Wake: Up to Poetry
“Looser, Freer, and a Bit Wilder”: An Interview with Conor O’Callaghan
Conor O’Callaghan’s newest book of poetry Live Streaming has just been published in North America, and for months we’ve been anxiously awaiting this exciting release. O’Callaghan has been busy giving readings for the book, most recently here in the US, where he went coast to coast visiting five states in five days before returning home to England. WFU Press intern Maddie Baxter caught him via Skype at the tail-end of this trip to ask him a few questions about the book, his process, and the personal nature of this extraordinary new collection.
Check out the video interview below, or read on for the full transcript.
Maddie Baxter: Let’s spend your Friday evening the right way by talking about your new book Live Streaming. So, basically, before we get started, I just wanted to open it up to you and ask you to talk about your book, your identity as a writer, how you got started putting together this book, just anything you think is important for a listener to know about yourself and your work as a poet and a writer.
Conor O’Callaghan: So I published a book in 2013 called The Sun King, and to be honest, after I published The Sun King, I kind of thought to myself—I’m done. I’m done with poetry. Not that I disliked poetry or was terribly disenchanted, it was more that I felt completely maxed out. And after 2013, I didn’t publish anything really, I just wrote a few poems. I wrote a handful of poems, and then I was working on a novel. So I was working on this novel, Nothing on Earth, from 2012 to 2016 and, to be honest, I was genuinely very excited about that as a form. I’d never done it before and I was really excited about it as a writer.
But I still found myself with these 15-odd poems that I had written in the margins of the novel and I wasn’t really sure what the hell I was gonna do with them. My publisher in Ireland wrote to me and said, “Are you still going to send me a manuscript at the end of 2017?” And I said, “Wha??” And he said, “Well you promised me a manuscript at the end of 2017,” and I said, “Oh God.” So, initially I was inclined to say no, not gonna happen. And then I thought, “Oh, what the hell, let’s just go for it.” Because I suppose in the past, if I felt I had a failing as a writer, it would be that the poems felt too worked, too kind of carefully finished. I had always gravitated towards writing something looser, freer and a bit wilder. That was definitely the case at the end of The Sun King. There was a long sequence called “The Pearl Works” that was a bit crazy, and I was pleased with that.
So I sat down and I kinda knew I had about 20 to 25 pages to fill out to make it an average book length of a poetry collection. And I wrote this long, mad thing about my late father, who had died in 2013. I had never written anything about him, apart from one poem that also appears in Live Streaming. I had come across a play, a very bad 19th-century stage Irish farce called His Last Legs, in which the protagonist is an Irish drunk who’s estranged from his family and who has my father’s name: Felix O’Callaghan. So, you know, that became a point of access into all of this submerged material about my father.
So I decided to write this slightly odd, crazy thing that was an amalgamation of excerpts of the play, some bits and pieces that I wrote about my father, and also transcriptions of recordings that I made of myself going around my father’s house in the weeks after his death. He lived alone for 15 years, no one ever saw him for the last 15 years of his life. He lived alone in his mother’s house and had become semi-derelict, really. I borrowed the key and I went and looked around the house, and as I looked around the house I recorded myself describing very plainly what was in this house. And again, I never did anything with that, it was part of piecing together the stuff I transcribed those recordings. I edited them slightly, got out all of the hums and haws and ums, and decided to use some of those.
So that kind of completed the book. Having completed the book, I now find myself thinking, “Am I ever going to write another book of poems?” We’ll see, we’ll see.
MB: That’s so interesting and leads into another one of my questions. So here at the Press, when we have been discussing your book, we’ve always identified your poem “His Last Legs” as the sort of climax, the centerpiece of your book. So one of our questions was: had you written this piece before you wrote the rest of your book? But from what you just told me now, it sounds like you wrote this piece after.
CO’C: I wrote it after. It was the last thing I wrote for the book essentially. But, it was something that I kind of had in my head for a long time. My father was a very conspicuous absence in all of our lives, and I suppose on some level, I think every writer has some material that you think in the back of your head, “Someday I’m going to write about this.”
MB: You were talking about your father and the poem “His Last Legs.” I wanted to ask you about how this poem served to preserve the memory of your father and in what way does it change the memory of your father? But from what you’re telling me, it’s kind of sounding like in writing these poems, you’re kind of preserving this feeling of absence within your father.
CO’C: Yeah, it’s definitely, that’s a good question, it’s definitely not a process, I think, of preservation, because our father was such an absence. It was like a process, to be honest, of reconstruction of scraps of memories of our father. As I say, none of us had seen our father for the last 15 years of his life. He lived alone, not that far away. We kind of saw him at a distance, and at one point I passed him in the street and stuff, but there was certainly no contact for whatever reason. So, he was kind of, to be honest, largely a forgotten presence in our lives.
And I remember finding this tremendously frustrating at his funeral, that we were there, all of us, at his funeral, but because of the weird relationship that we had with our father, none of us were talking about him. It’s as if nobody could remember anything. It’s as if there was nothing there to preserve, just to come back to your question. And so the process of writing it was a process of some kind of reconstruction. And to be honest, I think my brothers were a bit horrified that I wrote it, but I also think they found it quite amusing. They did say to me, very generously, yeah, no I had forgotten all of that, I had forgotten these kinds of bits and bobs that you wrote down. I mean there’s nothing in it that’s not true, they would openly acknowledge that, but there’s definitely lots of stuff that was just kind of buried memory that was, in the parlance of the day, kind of recovered by my writing it. So I’m kind of glad I did it, I don’t intend ever to write about my father again, to be honest, but…
MB: But you knew that you had to at some point.
CO’C: Yeah, I did really. If I didn’t it would have been hanging out there for a long, long time. What was really interesting for me about it was the extent to which very few friends knew any of this about my father. I remember David Wheatley saying to me at the launch of the book—and I know David very well—and David saying, “I never knew this. I never knew any of this about your father.” And I know David’s father for example, he’s a very nice man, Tom, and I think he was shocked. So it was kind of like a hidden aspect of our life. And I suppose too there was, to be honest, an element of shame around our father that was this kind of weird thing that just never got mentioned. And only just the weirdness of the nature of the relationship, it just never got mentioned.
MB: And by writing a poem about your father, it’s kind of forcing people to acknowledge that.
CO’C: Yeah, yeah. But I mean my family have been terribly generous about it, I mean I think they were a bit anxious about it. There’s definitely stuff that was in earlier drafts that I thought better of, that I looked and I thought, I’m not gonna put that in, simply because it would be too much.
MB: So you were mentioning your brothers, and you dedicate Live Streaming to “my four brothers,” and as I was reading through this collection of your poetry I noticed that many of these poems navigate not only the familial but also a domestic sphere in your life. So I really just wanted to ask you: Where is home? And how do you fit home into your poetry and writing?
CO’C: Yeah, where is home, and how does home fit into poems? I don’t know, I don’t know. And when I say I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know where my home is.
MB: Is there a significance to that?
CO’C: Yeah, I think there’s a sort of, a placelessness and a rootlessness to my poetry. I mean there are lots of very good poets out there, both American and Irish, who are poets of a particular locale. That’s fine, that’s good, and in many respects, on a very personal human level, I envy that. But, I live in England, my mother lives in my hometown of Dundalk, I own an apartment in Dublin, my son lives in Moscow, and my daughter lives in New York. And I’m very tired most of the time because I tend to find myself moving between the two. I’ve just come back from two weeks in North America where I saw my daughter, I’m heading off to Dublin next week, and I am going to visit my son in Moscow in the first weekend of December. So I mean there’s a definite sense of kind of placelessness in relation to a particular location. I feel from Dundalk but I haven’t lived there in 30 years, and I don’t think I’ll ever live there again really. And I think in many respects that informs the poems, that there is a sense of displacement in the poems.
I suppose my last couple of books, I have definitely tried to mine that sense of displacement, rather than pretend, as I might have done in my earlier work, to be as rooted as other poets. I have stopped pretending to be that rooted and try to make something of that permanent sense of displacement and of homesickness. And I think in many respects, it’s kind of related to my father as well. When we’re homesick, very often we are homesick for our parents. My mother is still there in the house I grew up in but my father wasn’t there, so when my father died, I felt very sad, but I wasn’t really sad that he was dead. He was a bit of an idiot to be honest, but I was more sad that there wasn’t anything more substantial to miss. I feel the same way about home. I feel this kind of underlying, low-wattage, 24/7 homesickness for a home that is no longer there. I think that definitely informs the poems.
MB: Absolutely. It’s definitely understandable and obvious in your work. Your collection Live Streaming is glued together by themes of rawness and honesty, ranging from discussing familial deaths such as your father, but even in your poems about plums or a glass of water. So what is it like to approach everything in your life with seemingly this sense of equal emotional honesty? What does that emotional honesty gain you as an artist and also just as a human being?
CO’C: That’s another good question, and it’s a really hard one to answer. I suppose my poems, I would argue, are not quite as confessional as they might seem. I mean some of the poems that I have written probably seem more personal than they are. And again I’ve done some translations of poems by other poets, like a [Federico García] Lorca translation, for example, that was in The Sun King that is probably more personal than any of the poems that seem to be about me are. So, on some level, I think the poems are not quite as confessional as they seem.
I suppose too, at some point in my writing life, I got tired of throwing nice, delicate shapes. I got really bored of doing that. If I may say so myself, I was quite good at it, but it got sort of tedious, and I thought, on some level… Midway through writing The Sun King, I had a real breakthrough as a poet where I remembered that one of the real points of poetry is to tell the truth. And I think we forget that. I think we forget that on some level poetry has to be an utterance of the self. We’re saying, as a process of witness to your nearest and dearest and to yourself, “I was there and I know this happened. And I know you know this happened. And you know that I know that it happened. You can pretend all you want that this didn’t happen, but I’m not going to pretend with you.”
MB: Absolutely. As a poet myself, I really understand that. You have to write about the things that you know, and not only the things that you know, but the things that you’ve experienced, and that have been right in front of your eyes.
CO’C: I completely agree with that, but I also developed some kind of idea that—and I think this was a breakthrough in terms of writing fiction as well—that it sort of clarified a lot of ground. And I thought to myself, what we should write are the things we feel we shouldn’t write. That, you know, I have written some things in my life—even the piece about my father, “His Last Legs”—as I was writing it, I was thinking to myself, “You shouldn’t be doing this, you shouldn’t be doing this.”
MB: You shouldn’t, but you have to.
CO’C: But that sense of prohibition, of thinking, “I should not be doing this,” gives the writing process a frisson, a juice, that might not otherwise be present. And this thought process, you’re thinking, I shouldn’t be doing this.
MB: But I can’t stop myself, my fingers are just going!
CO’C: I know. Actually, not to be too coarse about this, so the composition of the poem is like having a love affair. You think, I shouldn’t be doing this but this is the most exciting thing I could possibly do. Whereas, very often, too often I think, we end up writing poems that we feel duty-bound to write, and I kind of think I’m over that, I’m done with that. I think there are a lot of good American poets at the moment, but I do feel like saying to a whole generation of poets, you know part of what we’re doing is to tell the truth. And if you forget that, then you might as well just stop doing it.
MB: See, that’s very interesting knowing that you’re a fiction writer yourself and fiction is inherently called “the telling of lies” and just constantly weaving these false narratives. So, I know when I write fiction, I’m constantly being inspired by things that actually, really happened to me, and I just change one tiny detail. So, knowing this about yourself, and knowing your poetic pull towards talking about truth and talking about things that actually happened to you in your life, did you find yourself doing that when writing fiction as well? Did you feel that need to be honest in your fiction writing?
CO’C: Well, honest in the emotional sense, yes. There’s nothing in the novel (which is a pretty creepy novel), there’s nothing in this novel that I have done or said or experienced. And yet, there is nothing in the novel that I can’t trace back to some source in my life, even if it’s just something somebody has said to me. But I mean just to come back to the point that I was making about translation—those things that are seemingly very personal are often not quite as personal as they seem. Those things that seem less personal are often more personal than they seem. A translation by a 1930s Spanish poet on the surface doesn’t seem that personal, but actually it was deeply personal. A novel about a ghost story really, that describes people who don’t exist and really don’t exist, felt oddly personal. It was a real kind of navigation or retracing of steps back through what was a very kind of strange and painful period of my life. It’s all complete fiction, but I think the beauty of fiction is, as opposed to poetry, that one can be more personal, be more confessional, and hide behind fiction.
MB: Yeah. I want to go back to something that you mentioned at the very beginning of our conversation, about how you went into writing Live Streaming with this intention to be looser, to have more fluidity with your poetry. But something I noticed when I was reading is that the forms of your poems change over and over throughout your book. I’m thinking specifically about your poems “The Swimming Pool” and “Soft Rock.” So I just wanted to ask you, at what point does the sense of form emerge in your writing process, and is it something that’s malleable, does it change?
CO’C: Yeah, I mean I think, in the past I would definitely have worked with an element of pre-ordained form, thinking okay I’m going to write a villanelle, I’m going to write a sonnet, and that what it’s going to be. I don’t really do that so much anymore and I try not to do that. I mean there is a poem about my father called “My Father Hangs Around the House Far More” that is much looser, just free verse. And I was deliberately trying to write something that was loose and free. There is one sequence that is in rhyming quatrains and there is one long poem at the end that is in iambic dimeter, and they were the earliest things that I wrote for the book, and at that point after I wrote those things I was so tired of rhymes, and I think I’m never going to rhyme again. The rhymes are the equivalent of going to the candy store and gorging yourself on all of these lovely sweeties, and by the end of it you feel slightly sick. I just want to write sort of loose and free stuff.
I’ve just done a tour with two young Irish women poets, Elaine Feeney and Jessica Traynor. And they were great, they were just fantastic. And what I really admired and envied in them was this kind of bull-in-a-China-shop approach that they took to form. They weren’t cosseted by this inheritance, this Yeatsian inheritance of the singing line. And it was just all over the place, and they were taking American models, and they were not remotely apologetic about this. And I thought to myself, wow, you go, you go do that. Seriously, I thought, that’s the way of the future, it’s not this kind of… I like the rhyming quatrains, I like Robert Frost, but it’s a thing of the past. It’s a fetish. It’s an antiquarian fetish.
MB: Just before we go, I wanted to ask you, since we know that you’re a frequent lecturer and that you’re constantly traveling, what do you think is the most important lesson or advice you would give to younger writers, people who are just starting to step into their poetic or fictional voice?
CO’C: I always think after teaching a course in an academic context, that the best thing that I can do for students would be to give them a t-shirt with the Nike logo “Just Do It.” You know, just do it. Writers who are writers, write. And writers who are not writers, talk about writing. And ultimately runners run, they don’t stand around talking about running. Runners run. I think, just do it.
The best piece of advice I ever heard from somebody else was from the American short story writer James Baldwin. He was asked by one of his students who was graduating, the student said to him, “Okay so I’m graduating, can you give me one final piece of advice?” And Baldwin said, “Whenever you find you can do something as a writer, stop doing it.” And I thought, yeah, he’s right. As writers, trying to write—heaven help us—real literature, as writers trying to write something as Frost says, “that they can’t get rid of too easily,” the job is not to be competent in what you know you can already do. The job is to actually find a whole new level of selfhood in which, in a way you never knew you were capable of.
MB: Well, I think that is a wonderful sentiment to end our conversation on. I just want to thank you so much for your time, for sitting in front of your computer and talking to us on your Friday evening. This was such a lovely conversation.
CO’C: It was fun. I’m going to go for a pint now.
MB: Amazing, you deserve it!