Three Interviews with Derek Mahon

Willie Kelly (1981) James A. Murphy (1991) William Scammell (1991)

Willie Kelly, [interview], ‘Each Poem for me is a New Beginning’, Cork Review, 2 (1981), pp.10-12, p.11:

I don’t think I have growth. I know modern poets are supposed to develop, show signs of technical novelity. although I’ve made deliberate efforts - perhaps too deliberate - to write a different kind of poety (not all of which have seen the light of day) I think I’m basically the kind of poet who doesn’ develo, who doesn’t change, who just writes in the same voice, with slight modifications and accretions of new tones of voice and new material. (p.11.)

Further, ‘I think there’s a sense in which the human race flatters itself, takes too much for granted its own status as the articulate centre of the universe. But I don’t think the inanimate world has had its due. Yet of course the human race is the articulate centre of the universe as far as we know. I’m speaking frankly as an atheist. I don’t [...] I don’t, as they say, believe in God. But I think ther is .. I think .. I’m using very big names here but I think I share with Yeats ... You know where he said in his Autobiographies that he had a religious nature, but the he was deprived of belief by his father’s scepticism, and so he turned to the occult. I don’t think I have a religious nature in that sense but I have a consciousness of things over and above, beside and below human life. I am deprived of belief in God, if deprivation it is, by my own rationalistic habits of mind, my own education, and yet there is [...] I make room for the numinous, for the unexplained.’ (p.11.)

‘[...] Heaney is very sure sense of what he’s about. I haven’t that certainty. Each poem for me is a new beginning. With Seamus each poem is an accretion, an addition, a further step along a known road. [... H]e is performing a task the dimensions of which seem to be fairly clear. He knows what he is about is the best way I can put it. I only know what I’m about when I’ve done it.’ (p.12)

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James A. Murphy, Lucy McDiarmid & Michael J.Durkan, ‘Q & A with Derek Mahon’, Irish Literary Supplement, 10, 2 (Fall 1991), pp.27-28:

‘Politically Northern Ireland shouldn’t exist,of course. I’ve been a United Irishman since I was about fourteen.;’ ‘I suppose home for me would be a little palace in County Antrim called Cushendun, where both my children were baptised. it sounds sentimental, but the Glens of Antrim are a little bit of “real Ireland”.’; ‘I would like to take this opportunity to correct a few misconceptions. First of all, I am not sophisticated, I am not cosmopolitan, I was not a member of Philip Hobsbaum’s fucking Belfast Group. I was in a different city. I was a member of my own group in Dublin. I went once to Philip’s group, and never again.’ Further, ‘[on changing the word cunt to twit in “Afterlives”]: ‘I discussed it hwith friends and it became apparent that it was an unacceptable use of the word, and ot perpetuate that use of the word would be invidious. It wasn’t a marketing decision, God forbid, merely good manners, if good manners have any place in literature.’ Further, ‘I think I’ve come to the end of structured forms. One of my latest, “The Yaddo Letter”, is very very and loose.’ Quotes Shelley: ‘the great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.’ Also quotes Francis Stuart, High Consistory: ‘The artist at his most ambitious does not seek to change maps but, minutely and over generations, the expression on some of the faces of men and women.’

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William Scammell, interview with Derek Mahon, in Poetry Review [Special Irish Issue], 81, 2 (Summer 1991), pp.4-6:

‘I would say I dislike the term “Northern Irish poetry”, though I know what you mean by the “phenomenon”, of course. “Northern Irish” poetry is a regional variety of Irish poetry, not of ‘British’ poetry, horrible term. Heaney quite right, objected to “British” in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry; he though they were going to use a different title. As regards the “phenomenon”, I am too close to it to see the woods for the trees, but it doesn’t seem all that phenomenal to me, more in the nature of things. Why shouldn’t so-called Northern Irish poets write so well?’

‘I am not any kind of mystic, though I can think of worse things to be [...] but I do believe poetry and religion are related, at least in origin, as are theatre and dance. When Plato banished the poets what he was banishing was the subversive Dionysian spirit, which is lyrical and unamenable to rational explanation and control.’

‘Ah, the “Shed”. That had its sources in Troubles, whence the dedication. [..]. A lot of peope seem to like it, though the TLS turned it down at the time: imagine! The troubles with a performance like that is that you can’t do it again, though “A Garage in Co. Cork” earned the accoldade of a mention in Pseuds’ Corner. I don’t know what to say about the “Shed” except that details are often misunderstood. The Indian compounds are Indian as in Raj, not as in Peru. It has been suggested to me that mushrooms don’t really behave like that; but I am assured that certain varieties do. Anyhow, these do.’

”Courtyards in Delft”: ‘The poem was only four stanzas originally, ending with “gorse”, the protestant words for “whins”. (The poem is about Protestantism.) Then I tried to be too explicit with a fifth stanza and succeeded only in being inept so I’ve now reverted to the original version, which I hop is arginally more ept. De Hooch’s [sic] contemporaries founded Cape Colony and took the Williamite Wars to Ireland; hence veldt and gorse. [itals. added]’

‘In fact, for reasons I am not disclosing, my best work has yet to see the light of day. The new Selected Poems [1991] is a tombstone - a handsome tombstone but a tombstone none the less.’


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