David Wheatley is the author of four collections of poetry, published by The Gallery Press, the most recent of which is A Nest on the Waves (2010). He recently took up the post of Senior Lecturer in creative writing and modern literature at the University of Aberdeen. The following interview was conducted by Bill Tinley in May 2013.
The title poem of your first collection, Thirst, takes its cue from Wallace Stevens’s ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’ which says not just ‘that we live in a place / That is not our own’ but that ‘From this the poem springs’. This suggests that place means, for you, not belonging, and that your feeling of displacement is a source, if not the source, of your poetry.
DW: I’m reminded here of the joke about an Irish academic who published a book called Discourse, or to give it its full title Discourse Dat Course. My book in the same series would have to be Displace Dat Place. A lot of Irish writing comes out of a sense of uprootedness and exile, but painful as that’s been, historically, I think it’s a mistake to believe in a platonically intact home place and true identity waiting for us over the postcolonial rainbow. It is suicide to be abroad, as Mrs Rooney says in Beckett’s All That Fall, but what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution. So yes, displacement is a source. Yet having said that, maybe staying at home is the deepest form of displacement of all. Charles Reznikoff used to go for very long walks round New York every day, and when asked why he didn’t travel abroad he said ‘But I haven’t finished looking round Central Park yet!’ All my jet-setting to East Yorkshire and Aberdeen aside, though, I can imagine having stayed in Co. Wicklow and realizing on my deathbed that I hadn’t even begun to capture the outline of the Sugarloaf or the sound of a fulmar on Bray Head, and that the home place had in fact eluded me all my life. It takes a whole lot of belonging to understand displacement, on that level.
In Thirst you align yourself with ‘a peripatetic Irishman, Ned Kelley’, a sixteenth-century Prague-based alchemist in the court of Rudolf II who toiled to ‘transmute dross to ore’. The poet-as-tourist gives us twenty eight-line vignettes of Prague. Is that what you do – drop in, watch from a distance, a stranger who may or may not be noticed by the locals, recording interesting details, transforming what you see into poetry?*
DW: Wasn’t it Charles Tomlinson who snarled about wanting no more bloody poems about Charles Bridge? All my books are in cardboard boxes as I type, so I can’t check. I assume he was satirizing Movement attitudes of the time, but I know what he means. I started cringing about the touristy side of my first book pretty early on, I hope, but the importance of elsewhere and questions of travel have been continuing concerns. It’s worth remembering Ned Kelley was a chancer, by the way. Perhaps the tourist poem works by setting out to transform dross to ore then realizing the best you can hope for is a change of dross. Which isn’t such a bad aim, for a poem, now that I think of it.
Do you see a peripatetic dimension to your life? You grew up in Bray, Co Wicklow, then studied at Trinity College Dublin, where you came of age as a poet. You then moved to Hull, where you spent thirteen years or so, and just recently you’ve moved to Aberdeen. It’s not exactly itinerant but there have been some upheavals.
DW: A poetry navvy has to go where the work is. I don’t think I tasted Chinese food until I was in my twenties, so getting a job in Hull allowed me to make up for lost time, where the exoticism in my life was concerned.
Was it difficult to leave Ireland at a time when you were building a reputation, having already published your first collection with Gallery Books, co-editing Metre* with Justin Quinn (a Dublin-Prague axis) and reviewing regularly for the Irish Times?
DW: As a brattish young man I felt that Dublin was a very important kind of a place, and that going to poetry readings and book launches there would help some of its importance to rub off on me. Hull by comparison is a very unassuming place (not that it hasn’t had a very intense poetry scene of its own). That came as a shock to the system, initially, but a salutary one in the long term. I very much like the advice to young writers to think of something they feel they do well – and stop doing it. Similarly, young writers busy building a reputation might want to think about locating their careerist master plan – and ripping it up. I believe Doncaster and Scunthorpe remain unclaimed, if anyone’s interested.
Does it make a difference to an Irish poet if he or she is not living in Ireland? Are you off the radar to some extent, less likely to be asked to participate in festivals, for example, because you’re not visible on the scene? Or is that distance desirable if place is not something with which you’re comfortable?
DW: It certainly does, if you’re in the mood for developing Irishness Derangement Syndrome, which usually takes the form of moving to the States in order to become a born-again Irishman (or woman). But invisible insane, as the Japanese proverbially say for ‘out of sight out of mind’. There are plenty of fine Irish poets living abroad who don’t feature much in the listings I scan on the Poetry Ireland Newsletter. There is a phrase that turns up a lot in festival brochures – ‘One of our best-loved poets’. From long exposure to the vagaries of poetic fortune, I would suggest this means something like ‘You’ve heard him twenty times but I can’t think of anyone else. Also, the man from the council told us he’d cut our grant if we didn’t fill the hall.’
The first poem in Thirst is ‘Sleepwalking’. It marks out the territory in terms of your relationship with place, since the speaker ‘wants to feel it again’, ‘it’ being the strangeness of seeing the familiar from a new angle. The poet embraces that strangeness and looks back to see ‘the table / set for my absence’. You relish the fact that your sense of belonging has been disturbed, and not just temporarily. The threat you feel is that this newly experienced place ‘might become habitable’. You don’t want to live there.
DW: There’s an American linguist who found an Amazonian tribe without any sense of the past. He was a missionary too and had great difficulty explaining the concept of Jesus to them. They kept asking where this Jesus was and why he wasn’t there. I think we’re very familiar in Ireland with over-remembering the past, and how just letting go of things – in the North for instance – might be a healthier sense of affairs. But the alternative, of constant self-presence, here and now in the current moment, must be a very exhausting way to live. Anyone who’s read their Paul Muldoon will know how obsessively he peels away from the fullness of the indicative into hypotheticals, subjunctives and conditionals instead. Maybe the gesture of non-belonging is my own safety valve, where that’s concerned. I remember Metre doing a little feature about the Irish diaspora and Peter Sirr saying, Don’t all poets live abroad? I’m going to repeat my first answer now and say, yes, but the real trick is to turn ‘home’ too into a form of ‘abroad’.
Thirst concludes with ‘Autumn, the Nightwalk, the City, the River’, in which you deliberately seek out being lost – ‘Anywhere would do’. Returning home is ‘defeat’ and is only a consolation because it is ‘reassurance there was nowhere else to go’. Does ‘home’ make sense to you primarily as a place or an idea that you must escape?
DW: There is a pathos of ‘home’ in Irish culture, I feel, which makes me uneasy. The obverse of what I just said about experiencing the home place in a self-estranged way is the pseudo-existentialist angsty use of ‘home’ you get in a lot of Irish poetry. Here I am in angsty exile, supping a latte in The Perfumed Baguette, but look, here’s a reference to the folks back in Newtownmountkennedy, and a nice full rhyme on ‘home’ while I’m at it. I think I’ve come to dislike the word ‘home’ intensely and labour to avoid it. It’s too obvious, too easy a fallback effect.
‘Jaywalking’, from your second collection, Misery Hill, picks up on that unsettling awareness of not belonging that you captured in ‘Sleepwalking’. In it the speaker sees his reflection in a shop window on the other side of the street as he jaywalks, and watches himself ‘stuck on the white line’, not sure of which side of the road the cars drive on. That’s a real downside to the peripatetic life: it could be fatal! It’s a humorous but subtle poem. It’s as if the poet is merging with his reflection, suggesting that he’s only half there. It’s ghostly, in a way, which opens up other ideas of being or not being in a place.
DW: What’s that Frank O’Hara line… ‘Straight against the light I cross.’ Now there’s a man who couldn’t jaywalk his way out of the path of a golf buggy. Someone should write a study of traffic in modern poetry. It’s not just what side of the road we drive on that’s culturally coded; the figures on the pedestrian lights are too. I think it’s Italy where the little green man wears a very fetching hat. Another difference that sticks in memory: I remember being in Slovenia on a Friday night and noticing how a group of revellers stood on the kerb waiting for the light to change before crossing, despite there being no traffic. That wouldn’t happen in Dublin. I presume this means the Slovenian Frank O’Hara dodged his golf buggy and is now enjoying a fruitful old age. The roundabouts in Aberdeen are just crazy, can I add.
The long title sequence, ‘Misery Hill’, is filled with ghosts. Even the place itself is only a ghost of its former self. The poem is shadowed by Dante, albeit in a contemporary and often light-hearted way. How did you hit upon this way of looking at Dublin at the end of the twentieth century?
DW: That whole project was spawned by a single line in a Beckett poem, ‘on Misery Hill brand new carnation’. The Dublin docklands had yet to be regenerated, and when I went to explore I found Misery Hill covered in rubble. 1990s Dublin was a purgatorial place, awaiting promotion to the paradise of the decade that followed, or the first half of that decade at least. (Am I getting those dates right? Possibly not.) Misery Hill plus Beckett – Belacqua being my particular point of entry – equated to the middle part of Dante’s Commedia, so in I plunged. It’s all been prettified these days, or had been the last time I visited. Maybe it’s gone to seed again now. One can but hope. I remember mentioning a Paradise Place in ‘Misery Hill’, and now I find myself living right by a Paradise Road in Aberdeenshire. Maybe it’s time to tackle part three of the Commedia after all.
There is a quite a shift in tone in Misery Hill. Its Dublin is a less ‘habitable’ place that the Dublin of ‘Illuminations’. I’m guessing many of the poems were written before your move to Hull. Did that have an impact on what you were writing then? Did you feel that a move was inevitable?
DW: Dennis O’Driscoll suggested a joint reading of his and Thomas Lynch could be billed ‘Death and Taxes’, but those two things aside I can’t think of anything inevitable, certainly not where my peregrinations are concerned. Yeats liked to stress the difference between the mind that creates and the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast, but a lot more of me belongs on the accident and incoherence side of the ledger than was the case with Yeats, I suspect.
In ‘Final Call’ you conjure ‘a place that is scarcely a place’. In ‘Traffic’ you are stuck in a place, with the means to escape, impatient to be gone. ‘At Sam McAllister’s Grave’ juxtaposes the honourable ideals of the United Irishmen and the murderous aims of those who perpetrated the Omagh bombing in 1998. You were tired of fin-de-siècle Ireland.
You’ve always struck me as consistently productive, yet there was a six- year gap to your third collection, Mocker. Were you acclimatizing to Hull?
DW: I don’t think six years is such a long gap between books, or at least I hope not. The Objectivists all enjoyed thirty year mid-career breaks, and Francis Stuart took about seventy years to follow up his first book. That gives new meaning to the phrase ‘eagerly-awaited second collection’, I think. I’d liken my own little gap to a slightly awkward gear-change driving uphill. Not that there are any hills in Hull.
The first line of Mocker, from the poem, ‘City’, is ‘I seem to have found my level’. It suggests a degree of settling in and down. Did you feel that, having lived in Hull for almost seven years at that stage?
DW: The phrase nostalgie de la boue is usually employed from a distance, but I was only too happy to bog down in the mudbanks along the Humber and the Hull while I was living there. Bogging rather than settling down, then.
Yet the children in ‘The Cold’ who stare at you from their parents’ hatchback are ‘unfathomably / distant and content’. That implies the couple of which you are one half is not happy.
DW: I mentioned All That Fall earlier, and now I think of that wonderful passage where Mr Rooney talks about wanting to ‘nip some young doom in the bud’. All that mysterious and maddening little happiness! No, it shouldn’t be allowed. That’s what I get from the lines you quote, hearing them again now.
The vignettes of ‘Bankside-Wincolmlee by Instamatic’ are poems in prose. Place is mediated by photography, which is a way of keeping it at a further remove, but it seems to me that you’ve allowed place to infiltrate the way in which you express your perception of it. The pre-defined formal shapes of ‘Thirst’ and ‘Misery Hill’ give way to something looser, more open to a kind of dissipation, of not forcing it.
DW: I remember taking the photographs in question on a cheap disposable camera. Do they still exist? Not only is the medium the message, the obsolescence of the medium is the message too, as though the virus of entropy had passed from the place to its representation. I suppose these days I would have taken a walk down there on Google street view instead. But that has its inbuilt obsolescence too. The picture of my old house in Hull still has my neighbour’s deceased black and white cat sitting on the bin outside the front door. Speaking of cats though, I can say without fear of exaggeration that a whole lot of what I learned about place and psychogeography (snort) in Hull I picked up from studying cats. No joke!
You could have embraced the ‘up north’ grimness that seems readily available in your new habitat. But there is lots of humour in Mocker – the hearse-driver in ‘Stan’ gesturing to you to cross the road (you had obviously abandoned jaywalking at this point), the alarmingly odd taxi- driver in ‘The Gas Mask’ (more driving) and the brilliantly funny ‘Sonnet’ (I’ll overlook its gratuitous abuse of Leeds United fans). Did you feel liberated to an extent, knowing that you could cast around for new material without having to weigh up your own part, complicit or not, in the culture under scrutiny?
DW: My early days in Hull coincided with The League of Gentlemen, which was very Hull. The self-conscious grotesquery of it holds up very well, I think. Anywhere used to being sneered at and painted as full of overweight layabouts develops its defence mechanisms, which might be the chippy Northern blokes of a John Godber play (not so interesting), or Geoff from the League telling the Mau Mau joke, or the Tarkovskian landscapes of a Peter Didsbury poem (very different but both wonderful). Another thing about marginal or underdeveloped places is the constant mantra of redevelopment and regeneration they are forced to parrot. But when Derek Mahon describes places where ‘even now… a thought might grow’, he isn’t talking about bidding for strategic Arts Council funding to help bring creative synergies to disadvantaged communities. Now I’m back to pre-Celtic Tiger Misery Hill. So much of what I liked about Hull was unregenerate – how it was its own place on its own terms, not wanting or needing to impress anyone. Not that the place wasn’t scandalously neglected by faraway Westminster. That too. But the political answer to gritty Northern poverty needn’t be at the expense of what I’m describing here. I mentioned Peter Didsbury’s poetry. It may strike some as quietist or elliptic, but a poem like ‘The Hailstone’ has real political force too. What kind of country do you want, it asks, and contrives to find an answer in hailstones catching in someone’s hair on a walk down Newland Avenue. It’s a superb poem.
Not many peripatetic poets get to have their work appear in a local pub. Is it stretching my theme here to point out that ‘Whalebone Haiku’ was written for ‘place’ mats for beer?
DW: I also brewed or helped to brew some beer there – mild ale – and got a poem out of that too, never mind the little pamphlet about Hull pubs I published. Good times.
Who decided that they should be anonymous?
DW: If you flatter yourself you’re going to enter the folk tradition, how better to help the process along than by pre-emptively turning yourself into ‘Anon’?
Ireland is still a strong presence in Mocker. In fact, the title poem appears bilingually. Which came first, the Irish or the English?
DW: English was the original language of the ancient Gaels, Myles na gCopaleen liked to claim. I can’t actually remember which came first now, but maybe it was conceived in ancient Gaelic English and then rendered into an Anglophone’s modern Irish.
Nature becomes more of a feature in your work at this point. Birds, in particular, are the subject of several poems. It’s tempting to read this as a sort of disaffection with humans, to see birds as having a relationship to place that fits with your own tendency to move between the close-up and the wide-angle. Discuss.
DW: I feel embarrassed, looking back now, on how ignorant I was about birds and the natural world as the aforementioned brattish young man. Why do I like birds? Because as Wallace Stevens said in ‘Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit’, ‘It is the human that is the alien’. By engaging with the alienness of the natural world, one can attempt to circle back to the human with a newfound appreciation of its own alienness too. Or maybe not bother with the second part of that equation after all. If the close-up of your question is the water rail or the bittern in the reeds, as seen through binoculars, the wide- angle is the reed-bed where you sit waiting and the very long time it might take before the moment of revelation. Each defines the other, interdependently. I do think a curlew’s call is the most beautiful sound in the world, can I just add.
‘The Windscreen’ dramatizes this memorably, albeit that the distance is personal. The clarity achieved by de-icing the windscreen merely emphasises the separateness of the couple. Is that Keatsian notion key to your work?
DW: I love Keats, but suspect his biggest influence on me as a young man was the experience of standing inside one of his poems, as anyone who visits the Hugh Lane Gallery can do in the room with the Harry Clarke stained glass window of The Eve of St Agnes. When I think of Keats I think of liquids oozing and seeping (the ‘creamy curd’ of the poem I just mentioned), whereas in ‘The Windscreen’ the liquids are more congealed and frozen, aren’t they. Though The Eve of St Agnes has a fairly glacial ending too – ‘For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold’. Chilly stuff.
You end the collection, firstly by excising yourself from your own address book in ‘My Back Pages’, as if to deny that you are in or have a place, and then, in ‘Ljubljana’, invite the beloved to ‘that all-giving place’ from which you will ‘never return’. It’s inferred that she will not join you there. I am reminded of another closing poem, by another Hull blow-in, Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’, that superficially offers affirmation and hope but actually reinforces a negative.
DW: I suppose it’s part of Larkin’s genius to have lent himself so cunningly to misunderstanding in ‘An Arundel Tomb’, with that piece of cod consolation people trot out in blissful ignorance of what the first part of that sentence actually says. When you read the interviews though, Larkin seems to feel the poem was a bit of a botch. If there is an ‘all-giving place’, I might need to be a bit miserly about it, and keep it to myself. No trespassers allowed.
It’s hard not to interpret the title of your fourth collection, A Nest on the Waves, as a response to the motivations we’ve been discussing. A home – fragile, temporary – unmoored on the open sea, more likely to be submerged than borne elsewhere. Does that sum up where you see yourself as you enter what might be your mature period as a poet?
DW: People used to believe that petrels nested out at sea. They don’t. But then people also used to think that puffins migrated to the moon. As for my ‘mature period’, I would hope to immature with age, as William Whitelaw once accused Tony Benn of doing. The signs are looking good so far.
The opening poems in particular are distinguished by striking images of tenuous or provisional connection to the earth – the ‘house in the air’ and ‘fixity of empty air’ in ‘To Wilmington Swing Bridge’; ‘no ground / underfoot for me to feel give way’ as you make your way home in fog in ‘A Fret’; the lighthouse’s intermittent assistance ‘getting back / from the pub; beam, dash, dark, stop’ in ‘On Tory Island’; the lapwing’s song indicating the elsewhereness of home in ‘In Glencolumbkille’; vertiginously clinging to the mountain in ‘On Mweelrea’. You seem to be almost hyper- sensitively attuned to those moments and situations.
DW: Maybe anything up in the air seemed exotic in East Yorkshire, given how flat it was. There is a line from an André Frénaud poem I’ve translated: ‘The pathways driven into the sky’. You get people with strong views on evolution, but it’s gravity I want to overturn. The idea of having to cling on to the earth surface or risk floating away appeals to me greatly, I must say.
In ‘The Cormorant’ you’ve become ‘any old ignorant tourist’. They say travel broadens the mind – are you suggesting the further you go the less you know?
DW: I am cultivating my ignorance, as Derek Mahon said once.
When you are elsewhere, as in ‘Ljubljana’, absence, however painful, is more obvious and therefore easier to handle. A poem such as ‘Migrant Workers’ has a more uneasy grasp of ideas of home. The workers may be ‘here or gone’ by next summer, ‘The children they have yet to meet / call here/there home in this/that tongue’.
DW: I mentioned linguistics before and will now do so again with the concept of a ‘back-formation’. The idea of being native to a place is a quintessential back-formation. Just because you’ve been somewhere five minutes, you assume you and your kind have always been there, unlike those blow-ins. Who are the real Irish natives? The Celts? The Fir Bolg? The Fomorians? There are lots of Pictish Ogham inscriptions round the place in Aberdeenshire. I won’t feel properly ‘native’ here until I can communicate in Pictish Ogham myself.
You find another gear in ‘The Shadow Life’. It’s an unsettling poem. Formally it’s outwardly conventional, but syntactically it’s more complex. There’s a ‘doubled’ effect that works out or through the poem’s subject matter. It’s very clearly concerned with ‘home’ but not in any abstract way. Can you talk about the background to the poem?
DW: It’s about finding out a few years back that I had a new uncle. He was born a few years before my dad, and a combination of factors meant the first we got to hear about him, or he about us, was very recently. It was a pleasure to meet him. The fact that he lives in Tallaght has done wonders for my Dub credentials, I feel.
Place itself doubles up, or breaks up, in ‘Caravanserai’. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the Malian musician, stands on a Saharan dune that is also desert sand coating your windscreen ‘thousands of miles’ away.
DW: Well, if I’m going to compare my father to a Touareg nomad for having worked in a sandpit in Bray, I’d better find some point of genuine connection. Doesn’t Bob Quinn believe that the Irish are an offshoot of the Berbers? I found my knowledge of Tinariwen lyrics came in very handy when I met a Touraeg in Morocco, but I still have some way to go with my camel-riding.
You have extended your range in A Nest on the Waves – kinship with African musicians, a stint in Australia (courtesy of the 2008 Vincent Buckley Prize), Sula Sgeir (uninhabited, of course, apart from the gannets). But you also come back to Wicklow in ‘In Valleymount’ and ‘At Sally Gap’. And there are two poems dedicated to roads, one in Ireland, one in Britain. The book begins with a ‘house in the air’ and ends with a ‘bed in air’, by the side of a motorway, beseeching an unspecified ‘you’ to ‘arrive with me before dawn nowhere / but here, that is nowhere, and ours, alone’. Another departure beckons. Where do you expect to go?
DW: Can I just say that Valleymount in north-west Wicklow has another Harry Clarke stained glass window, which I recommend to anyone passing. Valleymount has a long tradition of stone-cutters, some of whom emigrated to New Mexico and came back: hence the peculiar style of the village church. Where I live now has ferry connections to Shetland and Orkney, so I expect I’ll feel honour-bound to visit every single Scottish island before contemplating any departures further afield. I might draw the line at Rockall (is Rockall Irish or Scottish?), but wouldn’t mind investigating St Kilda, Foula, North Rona and Sula Sgeir. I quite fancy reviving the beehive hut hermit tradition.
Am I right in thinking it’s been a while since you’ve read in Ireland? What are your thoughts on the poetry scene here, now that you’ve been away for more than a decade?
DW: Al Alvarez applied the phrase ‘gentility principle’ to British poetry in the 1960s, in a somewhat disingenuous way, but as a concept it retains a certain suggestiveness and appeal. I think Irish poetry has its own gentility principle, which I would diagnose as follows. Irish poetry is hugely conservative, but not in a classicist way. Irish poets’ conservatism does not take the form of arguments over catalectic versus acatalectic tetrameter. But nor does their failure of classicism result in an embrace of modernist experiment, a label whose factional overtones in Irish poetic circles have tended to empty it of meaning. Instead most Irish poetry embraces a formally unselfconscious post- Romantic middle way predicated on equally unselfconscious assumptions of self-expression and the lyric ‘I’. The middle way is the enemy, and reminders of it never fail to bring out in me my inner extremist, the side of me that wants to splice Khlebnikov, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille and Lorine Niedecker. As MacDiarmid said, ‘I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur /Extremes meet – it’s the only way I ken /To dodge the curst conceit of bein’ richt‘. Anything but ‘bein’ richt’! Or in the words of everyone’s favourite Cambridge mystagogue, J. H. Prynne, ‘I shall not know my own /conjecture’. I don’t know my own ‘conjecture’ now and very much doubt I ever will.
BIll Tinley published his first collection, Grace, in 2001. Mindent Akarás, a selection translated into Hungarian by Thomas Kabdebo, appeared in 2007