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Fancy something erotic for autumn?

Writer Sean O’Reilly is hosting an erotic writing course this autumn – a bit of an experiment for the Irish Writers’ Centre – at a time when sexy stories are being sucked up by the global publishing industry. How can we write about sex in a tasteful effective way, causing a stir in the reader, while giving enough insight into the character’s psychology to make the story believable, intriguing, real..? Irish writing seems to shy away from any attempt to represent the reality and complexity of our erotic lives. Sex is a secret. Desire is merely a plot-device. The story of a character’s erotic life or the growth of a character’s erotic taste seems to have no bearing on a convincing psychological portrait of a literary character.

This 10-week course looks at the history of the genre of erotic writing, examining classic texts in both prose and poetry, and concentrating on student’s writing in this field. Using both poetry and prose, participants will learn that the ‘erotic’ is more than the description of sexual acts but the context in which they take place, about power and phantasy, and in particular, about the representation of desire itself. O’Reilly has a unique approach – forensic even – to analysing words. He is deeply interested in people who are serious about writing, and will do to your writer’s block what Polish builders did to concrete here during the boom. A story I wrote on one of Sean’s previous courses made it to the ‘Top Ten’ in the 2012 RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition and is published on the RTÉ TEN website. A second one [a Dystopian tale about Dublin junkies] is being edited for inclusion in a literary magazine and has developed into a novel-in-progress.

Below is a Q&A I did with Sean for the IWC blog on the erotic writing topic. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and SleepThe Swing of Things and an experimental erotic novella: Watermark. [Click the book cover above to buy Sean’s book]. The Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word course runs from 25th September, on Tuesdays for ten weeks – 6.30pm to 8.30pm – and costs €280 or €260 for members. Places are limited so if you’re interested…See you there!

“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, or outright lunatics,” the physician and journalist Max Nordau cautioned in 1893, “they are often writers and artists”…is there any truth in this statement!? In the current situation in Ireland, where the arts seem to be a branch of tourism, of green jersey consensus, yes, it’s important to remember that the artist may be an outsider, an angry voice, a twisted voice, a moral outlaw, jailed and loathed, or a voice that doesn’t give a damn.

What empowered you to want to teach a ‘writing desire’ course at the Irish Writers’ Centre…was there a literary gap that needed to be filled (no pun intended)? Not sure what ’empowered’ means. I’m interested in desire as a literary theme. As a subject. A premise. As the basic predicament for story. The question of pleasure for example. Anybody doing a deal with the devil will have erotic pleasure high on their list of demands. Or seduction. The magic of seduction. What is it to seduce, to cast a spell, to invade the fantasy life of another person? The story of a character’s desire-life is as interesting as the story of their intellectual or spiritual development. Or emotional. As morally interesting. In this course, I’d like us to look at how desire is represented in fiction, at how erotic tension is created, at descriptions of sexual fulfillment and disenchantment, at the body and its tastes but all of this with the aim of inspiring, reading and talking to inspire writing around these themes. People are there to write at the end of the day.

What is the core difference between ‘romantica’ and ‘erotica’ in fiction, given that our romantic and sexual lives are so inherently fused in real life? Are they? All I can say is good erotic writing is an investigation of the character’s world. The foundations and the Iimits of the self. Power. Society. The Law, the inner legislator. Bernard Schlink’s, The Reader, for example. Or Kundera’s hedonists in occupied Prague . Or Edna O Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation. Books exploring a culture, a time, through the story of desire. Or Angela Carter’s work; the sense we are backstage with the dramatis personae of desire, the bored divas, the villains with their false moustaches, the acrobats, the broken-hearted, all our dreams dripping with greasepaint. Or those poets interested in the physicality of the line, the tactility of the spoken.

Is there a long-strong tradition of good erotic writing that we’re not particularly aware of? There’s been writing about sex and sensuality for as long as there’s been storytelling. For as long as we’ve wondered about what the meaning of life is or been curious about other people. Long before there was even a notion of the individual self. We have some erotically charged early Irish poetry. Chinese literature has some very early examples. Boccaccio’s Decameron, published in the 1400’s, the source for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a good starting point for the European stuff. Or you can go right back to the some of the stories in the Old Testament. What was happening in Sodom that had to be stopped? Aside from the Marquis de Sade, and his forensic encyclopedias of pleasure, and censorship, I’d say the most powerful effect on the development of erotic writing in the West has been psycho-analytic theory. I’d point to Philip Roth, and books like Sabbath’s Theatre, as an example of a modern writer using desire as the driving force of his characters.

The ‘Writing Desire: Flesh to Word’ course will be taught by both you and poet Kimberly Campanello, how will this work in practice? Will participants have to be au fait at both prose and poetry or can they simply write in one genre if they prefer? The basic idea is to use the reading of both prose and poetry to inspire writing. Participants can write in whatever form they want but shouldn’t be afraid to read across a whole range of sources. For example I would encourage anyone to read Jean Genet’s play The Balcony. The course will suit anyone who is already working on/thinking about a piece of work with desire as the main issue. Each week there’ll be a loose theme, we’ll try to identify some of the different currents in erotic writing, the celebratory approach, the big Yes, as opposed to the more conflicted erotic text. Kimberly and I will take alternate weeks, using extracts from prose and poetry for discussion before we look at participant’s own work. Like I said, people should be there to write.

What do you think of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon? I think we’ll have to make it the starting point of the course. “This is wrong,” Anastasia says early in the first book during a romp with Mr Grey, “but holy hell is it erotic”. We’ll have a look to see if the writing actually manages to get above clichés and create any erotic tension, what makes a bad sex scene. And we’ll look at this notion of wrongness, of transgression, a common ingredient of erotic writing. But then again it’s interesting to think about reading and pleasure. Reading is sexy again. That can’t be bad. The book has now become a fetish object; it means much more than the words inside the covers.

There was a story recently in the papers about a court case involving a couple who had a row about the book, the man annoyed at the woman for reading the book again, for talking about it too much. The woman went round to her mothers. After a while, there was a knock at the door and when she opened it there was her boyfriend who, she told the judge attacked her with a bottle of brown sauce, pouring it over her head. Saucy? the man was shouting, You like saucy? I’ll show you what saucy means.

How do you delineate between the erotic and the downright pornographic? Or are we being unfair to porn….discuss? Does some porn contain literary value? I don’t think there’s any need to delineate anymore when artists in every medium play freely with them. Filmmakers, writers, cabaret, hip-hop, painters. Porn, like erotic art, wants to arouse. To stimulate. To turn the reader on. That used to be seen as not a fit ambition for literary art. A half-decent sex-scene should cause a bit of a stir in the reader. But when it’s a very good scene, I’d say, it should also be telling us something about the characters involved, about the meaning of the sex between them, and about the context in which it’s happening.

Is the widespread availability of internet pornography ruining natural erotic thinking/feeling, i.e., expectations of what a sex life should/could involve, the pull/drive that gets people together, how this is then expressed in literature & art? I’ve heard it said the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is a reaction against men and online porn. Against the infidelity of men on their machines. A rebellion. I’ve also heard it argued porn helps men NOT do certain things, a palliative so to speak. It keeps them off the streets. But the same was said about the use of prostitutes. And about sport! It could be entertaining to wonder what the 50 shades of Grey trilogy will help women NOT to do? Hopefully the internet is educating as much as it is ruining appetite. The sexual appetite, like any other appetite, can be sated and overindulged. It’s an old parable. The parable of excess. Think of Casanova. Those who have searched for wisdom in sensual experience. Enlightenment. Ecstasy. Think of Yeats poem, The Pilgrim. The sensualist, after years of erotic wandering, turns to fasting on Lough Derg, tired of “…passing around the bottle with girls in rags or silk/ in country shawl or Paris cloak” but by the end of it all, after excess and austerity, he concludes on his life’s journey, “I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say / Is fol de rol de rolly O.“

What is your favourite piece of erotic writing and why? It would have to be JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Published in Paris in 1955, it’s part of the uninhibited big Yes style of erotic writing. It was banned for obscenity. The central character is an American in Dublin, he’s got a wife and a kid, and money troubles. And when it comes to women, he just can’t stop himself. That’s his crime and his innocence. He can’t control himself. He is comically beyond any moral judgement or censor. His lust is all he has and leads him round in circles and deeper into the world of Dublin at the time, giving us a very real picture of the place, and even the predicament of women at the time. It’s the Dublin of Behan, Kavanagh, etc., and Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. He’s got a bigger appetite than any of them, free, guiltless. The writing, moving from sparse, short imagist sentences to rampant flows of interior randy monologues, will make you laugh from your guts as you savour and feel – and admire – his hunger: a powerful concoction. The flesh made word. I wish I’d been around to see Richard Harris in the stage version. Three nights it lasted in Dublin in 1959 before it was shut down!

Work, read, sprint through poetry

Denise Blake is reading this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre (1pm), the last in the popular Lunchtime series. She was a participant on a creative writing workshop I attended two years ago at the Boston College with Dr Brenda Flanagan, Cultural Ambassador for the United States Department. Denise’s first collection of poetry, Take a Deep Breath, was published by Summer Palace Press. Her second collection, How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy, was published in Spring 2010. She’s a regular contributor to RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany and her work has been published in The SHOp, Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly and West 47. She is a founder of the Errigal Writers’ Group and received an MA in Poetry from Lancaster University through the Poets’ House. Here’s a quick Q&A I did with her this week:

When did you start writing poetry? Firstly, I know the moment when I started to love poetry, it was when I read Seamus Heaney’s poem, Docker. We were studying the poem as part of the English segment in a foundation course in Magee College and I loved the imagery in the line; He sits, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross. It was the first time that I could see into a poem for myself. The course was to be my return to education but instead it was my awakening to poetry. I was in my thirties and I had young children. I would never have considered writing a poem before that time. I started reading poetry and writing my own pieces. I was so thrilled with myself when I started producing work. The excitement of seeing new words appear has never left me. There were two strong forces in Co. Donegal at the time – The Killybegs Writers Group and Letterkenny Writers Group – so there were people who were supportive and showed great encouragement. Eventually a group of us evolved into Errigal Writers and we still meet twice a month.

What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? The “who do you think you are?” chorus sitting on my shoulder. But the question could be; what has helped you stay writing? This is a great country for writing and I have had so much support, starting with my local community. There isn’t a week goes by that I am not asked “are you still writing?” by someone who is willing you on. When we first started Errigal Writers we organized Gerard Byrne to give us workshops and the Irish Writers Centre helped us out. We continued to bring other established writers to Donegal over the years and they have all treated us with a professional respect. I was lucky to be chosen for the Writers Workshop in UCG ( as it was then) with Paula Meehan as our facilitator. You can’t get a more professional, and yet compassionate, person to work with. I was fortunate also to be able to do the MA course in the Poets’ House in Falcaragh. There are so many established writers who are generous with their time and energy. I’m on the directory for Poetry Ireland’s Writers in the Schools and that experience is wonderful.

What gets you started on a poem—idea, image, personal experience? The greatest motivation I have is being a member of the Errigal Writers. When I know we are due to meet things start moving in the back of my mind for a while. I become more aware of my surroundings and more susceptible to imagery around me. I will read more poetry in those days and watch performances on you tube. And then I try to find a silence that lets creativity come into the room. I have found my favourite type of moleskine notebooks and I always write the first drafts in longhand. I just love that moment when the first draft is finished.

How did you go about getting your poetry published? You have to get work published in magazines; Poetry Ireland Review, the Stinging Fly, The SHOp were the magazines who first accepted my work. I also had pieces on Sunday Miscellany and I love recording for radio. Again I’m fortunate in that Joan and Kate Newmann of Summer Palace Press have a home in Donegal. They used to hold wonderful workshops and readings in their home in Kilcar. Eventually they accepted my manuscript and published Take a Deep Breath in 2004. They put so much work into the editing process that it is a gift when the book is published. My second book, How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy came out in 2010.

You’re very involved in community-based projects, how did this happen and why is it important to you? I’m not as involved as I should be but I live in Co. Donegal, we don’t have organisations running readings and workshops on an ongoing basis so the Arts Scene kind of works from the earth upwards. Our Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain is very approachable and he encourages us to create events. There were times in the group energy where we needed to perform, or meet other writers, or work with established writers or publish work, so the only thing for it was to organise it ourselves. North West Words is a group who now hold readings with featured writers and open-mic on the last Thursday of every month. I do think there is a hunger for poetry readings here.

Are festivals a good outlet for poets? Festivals have the funding for organising events and advertising. Anything that gets poets and writers performing in an area is good.

Do female poets face particular challenges? Do young male poets seem to have a higher profile? Yes. But whether that means that female poets face more challenges I’m not sure. It is a very long road.

What are you writing next? I’m writing poems for now. That is what is coming when I put the pen to paper and I’m grateful for them. Hopefully it will shape into a third manuscript.

Any advice for emerging writers? Love what you are doing. Work at the craft. Read. Be prepared for the long distance not a sprint. Don’t be crucified by rejections. Look carefully at the word emerging, it carries hope and a future. It isn’t: never-going-to-happen writers, but emerging. I love the feeling that anything can happen once you are writing and sending out work.

A pen and a pot to piss in!

Daytime Astronomy, published by salmopoetry.com

How did you become interested in poetry? Betty McMahon. She was my primal Jean Brodie, my crème de la crème, my Sweet Afton twenty a day tab merchant, for five out of seven years at St Mirren’s Primary School. We had a text-book way back when, something like ‘Mainlining English’, so I was clearly a word junkie from around the ages of eight or nine I reckon. At home my Mother was a fierce reader of devoutly catholic tastes, still is, lovely pocket leather-bound sets of Dickens, Trollope, Thackery, Austen, the Brontes, Faery Tales – Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. My Father was more of a Harold Robbins/Mickey Spillane/Willbur Smith kind of prod but as a young Glaswegian Merchant Seaman, he’d picked up a hard back copy of ULYSSES in some port of ill-repute – it’s the ‘durty’ Bodley Head 1967 Seventh impression, with the wrap around black & white cover of stills from Joseph Strick’s film version, with Blazes Boylan and mad-eyed Molly staring up from the crumpled bed sheets on the front cover and Milo O’Shea as Bloom, looking pleased as punch beneath his Homburg on the rear. The sleeve note talked about its wit, its poetry and it sat on the shelf with its white spine greying untouched and unread – my Da’ having quickly discovered it wasn’t the kind of filth he’d been led to believe during the ‘cultural revolution’ – until I was able to reach on tiptoe, able for the first few pages, to swim in its forty-foot echoes of Introibo ad altare Dei. Betty McMahon taught me poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. She also told me I wasn’t as green as my cabbage looked. I was and remain confused. And smitten.

Why poetry (as opposed to other forms)? I don’t think of poetry as being ‘opposed’ to other forms (see above). Look at Tarkovsky and the primacy of music in his compositional approach to cinematography, his ‘poetics’. Or Bill Douglas in his use of silence to embody specific sounds, amplify images that might otherwise go unseen. Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible”,  and later you have Rilke saying of Klee, ‘even if you hadn’t told me he plays the violin, I would have guessed on many occasions his drawings were transcriptions of music’.

Your latest collection, eight years in the making: Daytime Astronomy covers topics as varied as abandoned love, prison camp, birds, birth, death, hill climbing, body painting, and recession. Do you choose the subject matter or is it the other way around? Me…Prison camp, birds, body painting? Sounds kinky. I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell citing Heraclitus, ‘The Lord who is the oracle at Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign’. Or as a wiser man than me once said, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar, well, he eats you.

Do you consider yourself a certain type of poet? If I’m any kind of poet, a lucky poet; lucky to be alive and out of hospital; lucky to be a peredvizhniki with a pen and a pot to piss in.

How long do you spend on a poem? How long’s a piece of string (theory). As long as it takes, I suppose is the honest and mundane answer. I used to measure them in cigarettes, but the price of a twenty deck these days, it’s just not on. I tend to work like the kind of painter who goes at several canvases at once, sometimes concentrated bursts, other times constipated fits of rage. I’ll stop that when the oul’ Duke of Argylls kick in.

What’s your favourite poem by someone else? The Tryst, by William Soutar, gives me the horn every time but the poem I’d go to the wall for is Water, by Robert Lowell.

What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? My undiminished fondness for the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom.

Do you think a poet’s power diminishes (or grows), as the poet gets older? Indubitably. Dependent on the tigers of wrath being wiser than the horses of instruction.

Is too much Irish poetry rooted in the soil, too much of it centred on rural existence and nature as opposed to the urban experience? As a blow in, I wouldn’t like to say. But between yourself and myself, It seems to me that for every Rough Field and Great Hunger there are five hundred poems about fuchsia and having the quiet pint in some Nama infested rural bog water. Bertie had the right idea with beacons of shite like Adamstown, a car park and a carvery for everyone in the audience and not a blackthorn bush or dry stone wall left standing.

Is poetry in Ireland perhaps too serious? Are we not in need in these gloomy times of some mock-heroic/satirical poetry? Proper order! My next collection is provisionally titled: I Rattled it into Gerty, While her Mother was out for Turf.

How much does poetry intersect with forms of popular culture such as music lyrics or rap? When its horses for courses, my horse is distorted, as Scroobius Pip would have it in his introduction to Distraction Pieces.

We have a president who writes poetry. Is Michael D Higgins’ elevation to the highest office in the land an opportunity for poetry in Ireland? Can he be a force for encouragement? That would be an ecumenical matter.

Who were/are your biggest influences? See first answer, above.

With the rise of electronic poetry and digital books—what do you see for the future of poetry? It will all end in tears, under a bridge or in some batshit besmirched cave, two fetid packs of homunculi gouging lumps out of each other with the sharpened ends of their iPad 3s and Kindle Fires. This way to the Zombie Apocalypse Ladies and Gentlemen.

Readers are often apprehensive about poetry; do you have any advice about how to approach poetry as a reader? Be wise before you rise. Protect your vulnerable brain. They will want to eat it.

Paul was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1971. He moved to Northern Ireland in 1995, completing an MA in Creative Writing at the Poets’ House/Lancaster University; studying under the late James Simmons. In 2002 The Edinburgh Review published his first collection, The End of Napoleon’s Nose. His work has appeared in several anthologies including: The New Irish Poets, ed. Selina Guinness (Bloodaxe 2004); Magnetic North, ed. John Brown (Lagan Press 2006); The New North, ed. Chris Agee (Wake Forest 2008); Landing Places, eds. Eva Bourke & Borbala Farago, (Dedalus 2009). He lives in Belfast and is currently researching a PhD on the work of the Scottish poet and cultural philosopher Kenneth White for the University of Ulster. Paul’s most recent poetry collection Daytime Astronomy was published in 2011 by Salmon Poetry. If you’re interested in seeing Paul Grattan perform, he’s taking part in the Irish Writers’ Centre Luncthtime Series, next Friday, 17th February.

Saturday Poem #12 – & Forgive Us Our Trespasses

& Forgive Us Our Trespasses
by Sinead Morrissey

Of which the first is love. The sad, unrepeatable fact
that the loves we shouldn’t foster burrow faster and linger longer
than sanctioned kinds can. Loves that thrive on absence, on lack
of return, or worse, on harm, are unkillable, Father.
They do not die in us. And you know how we’ve tried.
Loves nursed, inexplicably, on thoughts of sex,
a return to touched places, a backwards glance, a sigh –
they come back like the tide. They are with us at the terminus
when cancer catches us. They have never been away.
Forgive us the people we love – their dragnet influence.
Those disallowed to us, those who frighten us, those who stay
on uninvited in our lives and every night revisit us.
Accept from us the inappropriate
by which our dreams and daily scenes stay separate.   

Bibliography

2009
Through the Square Window, Carcanet
2005
The State of the Prisons, Carcanet
2002
Between Here and There, Carcanet
1996
There Was Fire in Vancouver, Carcanet

Awards

2010
Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year), Through The Square Window, shortlist
2009
T. S. Eliot Prize, Through The Square Window, shortlst
2007
National Poetry Competition, winner – ‘Through The Square Window’
2005
T. S. Eliot Prize, The State of the Prisons, shortlist
2005
Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry
2005
John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial Prize, The State of the Prisons, shortlist
2002
T. S. Eliot Prize, Between Here and There, shortlist
2002
Rupert and Eithne Strong Trust Award
2002
Arts Council Macaulay Fellowship
1996
Eric Gregory Award
1990
Patrick Kavanagh Award

Saturday poem #7 – Elegy For A Basset Hound

Poetry is a craft as well as an art, and all poets, whether beginners or advanced, need to master the tools of the trade – form, language, pitch and tone. But over and above that, the poet needs to find his or her own individual voice, which takes time. So says Poet Michael O’Loughlin, who spoke at the Irish Jewish Museum on Thursday. He gave a great talk about the challenges he’s faced over the years as a writer, time spent living away from Ireland for 20 years, writing as a vocation (and a pain in the arse). I hadn’t realised but he’s also a short story writer, translator & screenwriter. His feature film, Snapshots (2003), starred Burt Reynolds and Julie Christie and an award-winning Holocaust drama, For My Baby, starred Alan Cumming and Frank Finlay. “I’ve never really distinguished between my activities as a writer of poetry, prose, screenplays and criticism – even translations,” he said in a recent interview with the Dublin Quarterly. “To me, it’s all a question of how the subject matter or the initial impulse presents itself. I suppose, ultimately I see everything I write as part of the same project.”

He believes that the job of the artist is to confront society with a different reality, and not reinforce stereotypes. “One thing that strikes me, as someone who lived abroad for many years, is how low a threshold we Irish have for self criticism. The mark of a mature society will be when we actively encourage opposition to the accepted social realities. There are many Irish writers who while they have created work of real artistic value, do encourage the cosiness, the consensus. I’m thinking in particular of theatre, which is the biggest offender. In general, poetry doesn’t figure very highly in this because nobody actually reads it, and when they do, they don’t usually read it properly. But again, I think the crunch has yet to come.” Michael was born in north Dublin and has published many volumes of poetry and translations, including Another Nation: New And Selected Poems. He’s been Writer in Residence in Galway and Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. His newly published collection, In This Life, is dedicated to his wife and daughter and is published by New Island. Here’s one of my favourites from his latest work:

ELEGY FOR A BASSET HOUND (by Michael O’Loughlin)

Other dogs feared you, perhaps rightly –

All that weight so close to the ground

The heft of those padded shoulders

The not-so-comical teeth concealed

Beneath your sadman jowls and pouches.

 

English-bred and born, according

To the Basset experts, my neighbour plucked

You off the autostrada near Lucca

Where you were wandering confidently

Like a nineteenth-century English explorer,

His mind gone in Antarctic snow.

 

You settled into an Amsterdam bookshop

Your basket firmly placed between

The New York Review of Books

And Literature in Translation

Where you accepted the ministrations

Of single gentlemen, but fell in love

With my wife and daughter,

Running away from home as often as you could

To climb like a legless man onto Judith’s lap

Where you slept for hours with one eye open.

 

Untrainable, unbiddable, I could barely hold you

Back on the days I took you with me

To collect Saar from her school, and

You made a beeline through the crush

Of mothers and bicycles, to the class where

The children fought to touch your mighty ears

As you gambolled ponderously on giant paws

Like an Ottoman pasha in his harem.

 

And yes I loved you for something else:

How on a brown December night

When the light had soaked into the wet ground

I saw you through the dusk of Utrechtsestraat

With trams and teatime traffic crashing between us

Out of earshot, almost out of sight,

You turned on the crowded pavement

And, like the old God of the Kabbalah

Lost in the darkness and unknowing before Creation,

You raised your nose and sniffed the fouled air

And I knew that you had found me

Three days in Galway

A blonde toddler bounces up and down at the sight of a Shetland pony outside the pub while a random guy blows an alpenhorn towards a phlegmatic sky. Galway city on a Monday in June and it’s an entrada of ponytails, fisherman caps, stoners, shoppers, shifters, pint suppers, poets, cheese-makers, scallywags and tourists. There’s an incontrovertible giddiness about this city that’s hard to grasp when only two hours before, we’re wading through a load of pinstripes & junkies on Dublin’s Tara Street, where the morning cartage of people is swarmingly bad. A relatively recent wi-fi & loo enabled Go-Bus service from Dublin to Galway is a dream: 2½ hour uninterrupted sprint on the motorway compared to an original four. We dump our bags in the weeny boutique hotel in Cross Street and head straight for Nimmos.

Table 9 in Nimmos, my favourite place in the world!

It’s difficult to describe this place without raving in the style of a gourmet gobshite chef and a tosspot wine-snorting toff. I always feel excited strolling in here, in what used to be a part-derelict artist’s shack up until a decade ago. It’s now bulging with wild flowers and baskets of french sticks & chutneys, nooks/crannies, mismatched chairs, an industrial juicer, hippies sucking on morning eggs and lovers linking elbows in chequered corners. The staff are just gorgeous and if you’re [ahemm!] clever you’ll ask for Table 9, because it has the best of swan-filled views over the frantic Corrib, is snugly private and here an aardvarc snout like mine can sniff up all the fluky deliciousness of the kitchen.

The grub is really incredible, all that ‘simple ingredients cooked to the very best’ that TV ego-chefs rant about as they bash chrome for no reason. I’ve never had creamy seafood chowder sprinkled with saffron & mustard seed – each spoon tasting as a decent first kiss – not the wet tongue prodder from a stranger under neon lights in an 1980s disco with beer spilt on the floor & first impressions in tatters. Yer man had lamb tagine, but was staring my chowder out of it (this always happens!). Both dishes splashed aplenty in the house red; a mellow daytime buzz before heading into air to laugh at lost Americans with a map, hollering about a statue of Columbus. An old man with a flock of bird-nest silver hair stands staring out to sea. Galway is also a great place for transients and loners, for people who just want to stroll & think & let live. Two days later after a lush risotto & some window-gooing in Artisan, we’re back at Table 9 in Nimmos. The courgette, spinach, organic thyme & preserved lemon soup is so outstanding I ask the chef how to make it. On the other side of the river, three men crow-perch & roll joints…one by one we watch them slump back onto grass & stalk seagulls. There’s a posher version of this eatery in Ard Bia upstairs at night, but Nimmos during sapid Galway daylight is how I’d like to get married, divorced, gorge on happy news, grow up some more, fall ill and die.

Billy Ramsell is a young poet from Cork with an incredibly mature grasp on language. He was guest poet at North Beach Poetry Nights (now finished for summer) at the Crane bar. Blown away by the professional focus of his performance, not an easy thing to pull off in front of an inquisitorial beer-swigging audience. Poems about hurling, how the brain functions, Greek gods and flung-away love. I especially liked his celtic tiger parody Gated Community, about a man who loses it with a shredder. Arts in general seem to be delivered in a much more relaxed manner in Galway than in Dublin. Or maybe it’s just a closer knit [happier?] community than you get in the disarticulated jumble of big cities. That’s not to say Galway doesn’t lack an acid tongue towards critics either. Outside Neachtains the next day two playwrights are having a right old bitch about Fintan O’Toole. “That gobshite said on the telly we’ve produced nothing of worth for the past 15 years, so what the f**k has he been criticising & reviewing if that’s the case and who’s been paying him!?”

Pubs here are a heady mix of young & bolder-older. Daddylonglegged women in velvet garb drink at the same hatches as 70-something malcontents in woolly-horned Viking hats downing port. A great college buzz about the place at night even if noise levels give tinnitus a run for its money. Spent one night lodged in a Neachtain’s snug with some lovely Twitterfolk and another on a crawl North of the river, wondering into the bottomless fizz if I could live here full-time. A lot of unspoilt pubs with bubblewrap windows and simple wooden benches reminds of what Dublin so earnestly lost in the full tilt of boom. My favourite day time hang-out is Sheridan’s Wine Bar on Churchyard Street, opposite St. Nicholas’ Church (also worth a visit for the Jayne Eyre reference alone). You can share a cheeseboard here for a tenner and there’s rakes of yummy wines from around the world at €6 a glass.

On Wednesday night we managed to nab tickets for the Cripple of Inismaan on its last leg of a mega US and Irish tour, after proudly bagging nine awards. I’m actually going to puke very little here about this traumatic experience except to conjure up if I could: Father Ted, Ronnie Corbett, Carroll’s Irish Gift Shop and Dublin’s Leprechaun Museum, synchronously fed through a sausage machine without any herbs, flavouring or even Gaviscon for a touch of civility. I’m just as haunted now by the canned laughter of the audience as I’m sure the survivors of the Titanic were, bobbing away from the screams at 3am that portentous April morning. Or as a pal said on Facebook in response to my update horror: ‘It plays into the hands of what people want to pretend Ireland is like, and for us on this island we know it’s shite but we still start to pretend to like it because foreigners like it and we still have that self hate inferiority thing going on, it’s terrifically twisted’.

I can’t wait to go back to Galway in early August…

Saturday Poem #1 – I love drunks

Poetry makes me giddy but sometimes my bum muscles clench in the same wrung manner as a bad Eastenders story plot. Cringe factor heightens when poets with berserk eyes retch feelings onto the page, without any care for how layfolk should attempt to translate. At the same time guesswork of meaning is aerobic for a mind overbrimming with cabbage leaf. Good poetry, for me, is a platter of desserts that keep only the soul fat and the heart floating. You simply can’t go wrong with a shiny new Bloodaxe ensemble or the beautiful crazed utterings of a dead genius like Miroslav Holub. Just a pity that most living poets are brazenly, unabashedly mad and nearly always dreadful company.

I unwittingly fell into a poetry class on the MA in Creative Writing, chosen by mistake as I’d read the course criteria incorrectly (pick two of the following: poetry, prose, playwriting – I read that as ‘pick two subjects’ – when in fact it was pick two classes under the same topic umbrella to specialise in). As a result I did poetry and fiction, learning little from either, but finishing both to the worst of slipshod. Even now it’s hard to fathom what those two maniacal hours of attic neurosis actually entailed. The sheer torture of hauling my billowed boobs and cement hip up five flights of stairs, reading aloud the tutor’s Christmas cards for no apparent reason and being compelled to listen to jingling bells on a random lunatic’s skirt. Even the honeycomb brittle egos of the ‘serious’ poets falling apart when criticised didn’t get to me as much as the complete lack of instruction or learning did. That somehow being so near the curtain in Oz with this ‘revered’ poet who’d made it to a level we’d never lick, was enough of a résumé-adventure in itself. What did it matter if every single poem any of us wrote was construed and metaphrased as just another fold in a big menstrual minge? Even when a [male] classmate wrote a poem about views of Belfast a la whizzing bicycle, the tutor still managed to turn it into a sheela-na-gig blood cake. No difference at all between Dorothy, Scarecrow, Toto or whoever else was sitting on the other side of this soiled drapery. Most of us left none the wiser and twice as disoriented. I raved as if brain-burgled, after every single class. In the end I wrote my ‘project’ in one night and bastardised everything in sight from TV ads to antiquated indexes in out-of-print bird watching books. Not that it made any difference to the marks: in bought MAs nearly everyone ends up in the same passable, plastic category. It’s almost poetic, come to think of it.

Thankfully that naff experience hasn’t turned me off reading poetry or even occasionally, writing it. Last autumn, I sat through a truly delicious course at the Irish Writers’ Centre – taught by Peter Sirr – who recently won the 2011 Michael Hartnett Poetry Award. The course was a wonderful grounder and all-rounder. Peter showed us where and how to source poetic material, blurring boundaries between poetry and prose, the beauty and diabolism of staying with a poem until done. Brief interesting snippets too of poet lives and the conscionable lonely journeys to publication. I was introduced to poets I’d never heard of: Penelope Shuttle, C.P. Cavafy, Jane Hirshfield, Les Murray. “Terrible things happen and people reach for poetry to deal with it,” he told us. Poetry can make sense of horrible events but can also illuminate life’s brief thrills. You can goo the weekly schedule, complete with resources and tips, here. Meanwhile, I thought it’d be a good idea to post a poem on the blog every Saturday. I like this poem by Fay Hart for its elegant no-bullshit simplicity!

I LOVE DRUNKS

by Fay Hart

I love drunks, I always have.

I love guys that laugh,

hairdressers that gossip,

bouncers that scowl and tv presenters

that wear stupid wigs.

And I just love has-been rock stars that

blubber into their bourbon

about some distant drum solo

that I vaguely remember from

Ricky Munch’s bedroom on acid.

I like new young designers

and entrepreneurs

who always wear the right stuff

and have cute chicks with them.

I like big homos who call me

dahling and step back,

shaking their head in admiration.

Miss Thing, one of them once said,

we have just got to get you

your own talk show.

I like somebody’s dad

who spends half the night

trying to pick up girls

his daughter’s age

and the other half crying into his beer

about how his little girl never

calls him anymore.

I love caterwauling women

who take their tops off

just before last call

and shake about the place

like goddesses with bourbon breath.

I love drunks, I always have.