Tom French, Winner of Dermot Healy Poetry Award 2015


Can you describe how you approach your work daily or weekly. Do you have specific times of the day when you write, a particular place.

Paper continues to be useful because it preserves mistakes in a way that the word processor does not. Very early, just after waking up and just after swimming, before anyone has said anything – that is the optimal scenario … which hardly ever happens. The rule I abide by is that I try to write every day, even if it isn’t working out, or even ‘especially if it isn’t working out’. I had a work room that a growing son needed for a bedroom … that may become a work room again. A place acquires a certain amount of charm if a poem has been written there. The kitchen table; the car. Didn’t Derek Mahon say you can do it in your head?

There’s a house in Mayo that I associate with having written a poem or two in; another in Monaghan; another in Galway – safe houses, after a fashion. By the time I’m finished, I hope to have a whole invisible network of them throughout the country.

In your address to post primary students at Poem for Ireland 2016 you explore the idea that poems might come from ‘a store, a warehouse, a repository’.  Could you describe what this place might look like, smell like in your minds eye and where might it be?

I might have been misquoting Michael Longley who famously said that if he knew where poems came from, he’d go there. It’s a nice conceit to think of a repository … but little more than a conceit. Put to the pin of my collar I would say that that place smells and looks like any place a poem might get written.

Can you describe your childhood, when did you realise you were a poet and what events or people helped you to encourage your poetry.

It’s known as ‘the p word’ in our house; I am profoundly disinclined to use it. ‘Maker of poems’ would be more useful as a description of what I’m interested in trying to do.

I grew up in a village on the edge of a bog in Tipperary, described in The Waterford News in 1851 as a village  ‘which the casual visitor never enters and which offers nothing to excite the interest of a stranger, either as regards its local situation or the attractions of the neighbourhood. It is approached … through a wild and extensive bog where, in winter, a chill mist obscures the view and makes it impossible to keep warm even if wrapped up in a Russian dreadnought and, when at length, some avenues of dark fir are approached, it is found that they still lead to desolate vistas of bog, and they only render the landscape even more desolate’ – where I, and my siblings – particularly a brother – spent from Easter to September during our formative years saving turf. That work turned out to have been an education that stands to me yet.

The first real writer I ever met was Anne Kennedy, in Galway, in the mid-1990s. She put books my way and hinted that sticking at the writing might be a good idea. Her encouraging word back then meant a lot, and I continue to be grateful to her.

Peter Fallon of The Gallery Press has given my work his attention over the years, and his close reading and considered approach to the making of a book has been an experience that I have benefited greatly from.

I have a friend who is a film and documentary maker and another friend who is an actor – they inspire me by how they go about their work with wholeheartedness and passion. I try to learn from them.

A scholar in a reputable Irish university publication suggested, in a review of my first collection, that ‘there is surely nothing to look forward to in Tom French’s future collections’ – which struck me as a bit harsh at the time, but which has since proven quite motivational.

I’ve learned, with time, to steer between the good and the bad word.

Would you agree that the job of librarian is a good match for a ‘Maker of Poems’? How has working in this field enhanced your poetry.

Every day is a bus man’s holiday, particularly if you work in the area of Local Studies which puts one in the way of books and people who are slightly outside the normal run. I have learned a lot from them and much has found its way into poems that might not have if I were in the more public end of the service.

How important is the silence and what happens inside it? Is it possible to produce good work if there are background activities and sounds?

A long poem that appeared in my first book was mostly written on a bicycle between Dolphin’s Barn and Belfield. (I remember a policeman at lights in Ranelagh shouting out to me, ‘The lights are for everyone’ which struck me as a beautiful thing for a policeman to be shouting in the middle of the street in broad daylight). I nearly embraced him.

It’s important to be distracted. Gaguing the right degree of distraction might be an art in itself, some delicate balance between silence, distraction and attention, and then the poem coming into being to amber it all.

Francis Harvey said a lovely thing that stuck with me – ‘you cannot worry a poem into being.’ Nobody knew better than he.  I carry his ‘Blessings’ with me – ‘Yesterday, for some reason I couldn’t understand ….’

Can you explore the idea of ‘noble failure’

I dread to admit that I may actually be an authority. If I did not fail to get onto Mastermind the subject of ‘noble failure’ would have to be my chosen one.

It was Ledwidge who wrote that ‘a noble failure is not in vain.’ I know it was the Easter Rising he had in mind, but where writing is concerned I’d be inclined to go further. The whole enterprise of trying to write poems, it seems to me, is based on failing and failing again and failing better again. There are poems I wrote 20 years ago that are better than the ones I am trying to write now. There are poems which I am trying to write now which are better than the ones I wrote 20 years ago. If I could say why that is, I might consider using the word ‘poet’. Because I can’t, I don’t. Eventually, I have surrended to the not-knowing and the uncertainty and the hope of the next poem.

Have you ever experienced writer’s block?

My harshest critic might suggest that one has to experience ‘writing’ before one can experience the attendant ‘block’ …

I try to be workmanlike about it – if the writing’s going well I try to stick at it. When it’s not, I take that as a sign to run the dog. Generally, the condition the dog is in is a fair indictation of how well the writing is going.

How do you activate the muse?

The hangover, as many’s the writer before me has known, has its uses … but the body can’t be writing cheques that the mind can’t cash, so I don’t rule out the utility of the peace that can be got from swimming and walking and other healthy activities.

Hearing the poem straight from the horse’s mouth is something I have always found stimulating. Sometimes for the pleasure of recognition, and sometimes poems I have never heard before.

What poets have influenced your work and your style. Who do you return to again and again?

Montague, Oswald, Hughes, Mary Oliver, Dickinson, Michael Longley, Colette Bryce, Fred Voss, Sharon Olds, James Wright, Paula Meehan, Michael Hartnett, Seamus H, Eavan Boland, Samuel Menashe, Kathleen Jamie …

The list, like the bog, is bottomless.

What new and emerging poets would you recommend?

I’d recommend running the risk of failure and trying to read everything …

The Forward anthologies over the past few years have pointed me towards writers I might not otherwise have heard of.

D.A. Powell, Victoria Kennefick, Jonathan Edwards, Doireann Ní Ghriofa, Padraig Regan,  Fred Voss, A.E. Stallings, Ruth Stone. Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture is a book I would recommend, one I don’t envy him having had to write, and I look forward to what he does next.


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