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LIDIA VIANU -- MICHAEL DONAGHY
I don’t recognize myself as part of any group
Interview with MICHAEL DONAGHY (24 May 1954 – 16 September 2004), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: You were born in New York and are now working in London as a teacher and a musician. Your poems sound very much like jazz. What kind of music do you play? Is there any connection between your music and your poetry?
MICHAEL DONAGHY: I don’t play jazz. I play Irish traditional music. But I’ve only alluded to Irish music and Irishness in a handful of poems in order to approach issues of orality, sentimentality, nationality and memory. I’ve used other musics: Mozart, Purcell, Curtis Mayfield and John Cage crop up, ‘Footage from the Interior’ draws on African log drumming, ‘Down’ on the Blues, in ‘Theodora Theodora’ I use Rembetika, in ‘The Palm’ it’s Jazz, and in ‘Ramon Fernandez’ I allude to partisan songs of the Spanish Civil War. But I knew that once I broached the matter of Irishness or Irish folk music I’d be typecast as ‘the Irish American musician poet’ – so I delayed publishing those poems until after my first collection.
I’ve often been asked to expand on the relationship between traditional music and my writing. There isn’t one, really. My parents played the odd tune, I just happen to play the flute a bit myself, and I’ve written a couple of poems exploring Irish traditions. But if pressed I’ll concede there’s a common root in orality. The music I play survives in an oral/aural tradition, whether or not it may also be packaged as a product nowadays, its essential nature resides in the free exchange of tunes among non-professional musicians who learned from their families and communities, and who play for the love of playing, for each other, and for dancers. Most of the musicians I know don’t read music and they’ve picked up their vast repertoires of jigs and reels – hundreds of tunes and variations – by ear. And this is the original situation of verse. The mnemonic groove established by a traditional musical form like a reel or a blues is analogous to the traditional oral mnemonics of poetry.
LV. I detect a few Yeatsian echoes in your early poems. Is Yeats important to your becoming a poet?
MD. Very important. I still find it hard to resist slipping into that style. I admire his authority and passion.
LV. Death is an obsession with you in a metaphysical manner (other critics have noticed that before me). Your images of death, again, have a lot in common with jazz, and many of your poems are real blues. Was that your intention or am I misreading you?
MD. I still don’t see the jazz connection. I have one poem about a jazz musician and one poem about a blues musician. As for my ‘obsession’ with death, I don’t think I’m any more morbid than most poets.
LV. The universe of your poetry is more American than British. Unlike Eliot, who Anglicized his verse, you Americanize London, I think. What brought you to London and why did you leave New York?
MD. I’m not sure that my universe is more American than British. I moved to Britain to be with my partner, Maddy Paxman, an extraordinary Englishwoman I met in Chicago. We lived there together for a time and when her visa expired I followed her home to London. Twenty years on, we’re still together, and now we have a son, Ruairi.
LV. Do you think of yourself as American or British these days? A musician or a poet?
MD. I think of myself as an Irish American long-time resident of London. I think of myself much more as a poet nowadays than a musician.
LV. Death and love go together in your poems, as they did for John Donne. You avoid
autobiography, though. One of the features of Desperado poetry – my coinage – is its
lawlessness. Nobody’s rules are acceptable. The Desperado poet has a life to express and
does so by making his own genre. You do that, I think. Would you accept being called a
MD. No. I reject all ‘schools’ and ‘movements’. If, by your definition, that makes me a ‘Desperado’, it’s a bit like the Cretan liar paradox. Of course, you’re welcome to call me anything you like, but I don’t recognize myself as part of any group. By the way, my poems are most often characterized as following traditional ‘rules’.
LV. Your poems have heroes who are full of life. Your lines teem with incidents, memories, grief and joy. There is a love of life in what you write that not many Desperadoes have. Could you reveal some facts of the real life that supports these lines? What is your family background? What are your parents, what has your education been, your profession, your present family life?
MD. I was born in the South Bronx, New York, in 1954. My parents had emigrated from Ireland after the war and both took jobs at the Statler Hilton hotel in Manhattan – my mother, a Kerrywoman, working as a maid and my father, from Belfast, in the boiler room. They married, had two children, and then we moved back to Ireland for a bit because my father had an offer of work back in Belfast. They always regarded themselves as Irish-in-exile so this was to be their triumphant return home. But the offer fell through, so we returned, broke, to the Bronx. My most enduring memories of my childhood are related to the violence of that environment – horrific street violence, and that I suppose, together with a delirious histrionic experience of Catholicism, tends to crop up in my work in one guise or another. I could say it was a ‘hard life’, and perhaps I should, but after relating these details in several interviews my story is beginning to sound like an application for marginality status, the cliché sob story of the working class writer. In fact, I grew up in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and our hardship differed substantially from that of our non-white neighbours in that we could realistically hope to escape our situation. And, of course, I did. I was educated at Fordham University in the Bronx and at the University of Chicago.
LV. Who are your literary friends? A Desperado has another feature that is particularly his: he is desperately similar to others in a haunting desire for dissimilarity. Each poet today is his own trend. Are there any poets you feel akin to? Whom do you value, whom do you blame (for the present decline of poetry, maybe)?
MD. Is poetry in decline? I suppose few people buy collections of literary poetry, but rap is ubiquitous and rap musicians sell millions of records. It may not be to our liking, but it would be absurd to claim this isn’t poetry. As for my friends, I feel an affinity with poets who engage with form but are also imaginatively daring.
LV. These days poets read poets, but the mass of readers has decreased drastically. I feel this from my own students’ reaction (all studying English literature). Reading is superseded by the screen at certain levels of society. Is poetry to blame in any way? Will the computer devour the book in the (hopefully very distant) future?
MD. I believe we’re returning to an aural/oral culture. Electronic media is part of this, of course, but the culture of live poetry performance exists separate from, and parallel to, literary poetry culture. Nowadays I perform four of five times a month and in those performances I recite my work entirely from memory. I started this practice a few years ago when I turned up for a reading having left my books on the train – at which point I realised to my mild horror that I’d inadvertently memorized my poems – I suppose this is because I’d taken such a long time composing them. I recall being inordinately worried how this would appear to the audience. Would I come across as conceited, theatrical, unliterary? Back then I had a puritanical prejudice against recitation. Reading from a text, preferably from behind a lectern, seemed more scholarly, more serious, more dignified. I felt there was something intrinsically narcissistic and hammy about performance. But when I began to speak I realized I was completing the action that began with my decision to write in a memorizable form. The words fell into place – catch that spatial analogy – and I realized there was another level to this art.
When I say ‘puritanical prejudice’, by the way, I’m being fastidious. The reformation and the rise of print led directly to the denigration of older oral, performative methods of communication, to the suppression of theatre, and the campaign against ‘enthusiasm’ in preaching, against gesture and spoken rhetoric. It remains a deep seated bias of the bookish or literary personality. I went on tour last year with the Queen of Dub poetry, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, and I was struck by her unabashed use of movement and song. She reminded me of Pindar’s description of Greek poetry performance as sacred debt: ‘to blend together properly the lyre with her intricate voice, and the shout of oboes, and the placing of words.’ By contrast, I’m fairly monochrome in my performance, but I now acknowledge that the art I practise is mousiké, ‘the art of the Muses’ a term which referred equally to music, words and dance. Of course, a bad performance poet is the worst kind of nuisance, and a great performer can make the worst doggerel sound profound to a aurally naive audience. Nevertheless, I’m honoured to accept the designation.
LV. Did coming to London change your themes or your way of writing? I notice a larger dose of clarity in your later lines. Is clarity necessary to poetry, or should comprehensibility be sacrificed for the sake of ambiguity?
MD. I just write the poems I feel I must write. I never consider what poetry ‘should’ be.
LV. If I am not mistaken, John Mole is a musician, too. You resemble him in several ways. Jazz may be a common passion and his themes weave the same music as yours. He is extremely clear, though, while you are only sporadically so. You prefer ‘lectures upon the shadow’ while he writes in sunlight. Do you know him? Do you think you have anything in common with him?
MD. I’ve met John only once and found him agreeable, but I’m not familiar with his work.
LV. Is an interview a good way of reaching the meaning of a poet?
MD. I’m ambivalent about interviews for three reasons. First, I’m not the definitive authority on my work. In fact, I’m not at all sure I write my books. I feel it’s more the case that my books get written through me. Second, I like to think my work is still developing and I suspect that any attempt to ‘explain’ myself interferes with or limits that development. Third, I’d like to be remembered for my poems, not my charming personality. I say this not because I’m an especially reticent or private individual – but because my work has a life of its own and, if it works, it’s as much ‘about’ the reader’s life as about mine.
LV. Can you think of a question that you would have liked to be asked yet never have been, so far?
LV. Poetry has changed its coat lately. The idea of harmony has changed, both in music and in poetry. The same as in life, it has become more unlike music than ever. Which means that it needs to be renewed. New rhythms, new rhymes, new images. There is more novelty now than in all the centuries that came before put together. Novelty, dissimilarity, is the slogan of the third millennium at this point. Do you feel this is true, or is it just a false perception?
MD. Yes, that’s an excellent point. It has to do with consumerism and the extraordinary profusion of information. Artists are taking desperate measures to reach a public numbed by overstimulation. I reject this trend.
LV. If you were to start all over again, would you still come to London, be a poet, teach music? Would you do anything differently?
MD. Yes, I would still come to London. But I would spend more time among traditional musicians.
LV. Since being a Desperado implies rejecting any grouping, I do not expect you to accept being ranged in a trend. I will not try to do that. I only wonder: Do you think all these dissimilar poets today can be seen as a large family whose major feature is singularity? Would Desperado be a good description of the new type of writer, in your opinion?
MD. I’m not sure. The word conjures up images of Clint Eastwood and Mexican bandits. All very macho and Hollywood. Maybe it fits these poets for precisely that reason – but I don’t think it fits me.