Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Michael J. Whelan
is a historian and soldier-poet living in South Dublin, Ireland. He deployed as a United Nations Peacekeeper with the Irish Defence Forces to the conflicts in Lebanon and Kosovo in the 1990s. He holds a Masters Degree in Modern History from NUI Maynooth and is keeper of the Air Corps Military Museum and collector of oral history for the Military Archives of Ireland Oral History Programme. His poems are published Australia, Paris, Mexico, USA, UK, South Africa and Ireland and included in ‘And Agamemnon Dead: An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry, (Paris 2015) & ‘The Hundred Years War: Modern War Poems’ (Bloodaxe UK) 2014. He was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions series and was 2nd Place Winner of the Patrick Kavanagh & 3rd in the Jonathan Swift Awards. He has featured on T.V. and radio and at literary festivals and his debut collection ‘Peacekeeper’ was published in 2016 by Doire Press. He is currently working towards his second collection ‘Rules of Engagement’ to be published in 2019.
For more information visit http://www.doirepress.com/writers/m_z/michael_whelan/
Q1. WHO INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE POETRY?
I had been interested in poetry to a certain level but always thought it was for other people not me. It came from my school days I think and reading the accounts of soldiers of the 19th and 20th century conflicts, their poems seemed to bring a clearer image of their lives and experiences that the history text books didn’t. My own studies for a history degree and later the Masters meant a widening of my historical research, which inevitably lead to a rediscovery of poetry, though I didn’t realise how much or what that would mean for a long time afterwards. But I really have to place my inspiration to write poetry with my mother and her passing. This was a difficult time for me as you can imagine, she had always told me to write down my experiences, the few I had shared with her after my return from active service tours of duty abroad as an Irish soldier with the United Nations in Lebanon and later in Kosovo. Her passing was quite an emotional period for me and at that time I remember there was an Irish band called The Script (from Dublin) who were doing well in the charts, their music and lyrics were all over the radio and TV and some of the lines they sang resonated with me, I kept repeating them and this I think helped with my emotional response to what I was feeling. Soon after this I wrote my first poem (a very bad one) about my mother and my feelings which was full of that grief that gets trapped with you. I have that poem framed in my home, it’s raw but it’s a reminder of when poetry started for me as an emotional release, when words really meant something and since then much of what I write in poems references my military experiences. So, in reality I am writing it down as she requested and this in a very real way was her parting gift to me.
Q2. WHO INTRODUCED YOU TO POETRY?
As I mentioned previously I had read poetry when younger and then during my studies, also when soldiering you tend to try to educate yourself about the profession through the writing’s of earlier soldiers, historians and sometimes the poets. My mother in a very strange but real way led me to poetry. I was pretty bad in the beginning (some might say I haven’t improved) but a poet/writer has to learn the skills by learning from others. I read many poets including those of the Great War and WWII in order to figure out and explore my own experiences and who I was and what it means to be in this world at this time. More recent poets like Brian Turner put me into the modern context. It seems that I might be the first Irish soldier (Irish Defence Forces) to publish a collection of poems, the first in almost a hundred years, since Francis Ledwidge (who perished in WWI while serving with British Army) to write about soldiering and military service abroad in the Irish army context. This is unreal and I feel very inadequate at times but at the same time I know what I try to convey is important for me and my sense of who I am, and what I and other service members do and have done. I continue to read as much as I can from as wide a range as possible so in effect I am always being introduced to poetry by someone, living and dead, through their words.
Q3. HOW AWARE WERE YOU OF THE DOMINATNG PRESENCE OF OLDER POETS?
When I began writing poetry I wasn’t really that aware of older poets, living or dead, but over the years I have discovered many of them and come to appreciate them. I read their works and am always learning from them and about myself. I have many older friends who write poetry and I appreciate their life experiences. Their encouragement and support to me is a powerful thing. I pay a lot of attention to the older/earlier poets of the Middle-East, Asia who are introduced to me sometimes by Irish writers and academics living in those areas. I learn from them too about older Irish poetry and poets, the long traditions and I hope someday I will fit in to this narrative somehow. Poetry has a way of introducing deep time to me and there are many voices in there, male and female. There are some female poets in Ireland who have been real mentors to me, one of them is Catalan.
Q4. WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO WRITE?
The hope that my poems will be read, that someone somewhere will get something from the poems, the thing I’m trying to describe – the event, experience, moment. I think poetry/a poem can be a document of historical context too and sometimes that excites me. When I read my poems, the audience’s reaction and comment afterwards can be grounding, educational and sometimes powerful rewards for someone like me trying to figure it out.
Not all of my poetry references conflict but there is a lot that does at the moment. My understanding of the world changed after serving abroad on international peace support missions as an Irish United Nations Peacekeeper in the 1990s, so this has become part of me to a great extent, my life experience. I’m a lot older now but since returning home I’ve had a lot of time to think about what was going on in the world at that time, the geo-political landscapes I was operating in back then, and now, and how cruel humans can be and how ignorant we can be of others. And there’s my appreciation of history through studying and writing it, the places I had been, the mass graves, death, ethnic cleansing, violence, feeling afterwards that the help I thought I was there to provide really made me feel inept in the long run of things, scared and pawn shaped etc. I had to revaluate what my presence in those historic and seismic events had been? what it all meant?, did my being there actually mean anything? I think I am too sensitive a person at times and being a person such as that, prepared to serve, carrying a weapon to keep the peace (sometimes to enforce it) but feeling inadequate against the overwhelming tide of hurt in an area like Kosovo or South Lebanon, afterwards makes a person conscious of the potential disasters the world can pull itself into. I don’t want the world going into another global conflict, I have children of my own now, so I’m trying to show others through some of my writing, especially here at home, how close a thing that that is, especially in the current climate of political disaster. I have a disgust then at what humans have done and are still capable of inflicting on each other, the things that are going on right now, to the innocent especially. So in a very real way I’m trying to reconcile all this in my mind, not to glorify it or to glorify or war. I write to see myself.
Q6. WHAT IS YOUR WORK ETHIC?
I try to read poetry every day, even one poem before I head out the door to work in the morning. I always carry notebooks to write down a line or ideas that come to me. I write a lot from my back garden but I don’t write everyday and sometimes I feel a bit guilty about this and when I do write I feel really great and on a buzz. I love writing, I love trying to be a good poet frustrating as that is at times. A line might be just something I see and want to write it down as I see it, to try capture a scene as if a photograph, which I might use in a poem later. I feel alive when I see nature up close, it’s a cliché I know to say this but I feel like there’s whole universes in the back garden.
Q7. HOW DO THE WRITERS YOU READ WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER INFLUENCE YOU TODAY?
As I mentioned I read the poets of the Great War and always had an interest in that conflict and WWII because they helped shaped the world we live in today. As a soldier who has served in conflict zones myself these poets resonate with me, so as a result I have endeavoured to visit the Western Front, (the Somme, Flanders etc), Gallipoli and much of the area of Ireland associated with the long struggle for independence and civil war in the early part of the 20th Century Modern Ireland was born as a result of those turbulent and violent years and all this occurred against the back drop of the Great War. I have walked the battlefields and cemeteries and visited the graves of many of the writers including Wilfred Owen, Francis Ledwidge, Isaac Rosenberg etc. I have seen the memorials which keep the names of Tomas Kettle and others both there and here in Ireland like the executed leaders who were poets too (Pearce, McDonagh, Plunkett etc). This is because I am a historian but also it because of the connection I feel with that time and the poets through their words, their lines so to speak. They perished but they also wrote about it, the things that motivated them and what they experienced, which today gives us a better understanding. I am a historian who uses the poets and their poetry to help students understand the periods. I hope someday someone might do the same with my work. The world we live in is a mess and the battlefield cemeteries are emotive landscapes, they should be seen as reminders of what we humans are capable of.
Q8. WHO OF TODAY’S WRITERS DO YOU ADMIRE AND WHY?
I admire any writer and poet who is endeavouring to craft their writing in today’s world. I have been lucky enough to meet many and to have been encouraged by many and I am privileged to have made friends among them both here and abroad, too many to mention. I love reading new and very recent translations of older poets produced by Irish writers in Turkey and other places around the world. I think the Irish female poets have taught me an awful lot but seem to have been left out of the historical and literary narrative to a great extent, especially those of the 19th and early 29th centuries and I am still discovering them because of the sterling work of others who are doing their best to keep their works relevant and seen.
Q9. WHY DO YOU WRITE AS OPPOSED TO DO DOING ANYTHING ELSE?
I write to try figure out the world I think and my place in it. I write to live, to see myself – to exist in and outside my own head. I write to be relevant I suppose, to belong to the future and the past as well as the present I write to try educate people, I write because I don’t think anything else, besides my family, is as important to me. I write because it is the most difficult thing to do to and the easiest. I write because that is what I do and it took a long time for me to discover that fact. I do a lot of things, am involved in a lot of projects, running an aviation museum, being a historian, educator, a father and husband etc but writing poetry is my form of expression, of communication with the world and mostly with myself. In the beginning a writer wants to write afterwards comes the need.
Q10. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE WHO ASKED YOU ‘HOW DO YOU BECOME A WRITER?’
I would say that I am still trying to achieve that status and will probably always feel that way even if I achieve success, that a writer at some level is always trying to become a writer, even a better one, always learning, always afraid of not being good enough. I would also say that the important thing is to read, always read as often as possible, to write down the little bits, the ideas that come into your head. If you have an idea for a chapter or a poem, write it down without worrying if it works, it’s better to have the words written than floating in your head, it’s a product then that you can work with. Write down what you see, the universe is in your back garden, the insect walking along the leaf on the bushes has so much depth in it, if you can understand that then you can conceptualise great things and possibilities. Write something every day even a sentence, a diary entry, words in the end are powerful.
Q11. TELL ME ABOUT THE WRITING PROJECTS YOU HAVE ON AT THE MOMENT?
At the moment I have just finished the final editing and am working on the front cover of my new collection of poems Rules of Engagement with my publisher, which is due out in October this year (Doire Press). This will be my second collection and continues in part from my first which is titled Peacekeeper (2016)
see https://www.doirepress.com/writers/m_z/michael_whelan/ which focussed on the experience of Irish Peacekeepers, myself included, in Lebanon and Kosovo. Historically there is a low level of appreciation and understanding among the public of what Irish soldiers do especially when on active duty abroad and also of their families, so I was very happy when Doire Press acknowledged this part of Irish society and took me on board to put the poems out in to the world, they are the first publisher to do this. The new collection includes references to the war poets, active service abroad, the Irish military and also personal and historical based pieces back dropped of course by the current world we are navigating. I’m still writing poems and attending readings and although I think I will always write about the military experiences I am concentrating on other subjects, to greater degree, now.
Michael J. Whelan