Padraig Rooney spent the best part of 40 years outside his native Ireland and lives in Switzerland. He has published three collections of poetry and won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Poetry Business Award, the Strokestown International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Listowel Poem Award. His work is anthologised in Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry (Viking), Haiku World and The Haiku Seasons (Kodansha), and his short stories appear in Best Irish Short Stories 2 & 3 (Paul Elek).

padraig rooney

Image courtesy: Padraig Rooney

I’ve read The Gilded Chalet was inspired by a visit to Basel’s Paper Mill and Literary Museum. How did the Earls of Ulster’s journey kick off the idea to explore the relationship between Switzerland and writers?

Clio, muse of history, presides over The Gilded Chalet. In March 2008 there were a number of commemorations in Switzerland and elsewhere, marking the passage of the Earls of Ulster from the Low Countries to Rome in March 1708. They passed through Basel and along the road to Liestal and most likely through the St. Alban Gate, nearby the present Basel Paper Museum. I’m a poet, and I like the way images cohere unexpectedly, bringing together disparate times and events. I’m also an Ulsterman and the sad romance of the end of the old Gaelic order is touching in its political and linguistic ramifications, which the passage of the Earls represents in Irish history. I was brought up a mile from the border during the Troubles, my father was an Irish speaker, and so there was a certain allegiance to a now rather old-fashioned Gaelicism.

You’ve a passion for writers and their locations in a wider sense. What’s at the heart of your interest? The influence of location on their work, their perceptions of the place or is it driven by your own exploratory nature?

I think because I’ve travelled quite a bit myself, I tend to assume place is central to the experience of exile. It may not be. Many of the writers in The Gilded Chalet were exiled in one way or another, and in search of a home. In Irish literature the fashionable term for exiled writers is the diaspora. For Russians at the beginning of the last century, it was the émigré life of Berlin and Paris. Switzerland still seems to me to be a very multicultural place, where people from all over the world congregate and communicate in several languages. It’s not just one homogenous culture, which island nations tend to veer towards.

I left Ireland after graduating in 1976 and haven’t much lived there since. I’ve always been attracted to travel, the details of place, to negotiating the world in several languages—second nature to me now. I do like a good, detailed, particularised setting in fiction, rendered in a painterly way. When there’s a description of a meal, as a reader I want to know what’s on the menu. I like the particulars.

You cover a huge time period in The Gilded Chalet and provide insights into the writers’ private lives as much as their writing. How far was your intention to add a human level to some of our literary icons?

Gossip is an underrated activity. The danger with this kind of book is to make it overly academic—there are enough of those—so some ‘human level’ as you put it, alleviates the tedium of academe. Maybe even a low human level. Byron with his boys and Rousseau with his kids farmed off to the workhouse, present interesting opportunities to showcase canonical writers, warts and all. Nabokov couldn’t have afforded to spend 16 years in the Montreux Palace Hotel without the cash from the sales of Lolita and from Kubrick’s movie adaptation. The fact that John le Carré was recruited as a spy in Switzerland and is the son of a con man, is no minor matter as regards the direction his fiction has taken him. There are certain dangers in keeping literature in the province of academia, with its critical-reverential approach.

Humour, too, tends to pull down icons: that is a good thing. I wish more people would use humour against the pervasive business culture, executive culture, celebrity culture of our time. These are our new vulgarians for Mammon.

gilded chalet, Padraig Rooney cover image

Cover: The Gilded Chalet Padraig Rooney

When we met in Geneva, I’d just had a lively debate on the subject of academia and the dangers of educators getting stuck in ‘transmit’ mode. Yet you, as a head of an English Department, seem to actively seek the experience of learning, be it travel or researching other authors’ work. Do you make a conscious effort to keep ‘curious’?

Much of education these days is in ‘deliverology’ mode—to borrow a term recently used in the London Review of Books—a mode patented by Tony Blair. The ideology of business has in the past 40 years moved into areas traditionally regarded as hands-off—water, education, health, patenting seeds. The wonderful Noam Chomsky has been writing about this recently too with regard to the use of non-tenured faculty in American universities: the culture of temps. I give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s. Caesar is going to steal from you anyway, so you can short-change him now and again! I have to fight for my time and I’m curious by nature.

Much of The Gilded Chalet got written between six and eight in the morning, and then I went into homeroom. It used to be that academia or teaching were favourable occupations for writers but I think that’s no longer the case, and hasn’t been the case for several decades. There’s a lot of fluff talked about fostering creativity in schools. It’s the bottom line which increasingly rules; fluff comes cheap.

A poet, journalist, author and photographer have different constraints/freedoms. Can you hop easily between roles or are they strictly separate? Where do they blend?

The late writer W. G. Sebald pioneered a blend between those formerly distinct modes or genres, and good travel writing that partakes of journalism and a poetic sense. I find that I didn’t write much, if any, poetry while working on The Gilded Chalet. I just didn’t have enough energy. Poetry requires pressure from the poem—you can’t will it into being. Many bad poems come from merely being exercises of the intellect. Poetry is also about waiting, whereas prose can be got on with, a thousand words a day, until you have a draft. So, personally, I wasn’t able to hop easily between them.

padraig pic

You’re a border man. Growing up just on the border of Northern Ireland and now living in Basel, right on the hub of three countries, what effect does that have on a sense of identity?

The fashionable lit-crit jargon for that is liminality, but “a border man” sounds great to my ear. I love moving between the butter people and the olive people, from north to south, and back again. One of my uncles was a small-time smuggler across the Northern Ireland border, and my mother smuggled butter into the South all the time—it was considerably cheaper in the North, and she had five children. So the world of smuggling has a certain appeal in borderland, even in Switzerland.

The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

One of my favourite quotes is from Bob Dylan: “Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.” I’m writing this in the week the Panama Papers have revealed how the rich and famous smuggle, steal and launder. It’s an imaginative terrain—John le Carré wrote a novel called The Tailor of Panama and Graham Greene tackled Panama somewhat in Getting to Know the General. The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

I sometimes miss, too, the particular language of the border counties, the accent and diction of my parents, surrounded as I am by Anglo-Americanism or globlish. I miss the linguistic pattering of my childhood: bits of Ulster Scots, Gaelic inflections in the English, countrified pronunciation. I sometimes hear the clichés and ready-made phrases of mid-Atlantic English as a vulgar tide, swamping everything.

If you could bring back three characters from The Gilded Chalet for a round-the-table discussion with yourself, who would you choose?

I’m not sure all three would work round the same table together, so perhaps individually. I’d like to have a coffee with Annemarie Schwarzenbach because I’m translating some of her journalism about 1937-8 New Deal America at the moment. She travelled to the American South at a time of labour unrest and segregation. We might talk about the death of the left, about the current state of American politics. I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov would be very chatty, with nothing off the cuff, but I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long time and would like to hear his rolling, preening accent in English. Finally, if I sat down with Anthony Burgess I could thank him for a kind review he gave of one of my short stories back in 1976. Late, but better late than never.

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Edmund White described The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland as “a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland”.

Read more: www.padraigrooney.com/home_blog/

100 years ago today, Dylan Thomas was born.

So with kind permission of Barbara Scott Emmett, an extraordinary wordsmith herself and author of Delirium, The Rimbaud Delusion, I share my guest blog for her on Poetry: The One That Got Away, as my mark of respect.

***

I woke up this morning with a regret.

Nothing unusual there. Yet this time, said regret was unconnected to a bottle of tequila, a roguish pair of eyebrows or another spectacular failure in a foreign language.

I realise I told a lie.

Yesterday, someone asked me if I read poetry. “Poetry? Not really my thing,” I said. “Much rather read a book.”

That is an untruth.

I met Poetry in primary school. We got on well. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience lured me in and RS Thomas finished the job. Kiss-chase and rounders were neglected for lines such as these:

 Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales

With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females

How I have hated you …

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

Secondary school led me to another Thomas. (Listen to this now and if you are not smitten in 90 seconds then you can stuff your Christmas card.)

Here are words, looking for trouble.

Here are words in a strange, ancient rhythm I already know.

Here are words tumbling, effervescing, colliding, exploding with energy and lyrical power.

Poetry made me laugh and cry. Poetry understood me. I swore eternal allegiance.

Biology was one of my favourite subjects in Sixth Form. Kidneys are intriguing. But arts and sciences don’t mix so I did French Literature instead. Poetry and I went InterRailing and met Paul Verlaine. Green and the earthy passion contained in those words connected with a song I’d heard – Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man. Love as raw exposure.

(I was only sixteen at the time and my poems were devoted to some public school twit I met on a sponsored walk. Still, his kidneys are mine now.)

University’s Professor Turner turned me on to Wordsworth and the worth of words. His lecture on Nutting is still etched on my memory and caused one of my housemates to fall in love with his forearms. I kept reading French poets, not least to be pretentious, and bumped into Baudelaire. An encounter I’ll never regret.

As often happens with childhood friends, Poetry and I drifted apart. I got in with a bad crowd (Crime), dropped out for a while (Literary Fiction) and messed about with one night stands (Short Stories). I knew where to find Poetry but wondered if we had anything in common anymore? In weak moments, I looked it up. Re-reading Robert Graves after The White Goddess: An Encounter, I recalled how poems of war carried a mightier punch than any footage or statistics. Raw words connected. Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds – a different kind of war – left me wretched and awed.

IMG_0552One compilation CD in my car includes Nick Cave, PM Dawn, Suzanne Vega, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen (hello again) Alanis Morrisette and Joni Mitchell. I keep getting it mixed up with the others, so needed an identifying title. Why did I collect these singers/songwriters on one album?

Because they use words in a way that shocks me, gives me shivers, sends me pictures, tells me stories and makes me think. Words doing things I didn’t know they could. Like Poetry used to do.

Hello, Poetry?

Are you on Twitter?

 

 

@JJMarsh1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sharon oldsSharon Olds is one of contemporary poetry’s leading voices. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Olds is known for writing intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry which graphically depicts family life as well as global political events.

Olds’s candor has led to both high praise and condemnation. Her work is often built out of intimate details concerning her children, her fraught relationship with her parents and, most controversially, her sex life.

Olds’s latest book, Stag’s Leap (2012), includes poems that explore details of her recent divorce, and the book won both the Pulitzer Prize and Britain’s T.S. Eliot prize. In awarding the latter, Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel, said: “This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.”

Olds has won numerous awards for her work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely anthologized, her work has also been published in a number of journals and magazines. She was New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at New York University.

 

Which book most influenced you when growing up?

The Bible — the Psalms and Song of Solomon.

Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?

Window overlooking water, trees, sky (city or country); train, bus (window seat); any window overlooking anything.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?

4/4 time of church hymnal; music — classical and rock & roll; stories to tell.

The word I most think of while reading your poetry is fearless. What are you afraid of?

Everything. (I’m copying Adrienne Rich!)

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

Golden sweet amber bright etc.!!

So many reviewers compare your work to music. How do you perceive the relationship between words and sound?

I didn’t know that — I’m happy! I guess I perceive the relationship with my ears, body (dancing, walking), breathing, and eyes.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

Supposed to but: the book of child martyrs I won as a choir prize (loudest voice).

What’s your view on the future of poetry?

Yes!

Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

For essential escape from my own mind, for mental travel, for emotion, for the study of guilt and fear and (someone else’s) (imaginary) danger, I read detective stories and murder mysteries (no horror).

Your legacy will be both poetry and poets – what do you learn from teaching?

How to listen, how to pay attention to 12 people at once, how to describe, what life is like now for the young, how poetry changes with the changing world.

Which work has impressed you most this year?

The advances the younger poets have made away from sentimentality and self-pity.

In a parallel universe, what job would you be doing?

If it’s right beside us, a mirror opposite, I would be writing poems backwards.

Would you share a line from a review you liked?

May I share a poem which contains a line from a review?

sharon olds poem

Jonathan Cape and A. A. Knopf/Random House – One Secret Thing)