Colm Keegan isn’t the sort of person you’d suspect would be one of Ireland’s leading spoken word and contemporary poets. You would never guess that he’s been shortlisted for multiple Hennessey’s, is the Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Writer in Residence or that he’s busy shaping not only his second poetry collection, but a novel. You might not imagine that he spends much of his time bringing poetry to schools and teaching creative writing, as well as juggling a family, being one of the brains behind Lingo and mentoring other writers. And it’s not that Colm doesn’t look like any of those things. It’s just hard to believe that one person could be doing so much. Especially someone as calm as Colm.
So you’ve got a big project coming up, do you want to get started by telling me a little bit about that?
I’m running a creative writing retreat this summer. I want it to be different, I’ve done this type of thing before and it can really work. A lot of the time these retreats can have a weird austere vibe, there’s all these rules- you have to go and switch off your phone. My retreats will be about having the craic, getting away from it all and most importantly writing. I’ll be bringing a small group of 8 writers up into the Wicklow Mountains to write poetry and fiction.
That sounds exciting, so you’re finishing up your residency with Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Library How did it come about?
[pullquote]I spent the first year hustling, teaching, gigging and at the end of it I was exhausted. [/pullquote] Two years ago I was working as a graphic designer and I was so bored with it that I was becoming a liability. I was disinterested to the point of incompetence, I was so bad at my job, I probably gave my boss nightmares. After so many years, I just didn’t care. They called me out on it, and instead of pretending I wanted to be there. I decided to take the leap. I was already years writing, and it mattered so much to me that I kind of had no choice but to try and make it work as a career. I spent the first year hustling, teaching, gigging and at the end of it I was exhausted. It was Dermot Bolger that suggested I find a residency to enable me to write. So that’s what I did, I kept an eye out and this one came up. It was a fairly open application process and my teaching experience meant I had a lot of confidence in what I could bring to the residency.
And what was the residency like? What sort of stuff did you do during it?
I felt like an outsider. Dun Laoghaire has this whole other history, and coming from Clondalkin that felt strange. When I first got there I charged in with a crazy list of projects. I just said I could do all this fucking stuff and they had to take me aside and tell me that some of that stuff would be great, but they also wanted me to work on my writing. Which was really cool of them, and a real validation of my work. Suddenly, I had all this time to write. I had to take myself seriously.
For me that was the most important thing, I had to stop saying the writing was just a bit of craic, and say I’m a writerand grow into what I wanted to be.
The one thing I’d say about any residency is that it’s important not to rest on your laurels. I constantly chose to do things that took me out of my comfort zone, challenging teaching projects, readings, things like that. It was a bit of a commute, but when I was there I would try to write for 2/3 hours and work on my novel.
So you’ve moved to novel writing, can you tell me a bit about that transition?
I was always writing prose, when I first started I was writing short stories, the poetry happened by accident. So a novel was something I always wanted to get time for. With poems – you get instant rewards. You can take them to your next gig, get paid and perform them. A novel is harder to justify, you’re sitting in a room writing this book when you could be getting paid to work. The payoff is less immediate, so for me the residency was crucial in giving me the time to do that. For once I didn’t have to worry about money, I was being paid to sit there and write.
You obviously juggle writing and teaching? And you’re currently working on a second collection and a novel, can you tell us a little about that conflict of interests?
I love teaching, but was told by a friend that if I wasn’t careful, I could become a teacher that writes instead of a writer that teaches. So I have to keep an eye on that. As for writing itself I always have loads of projects on the go. I think you never really know how or when something is going to be finished, so you need to be able to clip in and out of different work.
With teaching – it’s something I love and will always do. But it’s a mistress that pays the bills, it’s exciting because you’re paid to do what you love, but it’s not the dream. The dream is writing.
So if you were to say what you dream of doing with your writing what would that be?
It would be to change everything, even if it was just for one person. In the same way that books have done so for me. There are so many instances when I’ve felt the book I’m reading change something, maybe my writing isn’t there yet, but I’d like to do the same.
When you say “change everything” what writers have done that for you?
One that stands out for me was the first time I saw Brendan Kennelly read. There was all these women going on about him, they were jumping around in their seats. And I was obviously sitting there with the typical male jealousy thinking – like who is this poet they’re all mad to see?
[pullquote] He read and I thought I was going to fucking cry. He wasn’t just reading, he was looking us in the eye and that was kind of when the power of performance started for me. He changed everything. [/pullquote]
And then he read and I thought I was going to fucking cry. He wasn’t just reading, he was looking us in the eye and that was kind of when the power of performance started for me. He changed everything. I went home and took all his books out of the library and I couldn’t feel what I’d felt live from any of the poems on the page. But it stuck with me, I was in a bad place, and I think that’s what I needed to hear – a good poem.
I remember as well reading The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. I was reading that first chapter about Bobby, on my way to work, I got off the bus and I couldn’t stop reading. I nearly knocked over an old lady I was so into it. It was just so good, I could have drop kicked a post box when I finished it. I felt so emotional and alive, more alive than I’d felt in a long time. And when that happens, you know it’s powerful writing, you know it’s changed something in you. That’s just two examples, but that kind of thing happens all the time. I get a proper hit from good writing, I’m a sucker for it.
So you say you want to change everything for someone, but if you were forced, what would you say is the purpose of your work?
When I started out I would have thought that was an easy question. I’d have just said it was to give a voice to those that don’t have one, or to break down glass ceilings and highlight the stuff we sweep under the rug. But now I don’t know.
I’m not sure my work is where I want it yet. The writers I respect are right up against the edge of what makes people uncomfortable. They challenge the accepted ways of thinking. That’s what I’d like to try and do, whether or not I do, is for someone else to say.
I can only answer by thinking about why I read. Which is to give my life meaning, and make sense of it. I’d like my writing to be a tribute to, or continuation of that.
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As a page/stage poet – where do you sit in the performance v page debate?
That’s a discussion that I’m not particularly interested in. Sarah Clancy once said a brilliant thing, which is that anything one side says to criticise the other, can be said about either side. And that’s true.
[pullquote]But the most important thing is still the writing. You can’t hide bad writing, no matter how good the performance.[/pullquote]
There is definitely nothing like performance poetry, that energy in the room, the eye contact with the poet – it’s like they’re talking to you, they build a relationship with you. The poem suddenly has blood in its veins. There’s so many live performances that have done that for me. But the most important thing is still the writing. You can’t hide bad writing, no matter how good the performance.
I will say that performance poetry has huge energy right now, it’s growing and connecting with a younger generation and you can’t argue with that.
There’s a lot of talk about the scene, some people talking it down and some people trying to take credit for it, but nobody can take all the credit for what it has become. It’s just exploded into this beautiful thing, and people trying to claim ownership of it – well that’s like the oldest tree trying to say they own the forest, yeah it had something to do with some of it, but not all of it. That’s why it’s special, because it’s spontaneous.
As a teacher I imagine you are constantly mentoring young writers. What advice do you give young writers starting out?
The first time I was asked to read a poem out in public, I was waiting for someone to shout “IMPOSTER!” I felt like some kind of chancer. Poetry has weird lofty baggage and I think it’s important for young poets to ignore that.
[pullquote]chop the shit outta that poem like you’re Johnny in the Shining. [/pullquote]
It sounds like a cliché, but you should keep it real when writing, tell the truth and don’t spend too much time thinking about it, that’s “writing with fire.”
Then you “edit with ice”. Yeah, you have a poem on the page, but it’s not finished. That’s just the backbone, go back and edit in the nuances, accentuate, elaborate, or chop the shit outta that poem like you’re Johnny in the Shining. It’s only in the editing that I’d start to “think” about the audience. Before that, do that great thing Raymond Chandler said and write from the Solar Plexus. And read. Read and read and read. Writer’s need to read as much as breathe.
If you want to find out more about Colm’s projects, you can read about his upcoming Writers’ retreat here. Check out the Lingo Festival that he helps organise. Listen to him on his Soundcloud, follow him on Facebook and tweet him on twitter. AND, most importantly, you can buy his book here.