James Conor Patterson is 26 and from Newry, Co. Down. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Abridged, The Bohemyth, Cyphers, Irish Left Review, Magma, The Moth, New Welsh Review, New Statesman, The Open Ear, The Penny Dreadful, Poetry Ireland Review, Southword, The Stinging Fly and Wordlegs. In 2013 he received the iYeats ‘Emerging Talent’ Award for poetry and in 2014 was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and longlisted for the UK National Poetry Award.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m not sure how much there is to tell, really. I was born in Coventry in 1989, moved up to Aberdeen shortly thereafter, then moved to Newry in ’95 when the IRA ceasefire led to a brief calming of tensions in the North. Both my parents come from Newry so when my Dad was offered a decent job it made sense that he took it and we “came back”, so to speak.
It seems that I moved around an awful lot at a young age, though I don’t recall a lot of it and most of my life since has been rather uneventful. Grammar school. A failed stint as a Law student in UCD. Queen’s. An MA in Creative Writing. Hardly the stuff that would fill a biography, though I suppose there are a lot of years left to fill and a lot of interesting things waiting to happen.
What made you turn to poetry?
It sounds like a cliché, but my first meaningful exposure to poetry came when I was about 14/15 and I began to develop an appreciation for music and a vague sense of political awareness. I can’t play a note, of course, but the idea of writing lyrics began to appeal right around the time that The Doors and 2Pac and The Clash were rattling around my head. [pullquote] I was churning out a lot of bad angsty teenage claptrap; the kind we all fall foul of once in a while: faux-visionary psychedelia in the vein of Morrison or Dylan [/pullquote]
So I paid a lot of attention to what these songs were telling me and pretty soon I was churning out a lot of bad angsty teenage claptrap; the kind we all fall foul of once in a while: faux-visionary psychedelia in the vein of Morrison or Dylan, attempting the more socially conscious wordplay of Shakur or Strummer. But it was an important building block, and one that provided me with a reading list which has grown exponentially ever since. I became interested in who their influences were, in other words – Rimbaud, Blake, Nietzsche, Camus, Kerouac, Marx – and from that a whole wealth of artists I could imitate badly and one day try to improve upon.
How long have you been writing and what has the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series meant for you?
In one way or another I’ve been writing for about 11/12 years now, though I’ve only seriously been starting to “find my voice” within the last 4/5.
The Poetry Ireland Introductions Series was something I discovered as a sort of by-product of sending writing in to be judged for competitions and journals, and in a sense, what I really hoped to achieve from it was to bring my writing a step closer towards publication. Realising a first collection, in other words. [pullquote] I’ve gone through phases of thinking that something is either really good or really fucking terrible and I’ve almost always been wrong on both counts. [/pullquote]
So what the Introductions series provided, in that regard, was a public forum to be judged impartially by an audience of like-minded enthusiasts. A focus-group, if you like. To have my work seen to without the bias of my own author, who either treats it onanistically and with great enthusiasm, or clouds over for days thinking it’s the worst thing ever to be committed to paper. Over the years I’ve gone through phases of thinking that something is either really good or really fucking terrible and I’ve almost always been wrong on both counts.
What do you hope to explore through your poetry?
I suppose I’m rather caught by that strange dichotomy between public and private, and when I sit down to write I tend to write accordingly.
In the “public” sense Carolyn Forché’s ideas about the poetry of witness interest me greatly. Forché herself worked as a human-rights organizer in El Salvador during the mid-1970s and much of what her poetry sought to draw attention to was the Civil War taking place and the American-backed atrocities of the country’s incumbent regime. In this way, I think that poetry – and art more generally – bears the responsibility of illuminating the darker corners of the human condition. To, as Wilde put it, expose “the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.”
[pullquote] The things that eventually send other people to prison or the hospital give me the material I need to keep going [/pullquote] In a more “private” sense, poetry has always been about defining – and in that way satiating – my own little obsessions and uncluttering my head of the detritus that keeps me awake at night. These could be idle thoughts that need fleshing out and given attention, or they could be obsessions of a bigger kind, like family, the love of a significant other, fear of death, isolation. The things that eventually send other people to prison or the hospital give me the material I need to keep going. A kind of on-going journal, but pared down; particularized.
Are you currently working towards a collection? Can you tell me all about that and what you want to focus on, where you’d like to be published?
I’ve had this idea floating around my head for the last year or so about exploring the concept of “emptiness”. I don’t know why. I think it started when I realised I had a sort of weird fascination for abandoned buildings, ghost towns and, closer to home, the post-Tiger phenomenon of ghost estates. But what started to happen over time was that these poems about physical emptiness began to give way to more abstract explorations of emptiness in a metaphysical sense, and now I have about 30 or so ranging on everything from the abandoned house across the street, to history as an inherently empty construct which is then filled with interpretation and bias. I think I’ll call it Ghost Estates if it ever sees the light of day, though that might be a while off yet.
In terms of where I’d like to be published I suppose, like any writer, there’s a degree of vanity involved. One always wants to be published where they think their work will receive the most exposure and its “message” the most likely to translate. In Ireland I think there’s a fairly supportive and solid infrastructure for this, and one which seems to be growing on a near-daily basis. Forums like The Bohemyth, Southword, New Irish Writing, (the now defunct) Wordlegs, The Lifeboat, and Poetry Ireland Review under Vona Groarke’s recent editorship are producing new and long-lasting voices to get excited about. It’s incredibly fertile ground for producing work on.
Do you think poetry is for a niche audience or do you think social media is opening it up to new possibilities?
[pullquote] We are too concerned, I think, with how well our work fits within a certain niche – is it alt enough, is it avant garde, is it real [/pullquote] I don’t think poetry is for a niche audience, no, though I do think that the general perception of what poetry is and what its value entails needs to shift dramatically. This is an art, after all, which has existed for thousands of years and one which is therefore inextricably linked to our history, our love of music and our insight into the human condition. I think the problem with how poetry is perceived now is partly down to how it gets taught from a young age, but also, importantly, how the writers themselves behave towards their craft. We are too concerned, I think, with how well our work fits within a certain niche – is it alt enough, is it avant garde, is it real – and not enough with the realisation that there is always someone on the other end of your work trying forge an emotional attachment with it. Good poetry needn’t be code-breaking, it should exact a kind of telepathy between writer and reader, where the writer expresses some desire for the universal through the particular and the reader to feel as though someone else gets it too.
I think social media might have some small part to play in this, but only as the conduit by which reader and writer can sit atop the work. The real communing is done by the act of reading, or the act of writing; all the rest is just the means by which we can access one another more directly.
What would you say has been the biggest influence on your writing? or who has been? or both?
I have a lot of people who are continually referenced by my work, though if I had to boil it down to just a handful I’d say that my biggest influences are, in order: Sinead Morrissey’s Parallax, Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, the Collected Rimbaud (trans. Wallace Fowlie), Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us, Philip Levine’s What Work Is, Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities and the Collected Dylan Thomas.
The mentorship of Ciaran Carson over the past few years has been invaluable also. Not only for the breadth and beauty of his work, but also for the exacting eye he brings when a poem needs to be workshopped. No word or its etymology ever escapes his notice and it can be quite extraordinary to hear him wax lyrical about words and their usage, or to hear him bring new perspective on something which might otherwise have escaped the notice of myself and others.
Have you had, or do you have a mentor?
As mentioned before, I’d consider Ciaran Carson as something of a mentor, though there have been others over the years who are deserving of a mention.
Liz Reapy, for example (founder and former editor of Wordlegs) gave me what I still consider to be my first “break” in writing. When I was 20 she published a short story of mine called ‘Haunting Europe’ and she has gone on to include me in Wordlegs and Doire Press’s 2012 anthology of young Irish writers (’30 Under 30′), booked me a slot reading at the Belfast Book Festival two years ago and organized further readings at the Workman’s Club and the London Irish Centre which I’ve participated in. She’s a fantastic fiction writer herself and we still remain good friends after all these years.
Stephen Connolly too – who attends as part of Ciaran Carson’s writing group in Belfast, and also read as part of this year’s Introductions series – has been a key figure in the reinvigoration of the poetry scene in Belfast and in the dispensation of much helpful advice related to my own work. He – like Liz – is someone I am happy to call a friend and who, I have no doubt, will produce something in the very near future which shifts the dynamic of Irish poetry in new and interesting ways.
What do you hope to have done with your poetry in the next five to ten years?
I hope to have produced maybe a collection or two, though whether that comes off, who knows? I tend to see my writing now within the scope of attainable goals and whilst it might be tempting to say that I’d like to be in a position where I’m winning awards and making mega-bucks from prize money, the reality is that I’ll probably be just another lost voice in a sweeping landscape where better work than mine has to vie for attention. But I am always seeking to improve and if it comes to it that the work itself will have to suffice as justification for writing poetry, then so be it.
What contemporary Irish poets are you impressed by?
Where to start! There are a lot of folks writing impressive poetry in Ireland these days, though if, like my influences, I had to boil it down to just a few names I’d say that the ones to “watch out for” are: Stephen Connolly, Stephen Sexton, Michael Naghten Shanks, Victoria Kennefick, Elaine Cosgrove, Padraig Regan, Emma Must, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Andy Eaton, Cal Doyle, Roisin Kelly and Kerrie O’Brien. For reasons, all, which are too numerous to go into, though if I was a betting man I’d say that they’ll all have collections by 2017.
Do you think Ireland is starting to move away from the “typical Irish Poetry” and move towards something more contemporary? Where do you see yourself in terms of that movement?
Ugh! I hate the idea of movements, or even that there has to be a divide between what we regard as “typical” or “fresh”. Good poetry is good poetry in the end, and the fact that we feel the need as writers to run off to our respective cliques and identify as being in one sub-strata or another is part of the reason that contemporary poetry holds little interest for the wider public. Or, to paraphrase Keith Douglas, failing to remember that bad poetry is no poetry at all.
Writing, like anything, abides by the basic laws of evolution and each new collection is a baby-step in the ongoing march of its collective history. It’s true that some figures have been more effective than others in advancing this march, but they didn’t create their work in a vacuum. Theirs was merely an improvement upon what came before.