It was a sweltering July evening when I read at my very first Over the Edge Summer Open Mic in Galway. I, in my (friend’s) blue dress, was TERRIFIED. I was having visions of bursting into flames mid-verse. And then, like an angel from God, Mister Kevin Higgins, the co-founder and organiser of the Over The Edge readings in Galway, appeared to me at the top of the room, gushing confidence – with tea spilled all down the front of his shirt. I felt right at home. When I told Kevin this story, sitting in a café on Abbeygate Street, he could remember the very reading I was talking about. Though times have changed, since the very beginning of my poetic journey (as in, I grew exactly half an inch and everything else is the very same), I had most of the same questions I had when I was sixteen to ask Kevin. Just now I had a valid reason to ask.
Kevin, my first few questions are going to be boring. When and why did you start writing poetry? Or can you remember ?
I can remember, yeah. I started writing poems at the end of 1995. That was my “gap year” between changing the world and writing poetry. I was twenty eight. I didn’t write when I was… How old are you?
Good God. Are you in leaving cert this year?
(Inaudible solemn nod)
So this coming June?
I didn’t write poetry when I was very young. I’d say I had an idea for a couple of years, maybe eighteen months – I wanted to do something creative but I didn’t know what. Then someone gave me – lent me – a computer, which never went back as it was obsolete by the time I was finished with it, obviously, and I started writing on that. I was always interested in the way things were being said as well as what was being said. That would pre-date that. That was it. I was a late starter.
Was there a particular poet or poem that you may have read and you might’ve thought, “this is a good way to put things”?
I would say at the very start, and I think it would be the same for a lot of people, the first book of poetry I ever got was a mix of prose and poetry, it was the Penguin Book of the Beats, Allen Ginsburg and all that crowd. I think the idea of the possibility that you can do anything was an opening up. I think I’ve moved a long way from that since, but that was the beginning. There have been many other poets along the way that have made me think, “that’s really interesting” but I would say in terms of starting off, that was it.
Can you remember the first time you ever shared a poem of yours?
Yes. It was in Tralee, at a thing called the Poet’s Podium where you had to submit. I had a longer poem, about 80 or 90 lines, which has been cut down since. It was called ‘Black Hole’ and it was about London, where I had lived, and that was chosen to be read. That was in March of 1997. I had written that in October of 96. I had never read anything anywhere in public -though we did have a writers’ group – sort of – that I set up in Sept 96. We used to meet in Brennan’s Yard in the hotel, but that was only really just getting going then, so I was very nervous. As you’d expect.
So, you started writing poetry when you were twenty eight… I was recently interviewed for a lady’s masters thesis research and one of the questions she asked me was whether or not I thought that arts like poetry and writing and drama and art and whatever, better the standards of young peoples’ lives. Do you think when you started at twenty eight years-old, you’d have liked to have been writing when you were a teenager?
If you unravel one thing, you unravel everything. I certainly think the longer you’re doing it the better you get at it, and the more quickly you can see and iron out problems when they happen. Even say, compared to five years ago, you just have more experience in terms of possible ways to write a poem, so you’re more likely to get the right way for you. So yes, I think it would’ve been a great thing to have had another ten years, but I think that the slightly-all-over-the-place existence that I lived between being 18 and 28 was kind of integral.
The reason I asked is because I started writing poetry specifically to cope with the loss of my cousin when I was fifteen, but I was afraid of being one of those stereotypical teenage sad poets.
I think the thing you have to remember is, we’re talking about different eras… in 1985, here, was a time of utter philistinism. Whenever you start writing poetry, someone will say, ‘here’s another stereotype’. When a friend of mine moved here from London in 1996, I told him I had started writing poetry he said “I can’t believe it. Another one!” How many have I known? Their sad little notebooks, their Leonard Cohen LPs. He always says, ‘Kev I was wrong! I take it back!’ There is also something incredibly pretentious about the word “poet” that is not like “writer” or journalist. When I was twenty, I would’ve thought that people who wrote poetry were middle class wasters who really were not worth bothering with.
Your poetry is very political?
I would say now, and this is the link, every time I ever do one of those Facebook tests about ‘Which Literary Character Are You’, I always get Holden Caulfield. Every time. I got involved in politics when I was fifteen. The unity between now and then is that people are still talking rubbish. They think that no one will say they are. Every side has that. A lot of my poems now come from someone saying something ridiculous that has made me think “yes, thank you!” It’s not even so much about making the world a better place. It’s release, I suppose. When you are fifteen or sixteen and you discover injustice or stupidity, you think that you are the first to have discovered it. And that is not true. And you think that if you just explain that to a few people that it will suddenly change but that is not the way the world goes. You realise things are going to change or not change whether you want them to or not. Sometimes they’ll change like in 2008, when the crash happened. The sixteen year old me would’ve said “Great everything is coming tumbling down. But then, I realised there were quite severe consequences and that it’s not that simple. Plus, the last time that happened was in 1929 and the end result was Hitler and World War 2. And that was unpleasant.
I was actually at the launch of the Ghost in the Lobby last year, and regarding it, I have a single question. It’s honestly been on my mind since I came home that night. Why on earth did you ask Mick Wallace to come and launch the collection?
Why do you ask that question?
Because he just seemed like the most random person to ask. I am glad though, he was fabulous. He said himself, he didn’t know what he was doing there. He didn’t know why he was chosen himself, I’d say.
I think he knows a lot more than he lets on.
Why would you think so?
There is actually a poem about him in the book. Since 2010, but mainly in 2012, I became interested in publishing poems that were not for literary magazines. Especially poems about hot issues. I could get these poems to a lot of people who read poetry anyway. Why not have other people read them? The poem about the six doctors and the abortionist, he published that on his website. I also knew that it would draw attention. It also was a world away from getting another academic to talk about this and that. I think with a first book launch it’s almost impossible to fail, unless you’re so miserable you shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house. There’s usually a big wait, there’s a big party. With your second and third and fourth, you need to make it a bit interesting as well.
When you started the Over the Edge readings, were they successful from the get-go?
I’d say we had forty at the first one, 25 at the second. The average attendance has grown. There’s a much broader audience now, there’s probably about 200 people who come at some point during the year. Our aim was, very specifically, to make sure there was a platform for people who were writing and who were like myself and Susan at that stage, who’d done a reading… neither of us had published a book. We were both beginning to teach writing. We wanted to have a place where people could bring poems and stories and it wouldn’t be the usual suspects. No one ever reads there twice. Then when we got a little bit of funding we would have an established writer too. It was interesting to have people who had done workshops and classes read alongside someone who had published three or four novels. It’s a bit scary but it’s good as well. It’s not pretentious. There are people who will come to an event at the library before they would go to an event in the Town Hall Theatre. It’s noticeable that having done one, people will do the other. There’s democracy to it too. You get fifteen minutes, no matter who you are. There’s a manner about the open mic too. It doesn’t go on all night. It would kill the audience – and there’s always next month. There’s no rush! We’re creating that permanent platform. People can go from reading at the open mic, to being a featured reader, to being in the Cúirt programme with all these ‘big’ people. It’s a great thing to see.
I started going when I was sixteen –
And I was the youngest person there. And in all the two years I’ve been going, I have been, very very regularly, the youngest person there. Do you think there’s a reason poetry, poetry readings, just does not appeal to a lot of teenagers?
I had that with politics actually. I was still the youngest in the room five years later.
I know there are a lot of open mic events for college-age people. I was invited to a few but I thought I was way too young. Do you ever wonder why you don’t get teenagers coming to Over the Edge, or do you even think about it?
Well how many teenagers write poetry? Or, how many teenagers write poetry and admit it? That is still a minority. Something happens in university, and suddenly, it becomes cool. How many people did you tell you were writing poetry when you started?
I told my mum. That was about it.
And at school?
I told no one.
I think you’ll always get a bit of that. Then it changes when people go to college. It becomes, guys going around the place, trying to be “whatever”, and that is quite different to people genuinely expressing themselves in that kind of way. It starts off by yourself and then it goes out.
If you could bring any poet, dead or alive, on a coffee date, who would it be?
Is this a platonic date?
This date is whatever you want it to be, Kevin.
I can’t think. I’ll need time to think about that. A lot of time.
I can let you think over that and just ask my next question. This is my last question I think. What advice would you give to young poets, who are just starting to write poetry?
I would say, do it for its own sake. That doesn’t mean put all your poems in a suitcase under your bed. Don’t do it because it’s cool, or worse – down the line, worthy. A poet is a valuable citizen – “no they’re not!”. There’s rebellion in writing poetry. Why would you do this? It doesn’t make sense. Even if the poems are personal and to yourself, there is some sort of a declaration of independence. It’s a really important and precious thing. Take every bit of feedback you can get. Don’t take a suggestion about taking out an adjective to mean that you can’t write. That’s how you learn to polish your poems. I always show my poems to Susan first. She almost always has some suggestion. And I nearly always do it. It’s hard to look at your poems when you know exactly what you mean, when you’ve just written it. It’s easier in six months time, but at that moment, there might be something that’s confusing for someone else, that sort of thing. The other thing is, never respond to rejection. Ever. Ever. Ever. If you do, you’ll end up putting energy that’s meant for writing poems into crap. You’ll end up phoning Live Line about people reading Cecelia Ahearn in five years time, and no one should ring Live Line, ever. If you can’t handle a rejection from a literary magazine, what will you do if your book gets torn apart in the Sunday Independent? That’s also a possibility. The thing to do is to say absolutely nothing. You can be sure that that reviewer’s name will be forgotten. All of those things are just part of it. No one has been ruined by a rejection or a bad review, but people have been ruined by being unable to take good suggestions as to how to sharpen their poem. Also, read poems. When you’re around people who write poems, that will also stand to you and it will come naturally.
And now for the date… Let me think… I certainly won’t pick anyone alive, anyway. And all the satirical poets I’m fond of are long gone and probably musty by now. You know who I would pick? Eva Goore Booth. I read a biography of hers. She’d be interesting. She was also a lesbian as well. But we could get around that.