Peter Donnelly Interview

Q. How do conceive of your collection? How did you arrive at its tropes?

For me, Photons represents a departure from some of the recent great Irish poetry which has preceded it and influenced it. The depth and earthiness of some collections of poetry by Irish authors who are relatively close to me on the timeline – I’m thinking of books such as The Rough Field, Moy Sand and Gravel, Field Work etc. – have to be reacted against, (as is the modus operandi for doing new things in art generally). In writing Photons then, I attempt to switch from heaviness and inwardness of what has come immediately before, to the”ethersphere”, where Blake’s angels are. It’s all about new light and new sheen.

Q: Your poetry draws extensively on your hometown of Dalkey. Can you talk a little about growing up in a town of such prestigious literary heritage?

Loci have to a certain extent dominated English-language poetry since The Prelude. This trope of subject-as-self-and-self-as-location in Wordsworth marked a “tabula rasa” in the art, as William Hazlitt puts it. Paul de Man talks about the drive to establish “a true present” – a watershed point of writing. I think in my writing of Dalkey I’m really remembering Wordsworth remembering the Lake District and Tintern Abbey more than thinking of Dalkey per se. It’s a byproduct of Wordsworth’s almost incredible originality. In fact, the more I ponder it, the more intertextual it seems, by which I mean, in one respect, the collection seems hardly about the village at all.


Q. Joyce is clearly a big influence of course . . .

Well, the collection is strongly informed by the Wake, and I employ its aliases as mouthpieces. The idea came to me when I was rereading Syntactical Structures. Then there’s the motif of shitting of course, which is along with dreaming and rivers, my materia poetica of choice from the novel.

The most Joycean writer we have at the moment is Paul Muldoon – he’s the only living person I’ve read with the dancing verbal sophistication, as well as the very deliberately crass insouciance one finds in Joyce. Finnegan’s Wake is comic fiction after all.



Q. I find your textual representation of urban spaces truly wonderful. Could you comment on that?

It seemed during the Celtic Tiger that everything was a work-in-progress and nothing was ever finished. There were building sites everywhere. I thought of “Old axels and iron hoops rusting”. It reminded me of art-making, because I don’t think there’s such thing as a finished work of art – pieces are living, evolving organisms. One discards chunks and leaves them strewn… I’m not happy with most of the poems. In the case of one or two I think, “It’ll do,” but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. These ideas are mostly encapsulated in “The Mixer”:

But there’s no turning back

When the cement has dried.

The weathering of years will

Be taken in its stride.


The text itself can be like a building.


Q. You did a verse translation from Dante’s Inferno. Why the tenth canto?

It just has imaginative resonance for me. I love the highly rhetorical exchange between Farinata and the poet. I also love how the former pegs the latter as a Tuscan by his accent. It feels vaguely Irish to identify someone like that.

It doesn’t have the blood and guts of some of the later canti of course. Dante had just about the most violent imagination possible.

Q. How do you write a poem?

The mother of all questions. Normally I just get a pen or tablet and start writing words . . .

Often the kernel lies in my seeing or hearing something that reminds me of another thing. But inspiration (to use that loaded term) arrives in random moments (when I’m cooking, shaving, whatever). I like to think of poetry as a craft just like carpentry, say, is a craft. The way poems come together is mysterious, but I feel discipline and regularity of effort are sine qua non.


Q: Do you consider yourself part of a movement of any kind?

Another toughie. Probably not.


Q. Does fiction influence your work at all?

Not a huge amount, probably. However, Roderick Hudson and Rabbit Is Rich are among my favourite books. They both have such perfect, densely-wrought prose. That’s something to aspire to! I don’t have huge faith in my ability to assess fiction – I mean I wouldn’t touch Tristram Shandy again with a barge pole, for example.


Q. What role does contemporary technology play in your work, if any?

That’s an excellent question, Richard. A very important part. The idea that I could use the Trash on a Mac as a metaphor for the unconscious just came to me a couple of years ago. I toyed with it then ran with it; I’m still running with it. It wasn’t a deliberate decision in one regard – I just found myself returning to it regularly. I only have space in me for a limited number of themes.


Q. How do you feel about the idea that an artist returns repeatedly to the same few themes over the course of his career?

I always fancied it was inevitable, or at least the natural course of things. A genius like Woody Allen is a perfect example. But what I feel is important here is that the themes choose you, not vice versa. One can’t work any other way. Deviation is possible, but the pulls of their gravities always win out.


Q. “Roadworks” is a magnificently haunting and atmospheric poem. How did you go about that one?

It and “July in Dalkey” were written when I was 19. Roadworks was far longer than the version in print now. I spent ages cutting sections, retailoring others, and generally whittling down. I understood even then that to make it an urban beast, lots of voices would be necessary. It’s the longest poem in the book, and (though not for that reason), its scope is wide and complicated. You mentioned “July in Dalkey”, which is a kind of little brother of “Roadworks”.


Q: Finally, I’d like to know how you know when a poem is finished. I was intrigued by what you said regarding the changeability of the work of art.

It’s a gut feeling and a great feeling. I just know. After, one enters the path of perennial dicking around with the text.