Gardensea | An Interview with a fireside bard

I spoke with Kevin C. Olohan during the week, host of Fireside, the Irish storytelling podcast. Kevin’s collection Gardensea is available now (here). Not even the wild winds of storm Barra could stop us talking about the force of nature that was St. Kevin, fallen angels, and the freedom of self publishing.

Do you remember when you started writing? Can you tell us a little about your early experiences of writing? 

I come from a very musical family – and while I do sing and play myself, I’m definitely the least musical member of my family. In fact they used to call me ‘the crow’ because my mother thought I never would learn how to sing. But I have always had a good memory for song lyrics and movie quotes. I felt creative, but was not artistic, I was bright, but not academic, I was energetic but not sporty, so I think it was in the music and rhythm of spoken language that was how I was always able to express or articulate myself. 

Did you have a particular teacher or influence that encouraged your writing when you were younger?

I wrote songs and poems and stories in primary school, but I had a very hard time in my first secondary school – I was outspoken, overweight and insecure, which made me an easy target for bullying. But I did find solace in an incredible English teacher named Seamus Diamond. He was the first one to introduce me to Shakespeare, Yeats, Kavanagh, and poetic form. Rather than just teach the syllabus, he actively encouraged his students to write our own poetry. 

I ironically didn’t start writing properly until I went to drama school to study acting. I always wanted to create my own work, so I wrote stand up for a year, wrote a few small theatre pieces, and staged a one man musical. But it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, during my downtime in a production of A Christmas Carol in the Gate, that I rediscovered writing poetry. A poem can be comedy, theatre, mythology, music and all in something that be concealed in a costume pocket.

Can you tell us about your writing process? Do you have a particular place you like to write? 

For years I could only write in cafes. I found there were too many distractions at home, and I could never focus. The last two years have naturally forced me to carve a writing corner at home – and I now have an office space. I treat writing like an office job. I do it first thing in the morning for at least an hour a day – if not more. Because I can write at home, I now feel I can write anywhere. The poems of Gardensea were written in five countries, and fewer notebooks! 

Did you find it easier to write about home while traveling – did it give you a different perspective?

I think I needed both. There’s a level of detail and immersion I felt writing in Wicklow itself – there’s one poem that’s set on the old Wicklow pier. After completing the first draft I went there, and the poem had already changed how I viewed the pier, but then visiting the pier impacted further drafts of the poem. But ultimately yes, I think you need the sense of distance and perspective – because that’s where the imagination really comes through –  and that’s also where you really learn what you really want to write about.

How does a poem usually begin for you? How do you know when it is finished?

I think when a poem works for me is when I don’t try to force a theme, form or even subject matter on the piece, but let it all grow organically. Start with a line, say it out loud, and then form, metre and overall theme will reveal themselves, either by the end of the first draft or during the second. I’ll typically write a first draft in one sitting – but then could be revising for days, weeks or months. It’s very difficult to know when it’s done. It’s important to know when you’re editing, if you are still improving the piece or if you’re now just avoiding letting it go. There’s an early poem in the book that I removed and put back in the same comma four or five times between drafts. It can be maddening – so it’s important to let the poems breathe. If I read back over a poem, and think to myself: “I don’t know who wrote that, but it wasn’t me.” Then it’s probably done. It’s typical imposter syndrome.

Can you tell us a little bit about your collection? Where it started?  

For the past three years I have been the writer and host of Fireside: The Irish Storytelling Podcast. When the pandemic arrived, I retreated to my Wicklow home and tried to hone and further develop my craft. In Celtic society it took seven years to become a bard, and twelve years to become a poet. So I had some studying to do. I think the greatest versions of myths we have were adapted by poets, from Homer to Robert Graves to Thomas Kinsella. So to become a better Fireside Bard, I sat in the poet’s corner. 

I stumbled upon a course online at The Oxford School of Poetry. It was an intensive one year individual programme taught entirely online, by the school’s founder Dr. Kirsten Norrie (who performs under her Highland name McGillivrey) and would build towards a manuscript of poetry that would be ready for publication.

This course was without exaggeration, the thing that got me through the first year of the pandemic. (That and watching the entire Disney canon with my mother, and going for daily coffees with my brother, our friend, and his baby son.) 

What would you consider the main focus of Gardensea? Did you know what direction you wanted to take it in, or did it evolve on its own?

The thing I like about myths or old lore is it doesn’t matter at what point in history you look at, we all have the myths in common. If you’re looking at Shakespeare, he had Dante before him but before that it was Ovid and the Greeks. Everyone had the myths before them. And growing up I was always more familiar with Greek mythology and other cultures and stories but not really my own.

The idea for the collection Gardensea came from my home. County Wicklow doesn’t often get a look in when it comes to Irish folklore and mythology – so I wanted to create a neo-myth of Wicklow. It was an idea that seemed to be personal but with enough breathing room to see what kind of poetry came naturally. There are 59 pieces in the finished book – ranging from breakfast haiku to a travel diary epic of St. Kevin.

Something that jumped out at me from the collection was a hint towards religion/catholicism – the fallen angel trope. Was that intentional or did it just come about?

Religion is still a potent subject in this country, it is something that I feel some trepidation when dealing with it. But I don’t think I consciously thought, oh I want to write about religion. When I was studying poetry, one of the things I was most interested in was angels as subject matter – the angel as watcher. They allowed me to write about myself more objectively. 

Certainly Saint Kevin is a recurring figure in the book. Both because he’s my namesake but also the patron saint of County Wicklow. So he was this Wicklow Cú Chulainn or this Wicklow god. But he was a real person, alive in the 5th century. Pagan belief would have been very strong at this time. He would have been one of the first students of St. Patrick and would have been in this very pagan world. So I didn’t see them as mutually exclusive. 

When Synge was on the Aran islands, he heard this story from the very devout Catholic people living there. They believed that the faeries were fallen angels who after the fight with Lucifer were deemed not evil enough for hell but were thrown out of heaven. So they were spared and allowed to float around the earth. And they were the ones who gravitated towards Ireland. And I just loved how this contextualised something that seemed a total contradiction – Catholocism and paganism. And I loved how that could then that tie in with Paradise Lost and Milton and the fight for heaven.

How have you found the process of self publishing Gardensea? Did it give you a lot of freedom? Were there any challenges you didn’t expect in the process? 

The two best pieces of advice I have read about independent publishing so far are: once the book is done, it’s no longer your baby – it’s a product, and once that product is finished – begin the next one. These came from an incredible book called: Write. Publish. Repeat by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant – which everyone interested in self-publishing should read at least twice. 

It was hard to let go of Gardensea, but once it was sent to the printer, there was officially nothing more I could do to change it, the writer was dead, and I was now a salesman. So during the editing, design and printing of the poetry book, I wrote a novel. I think the most important thing this experience has taught me, is to not hinge my self-worth on the success or failure of Gardensea. This is a very common problem for artists, and something I have suffered from in the past. It’s poison for your creativity and your mental health.

The process of self-publishing has been a daily education. Every typo, every single last thing is your responsibility – there’s no one else to blame. But that also means there’s total freedom and autonomy. It comes as a surprise to some who meet me, but naturally I’m very much an introvert. Anxiety sometimes prevents me from playing well with others, so I work well on my own. But, it’s also important to know what you can and can’t do yourself. Overall I would recommend independent publishing to writers to appreciate every single facet that goes into a book in the long journey from when the writing is done to when it’s in a reader’s hands.

The biggest element I outsourced was the cover. I met a graphic designer named Ellen Green on Old Head Beach in County Mayo, who came from the Mourne Mountains – I kept in touch with Ellen, and really liked her work – I felt her style would really mesh with Gardensea, and I think I was right about that at least. Because people do judge a book by its cover!

You can order Gardensea by Kevin C. Olohan here on the HeadStuff Shop.

There is a treasure trove of poetry on HeadStuff – find our extensive back catalogue of Poem of the Week here.