I’ve Been in a Pretty Constant State of Panic | An Interview with Oisin McKenna

Oisin Mckenna is a London and Dublin based writer and performer, working in poetry, theatre and film. He makes queer performances about Ireland, pop culture and politics. His most recent play Gays Against the Free State! (Dublin Fringe Festival, 2016) was nominated for Judges Choice Award at the Fringe Awards. Other work includes GRINDR / a love story (Dublin Fringe Festival, 2013) and Writer / Performer / Salesman (Project Arts Centre, 2013).

Would you be able to let me know how Eat Clean came about?

I started writing it in response to a number of unhealthy impulses and behaviors I was experiencing. Like a lot of people, for all of my adulthood I’ve been in a pretty constant state of panic that I’m not working hard enough, not achieving enough, that I’m not attractive enough, that my body doesn’t look good enough. And I understand that I only feel this way because the capitalist system we live in conditions people to feel that way, but I still experience the feelings in a real way. So I started writing this piece in response to that, and it’s become part of a broader project on mental health and neoliberalism, that I’ll be releasing over the course of the next year or so. I wrote most of Eat Clean at the beginning of 2017 and made the video for it at the start of 2018 with my brilliant friends Ro Murphy and Claire Murphy, who I know from Drogheda, where I grew up.

Who are your biggest influences poetry-related overall but also in relation to Eat Clean?

My favourite poet is probably Elaine Feeney, and I also like Claudia Rankine, Kate Tempest, and Frank O’Hara. But overall, I don’t actually read a huge amount of poetry, and most of my influences come from theatre, film, and to a certain extent, fiction. I like a lot of queer performance stuff (Penny Arcade, Bourgeois and Maurice, David Hoyle) and listen to a lot of punk music. For Eat Clean and other recent work, I’ve been quite influenced by Mike Leigh films, and the way he can make work about very sinister things couched in banality, and also Ali Smith’s recent books ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’ for the way she about writes the relationship between private, intimate events and big, unfathomable, global events.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3535DB” class=”” size=””]I’m also generally very influenced by advertising and marketing, and Eat Clean, like most of my work, involves some sort of subversion of marketing language.[/perfectpullquote]

When I want to write a poem like this, I usually read a lot of articles from Forbes or whatever, to get a sense of the kind of language that’s used in that world.

In terms of visuals, a major point of reference for the Eat Clean video was David Hoyle’s ‘The Divine David’ TV  show from Channel 4. We also got some ideas from the music videos for St. Vincent’s ‘Los Ageless’ and Charli XCX’s ‘Boys’.

You helped co-found the PETTYCASH collective, is collaborating with other artists an important aspect of how you work?

It is very important for some projects, but it depends on what kind of project it is, how the collaboration might work, whether the collaboration works in a hierarchical way or not. I do love and need to collaborate on certain kinds of work, but also, it can be very difficult and I do like to work by myself quite a bit.

You wrote and produced Gays Against The Free State, how was the process of being able to do both roles? Was this useful for you to have more roles in the production, did one help and support the other?

I produce most of my own work, and sometimes produce other people’s work, and there are lots of good things and some bad things about that. The process for writing and producing Gays Against the Free State was really great, but also pretty challenging. It was quite a big production with quite a tiny budget for the scale of show we wanted to make. So it was difficult to manage all those moving parts, on top of my full time day job. There can be some relationship between writing and producing, particularly in terms of developing marketing materials, managing publicity, and trying to create a public narrative around a show, but I think I’d like to get another producer on board for my next theatre project.

Do you find that your a better writer because you also work in theatre and film? Do you think one helps the other?

It definitely can do, and I think it can help improve your writing skills to write for different contexts for sure, but I think the main things that helps improve my skills are writing every day, reading broadly and actively drawing from a wide range of artistic, political and social influences.

How important is place to your work, specifically Ireland but also the local like Dublin?

Hugely important. I like work that is highly specific in terms of place and time, and am not that into in any work that deliberately aims for a timeless or ‘universal’ quality.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3535DB” class=”” size=””] Ireland and Dublin have been huge parts of my work, especially on projects like Gays Against the Free State, [/perfectpullquote]

but I now live in London most of the time, and that is very much starting to seep into the kind of work I make too.

How important is addressing contemporary political issues to your work?

Pretty much all of my work is about political issues to some extent, because that’s what I’m interested in and that’s what I think about all the time. But I’m interested in writing about the human impact of political discourses, and I think I’m moving away from a more polemic style of writing.

What are you reading at the minute?

I’m re-reading NW by Zadie Smith. I think it’s her best book and had the urge to re-visit it after moving to London.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a broader project about the relationship between neoliberalism and mental health. I’m putting out two more poetry videos from that in the first half of this year, and working on a screenplay. I’m also working on a new cabaret act, which I’m going to start doing in London in the first half of this year, and maybe in Dublin later in the year.

Submissions are open for all HeadStuff poetry categories, including Poem of The Week (Every Friday), Unbound (longer sequence of poems from a single poet), and New Voices (submissions from poets under the age of 30.) We accept both written, audio and video recorded poems as long as the quality of the audio and video is of a high standard.

Please see our Submissions page for more information.

Photo Credit to Ru Murphy