Simon Lewis is a primary school principal in Carlow Town. He is a member of the Carlow Writers Group. He was the winner of the 2015 Hennessey Prize for Emerging Poetry and featured in Poetry Ireland’s Poetry Introductions Series recently. He has been shortlisted for the Listowel Poetry Prize and Bridport Prize in 2014 and received special commendation in the Dromineer Literary Prize and the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Awards the same year. He has also been published in many literary journals and magazines including Boyne Berries, Blue Max Review, Irish Literary Review, Original Writing, Cyclamens and Swords, Silver Apples and Deep Water.
Can you start by just telling us a little bit about yourself?
I’m 36 and originally from Dublin. My life has been a series of happy accidents. I graduated as a computer scientist in 2001 just in time for the dotcom bubble to burst. By chance, I ended up in a classroom and fell in love with teaching. The first time I went to Carlow was to live there when I got my first job after qualifying as a teacher. I’m not really sure if I was meant to stay but in the 13 years I’ve been here, I’ve bought a house, got married, started a school up and have generally settled into the community. Of all the random towns to have ended up in, I feel lucky that it was Carlow. It’s often ignored but it’s got one of the most vibrant arts scenes in Ireland, which I’m happy to be part of.
What made you turn to poetry?
It was another happy accident. My wife, Rozz, was the writer in our house (I was more into computer programming as a hobby). One day, we saw an advertisement for a local writing group and she sent me out on a scouting mission. After a few months of playing around with creative writing, I befriended Derek Coyle, who now chairs the group and he challenged me to try out poetry. Through his mentorship, I found that I really enjoyed reading and writing poetry. For the record, Rozz did join the writing group and is a very fine short story writer herself.
How long have you been writing and what has the Poetry Introduction Series meant for you?
I can only honestly say I have been writing seriously for about 4 years learning the craft of poetry and still learning everyday. The Poetry Introduction Series was an amazing opportunity to read some of my work to an unfamiliar audience, which included some famous poets and writers. I was also very honoured that Poetry Ireland asked me to go on RTE Radio One to talk about the series with Rick O’Shea. You can’t buy opportunities as big as that!
What do you hope to explore through your poetry?
I really like the idea of picking something – an area, a piece of history, an experience, etc. and exploring the human feelings behind them. My current collection, Jewtown, explores the lives of Jewish immigrants who came to Cork City in the late 19th century. I really wanted to explore the theme of immigration and how people survived and integrated despite having nothing to start with. I also wanted to mirror what I felt any immigrant would feel coming to a country.
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 am just finishing my collection of poems called Jewtown, mentioned above and hopefully it will get published in Ireland. I’m already working on a second collection of poetry. It’s very early days so far and I have maybe 5 or 6 poems that I’d consider done with another dozen that are in early drafts.
Do you think poetry is for a niche audience or do you think social media is opening it up to new possibilities?
[pullquote] Most people’s relationship to poetry is from school and because of the focus on the points-race of the Leaving Cert, I feel that the heart of it can be ripped out. [/pullquote] I, now, don’t think poetry is for a niche audience but if you had have asked me 5 years ago I would have said it was. I think there’s probably an attitude that poetry is difficult or inaccessible. Most people’s relationship to poetry is from school and because of the focus on the points-race of the Leaving Cert, I feel that the heart of it can be ripped out. It’s not the fault of teachers – not all of them can be like Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society – they have to ensure that their students get through the process. I do remember being interested in poetry in secondary school at some point but by the end of it, I can safely say that I hated every single poem on the curriculum. Ironically, Epic by Patrick Kavanagh, which was in Soundings, is now my favourite poem. Perhaps something rubbed off!
What would you say has been the biggest influence on your writing? or who has been? or both?
The first two poets that spring to mind are Louise Gluck and Justin Quinn for completely different reasons. Louise Gluck’s poetry just made sense to me about what poetry can be about and Justin Quinn delighted me with his almost mathematical use of form.
Have you had, or do you have a mentor?
I would consider Derek Coyle to not only be a very close friend, but also my most important mentor. Derek is a former Poetry Introduction Alumni and chairs our local writing group. I have also been lucky to have been mentored by a number of established writers but I would single out Grace Wells as being the most encouraging and helpful of them all. Grace was the first famous poet to ever read my work and her first words to me when we sat down have inspired me to keep going on this poetry journey.
What do you hope to have done with your poetry in the next five to ten years?
I know it’s a boring answer but I would love to have a poetry collection published. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the most interesting people over the last few years through poetry and would love to continue with this.
What contemporary Irish poets are you impressed by?
Jane Clarke is my favourite contemporary Irish poet right now. Her first collection is out this month and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I’ve just finished collections by Jessica Traynor and Breda Wall Ryan and enjoyed them. There are a number of my colleagues on the Poetry Introduction Series who I already admire and it was a pleasure to hear some of them read their work.
Do you think Ireland is starting to move away from the idea of “typical Irish Poetry” and move towards something more contemporary? Where do you see yourself in terms of that movement?
[pullquote] I’m fairly introverted so the thoughts of poetry-slams and performance-poetry frightens the life out of me! [/pullquote] There are so many Irish poets doing different things today and doing it well that it is a certainty that “typical Irish poetry” is no longer the only flavour around. Dublin is always interesting and eclectic. One example is Karl Parkinson who is doing some really interesting stuff from a performance poetry point-of-view and then there seems to be a phenomenally massive scene in West Cork with the likes of Afric McGlinchy and others doing great work. Galway also seems to be delivering some political stuff from the likes of Kevin Higgins and Sarah Clancy and others. I’m fairly introverted so the thoughts of poetry-slams and performance-poetry frightens the life out of me! I don’t really see myself as being part of a particular movement. I am just enjoying writing and meeting all these great people who are bringing Irish poetry to new and interesting places.