Stephen Murphy is one of the nicest guys in Irish Poetry. Humble to a fault, and a little shy of his own success there is no arguing that he is indeed a poet of the people. His work is scathing, controversial, warm and full of insight into Ireland today. He tackles the things which matter to us as a nation, and has performed to over 100,000 people on the streets of Dublin as part of national political demonstrations. His work has been featured in the RTE Documentaries ‘A Rebel Act- Poems That Shaped the Nation’ and ‘Independent’s Day’ and has regularly been endorsed by leading figures in Irish political circles. He’s one half of Mac Tire, a collaboration between himself & the musician Archaic Revival, with an album ‘Of Land & Man’ set for release next month. It’s hard to imagine how he found the time to answer my considerably nosey questions, between juggling his young family, eating (in his words) far too many biscuits, and his substantial poetry career.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like your poetry, it’s very raw and real and in the moment, did this take a long time to master? How long have you been writing? Who are your influences in respect to the style you’ve adopted?
I’ve been writing for years, but as a craft I’ll always be learning and revising it. I’m certainly not a master of it! I’ve never really even been comfortable with calling myself a poet to be honest, just because I have too much respect for too many poets to group myself amongst them. People like Blake, Yeats, Kavanagh, R.S. Thomas, Plaith, Heaney, Rumi, these are poets, but I’m just some fella who uses words to try and put a bit of structure to my thoughts. I’ve always thought Poet is a title that should be given by others rather than claimed by the self anyway, so if people call me that then I’m honoured.
[pullquote] I have too much respect for too many poets to group myself amongst them [/pullquote] A lot of what I’m writing these days is influenced by the rhythm of rap or hip-hop I suppose, which by definition is raw and real and in the moment, and many of the self-proclaimed poetry purists wouldn’t be too quick to subscribe to my newsletter. I got lucky during my time in London to meet some incredible poets, people like Anthony Anaxagorou, Raymond Antrobus, Kate Tempest, Musa Okwonga, poets that were performing their work in a way that taught me that it doesn’t have to be the preserve of an elite
I find many Spoken Word Poets seem to spend more time choreographing their performance than they do writing the actual poems. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I’ll always remember the first time I saw Kate Tempest perform. I had the honour of being on stage before her (last in the open-mic before her headline set) and if I’d known how mind blowing it was gonna be I would’ve sat quietly in the corner instead. It was way back in around 2007 or 8. I can only remember how good she was. No dancing, no frills, no mic, just one gifted artiste with a packed room sitting in stunned silence while she brought us all in to her vision of the world.
You live out in the wilderness, can you tell us a bit about being in the Wilds of Leitrim? Do you feel this gives you a different perspective to poets in the city (engaging in the scene)? Does the quietness help? Is gigging tough when you’ve to travel so far?
[pullquote] For me it’s idyllic, for city minded people it’d probably be hell on earth! [/pullquote] I don’t belong to any scene so it’s definitely a different perspective! That doesn’t mean one is better than the other, but they’re completely different worlds. I’ve spent less time at open mic style events this year than last and less time at festivals just because making sure my little man is in nappies is more important to me than getting a free ticket to these things. I love Leitrim to bits, and I have a beautiful young family here, but the Dublin centric bias is definitely tough in ways, but that’s the way of this island, no matter what aspect of society you’re dealing with the theory goes that if it isn’t happening in Dublin it isn’t happening anywhere. I live at the foot of Ben Bulben, while some club-footed Frenchman was buried at the head in Drumcliff, so the area itself is really beautiful. Glencar Waterfall is a ten minute journey from the house and we’ve a little cottage on two acres in the middle of a forest. For me it’s idyllic, for city minded people it’d probably be hell on earth!
Your book is a wonderful snapshot of the work you do, I can almost hear your voice when I read it, how did go about making this transformation from stage to page? Which do you prefer? Do you think much about the difference between the two? Do you even think there is a difference?
The book came about because I had started doing performances when I came back from Korea and people came up to me asking if I’d anything for sale. There’s a place overlooking Lough Gill that I’m in love with known as The Sleeping Warrior because the mountains are in the shape of a giant’s grave, so I named the book after that. For something so organic I’ve been very lucky that it’s been so (stupidly) successful, and because it’s completely organic I’ve been told it’s become a bit of a collector’s item. We’re not making them anymore, just because I’ve moved on from where I was then and only a couple of the poems from it regularly make an appearance now in my gigs so I feel guilty in giving them to people.
I could write a book on Stage vs. Page. Maybe I should, it’d probably be a better book than a book of my poetry. I went in to see John Cooper Clarke last year when he was in Sligo, because his reputation preceded him as much as anything, and the only thing that really struck me was his showmanship. There seems to be this thing with him that people feel like he can’t be criticised but if I’m honest, I found his poetry was tacked together with more expletives than a rapper with tourettes, and the whole thing felt like a bit of a sham. It was still worth going to see his persona as a performer, but the poetry of the night belonged to Mike Garry, a Mancunian poet that was opening for him who stole the show.
You’re basically Ireland’s leading Spoken Word Poet – and the haters can’t really argue with YouTube views, so don’t even try to correct me – how does that feel? What was it like uploading that first video and the response, I assume, was alarming?
No I’m not. I don’t know who is but I don’t think it’s me. It feels ridiculous. I remember recording Was it for this? up at the cottage and getting devoured by the midges at the time. Rowan was two weeks old, asleep in the car and Chelsea was hitting the record button, up at a barn, a mile away from the nearest house. The only reason I recorded it was because I felt that it needed to get out into the world and with the baba I wouldn’t be doing as many gigs as I had been doing, but the reaction was fairly alarming alright. [iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/RTsBSTnuf84" align=”center”]
I remember waking to the news that I’d made Gerry cry – and thinking it must have been something to do with my father Gerry – but when someone sent me on a link to Gerry Adams’ Twitter feed it all became very surreal very quickly, and culminated in performing it in front of over 100,000 people outside the GPO in Dublin last October. At my usual rate of seeing around a dozen people a day these days, it’d take me 20 odd years to see as many people in Leitrim as were in front of me from that stage in Dublin. Looking back on it now just feels surreal to be honest, but at the time I was writing it in the forest I never could have imagined where those words would take me.
In terms of young poets following in your footsteps – what would you warn them about? What should they do differently? What have you learnt?
[p[pullquote]f your writing is your work, don’t give it away for free. [/[/pullquote]’ve learnt that the more you raise your head above the parapet, the more people there are waiting to beat you back down, so be prepared for the bitterness, and often in the places you might have expected the most support. I’ve also been fortunate to have some of the most beautiful messages of support from the places I’d least expect it from, and been fortunate that my support networks are very encouraging, so to be honest I couldn’t say I’ve done it the wrong way. Value what you do, even when others don’t, and if your writing is your work, don’t give it away for free.
I get annoyed that men never get asked about balancing their creative work with their families, and women do. Not because women/men shouldn’t be asked. It’s an interesting question for both, I think. How do you gain perspective and balance on your day to day life, bringing up your son and finding time for life (the real bits) and still write and tour so prolifically?
I don’t tour that prolifically for a start. I did a lot more last year than I do this year. I’ve taken a step back for a few reasons, like you say bringing up our little boy is the most important thing to me by a long shot. It’s a hard balance to find. Nigh on impossible when there’s two creative heads in the relationship. I’ve about twenty handwritten notebooks I’m looking to typeset at some stage from travels, stories, and possible books, that have been waiting for me to get back to them when I have the time. Since Rowan was born, things have taken a back seat, but it was also just after he was born that everything escalated very quickly. I’ve been working for the past 18 months on an album with the musician Archaic Revival, who doubles as one of my closest friends which is handy. We’ve an album currently in post-production called ‘Of Land & Man’ that I’m pretty excited about, but whatever happens with that, my priorities will always be with my family.
Why do you write? What is the purpose of your writing and if you could decide where poetry would take you where would that be?
I write to make sense of my world. I’d love if poetry brought me to a place where I could put a new roof on my cottage, be out in the garden with the little man and thinking to myself, this world that I’ve created has come from me staying true to myself. I was never sure what the purpose of it was, other than I got the tap on the shoulder from somewhere else that compelled me to do it, some voice from elsewhere that said ‘this is what you do so do it.’ I could’ve stayed on the gravy train elsewhere teaching English to kids, but I found myself more interested in teaching them Irish, and knew I had to come back.
I’m doing what I do to the best of my ability, and that’s all that I can ever ask of myself. Life imitates art, so as artists it’s up to ourselves to try and make the best art that we can. As a friend of mine once said ‘Being human is easy, if you try your best all the time you can’t possibly fail.’
You can follow Stephen on his Facebook poetry page or contribute to his fund it campaign here. He will be appearing as part of Lingo Festival in the Lyricbook at Smock Alley Theatre, and as part of the Allingham Arts Festival in Donegal on the 7th of November.