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Niall Bourke is originally from Kilkenny, in Ireland, but now lives in London. In 2015 he completed an MA (with distinction) in creative writing at Goldsmiths University of London. He writes both poetry and prose and has been published in a number of journals and magazines in the UK and Ireland, including Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Tasters Pamphlet, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Magma Poetry and Eyewear Publishing’s The Best New British And Irish Poetry Anthology 2016 and 2017. He has been and shortlisted for the Over The Edge New Writer Of The Year Award (2015, 2016 and 2017), The Bare Fiction Poetry Prize, The Costa Short Story Award, The International Cambridge Short Story Prize and The Melita Hume Poetry Prize for the best first collection by a poet under 35. In 2017 he was one of twelve poets selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series, which culminated in a reading at Poetry Ireland as part of the International Dublin Literary Festival. His debut poetry collection, a perverse novella in verse called ‘Did You Put The Weasels Out?’ was published by Eyewear press in early 2018. You can find out more at niallboukewriter.com or follow at @supersplurk
Which poets have influenced you the most, in your work?
Because ‘Weasels’ varies so much between strict form and free verse, this is probably going to be quite an eclectic mix. The single biggest influence was undoubtedly Vikram Seth’s ‘The Golden Gate’ (which I really couldn’t recommend highly enough to anyone who is unfamiliar with it) and, then almost by proxy, Eugene Onegin by Pushkin. But, outside those two, I made a conscious effort while I was writing to seek out new stuff, to move away from what might be called ‘the classics’, the type of things I read in school (and that I still read and teach in school – I’m an English teacher).
Things which I came across and which influenced on me in some way (and all of which I’d heartily recommend of course) were Jack Underwood’s debut collection Happiness (“I could go around all evening dropping slices of lime/into other people’s drinks, because it’s easy to give/away fractions of happiness. But bad news ticks in the kettle as it rests”), Luke Kennard’s ‘The Harbour Beyond the Movie’ (particularly the set of poems ‘Interview With The Elements’), Chelsea Minnis (“it hurts like a puff sleeve dress on a child prostitute”), Jennifer L. Knox, Jerricho Brown, Chrissy Williams’ wonderfully absurd debut ‘Bear’, Mark Waldron, Wayne Holloway-Smith (who I sent a copy of ‘Weasels’ to as thanks even though he has never met me and now I hope he doesn’t find me too creepy), Emily Berry’s debut ‘Dear Boy’, Thomas Transtömer, Robert Hass, Denis Johnson’s ‘The Monk’s Insomnia’ – and there is more. Basically, I see what you write as a function of what you’re reading so my philosophy is cast the net far and wide and throw back nothing; no matter how small or strange it seems on first glance.
In one of the quotations on the back of your new book, Luke Kennard, likens the verse-novel to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and you directly reference Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate in the book. In writing a verse-novel were you specifically writing into this genre or did it start with individual poems, and a pattern began to emerge?
Following the Onegin Sonnet structure (the form used by Pushkin in ‘Eugene Onegin’ and then borrowed from him by Seth in ‘The Golden Gate’) was a deliberate decision from the start. Firstly, I was enraptured by the verbal dexterity and playfulness in ‘The Golden Gate’ and wanted to explore something similar. Secondly, I was interested in following a restrictive form for both the challenge and the creativity it might throw up. Auden makes the supreme argument for form in that it matters if even only to make you think twice about everything you write.
So I was very interested in exploring what creative cul-de-sacs the strict restraints of the Onegin sonnets would force me down. I’d seen something similar in the writing of George Perec.
Perec was a member of Oulipu, a group of writers who explored the creative effects of placing mathematical constraints on their writing. Perec used these constraints to write not only an entire novel without the letter ‘e’ (which was then translated from French to English still without using an ‘e’!) but also his novel, ‘Life, a User’s Manual’, which was structured based on an ancient chess problem about a knight traversing a chessboard. I was really interested in the effects of tight formal constraints on the creative process.
At this point, a note on form in the novel might be useful. The Onegin Sonnet is written in tetrameter (as opposed to pentameter, which is much more common in English). It also follows an unusual rhyme scheme: AbAbCCddEffEgg, where the lower case letter denotes a ‘feminine’ line. As Stanley Mitchell explains in his introduction to his recent translation of ‘Eugene Onegin’ the Onegin sonnet is unique in that “The iambic tetrameter is an octosyllabic line with weak and strong beat repeated four times (as in ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’). This is the so called ‘masculine’ rhyme which has a strong stress on the final syllable. The ‘feminine line’ adds an extra unstressed syllable (‘The boy stood on the burning vessel’)…It is a succinct line which can be used more flexibly in Russian…English is more monosyllabic.” Mitchell goes on to say that tetrameter brings with it an inherent ‘lightness’ (this lightness and playfulness is what had attracted me to it the Onegin stanza) but warns one danger of tetrameter in English is it can easily degenerate into a jingle.
The ‘female’ rhyme is somewhat unusual in English (‘female’ rhymes are much more prevalent in Russian, in part because of the Russian conjunctions ‘i’ and ‘a’, for example, which mean ‘and’ and ‘but’, can be repeated melodically, whereas the repetition of their equivalents in translation will be rebarbative. I found that English ‘feminine’ endings tend to be words ending with ‘-y’, ‘-tion’ or ‘-ing’. I also found that I could ‘cheat’ by adding an ‘s’ when needed, as the final ‘s’ of a plural can be engineered to read as one or two syllables as needed (take shoe/shoes for instance). This is why one protagonist has a one syllable name (‘Mark’) and one has a name with an extra but mostly unstressed syllable (‘Jenny’ – which I could then render as the monosyllabic diminutive ‘Jen’ when needed).
However, all this makes working within the Onegin constraint in English particularly challenging – but gratifying when the desired rhyme is achieved.
One of the biggest joys of reading ‘The Golden Gate’ was watching Vikram Seth writing himself down a seemingly blind alley only to perform a feat of amazing verbal dexterity
that not only met the viciously tight constraint but also credibly progressed the narrative, described the setting, revealed something about the protagonists or, on many occasions, managed all three at once. This is something I was hoping to replicate.
The free verse poems then grew out of a need for a break from the constraints of the form, they are meant to act almost as arias in an opera, allowing the narrative to step out of itself and lift off its mask (or perhaps put one on), to address the audience in a voice it was keeping hidden.
In ‘Did you Put The Weasels Out?’ you experiment with form, structure and some of the poems are laid out unconventially on the page including charts and clouds. Could you explain how that came about, and your use of form? Also the commentary that you include through the footnotes, includes some of the funniest and most interesting moments in the book. How did the inclusion of footnotes come about?
Following on from above, both the playfulness of the form and the footnotes arose out of necessity. The Onegin sonnets proved to be rather difficult. They were often creaking under the combined weight of having to advance the narrative, develop a sense of character and also be poetic in their own right. Editing became fiendish because changing even one word for the sake of the narrative meant disrupting the meter and the rhyme scheme and vica-versa, there was an ever-present battle for dominance between the form and the narrative. I considered dropping the Onegin constraint for a while but then hit upon a solution. I decided to use a ‘gloss’ to explain parts of the narrative (an idea that came from Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’). This would help to lift the strain from the Onegin sonnets and let them ‘breathe’ as poems in their own right.
But I didn’t want the high-seriousness of Coleridge so, after reading ‘Pale Fire’ by Vladimir Nabokov and ‘House of Leaves’ by Mark Z Danielewski, I decided to be more a bit more adventurous. I added to the glosses a series of footnotes and clarifications, deliberately making it unclear as to who was ‘writing’ these asides. This allowed for a self-referential and metafictional playfulness in the text, allowing me to keep some of the more convoluted rhymes by drawing attention to their very contrivance. Some of the stranger formal experimentation came from reading Richard Brautigan, particularly his book ‘Sombrero Fallout’ (which is about a writer whose book starts writing itself after he throws it in the bin). This is where I got the idea for the poem to interject into the narrative and start narrating itself.
Humour is an obvious component within the verse-novel, how important is the connection between poetry and humour for you, especially with the link that you make in you book to the everyday absurd, like in the final poem ‘The Warp-spasm’?
In short – very. Not that I think poetry should be or needs be a stand-up comedy routine. But basically I think too much poetry takes itself too seriously and a bit of laughter would do it some good. Life is great, but it’s ridiculous too, and even more so when you have to navigate the morass of social mores that often impinge on even the most mundane of tasks. I mean I’ve been to poetry readings where 20 year olds are reading out very well written but very earnest poems about the Second World War or excellently crafted and exacting re-imaginings of Socrates’ final hours and I can’t help wondering why they’re not writing about what happened to their cousin at the weekend out in Mulinahone or about the utter absurdity of what their estate agent charged them for half of a rancid cupboard in Peckham. Not that World War II or Greek myth aren’t valid topics, they are of course.
But for me it made more sense to start by writing a bit more honestly (and by this I suppose I mean more humorously rather than in any melodramatic or lyric sense of emotional honesty, I think there is too often a preoccupation with ‘emotional honesty’ in poetry which is well-meaning but over-wrought and thus reduces the poem to little more than catharsis for the writer) about things that were at least a bit closer to home before I started to write about the battle of Salamis. I really had no interested in publishing a debut of lyric epiphanies or earthy rustics or childhood re-imaginings. And not that any of these aren’t valid forms of poetic expression, they most certainly are and I really want to stress this point.
I mean I love Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Mirror in February’ – and that is Lyric and epiphanical and bucolic all in one! Poetry is broad church and so it should be, but I guess I’m more interested in loitering out in the carpark smoking fags than in sitting up the front pews in my Sunday frock. I was coming from a place where I thought there is already enough of that stuff out there and I certainly wasn’t going to be able to add anything to it so I wanted to do something a bit different. This may not be to everyone’s taste, of course. And my tendency towards puerility and linguistic indulgence may irritate rather than amuse. But ultimately I want to write what I feel is overlooked in poetry: poems that, by being absurd and in celebrating rhyme and language, are therefore able to celebrate the inherent playfulness and absurdity of life itself.
In the book you reference Gaelic words, and include aspects of Irish culture like lines from the Brendan Behan song Auld triangle. How important was your Irish heritage to the book?
More than I realised it seems! I didn’t set out to write something distinctly Irish – or maybe even ‘Oirish’ – but I kept coming back to it. I’ve lived away from Ireland since 2005, I was there just as the Celtic Tiger was on its upward curve (100% mortgages and new cars for 21 year olds’ as standard) and I was away for the subsequent crash and all the smouldering anger and soul-searching that went on.
So when I sat down to write I suppose I felt a bit dislocated. I mean being Irish abroad had always been a defining part of my identity, maybe one I’d even played up to – you know, singing songs you’d never dream of singing at home and all that kind of nonsense – but now here I was looking back at Ireland from abroad and I felt that I just couldn’t write about it. I just felt that I lacked any sort of knowledge or authority to write about either the excesses of the boom (which I gleefully participate in – I mean I didn’t even realise they were excesses at the time because I was too young and had nothing to compare them to) or the then subsequent fallout of the crash (which hadn’t really affected me).
So I think this sense of dislocation, this sense of anaesthetised post-Celtic Tiger Irishness, kept drawing me back to write about the Ireland I did know – that being the big, national myths of my childhood
But I didn’t want to do so in a rose-tinted or Yeatsy kind of way. I wanted to infuse it with another Ireland that I knew; that being the distinctly un-epic and small town mythologies of my youth – those stories of carnivalesque and irreverent bollox-acting that made up a large part my teens and early twenties, the sort of half-measured eejitry that can seem very strange to people approaching it from a more staid Anglo-Saxon perspective. I remember trying explain the concept of simply doing something just ‘for the craic’ to a German lad in a youth hostel once and although he certainly wasn’t against it in any way, I don’t think he really fully understood it for the legitimate cultural-driver of decision making that I saw it be growing up. I guess these were the two Irishnesses I was trying to explore – which may also link to the point above about my interest in poetic humour.
What are you reading at the minute?
Poetry- Jenna Clake’s ‘Fortune Cookie’, a poet who we will surely be hearing a lot more about in the near future. Prose – ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G Sebald. No finer description of the Norfolk coast will you find. And it also has a chapter about how Roger Casement met Joseph Conrad in The Congo.
What creative project are you working on at the minute?
I’ve nearly finished a short story collection of inter-locking tales that, by the end, all fit together to become a novel.
Did You Put The Weaseles Out? is published by Eyewear and available here
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