Doire Press, €12.00
"No-one ever got the hanging of a door right first time round," says Adam White, a joiner from Youghal, East Cork, in his début poetry collection, Accurate Measurements.
But in this case, he may well be wrong, as the carpenter-turned-poet has just been shortlisted for one of the prestigious Forward Prizes in England.
The £5,000 Felix Dennis Award for Best First Collection is the most coveted prize on these islands for a début poet. What is delightfully surprising is that Adam’s publisher is Doire Press, a small independent press based in Connemara, unlike the other short-listed collections from heavy-weight publishing houses such as Faber & Faber, Bloodaxe Books and Seren Books.
Also surprising is the fact that Adam is an unlikely poet, as he worked for many years in the construction industry. But, after the economic crash, he went to college in Galway, where he studiedEnglish and French and also completed a masters degree.
He is now teaching in Normandy, so his life has changed dramatically in the last few years.
"After the collapse of the construction industry, I went to college in Galway and took a seminar on modern Irish poetry," said Adam. "We spent a few months doing close readings of Heaney, Derek Mahon, Mebdh McGuckian, Louis MacNeice, Evan Boland, Michael Longley, and others. Then a friend suggested we go along to the North Beach Nights poetry slam. Music has always been a big thing in my family, and it was the musicality of the poetry that attracted me. I decided to try writing, but felt that to recite in front of an audience, they had better be good poems!"
The big break came for him when John Walsh from Doire contacted him and said he and Lisa Frank would be interested in publishing his poetry.
"That was a huge confidence boost," said Adam.
His apprenticeship in poetry was similar to his approach to carpentry.
"The way to learn how to hang a door right is by watching someone who knows how to do it," he said. "So with poetry, I learned simply by reading."
Heaney had a big impact on him. "I discovered that you could use straightforward English ("All I know is a door into the dark"), that comes from somewhere deep at the same time." In fact, it was Heaney who turned him on to poetry. "I learned from the way in which he drew on his childhood experiences on the farm. It was an inspiration, as I really missed working on the building sites — wrapping up an old job, starting another, gradually getting better at specific tasks, the lunch with the lads, etc. Suddenly I felt that there was something important there to write about, because it had disappeared. I’m not saying I thought I’d be able to write poetry like Heaney’s! I just mean that it made me think that maybe all the work I had done as a carpenter could be turned into poetry."
Based in Normandy, Adam found that the new landscape also found its way into his poems.
"I had never lived in the countryside before, and never been around animals. The first house we lived in was beside a farm, and we let a neighbour use our back garden for his donkeys to graze. There were woods nearby for walks where I saw plenty of squirrels and birds. A few nature, or animal, poems slipped into the book. It therefore widened the range of subjects that interest me, and widened my interest in poetry too," he said.
But it’s not just craftsmanship, nature and animals that you’ll find in Adam’s book. "I also put in a few poems about characters. This is because I find people and the stories they have to tell, more inspiring than places," said Adam.
"I particularly love poetry where a character, perhaps even a character’s whole life, seems to be summed up, as if the poet had somehow understood what it was to live the life of that person. There’s Philip Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ and a poem called ‘Dick Straightup’ by Ted Hughes for example. These poems made me want to have a go at getting the same sort of thing, as if I too could preserve a person in a poem."
Adam misses his work as a joiner, "but I try to recreate the woodwork, the sounds, smells and pleasures of it, in my poems," he said. "The book was always going to be devoted to my experience in, and love of, the building trade. But too much poetry about building might turn some people away. In the end, I only kept the construction poems that seemed the most personal. I also wanted the book to be varied, and something that would be a good read even for someone who isn’t turned on by poems about roofing, hanging doors or working a shovel to mix up a gauge of concrete.’
Adam hasn’t abandoned his first love entirely. "I’m actually reroofing my brother’s house in Germany at the moment." But he hasn’t put his pen down either. "I haven’t written a lot of poems since Accurate Measurements was published, but I feel those I have written have turned out a bit differently, so I’m happy about that."
He is reading Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems. "I remember that Robert Frost said you don’t write a poem until you have something to say. Well, Philip Larkin definitely worked on that basis — in simple language, about things important to us all. I’m trying to do this in the poems I’m writing for a second book, but I won’t say any more than that!’
The winners of the Forward Prizes for 2013 will be announced in October.
Buy this book
- Afric McGlinchey’s début poetry collection, The lucky star of hidden things, was published in 2012. She was the recipient of the Hennessy Poetry Award for 2010 and the Northern Liberties Poetry Award (USA) for 2012.