JOHN FITZGERALD, 52, could be said to be a late starter in the poetry stakes. But having started writing seriously only four years ago hasn’t stopped the head librarian at University College Cork from making great strides. He won the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award last year and is shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards, which will be announced today.
Also a member of the six-strong jury for RTÉ’s ‘A Poem for Ireland’, Fitzgerald recently attended the prestigious Key West Literary Seminar in Florida.
While Fitzgerald’s literary leaning was evident during his student days at UCC where he attended poetry-writing workshops in the company of luminaries Greg Delanty and Louis de Paor, he desribes he work back then as “juvenilia”. He says there is a part of him that resists trying to explain why he resumed writing in his sixth decade.“I suppose there were a number of life projects that had reached relative completion. I’ve been successful in my career. My family is established. All our four children are very happy and healthy. I took on the family home and farm in Lissarda. That required a lot of work. There was a sense of having reached the top of a hill. Also, and more significantly, I felt I had life experience, enough to write about.”
Fitzgerald says writing poetry requires courage, because the Irish literary scene is so competitive and the standard is so high. “There is nothing I would want to do less than impose bad poetry on the world. So what I’m doing is not without a lot of forethought.”
Fitzgerald says his task for the year ahead is to work with a publisher. (His Patrick Kavanagh award was for an unpublished collection of poetry.) “I’m trying to publish in journals as much as I can to get some sort of readership that will enhance my chances of working with a good publisher. What attracts me to publishing in addition to the sense that it means your work is appreciated by an audience, is the prospect of working with a good editor. I’d really value that opportunity to improve my craft. That motivates me as much as getting out there in print.”
A perfectionist, Fitzgerald says it can take a long time before he releases a poem. “My attitude is that it takes a long time to reach ‘closure’. A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” he says, quoting the late French poet and critic, Paul Valery.
Fitzgerald’s subject matter comes from landscape, a sense of place, travel, and everyday life. His poem, ‘Hen Boy’ is about his son, Nicholas, who is totally at ease with animals. “He invested half of his confirmation money in a hen run. He bought six hens. He loves managing them, feeding them, gathering their eggs, and selling them.”
Fitzgerald isn’t surprised that there is still such a huge interest in poetry in this country. “Patrick Kavanagh used to joke that in any one day, there’s a standing army of 40,000 Irish poets. Judging from my experience, there’s a standing army of 400,000 poetry lovers at any one time. I think poetry is extremely strong in our society and in our education. It’s to do with the way people think about themselves and their lives. There’s huge openness to poetry.”
Up to March 8, the public can nominate one poem from a 10-strong shortlist for ‘A Poem for Ireland’ which will be announced on March 13. The campaign, in partnership with Poetry Ireland and An Post, aims to get people talking about the poems they feel are the most-loved Irish poems of the past 100 years.
Fitzgerald joined the jury, which includes retired news anchor Anne Doyle and singer Damien Dempsey, for a day to narrow down the 450 nominated poems. “We were presented with the nominations in rank order and were asked to individually select our top 10 and then merge them to form a consensus. There’s no further involvement from the jury. It’s up to the public.”
Fitzgerald describes Paul Durcan, who is on the shortlist, as the most popular reader of his poetry in the country. “The Heaney poem [‘While All the Others Were Away at Mass’] we chose was deliberately not one of his top three. We were concerned that people would automatically vote for ‘Digging’ or ‘Midterm Break’ if we put them on the list. We hope we’ve made a selection that will make people think and have a conversation around poetry.”
While Heaney is one of Fitzgerald’s favourite poets, he says there are other excellent purveyors of the craft in Ireland. “Derek Mahon would be one of them. He deliberately maintains a low public profile. Thomas Kinsella is another extraordinary poet. There are so many great poets, including Paul Muldoon.”
Fitzgerald also points to Cork’s poetic tradition. “There is still that very strong Cork school, as it were, leading on from Sean Lucey and John Montague who taught at UCC. You have Gerry Murphy, Theo Dorgan, and Tom McCarthy, an honorary Cork poet. There are the Innti poets [published in the UCC Innti Journal in the early 1970s] that included Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Gabriel Rosenstock. You had Sean Ó Riordáin and Sean Ó Tuama around at that time as well as Sean Ó Riada.”
Fitzgerald is following in a fine tradition of wordsmiths. But he is reluctant to call himself a poet just yet. “I haven’t published a book of poetry so I see myself as a maker of poems at the moment,” he says. But at this rate of success, he will surely have to refer to himself as a poet very soon.
The winner of the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award which will be announced today