Award winning UCC legal eagle has a poet’s eye

UCC law professor, John Mee, has been enjoying life since he was recently announced as the winner of the 2015 Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.
Award winning UCC legal eagle has a poet’s eye

Forty-nine-year-old Mee, who was born in Canada and has lived in Cork since he was seven, has been writing poetry since 1990. He was first drawn to short stories, but says there’s something about the compression of poetry that he likes.

Mee’s favourite poets are Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and Sinead Morrissey.

Mee, whose winning unpublished collection, entitled From the Extinct, shows restraint in his use of language. Just as precision in poetry appeals to him, so too does the exactness of the language of law. He also sees another similarity between poetry and academic law.

“As a legal academic, I’m involved in research that tries to get to the bottom of some complicated problem. It’s maybe more complicated than it would be for someone working in a legal practice. In common with poetry, there’s no end to legal research. You can never make an argument that is perfect enough. You can always look further and read something else in the same way that you can keep on refining a poem, taking out another comma.”

Mee says law can satisfy a hunger for words, but poetry is a different and more fulfilling vehicle for language, requiring immense patience.

“I haven’t been very quick with poetry. I entered the 2014 Patrick Kavanagh Award [won by UCC’s chief librarian, John Fitzgerald] and my work was highly commended by the judge, Brian Lynch.”

Lynch said that in the space of a year, Mee “sharpened and focused his considerable natural gifts as a poet”.

Mee values the critical input of others and is a member of a poetry group at UCC. “I find it very helpful when people tell me that something isn’t right. It makes me push myself further. Not everyone would believe it, but I find feedback necessary. I would make small changes. I suppose, I find it hard to let a poem go.”

Over the years, Mee has been published in journals and, in 2008, he was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introduction Series.

“I’d like to finish my collection and get it published,” he says, implying that there is further refining to be done. As to whether he would rather have studied arts instead of law, Mee is practical. “It would have been nice to have done history and English, but there’s not much money in poetry — and it’s also nice to have a job.”

Mee’s varying subject matter includes a Victorian legal case and a retelling of a classical tale, as well as a sequence on loss inspired by the death of his father and grandfather.

Wreckage is an experimental poem.

“It takes lines from a legal judgement about a family that was washed overboard from a ship. Only one guy survived and the law had to figure out who died first, as the judge pointed out that this had legal implications in terms of the will.”

Mee’s poem, The Truth About Penelope, is his own take on the Greek myth of Penelope and her suitors. Married to the long-absent Odysseus, she has various suitors and says that she’ll marry one of them when she has finished weaving a shroud. “But at night, she rips up the shroud and starts weaving it again. I suggest that she is like an artist. She wanted to make the shroud perfect. Fidelity to her husband wasn’t the issue, but rather her art.” A perfectionist, just like Mee.

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