A portrait of the artist on holidays.
I've known Maynooth man John Doyle for the past decade, give or take. A thoughtful and gregarious character, he has dedicated much of his life to running away from anything resembling cliche.
He is, it is fair to say, a unique character, and any encounter leaves you pondering - in the best possible way - what used to be called 'life's rich pagent'.
I once saw him draw laughter from a roomful of people when he introduced himself - with complete sincerity - as a “pig farmer from Texas”.
In his biography on Amazon, where his new book of poetry is for sale, he describes himself thus: “When not spending time on his whitewashed front-porch swing in the perpetual cool-warmth of late April waving at passing cars and chatting with the pizza delivery man, he likes nothing better than to feed chickens on his imaginary farm in rural County Kildare.”
Funny - yes; fascinating - yes; interesting - oh yes; plain spoken - God forbid!
Last Tuesday evening over a decaf cup of coffee (him, not me) in Maynooth he was more serious and direct than I've ever seen him. And it was accompanied by what I'd diagnose as a sense of contentedness.
Listening to him talking about his writing, there is a sense that after many years of slightly unfocused meandering, he has found his groove, his fifth gear if you like, and there's no stopping him.
He will probably shudder in disgust at all the cliches in that last sentence.
Street Lime, by John Doyle
He has just released a book of poetry called ‘A Stirring at Dusk’. The title refers less to any theme in the poetry, and more to “that sense that, at 41 years of age right now, I’ve been writing on and off for 22 years, so I feel like it’s approaching night time now - when all of a sudden, something is happening.
“The cover photo portrays that - you see a bare tree and night time coming in, but then there’s a kind of blast of orange. It’s not just a case of day and night, there’s something else happening in between.
“So there’s a kind of theme in that sense, a rousing of the spirits. The production of the book is in itself the theme.”
I asked how much of the past 22 years were spent writing this book.
“That’s a hard question to answer. There are 30 plus poems in it and over the last year and a half I’ve had about 20 different drafts and rejected by at least 50 different publishers.
“I just kept chopping and changing. Of the poems on the very first draft, there’s only two that have survived, that have made the final cut.
“‘Man of the Hinterlands’, which I wrote about my grandfather - my mother’s father - made the full journey intact, made it from the ACME headquarters to the publisher without being damaged.”
“Seaweed is another one.”
After all his work re-writing and re-submitting to countless publishers, it was the small and independent Pski’s Porch Publishing in the US that finally went for him.
“I think the problem with Irish publishers is that they want everybody to be like Paul Muldoon or Michael Longley.
“They sort of expect it to fit a kind of academic form, whereas American publishers are more interested in people who are a little bit more….what could you say...lightning in a bottle, zeitgeist-type poets. People who write maybe more like (Charles) Bukowski, people who are more interested in writing poems from a bar window, looking out at the street rather than somebody sitting in the college hoping to impress the professor.”
To illustrate this he refers to few people who helped him out.
“There was a writer called Steven Storrie who is credited in the book, he was fantastic. I just started talking to him online less than a year ago, but I found him to be really helpful.”
He described Storrie as one of those poets “who don’t wear the leather sleeve patches and the cravat. There’s far too much of that in Irish writing. It can be very cliquey at times. And it’s not a class based thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re upper class or middle class or working class. There’s a poet class itself in Ireland.”
When he was speaking about the ‘stirring at dusk’ theme, he spoke of the picture at the back of the book.
“I love that picture - that’s my aunt’s bedroom. There’s light coming in through the window, possibly a dusty, slightly dark bedroom, but some sense of it being illuminated.
“I actually took that the day she died. That was literally her bedroom. I remember being upstairs and I heard rattling downstairs and it wasn’t freaky, in the sense of hearing a ghost or spirits. It was a sense that she was coming back just one last time to make sure everything was tidy!”
Since 2012, Doyle has had a lot of experiences. There’s been relationships and jobs and travelling.
“I’d been to, like, 20 different countries, and I wasn’t really taking anything on board. It was like a whirlwind, almost like somebody who was in a band for the first time and didn’t really appreciate what was happening.
“I left a job in the summer of 2014, and I had a lot of family members who passed away, and a lot of misfortune in other jobs. I was with my parents at the start of February 2015, and we were driving home from Kilcock, and we stopped….I don’t know the name of the area, one of those side roads out there," he says gesturing vaguely west.
“They went for a walk and kinda outed me as a poet. They told me, 'you really need to start writing again'. I didn’t know that they knew that I wrote. I hadn’t written for about six or seven years at that stage. I hadn’t written since October 2008. I used to write in bursts, from July 1995 to summer of 2000. And I’ve about a thousand poems from that period - and in truth I wouldn’t use them to light the fire. They were atrocious - absolutely horrific.
Welts, by John Doyle
“At the time around 1997, 1998, I was sending stuff to Poetry Ireland, which is like a 45 year old walking out of the pub, pissed drunk and can barely kick a football heading over to Barcelona hoping to get a trial with them.
“There’s nothing there, nothing of any value. They’re just words thrown on a page. I was trying to look for the inspiration, whereas what happened to me since about 2012 is that the inspiration came to me. It was like poems saying to me, they wanted to be written. It’s like what Keith Richards said about writing songs. “I didn’t write them, they came looking for me”.
“Experience helps too,” he says, “Particularly travelling. And it’s not even travelling. You could go to Corsica and see some amazing monument, or to Prague and see the Communist Museum, and you’re looking out the window, and you see some guy tying his laces - that’s where the poetry happens.
“It’s not the immediate, it's the kinds of things happening in and around what is immediate.”
It turns out that the stirring at dusk is not a one-off.
“I’ve one collection ready to go, about 90% ready. There’s about 60 poems in it,” although he does admit that he might well jettison some or all of them. I suggest to him that he’s quite ruthless about them.
“Oh, you have to be. Look at all the stuff Bob Dylan has thrown on the cutting room floor, even now. And he obviously liked it originally, because he wouldn’t have recorded it in the first place. But then two weeks later he listens to it again and just throws it away.
“I’ve maybe two collections ready. But then I could go through them next week and get rid of everything and start again.”
Is there a place in 21 st century, social media obsessed society for poetry? I ask.
“There are a lot of great writers online, like Ryan Quinn Flanagan, a Canadian poet - people like that who can write poems about sitting in bars or in combine harvesters going past the big open dust bowl, or poems about fields full of wheat and pickup trucks driving through them - that’s the kind of stuff I like. And there’s certainly a place for that.”
When you write about the pick-up truck, are you writing about a pick-up truck or are you infusing it with meaning, I asked.
“You hope the meaning comes, because it all depends what you mean by meaning. A metaphor creates itself often. Poetry is often based on the visual. You find often you’ll write something and by fluke, it happens to mean something. You might write something with a biblical reference - the book of Exodus or the Book of Genesis and purely by fluke the next line will happen to match something that happened. And somebody will say, ‘Wow I got that’.
‘Got what? I didn’t even know that was there.’
"There’s meanings you find and meanings you create and there’s meanings that are there whether you like it or not. There are meanings that create themselves. You go back to Keith Richards, sitting in his hammock, playing his guitar and the riff comes looking for him. I think maybe when you have a certain experience in life, that kind of sparks something."
Does he regret the 20 years when he didn’t come to that conclusion, or is he happy to go along with everything in its own good time?
“I’m happy now because 20 years ago I was just writing for the sake of writing. And the fact is, for argument sake, even if those poems were been good enough I don’t think I really appreciated them.
“I hadn’t travelled much at that stage, hadn’t been to college. I was thinking in a very one dimensional sort of way. You can’t really write if you’re thinking very one dimensionally. You’re just putting words on a page. But I’ve a sense of appreciation for what I’m doing now and I’m very grateful that I can do it now and to all the higher powers in the universe that helped and all the people around me.
“I’d no appreciation for that 20 years ago. I could say looking back, even from the point of view of October 2008 to February 2015, that gap when I wasn’t writing, I had done very little by the time I was pushing 33, but by the time I was 39, I had done more in those six and a half years that I probably would have done in the 20 years previous to that - travel, relationships, fancy jobs and ‘off the cuff’ experiences. I was in tune with stuff around me - no way I was in tune with it before then.”
“It’s good to have it, while you have it.”
I ask if making a living out of his poetry is an option? The question prompts a classic Doyler-ism.
“I’d like to make a few million out of this book. Anything else would just be greedy.
“You have to know your station in life, don’t you?”