Photo: Frances Marshall
The Creative Islanders is a new interview series showcasing some of Ireland’s brightest creative talent and enterprise. It is about people who are stepping into their dreams, purpose and possibilities and embracing their one wild life.
The interviews give a rare ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into creative practice, motivations and mindsets- shining a light on what makes people tick, and how, collectively, Ireland is alive with creative possibility.
I think it is fair to say that Martin Dyar has a way with words. His poems pack powerfully gentle punches, turning you to cadences and verbal connections which you may never have experienced before. They become particularly alive when read aloud; his own renditions doing them the best justice. For a while I hosted a poetry evening in my home (soon to be reactivated!). On the occasions when Martin would come, he made the whole experience into treasure- his knowledge of poetry, and beyond it, his passion for poetry, would fill any room with light.
Martin’s debut collection of poems Maiden Names (Arleen House, 2013) was a book of the year selection in both the Guardian and The Irish Times, and was shortlisted for both the Pigott Poetry Prize and the Shine/ Strong Awards. He has also written a play, Tom Loves a Lord, about the Irish poet Thomas Moore. He won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2009, and the Strokestown International Award in 2001. He is currently working on his first novel.
I am delighted to bring you Creative Islander… Martin Dyar:
What keeps you in Ireland?
A strong sense of home, a sense of possibility, and maybe from time to time the special historical sense of this being a writer’s island. Ireland is an endless, beautifully eccentric subject.
What makes you tick?
I am motivated by the curious optimism of the instinct to pursue a writing life. It kicked in early, with its own meaning, and I am following and responding as best I can.
What do you do just for the love of it?
I sometimes get up from my desk and dance. It mortifies my dog. Recent songs that have got me to my feet are ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ by Van Morrison, and even mellower things, like ‘Caught a Long Wind’ by Feist. The American novelist Johnathan Franzen made a very memorable remark about creative commitment, along the lines of: ‘In order to be relentless, first you must love the thing.’ It is hard to be in love with the whole experience of writing. But the good days are full of amazement, and they can be magically restorative.
Photos: Clare Mulvany
What does the creative process teach you?
My learned process has taught me the skill of expressing before thinking. A central concern is to parry the shadows of perfectionism and self-criticism. I don’t believe in writer’s block. There is some truth in the idea that if you can speak you can write. I prefer to generate looser improvised material and then accept a longer process of finalisation than to sit there invoking inspiration and begging the page to reveal a single path. I’m debunking the muse a bit perhaps, but there is also the sense of the artist as a channel, and there are certain experiences which are best explained by that term. Neil Young once said, ‘When the songs are coming, it’s my job to get out of the way.’ That’s a massively idealistic remark, but then Neil Young may well have been born with a cosmic tap inside his head.
Why do you do what you do?
I don’t know why I started. But I keep going to honour the special echoes that still reach me from the beginning. Also, I believe in poetry and fiction as essential forms of communication. A good poem can stop time. The poem ‘Reuben Bright’ by Edwin Arlington Robinson can stop time when read aloud. The novel ‘The Member of the Wedding’ by Carson McCullers stopped time for me recently.
What were some of the key moments along your own journey that helped you to get where you are today?
I played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in secondary school in Swinford in County Mayo. I was thirteen, and my mother and I somehow made easy work of memorising the lines. I recall being asked to write a poem in an English class around the same time, and lifting my head after about twenty minutes in a crazed peace and satisfaction. In 2000 I spent a year in the creative writing program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. I was hungry to learn and to get my writing dream off the ground. It seemed that all of the faculty and graduate students in Carbondale were going around saying vatic and pithy things about what stories and poems were and where they came from. ‘Go back to your story,’ the fiction writer Beth Lordan, a powerful mentor, used to say, ‘Your story will tell you what she needs.’
I won the Stokestown International Poetry Award in 2001, and that depth-charge of encouragement, and the localised thrill of the Strokestown festival, and the people I met through that experience, helped me to get serious and perhaps through the lastingness of those happy memories, to stay serious about my work. I was quite young, but terribly hungry to proceed. I would also say that the process of doing a PhD in Trinity was a great help, both in terms of the people I met, and the discipline that had to be mustered. I was an Assistant Warden in Trinity Hall, the university’s off-campus accommodation facility on Dartry road, during that time. A formative, and very happy period. I was subsequently a lecturer in the School of Medicine in Trinity, teaching ethics and literature. That exposure to the language of medical education, the privilege of teaching medical students, and the experience of hunting for the poetry of science with them, has branded my writing mind entirely. More recently, a year spent at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa was like following the pied piper into the mountain and then discovering a tumult of generosity and inspiration.
Photo: Performing in Tom Loves a Lord
How do you get unstuck? Any secret tools?
I swim every day, I walk the dog three times a day. These are tools and ways to retreat, and maybe amulets of a kind. But the only way unfortunately to get unstuck is to write. Maybe allowing oneself to write badly is the best way to get unstuck.
Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?
I can find inspiration in stories, poems and plays. When something really grabs me, really excites me, I will sometimes begin to hatch new dreams of writing. Recently, I was spellbound and boosted by Edna O’Brien’s story Baby Blue. I’ll always remember seeing Declan Conlon play John Proctor in The Crucible at the Abbey. And I feel I’m still recovering from the glory of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, also in the Abbey. John McGahern’s story ‘The Country Funeral’, whenever I go it, draws me right in, and then makes me want to roll up my sleeves.
How do you get through tough times? What sustains you?
I’m a talker, a social person, and yet my work has always been solitary. Tough times I’ve learned require buckets of language, delivered face to face. But writing is a healing activity too, and a way to say something about the inevitability of darkness.
What key lessons have you learned about doing business or being a creative practitioner along the way? What have you learned from your ‘failures’?
I’m thinking of Johnathan Franzen’s ‘First you must love the thing’ line again. Failure educates of course, but the springs of perseverance abide in a simple, private commitment to the act that is the centre of your art form. A new inscription: ‘First you must love the early night.’ My writing experience has also taught me that doubt is a dynamic force.
Do you have a morning routine? Or other creative habits or rituals?
I like to set up my desk before going to bed. And I like to write early in the morning. It’s the most productive time, or maybe the best time to trap a bit of timelessness.
What books have inspired you? Or what websites do you turn to?
Timebends, Arthur Miller’s autobiography.
The plays of Conor McPherson.
The novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
The short stories of Edna O’Brien and John Cheever.
John McGahern’s novels, especially The Pornographer, and That They May Face the Rising Sun.
The poems of Bernard O’Donoghue, Paul Durcan, Michael Hartnett, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wallace Stevens, and Richard Wilbur.
The novel The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.
Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, and Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
The story ‘What Kind of Day Did You Have?’ by Saul Bellow.
W.B. Yeats’s poems ‘Her Praise’ and ‘Ego Dominus Tuus.’
The novel Wiseblood by Flannery O’Connor
The Lifelong Season by Keith Duggan
What advice do you wish you had received as you were stepping onto your own creative path?
I feel I had a very good start. But nothing can reduce the difficulty or the fearfulness of choosing a creative path. I recall feeling a sense of trepidation when I told my father that I wanted to be a writer. I felt I was confessing that I wasn’t going to be able to knuckle down with a real career. I also understood it as a promise of trouble. “I want to be a writer, Dad,” I said. “And nothing else.” My father thought for a moment, and then replied, “Well, you have plenty of paper.”
And what advice would you give to your future self?
I’d have to say something like ‘Don’t look back.’ There’s a wonderful moment in Rilke’s poem ‘Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes.’ Orpheus has chanted his way into the underworld and bargained for his love Eurydice’s release. Now he has the task of hiking back up to the surface, with the messenger god Hermes leading Eurydice along behind him in the darkness. It has been agreed that they will have another life together if Orpheus manages not to look back during the ascent. He succeeds in the challenge for a time, but then, tormented by the fear that she is no longer following him, he turns around. Here Rilke adds a magnificently poignant touch to the original myth. The poem portrays Eurydice as too deep in her death for revival, suggesting that if Orpheus had fulfilled the task their reunion might still have been doomed. When Hermes sees that Orpheus has looked back, he officiously raises his cloak and turns to lead Eurydice away from the light. By way of instructing her to return to the belly of the earth with him, he tells her simply: ‘He has turned around.’ Rilke puts one word in drowzy Eurydice’s mouth. She asks, “Who?”
I’m thinking that I am powerless to reach my future self, and that he might not remember me. I’m writing for him maybe. But I hope he won’t be living in the past. My favourite closing lines of any book are in John Banville’s novel Athena. The lines are: “‘Write to me,’ she said. ‘Write to me.’ I have written.”
Listen to a few readings here:
Delighted to announce that Martin will be joining the live session of Creative Islanders at Another Love Story this coming weekend (Saturday 3-4pm) , and also giving his own reading (Sunday 12-1pm) as part of the ‘That’s Another Story’ session.
Thank you so much Martin for your time and your eloquent insights- So very much appreciated, and I have no doubt that readers will appreciate them too.- Clare.
Have you spotted my new online course? Living Seasonally is a 5 day journey to dive into your dreams and visions, and create plans of action in tune with your energy. It start this coming Monday 24th August. There is still time to sign up. Head on over here to find out more.