Ciaran Carson

The multilingual poet, author and musician describes surviving a stray bullet as 'happenstance' and muses on aislings, Asimov and other worlds

Poet, novelist and academic Ciaran Carson’s Literary Lunchtime at the Ulster Hall gets off to a snap, crackle and pop start, thanks to some unwelcome interference from host and author Malachi O’Doherty’s jumper. Once the sound issues are resolved, however, Carson kicks off the evening with a musical introduction.

It’s a familiar part of any Carson reading, but today instead of his usual penny-whistle the poet produces a band flute that he found in a second hand shop. The haunting air of an Irish aisling (a genre of Irish poetry involving dreams and visions) is an incongruous sound from the flute, but as Carson points out, ‘It doesn’t have to only play band music’.

It is an appropriate metaphor for Carson himself. Although he is an English language poet, he was ‘reared in Irish’, and the shadow of the Gaelic tongue is always there: the idea of the ‘other’ – other worlds, other languages, other places – is something that imbues the reading, and Carson’s entire body of work.

‘A lot of things are aislings of a kind,’ Carson explains. Carson’s latest collection In the Light Of, a series of translations of French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s work, could count as one. Carson recalls how he completed the first draft of the volume in one week. ‘I hardly slept, I was in a zone.'

He reads a few extracts from the volume. ‘Discs of crystal blackening like bronze,’ he recites from the poem ‘Snow’. The lines aren’t transliterations of Rimbaud’s poems, rather Carson interprets as he translates. It is the meaning that is important, not the exact words.

Carson also returns to some of his older poetry, quoting extracts from his Alphabet series of poems ‘I think I’ll read O and K, is that OK?’ he quips. He also reads from 'Belfast Confetti'. ‘Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks.’

Carson is an engaging raconteur, blending metaphysical musings on fetches and reality with wry jokes and a quick riff on an air slide-guitar. The audience, a mixture of Queen’s University students (past and present), fans of his work and a contingent of uniformed students from a local school, respond appreciatively to his jokes and listen attentively to the poetry.

With 15 minutes or so left, Carson puts the books away and sits down to chat with host O’Doherty (whose jumper has been discretely de-crackled in the interim). O’Doherty is fascinated with the questions of spirituality and reality that Carson has raised during the talk. ‘How seriously do you take the idea of this other world?’ he asks.

‘I am earnest about it to a degree,’ Carson responds. ‘Any story is just a plausible idea of the world.’

The discussion spirals out into questions of belief, the Many Worlds alternate universe theory (Carson cheerfully outs himself as a sci-fi nerd, who devoured Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as a teenager) and ‘quotidian consciousness’.

Carson explains how even a minor decision can have major consequences, recounting a story from the dark days of the 1970s. He was driving home during a riot when a shot went through the driver’s side window of his car, and out the passenger side. A few inches forward and the world would have been short a poet. ‘Happenstance is all,’ Carson concludes.