Hugh Odling-Smee speaks to the legendary poet about Bangor, Belfast and, er, Goa
On a dodgy phone line Derek Mahon is pleased to tell me that the sun is shining in Kinsale. In Belfast, of course, there are slate grey skies and rain at five minute intervals. But regardless of the weather, Mahon is soon to make the long travel from the sunny south west to the shores of Belfast Lough. Bangor to be precise.
Born in Belfast in 1941, and raised in Glengormley, Mahon attended Inst, and then took the trip to Trinity to study French and English. His poetry began to find favour with publishers and in the ensuing years, poems such as ‘In Carrowdore Churchyard’ and ‘A Disused Shed in Co Wexford’ have become staples of the collections and curricula. Mahon is arguably one of the most important poets writing in English of the last 50 years.
This, however, is no ossified voice from the past, to be quoted only to students and cultural tourists, and Mahon brings with him to Bangor new work, Life on Earth, published last year by Gallery Books. This vital, playful and energetic collection sees him exploring new realms and places: Soho, beaches in Goa, Bjork’s celestial voice.
Even Bangor gets a mention, with Mahon name checking the ‘chic spot’ of Caproni’s, the ice-cream parlour of choice in the 1940s. Having written about the seaside town in the past, most notably in The Yellow Book, what’s his connection to the place?
‘Well I’m sort of a Bangor person myself. Like many people from Belfast, my mother’s family would take a house in Bangor for the month of August. During the war, my parents took a flat there, and eventually they retired to Bangor later on. So it’s a bit of a native place to me.
‘Bangor is interesting in other ways, however. Most people now know the place as Belfast-on-sea, but 1500 years ago, it was something else entirely, long before Belfast was anything at all. It was a cultural centre of major significance, not just in Ireland, but from a European perspective,’ he comments.
It is perhaps amazing for those of us who see Bangor as a jolly - if slightly sinister - version of Clacton-on-Sea, that at one time the town hosted the largest collection of monks in the western world. Known as ‘the light of the world’, it also has a key role in the birth of poetry in this part of the world.
‘There’s this marvelous thing called the Bangor Antiphonary, full of interesting religious things, but also the famous Blackbird poem, which was actually a marginal note by a bored monk sometime in the 8th century. We know the poem now, and it is usually described as a bird flying across Belfast Lough, but my opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the poem refers the part of the coast from Strickland’s Glen to Pickie Pool.’
The Aspects Festival is now in its 18th year, and Mahon has been promising to come for some time. ‘I’ve known Kenneth Irvine [Festival founder and curator] for many years and he got on to me when I was living in New York in the early 90s. I couldn’t do it then, but I’ve known it’s been a possibility sooner or later, and I’m doing it now,’ he says.
Is live performance still something that the poet enjoys?
‘Well sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending. It depends where really. I’ve done an awful lot of it in my time, and now I kind of limit it because of the travel. It’s good to keep in touch though, and find out that some people are still reading the stuff.’
Throughout Life on Earth there are intriguing explorations of environmental issues, such as in a poem ‘Homage to Gaia’ where the poet apologetically promises ‘our first earth mother’ that:
You will prevail of course
If in a different form;
We go from bad to worse
Just trying to keep warm.
Other themes include a new interest in India, and particularly Goa. What brought this about? ‘I was actually going on some Irish week in Delhi, and I took the opportunity to visit a house owned by some friends of mine in Kinsale, so I ran down to Goa for a short time.
‘I’ve been to India a few times since, as I’m getting interested in new possibilities in my old age. The farthest east I’d been before that was Greece, but more recently I’ve become aware that this really is going to be the century of India and China. India seemed to have more possibilities for me, so I’ve been reading a lot about the country and the philosophies,’ he continues.
‘You’re very conscious of a different way of thinking when you are there. Not that I’d get starry-eyed about it, the poverty goes hand in hand, but that whole perspective and philosophy is very inspiring.’
Allied to these travels across the globe, Mahon is still writing about Belfast and the north: ‘Brian Moore’s Belfast’ is dedicated to fellow poet, Gerry Dawe.
‘Belfast is still of continuing interest to me. That particular poem is about a Belfast that was. As you get on, things become very clear from your early life. Various indelible things are imprinted. That whole pre-Troubles Belfast is interesting because of its time capsule quality, the fact that it is no more. It had its own strange atmosphere - I suppose the word they used was dignity. I don’t want to come on like some old-fashioned unionist though, but it was undeniably a historically interesting time,’ he says.
Mahon has always been keen to stress the cultural strength of the north, dismissing the branding of ‘the Group’ as the easy pigeon-holing of English journalists. Given the fact that he still is interested in writing about his native city, what does he make of the cultural efforts to ‘re-image’ local communities?
‘I’m dubious about it. It looks to me like a whitewashing process, like a commodification of recent history, turning the place into an atrocity exhibit. I’d rather see the bad old murals to be honest, because at least they meant something to somebody. These new murals, and I’m not speaking from a position of knowledge on this I admit, seem to be a kind of marketing, and marketing cheapens, because it tells a lie. I’d rather be honest,’ he opines.
Mahon has been described by Gerry Dawe as ‘one of the very few poetic voices of opposition that matter’, and it is this belief that art lies not in black and white answers but acknowledging the ambiguities of life, however unpalatable, that sets Mahon apart. His visit to the Aspects Festival is a coup for them, but a privilege for us - and one not to be passed by lightly.
Derek Mahon appears at the Aspects Literary Festival in Bangor on Wednesday September 23 at 8pm. For more information or to book tickets contact the festival on 02891 278032or check out the website at www.aspectsfestival.co.uk