INTERVIEW: Damian Smyth

'There is no I in poet,' says the scribe from County Down


Click play to hear Damian Smyth read 'A Bag for Life from Lidl' from Market Street

The fact that Damian Smyth is 48 years old sometimes gives him pause for thought. ‘My brother died when he was 52. Dropped dead. Not everyone lives until their 70th birthday. As time goes on you become aware of these things. They do count. You do start thinking about what you want to say, how you want to say it… and how long do you have to say it?’

Perhaps that melancholy impetus is why the Downpatrick poet and Lagan Press are releasing two new poetry collections in 2010 – Market Street and Lamentations.

Market Street was the book that was meant to be, an experiment in form and narrative that Smyth had been working on for two years. There are over 70 poems in the collection and each poem has 20 'long lines'. Smyth wanted to get away from those ‘awful little squares and oblongs you get in poetry books’.

The poems are focused around the eponymous Market Street in Downpatrick, each taking its starting point from a shop or a notional product from the shop. The title has little to do with the content of the poem, although Smyth posits a ‘spiritual link’ between the two. ‘It’s a bit Ezra Pound. It’s about how commerce between people can take lots of forms.’

The collection also functions as non-linear narrative, both recounting the history of Market Street and exploring how the historical narrative was constructed. ‘There are always misnomers and blind alleys,' adds Smyth, 'untruths as well as truths about personality and character.’

Smyth is fascinated by the complexities of small towns in general and Downpatrick, his home town, in particular. It serves, in fact, as the cornerstone of his artistic impulse. All of his poetry collections – Downpatrick Races, The Down Recorder and Market Street – are set in that familiar landscape. Each book is anchored to a particular geographic point, allowing Smyth to map his poetic vision over the physical town.

‘Downpatrick is what I want to write about. I have absolutely no interest in anything else except where it touches on that,’ Smyth says firmly. ‘A lot does touch on that though.’

One of the poems in Market Street, he points out, is about Reverend Edward Hincks, the rector of Killyleagh who translated the Mesopotamian cuneiform that enabled the great inscriptions of Babylonian and Assyrian civilization to be available to the modern world.

‘That’s just an example of how the world can touch on the local, as much as the other way around,’ Smyth says. ‘If writing means anything at all it is in writing about something local, true and real at a level that will have something to say to anybody from anywhere.’

This is, perhaps, particularly true of Lamentations, an unplanned book that came about through ‘force of circumstance’, dealing with the most universal of human experiences: grief. ‘It’s to do with the impact of grief on that landscape,’ Smyth says, meaning the familiar setting of his collections. ‘The soul of those three books is Lamentations.’

Some of the laments in Lamentations are personal, although Smyth shies away from the idea of poetry as the confessional. ‘People expect to find an awful lot of the word ‘I’ in a book of poems,’ he says. ‘Hopefully you won’t find too many in Market Street. And where you do, it’s not me. It’s somebody else.’

Most of the grieving observed is more distant. One poem is about the Boeing 737 that went down on the way to Rio. ‘There was a girl – a nurse, or a doctor – from Ballygowan killed in the explosion,’ he recalls. ‘That brought up an image of how something so high up and so far away could have such an impact on the territory of the books.’

When dealing with grief and loss in Northern Ireland the question about the Troubles begs to be asked. Smyth hesitates before answering it.

‘It’s there through everything, sometimes more directly than others.’ He mentions a poem in Market Street about the crater left – ‘for years and years and years’ – in the road after a policeman had his foot blown off and others that both directly and indirectly reference the Troubles. There is, he believes, a post-Troubles literature emerging in a less abnormal society, but he doesn’t think he’ll get there. ‘There will always be that shadow on the lung in what I do.’

Damian Smyth's poetry can be purchased in the CultureNorthernIreland Amazon store. Lamentations and Market Street can be found on Lagan Press.

Tammy Moore