My Cultural Life: Gerald Dawe

The acclaimed poet on falling in love with the medium, admiring Mary Robinson and the exhibition of the year in northern Italy

When did you first fall in love with poetry?
I suppose hearing my grandmother 'instruct' kids how to recite poems intrigued me when I was very young. I picked up some of the anthologies she used to teach elocution, and they caught my fancy. But I was lucky in that two of the teachers at Orangefield [High School in north Belfast] had very clear engagement with poetry and turned it into a kind of natural thing, dramatic thing. When I was at the Lyric Youth Theatre in the mid 1960s we spent a fair bit of time hearing poetry and from then on I was hooked. 

I just loved the whole notion of cramming a world into a short space on the page, by allusion, turn of phrase, suggestion. After O-levels we started into the Faber Book of Modern Verse which really lifted the roof for me. I started to read lots of American poets like Robert Lowell. Needless to say growing up in the 1960s meant that I had a fascinating entry into great lyrics from Dylan, Nina Simone, The Band, Hendrix, and I dare say, looking back, that I heard a lot of songs on the radio before that . 'Two Way Family Favorites', that short of thing. 

So poetry wasn't so much 'Poetry', it was hymns, songs and ballads, alongside the stuff you were doing in school. I really couldn't get enough of it. I loved reading all sorts of anthologies, browsing in the libraries in town and not really knowing what I was looking for. I read in my little attic room at the top of the house. Anything I could get my hands on.

Who is your poetic hero?
A hero? I'm not sure I have a hero. There are lots of poets whose lives 'Catching The Light - Views and Interviews' by Gerald Dawewere lived in really difficult times and under bloody and oppressive regimes. Mandelstam, the great Russian poet, and his wife, in Stalin's Soviet Union, come to mind. They were brave people. I have a hunch I'd very much have liked Elizabeth Bishop, an American poet who I think very highly of, and I would simply have loved to have met Samuel Johnson - one of the most extraordinary literary intelligences in the English-speaking world - for a pint or two every few weeks and watch a match on TV with him. But if I had to nominate one poet beyond all others whose work and life impresses me the most, then I'm going to be very partial and stretch the 'poet hero' business to breaking point and select one of the great anti-heroes of our time, Samuel Beckett.

If you could have written any poem in history, what would it be and why?
An impossible question. What about 'Frost at Midnight' by Coleridge? It's such a cool poem in every way, and at its heart, an unshakable reality, of vulnerability, the irretrievable past and the beauty of the landscape. Or maybe one of Yeats' sequences. I'd settle for 'Meditations in Time of Civil war'. Or maybe Robert Lowell's 'For the Union Dead'. See, there's no single poem.

If you could have four cultural figures from any period in history round for dinner, who would they be and why?
Marianne Moore, Samuel Johnson, Albert Camus and Lorna Sage - I've loved something that each of the four have written and could ask them to read aloud after the pasta and wine.

If you could have produced any piece of art in history, what would it be and why?
Easy, this one. Anything by Marc Chagall or Paul Klee, they are two of my all-time favourite painters.

What has been your cultural highlight of 2008 thus far?
Seeing a De Chirico exhibition in an old industrial warehouse in a small town in northern Italy alongside engines, spotter planes and railway carriages.

What cultural event are you most looking forward to?
I haven't any one particular event that I can think of, but maybe, for purely personal reasons, the publication of an anthology I've been working on for the past five years finally seeing the light of day. The launch is in November.

Which Irish cultural figure do you most admire and why?
I have a huge regard for Mary Robinson. When she took on the presidency of Ireland back in the mid 1990s, it was a very difficult task because the old brigade assumed it wouldn't work out. She succeeded so impressively in redefining publicly the international image of this country.

Which line of poetry that you've written are you most proud of?
For the moment it's "So tell me, what good was done, what war was won?" from 'The Pleasure Boats' in Points West.

What's been the best piece of advice you've ever had?
Don't keep doing the same thing just because you do it well. Test yourself. Push yourself. And do whatever you're doing because you want to, not because of what you think it might bring along in its wake. Writing comes out of your life but your life cannot come out of your writing.

If you could write your epitaph in no more than 10 words, what would it be and why? 
'Gerald Dawe, Poet, born 1952 Belfast'. The simpler it is the better. 

Gerald Dawe's Catching The Light: Views & Interviews is published by Salmon Poetry on September 10.