My Cultural Life: Leontia Flynn

Following the publication of her second collection, Drives, the poet talks about her respect for Seamus Heaney and Catullus, learning to write and falling in love with Philip Larkin

When did you first fall in love with poetry?
I don’t recall a watershed moment. I remember a Robert Louis Stevenson poem from Primary Three, and poems like ‘The Highwayman’ from later school anthologies. Then when I was 14 I spent the whole summer writing nonsense poems, which seemed vitally necessary at the time. By the time I was 16 and starting Philip Larkin for A level it had happened gradually. Then I really fell for Larkin. (sixteen year old school girl falls for Philip Larkin – all wrong, but unlike him I was ready to commit…)

Which poets do you most admire and why?
I admire poets who have great overarching structures at work behind their poems which allow them to keep producing. I particularly like writers of sequences, so Robert Lowell and John Berryman and Shakespeare (of the sonnets). I return to Paul Muldoon’s work again and again. Unlikely as it sounds I’m also reading a lot of Catullus at the moment. I basically admire anyone who sounds believable to me.

If you could have written any poem in history, what would it be and why?
I would like to be able to write a properly long poem – not Paradise Lost long – but a good sized public-minded poem: MacNiece’s 'Autumn Journal' or Auden’s 'Letter to Lord Byron'.

Drives is your second collection of poetry, has your approach to writing changed since your debut, These Days?
I think it’s obvious from the books that my approach has changed a lot. When I wrote the first poems in These Days I was striving for something immediate and surprising in its brevity, and I had no traditional formal methods in mind by which I hoped to achieve this – only ordinary-sounding anecdotal language which I tried to shape into something coherent.

Even within that first collection, you can see where this was difficult to sustain, and in the first poems of Drives, which were written round about the same time, I thought if I couldn’t do ‘short’ I’d try 14 lines. These eventually became more and more formal sonnets, and because I tend to take things to extremes I just kept repeating them. I have to stop that now.

Which line of your poetry are you most proud of?
I agree with the argument that every line of a poem is dependent on the others, none is successful in isolation. There are poems where I’m proud of the way the all the lines seem to hang together, a result which occasionally seems to mean people think you didn’t spend any time on them.

If you could have four cultural figures from any period in history around for dinner who would it be and why?
In Drives there are poems which are kind of tongue-in-cheek potted biographies of historical cultural figures, and other poems about figures though I don’t say who they are. I’d probably like to have all of them round for dinner, with the exception perhaps of Alfred Hitchcock who might be a bit creepy, and Virgina Woolf, who would probably intimidate me. So I suppose Elizabeth Bishop and Samuel Beckett and Sylvia Plath (preferably on effective medication) and most of all George Orwell. If I could have contemporary figures I would like to meet Ben Goldacre, who writes the column in The Guardian about stupid scientific claims.

If you could have produced one piece of art in history, what would it be and why?
Holbein’s dead Christ.

Which Irish cultural figure to you most admire and why?
I think Seamus Heaney. Because he is now such a fixture, such an institution, we probably take for granted the extraordinary nature of his career, but it’s an astonishing thing that one person can represent contemporary poetry, single-handedly, to so many people, and that their essays and interviews sit on the best-seller shelves in bookshops. To create that kind of audience for yourself and then continually communicate with them in a medium most people are now wary of is no mean feat.

What has been your cultural highlight of 2008 thus far?
2008 has been short on cultural events for me. I have been much engaged in child-rearing.

What cultural event are you most looking forward to?
I haven’t seen Hunger by Steve McQueen yet.

What's been the best piece of advice you've ever had?
This sounds obsequious because we both work in the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, but Ciaran Carson once said to me (and we were drinking, so I hope I’ve got this right): ‘Eating food matters, playing music matters, writing poems matters, having kids matters. Everything else is just auld lies’.

Other than this, I like to keep in mind the Armstrong and Miller comedy sketch in which Japanese businessmen are on a training course given by English counterparts. The English businessmen begin the session by turning the page of a flipchart on which are written the words ‘Give Less of a Shit’. End of seminar.

If you could write your epitaph in no more than 10 words, what would it be and why?
Given that ‘I told you I was sick’ has been taken? Recently I’ve had this strange urge to apologise to everyone for anything I’ve ever done wrong, which I presume is related to having had a child. So if I were die suddenly soon, it should be ‘Leontia Flynn. Dead. Sorry’. 

Leontia Flynn's Drives is available now published by Jonathan Cape.