What inspired this poetry collection?
I have been writing poems for children for over 30 years. I started out writing poetry for adults and published my first book, Rainsong, with Beaver Row Press, a small poetry press in Dublin, in 1984 at the age of 31. I was teaching in the national school at home in Moyvane at the time. As time went by I was running out of poems to teach from children’s anthologies so I decided to have a go at writing some poems for children myself. I based them on my own very subversive childhood (they tell me I was a very cross child!) and on my experiences as a teacher in and out of the classroom. The poems in Will You BE My Friend? are a collection of my favourite poems from all my books for children with about 30 new poems ending up with poems based on my experience as a grandfather. I have a hunch that it will be my last book for children.
What is your favourite poem from this collection and why?
I don’t have any single favourite poem. It’s a bit like choosing between my two children (or now my two grandchildren). The poems in Will You Be My Friend? are all favourites.
If you could describe this collection in one sentence, what would it be?
The collection is a book for the young and young at heart written by a big kid. If you can’t laugh or cry at the poems you’re OLD!
Do you have any children’s writers/poets who inspire you? (e.g. Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan, AA Milne)
I haven’t really been inspired by any children’s writers. When I started out writing (for adults) I was inspired by novelists and songwriters mostly – John Steinbeck and Graham Greene, Leonard Cohen and Kris Kristofferson. When Gabriel Rosenstock published his first book of poems (in Irish) for children – An t-Ochtapas in 1977 – I realised that here was a new voice writing brilliantly in simple language that the kids could relate to. That inspired me to have a go myself.
Are there any books, stories or poems that stick out from your own childhood?
I was very fond of books when I was a child (still am!). I read everything from Treasure Island to What Katie Did. My favourite book was, and is, Huckleberry Finn. As for poetry, we learned reams of the stuff off by heart in school. But what really tickled my fancy were the rhymes we had in the schoolyard. Rhymes about our teachers and unprintable limericks which we revelled in away from the adult world.
There is a real mix of very funny and very sad themes in this collection. Which do you prefer writing and why?
I write funny, I write sad as the mood takes me. I like writing both. I have written about my own childhood which was a good one although a bit sad – my mother was an invalid and was always in danger of dying (she died when I was 21). I wrote about my 35 years teaching in national schools – Avoca, Co. Wicklow 1972-1974, Limerick City 1974-1975 and in Moyvane, my native village, 1975-2007; and I wrote about our two children, John and Nessa who were delighted to be in poems. The book ends with a sequence of poems about our grandchildren, Katie Crowley (6) and her brother Paddy (1).
Does your experience as a primary school teacher influence your work?
Teaching had a huge influence on my work. I loved working with children – they are so inspiring and challenging.
You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers and festivals over the course of your career. What advice would you give to any first time writers or poets?
Advice for first time writers? Keep at it. Believe in yourself. Don’t be put off by rejection and pay no attention to what people say about you. If you are a real writer, you will write no matter what. As John McGahern said when asked how would one know a writer – “Try and stop him”.
Can you describe a “typical” day for you when you’re working on a book?
A typical poetry day. I have to wait for inspiration. I cannot sit down and say “I’m going to write a poem now”. A few lines come into my head. No matter where I am or what I am doing, I will write them down. (I always carry pen and paper). If I can I will sit down there and then and write the first draft. Then the work begins. For days or weeks I will revise and revise until I am satisfied that I have said what I wanted to say in the best way possible. Sometimes I will put the poem aside and come back to it months or even years later and have another go. I will keep at it until I am satisfied with it or decide to throw it in the bin.
Are you looking forward to the Listowel Writers' Week this year? Any events that readers can expect to see you at?
At Writers’ Week I will be launching Will You Be My Friend? on Saturday , June 4 at 3.00 pm. I will be presiding over the presentation of prizes at the Dan Keane Children’s Poetry Competition on the Thursday, June 2 at 6.30 pm. And Mícheál de Mórdha and I will be launching our book on the Great Blasket Island, An Island Community, on the Friday, June 3, at 12.30 pm. Needless to say, I will be in Listowel for the whole of Writers’ Week. See you there!