Lagan Online 12NOW poet Peter Adair skews the traditional interview format to give a confessional, quirky and insightful outlay of himself, his status as an ‘older poet’ and his relation with writing and mental health.
I: Is there an Old Poets’ Society?
PA: Yes, we meet at an old people’s home to read poems that rhyme and scan – none of your free-verse rubbish – or we write on cheery ‘Senior’ themes: loss, death, transience. I certainly read late Yeats in a different way: once studied (earnestly), now felt.
I; You’re conscious of being a ‘mature’ poet?
PA: The mirror, alas, the mirror…I’ve entered the country of old men where death walks beside you. We’re waiting for the final date after the hyphen. Ageing is a strong subject, though unfortunately you have to grow into it.
I: I believe you only resumed writing poetry in the last few years.
PA: I had a dry period. Fifteen years or so. Poetry skadadelled. ‘In my end is my beginning.’ I’m starting with my last phase, as it were. I always was a late developer.
I: The ‘lost years’?
PA: Lost, found, who knows? Boring jobs, megalomaniac bosses (they get OBEs), the dole, day centres. I descended into the underworld among the shades. Forgotten places where people have no power or voice. There is a poignancy in those who are outcasts from the hard, competitive world. But at least a messy life spares you the illusion of permanence, is a metaphor for impermanence. Failure nourishes poetry. I acquired a Ph.D in Failure, my greatest success.
I: Failure Studies?
PA: I’m open to offers, though I can’t see it supplanting creative writing courses.
I: Are open mic events important to you?
PA: Very much so. About a year ago I started going to the Purely Poetry open mics at the Crescent Arts Centre. I, a confirmed introvert, never foresaw myself – ah – performing in public. It’s a communal experience for a churchless, solitary old bugger like myself. I read other poets’ work too, not just my own masterpieces…I mean, minor lyrical effusions. Some of the regulars risk ‘walking naked’. I’ve realized how essential reading at a mic can be for them – a bit like a monthly appointment with a therapist. Speech at its rawest, or a howl of pain, though there is plenty of comic verse and satire too. Howls and hoots. I’m aware of the frailty of the voice, struggling to speak, failing to speak.
I: Not a problem for many in our society.
PA: Yes, it’s easy to shout slogans, use dead language.
I: You submitted several raw poems about mental illness to be shared in Verbal’s Reading Rooms. How difficult is it to write about this subject?
PA: Talking about it is harder for my generation. A horrified parent might once have said, ‘Well, it didn’t come from my side of the family.’ That kind of attitude. Younger people are more open about these very human feelings, though other animals no doubt get depressed or grieve. Being part of an arts therapy group a few years back gave me, as it were, a key to open the door of the mind’s private madhouse: ‘Be honest. Remove your mask.’ And so I did, for good or ill. I hope the poems go forth to mental health groups and help people discuss their feelings about the ‘system’, their fears and longings. That world, or sub-culture, of benefits and day centres, where you often feel shoved aside and forgotten, is a precarious one. You’re off the map of the known world – Crusoe on his island longing for a ship to sail into view. You learn that free will is an illusion. You have no autonomy (now there’s a word to savour). But sometimes you can gaze through the small grated window of the imagination and glimpse a brighter landscape beyond. Or then again all you see is a flat, endless, dead world. When you have no place in the shared working realm, isolation is a disease. NB I must reconnect in 2017, perhaps through volunteering.
I: How is your mental health these days?
PA: I’d love to say, like a celebrity depressive, “Never felt better. My new confessional memoir is rising in the bestseller lists.” Concentration varies. On and off meds. Stumble, minute by minute through each day. Write in fits and starts. Much like millions of others, except I need to write. Life is a sprawling, incoherent poem, not a well-made Ulster lyric.
I: Though you have a fondness for traditional forms.
PA; Yes, orderly words in a chaotic world. Words as a psychic survival kit. Is that pretentious enough?
I: Not bad.
I: (Childhood, parents, loss are recurrent themes)
PA: Memory becomes more mysterious. And its fragility, the fear we all have that dementia might take the past from us, leave us bereft of identity, or self (whatever that is). I find myself – while I still can – excavating memories from the 1960s or later, and trying to reassemble them in poems. My parents are always straying through my dreams. And lost boyhood friends look in, unchanged from 50 years ago. What became of them? Where are they now? One, I recall, distinguished himself, by being convicted of robbing a post office in the late 1970s. Perhaps he’s an MLA…
I: Weren’t you at school with Dermot Murnaghan?
PA: I was keeping that to myself. Yes, we once kicked a football about in a field long since built over. Ah, to think I knew someone who once interviewed Edward Heath. Now, that’s fame. I am of course consumed with envy that he probably has a secretary to manage his modest self-promotion on Twitter.
I; What use is poetry?
PA: Well, it keeps a lot of academics employed, but if you’re queuing in a foodbank a ludic post-modern lyric is not much comfort. Beyond the academy, however, I’ve seen how poetry can get through to people who have not read a poem since school and free them to explore feelings, memories, joys, pains. A mental health group, for instance. Words that lighten – in all meanings – troubled minds. Words that help people bear the darkness. That’s why I admire Verbal’s Reading Rooms. The audacious idea of bringing poetry to the elderly, ex-young offenders, people with mental health problems.