Featured: A Conversation between Gerald Dawe and Philip Coleman

In 2015, the School of English will host a new website called Trinity Writers Portal, edited by Prof Aileen Douglas. Essays on a wide range of writers associated with the College will be published on the site, including a piece by Philip Coleman on Gerald Dawe. Dr Coleman interviewed Gerald Dawe in December 2014 as part of his research for the project, which is published here for the first time. 

PC: Tell me a little about when you first encountered Trinity, and how/why/when you came here? Were you aware of it growing up in Belfast, and to what extend did you ever actually want to end up here? 

GD: I was aware of Trinity back in the sixties in my mid-teens. A couple of teachers at my secondary school had been educated here and when, after faffing around quite a bit, I decided to go to university, not in the UK which was the fairly traditional route, but at home, Magee College was then very much in the public eye. It had been an important constituent part of Trinity College and there was a strong northern link between the College and Trinity. But then a political row broke out about where the new northern university should be situated – in Derry, where there was a university college, Magee – or in Coleraine, where there wasn’t. Anyway, the new university was built in Coleraine and that’s where I ended up a year or two after it was built. It was a fluke really. While I was there as an undergraduate I met more people who had been to Trinity, including Derek Mahon, and I had already met Michael and Edna Longley. I studied Irish literature and would have been aware of the great literary links between TCD and writers – like Beckett, of course, and others going back in time. Brendan Ken- nelly was the external examiner of my final year undergraduate dissertation along with Walter Allen, so I hovered at one stage and thought about applying to do grad study here in the early 70s but my supervisor, Alan Warner, suggested that the best route was to study with Lorna Reynolds in UCG as she was considered an expert in 19th century Irish fiction, the subject on which I was going to write my postgraduate thesis. 

After a short period of time working as a librarian in the Fine Arts Department in Belfast’s Central Library, that’s where I went, in 1974, to Galway. I had friends in Dublin whom I used to travel over to see in the 70s and we often went to events in Trinity, and I gave a reading in the Burke when Poetry Ireland was established, and a little later, gave a lecture on the Thirties Poets there as well, so while I was living in Galway and establishing a life for myself there as a poet and teacher in the university, Trinity was sort of there or thereabouts. I’d taught Beckett one year at UCG and was amazed that he didn’t appear anywhere else. And around the same time I had a correspondence briefly with Donald Davie who had written enthusiastically about my early poems [Sheltering Places, 1978] and he mentioned Trinity where he had taught at one stage. I knew by reputation Terence Brown, whose book on ‘Northern Voices’ and Louis MacNeice I had read and admired. And Brendan was of course a much heralded public persona and poet whom I would get to know very well and appreciate greatly in the years ahead. I also used in teaching at UCG Nicky Grene’s pioneering study on Synge. Bill Mc Cormack had been a lecturer of mine at Ulster and published some of my poems in Atlantis and he was at that stage lecturing in Trinity. And I knew and was beguiled by Eilean’s poetry collections as I’d reviewed her work in the north in the early days of Fortnight and in the Honest Ulsterman. 

I also met and read Eavan Boland whose books such as The War Horse and Night Feed impressed me greatly and who had been very supportive at the beginnings of my own poetry efforts when I moved ‘south’. But I hadn’t given any thought about mov- ing out of Galway. That was where my family was; and things were good there. We lived outside the city and I was working away - busy with poems and other things. But by the mid 1980s - trying to raise a family on what was really quite a low salary, travelling around giving readings and extra mural lectures, things were re- ally getting fairly tough. We had two children. The economy was shuddering to a halt. Tax was literally through the roof. My wife had been very heavily involved in women’s health and civil rights issues. And had also been much involved in establishing the first AIDS clinic. That was all very stressful. So we decided to take some time away from the pressures and went to Australia for an extended stay. I was giving readings at festivals and so on and the idea was to think about maybe moving there. As it turned out my wife’s mother died suddenly so we returned to Ireland the winter of 1987 and I tried to pick up where I’d left off. But my heart wasn’t in it and I was feeling frustrated and really, I think, I wanted to move on. 

By pure coincidence a job was advertised for a lecturing post in Trinity’s Department of English - as it then was. I applied, was shortlisted, did the interview and was offered the job. That was 1988. And it was down to replacing Nicky [Grene] for that year that I moved to Trinity and remained. I’ve written about that period in Trinity Tales: Trinity College Dublin in the Eighties (2013), describing the commute every week between our home in Corrandulla and a Dublin very much different from the Dublin of today, almost thirty years later. ‘Good Night’, a poem included in Sunday School (1991) conveys something of the experience of living in College. It was awkward being away from home for much of the week but I enjoyed the teaching - it was challenging and different and I was stretched in a way I hadn’t been before. And I made friends with many colleagues who impressed me greatly with their commitment to College, the students and their own writing. No one made a fuss of that, it was assumed. There was a social life surrounding the College life which is probably less in evidence now so I got the benefit of listening to wiser heads, vastly experienced writers and scholars in many different fields. They set the standard high and it meant you’d something to measure your own efforts against without being overawed by past literary achievements or smug about the past either, because you really had to prove yourself to yourself. I guess I just fell for the place and was lucky, along with the various visiting professor- ships in the States and fellowships here and there, to spend my academic life in Trinity, amongst great colleagues. 

PC: How significant is Trinity’s literary heritage to you as a writer (thinking of people like Beckett, Synge, back to Goldsmith and Swift, but also later poets like BK and ENC)? 

GD: The list of Trinity writers going back in time is luminously impressive. When I was editing an anthology of Irish war poetry it struck me just how many first class poets and writers have ‘been’ to Trinity, as students, as teachers. Some of them are world-renowned, of course, like Beckett, Synge, Goldsmith, Swift, Wilde. But there are also figures like Patrick MacDonogh, Leslie Daiken, and the peerless Jimmy Kennedy. It would be great to see them all together in a massive anthology celebrating the College and its writers. But I guess the direct influence you ask about is present and correct in the poets whose work I came to as a young poet myself, and of these I suppose Mahon is the one I would have been most aware of having grown up in north Belfast not that far from his own neck of the woods. Unquestionably I read through Derek Mahon and other Trinity-connections such as Beckett, and of course Michael Longley, a cosmopolitan Irishness which is unforced. I think there probably was also a sense of the civic protestant aesthetic associated with these writers which I found familial - not in a sectarian way - but simply a common unstated tone of irony, self-irony at times too, that shines through Beckett alongside his chastening, punishing clarities. I like the modern Trinity egalitarian secularism very much, it’s the way things should be, but the radical independence is waning with the inevitable corporatisation of university life and cultural experience in general - but that’s happening everywhere, Ireland and elsewhere. 

PC: What is the relationship between teaching and writing (poetry) for you? (If there is any.) 

GD: I’ve never had any problem ‘teaching’ poetry. I love poetry, and always have done so; trying to get that across isn’t so difficult though it can be demanding. I don’t think as a poet I have any particular privileged insights on teaching but knowing how, say, Yeats goes about opening a poem like ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, the rhetoric of an imagined life in ‘East Coker’ or the tone of voice in Kavanagh, for instance, can help take a poem into a framework that’s neither too heady theoretically or too subjective. It’s really all about balance; about hearing what a poet is do- ing with language and what he or she is working with both technically and ethnically, that brings the best out of a classroom. In many ways teaching, when it’s not a daily grind, is a shaping of material that’s already been proven to be valuable and that what one is doing is trying to unpick the historical, structural and formal reasons why and placing this matter into some kind of critical context, out of which all the other options and comparative possibilities can be touched upon as well. It is not a jigsaw puzzle. It’s more like trying to articulate all the various elements of language over time. And of course sometimes you get off on the wrong note. That happens. Then the lecture hall can be a lonely place! But I’ve enjoyed exploring poetry and hearing what bright engaged students make of what I try to place before them. Teach- ing poetry for graduate writing students is technically different. You could have a class of all ages, many different educational and cultural backgrounds, and literary ideas, so it’s challenging to connect them together around individual poems and how to make the best out of the individual student’s talent which might well be in a direction completely unlike one’s own. But that’s all to the good I think. 

The more a developing poet (or critic, or scholar for that matter) reads – across time, across literary cultures – and reads deeply too – not just only what comes most sympathetically to their ear or eye – the better it will be for them. I have noticed in recent years though that students seem to be leaving whole centuries of poetry behind them, and concentrating – sometimes exclusively – upon late 20th century poetry. Of course reading Milton or Donne, or Tennyson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But that’s part of the exhilaration of reading. You can rove throughout the generations like a time-traveller and end up in Canterbury, in New England, in Finisterre or in the middle of the trenches of WW1. 

PC: Do you see yourself as a ‘Northern Irish’ poet or does that term have any real usefulness outside of the critical/literary histories? 

GD: When I left Belfast in 1974 it sometimes felt as if I had become an exile, ludicrous as that sounds today. There was a very strong feeling then of ‘getting out’; of leaving for good. 

I wasn’t a fully-fledged member of the Northern Irish poetry group as I hadn’t gone to Queens. The ‘group’ was made up of several poets who I got to know and some of whom became friends but because I had left - even though I returned home regularly - I had a different angle on things back then. All this stuff probably doesn’t matter at all today. The moral-political geography of Irish literary traditions, the emotional mood music, if you like, is much less important than it once was. But certainly the Belfast-London axis of the ‘Northern Irish poet’ scene was dominant and I know southern Irish poets did feel a little aggrieved that they were in some sense outside that loop back then. But it’s all changed now really. Poets from here are regularly published in the UK and while their work might not receive the critical-media attention that poetry from Ireland had once enjoyed in the UK there is unquestionably much less interest in ascriptions such as ‘being a Northern poet’. Indeed it may now be passé, given the way fashion shifts. 

But I only ever really thought of myself, when I thought about these matters at all, as a poet who happened to come from Belfast. I was 22 when I left; I lived in Galway for 20 years and then 20 years in the east coast, as well as living for various different periods of time in the States and shorter spells in Switzerland and elsewhere, so ‘Northern Irish’ fades in its meaning even though I can recall how urgent and fraught those terms once were. 

PC: Belfast/Galway/Dublin: which place has been the most conducive to writing poetry for you, if any of them? Does place matter, in that sense, to the activity of writing. 

GD: ...Which leads on directly to your question about ‘place’. I found when I was putting together my Selected Poems that many of my poems are based in or around the seacoast (the north east and west, Galway-Mayo, south county Dublin) and also of other places where I’ve lived, such as the east coast of America, and in or around Geneva, Mediterranean islands. I can’t say that one place matters more than another. As you say three cities appear clearly in my own life so far – Belfast, Galway and Dublin (or to be precise, Dún Laoghaire!). But to be honest I’m not sure the actual places are what generates the work; its rather the inner core of living and experiencing different lives, the styles of living, based in these places that intrigues me: how time as history works its way through ordinary daily lives; the texture of home life. What it’s like to have lived then and there as much as here and now. 

So place does matter, yes, but not to the’ activity of writing’; it’s the point of departure for making poetry but it’s not the subject of what interests me. I’m much more interested, obsessed even, by the processes of change and how individual lives measure change, and deal with it. There are certain landscapes that I love – on the west coast, for instance, where we lived for so many years, but it was difficult to translate those landscapes into vibrant poems. Finding the language, the right tone of voice, the appropriate form and the belief that what you’re writing out of is artistically buoyant and interesting, that’s really what counts. And that, for me, takes time and luck and often a tricky period of waiting for the work to add up to something worthwhile. 

PC: As you look towards retirement, what are the things you will miss most about Trinity when you leave (if one can ever leave the place!)? 

GD: You ask about looking towards retirement from Trinity...Well, when it happens it will be the closing of a very special period in my life. I loved my time - almost thirty years – teaching in the School of English, setting up in 1997 the Oscar Wilde Cen- tre with Brendan Kennelly, Ruth Hegarty, Lilian Foley, Nicky Grene, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, and others. It was good fun too. But well before that, many colleagues at Trinity became good friends and we shared a lot intellectually and had a sense of purpose, not so much consciously voiced, but unstated, that Trinity mattered. It still matters as an institution, of course, but also (without wanting to sound, pretentious) it matters culturally, symbolically, as an international bridge between Ireland and the rest of the academic and literary world. We can call upon high scholarly and critical standards in the lecture hall and seminar room but also in the way the School continues to maintain in its key public role and profile with the engagement of writers such as Richard Ford. There is a robust tradition in place, going back generations, second to none internationally, and that needs to be understood and underwritten institutionally for future students and faculty. I don’t think it’s possible or clever to rest on laurels. What ‘things I’ll miss’ is another story: the buzz of new term, the meeting with new students, undergrads and postgrads, the sense of getting back as much as you provide in the form of intellectual and artistic conversations. But also simpler things – the look of College in mid-winter and the first sightings of spring, these images remain very dear to me from the very first year I spent in New Square. That never leaves you. And if I’m let in I might be back, now and again. But as you know a writer never retires, s/he simply runs out of things to say!