Bar Talk Cover
Blog

Bar Talk – the Musical

That caught your attention, didn’t it?

Well there’s no actual singing, but lots of lyrics in the new audio book version of my first poetry collection, Bar Talk. You can download it here.

I was thrilled when Helen Shaw of Athena Media approached me with the suggestion of turning Bar Talk into an audio book. It hasn’t been in print for years (it was first published in 1999) and although an online version was available through creative commons due to the marvellous guys at Irish Literary Revival, it had disappeared from sight, by and large.

And audio is something different; a chance to hear the work as it was intended to be heard. So I enthusiastically agreed.

The whole process of recording it was fascinating. Athena’s terrific sound editor Amy Miller coached me through the whole process, reminding me that I should read as if I had one favourite listener in mind. Poetry is story, after all, so it really helped me to reconnect with the poems and the ideas behind them when I visualised the people who I first had in mind when I wrote them and told them the story again.

Some of those people are still in my life, thankfully, others long gone, so it was particularly poignant to get myself back into the mindset of the young woman I once was. I really rather liked her.

And one whole collection of poems takes only 49  minutes to listen to. Who knew?

 

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Workshops

Finding the Form – new course begins Irish Writers Centre

As creative writers, we face two main challenges when starting out. The first is to find a voice that is unique to us, the second is to find a form or shape that best suits our vision. I really enjoy working with students on both levels and am really looking forward to teaching a new course on form in the Spring of 2015.

The course I will be facilatating is called Finding the Form. It follows on from my Beginners Finding the Story course at the Irish Writers Centre and it starts on 10th February. It will run for 10 weeks, on Tuesday mornings from 11am to 1pm.

Further details, including how to book, can be found hereiwc lgo:

Uncategorized

Visiting the Creel, Westport Quay, 27th November 2014

I recently paid a visit to the Creel, Westport Quay, where I read poems from Her Father’s Daughter.  Thanks very much to John McHugh and James O’Doherty for inviting me. While there, I met a lovely man called Oliver Whyte, who filmed this short interview with me, as well as a reading from the book. The interview is here

The film of me reading ‘Deserted Village’ is here:

Thanks to Oliver for doing that, and for uploading it on Youtube.

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Reviews

Review of Her Father’s Daughter (Salmon Poetry 2014)

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Extract from “Past Masters: elegies and the reconstruction of lost worlds”, John McAuliffe, The Irish Times, 22nd November 2014

In Her Father’s Daughter (Salmon, €12) Nessa O’Mahony describes a family history set off by her talent for finishing poems with a surprising turn. The domestic scene of ‘After Noon’ moves from concrete description to a more suggestive note:
And I watch the sky
cloudless for once
in this Irish summer,
and think that
for the first time in a while,
I know how this could be
even more
perfect.
O’Mahony is sure-footed too in a longer narrative sequence about her grandfather, even if its closing motif, of a walking stick being handed down from one generation to another, seems to elide some of the more difficult aspects of family inheritances.
Like [Kerry] Hardie, she can be suspicious of her own facility, and ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ is usefully self-conscious: ‘My words were cool, disapproving: / those tidy coal-strokes of the dead. // Now what else can I do / as I sit and watch you sleep / one of your countless / dress rehearsals?”

Reviews

Reviews of Trapping A Ghost (Bluechrome 2005)

From New Hope International, edited by Gerald England

Nessa O’Mahony is a prize winning poet and TRAPPING A GHOST is her second collection. The poems here revolve around family, including THE WRITING SLOPE a sequence of poems about the poet’s grandmother and her life in 1920s Ireland. These poems are conversational in tone, historically interesting and full of detail. However, sometimes they are almost too conversational in tone, prompting the reader almost to wonder what was gained in transferring these letters and journal entries into poetry, rather than publishing them in their original format.
Elsewhere, however, O’Mahony has a fine ear for the sounds of language, as here in the last stanza of VISITING SILVIA:
My eyes keep straying to surrounding hills,
the snow’s retreat at boundary walls
as if heat of any sort were to be found there.

She also has an ability to express things in interesting ways that make the reader stop and think. An example from YORK CHILD:

and when she sniffs the air,
she thinks she can smell
the opposite of hunger.

Her other strength is in beautiful, perceptive observations, as in FOOLS GOLD IN NORFOLK that describes how pebbles collected at the beach lose their glistening fascination and become:
pockets full
of sullen geology.

and here at the end of BALCONY AT ROSIE’S:

The cat seems sure, kissing
the path with delicate pads,
holding you in her almond gaze,
teasing you with the answer.

This is a collection of unpretentious poetry of particular appeal to those interested in 20th century Irish history
Juliet Wilson

 

From Marie Lecrivain in Poetic Diversity

Is it worth the trouble to review a poetry book from overseas when there are SO many poets to review in my own backyard?

Poetry cannot be defined by geography. When I learned that Nessa O’Mahony, the Irish poet and editor of the online literary magazine The Electric Acorn had published a new book of poetry, I immediately ordered a copy… and I was right to listen to my instincts.

Trapping a Ghost (bluechrome press 2005) is a three-part collection that represents the best of contemporary Irish poetry. O’Mahony successfully summons and traps the ghosts of memory through cinematic imagery, clarity, and a well-timed sense of irony.

The first section of Ghost – also titled by the same name introduces the reader to the fragility of memory, specifically in relation to loved ones. A woman’s ideal memory of her father is shaken by a chance encounter, as explored in “Still Life:”

“Your face in repose
the lines smoothed out,
the Stewart Grainger
hairline still intact,
hair still pepper and salt
despite your 77 years.


Your open mouth,
a perfect crescent moon,
upturned.
And in that instant,
it’s my heart that stops.”

“Still Life” cleverly and succinctly reminds one not only of how ephemeral memory is, but how the internal image one carries of a parental figure can be easily shattered.

A scrap of paper that can symbolize variegated meanings is illustrated in the poem “Love Tokens,” a narrative about a daughter’s recollections of the times her father spent playing the ponies. Here, a betting slip is introduced as something almost inconsequential:

“They are rectangular strips, flimsy from a week’s wear,
Your handwriting clear, that familiar neatness…”

And then transformed into a symbol at the pivotal moment:

“…I’d watch you
rocking back and forth
in your invisible saddle,
momentum building with every length,
tension coiled, waiting to spring
with joy, or a feck me pink of torn slips-
much like the ones I’m holding now.”

In the end, the slip is regarded as an almost priceless artifact:

“My father’s daughter,
I’ll retrace your steps to Dover Street
and redeem them,
knowing the girl at the desk
will tot them up and never guess their value.”

The second and most compelling section of Ghost, “The Writing Slope” is a series of poems and lyrical prose (in the guise of correspondence) that tell the story of an old woman’s hidden memoirs.

What is revealed is the modest, tragic love story of Anne, a young woman who fell in love with William Flynn, an “Irregular” (one of a group of guerilla soldiers who fought against the partition of Ireland that eventually led to civil war after the British started to withdraw their troops in the early 1920’s).

After Flynn emigrates to America to escape the authorities, Anne is left behind to struggle through loneliness, abandonment, the shame of being a “marked woman” in a small backward town, the tentative courtship by a local police officer, and the growing suspicions of Flynn’s infidelity, as deftly illustrated in the poem, “Between the Lines”:

“A harmless postcard
waiting for me on the hall table.

There’s someone new,
why else
would he tell me to wait?

Now I must stay
in the shade,
behind the counter,

listening to Maire drone,
watching the rust corrode
the bars on the windows,

wipe off the dust
only to see it reappear,
day after day.

Knowing I was his
kept me safe,
from the women of the town.

Now they’ll measure me up,
as I cut their cloth.”

In “Anniversary,” Anne reflects on her decision to marry another man, and how her choice transformed her into a wife and mother with a passel of children, an unemployed husband, and few prospects. The tone of these pieces is that of a woman who is wistful; who in the privacy of her mind relives those happy times of romance with Flynn. The poem, “Returned Yank,” reintroduces Flynn as a lonely bachelor who is grateful for Anne’s friendship at the midpoint of their lives, because he has no other family. The final poem, “Afterward,” shows that although Anne’s love for Flynn was hidden, it never ceased to burn:

“A photo of you and him –
your faces radiant
as life offered up
its riches.”

The final section, “Travels and Translations,” contains slice-of-life vignettes inspired by a variety of European settings that read like nothing more than a lovely travelogue. And this is almost a letdown until one encounters the gem “24 rue de Cotte,” which quietly leads the reader into those deeply buried memories of childhood where the desire to recapture a simpler time in the lost intimacy with a loved one is examined:

“You depart in a whirl
of last minute reminders
of what to do
and where to put myself…”
I’m still slipping,
and though you’re not here
to pick me up
I feel you in the mint walls;
the four roses drooping
after a night on the town;
the champagne stockpiled;
the sibilant hiss of
TFS jazz radio.”

Note the following: I was first introduced to this poem by the alleged plagiarist Amari Hamadene (for more information on this “flapdoodle,” read the following www.redbridgereview.co.uk/html/hamadene.html ). In 2003-04 Hamadene became the darling of the global poetry community when he made a name for himself on the web and in print. While his alleged version (entitled “Paris Follies”) was published several times, it has done nothing to damage the delicacy of O’Mahony’s work, or detract from the beauty of this particular piece.

Nessa O’Mahony’s Trapping a Ghost revels in the desire to recapture the ghost of a memory; to escape, to hold onto a bit of happiness, or to search for answers in the quest for identity.

Trapping a Ghost, Nessa O’Mahoney, copyright 2005, bluechrome publishing (www.bluechrome.co.uk), 84 pages, ISBN: 1-904781-70-5, £7.99

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Reviews

Reviews of In Sight of Home (Salmon Poetry 1999)

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From Eyewear Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Guest review: Parmar On O’Mahony

Sandeep Parmar reviews
In Sight of Home
By Nessa O’MahonyIt would be too simple to evaluate Nessa O’Mahony’s most recent work, In Sight of Home, on the basis of whether or not it succeeds as a ‘verse-novel’. And yet with the current surge of interest in the form (to the great excitement of ever-present forefinger-wagging genreists) each verse-novel sets itself a near impossible task: balancing the presence of often tedious narrative (see Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems) with the exploration of character through lyric. The trouble, in the case of Padel’s book, is the spectre of Charles Darwin, transmuted through the poet-biographer, whose voice clangs over epistolary prose. O’Mahony could have operated via a similar procedure: we know that some of her book is based on what appears to be twenty-two letters from Margaret Butler, a nineteenth-century Irish emigrant to Australia, but thankfully O’Mahony departs from the day-to-day recounting of domestic life to make an implicit inquiry into the nature of the archive and the relationship between the reader/scholar and the historical subject. She inserts a figure of herself, the author—in the form of a twenty-first-century Irish woman, Fiona Sheehan—as discoverer, hoarder, and voyeur of a woman’s ‘failed’ life.In Sight of Home brings together three narrative strains: Margaret’s departure from Kilkenny with her brothers and sisters and their subsequent life in Australia; Lizzie, another young Irish emigrant who finds herself in service of the Butler family; and Fiona, a poet who is seduced into writing Margaret’s story by letters she receives from a Butler descendant. Fiona has her own self-exile to contend with—she moves to North Wales to sever family commitments, only to find herself identifying heavily with Margaret’s life as a spinster, overburdened by a woman’s responsibility to her kin. Contemplating leaving her life in Ireland behind, Fiona is drawn to the letters:I picked up the pack of letters
I’d been flicking through
for the past few days.
Although the writing was faint,
the slanting scrawl near illegible
I could still glean some of their meaning.

And one can see what this ‘meaning’ is. Margaret’s life is entirely wound up by the living and dying of her relatives; her own fears, at least for herself, are harder to articulate:

Dead heat
damp clothes
dead weight
breath
caught
in my ribs
no shift
in sails
Must we stay
in this wood
tomb
yet I dread
the jolt
that takes
us further
nearer
what

O’Mahony has inserted Fiona’s thoughts whilst reading these suffocated, tight-lipped letters (and trying to shape them into poems) in the right margin: ‘Exile is easier now. / An hour in a car queue, / two hours bounced / in a tin-plate catamaran, / a day-trip to a new life.’

The pull towards archetypal femininity is evidenced by Fiona’s superimposed romantic indecision; she resists settling down and moving in with her lover, preferring instead her crumbling quarters, her stacks of dusty books, which are all there to evoke her obstinate grip on individuality. After a pregnancy scare, Fiona finds mixed comfort in the return of her menstrual flow:

Drought over,

so why
no smile
today?

O’Mahony’s book is compulsively readable, especially for those who are attracted to the possibilities of archival research. To those who feel somehow cheated by the actual existence of Margaret Butler’s letters or who are wary of their fictionalisation, I would say that O’Mahony never makes claims to factualness and the result is far more beguiling and intelligent than verse-biography—that supposedly unbiased, murky sentimental mask-wearing. In Sight of Home veers between wry cynicism (on the part of the ‘biographer’ Fiona, who becomes increasingly possessive over Margaret) and genuine beauty, observed off-handedly:

On the sand-bar
shadows search for pickings,
fill their bags, move on.

Closer to shore clockwork
oyster-catchers bob, then take to air
as a radio pips noon.

A black-backed gull
pulls at something
long-tailed.

A car kerb-crawls
for a spot on the sea-front,
fails, resumes the circuit.

I watch a man walk his dog, pause,
read the sing he has seen
every day for a lifetime.

O’Mahony success is that she doesn’t naively enter into her project. In fact she purposefully changes one basic premise to her story: the letters of Margaret Butler aren’t in the possession of a (self-proclaimed) unrecognised writer, they are in a library. By setting them in a private, unauthorised and highly subjective setting, O’Mahony indulges in a scholarly sin. But better that than pretend that the formation of ‘lives’ hangs from cornices of truth. The poet’s genre-bending isn’t a lack of skill or a flagrant misapprehension, it is what brings the story to life.

Dr. Sandeep Parmar is a leading American-British poet of her generation, and an expert on Mina Loy and Hope Mirlees. She makes her home between (in) London and New York. Her poetry appears in the new anthology from Bloodaxe, Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century.

 

Review of “In Sight of Home” by Bill Greenwell on his Bill Posters blogNessa O’Mahony’s In Sight Of Home (like yesterday, from Salmon Poetry, an Irish press) breaks new ground, both in its choice of form and in its choice of genre. It will be filed, because of its publisher, under poetry, I guess, but it could equally find a home in fiction and biography. It’s a bold writer who composes a verse novel – Pushkin, Nabokov, Vikram Seth are the big names – or a verse biography (Ruth Padel has worked in this field). But this isn’t either of them. It mixes prose and poetry, and it freely mixes known fact, in the shape of a cache of letters written in the mid-nineteenth century by Margaret Butler, from Kilkenny, from Australia, with a fictional writer from the early twenty-first century, Fiona Sheehan, who is conducting her own journey, away from Dublin to  North Wales, and who is working on the letters and turning them into her own poems.

This is a really complicated echo-chamber – after all, we don’t know if Nessa O’Mahony is in any way, shape or form the alter ego of Sheehan; we don’t know (and O’Mahony isn’t telling) which of the Butler letters are made up, and which are original; we have to see if we can skip between the two journeys of (self-)exploration; and, just to keep the mixture rich, we are even given occasional notes by Sheehan about the defects in her poetry, poetry, of course, with which O’Mahony has provided her. And one can easily add to this sense that everything is a bit odd – after all, Ireland, 1850s, potato famine, isn’t it? O’Mahony is having none of this. She presents us with an altogether other kind of historical fact, that of fairly prosperous Irish families going to make a new life. Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a verse novel? None of the above.

What really works is the cutting between one genre and another, one time and another, and (best of all) the way that minor characters start working their way into the foreground. Chief amongst these is Lizzie Murphy, an almost extraneous figure at first, an orphan Irish girl who finds her way to Australia and into service with the Butler family, before marrying into it. Lizzie’s narrative seems so clearly distinct from Margaret’s and Fiona’s that it almost a shock to find, much later, that she is Fiona’s creation.

In some ways, I think it is the situations more than the characters which grab the reader – the various culture shocks which are encountered, the way in which the main figures are separated from what they know, the way they become entangled with what was and what is, the way they become mixed up (so it is the structure, too, of In Sight Of Home that engages the reader, the ambition of asking the reader to consider on the one hand a rather hapless encounter between a fizzing present day media woman with a chaotic Welsh academic; and on the other hand, the doubly parallel universe – in time and space – of the women in Australia).

This is a really challenging read. Narrative free verse is incredibly hard to do (arguably the hardest of all genres), and also the hardest to sustain. Mixing in the letters keeps the readers on their mettle. One moment you’re with Fiona’s aspiration to have a cat and feed it Whiskas, the next you’re in the outback, writing very proper letters to a cousin. Complexity can be a curse. Not here. You have to go back and read it a second time, a third. I thought it was astonishing.

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Bar Talk Cover
Blog

The Family of Things

Bar Talk Cover

I have been enjoying a very creative collaboration with Helen Shaw and her colleagues at Athena Media. They’ve just released a kindle edition to my first book, Bar Talk, long since out of print since it was published in 1999, and we’re currently working on the audio edition with the terrific Amy Miller.

Athena produce all sorts of digital content, and are devising a series of podcasts on the theme of The Family of Things, where writers and artists talk about what formed them as creative people. I was delighted when Helen invited me to be the first subject for an interview, and what an interview it proved to be. She is an incredibly astute questioner and the experience of being ‘on the couch’ was both exhilarating and somewhat terrifying.

You can hear the results here – I’d love to know what you think.

Features

Kind Words and Coronets

Like many writers with new books out there, I’ve been living in the suspended animation of anxiously awaiting the first book review to appear. While there have been many nice comments about the collection in person, via text, twitter, facebook direct messaging, there’s nothing quite like the gravity of the printed word to concentrate the mind.

I’d love to claim a lofty disdain to all reviews, good and bad. But I’ve never been much of a liar – I lost my first book dedication in a poker game, after all. So I will admit that I cherish every nice thing said about my work, and promptly forget every single positive word uttered and written in the face of a negative notice. I’m not sure if that’s human nature or simply my own neurosis at play, but it’s a fact either way.

So I’m pleased to report that the first review in print appeared in the Irish Times on Saturday, and that poet and critic John McAuliffe had some nice things to say. You can read the full text of the review, which also discussed new books by Kerry Hardie, Theo Dorgan, Gerard Dawe and Jess Traynor, here.

But before you click the above link and disappear away from this blog, I thought I’d reproduce (with his permission) the stunningly kind introduction that the marvellous poet Damian Smyth gave to my work at the recent launch in No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast. It still stuns me that anyone would pay me so great a compliment as to notice what I’ve been up to, poetically. But Damian, as anyone who knows him will attest, is a very special kind of person. Anyway, here’s what he says:

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Features

Uncovering a Hidden History

For much of my life, I had absolutely no idea that my grandfather, Michael McCann, had fought in the First World War. I grew up with the image of him as the archetypal Irish nationalist hero of the first decades of the twentieth century. A brooding photograph of him in Free State Army uniform and flat-topped army cap dominated the dresser in my mother’s kitchen; stories of his escapades in the War of Independence and the Civil War were an integral part of family lore. But there was no mention of the earlier conflict my grandfather was involved in, as a Lance Corporal for the Royal Munster Fusiliers. His experience, like that of so many of the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who fought in World War I, had been quietly obliterated from the official narrative. There was no room in the nationalist mythology for any stories about those who fought for other causes.

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