Writer's Block with Irish Poets Enda Wyley and Peter Sirr - The Gloss Magazine

Writer’s Block with Irish Poets Enda Wyley and Peter Sirr

Enda Wyley and Peter Sirr are two Irish poets with an outstanding body of work between them. A couple for 23 years, their romance began when Wyley purchased Sirr’s collection, The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange (1995), in Hodges Figgis and knew she simply had to meet him. At the time, he was the Director of the Irish Writers’ Centre: he opened the door and there she was, having marched straight from the bookshop. The rest, for want of a better phrase, has been poetry in motion.

Irish poets Enda Wyley and Peter Sirr with their dog Oscar.
Enda Wyley and Peter Sirr with their dog Oscar. Photograph by Eoin Rafferty

Enda Wyley was born in Dún Laoghaire and has published five collections of verse, such as Eating Baby Jesus (1993) and Borrowed Space: New and Selected Poems (2014). She has also written three children’s books, including The Silver Notebook (2007). Her work has been widely anthologised, including in the Harvard Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry. She was the inaugural winner of the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize, Australia, and received a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship for her contribution to poetry. Her new collection, The Painter on his Bike, has just been published. Inside are love poems to her husband and daughter, precious family memories, a wish for the safe passage of others, and meditations on both the fragility and endurance of the present moment. Her great heart, tenderness and beautiful imagery are a joy to absorb.

Peter Sirr spent his early life in Waterford and his family moved to Dublin when he was nine. As well as a poet who has published ten poetry collections and Black Wreath: The Stolen Life of James Lovett (2014), a novel for children, he is a freelance writer, teacher and translator. His collections include Marginal Zones (1984), The Thing is (2009) and The Rooms (2014) which were both shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award – the former won the Michael Hartnett Award in 2011. His other accolades include The Patrick Kavanagh and O’Shaughnessy Awards. His more recent collections are Sway (2016) and his new release, The Gravity Wave. Drawing on the classics, Sirr asks if we live in a disenchanted world by comparison to the days of Homer, Catullus and Sappho. Each poem shines like an individual star in the constellation he has created here; each word chosen with gentle care as he contemplates the passage of time, our impact on this earth, and beyond. Sirr and Wyley are both members of Aosdána.

The Gravity Wave (The Gallery Press €11.95) and The Painter on his Bike (Dedalus Press, €11) are available from all good bookshops.

The Painter on his Bike Enda Wyley
The Gravity Wave Peter Sirr

On home

Enda Wyley and Peter Sirr: We live in Dublin 8 with our daughter Freya and our dog Oscar. We’re not far from Leonard’s Corner and Griffith College. We’ve been here nearly 20 years so have lots of friends here and really like the neighbourhood. Freya walks to school locally. There are good shops: Asian groceries, a butcher, a baker, two pizza places and several restaurants. Our favourite coffee and lunch spot is Noshington on the corner of Washington Street and the South Circular Road. Gaillot and Gray makes amazing bread and French pizzas. The Headline, which does craft beers and food, is our local pub. Fallon’s up the road is also a great spot. For cinema the IFI and the Lighthouse are quick walks away, and Omniplex in Rathmines is pretty near too. We also have a very unique little shop close to us called Happy’s News and Booze!

On childhood

Peter: I moved around a bit. We started off in Waterford then, when I was nine, we moved to Dublin. We lived in Rathgar and Terenure so I remember three childhood homes. The first Dublin house made the biggest impression, the house itself which was full of nooks and crannies, but the street too, which had loads of children the same age as us. It seemed like we spent years wandering around the streets, playing endless games of football, robbing orchards, forming gangs and organising wars. But there was also lots of solitude, hours in Rathmines library or stuck in books in the attic at home.

Enda: Our house in Glenageary was stuffed with five children – and a mad dog! – so I remember a childhood of fun and noise. Both my parents loved reading and books were everywhere. I shared a double bed with my big sister Róisín, and our nights were full of whispers, giggles and storytelling. What I remember most was the sound of my mum singing, the smell of her cooking, her arms always open wide to greet us – and my father’s cool hand on my forehead if ever I was off school sick, the treat of a book he’d bought just for me in his hand.

On early reading

Enda: Both our parents read to us and our Dad was great at making up stories. But I also loved listening over and over on our record player to the album Charlie Chester’s Featherbed Tales – magical stories forever rooted in my memory. When I was fifteen I was given a gift from my father of Poetry in the Making by Ted Hughes – a gem of a book. It taught me about the urgency of poetry – how exciting it can be to encounter a poem for the first time – and it made me seriously begin to write poems of my own.

Peter: I don’t remember being read to though it may well have happened. But I remember reading, I remember that there were always books around. I remember teachers reading to us in school and having a big effect. I read all the usual stuff kids read – Just William, Enid Blyton, the Dandy, the Beano, Scorcher, histories, encyclopaedias, anything to do with travel, adventure, old civilisations. I hung around in Rathmines Library for hours after school and read unsystematically but voraciously. I can still smell those books and see them in my mind’s eye. They represented escape, excitement. Much later came poetry, when I was in my teens.

On creating

Peter: I write in a pretty small space. There is a window but my desk doesn’t face it. This is good: a nice view would be distracting. The desk is small, just big enough to fit the computer and keyboard and a couple of books. The most important feature is the door. I keep meaning to put up a sign saying Eintritt verboten! but haven’t got around to it yet. I put on headphones, listen to encouraging music and try to write. Every so often I’ll escape to the kitchen or we’ll take the dog to the Phoenix Park. The Fifteen Acres is probably my favourite place in Dublin, I feel like I know half the deer by name now. It’s such a glorious space I hope they have the sense to leave it alone.

Enda: I write everyday downstairs in a sitting room looking out on our street. It gets great sunlight and our dog usually snoozes – and snores! – on the top of the sofa beside me. My desk faces a wall shelved with my favourite things. They keep me company, encourage me to write. A postcard of Harry Clarke’s Angels to bring me luck – I’m very superstitious! A cheeky photo of my daughter. A small mirror Peter bought me when we first met. And I have poems to inspire me stuck over my desk too – my favourite, The Mower by Philip Larkin; “…we should be kind/while there is still time.” For breaks it’s Noshington, our local café, or a three park walk I like – Sundrive, Mount Argus, Harolds Cross. Or a cycle down the canal on my bike, avoiding the swans as I go!

On poets living together

Peter: Terrible! Don’t do it! Poets should marry software engineers or corporate lawyers…

Enda: Actually, we’re not always in the house together. We both do other things, teaching or various freelance activities that take us out into the city. So, we’re not always glued to our desks…or to each other!

Peter: That’s true. Writing is individual and solitary rather than communal, but we do certainly read and comment on each other’s work.

Enda: This can be very dangerous! But we’re used to it by now. It’s good to have another pair of eyes and ears in the house, and our cocker spaniel has no interest in poetry, at all! Freya secretly does I suspect, but she’s a teenager and it isn’t cool to admit it. More seriously though, it’s great to have Peter here. Being able to talk to someone about books and writing is really helpful – or just being able to encourage each other when things are difficult.

Peter: You have to remember that writing is 80 per cent failure and it’s all too easy to get discouraged. That’s when having someone around who does exactly the same things is a great bonus.

On favourite bookshops

Enda: Books Upstairs, because it’s a great bookshop and we’ve followed it around the city for years. There are Sunday afternoon poetry readings in the upstairs café that we like to go to and the online Dublin Review of Books, edited by Maurice Earls and Enda O’Doherty, is another great offshoot, which we often write for. Outside of Dublin, The Reading Room, Carrick-On-Shannon is always welcoming. And Charlie Byrne’s bookshop in Galway is also a big favourite.

Peter: We also have a soft spot for two local bookshops: Marrowbone Books in The Coombe and The Last Bookshop in Camden Street.

On their “To Be Read” piles

Peter: The postman has just delivered a battered second-hand copy of From the Country of Eight Islands, an old anthology of Japanese poetry I’m dying to get stuck into. And I just picked up the great English poet Denise Riley’s Selected Poems. I’ve also been rereading Ciaran Carson, still hardly believing that he’s not here anymore.

Enda: I’m halfway through Mary Costello’s new novel The River Capture and am speeding through it. There’s a quiet intensity to the prose, an emotional expansiveness to the story, which makes it a really great read. Sunday Miscellany 50, edited by Cliodhna Ní Anluain, celebrating 50 years of RTÉ Radio 1’s weekly arts programme, has just been published. I contributed a piece to it but am thoroughly enjoying delving into all the other essays and poems in this anthology. A great book for the bedside table. I’m also rereading Catríona Lally’s quirky novel, Eggshells. The recent and very sad death of the incomparable poet Ciaran Carson has me reading again his magnificent There to Here: Selected Poems and Translations.

On escapes

Peter: We love to go as a family to south Kerry, the Iveragh peninsula, as often as we can. It doesn’t need me to advertise its beauty but apart from beaches and scenery it’s also a great place for long walks in all weathers. We try to keep it a secret place. But word seems to have leaked out …

Enda: Derrynane is my favourite place in Ireland. It’s where I feel happiest. I especially love summers there when we meet up with our friends and have great fun together. Swims, pints in Bridie’s pub, strolls across the sand to the island, climbing up from Caherdaniel village to the old Butter Path – and so much more. We’ve been going there on our holidays since way before our daughter Freya was born. She’s fourteen now and loves it as much as we do. I once wrote a children’s novel, The Silver Notebook, set in Derrynane. The boy in it lives in the amazing blue house shaped like a boat that overlooks the stunning beach.

On The Gravity Wave

Peter: All poetry books begin with a single poem and then very gradually accumulate, until you realise you might have the makings of a book. It’s an instinctive, organic process. When you look back at the poems you see that a few obsessive preoccupations keep coming up. The Gravity Wave has lots of poems about time: present, past and memory but also deep time, space time. The title poem plays with the fact that a ripple from a collision of black holes is still being measured on earth more than a billion years later. That seems astonishing to me. Imagine if our own small lives could ramify like that, continuing to ripple years after we’d left the earth…But the book is also full of present moments, attempts to hang on to things, and to remember the dead. Some of the poems are about difficult things, yet they were all pleasurable to write, which is the great contradiction. Without excitement, without pleasure, there’s nothing.

On The Painter on his Bike

Enda: As soon as I saw the artist James Hanley cycle down Heytesbury street in Dublin one day with his portrait of his father balancing on his bike, I knew I had a poem stirring. It became the title poem of my new collection The Painter on his Bike. Many of the new poems surprised me like this – it felt like they were writing themselves at times. And all of them were driven by an urge to celebrate the fragility and yet the endurance of the moment. For me the most difficult part was paring the book back to its essence. I’m lucky with my publisher Pat Boran at Dedalus Press – he’s a poet too and has a keen editorial eye.

On poetry

Peter: I have written in other forms. I’ve done a few plays for radio including the recent Krakow with Owen Roe, Deirdre Donnelly and Kathy Rose O’Brien. I published a novel for children and am also busy on a collection of essays on Dublin. Those things are all about sitting for hours at the desk. Poems don’t care about discipline or the organised life. They just knock on the door whatever you’re doing, whispering, Let us in, because we won’t be back. So you listen to them and get them onto the page or the screen before they vanish.

Enda: There’s nothing I enjoy more than the rush of a new poem onto the page – the exhilaration of a fresh idea asserting itself. But after that initial inspiration comes the hard bit – the challenge of trying to say exactly what it is that you mean to say. Or rather, what the poem means to say. Writing a poem is a journey, a discovery and you rarely end up where you started. The same can be said of the very best of poems by established poets and it’s for all of these qualities that I love reading and re-reading them.

On what’s next

Enda: I always have notebooks on the go with new poems but I’m also working on short stories and a novel. I’m looking forward to taking part in a few writing festivals in the coming months too where I’ll get a chance to abandon my desk for a while, to read from my new book and meet with other writers. I’ve usually got poetry books to review for the Dublin Review of Books or Poetry Ireland Review, and this keeps me up to date on current books. I’m a judge of the Strokestown International Poetry Prize 2020 with fellow poet John F Deane and am currently teaching a weekly poetry class at The Irish Writers’ Centre, which I really enjoy. They are a fantastic bunch of emerging poets. I like to keep myself busy and my work varied – as I usually find that’s when the new writing happens!

Peter: New poems, I hope, and that book of essays I mentioned. And I’d love to do another play for radio; it’s the closest form to poetry, full of strange voices whispering in the ether.

Read more from the Writer’s Block series and discover more Irish poets


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