Sophie Grenham talks to poet MAURICE DEVITT about memories, his previous incarnation and his debut collection of poetry …
Dubliner Maurice Devitt is a man who has reaped the benefits of a new beginning, after swapping a long, pensionable career in finance and insurance for an exciting life of writing eight years ago. Since then, he has written over two hundred poems, some of which have been published in literary journals in Ireland, England, Scotland, the US, Mexico, Romania, India and Australia. Maurice curates the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies website and is a founding member of the Hibernian Writers’ Group. Maurice holds an MA in Poetry Studies from Mater Dei (now DCU), has won the Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition, has been selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series, as well as shortlisted for many accolades, including the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Listowel Collection Competition, the Cúirt New Writing Award, the Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Competition and the Doire Press International Chapbook Competition.
Maurice’s debut poetry collection, Growing Up in Colour, is one of this autumn’s most eagerly anticipated books. It is a tender, empathetic tribute to his parents; with familial love and loss, mischief and melancholy rising from every page. One of the key strengths of Growing Up in Colour is Maurice’s conscientious depiction of the power and presence that simple objects hold; how they become a part of who we are and how our energy remains in them long after we’re gone.
Of Growing Up in Colour Jane Clarke has said, “Maurice Devitt celebrates what it is to be human in these pieces of wit and wisdom. With his distinctive narrative style and eye for vivid detail, he moves deftly between playfulness and seriousness, creating poems that offer both solace and delight.”
Growing Up in Colour (€12) is published by Doire Press and available from selected bookshops nationwide.
I’ve lived in Ranelagh for 30 years, originally down in the village and now up behind Beechwood Avenue Church. When I was in UCD this area was “party central”: you just went into Humphrey’s or Russell’s, bought a six-pack and followed the crowd. It’s quieter now but still a great source of mystery and menace, and even though they may not realise it, a lot of the subjects of my poems live close by. Most mornings I look for inspiration from the wise denizens of Morton’s coffee shop, but, after that, my day tends to be a bit dishevelled. Although I try to write every day, this doesn’t always happen and even when it does, I may write very little, and spend the rest of the day chasing a word or an image. This portability is one of the great attractions of poetry, and I could be sitting in Birchall’s or McSorley’s, or listening to Metropolis in the Leeson Lounge, late in the evening, when the poem finally clicks into place.
I grew up in the beautiful, Strain-built, Northside suburb of Glasnevin, still a great source of idle reminiscence: the misty walk through the cemetery to morning mass; that romantic black and white photo of my parents on O’Connell Street; playing rounders in the back garden with everybody from the road; the possibilities and dark mysteries secreted in the field behind our house; my siblings and I laughing into the camera on the step outside the French window; the expeditionary nature of “going to the shop”; the Sunday Drive; serving mass in “The Bons” (Bons Secours Hospital); getting “the stations” and colour TV; rolling down the hill in “The Bots” (Botanic Gardens); watching the 1970 World Cup in my father’s bedroom; the music of Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Talking Heads; dancing to Atomic Rooster but thinking of the slow set; one hundred years of The Diggers; the team sheet pinned up on Thursday in Tolka House; leaving for the Southside; the gentle sweep of Glasnevin Hill, knowing I’m almost home.
When I moved into this house ten years ago I converted a bedroom into a study/library but still found myself writing in longhand at the kitchen table. As the study has become less pristine and more cluttered, and I am surrounded by half-read books, boxes of family photos (some finding their way on to the desk), art cards of Hopper and Magritte, and a couch, retired from the sitting room, I am more comfortable in its dusty glamour. I still write the original drafts of poetry in longhand, because I find it freer and more expansive, but now it’s at my desk and I switch to laptop when I edit and re-write. However, the most important thing to me in a writing space is a window (I’m lucky to have two), a distraction, but also where most of my poems begin.
On favourite bookshops
The Company of Books on Main Street, Ranelagh. It’s such a small space yet walking around it is like being in an Escher woodcut, the stock evolving before my eyes, new books constantly appearing from unseen shelves and the warmth and erudition of Gwen, the owner, helping me identify the precise book I didn’t realise I was looking for.
On his “To Be Read” pile
When I was younger I was a voracious reader but in recent years I’ve slowed down and the “To be Read” piles are visibly growing around me. In an attempt to be democratic about it I’ve chosen a book from each pile:
Portraits: John Berger on Artists – I have loved John Berger since the days of G and A Fortunate Man and that expectant climb to the original Books Upstairs on South King Street.
Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a present from my great friend and stoic philosopher, Greg Leddy, who sadly passed away in March.
I Think Therefore I Play by Andrea Pirlo, football and philosophy from the greatest stylist of his generation.
Journey to the Sleeping Whale by Jane Robinson – erudite, essential poetry for these often bewildering times.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello, a music idol.
Bloodroot by Annemarie Ní Churreáin, a powerful new force in Irish poetry.
While I’ve travelled a lot, I don’t really have any particular bolthole I return to for peace and solace. Having said that, during the summer I spent a week with family in the Spanish town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and I could see it becoming a regular retreat. Day-to-day I escape to Palmerston Park, Ranelagh Arts Centre (a vibrant space which we are sadly losing) or the National Gallery, and coffee shops like Cinnamon and Mima. However, most of my adventures are in my mind and I rarely set out to write “about” things or places, preferring the poem to lead me, as words invite images and images flush out words, never knowing where the poem will end.
On his previous incarnation
I graduated in Maths and Economics in 1977 and started work in Irish Life as a computer programmer, never having seen a computer, and so began a really enjoyable thirty-two years in business – twenty-six in Irish Life and six in Permanent TSB – spanning the world of IT, Operations and Sales, while working with, and growing up with, the most fantastic people. In 2009 I got the opportunity to retire early and this opened up the vista of a completely new “career”, writing poetry, an activity I had dabbled in during my working life, but never felt I had the time to give it serious attention.
I don’t remember being particularly enthralled with poetry in school, and when I did start to become interested in reading it I think the first attraction was almost scientific. I loved the geometry, the white space, the concision and the way all the elements had to operate in concert for a poem to work, just like a mathematical puzzle. I loved the way lyric poets could work within these confines to capture a moment in time or space and yet evince a different interpretation from every reader. In writing poetry I like the half-light of a suburban evening as I look for menace, humour and some subversion of the expected. As a fan of Charles Simic I love his description of poetry as, “three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley.”
On Growing Up in Colour
I started writing poetry around the same time I left college. Finding myself with lots of spare time I returned to reading, an activity that had been my passion as a child but had been lost in the “fug” of learning as I passed through school and college. I re-discovered the classics and discovered new writers like John Berger, Joan Didion, Neil Jordan, John Cheever and Susan Sontag. Unfortunately, their writing was so smooth and seamless that I convinced myself that “this writing game can’t be too hard” so I enrolled in a creative writing class at the Adult Education Centre on Mountjoy Square. I thought I could write the “great Irish Novel” until I met our first tutor, John F. Deane, and he introduced me to writing poetry. I fell in love with the stillness, the silence and the ability to write about a mythic cityscape where lion tamers dream of office work.
I wrote intermittently while I was working, but found the mix very hard to sustain. I did have some small successes with poems placed by the Evening Herald and Dundalk Democrat, but it was really only when I retired and signed up for the Becoming a Poet programme with Faber & Faber, facilitated by poet, novelist and academic, Paul Perry, that I started to write with any consistency or discipline. The course continued with weekly sessions for six months and spawned the Hibernian Writers’ Group who, having gone through several iterations, are still writing away and have published close to twenty collections between them. For me, this group dynamic and the individual members of the group have been central to both me progressing my poetry, and the evolution of Growing Up in Colour. My creative development was supplemented by a Masters in Poetry Studies which I completed in Mater Dei (now DCU) in 2012. This gave me a grounding in the more technical aspects of poetry and also initiated my involvement in the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies, based at DCU.
The collection is dedicated to the memory of my parents, who ultimately inspired everything I’ve ever done and their presence, though often subliminal, is ever-present in the collection. It is the nature of a debut collection, and particularly one published so late, that it really becomes a transverse section of a life, touching on a myriad of incidents and intuitions. The first poems I wrote were largely memory poems of childhood and growing up, often pivoting on the early death of my father, and these tended to be more lyrical and narrative in form. As I’ve grown older, read and written more, my inspirations, though probably emanating from a similar source, have become more oblique and existential, and are often centred on the mysteries, dark humour and anxieties beneath the surface of suburban life.
On what’s next
Since the book has started to take shape, I’ve been writing very little new work and I suspect that’s not going to change as I embark on my “World Tour.” From talking to other writers there often seems to be a “withdrawal period” in the wake of a book, as the mind looks to re-establish order in the face of turmoil.
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