He is originally from Youghal, and now resides in France, but it was while living in Galway that Adam White first discovered his poetic voice at The Crane Bar, and he discovered true romance on Inishbofin.
Next week White returns to Galway for the launch, at Charlie Byrne's Bookshop, of his second collection of poetry, What Else Is There?, published by Connemara based publishing company Doire Press. The new collection builds impressively on White’s fine 2013 debut, Accurate Measurements, also published by Doire, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prize. More so than the first book, this one feels like a thought-through collection with sustained themes and recurrent motifs knitting it together.
“One of the things that bothered me about the first book is that it has poems about building and then poems about family and then nature poems, but it was like it was divided up; it didn’t feel like a whole,” White tells me. “It was missing an over-arching theme. With this book I started off by thinking about a saying my mother was fond of; ‘far away fields are greener’. When I started writing this book I just kept that in mind so there are poems about migrants or going away on holidays and how when we get there we think about home. There is an over-arching theme to this book.”
Poems about migration dominate the first of the volume’s two sections. White vividly evokes Irish goldminers in the Yukon in 1901 ("…We had to cross/an ocean. We had to trudge/a thousand miles of nightmare ice for gold" ), his own first overseas work in Holland ("Peeling bulbs grated the skin off your thumbs/where teaching money’s true worth was the true / worth of drudgery…" ) and, powerfully, the desperate plight of present day migrants arriving in Europe or dying en route. 'Mare Nostrum' describes an overcrowded boat adrift and "..abandoned/in the middle of the Med/like a pail of kittens".
The second section of What Else is There? opens with the moving sequence. ‘Elegy for a Welder’ written in memory of a beloved uncle, Thomas Cooper - "A right loner/who could come into his own/in the right company" and "the furthest we’ll get in having an uncle/the closest we’ll come to a saint".
White says: “While I had other uncles in the building trade I didn’t know most of them that well. Tom was the only one I was close to and would spend time with. He was very gentle, he was a bachelor and I never saw him with a girlfriend. As I mention in the poem he loved nature and animals. He was a bit of a loner but a very kind person.”
White himself was a carpenter on building sites and both of his books feature wonderful poems that sing of the graft and skill, wisdom and endurance of woodworkers, welders, navvies, scrap-collectors and their ilk. ‘A Navvy’s Vilanelle begins; "You’re not paid to let the hammer go cold,’/he says, in a way that makes me feel less./'Whether you’re tired, or sore, or too old//for this line of work, you’re hired to take hold / of the thing and lay waste to walls at each address,/not paid to let a hammer go cold.’
'Realising I was going to read my poems before an audience I knew I’d have to keep at them until they were good'
“It’s a family thing really because my dad and uncles all worked in building and construction so I grew up with it,” White notes. “I used to go working with my dad when I was thirteen or fourteen so I grew up around those scenes with men working out in the rain and getting their hands dirty so it was natural for me to write about it. And it’s the kind of thing I’d like to read more about in poetry. I remember reading Seamus Heaney and he had poems about working on the farm and I liked his poems describing in detail how things are done. So it’d be nice to see more poems about carpenters or block-layers or welders and so on, it’s not something you come across very often.”
White’s transition from carpenter to poet began when a combination of a shoulder injury and the post-Celtic Tiger economic slump prompted him to enrol in NUIG to study French and English. “I had worked on building sites in France and when I came back to Ireland I wanted to keep up the French and decided to go to university and learn some more and read French literature and find out more about France. I had friends in Galway which is why I chose NUIG over UCC. I wanted to discover a new place. I saw it as just a time out initially; I didn’t plan on changing career for good. I’m now working as a teacher but I do miss the carpentry.”
White further muses on the transition in ‘All Thumbs’; “It seems we have to learn the grace/in accepting we don’t force such revisions / on ourselves if, at the time, it felt the wise decision; to learn as well in life and love the losing/out makes room for other things. // And what if working with your head allows / the heart speak louder than did the hands."
At NUIG, White discovered the work of Seamus Heaney and John Montague and began writing poetry himself. He then began reading his work at John Walsh and Lisa Frank’s North Beach Poetry Nights at the Crane Bar; “Realising I was going to read my poems before an audience I knew I’d have to keep at them until they were good,” he recalls. “I took it seriously and it gave me discipline. It was on once a month and you had to come up with two poems and that pushed you into writing regularly.”
During his time at NUIG, White also made frequent trips to Connemara and ‘An Awakening’, from his first book, recalls a fateful jaunt to Inishbofin; ‘the island where I had just met you’ the ‘you’ in question being his partner Karine. “We actually first met in NUIG,” White reveals. “Karine was working there as a lectrice with the French Department. We got on very well and then we went on this camping trip to Inishbofin and I suppose we met on a deeper level there. We realised we had a lot in common then and it was the start of our relationship.” The couple now live on the border between Brittany and Normandy and have a son, Gael.
In conclusion, I ask Adam about the book’s title; What Else is There? can be taken as either a shoulder-shrugging ‘that’s it’ or an eager curiosity. “I like that the phrase can be read in different ways,” White states. “It harks back to that phrase of my mother’s about far away fields. ‘What else is there?’ – we need somehow to find that out and to travel and see what else there is. That idea goes through the different poems in the book. The cover shows ice breaking which connects with the poems about global warming, so ‘what else is there’ in that context alludes to the fact that if the ice caps and the glaciers melt we can’t really replace them.”
What Else is There? will be launched at Charlie Byrne's at 6.30pm on Thursday February 16. The guest speaker will be novelist Mike McCormack.