THE KENNY Gallery recently hosted the launch of an outstanding debut poetry collection by West of Ireland poet, Martin Dyar.
Published by Arlen House, Maiden Names introduces us to an assured and skilful poetic voice and a writer with McGahern-like sensitivity to the nuances and personalities of rural life. Always acutely perceptive and, at times wryly humorous, Dyar’s poems can move from the mundane to the mystical and from the human realm to that of animals.
Martin grew up in Swinford and lived for some years in Galway where he studied at NUI Galway and worked as a special needs teacher. He currently lectures in medical humanities at Trinity College. His poetry has received the Patrick Kavanagh Award and The Irish Times hailed him as “an exciting poet at the beginning of a big career”.
Some days after his book’s Galway launch, he took time out to talk with me about his work, beginning with an explanation of its title, Maiden Names.
“There are a few different angles to it,” he tells me. “Some of the poems and the characters in the book are connected to themes of desire and there’s definitely a strong presence of female characters in the book. The idea of a woman’s maiden name strikes me as a kind of summary of her inner life.
“I thought if you know a woman’s maiden name you have a sense of who she is in terms of her full story so there’s something there in that idea. Also, this being my first book, it is my own maiden voyage in language so the poems themselves are maiden names.
“In a broader sense there is my sense of the artform, of poetry as an effort to push language, and to get into the essential aspect of language, the virginity and purity of language, and purity of perception.”
Dyar has also written for the stage and acted and there is a dramatic stamp to many of the poems which are driven by the dynamics of character, dialogue, and encounter.
“That’s important to me,” he states. “There are dramatic elements and fiction elements so there is stuff untypical of the genre of poetry. It’s an effort to try and approach poetry in a narrative way, and also have a stab at something lyrical along the way.
“There is also a sense of the achievement of my own poetic heroes, Paul Durcan, Robert Frost, the playwright Conor McPherson - I’m a big fan of his, some of his monologues are some of the best Irish poetry even if they’re not so called. It has surprised me as I have started to get feedback that there is this tendency toward character and story because it wasn’t something I was doing consciously though I do have this reflex not to write in my own voice and the book is the fruit of that.”
The book presents a host of finely etched characters, such as the engaged couple in ‘Margaret and Tony’ – “both were volubly prudish, obstreperously vain” - whose wedding is almost cancelled when they both have affairs, while their friends “texted each other furtively for days/astounded either had found another to bear the hooves of their personality/and thrilled the big day now would have such themes”.
“I was trying to have a little more fun with that poem,” Dyar notes. “Although it’s formal, it’s one of a handful of sonnets, so there is something traditional about it, but I have had the opportunity to read the poem publicly and I think it’s funny even though it’s quite dark.”
Alongside the likes of Durcan and McPherson, Yeats is another writer Dyar admires, and ‘The Madness of King Goll’ recasts a character who also appears in a poem of Yeats.
“Yeats is very very important to me.” Dyar asserts. “I’ve always loved his work going right back to secondary school and he was a central part of the curriculum. That was the beginning of my excitement about poetry.
“Having to interpret his poems and discuss them and write about them, I discovered a great pleasure in his work and a certain element of fluency in myself in responding to them, it wasn’t really like work at all, so he’s part of my roots in that sense. I was born in Sligo as well so there’s a sentimental dimension there too.
“‘The Madness of King Goll’ has a sprinkling of intertextuality, it’s the title of the first poem Yeats published, in England as it happens. It’s based on a myth and I played with it a little bit and revised it a bit, I don’t know if there is anything specifically Yeatsian going on in it though!”
Another rich strand in the book sees Dyar take famous figures from world literature such as Casanova and Cyrano de Bergerac and recast them in a rural Irish milieu. ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ presents a man who writes eloquent wedding speeches for his neighbours in return for drink money.
“Writing those have opened up something for me in terms of possibilities and maybe trying to, within the characters, have something universal and particular, something west of Ireland.” Dyar observes. ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ in particular people seem to respond to, it’s a lot of fun to read publicly. The book was launched in Dublin by poet Brian Lynch and he dealt on ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and said how an important dimension of it was that it starts in the quotidian, with coffee and a sandwich at a petrol station, and makes a journey into something mystical and euphoric and sort of comes full circle.
“I was intrigued by that and by everyone’s responses at this stage, it’s as if I’m meeting the poems for the first time. This is a lovely period with the book being launched. I would always be tempted, if I am taking strong cultural references like Cyrano or Rip Van Winkle, to soak them in a culchie sensibility before trying to complete them in a poem and that’s what happened there.”
Maiden Names is currently available in Kenny’s Bookshop. Martin will be reading at Cúirt 2013.