'Poetry can illuminate people’s lives'

Moya Cannon, poet

Among the attractions of the upcoming Clifden Arts Festival is the launch of the latest poetry collection by Moya Cannon, entitled Keats Lives and published by Carcanet Press. It is also something of a homecoming, as Moya was a long longtime stalwart of Galway’s literary scene.

Although now a resident of Dublin, Moya originally moved to Galway in 1983 and it was here, in 1990, that her debut collection, Oar, was published by Salmon. That volume won the 1991 Brendan Behan Memorial Prize and has been followed by The Parchment Boat (Gallery Press, 1998 ), Carrying the Songs (Carcanet, 2007 ), and Hands (Carcanet, 2011 ).

That Moya Cannon should have become a poet is perhaps no surprise given her family DNA. Raised as one of six children in Dunfanaghy to teacher parents, her father wrote poems in Irish as a young man, while her mother was a keen reader of poetry.

“She was very interested in literature generally,” Moya recalls. “As a young woman she was very friendly with Alice Milligan, who was a poet of the Gaelic Revival and that was a very important friendship for her. My mother came from a Romantic nationalist background in Tyrone and liked the poetry that went with that, and Milligan was very much in that vein. She also had a huge appreciation of English literature; after she died I found a notebook of hers with all kinds of poems written in it. She certainly conveyed her love of literature to us and I was very fortunate that she had that deep love.”

While Irish is her first language, Moya has never written poetry in it. “Your maternal language is always your heart language and it is still that for me,” she declares. “I tried to write in Irish but it just didn’t work. I suppose my Irish is a childhood Irish; it isn’t good enough to write poetry. I used to teach in Inis Óirr and I understood what people on the island were saying but only at the surface level, I’d miss all the nuances and undercurrents and that is where poetry happens. But it comes out here and there like bones or rocks sticking out. I’m very grateful my parents passed on Irish to us, it is a room I love to walk into, it gives me access to a whole cultural sensibility.”

'Writing is just reading that spills over'

After graduating from UCD, where she studied history and politics, Moya began writing poetry in earnest. “Somebody once said to me that writing is just reading that spills over,” she notes. “I’d always enjoyed reading poetry right through college. I liked Machado and Neruda; they made sense of the world for me. Machado in particular is still a very important poet for me. After leaving college I found the initial years tough, I was working at a responsible job and the loose community I was part of in college was falling away. I asked myself what did I enjoy and I realised I loved poetry and music so I decided I would have a crack at both of them. I went to a writer’s workshop at the Grapevine Arts Centre which was run by Dermot Bolger who was about 19 at the time! It was great fun and a great sounding board, you learned when a poem worked and when it didn’t. It was a wonderful intermediary stage before I started to publish.”

Moya is often considered a poet of landscape and nature - and there are many such poems in the new collection - but the poem which gives it its title, ‘Keats Lives on the Amtrak’ was inspired by a conversation with an African-American train conductor who turned out to be a Keats enthusiast;

He leaned forward, smiled, and said,/‘I’m going to get a tee-shirt with/Keats Lives on it. This time of year,’ –/he gestured towards the window,/trees were blurring into bud –/‘when everything starts coming green again,/I always think of him…


In the poem, Cannon shares a quote from Keats (pictured above ): ‘..Keats claimed his only certainties were/the holiness of the heart’s affections/and the truth of imagination", which had been given to her years before by a Dublin cabbie and the conductor delightedly jots it down, declaring his intention to show it later to his daughter.

“That was a marvellous encounter,” Moya admits. “It shows that poetry can illuminate people’s lives. I met the taxi driver coming home from an Eavan Boland reading sometime in the mid-nineties and he asked where I was coming from and when I told him he said he liked poetry as well and was currently reading a book about Louis MacNeice and he was also a big fan of Wallace Stevens. He gave me the quote which just blew me away. The Amtrak conductor was just as excited to hear the quote as I had been 20 years earlier and the fact that he was going to pass it on to his daughter I thought was delightful. There was such a contrast between his humdrum job and the fact that Keats meant so much to him.”

The powerful ‘Antrim Conversation’ describes a very different dialogue, with a countryman who ‘had a voice as soft as chalk’ and whose friendly chat gives way to dark memories of the Troubles and his admission of delight at the murder of someone in the next town: 'What do we know of the chalk,/ the flint, of others’ souls/or of our own/or of what might break in us,/if history’s weight/pressed heavily down?'

“I remember reading Laurens Van Der Post’s Bushmen of the Kalahari where he writes that they were originally very welcoming to strangers but they were exploited and became violent,” Moya reflects. “He makes the point that when gentle people are hurt they can become very, very, violent because they are so deeply affronted that their gentleness was abused. There was some element of that in the Antrim encounter because essentially he was a very gentle person then this awful hurt and violence bubbled to the surface. That trauma in a society, how do you heal that?”

'I’d like to be reincarnated as an archaeologist'

A number of the poems meditate on prehistoric burials, traces left by Stone Age cave dwellers, ancient artifacts that have endured through millennia. “I think I’d like to be reincarnated as an archaeologist and then a geologist after that!” Moya says with a laugh. “I’ve been fascinated by archaeology ever since I was a child. I often wonder what is it we share with people from thousands of years ago? How is it that people from 40,000 years ago were interested in making something beautiful like a flute or a pendant of ivory swans? It makes you realise that beauty is not a luxury; music and beauty sometimes keep us going when nothing else does.”

Keats Lives carries its own share of beauty, such as in these lines from ‘Snow Day’; 'Snow fell and fell/ through the night,/feeding our need/for silence,/for mid-winter light,/for believing that all can be/cleansed,/made right.'

The book’s poems range from Ireland to France, Spain, Portugal, the US, and Colombia. I conclude our chat by asking Moya does she have a favourite country of those she has visited? “I’ve spent a good bit of time in France over the past four or five years in the Bauges Mountains. It’s an area I found very evocative. When I moved to Galway first I fell head over heels in love with the Burren and the Bauges Mountains are like a mega-Burren. You don’t hear about them much because they are like the little brothers of the Alps but they are stunning, these beautiful limestone mountains scarred by weather and time. When I put the book together I was surprised by how many of the poems came from that area.”

Keats Lives will be launched by Tim Robinson at the Station House Theatre, Saturday September 19 at 2.30pm. There will be music by Kathleen Loughnane. Admission is €5. The book is also available in Charlie Byrnes.


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