Q&A with John McAuliffe: 3-Day Poetry Getting Started Workshop Director

John McAuliffe spent much of his childhood in Listowel, Co Kerry – a place where he says ‘writers and writing always felt different from but also a part of ordinary life.’ He went on to study at NUI Galway and subsequently worked in Cork and Dublin, where he ran the Poetry Now Festival in Dun Laoghaire and established the Irish Times/Poetry Now Award. He has lived and worked in the UK since 2002 and teaches poetry at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. John also writes a monthly column for the Irish Times and is editor of The Manchester Review. His four books from The Gallery Press are A Better Life which was shortlisted for a Forward Prize in 2002, Next Door, Of All Places which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and The Way In, which was published in 2015.

We’re delighted that John will again direct our 3-Day Poetry Getting Started  Workshop during Listowel Writers’ Week in June.

The Way In
The Way In

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. New poems. It’s a year since I launched my last book in Listowel so I’m only just beginning to get a sense of where these new ones I’m writing will take me. And I’m writing an essay on Seamus Heaney in England for a book that Geraldine Higgins is editing.

Q. What are you currently reading?

A. I just spent a week reading and re-reading Derek Mahon’s New Selected Poems, which is probably as good a book as I will read all year. Maybe because of the winter we’ve had, I liked a couple of terrific Arctic novels, Peter Stamm’s Unformed Landscape and my friend Ian McGuire’s The North Water. I’ve also enjoyed re-reading Caitriona O’Reilly’s Geis and Danielle McLaughlin’s book of stories, Dinosaurs on Other Planets.

Q. Were you interested in writing poetry from a young age?

A. Growing up in Listowel I was more interested in stories and novels and cartoons but in my teens, as I listened to more and more music, I saw poems as marrying together what I liked most about fiction and music.

Q. Who were your early influences?

Of All Places
Of All Places

A. My mother is a great reader so I grew up with a lot of books in the house and weekly library visits so I always had my nose in one book or another. When I started writing, I probably began to read a bit more selectively. I could very quickly pick up the wavelength of some poets – Thomas Kinsella at school, then Derek Mahon, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Paul Durcan, Paul Muldoon at university – and I read my way through them, and still do, for pleasure but also with an eye on how I can re-use their approaches to material. As I encountered more poets, through festivals like Writers’ Week and Cuirt and Poetry Now, I found more and more poets – CK Williams, Michael Donaghy, August Kleinzahler – whose work gave me ideas for how I might go about making poems too.

Q. You spent part of your childhood living in Listowel. Were you influenced do you think by its rich literary heritage?

A. Definitely. I think that writing, whether it was poems or stories or novels, was something that seemed, in Listowel, like a very approachable, normal or natural activity. Writers and writing always felt different from but also a part of ordinary life. I don’t think I understood how valuable and unusual that was until I left the town.

Next Door
Next Door

Q. Can you describe your writing process?

A. I work full-time at a university but am always writing in notebooks, which I try to type up into drafts as soon as possible. The big change is that, over the horizon of each individual poem, I now start to think about the book they might appear in. That means that when I get an idea that the poems are starting to work together I start giving more thought to the book in which they might appear. The new book has a 20-page piece in it that started out as a couple of shorter lyrics and then got longer as I started thinking about how to develop them. For that kind of extended work, I need to set aside stretches of time, so over the past few years I’ve visited Annaghmakerrig for a week or two, which is a great resource for writers and other artists in this country, and I’ve also been able to take some spells off work, thanks to Arts Council bursaries and invited visits to other universities, when I do nothing but write.

Q. You teach poetry at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester and you are also involved with The Manchester Review. Can you tell us a little about that. Are there any new trends evolving?

A. We run an MA in creative writing which draws students from across the world to study poetry and fiction and, from next year, screenwriting too. It’s very enjoyable work and the students really develop across the year they are with us. I’m not sure I can identify any particular trends, although the internationalization of English-language writing in this age of cheaper transport is always astonishing: the world of writing can seem both very wide and increasingly smaller as our US, Australian, Indian, African as well as Irish and British students pitch up in one room in Manchester each year.

Q. What do you most enjoy about Listowel Writers’ Week?

A. I like it as an occasion to come home most of all. It is a family occasion as well as a festival. The workshops and the readings are always lively and interesting and I like to see the kinds of things other writers are trying out there. And the festival is at the heart of the town so I always enjoy catching up with people in Billy Keane’s at the end of the day as well.

Q. What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?

A Better Life
A Better Life

A. I saw Louise O’Neill read in Manchester and she was a brilliant speaker. And I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and, when I see the full programme, to discovering new writers, as I always do when I’m back.

Q. What do you think are the main benefits of attending a 3-day Poetry Getting Started Workshop?

A. I’ve taught workshops a lot in Listowel and it is always a pleasure to watch people pick up ideas, from their reading and from one another, and run with them. It’s a place where people can try out new ideas and figure out, in a friendly environment, what will work best for them as they gain some momentum and continue writing after their week in Listowel.

Q. What will you be covering in your Workshop this year?

A. Frank O’Connor said that “you can’t revise nothing” so I’ll be asking the writers to do a lot of writing, and also look at poems by other poets: we will be looking at some classics by Elizabaeth Bishop and Derek Mahon, but I will also be bringing in work from the new Poetry Ireland whose “Rising Generation” issue features work by some of the best new poets writing now.

For more information or to book John’s Workshop, please see below.