Q&A with John McAuliffe, Poetry – Getting Started Workshop Director



John McAuliffe
John McAuliffe

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 a new collection The Way In which will be launched at this year’s Festival. We’re delighted that John will be directing our 3-Day Poetry – Getting Started Workshop during Listowel Writers’ Week which runs this year from 27th May – 31st May 2015.

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?

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 Listowel Writers’ Week and Cuirt and Poetry Now, I found more and more poets – CK Williams, Michael Donaghy, August Kleinzahler – whose work also gave me ideas for how I might go about making poems.

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

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.

Q. You started out studying law but did your MA in English. What prompted the move?

A. I enjoyed Law, but not as much as English and I was more encouraged in that direction. When I was an undergraduate I won prizes at Listowel Writers’ Week for stories I’d written and it seemed, well, easier! Though some of my law courses involved a kind of ingenuity with words, and the ability to balance different senses of a single word simultaneously, which still is very useful as you’re training yourself as a reader and writer.

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. Briefly, what will you be covering in your Poetry – Getting Started Workshop?

A. Because I’ve always found reading to be one sure route to writing, we’ll be looking at other people’s poems at the start of each workshop and using them as starting points for our own poems. Everybody on the workshop will, I hope, feel more confident about exploring new kinds of poems, as writers and readers, afterwards.

You can book a place on John’s Workshop here