Q&A with Peter Sirr: 3-Day Poetry Getting Started Workshop Director

Peter Sirr New Photo (2)

Peter Sirr works as a freelance writer, teacher and translator.  The Gallery Press has published ten collections of his work most recently The Thing Is and The Rooms which was shortlisted for our Pigott Poetry Prize in 2015. Peter’s awards include the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Michael Hartnett Award and the O’Shaughnessy Award of the Irish American Cultural Institute.  Sway, Versions of Poems from the Troubadour Tradition, was published in 2016. Peter lives in Dublin.

We’re delighted that Peter will be with us in June to direct our 3-Day Poetry Getting Started Workshop on Thursday 1st, Friday 2nd and Saturday 3rd June 2017 at Listowel Writers’ Week. Bookings can be made now and are limited to 15 places.

Q. When did you start writing poetry and was it from an early age?

A. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. All kinds of things – stories, plays, poems. As soon as I could afford it I bought a portable typewriter and I was always clattering away on it and making little booklets. Poetry became an obsession when I was in my teens. I suddenly had this urgent sense that this was what I wanted to do. I was very interested in the work being produced in Ireland at the time by poets like Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Michael Hartnett, and I was also fascinated by English and American poets. Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath … It seemed to me that a lot of the most interesting writing was happening in poetry and that it was a vital and necessary art. That feeling has only deepened with time. There are so many brilliant poets in the world. I published my tenth book last year, and I realised that I’ve been at this business for the guts of forty years. That’s a frightening notion, but also a cheering one. I’m still as besotted as ever, still determined to try to make the next poem better than the last ..

His new collection, Sway, Versions of Poems from the Troubadour Tradition, features this riff rather than a Version, taking as its starting point a line by the 12th century trobairitz, Beatriz, Countess of Dia.

Riff for Beatriz

Ab joi et ab joven m’apais

I feed on joy and youth    the rest
forget    all texts
abandoned     I feed
with joy     I feed on you or would
were you here    were I there
by the lake    in the wood    where the
nightingales are    I hear them
the buds along the branches roar
the frost withdraw    I feast on the season
that you may come to me
like light to the trees    I set
my pilgrim heart to roam
I am here   your loosened armour  your
Saracen hands   I feed
on spices and desert air
the rest is argument    discourse
the lines unwinding
the lines bound like the twigs of a broom
to sweep you away and pull you back
my dust is yours together we blow through the meadows
I was here but now
a stir of language in the trees     birdsong
in the composed season    a voice
before the frost comes   before the wind and the rains
bear me off    come to me please

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. I’m working on a number of things. A couple of years ago I published a historical novel for children call Black Wreath, and I’ve just finished a new one, a ghost story cum thriller for 10 to 12 year olds.  I’m also writing a play. I’ve had a couple of radio plays broadcast and it’s a form I’m very interested in. Drama and poetry are very close, I think. They’re both about finding the essentials and cutting everything else out. And of course I’m trying to write poems. Poems are much rarer. I wish I was a daily poetry communicant but poetry sets its own terms and comes when it feels like it. I try to tempt it by thinking about it, or reading or translating. But I don’t mind if it comes slowly. There’s no hurry, and poems, if they need to be written, will always come alive when the time is right.

. Where do you usually write?

A. I have a little room at home where most of it gets done, but writing can happen anywhere. In a café, out walking, in a traffic jam.

. Can you describe your writing process in a paragraph?

A. For poetry there isn’t really a process. When it’s there it comes very quickly and then it’s usually a question of painstaking rewriting. It can also happen that a first line or stanza will appear and then keep you waiting for a year for the rest. So it’s pretty random. Prose is different. Whether it’s an essay, fiction or a play it’s a question of sitting down in front of a screen and just doing it, one word after another for as long as I can bear.


Q. Who were your early influences?

A. As mentioned above, but also Patrick Kavanagh, Thomas Kinsella, Beckett, Pablo Neruda, Fernando Pessoa, Brecht, Montale … too many to name, really. I read everything I could my get my hands on. When I was writing the poems that ended up in my first book, I was in Trinity, so I was lucky to have access to a vast library, and I made good use that. I still read as widely as I can, even, or especially, poets I have nothing in common with. I love to see risks being taken, the language stretched. It keeps you alert, reminds you to keep learning, remaking, reinventing yourself.


Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. I’ve just finished a novel by Deborah Levy and now I’m reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s brilliant The Beginning of Spring. The poetry books I have in front of me at the moment are Tom Raworth’s Collected Poems, Iain Crichton Smith’s New Collected Poems (there’s a contrast!) and Anne Carson’s Nox, her take on Catullus 101 — his farewell to his brother — and engagement with her own brother’s life and death.


Q. What will you be hoping to cover during your poetry workshop in Listowel.

A. Les Murray said ‘You’ve got to be able to dream at the same time as you think to write poetry. You think with a double mind’. The idea behind the workshop is to focus on learning to think like a poet and investigate how to attempt to use our double minds to spark the beginnings of new poems. Poems come from somewhere deep within us — or they should, but it’s not always easy to find a way into ourselves. Poetry is, among other things, a way of thinking, and I’d like to explore that.

Poetry is also about sound and music, so I want to spend time exploring sound and form, reminding ourselves that poetry, like music, is meant to be heard. We’ll cover things like the craft of writing poetry, how to get started, how to develop a daily practice of writing and reading, how to draft and redraft, how to finish your work.


Q. Congratulations on being shortlisted for our 2015 Pigott Poetry Prize, did you enjoy your visit to Listowel last year

A. I enjoyed it a lot. I did a reading with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Ciaran Carson and saw some events including Paul Muldoon in the hotel.It was only a flying visit but it was enough to soak up some of the atmosphere. Because Listowel is small, you have the sense that Listowel Writers’ Week is everywhere, whereas festivals can be lost in big cities.


Q. What would choose as your desert island book?

A. Something I haven’t read. One book wouldn’t do it, unless it was a vast anthology of poetry, fiction, history … Failing that I’d be happy to fall back on old classics like The Iliad or The Divine Comedy.

Thank you Peter, we look forward to welcoming you back to Listowel in June.

Book Now for Peter Sirr Workshop

Listowel Writers’ Week will take place between the 31st May and 4th June 2017