Noel Duffy is one of my favourites. I love his prose, sure, but today I want to talk to him about his latest poetry collection, a wonderful work which I read from cover to cover without stopping. And that’s something I rarely do with a poetry collection. But after reading each poem and sitting with it for a bit, I found myself saying, “oh, let me look at what’s next”, being moved and delighted by each page. Noel is a big thinker with a big heart – the ultimate combination for a writer, I think — and his newest collection, out now via the usual suspects, but also here via his publisher, Ward Wood, led to a fascinating and surprising discussion.
Me: Hi, Noel, and welcome. At first look, this would seem to be a collection of science-inspired poems. For a science-lover like me, that would have been more than enough to get me to start reading. But there is so much to think about and discuss with this wonderful collection and I find myself being drawn to this question. How important do you think “secondary themes” generally are in writing? What do you think your secondary themes are in this collection, and were you aware of them when writing?
Noel: You know, I think you’ve really spotted something there about secondary themes being just as important as the more explicit, central ones – though you must have those there first, of course. I think I may have learned something about this from writing prose and screenplays where secondary narratives (subplots) are also a key factor in making those forms work. For this book I wrote a good deal of material as I went, but kept weaning poems out that just didn’t feel quite right a fit, and then rewriting the collection from about midway through the process almost as a whole, because I wanted to create a unified collection and not just a collection of loosely related material. As an aside, I recently reread a screenplay I had been rewriting during the same time and what I realised is that most of the rewriting I had done over two years was to make the subplot more strongly play with the main one; so perhaps that experience subconsciously or maybe even slightly consciously came into this work. For me, one thing about the late great Seamus Heaney that doesn’t get talked about enough was just how thematically unified his collections were. People tend to just focus on the ‘big’ poems, but if you look at The Spirit Level say, that key metaphor recurs throughout in so many different guises.
Me: I found myself jotting down notes about recurring themes as I read the collection and it made me think about how it’s the recurring, “secondary” themes that gives the real depth to a work, that really puts the proverbial flesh on the bones. That seems to be the case in my own writing or at least when I think back on what I’ve written. So although your collection is about science and scientific enquiry, there are other themes which keep popping up, like war and friendship and education and memory?
Noel: I think with both collections I’ve reflected on my childhood and growing up to a large extent in a world where I imagined I may get a trade, like my four brothers and parents – and then, where I have ended up having had certain opportunities they didn’t. A huge part of that was being the first in my family to go to university. Perhaps because university was never an experience I expected to have I wanted to reflect on that exciting time for me, as I can think of few poets who have, strangely. In particular, I wanted to explore the intellectual, but also emotional, excitement of that period of my life. That was quite conscious but I think the long poem, ‘Timepieces’, explores the seed of that curiosity though a friendship my father made with a man called PJ when I was a kid (and then teenager), who worked as a labourer at Dublin Bus, but was a respected amateur antiquarian. The poem explores that friendship through a series of archaeological artefacts against the backdrop of ancient Ireland, Viking Dublin, Imperial Rome, with me as a kind of observer and participant as PJ drew my dad into the world of history. So, in many ways, this centrepiece poem contains those secondary elements you speak of (friendship, history, war) which are echoed elsewhere in the collection. I think, on one level these themes were conscious, but perhaps not to the extent that I realised while writing the book. And I think that element of surprise is important – for both writer and reader – and certainly having strong sub-themes helps to give the book grace notes and avoid the work being too linear and schematic, which is very important also.
Thanks Sue, for your surprising and very interesting questions about the collection. I’m really delighted you enjoyed it.
Me: You’re welcome, Noel. It’s always a pleasure.
And it really is. Both to talk to
the man, and to read his poetry. On Light & Carbon is about science and everyday life, and so much more. It pours into your ear like a soothing, warm oil, and reinvigorates. It is a collection I will go back to time and again, I’m sure. And you can get your own copy here.