Review of Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong on RTÉ’s Arena

I had the pleasure of reviewing Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds for Arena last week. I’d originally read the book on my Kindle last year, so it was nice to pick up a hard copy and revisit it.

I dislike having to read poetry on my Kindle, as it just doesn’t seem to make the same impression on me without my being able to see the shape of it across a number of pages. However, it is a great way of getting books that haven’t yet been picked up by UK or Irish publishers, especially if you’re in a hurry – and there was such a buzz about this debut last year that I didn’t want to wait. It’s certainly a collection that benefits from a few readings. Have a listen to my longer-form thoughts here.


Winter Papers Arena Takeover

On Monday night I was part of a special Arena takeover with Kevin Barry, novelist and co-editor of the Winter Papers, Ireland’s arts and literature annual (kind of like the Beano for artsy types). Myself, Sarah Baume, Paul Lynch, Mary Morrissey and Kevin chatted with Sean for the full hour about our contributions to the annual and also got to choose a winter-themed poem or song to play. I chose Winter by Kristen Hersh. Afterwards, we headed into town for the first Christmas party of the season.

Kevin and his partner and co-editor Olivia Smith do an excellent job commissioning and collating poems, short stories and articles and producing a beautiful book – so lovely I didn’t want to take it out of the house on my trip to the studio for fear of it getting rained on.


This year, Olivia and Kevin approached me to write an article on Blue Raincoat Theatre Company, a Sligo-based theatre company who specialise in interpretations of European contemporary classics, and new writing. I focused on their recent play Shackleton, a movement-based reimagining of the story of Ernest Shackleton’s voyage on the Endurance, using puppetry and soundscape, but also took the opportunity to chat to director Niall Henry about what drives the company. I really enjoyed writing the resulting essay on the company’s work – especially because although I’ve worked in theatre for the past ten years I’ve rarely had a chance to reflect on the process of theatre making through my writing.

Novelist Sarah Baume’s contribution is an intriguing and intimate account of her meeting her hero, artist Dorothy Cross, in her home in the West of Ireland. Paul Lynch’s short story is a study in masculine tension, skilfully interrogating a father-son relationship. And Mary Morrissey’s story is fuelled by poignant but clear-eyed reminiscence. The anthology also has short stories by June Caldwell and Blindboy Boatclub of the Rubberbandits, and poems by Stephen Sexton and Roisin Kelly.

You can listen back to Arena here and buy a copy of the anthology (before it sells out!) here. 



Feature on Pablo Neruda on RTÉ’s Arena

I had a great time reading some extracts from Pablo Neruda’s work and talking about his life on RTÉ’s Arena last Friday. The poems are such a joy to read, it’s difficult not to get carried away by their passion and music. You can listen back here.


I’m also looking forward to seeing the new Pablo Larraín biopic (image above), but see it’s just been panned in the Guardian…great reviews elsewhere so I might take a chance. I like the magic realist stylistic approach and I think I’ll be happy to forgive any artistic licence taken in pursuit of a good yarn.

Reviews of ‘Stranger, Baby’ by Emily Berry and ‘The Unaccompanied’ by Simon Armitage on RTÉ’s Arena

I’ve been lucky enough to review some excellent work this year so far for Arena, and these two starkly different collections stood out for me.

You can have a listen to my thoughts on Emily Berry’s dark and compelling Stranger, Baby here.

And my thoughts on Simon Armitage’s The Unaccompanied here. I’d some (enjoyable) arguments with this one, and it certainly feels like a collection for our times.

Robert Lowell Profile on RTÉ’s Arena



On the 2nd of March I visited RTÉ’s Arena to do a profile on Robert Lowell for the week of his centenary.

Lowell was a poet I thought I knew, but it was great to have an opportunity to revisit the work with the intention of trying to put together a broad overview of the work. Time flies on live radio, but I did manage to squeeze in readings of some of my favourite poems.

There are some interesting books on Lowell published this year, including a new biography by Kay Redfield Jamsion, which pays particular attention to his psychology.

You can listen to the feature here.

The Uncategorisable 2016

To say 2016 was an eventful year would be an understatement. Personally, I’ve faced a lot of upheaval and faced a number of challenges of the ‘I’m not dead so must be stronger’ variety. However, the exercise of looking back at the year has made it abundantly clear that I’ve been incredibly lucky and have a huge amount to be thankful for.

Work at the Abbey Theatre

The past two years  as Literary Manager of the Abbey Theatre have been exciting and rewarding, but daunting at times. 2016 saw the premieres of six new plays and four short plays across the Abbey and Peacock stages and the publication of seven playscripts. I was immensely proud to be involved in a year which showcased so much new writing across both stages of the national theatre, with sell out runs of Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland (co-produced with the Royal Court and nominated for an Evening Standard Award for Best New Play), Tina’s Idea of Fun by Sean P. Summers, Town Is Dead by Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell and The Remains of Maisie Duggan by Carmel Winters. We also workshopped at least fifteen shows in development, spent a week doing intensive research into the women’s canon in the company of theatre practitioners, read and discussed 12 Shakespeare plays in the company of fantastic actors, ran a Scratch Night and the Future Tense short play readings to showcase work of the playwrights of the future, and I travelled to London, Belfast, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinbugh and New York. I estimate that I saw 120 new writing shows.

My final show as Literary Manager was Anna Karenina, in an adaptation by the amazing Marina Carr. Working with Marina and Wayne Jordan, a director who I loved working with on on his choral/poetic adaptation of Oedipus in 2015, was one of the highlights of my time as Literary Manager. The adaptation of a novel of Anna Karenina’s scope is a tremendous undertaking for any playwright, and the pleasure of working with Marina’s witty, dark, irreverent and ambitious interpretation of the text would be difficult to overstate. It’s a script full of deeply moving quotes which catch your breath and bring you up short. Stiva’s line to Levin about his tendency to view the world in black and white has a special resonance for me this year:

‘…there’s very few of us trying to get it wrong.’

Working on Anna Karenina was a brilliant way to finish up in the role of Literary Manager, and I’m looking forward to working with both Marina and Wayne on new projects in the future.


Poetry Business

I can hardly believe I’ve had time for anything other than the Abbey this year, and yet, poetic opportunities have presented themselves like seedlings pushing up through frozen ground (the snow in the above image could be influencing my simile choice here). Here’s a quick round up of what I got up to in 2016.


I kicked off the year with a reading at the brilliant Troubadour in London.

Troubadour 1

I had a fantastic time reading with Kate Bingham, Tamar Yoseloff, Carole Bromley, Lesley Saunders, Owen Lewis, Greg Freeman and Maura Dooley with Henry Fajemirokun. Huge thanks as always to the dynamic Anne-Marie Fyfe!


March was a busy month, with readings at Tanya Farrelly and David Butler’s Staccato, which I’d highly recommend you look up. They get really excellent readers on board.

I also had a new poem featured on Sunday Miscellany – I was asked at the last minute to contribute something film-themed, which proved really serendipitous as it helped me focus on a poem I’d been trying to whip into shape for years. You can hear the poem, ‘Silent Movie’, here.



April was something of a personal highlight, as I got to take part in A Poet’s Rising, a wonderful initiative by the Irish Writer’s Centre and the Arts Council. Myself, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Thomas McCarthy, Theo Dorgan and Paul Muldoon were commissioned to write poems in response to figures who fought in the Easter Rising. I had the pleasure of writing about the inimitable Dr. Kathleen Lynn. The poems featured in the Irish Times, in a documentary on RTE One, and are even available on an app walking tour of Dublin. Big thanks to all at the Irish Writer’s Centre for the opportunity! Here’s the video of my sestina for Kathleen Lynn.

I was also really happy to be featured in Poetry Ireland Review’s The Rising Generation, an issue which showed a selection of work from poets who have published first collections in the past five years. Vona Groarke challenged us all to answer an intriguing series of questions to accompany the poems. It was a really interesting approach that really served to illuminate the poets’ personal approaches.


I was also delighted to have poems featured in Agenda’s New Generation Poets issue in April. It might sound like a funny thing to say, but the poems chosen were ones I was quite happy with, which isn’t always the case!



June brought with it a nice U.S. publication in the form of The Café Review, and a great launch reading in Books Upstairs with editor Steve Luttrell, a man clearly passionate about new work.


July found me thinking about WWI (probably something to do with our Abbey/Headlong tour of Frank McGuinness’s wonderful Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme) and I was delighted to have a poem on the subject broadcast on Arena. You can listen back here

I also taught a very enjoyable one-day poetry course for the Irish Writers Centre

What Happened To August and September?

Other than From the Isle, a great reading at Kildare Village sponsored by Poetry Ireland in the company of excellent poet Victoria Kennefick, not that much. Here’s why:

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival happened.

The Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival happened.

The Dublin Theatre Festival happened.

And in the middle of it all, I escaped to California for two weeks:





In October I got another lovely invite from Sunday Miscellany, this time to contribute to their Culture Night live recording, alongside Conor Mulvagh, Deirdre Mulrooney and Paul Howard.

I also kicked off a six week Poetry Course at the Irish Writers Centre, with a really insightful, funny and talented group of emerging poets. I didn’t want it to end!


I think one of my favourite poetry events of this year was Ó Bhéal’s Winter Warmer Festival. What a friendly and well-run festival. Hugh thanks to Paul Casey and co. I had such a fantastic time and I’m so glad to have had the chance to catch up with Anne-Marie Ni Chuirrean, Elaine Feeney, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Emily Cullen, Paula Cunningham, Kerrie O’Brien, Afric McGlinchey, Leanne O’Sullivan and many more. This couple of days really recharged my batteries.


Rapt in the front row


December brought with it two great publications, one from U.S. Magazine Prelude and another in the form of inclusion in the excellent Arlen House’s 40th Anniversary publication in honour of Eavan Boland, Washing Windows?: Irish Women Write Poetry.

One More Very Important Thing

One of the reasons I’ve managed to keep writing in spite of the onslaught of a busy life is my monthly poetry group, composed of very close friends who have done more for me than I can say. This September, we lost Shirley McClure, a warm, generous, insightful, and honest friend. I’m still in shock, I think. Here is one of the last poems that Shirley brought to us, just weeks before she passed away. I’d like to give her the final word.


May God

I am searching
for a kind of god:
like ours
but feminine,

a rock,

a hey girl! Pachamama

who’d be as easy
standing guard for me
within a vessel

on the dresser of our kitchen,
as in a field of sunflowers
cradling like a hammock
wrought of moss & silken twine
my battered body –

she is on her way to me, I trust
she’s on her way.

(c) 2016 Shirley McClure

Christmas Loves on Arena

We managed about a three minute family hush in my house on Christmas Eve to listen to my essay on ‘Christmas Loves’ for Arena. Christmas is often a complicated time, mood-wise, with the pressure of the short dark days weighing heavily on us, and I wanted to write something that reflected that conflicted state. And so I remembered a choir I used to sing in for years and tried to do it some justice; for me, my time in this choir was one of those long continuities in life that seemed so permanent that I found it difficult to process the realisation that this seeming continuity had become an epoch accessible only through memory. Strange the way things that are important to us are so often discarded without being given their proper moment.

And even gathering a coherent representative memory was difficult, so I fictionalised a bit, playing around with timelines and conflating different experiences, including a number of Christmas concerts we sang. As a focus I used one of my favourite choral pieces, and one that we often sang at our Christmas concerts, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. I was in the choir, on and off, from the age of 7 to the age of 26. That included two practices a week, and with them I went to Wales, Belgium, Poland, Italy and Slovenia, as well as numerous festivals around Ireland. We sang songs in Irish, Hungarian, French, Italian, Latin, Middle English and German from sixteenth century polyphony to contemporary songs composed specifically for the choir. Many choirs use sheet music (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but we learnt all of our songs by heart. It was quite an education.

You can listen to the essay here

And here’s the text:


The lights are out in Rathmines Church. Its dome looms unseen above us. The air holds a chill long nurtured by thick walls and we shuffle in the wooden pews. We’re not here for mass, but for music.

The singers arrive, each holding a lantern, islands of light in the darkness. Their vocal line is as considered as their steps; the stark unison of plainchant. As they reach the altar steps the line divides in time with the melody, as a descant emerges and the small choir forms two rows on the steps. They are singing Hodie E Christus Natus Est, the first song in Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Even as a sulky teenage non-believer, playing Snake on my Nokia 3210, I’m intrigued.

A year later, I’ve joined the choir and we’re practicing in the hall of St. Louis Primary School. The dark-haired harpist chews gum speculatively as our conductor teaches us, patiently, by ear. We’re having trouble with the timings in Britten’s Wolcum Yole. The air is full of coughing and the women in the choir – ranging in age from 16 to 40-something – wear their scarves high up around their mouths. A sarky comment to my friend is rewarded by a shove from a girl two rows back. I shoot her a filthy look. It’s late. We’re tired. No one feels ready for the concert tomorrow night. Our conductor hammers the tricky passage on the old off-key piano.

We begin the song again.

The next night the jostling and filthy looks have subsided. The choir looks out as one into the dark recesses of the church. Our conductor raises his hands and we begin to sing. The words to the carols we sing are taken from Middle English poems and I enjoy wrapping my mouth around them. Their onomatopoeia seems to conjure a channel between past and present. It doesn’t matter that I don’t believe what the authors of these poems believed, I can get behind the democratic spirit of Wolcum Yole­ – a carol welcoming all to a celebration. There is no rose, with its haunting accompaniment of single harp notes reimagines Mary as a rose holding all the universe within her: in this rose conteinèd was Heaven and earth in litel space. The image hangs in the dark air of the church like a stained glass window. Then there’s the brilliantly skewed conceit of Deo Gracias, which gives thanks for Adam’s sin in taking the apple, because without sin there would be no Christmas. This intensely human logic makes the unknown writer of this poem feel alive to me, in spite of the centuries dividing us.

And then there’s the pleasure of the music, of being wrapped in polyphony. The air in the dome above us softens and sustains the sound like a piano pedal, so that even the highest notes stay true. When one singer needs to take a breath, her part is carried by the singers around her. Each note, when sung properly, fills your head and body until everything else is forgotten; it is a filament that must bind with the weave of sound. The experience is at once mindless and deeply considered, perhaps the purest expression of creativity within constraint. As we finish and the echoes spiral around the church, the deep contentment of song settles in us all.

The choir is gone now; our conductor, the much-missed Brian O’Dubhghaill, passed away in 2013. There’s very little I miss about my teenage years, but every December a certain quality of light on my evening walk home has me scanning my iPod for Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, so I can fall through that stained glass window into my own past, and the many past lives that stretch behind it.

The Bee-Loud Glade

Just a quick post to say that Summerhill Moon, one of my poems from If Ever You Go will be featured as part of the Bee-Loud Glade’s slot on Arena this Friday night on RTE Radio from 7. Have a listen, I’m really interested to see what they’ll do with it and the other poems they’ve chosen.

Here’s a link to their Facebook page to give you an idea of the kind of things they get up to:


Weary Blues for a weary December

I’ve a short sequence in the latest issue of the Weary Blues. I can confirm it’s not Christmas related and contains no wide-eyed hope for the possibilities of a new year. Take a look. There’s also some great work from poets Kerrie O’Brien, Michael Ray, Breda Wall Ryan among others.

I’ll also be on Arena tomorrow night reading work from New Planet Cabaret with Dave Lordan, Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Rob Doyle and others. Show starts at 7, have a listen while you’re draping yourself in gladrags and spangles.