Niall McDevitt is a London-based Irish poet and psychogeography explorer. His collections include Porterloo, Firing Slits and b&w.
What is your earliest reading memory?
Children’s literature. I was an Irish child in Ireland reading children’s literature from England, unaware of postcolonial conditioning. The most profound literary experiences were oral, hearing tales of Irish mythology, The Children of Lir, the Salmon of Knowledge. Billy Bunter was fun, but one’s own mythology is an initiation. Needless to say, the Old and New Testaments loomed large also.
Has writing been a conscious choice or a natural thing for you?
It was there early. When I was seven, I wrote a novel called The City in Space. Though I don’t write novels as an adult, my writing is still aspirant to that theme. At eleven I got into trouble with the Jesuit headmaster for writing a parody of the Hail Mary, hailing the attractiveness of my female history teacher. Coming of age, I had a brief career writing mildly pornographic stories for telephone. There were lots of false trails. I have published only poetry and essays.
Do you have any special habits or rituals when you write?
Every time I write, I’m a different poet.
Do you choose your poems or do the poems choose you?
One follows one’s obsessions as far as one can go. London is a theme, and because its etymology is – as in many European placenames – ‘Lug Dun’ i.e. a fort consecrated to a Celtic solar deity (Lugh, Lug, Lud, Lugos), I can follow the theme of London all the way into prehistory and mythology. Also, because London was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 by architects who conceived of it as ‘The New Jerusalem’, I have often used ‘Jerusalem’ as a metaphor in my work. This led to me visit the real Jerusalem, which became the subject of my latest book. Then by sheer synchronicity, I was invited to read at the Babylon Festival in Iraq, which has led to my writing a modern adaption of an ancient Babylonian poem, Theodicy.
What national books/authors do you enjoy re-reading and why?
Yeats is for me the greatest lyric poet in the English language. Following Yeats’ trail in London has made me understand him anew as poet and magus, Londonist and bohemian. Joyce is another world-poet; Ulysses is less a novel than an epic poem. Patrick Kavanagh is arguably the finest Catholic lyric poet ever to come out of Ireland. Michael Hartnett who died in 1999 – and whom I saw reading in Dublin – has become a favourite. Paula Meehan is alive and tending the mystic flame.
What foreign books/authors do you enjoy re-reading and why?
Having lived in London longer than I have lived in Dublin, writers like Shakespeare and Marlowe cannot qualify as foreign. It’s as if I have a dual nationality in terms of national literature. David Gascoyne (1916-2001) is the modern English poet I most champion. Contemporaries I admire include Jeremy Reed and Heathcote Williams. I love English poets, who for some reason don’t win so much international recognition. As for foreigners, Ginsberg remains one of the great political poets of the 20th century. Hearing him read three times in one week in London in 1995 inflamed my poet’s vocation. Antonin Artaud, Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Paul Celan and Amiri Baraka are perennially inspiring. More recently, I have written about the young Russian poet Galina Rymbu whose work finds a way to pass through the twin traps of solipsism and agitprop.
What is so important about poetry?
Poetry is less commodifiable than other artforms. It offers a platform for an artistic critique of society that is incorruptible by high finance. In Irish mythology the bards are capable of regime change. Anywhere poetry is current, the world can be turned upside down in a breath.
Can you cry writing your own poem?
Michael Hartnett translates Su K’ung T’u as saying: ‘The poet can live outside of print but if his own song cannot make him cry, if he is not his first and finest audience, then he merely writes small words down on petals.’ I myself have cried while writing poems, but when I re-read them later I was more inclined to laugh.
Who is your ideal reader?
A real reader.
Should writers be embraced by society or should they be exiled?
As a writer in exile, I feel far more marginalised than I would have been if I’d stayed in my native country.
Immigrant protest poetry is not a popular art. Yet nothing is more natural than an Irish poet opposing Conservatism, Unionism, Monarchism. Another literary exile, Rimbaud, once wrote: ‘I found the celebrities of modern poetry and painting ridiculous.’
Is there a God or are there gods for writers?
Robert Graves’ The White Goddess is a crucial contribution to theology, by a poet for poets.
What makes a writer a writer?
Being able to write, as a painter is able to paint, a musician to play, an actor to act.
Tell us about your poetry.
I began my work under the aegis of ‘psychogeography’, then moved onto the idea of ‘urban shamanism’, then onto Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘colportage’, and am currently exploring Roy Bhaskar’s notion of ‘metareality’.
What is the purpose of your writing?
It is less about basking in specialness than hurling stones from slings. My name McDevitt means ‘son of David’.
How do you really feel about recognition and fame? Are you a satisfied mind or always craving for more?
Fame is as common as anonymity. The anonymous writer could do with more fame, the famous writer could do with more anonymity. Enjoy either while it lasts.
Some writers are censored, but for other writers the lack of recognition feels like censorship.