(Originally published on July 10, 2008 on Yahoo! Voices.)
I contacted Michael first through his website. He humored a young aspiring, but somewhat shut-in, poet by agreeing to correspond with me via email. He has always been encouraging of my own writing, even while continuing to publish books of his own. Often he has been the objective reader I needed to get the most of my efforts. Valhalla: blue, as published in my book Following Hope (Xlibris, 2007), was one of those poems he helped to refine. During that process, my hard drive got a virus and I lost the poem. If not for O'Dea it would never have been published. However, he had a copy of the yet unfinished manuscript on his computer and was able to email it back to me, and thus he saved 2 1/2 years (or 3, if you count mental incubation time) worth of work from oblivion. I asked O'Dea for an interview via email to be posted here on AC (Associated Content, later Yahoo! Voices). These are the results of that interview:
S.R.: Where and when were you first exposed to poetry? How did you come to love it?
M.O.: English was my favourite subject in secondary school, I wrote a few bits and pieces back then; we had, for a while, a stunning-looking English teacher. I didn't start writing in earnest till my thirties when a friend suggested, from listening to my phraseology in speaking, that I should try writing poetry. My first attempts were published; I got cocky instantly and it was some time before others were published but I was hooked by then.
S.R.:. Which poets are the greatest influence on your work and why?
M.O.: Patrick Kavanagh is the biggest influence. He, being from rural Ireland and having the same Irish catholic upbringing, brings the same baggage with him. His territory is familiar to me. But he is a marvelous poet and caught better than any other the issues and atmosphere of twentieth century rural Ireland.
S.R.: Are there non-poetic influences, such as environment, other interests, etc.?
M.O.: Yes, so much of what I've passed through has been grist to that mill. I think the people and the countryside of Roscommon honed my sensibilities and my ear for language. Great art from the likes of Goya or Bacon has suggested the material time and time again as have musicians like Brian Eno whose soundscapes leave me free to roam like tumbleweed in a desert.
S.R.: Until recently, you were an organiser for the annual Rathmines Festival. What do you believe are the benefits and negatives of such events for poetry?
M.O.: Festivals events tend to be more casual than other arts-based events, and in festivals like the Rathmines Festival poetry readings are staged shoulder to shoulder with comedy, music, debate or whatever. As such they have the potential to reach an audience that would otherwise consider them to be too stuffy or high-brow. This is the audience poetry should be striving to reach.The biggest danger is that an hour of turgid poetry will kill them stone-dead in their seats, guaranteeing that neither they nor anyone they talk to will ever come within an ass's roar of a poetry reading again. It's vitally important that the poetry fits the audience.
S.R.: Give a brief anecdote of an experience in your life or at a literary function that has impacted you as a poet.
M.O.: There have been a number and I have referred to them during poetry readings or in the blog. An example I haven't referred to before happened when I read the following poem at a workshop.
Who owns the child
with the withered arm-wings,
who carries the mutation that weighs a tonne;
who, when the air is full of flight, hops
and hops and hops.
See how the children littering the yard
launch like torn pages into careless flight.
Like gulls they hog the sunlight
while a sea wrinkles with worries far below.
This is the currency.
But who owns that child;
the child with the withered arm-wings.
I chose it to get the reaction of a friend of mine whose son is confined to a wheel chair. On hearing the poem she was very upset by the image and did not see that I was condemning the objectifying of people with physical disabilities. I was taken aback, and though I didn't change the poem, I am less convinced than previously that my choice of expression is correct.
S.R.: What is it that you most hope readers will take away from your work as a whole?
M.O.: I suppose the truth is I want their admiration but I am usually conscious of wanting to spread my left-leaning political message.
S.R.: You are currently working on an anthology that will showcase the work of poets from Roscommon. Could you tell us a bit about that and what your hopes for it are?
M.O.: Since the Mayo Anthology appeared there has been a number of similar publications around the country. I'm working on a literary (all forms) anthology of writers either born in or strongly associated with the county. These include Douglas Hyde, Percy French, John McGahern, William Wilde (Oscar's dad) and Oliver Goldsmith (a disputed birthplace). I'm expecting it to be a generous beautiful book, accessible, educational and entertaining. I'm also hoping that it's publication will be a boost to Roscommon writers writing currently and to that end have recommended that it's publication be accompanied by a series of readings/workshops.
S.R.: If you could give an aspiring poet advice in only one sentence, what would it be?
M.O.: In the developing years have someone you trust, who knows poetry, to squeeze the water out of your efforts.
Read Michael O'Dea's blog.
Michael O'Dea's Website.
Buy the Roscommon Anthology.