How did you first come across spoken word poetry? Was there a particular poem/poet that made you want to join the scene yourself?
I guess I would have first been exposed to spoken word poetry, or to people giving public readings in which there was a performance element, at the ‘Speakeasies’ held by the Trinity College Literary Society, maybe about four or five years ago at this stage. They’re basically open mic nights where people can read either original work or a poem or short story they like. Then, a few years later, one of my friends introduced me to the Monday Echo, a weekly spoken word and music night in Dublin, and I instantly became a regular there because they have a lovely atmosphere and they’re very welcoming to new poets. The poets performing around that time would have been for instance Stephen Clare, Ailish Kerr, and John Cummins, among many others. And I think I was trying to write like them a bit.
Could you discuss some of the poets who’ve influenced you? With your spoken word work rhythm is so important that music and rap must have an impact too.
I know really embarrassingly little about music aside from literally the most famous bands, so maybe I got the idea of having really rhymey poems from listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers when I was eleven or something like that. (LOL) I would say poetry-wise, Patti Smith and John Cooper Clarke would be influences, the former because of her dreamlike imagery, and the latter for his funny rhymes and insults.
Who are your favourite poets at the moment?
I know she’s sort of the go-to famous spoken word poet, but I’d really have to say Kate Tempest for performance poetry. Her stuff is so original that even though she’s been around for years but I’ve never really seen anyone successfully emulate her style. And in terms of page-poetry, I’ve got really into Paul Muldoon in the last few years. I have a bunch of his books but I saw him do a reading in a church in Oxford recently which was really great. He does such odd things with words.
You have lived and studied in both Dublin and Oxford, what are the respective poetry scenes like?
The Dublin poetry scene continues to amaze me, there’s so much on. This year was particularly packed I think because there were so many 1916 centenary-themed events. The publicity around 1916 stuff was so everpresent in Ireland, but what I noticed was that loads of poetry events found really original takes on the centenary celebrations so it never really seemed overdone, and I think that’s a good indicator of the huge creative diversity the city is currently experiencing. Oxford was different and in part I still feel unqualified to comment on its scene because I lived there for so short a time. When you think about it, in comparison I’ve been living in Dublin pretty much my entire life! But my sense was that since it’s a smaller place, there are fewer events on, which is inevitable. But I saw – and participated in – some really interesting nights where the standard was very high, particularly a night called Gin & Phonics that’s run by the Oxford Poetry Society. They have a huge interdisciplinary range of performers – DJ’s, poets, comedians, acoustic musicians – and this sounds like a cliché but no two acts are the same, it’s really varied.
Did you write much poetry as a teenager? I really hope you wrote bad angsty poetry too, although in your case it was probably good angsty poetry!
I actually didn’t write poetry at all during that time! I wish I had though, for the cringe value. I was really uncool and terrified of having unusual hobbies that would surely further confirm the depths of my uncoolness. That was the logic. But when I was a kid I did the thing of trying to write fantasy novels about people who lived in forests and horses who could talk and stuff.
How did your poetry develop in college, through studying English Literature and through involvement with literary journals or events such as Cave Writings?
That’s a really interesting question, English Literature-wise I think I got influenced at first by Romanticism, which we had a module in in First Year, and with my sort of oversimplified understanding as an eighteen-year-old I thought ‘great! I can write all this poetry that is really aesthetically pretty and completely irrational and illogical’, and I tried to write these big eloquent rants that make no sense in retrospect. But that was still a good grounding, I think. Also getting a knowledge of things like postcolonial and feminist theory has given me a good background in social justice issues which would obviously help the poetry. College poetry events played a huge role because I basically didn’t write poetry at all before, and I started writing because a certain journal was looking for submissions, or a certain open mic night was on. So that was a big creative motivator. Cave Writings are brilliant, they started around my final year of college when I had got very set in my poetry ways, and they were doing all this mad stuff like pairing poetry with visual art or with factual talks about rugby and zoology and things. So that was a very refreshing perspective, I think what they do is really original.
Your poetry is very honest, and I think you tackle a lot of relatable topics from bad relationships/dating woes (‘Hey Hey Hi Hey Hi How Are You’), to anxiety (‘Plastic Cups’), and loneliness (‘Sometimes I Am Sad Here’). Do you find poetry therapeutic, and how do you feel about being so open in your work?
That is a really scary bit actually. There’s a level of distance when something’s written on a page because you can’t immediately picture the author and you sort of view the piece of writing in isolation. But the thing that’s quite bizarre about performance poetry, when you think about it, is that you are being seen and judged and there’s an implicit consensus that the poem is autobiographical, because you’re up there saying it. But it is really therapeutic, especially if a load of poets are performing together, because there’s a sense you’re all in the same boat. It does get a bit like a support group at times, which is sort of funny.
I’ve noticed a lot of your poems have ghosts, or creepy houses that seem alive. Would you say this is an interest in the supernatural, a sense of unease, or is it more a connection to the past?
I went through a phase when I was living in Oxford that definitely translated into there being a lot of spooky ghosts in the poetry. I was living in an old creaky attic room with a weird ancient wardrobe, and I was very isolated at times just studying up there so I’d be thinking over my whole past basically, so I guess there were both kinds of unease. I think I’m partially messing about the supernatural stuff (only partially) but not so much about the past stuff.
What role does place play in your poetry? You often write about rooms or houses and I love this image of Dublin: ‘could we count the lights in the office blocks still lit and watch the Liffey black and slow moving and thick like a void that reflects in a technicolour yawn all the neon and the litter and the lights left on and the tarmac glitter in the bruising dawn and the stuff that’s bitter and the stuff that’s gone.’
Place has such a role, and it’s generally Dublin, and it’s generally either Dublin in the early hours of the morning when everything’s a bit horrible and you’ve had an argument with someone, or the sort of mystical view of Dublin that arises when you’re walking around at night on wet streets remembering all the places where various things happened. But I do also write about other places I’ve temporarily lived, both in Ireland and abroad, so there is a definite recurrence of weird apartment rooms, and I think that signifies a different thing, a sort of alienation.
When you’re starting a poem, do you work it out on the page or verbally? And what do you think makes a poem more suited to the page, or to performance?
It usually starts because I get an idea for a pair of lines or something, going around in my head, but I’d do most of the actual composing of the poem on paper because my memory is terrible. I would say that performance poetry is generally more colloquial, sort of messier and more stream-of-consciousness or something, and that page poetry is more condensed and implicit. I know I write either long rhymey poems for spoken word, or very short minimal poems for the page, but that’s perhaps a needlessly black-and-white distinction. I think a lot of the poets I see performing, Niamh Beirne for instance or Lewis Kenny, write stuff that would be equally striking whether it’s performed or written down. I was at a Poetry Ireland talk recently where a bunch of these really good poets like Doireann Ní Ghríofa were all debating about spoken word, and they were saying that any poem that’s performed aloud should also be equally readable on the page. I agree there, now I’m not so sure my poems achieve that, but I definitely know some people whose spoken word poetry is really succinct and rhythmically precise, and you get the sense that it would be equally suited to the page and to performance.
How do you develop poems for spoken word? How do you learn them off, how have you grown as a performer?
I think the only poems I ever successfully finish are the ones that I write fully formed, all in the one go, like a sort of rant. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a poem and I’ll be trying to make it work for ages, adding little bits here and there, but that’s usually a sign that it’ll eventually get abandoned. So I think maybe the most solid poems happen when I feel strongly about something on a particular moment. I honestly think my poems are easier to learn off than most because they rhyme like a song. I find non-rhyming poems almost impossible to memorise. I think I’ve grown since doing spoken word stuff because I think, as a performer, you have to view the entire night as a cohesive show that you’re participating in with all the other performers. I think you have to adapt and tailor your poems to what other people have done. That doesn’t necessarily mean pandering to a certain atmosphere or aesthetic, like going, ‘oh everyone’s been doing comedy stuff so I can’t do my serious poems, I’ll be a buzz kill’, or thinking ‘everything so far’s been really serious, will my poems seem too silly?’ But I DO think it teaches you to view yourself in relation to other performers, and calibrate your work to theirs. Like to refrain from doing a set that’s too similar to someone else’s if they’re on right before you, or to provide variety by dramatically changing the mood from that established by the previous poet.
Recently you have been writing poemlets ( I love ‘You’re Really Something’ and ‘Hypochondria’). What draws you to shorter poems, and how has your style developed?
My friend Saul Philbin-Bowman writes the shortest poems imaginable and I guess that’s where I got the idea, that and from things like the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan’s ‘One Word Poems.’ I just think there’s something really cheeky about poemlets. I had previously only written very long poems and I think I got very anxious that maybe I was incapable of being minimal, but I think now I’ve gone to the opposite extreme. I think I was studying loads of Beckett when I started writing poemlets, and I found his idea of trying to write less and less really attractive.
Your first collection We Could Be in the Sky is being launched next week. Congratulations! How did you decide which poems to include and where did the title come from?
Thank you! I’m actually launching it with the help of the same friend, Saul, and we sort of came up with a structure where we’d include three poemlets, three medium poems, three long poems, and a short fiction piece. So it’s very structured, it’s all about the threes. Saul actually suggested the title since it’s the final line of one of my poems. It’s a reference to being on an aircoach bus on the way back from Cork when it’s completely dark outside, and you feel like you could be anywhere, like in the sky. I think it’s a nice sentence anyway.
We Could Be in the Sky will be launched in The Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay, Dublin at 8pm on Thursday June 23rd.
For more of Alicia’s poetry check out her website: https://aliciabyrnekeane.wordpress.com/