At Home with the Hoglets

Beginning with A Restricted View from Under the Hedge to Sticklebacks and on to The Cult of the Spiny Hog, along with a classic collection of inspirational writers, Mark Davidson and his poets are turning hoglets into must-have bookshelf desirables. Over a series of interviews I will ask the same 11 questions to a group of Hedgehog poets and Mark himself, and hopefully we’ll uncover what it takes to put pen to page, poem into print and pamphlet onto that prized position on every reader’s bookshelf.

Today we are joined by Niall M Oliver from Derry whose pamphlet ‘My Boss’ has just been released by The Hedgehog Poetry Press.

Thank you for joining us Niall and congratulations on the new collection, which I throughly enjoyed and possibly unfortunately and certainly humorously can relate to, and will forever cheer for the line ‘I recently learned the sea cucumber possesses neither heart nor balls’.

Let’s get started…

1 Why did you write this collection, what is it about and what would you like the reader to take away after they turn the last page and find that perfectly prized place for it on their bookshelf?

This is not a typical collection in that it’s not my life’s work as such, but more of a series of poems that came to fruition during lockdown in Spring. The setting is the ‘work place’, with particular focus on the relationship between manager and subordinate, with a darkly humorous twist. I didn’t intend to write this series, I think it just happened as a result of being disconnected from my day job for a while. It gave me a chance to think about some of the characters I have met throughout my career. Most of us will have had a ‘boss’ at some point life, and might recognise the traits of the character in my book. If they haven’t, they can count themselves lucky! I also enjoy reading Selima Hill’s poems and I’ve no doubt her writing has rubbed off on me, in particular the dark humour. Regarding a take away for someone… well I don’t think there is a huge life-lesson to be learned from this book, other than don’t forget to laugh every now and then, and most importantly, beware of snakes!

2 My chillout time comes from cooking, endless hours lost in the kitchen along with a blaring radio of eclectic tunes and golden oldies, but I can only chill when the cupboards are well stocked with the basic ingredients. Firstly, what is your chillout routine, your escape from the pen and all the pondering and, secondly, what are the basic ingredients you need when it comes to settling down to write- what factors or futons make the best mix for your creations?

Chillout time…what’s that? My wife and I have three sons, aged from six months to five years old, and I have a busy day-job, so chillout time is like hen’s teeth. If the opportunity does arise, it would likely be in the form of a nice walk in the countryside with my wife, or perhaps some time in the gym. When it comes to writing I do rely on quietness, and the company of a few good poetry books. Before the pandemic I used to travel a lot with my job, so planes and trains were my most common writing spaces. Since then I have been trying to adapt.

3 Sticking with the cooking analogy for a moment, do you follow a specific recipe for writing or do you throw all the ingredients into the bowl and see what happens?

I wish I had a go-to recipe, but my poems can start anywhere and often unexpectedly. It could be that I overheard someone say something that all of a sudden becomes the last line to a poem I have yet to write. There is one consistent thing I do, which is spend time afterwards trimming the excess fat – just to stick with your cooking analogy.

4 In these days of social media, you’re nothing if you’re not seen and in these unsettling, uncertain days of Covid, seeing, listening and buying has moved online and readings and live launches in libraries and lounges are a rare happening or else there is a limit to the amount of people in attendance. How are you dealing with having new collections coming out right now? What is your way of being seen? How are you coping with the fact that being a writer today also requires a certain amount of spotlight, certainly more than the days of Ms. Dickinson?

I’m not someone who particularly enjoys being in the spotlight but I’m aware that there is an element of self-promotion required, if I want people to read my work.  I use Twitter, and I find the poetry community there to be supportive and encouraging on the most part, so I’m tentatively making some moves in that environment to increase my profile. As this is my first collection, I have no experience of actual in-person book launches to compare it to. That said with my day job, I am very aware of the benefits of meeting people and networking, so as good as online events can be, there is nothing like the real thing when trying to connect with others.

5 Speaking of being seen and getting noticed, how important are acceptances from writing journals and how do you deal with the rejection which comes, no matter how much acclaim you have received? The reality we must learn is that not everyone is going to love our work, which can be heart breaking as we’re basically offering up our poetic babies to be loved, though no one loves a baby as much as the parent. So what keeps you going? Head up and move on or hide out and wait till the hurt passes? What encouragement do you have for others starting out?

For me, acceptances have been important, particularly when I first began writing. Having not formally studied literature or poetry, acceptances offered me validation, that what I was doing must be along the right track, and in turn gave me encouragement to keep writing. I also think it is absolutely fine to write a poem for yourself, one that you know will never be published, and still take great pleasure in it. Having worked in professional sales for a long time, I am used to dealing with rejection, and accept that it is all part and parcel. I try to use it positively, encouraging me to re-visit what I’ve done, and try to improve it, or find a more suitable publication for it. For someone starting out I’d simply say: read lots, find your own style and be brave with it.

6 If you had to pick one piece of your own writing that most represents you what would it be and why and would you like to share it or part of it here with us?

I don’t think I have one poem that represents me, however there is one that offers a tiny insight into what inspires me. I tend to write a lot about family life, from childhood until now, and I get so much inspiration from my children, and little moments that they create. I also know that reading other people’s poetry is vital for my own creative energy. So I will offer the poem ‘Waiting For The Perfect Wave’, published earlier this year by Dodging The Rain, as it features a few of those elements which spur me to write.

Waiting For The Perfect Wave

Through a peephole of sorts
bored by who knows what,
has appeared the sun,
forming luminous igloos

from pepper coloured houses,
speckling distant Donegal hills,
and between them and I
ten miles of ocean remains unchanged.

And often drawn to its steely surface
like a horse-shoe magnet,
on days like this, is a full-bodied
rainbow — but not this time.

So from my window seat
and making do with current inspiration,
a fresh mug of coffee in my hand
and the spirit of Billy Collins resting on my knee,

I’m thinking, it’s only a matter of time
before my pen is uncapped,
when into the room
bursts my three year old son

to tell me, the bamboo chopstick
I’m using for a bookmark, looks like a boat
and that ocean waves are like tongues,
and as if to prove I’m looking

in all the wrong places,
he rushes up and over me
and with a perfectly placed flick,
licks me on my nose.

7 Writing poetry, more so than any other writing form, is often the art of peeling back, removing the unnecessary, eliminating lines to uncover the hidden truth- how bare does it get for you? How difficult is it, at times, to tell your story within the lines and framework of a poem? How comfortable is it to be naked with so few words to cover over the possible discomfort or is it just a part of the process you get used to?

I have become a little more hardened to this process, but to a certain extent my natural guard will always be in place, which is no bad thing. While it is necessary to open up and engage the reader there is a always a line you can stop at, without damaging the integrity of the piece. At least for me there is.

8 When it comes to titles, our pieces as I said, are like children- each needing special consideration and attention- how do you name your poems, short stories, collections or novels- is the name a starting point, a midway consideration or a summation of the theme afterwards? Sometimes I worry when I come up with a really great title it might overpower the poem itself- is there a balance between the two?

I don’t think I have ever named a poem until it has been completed. This is not a rule I live by, more of a natural happening. I have also been known to change a title more than once. I love a good title, one that grabs the reader instantly, which is somewhat ironic as the title to my collection is not the most eye catching, so thank goodness for the cover, which I really love! It’s by a German collage artist called Sabine Remy, who was kind enough to let me use it.

9 For myself, writing started in childhood as a purely cathartic process, even if I was too young to fully understand this, it was a way of self-analysing and coming to an understanding of the world and my place within it. How did you find your way to writing and what was it about the process that kept you hooked?

I discovered my passion for writing later in life than you, Damien. I began in my late thirties, and I would have to say it was by accident. I was on a plane one evening, travelling home from work,  and feeling a little bit nostalgic about being away from my family, I decided to write down how I was feeling, and within a short time I had written what looked like a poem. I immediately felt satisfaction and sense of achievement. When I got home I showed it to my wife, who really liked it and from that moment writing became a big part of my life.

10 For the most things that fulfil me in life, the surrounding visuals are very important, and over the past few years the relationship between the photograph I take and poem I write becomes integral to the success of both- sometimes I never know which inspired the other more. What is your favourite accompaniment while creating a piece of writing?

I’m afraid I don’t have such an interesting answer for this one. I’ll choose a nice cup of coffee and some peace and quiet, and leave it at that.

11 The more I write, the more it becomes my oxygen, the more my hand shapes itself to the shape of my favourite pen or now my iPhone which has replaced the laptop as the most at-hand instrument to record my thoughts, and these days I have to catch them quick or they are lost forever. As a kid I wanted to be a famous fashion designer and lived in 4 different countries working for various fashion brands, though the writing was always there. Since then, cooking and photography have come more into the forefront. What were your childhood dreams, what were the jobs that followed to fulfil them or just fill time and what, other than writing, would you consider doing in order to express yourself?

As a child I was the sporty type, and in particular I was very much into Gaelic football and soccer. I had lots of sporting ambitions and fulfilled some of those by representing my club and county, however I never did manage to play for my beloved Liverpool!

After my education finished, I didn’t have a desired career path, however I found my professional calling in my mid-twenties and have enjoyed a successful career in sales since then, and also the good fortune of finding a company with whom I enjoy working with very much.

As for finding other channels to express myself through, I’d simply pick my wife and children, and enjoy my spare moments with them, being a husband and dad.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and mental workings with us. It’s been a pleasure to dive inside your head from the comfort of our own armchairs. Before we depart, if you were to leave us with one line, one phrase, one lyric, a one-liner or a once-in-a-life-time admission, either yours or someone else’s, what would it be?

This is an easy one! I’ll use a line from a poem by Oscar Hammerstein II, which isn’t just an anthem to be sung in stadiums, but a comforting line we should all remember as we journey through life: You’ll Never Walk Alone.

You can find Niall on Twitter as @NMOliverPoetry and buy My Boss here…

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