THE MINDS BEHIND THE MADNESS- THE HEDGEHOG POETRY PRESS- ROBIN MCNAMARA

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 Waterford based poet Robin McNamara. We may have to come back for another interview with him to find out about his favourite film and colour but, in the meantime, we get to hear all about his debut poetry collection Under A Mind’s Staircase which will be published in February 2021 by The Hedgehog Poetry Press.

Thank you so much for taking part in this series Robin, let’s fire away…

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?

Firstly before I answer that, I decided to get back into writing again in 2017 after many years in the wilderness for various reasons. It was my intention to get a collection published for the last few years and thankfully I achieved that aim in October of this year when Mark Davidson of Hedgehog Poetry Press approached me about sending a manuscript and immediately offered me a publishing deal. Because of the pandemic lockdown there was so much poetry coming out of me it was unstoppable, like there was an old soul inside of me telling me to write. I wrote the collection because I had stories to tell and things to say and I wanted to share my words with others. My collection is an eccentric mix, a kaleidoscope of words bursting with vibrancy but then you turn the page and a poem covers you in darkness. Be very careful because you don’t know what emotions you’re going to feel page by page. I don’t wish to define my collection into a particular category of emotions or topics. I let the readers determine what type of poetry creeps out from under the book. The poem that stays with you; makes you think a bit more. Poems that make you think and stop and muse about the way poetry reaches out to the subconscious thoughts that we ignore everyday in our busy lives married to technology. 

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?

When I’m not writing I’m watching sports on tv or constantly on my iPhone, during lockdown when I was writing my first collection I played the Xbox into the early hours, it was a great escape from everything and a reward to myself when I had done my daily discipline of writing a poem or two everyday. I never really do escape from my writing nor do I really want to. I’m constantly writing notes or poems into my iPhone or on a writing pad. I’m constantly getting ideas at 2am so obviously my creative time is midnight onwards I’ve written some of my more unique pieces then, which have been published. Basic ingredients for writing are darkness and demons and the twilight hour while the devil surfs the channels on the sofa beside me as I write my thoughts down into poetry. Leave your daytime head on the table forget about normal life, enter the twilight of the night writer’s imagination.

 “I never met a man who was content with all he did or all he achieved or rested soundly at night with his millions or with only pennies. He was always hungry for something.” 

Poets are like this, we can never write enough to be completely satisfied. We constantly write more no matter how many times we get published. This is what keeps me going the constant desire to write.

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 throw everything into the bowl of my mind, all my rage, frustrations, thoughts, fears and see what the results are and what the pen brings. Different days being different recipes, you might be in the mood for a dark poem one day and a philosophical one the next. I don’t  really understand my mind at best of times so I just accept what my creative brain throws out onto the page/iPhone etc. Sometimes the most basic ingredient can result in the most powerful poem. Sometimes a poem is best left to marinate over a week or a month with edits, rewrites and so on until it’s fully matured for publication. It can be like a fine wine too, the longer you leave it the better it tastes afterwards. Good poetry can’t be rushed.

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 would rather stick pins in my eyes than do a poetry reading and the same goes for zoom and such things. I get it, I really do, the attraction and the necessity of all this meeting and greeting and having an online presence with zoom meetings etc. I’m quite happy with how I’m doing via Twitter on having a presence in regards to highlighting my writing and I’ll have no problem in marketing and promoting my new collection in whatever capacity, but when it comes to a generalised meeting online for poetry festivals etc count me out! I’m quite content to be left alone to do my writing but yeah, prompting my book I’ve absolutely no issues doing so. I feel like I’m contradicting myself here so I hope it makes sense. I’m a bit of a social introvert but that’s how I’ve managed to discipline myself with writing every day. I definitely will do a pre-recorded recital of my poetry for your podcast, Eat the Storms, I’m up for supporting fellow poets in all their creative endeavours. I don’t mind a bit of the spotlight on me at a low wattage, it’s great to get recognised for your achievements and I’ll be in the local papers in January with an interview so I’ll be more well known then. It all helps to showcase my collection and people know me for my poetry and will buy the forthcoming book(s).

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?

I’ll give you my experience of acceptances and rejections from this year. I only began to get more serious with my poetry from January of this year and during the summer I submitted poems to established places like Poetry Ireland Review which was a little bit ridiculous to be honest as I’m not that good yet. I did submit to some new literary sites and I considered the poems to be quite strong but when they were rejected I was quite annoyed especially when I received three rejections in three days. I began to question myself as a poet. This only made me more determined to get my poems accepted in literary sites and I ended up having about 45 poems accepted in October and November alone. So it proved to me my work was good enough especially when Mark Davidson of Hedgehog Poetry Press offered to publish my debut collection, it was validation that I was good enough. All poets have their underlying insecurity, “Am I actually good enough do people actually like my poetry?”

Always believe in yourself and look back at the rejections and see how those particular poems can be strengthened. I actually found a home for about five poems that were previously rejected so it’s all about the personal taste of the editors, learn not to take it too personally. I think the more established you become the easier it is to be accepted but it takes hard work and sheer determination, acceptances don’t just land on your lap, you’ve got to work for it. Let rejections inspire you to become a better poet!

If you’re starting out focus of writing poems then, when you have a small selection to choose from, go and submit as long as you follow the theme or guidelines given by literary sites you have as much chance as anyone. Submit to small poetry sites they’re always looking for new poets and unpublished poetry.

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?

To reiterate the answer give to question number one I’ll let the readers who buy the collection make up their minds about this. I can’t pick out one single poem as I’m still evolving as a writer so a current fave would be out of date by the time this interview goes live. I think all the poems represent a different part of my journey as a poet, a human being with the strengths and weaknesses I have, that we all have are encompassed within this first collection. I want the reader to explore themselves and make their own minds up which poems are relevant to how they feel or the mood they sense from a poem within the collection. I’ll get up off the shrink’s chair now (laughs).

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 don’t give it much thought to be honest, I try not to over analyse the process and then self-doubt myself in the process. In 2018 I was barely writing anything I had other creative distractions like writing for a sports blog. In 2019 I was slowly evolving as a poet and getting more work published but didn’t really have the writing discipline nor did I really study other poets styles for guidance, I guess I was still trying to convince myself I was good enough to take it more seriously than I was at the time. 2020 changed everything, I’d decided to do a writer’s course here in Waterford which opened my eyes a bit more as I met guest writers speaking at the course who spoke about their creative techniques and I totally got it, I understood their language and it was a revelation for me that I could be original and be the maker of my own destiny in writing. The pandemic lockdown of March to May was when it all clicked and I ‘became’ a poet, this was when I discovered how or what it was like to be a poet full time and I developed that hardcore discipline that’s helped strengthen my writing technique, style and quality of my poetry. It resulted in getting 70/80 poems published towards the end of August and throughout Autumn. That’s when Hedgehog Poetry Press started to notice me and offered me the publishing deal.  .

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 think the title of the poem if it’s interesting will draw the reader into reading the poem. I’ve tried to be clever with titles for poems, even experimenting with Latin, French and Italian titles to be a bit more sophisticated but I’ve learned not to place too much emphasis on this. I did write out a list of titles for the collection and used various working titles and eventually settled on Under A Mind’s Staircase. It’s unusual, unique and catches (hopefully) the buyer’s attention. I consider the book title to be quite important as you only have a fraction of a second to catch their attention. Having said that, I guess the title of the poems within the book take on a more meaningful significance as you want to draw the readers into reading a poem they think they may like or even relate to. That’s my goal as a poet to bring the readers inside to see what the actual poem behind the title is all about. Sometimes I work on a poem untitled until I finish it and only afterwards do I name the poems. I don’t think a title can actually overpower a poem if it’s good enough. 

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?

Writing poetry is quite therapeutic and it’s a great feeling of release, accomplishment and a buzz when a piece is completed. At the very beginning of my writing in 1997 or thereabouts it was love poems for ex-girlfriends so you can imagine they weren’t very good! I spent my childhood drawing and reading anything I could get my hands on, I certainly didn’t appreciate nor understand poetry as a kid, I was more into playing football and athletics. But I was a ferocious reader of comics, encyclopaedias, history books, biographies and later in life biographies of poets and writers like James Joyce, Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas. All this helped me to gain knowledge of the world around me. I eventually was drawn back to poetry in late 2017, I previously did not believe I could write anything like poetry which I’d considered to be a higher form of art for those who were quite intellectually developed and had a superior knowledge of the English language. I slowly but surely began to have more faith in myself when I discovered that nobody can tell you what you can and can’t do and what your limitations are. The sports writing gave me the belief that I was a good enough writer and so I naturally veered towards taking it more seriously with the publication of my first poem, God’s Waiting Room in 2018. There’s so much scope and really no rules in style or techniques that you can or can’t use in writing a poem, you just have to make sure it’s not crap! The experimental side of poetry and the unlimited amount of things you can draw inspiration from is what keeps me hooked. I’ve finally found the medium I’ve been searching for to release my creativity and I’ve never looked back since. The writing community is quite supportive for indie writers and although we strive to be published by established literary publications it’s not really that important but it’s nice if they recognise that your work is good. 

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 like to use fancy words or words I’ve learnt in a poem but not for the sake of sounding clever. If they don’t work within the context of a poem then I remove them. I’m always looking for the origin of a word and I have a list of words to use for inspiration to start a poem. That’s not really answering the question though is it? Sometimes I listen to music on my iTunes as it helps the creative flow of writing and can inspire. Very much like my poetry, I have quite an eccentric mix of music that I listen to, classical music, pop, hip hop, soul. My playlist also consists of the latest music from established artists and some more obscure and relatively unknown artists. Music, like poetry if it’s good, people will listen/read regardless of who it’s from. The connection to something creative is the most important thing and music definitely helps the creative juices flow. 

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?

I’ll answer them back to front. For expressing myself other than writing I’ll give you an answer from a blog interview I did with Joe Cushnan for ‘A Dozen Questions’. Prior to lockdown last March, I was writing a script for a musical based on a famous football team. I had a cast picked out, musical director,  a musical score and a cast, with a well-known comedian in a lead role. Of course it didn’t leave base camp when the pandemic arrived. Doing a play or musical was never something I ever envisioned myself doing. Yes I know there’s writing involved but the whole theatre aspect of it being behind the scenes, getting a cast together creating something from nothing really appeals to me. Creating a story via music and acting for an audience would be a pretty cool thing to do. I’d love to do something with film or a tv documentary that would be really interesting, although I don’t think I’d have the patience! Childhood dreams consisted of being a professional footballer, long before money was the main motivation for a lot of young players. Then I wanted to be a soldier or was it the other way round? As I come from a fishing village I fished on my father’s boat during summertime then I worked in the local hotels during the summer holidays. I went to college to study Graphic Design then Advertising in Dublin and had a stint as a junior graphic designer in a studio in Dublin but it wasn’t really me. I ran away to Copenhagen where I worked at the Hard Rock Cafe in 1999, returned home 2004 got a job at Cartamundi (maker of Monopoly games) been there ever since. It’s my paying the bills job, my writing is my true vocation and represents who I actually am. It would be great to be involved in some kind of job that involves creativity like the theatre instead. 

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?

Damien why were the questions so hard??! Could you not have asked me what my favourite colour or film was??! I’m kidding. When I was in the depths of writing during the dark and quite months of lockdown when the world was still,  I felt that there was a presence with an old soul within me helping me to write my collection. I’m pretty sure it was my ancestor, an Irish speaking poet, Donnchadh Rua Mac Con Mara. An Irish priest who was a bit of a scoundrel getting thrown out of the priesthood for womanizing and drinking. He lived from 1715-1810. His name in English was Red Donough McNamara. Now I bet you weren’t expecting that answer. My collection was ghost-written!! 

Robin McNamara is on Twitter as @thewindingroad1 https://twitter.com/thewindingroad1 and his collection Under A Mind’s Staircase will be published by The Hedgehog poetry Press in February 2021.