Creativity: Poet Paddy Bushe

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Born in Dublin in 1948, Paddy Bushe lives in Kerry and is a poet, editor and translator in both Irish and English. His collections include Poems With Amergin (1989), Digging Towards The Light (1994), In Ainneoin na gCloch (2001), Hopkins on Skellig Michael (2001), The Nitpicking of Cranes (2004), To Ring in Silence: New and Selected Poems (2008), My Lord Buddha of Carraig Éanna (2012) and On A Turning Wing (2016). He edited the anthology Voices at the World’s Edge: Irish Poets on Skellig Michael (Dedalus, 2010). The recipient of the Oireachtas prize for poetry in 2006, he also received the 2006 Michael Hartnett Poetry Award and the 2017 Irish Times Poetry Now Award. Two new books, Peripheral Vision, a collection in English, and Second Sight, a selection of his poems in Irish with his own translations, will be published by Dedalus in 2020. He is a member of Aosdána.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strength do you admire in others?

I think the motivation is quite simple, really: it’s the creation of what Keats called “a thing of beauty”. It’s hard to identify my own forte. I would like to think that it’s an ability to listen to place and to hear the stories it tells. I react to place – its history, archaeology, folklore, songs and so forth. My poems often interact with these, even when they disappear out of the resulting poem. I tend not to react directly to the busy present – and perhaps that’s more of a weakness than anything else.
What I admire above all in writing – poetry or prose – is the ability to be intensely real and material, while at the same time being able to take off into extremely lyrical and imaginative territory. The prose of Sebastian Barry and the poetry of Seamus Heaney are wonderful exemplars of this.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I think the most important thing to refill the well is not to wait for the rain, especially in dry weather. Of course, that’s a simplification, but the artist must be active in the pursuit of creativity; otherwise creativity may lose interest. You can be busy in all sorts of ways, but making time and space for your creative self is often an act of will rather being struck by inspiration. You can decide for yourself how to stimulate the creative antennae – music, walking, reading etc., but you must make yourself actively receptive.
On a practical and personal level I find that translating the poetry of others can stimulate the creative juices. For me, this usually means translating from Irish to English. Serious translating means trying to access the creative imagination of others and to carry that creative imagination into a different language. So it has much in common with original writing, but the translator is relieved of the task of finding subjects, ideas, images and other stimuli. At the same time, s/he must use all their verbal and technical skill to recreate the original poem.
Even the reading of the original poem must be at an intensely receptive level. You’d have to refill your well to do it.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

I don’t really think about myself or my voice when writing, and issues around what is an authentic voice I think are best left to others to decide. For me – and I speak only for myself, having a strong aversion to generalised artistic theory – the job is to create a poem from whatever the stimulus has been. The voice of that poem may be very different from the voice of the poem I will write next week. I would find it a distraction and an imposition were I to impose preconditions about voice or authenticity on myself.
I’m afraid social media are rather unknown territory to me, and likely to remain so. But in relation to media in general, and the question of comparison therein, the media taking an interest in the arts is a good thing. But media interest is by nature selective and can be very open to manipulation. It’s salutary to remember that most writers are ignored by most media most of the time. Expending a lot of time and mental energy trying to “put yourself out there” is more likely to stifle an authentic creative voice than to stimulate one. Most artists, of course, naturally want their voice to be heard as widely as possible. But the primary focus must be the work.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

I first began to write poems in my teens, when I also began to read poetry for pleasure. Yes, my family were supportive, but in a passive rather than an active way. Then from about the age of 21 I stopped writing altogether. Looking back, I think it was because of a loss of confidence, perhaps arising from an unrecognised tendency to depression. Who knows? In any case, I started to write again in my mid-30’s. and my family have been greatly supportive of me – again, not in a particularly active way, but in allowing to feel that my writing is a worthwhile and valid activity. This is something about which, even now, I need reassurance.
I am certainly influenced by my national identity, and very willingly so. But I have spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to unlearn the nationalism – cultural and political – which was the discourse within which I grew up and for a long time willingly embraced.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I tend to get depressed, and of course this can lead to greater aridity, a chicken-and-egg scenario. If you believe in yourself as a writer – and I do, although it took me a long time before I would say so, even to myself – then not to write is in a way a denial of yourself, or at least of a very important aspect of yourself. And this becomes crucial in relation to the earlier question about public recognition: it can be important, but getting the work done is the true creative fulfilment, and antecedent to that recognition.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

It sounds like a self-help manual, but I think you must evaluate the failure, or the negative feedback (which isn’t necessarily the same thing, of course), and see what you can learn from it. It’s not always that easy, but it is that simple.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Yes, I did a book called To Make the Stone Sing with the painter Catriona O’Connor. This was an exploration in poetry and painting of some archaeological monuments in the Iveragh Peninsula. I think we both found it very stimulating and worthwhile. It was interesting to see how the same monuments elicited our varying responses: hers descriptive, discovering shape and light; mine, inevitably perhaps, more narrative and explicatory.
I also worked with the composer Ciaran Farrel when he set my long poem Hopkins on Skellig Michael to music, which was commissioned by RTÉ Lyric FM and performed by the RTÉ Orchestra, with the poem being read by the actor Barry McGovern. Again this was a fascinating collaboration, especially when it came to the recording.
And of course, I do a lot of translating. And while translating doesn’t necessarily involve direct or active collaboration, the very fact of translating is itself a collaboration with another poet, and requires an intensity of engagement which goes far beyond what you might call “close reading”. Of course, if you are not fluent in the original language, you may also be collaborating with an intermediary literal translator.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I am lucky enough to be a member of Aosdána and to receive its support. I think such governmental support for the arts, through many possible channels, is absolutely necessary.
I also think you must be prepared to commit to creative work without necessarily expecting that you will earn a living from it, at least for some time. Of course there is no doubt that being able to make a living from your art is enormously liberating and can be very important, depending on the person. But is by no means a precondition for the production of good creative work. So I would advise anyone starting out not to make a precondition of it, and to look for a lifestyle that allows them to find their artistic feet. Without this, I would question the seriousness of their commitment to their art.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Being creative creates at least the illusion of pattern and meaning. And it is undoubtedly very gratifying when people tell you a poem has touched them. Even if it happens only sometimes, and with some poems, it feels like a validation. I’m afraid it seems to be part of the artistic temperament that we like to have our egos massaged!

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

It seems to me that the arts have a fundamental role in enhancing the life of any society, especially now that religious belief, at least in the conventional sense, is in decline. The arts can serve a moral purpose, but this is not necessarily inherent, and must be consciously injected by the artist. But what they can do is intensify and refine opinions, emotions and so forth. They will enhance social and individual experience, for good or for evil. And hasn’t that been essentially how religious faith has functioned?
As for the artist’s specific role or responsibility, I find it immensely irritating when various theorists try to define this, especially in the political sphere. It seems as if it’s sometimes thought the artist’s role is essentially subversive, and always externalised from “ordinary” social viewpoints. This seems lazy and rather obsolete. I think if the arts are in a healthy state, they will encompass all sorts of attitudes. I believe the artist as a citizen has a duty to society, just as carpenters, computer technicians, athletes and nurses do. The artist as an artist has a duty to him/herself to practice their
art as best they can.

Image from The Irish Times.

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