How To Speak Poetry – Billy Ramsell

photo (16)

To hear Billy Ramsell’s Wake, go here.


And for a year thereafter I could not taste bread

and my beer was oily and tasted of food

and tables were yielding like seaweed or flesh

and the women I lay beside unyielding as wood.


What is poetry and what brought you to it?

I think of poetry as a vast, infinitely adaptive scheme of echoes between words, one largely but not exclusively extra-semantic in nature.  You know how a plucked string will cause a passive one to resonate in sympathy? Well I think of words exhibiting a similar tendency toward harmonic likeness; generating a comparable system of chimes.  Rhyme is an obvious example of such sympathetic echoing. Rhythm and metre too.  But there are other subtler acoustics.

Language is probably our species’ killer app, the edge-begetting information technology that allowed us to master or massacre our rivals, predators and would-be usurpers.  I’m not sure if poetry is better considered a feature or a bug of this ancient, lethal software. What seems clear though is that it’s maximally viral, optimized not only for verdant English with its teeming canopies and coinage-spawning undergrowth but also for the relative tundra of a language like Irish to which history has gifted an alas more conscribed vocabulary.

So poetry –this chiming parasite, this ghost network- occurs everywhere language does. We encounter it initially in things like children’s games and nursery rhymes: what unsuspecting sectors of the cortex suffer their first illumination when our mothers recite for us ‘Little Jack Horner’ or ‘Teidí Beag Álainn’ or whatever? Then there’s advertising and terrace chants, banter and campaign speeches. And so on. In each of these we sense how the presence of one word causes others to react, to vibrate or light up in a potentially endless autocatalytic loop.

And I am convinced –without a shred of evidence- that there is a strong genetic component to all this, that certain individuals are simply born with a particular sensitivity toward these linguistic agitations.  We might think here not only of writers but also of comedians, broadcasters and orators.  And yet verse -by which I mean more or less anything with line breaks- seems especially well calibrated to harness and exploit this alien, echoey force at the heart of language.

If memory serves, Dimitra, you and I were once party to a conversation where T.S. Eliot was convicted as a gateway drug. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. As Bob Dylan put it: ‘I started out on burgundy but I soon hit the harder stuff’. Deliberate exposure to these signals ensures that one’s receivers are consistently fine-tuned and upgraded. The more we read the more we apprehend, and in crisper, richer detail. And such enhanced mental equipment demands to be tested, requires increasingly baroque orchestrations of verbiage, ever denser constellations.

I think what returns me to the craft again and again is the desire for a particular kind of sweet and temporary amnesia.  The painter Sean Scully, in an interview otherwise full of self-regard, refers to it rather beautifully as ’innocence’. Thomas Hardy talks about the ‘self-unseeing’, the street dancer Storyboard P. about his ‘flow’. I guess I’m getting at those concentrated moments when the task at hand becomes so absorptive it soaks up the swirl of wants and worries we refer to as the self. We lose ourselves. You could say we learn what it’s like to be beside ourselves. For a moment, maybe, we are both most fully ourselves and yet strangely non-existent.

For me this ‘innocence’ comes at its most unadulterated only in the process of writing. Though it can be accessed, too, through repetitive, manual and menial tasks. And we sense it momentarily in narcotics and orgasm. It’s not to be sniffed at, this self-forgetting. It’s a big deal. It’s the gift held out for us in sleep or death.

What was your first engagement with poetry – page or stage? If it was page, how did it feel bringing your poetry to the stage?  If stage, how did it feel taking your poetry to the page?

For me the two modes were intertwined almost from the beginning, in no small part thanks to Australian soap opera.  One of my contemporaries at UCC was an actor called Felix Nobis, who’d had a successful stage career in Australia and had appeared in a few feature films, including one with Nicole Kidman. But crucially he’d also done the soaps Neighbours and Home and Away, which at the time were hugely popular in Ireland. This made a mini-celebrity on campus, a designation he treated with magnificent indifference. He was older, had lived a bit, was too weathered and wise for our post-adolescent drivel.

But Felix was more than an actor. He wrote plays, directed, translated Beowulf from Old English into a superbly gripping one-man show. He was also an exhilarating performance poet.  Naturally this was all catnip to the ladies. Though I suppose looking back on it Home and Away probably did him more favours in that regard than Beowulf. Nonetheless, I wanted a little of what he had and who could blame me?

I gave my first poetry reading in early 2002, supporting the singer-songwriter Niall Connolly in Cork’s Lobby Bar. (In fact it would be some years before I got to do any kind of ‘proper’ reading; the open-mic and spoken word scene hadn’t really taken off yet). Felix had filled such support slots before, with Niall and with other bands and musicians around town. So he’d set the bar; there was no question of me just reading from a page. I would have to produce something at least tepidly energetic, something vaguely audience-aware.

My first published poem had appeared in a journal only a couple of months before. So thanks to the precedent set by Felix the two modes of delivery  (page-focused and stage-focused) opened up for me at almost the same time. A fine human being with a most generous soul. I owe him a great deal.

Below are a few quotations from “How to Speak Poetry”.  Choose the one which most resonates with you.  Explain why – and whether or not there is merit in his position (both as it relates to the page and/or the stage).

“Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty”.

I like this one a lot. It reminds me of something a friend told me recently about teaching. I guess we needn’t always aim to be composed and masterful. We could let our fatigue and insecurities show. It’s interesting. I might try that sometime.  It’s debatable whether the great man exhibits such vulnerability himself, on his unending jaunt with Bob Metzger, the irresistible Webb sisters and the rest. I’m inclined to believe he does.

Some would contend that whether writing for the page, or reciting on a stage, poetry is all about performance.  How one presents poems on a page is a performance:  the line breaks, the punctuation, the visual impact of the poem in its physical form laid out on the page all amount to a kind of performance for the reader.  And, by the same token, how one presents a poem on a stage is a performance:  how the voice shakes or does not shake over the words, where and how the body moves, where the eyes look, the impact of language (both of the body, and in the speaking of the words) – all contribute to performance.  In light of this, is the distinction between the page and the stage a valid/necessary one?  Or is it better to conceive of the page and the stage as being two mediums among many in the spectrum of performance and how one can and does present poetry?

A vexed question. And one I’ve responded to over the years by passing through several distinct attitudes or stages, as if it provoked in me some deeply held private grief or anxiety. My initial response was fairly soi-distant, one of peevishness, I guess, of snobbery too. People would refer to me as a performance poet simply because I recited rather than read my stuff. And it’d upset me. Maybe unreasonably so.

Then one day it hit me: every poet who stands up to read in public is actually a performance poet.  After all what are they doing if not giving a performance of a kind? It’s just that most ‘page’ poets choose to deliver one that’s more or less deliberately bad; a mumbly, shambly insult to themselves, their audience and the craft they represent. Indeed, no other wing of the arts would tolerate such persistent and self-willed mediocrity. So for a while, almost out of spite, I didn’t mind being called a performance poet anymore.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Y’see I then began to suspect that performance poetry –at least in Ireland- is actually fairly shit. Now I’m not intimately familiar with what is largely a Dublin-centred scene, but I‘ve seen my share of what they’ve been doing over the years.  And with a few noble, notable exceptions it’s been a massive letdown.  What these artists lack in conventional verse technique they utterly fail to make up for with the fury of their stagecraft. I mean I didn’t expect Tennysonian subtlety but I did hope for precise and scintillating mic-work, for high-octane poised delivery. Only to be disappointed every time.  But maybe it’s just that I don’t know the scene well enough.

Anyway, I had something of a breakthrough at Poetry Africa in Durban last October, whereby I finally reached a kind of bleakly Zen indifference to such categories.  That festival features both page and stage poets and makes no real distinction between the two. But the crucial thing is that every participant was well able both to compose and to stand and deliver.  And I think that’s the way forward in the amphibious environment that’s emerging now, one where more and more younger poets straddle the page and performance worlds.

It’s an approach I tried to put into practice last year when I helped organise the Winter Warmer festival in Cork.  My goal (and I guess it’s fair to say that of my fellow organisers) was to pitch a tent that might shelter page and stage, Irish and English, mainstream and experimental.  For a night or two at least.

What advantages come with being able to think/engage/interact in more than one language?  What disadvantages are tied to having access only to your mother tongue?  If you don’t consider the first to be an advantage or the second to be a disadvantage, why not?

I speak semi-reasonable Irish. In fact last Spring TG4 did a profile on me as Gaeilge   in the Ranelagh Arts Centre, where the Ash Wednesday reading will take place. I did okay. I mean it could have been a lot worse; it was kind of halting but I didn’t totally shame myself.  It’s hard once the camera rolls. But I don’t think my engagement with the language sufficiently fluid to permit an answer to your question.

So maybe I’ll just say this much in response: I’ve published two books and in both I’ve included a few lines I composed in Irish with no accompanying note or translation. It’s a bit of a ‘Fuck You’ basically. Just informing whatever few readers I might have that they’re not in England anymore. I think the effect (such as it is) is more one of trompe l’oeil than of macaronic. It’s an element that sits somehow atop the composition rather than being fully absorbed into its rhythm and dynamic. I like it.  It’s a shallow gesture, then. But one I fear I’ll be compelled to repeat.

How do you speak poetry? (In other words, take the word butterfly and do whatever you want with it).

It’s a word I’ve used in my stuff Dimitra. And more than once to be honest. I think I’d speak such a luscious noun fairly briskly, without much lingering or enunciation. Words like that are blood diamonds; precious glinting things that have passed through too many hands. You don’t want to know where they’ve been. I’m happy to act as their distributor, of course, but at the same time I like to get them off my person as quickly as possible. You wouldn’t want to carry them too long. You wouldn’t want to get caught in possession, know what I mean?


Portraits of Billy RamsellBilly Ramsell was awarded the 2013 Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary. He edits the Irish section of and last year judged the Strong/Shine Award for best first collection by an Irish poet. His second collection, The Architect’s Dream of Winter, was recently published by the Dedalus Press.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Garza-Cuen

This entry was published on February 12, 2014 at 10:56 am and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “How To Speak Poetry – Billy Ramsell

  1. Pingback: How To Speak Poetry – Billy Ramsell | The...

  2. Pingback: A Week in Words: Feb 9 | A Dreaming Skin

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