Our interview this week is with the prolific poet, live-event host and web-writer, Niall O'Sullivan.
Phil Brown: Good afternoon Niall. Would you mind starting things off by briefly introducing yourself to our readers and telling us what it is that you do?
Niall O’Sullivan: Hello readers, I am a poet, event host and editor. I've released two collections of poetry with Flipped Eye, who I also do some editing for. I've come from the live poetry end of things rather than the Creative Writing Course end of things. I've been reciting poems to audiences since 1997. I've also been hosting Poetry Unplugged, the weekly open mic at the Poetry Cafe, for just over five years.
Phil Brown: And it was there at Poetry Unplugged that I first met you... and as a result felt compelled to buy your books. Do those nights generate a lot of interest about your own writing?
Niall O’Sullivan: I've no idea. I must have sold a few books because of Unplugged, I always feel a bit strange trying to hawk my product after people have already paid to get in. It's not really about me as a poet. A lot of people do come up to me at some point in the evening and ask if I write poetry myself.
I put that down to me not being the big shot I make myself out to be and the fact that Unplugged tends to draw in Joe Public and Joe Public doesn't know that much about the scene that we poets always get our knickers in a twist about.
Phil Brown: And you do genuinely present yourself as a 'host' at those nights rather than a 'poet with a product to push'.
You mention the year 1997 as when you started reciting poems to people; is there a specific moment you have in mind where it began?
Niall O’Sullivan: I was writing a lot of poetry at the time I dropped out of art school. I lived in a YWCA hostel, lots of women and a handful of men, while working as a landscape gardener. In the end, I found myself writing more and painting less. One of the guys I worked with, Tony, was a middle-aged veteran of the Rhodesian civil war. He knew I was into writing and I told him that I was considering heading uptown and reading at an open mic.
Looking back, it felt like a really big decision that took a lot of guts. Tony gave me a bit of a pep talk, his slogans tended to consist of metaphors for shagging. If I remember right, his words were "You've already popped the cherry mate, now it's time to go out and give them multiples."
I went and read at an open mic at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. My hand shook, my voice trembled, I died on my arse. I didn't give them multiples.
Phil Brown: Which is a far cry from the confident persona you have in live events today. What made you come back for more?
Niall O’Sullivan: I guess I knew I could have done better. Poetry Unplugged was the second night I read at and I was a lot more confident. By my third reading I had started to memorise my work. The rest of my young career was about giving it too much as a performer and things really only started to happen for me after I learned to hold back a little.
Phil Brown: You and Rhian Edwards are amongst the few live performers I have seen who are able to memorise their work without it becoming a cheap pantomime. How do you strike the right balance between entertainment and gravitas?
Niall O’Sullivan: Rhian was definitely another case of learning to reign things in in order to improve. If you watch her onstage these days, she hardly moves a muscle, her voice also quietens down in places. She knows how to draw people in rather than give it all that "look at meee!!" bollocks. Rhian trained as an actress and that obviously helped.
Michael Donaghy would also recite his work from memory, one reason being that he spent so much time editing them, they just lodged in his mind. It's kind of similar for me, the editing process tends to be what helps me to memorise work. I never really spend time pacing a room trying to memorise stuff as I once did.
A lot of spoken wordists and performance poets tend to write a ton of free associative sentences and have it memorised very quickly. They then paper over the weaknesses of the writing by over compensating in performance. Most general audiences lap it up too, so all power to them. Doesn't wet my wick though.
Phil Brown: The over-compensation factor is certainly something which we see on the live scene a lot.
Niall O’Sullivan: I've done it myself. Used to punch myself in the head a lot at one point.
Phil Brown: You suggested earlier that the two main routes into poetry could be seen as the ‘Live End’ or the ‘Creative Writing Course End’. As someone who is able to look at this from the outside, how could you spot a creative writing course poet in an open mic night?
Niall O’Sullivan: It's probably a massive generalisation but there are certain giveaway ticks. The poetry tends to be very clever but slightly hollow. Fine exercises in style but quite hollow of emotion. You get the sense of watching someone in possession of all the finest tools but not the materials.
A friend of mine that studied at NYU was told in no uncertain terms by his lecturer that the course would give him the skills, but he wasn't a writer until he went out there, did some crappy jobs, travelled a bit and had a few more disastrous relationships.
I guess there's a certain fire missing sometimes, a fire that the live poets have in abundance while lacking the stylistic skill and aptitude of the academic poet.
Phil Brown: Did you therefore have to become very autodidactic in acquiring the right tools for your material?
Niall O’Sullivan: Oh yes, I read a lot of poetry and was lucky enough to get lots of feedback from poets that had the tools. I also wrote a lot. I shared a flat with James Byrne for half a year from 2001-2002 and we shared an old laptop. When one of us switched the thing on, we'd find a few new poems by the other and therefore felt compelled to write a few of our own. James was a good source for finding out about other contemporary poets, as was Roddy Lumsden. It was Roddy that switched me onto August Kleinzahler and Charles Simic. Both were big influences on me.
Phil Brown: Living with James Byrne for half a year... do you think the idea of two London poets living together would make a good sitcom?
Niall O’Sullivan: Fuck, it was a nightmare. I love James, but I'm sure he's just as glad that we don't have to share a place any more. My abiding memory was a strawberry growing out of one of many ancient milk bottles. I also remember when my bedroom light bulb filled up with water after I flushed the toilet.
We were permanently skint. I dropped down to about ten stone at one point (I'm just under 15 stone now). Anyone who visited referred to the place as WithNiall and I.
Phil Brown: It would be disappointing to think that any accomplished poet hadn't had to live in the conditions you describe at some point.
You wrote on your website once, very entertainingly, of a heckler you encountered at a poetry gig once... what have been your most bizarre interactions with a live audience?
Niall O’Sullivan: Mick Fleetwood was a good recent one, well he wasn't actually Mick Fleetwood but he looked like him. He made a lot of noise leaving when I was reciting a poem, so I stopped and made a Fleetwood Mac joke. He then proceeded to have a complete mental breakdown for the next ten minutes. It's on youtube.
Another time I got heckled at the Windmill on Brixton Hill by some boho type. A builder came up from the back and lamped him one. The landlord told me that he liked my stuff but in the future I had to punch my own hecklers so the punters wouldn't get involved. I don't mind good-natured between poems heckling, it can be quite fun and brings more energy to the reading. There are always going to be the other kind on occasion, but they're not too difficult to deal with. I'd rather have one person shouting at me than a whole room talking over me like I wasn't there.
Oh, actually, there was one more time...
I had a really bad cold and took some of those sinus pills that make you drowsy before going on stage at a squat party. I went on a bit late and was therefore rather on the sleepy side. I told an audience of punkers that I loved them. They booed. I told them that their boos made the hair on the back of my neck go all nice and prickly. They booed more. I told them that they were at the wrong venue and had to go down the road, turn left and keep going til they reached 1977. That made them really angry. I was too high to care. They did fuck all about it.
Phil Brown: I'd imagine that ecstasy and live-performance makes for a slightly volatile social situaton. Have you ever heard of Heaney taking drugs before going on?
Niall O’Sullivan: Nah, he smokes a nice lump of peat. That guy's a psycho. I quite like Heaney. A lot of poets have sand in their fanny about Heaney, but not me.
Phil Brown: Do you ever specifically write pieces for performance or page, or do the two happily cross over in your work?
Niall O’Sullivan: I am an evangelical denier of the page/stage divide. there are only good poems and bad poems. I'm running a course at the Poetry School next year about that very process. I find that whatever makes something a page or stage poem in people's minds has little to do with poetry, be it beatboxing or acrostics.
Phil Brown: Two of my favourite poems of yours, 'Stock Footage' and 'empty cinema' have quite a philosophical element to them... has philosophy been an important part of your growth as a poet?
Niall O’Sullivan: Stock Footage makes me wince a little these days, because it uses the holocaust as a means of looking at the mortality of everyone. The poem is careful enough, only referring to film footage rather than trying to recreate the experience itself. I also got to discuss the poem with a Belsen survivor and found that he was less precious about it than others that said my treatment of the holocaust was "offhand". It is a bit of a "young man" thing to write about.
Empty Cinema is certainly tied up with Zen and the occupying of the moment. Eastern Philosophy has influenced a lot of my work, as have Eastern poets such a the Tang Dynasty poets. A lot of the philosophy in my poetry muses on the nature of the self. I'm not a believer in an enduring, non-corporeal self. Other poems have recently mused on the Hard Problem of consciousness, as David Chalmers has put it.
I park myself in the Neutral Monist camp on that one, though I was quite a hardcore Materialist for a while. A lot of eliminative materialists find things like Zen appealing because of how the philosophy points to the emptiness of things, I think those guys are missing the point though. I think Zen koans inform the kind of poetry I like to write, something flippant and silly in one sense but dark, compelling and paradoxical in another.
Phil Brown: I also notice that the word 'damn' comes up a few times in your poems - is this your American influences coming through?
Niall O’Sullivan: Could be, probably more to do with films rather than poems. I use the word "bollocks" a fair bit too. I quite like it when Americans use Anglicisms like "knackered" in their poems.
Phil Brown: You recently undertook a web-based project called ‘Sonnet Hack’ where you wrote a sonnet every day for a month. How did that come about?
Niall O’Sullivan: Sonnet Hack was a silly little idea I had when a representative of the live literature scene spoke about the sonnet as something synonymous with "crap, old poem" for the umpteenth time. I hope the fact that I'm not an accomplished formal poet and the videos that went with it helped get the idea across that poetry, and the sonnet, can be something that reflects on the everyday in the same way a news article can.
That kind of project wouldn't have been possible without the democratic medium of the internet. Since then I've been tidying the sonnets up and Flipped Eye are going to release it as a pamphlet. The poems will stay online though so that people can read the poems and have a resource that takes them back to the time the poems were written, the mood they were written in and see the initial raw state of the poems when they arrived in the world.
Phil Brown: With your website and with initiatives like 'Sonnet Hack' you have really embraced the internet's relationship with poetry in recent years. What effects do you think the internet has on the world of poetry?
Niall O’Sullivan: Obviously it has helped people to network. How many fliers do you see flapping about the floor at the end of a poetry night these days? All the promotion seems to be happening on Facebook, good or bad? Well, a little less spam would be nice but it's fun to engage with others on event walls and see photos and videos after.
Youtube has been the death knell of the performance poetry demo tape, a promoter can watch you perform online and make up their own mind, so be careful if someone tags you in a crappy performance. I've been bootlegged at one performance already, slagging off a big lit organisation before going into the poem. Thanks a lot to that guy.
Despite the grumbles of the Andrew Marrs of this world, the blogosphere is a genuine threat to mainstream journalism. The world of published poetry criticism isn't exactly huge, so I don't think it will take a long time for poetry blogs to be the main source of poetry criticism. If anything, it already is. Poetry blogging might just be the thing that many are crying out for, a consumer-led robust criticism. Anonymity might be key in this one.
Many people have reacted against a kind of cyber bullying in the poetry circles, but this has mainly come from the biggest shit stirrers on the scene who can't swallow what they enjoy flinging at others.
Phil Brown: I have written myself about the internet-based hissy fits of poetry world... why do you think they are so common amongst poets?
Niall O’Sullivan: Because poets are often a bunch of preening, narcissistic, neurotic tosspots. They tend to be insufferable when they're not doing what they're good at. Thank goodness some of the poets I love never had a blog. Could you imagine if Wallace Stevens had the outlet to whine to the world whenever he got drunk on his own at night? Thank goodness he didn't.
To quote another poet "The problem with poetry is that there's too much bitching and not enough fighting." In one sense, we all want a slice of the pie and the pie isn't very big. In fact, George Osborne's just made it a fair bit smaller. I get bitter about other poets all the time, but when I do I try and remind myself that maybe I should be putting that energy to better use.
I don't have a lot of respect for poets that bemoan their lack of laurels online. Though I often find them amusing. They have more in common with the blubbing reality TV rejects than they like to admit.
Phil Brown: if somebody wanted to write the exact opposite type of poetry to you, what would they have to do?
Niall O’Sullivan: They would have to envision poetry as an activity that is holier than others. They would have to envision it as something that could stop a war and bring malevolent forces to their knees. They would have to think that poems set on the continent, eating an exotic lunch with a terminally ill friend who looks up at the sunrise and says something profound in French is more fitting than a poem about pissing in a dark alleyway or old werewolf films. Oh, and the poetry would have to reveal all those painful moments of their lives and their loved ones' lives so that they can be relayed to humming, chin stroking audiences in a kind of emo pole dance. And remember: show, don't tell.