This section contains two interviews with Ireland Chair of Poetry, Harry Clifton and Laureate na nÓg, Niamh Sharkey. 

If you’ve ever wondered what the Ireland Chair of Poetry is all about  - or what books of poetry every person should have in their collection - then read our interview with the current Professor of Poetry, Harry Clifton. 

And, if you want to experience the magic of Laureate na nÓg, then watch our children’s laureate, Niamh Sharkey, in action and find out why she thinks everybody can draw.

Ireland Professor of Poetry - Harry Clifton
Harry Clifton

The Ireland Chair of Poetry Trust was set up in 1998 and is jointly held between Queen's University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

Every three years a poet of honour and distinction is chosen to represent the Chair as Ireland's Professor of Poetry. During their tenure the holder spends a year attached to each of the three universities and resides for a period of approximately eight weeks at each. While in residence, the poet gives informal workshops or readings, spends time working with students and performing outreach work and makes one formal presentation a year, usually in the form of a lecture.

On Wednesday 30 June, An Taoiseach Brian Cowen, T.D. announced Harry Clifton as the Ireland Professor of Poetry 2010. In November 2012, as the poet was about to enter the final year of his term, the Arts Council's Head of Literature Sarah Bannan sat down with Harry Clifton and asked a few questions about poetry and writing.

What excited you most about your appointment to the Chair of Poetry? 

The chance to give the lectures, express what I thought hadn’t been said enough in the Irish discourse - that ‘Ireland’ is an ever-widening spiritual and critical entity, that it exists, now and always,  at a fertile interface with other force-fields around it - Britain, Europe, America - in ways I wanted the lectures to explore.

Plus, the joy of connecting with a younger (student) generation, coming into the whole thing with their own freshness and newness.

You’ve spent so much time outside of Ireland - Nigeria, Thailand, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, England, France - but you’ve been back in Ireland since 2004. Do you see yourself as an ‘Irish’ poet? Or is there even such a thing? 

I less and less believe in the concept of the ‘Irish poet’. For me a poet has always been first and foremost a citizen of a language, only afterwards of place and nation. I see myself as a poet of the English language who happens to have been born in Ireland.

You’ve written memoir and fiction and critical essays, as well as poetry. How do the forms inform one another?

Every poet, in his or her bubble of subjectivity, wishes to stand outside himself at least once in a lifetime - Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn, Pasternak’s Zhivago - and see himself as a character in society at large. Also, in the expanded verbal field of prose, to be released from the huge (though they look tiny) formal constraints of making a poem.

What is it that drew you to poetry? That draws you in again and again

The concentrated-ness - the fewness of the words and the maximising of the suggestive silence that lies between them. The whole thing is less about words than bringing silence into focus.

What do you hope you will have achieved as Ireland Professor of Poetry at the end of your tenure?

To have said a few words on behalf of that side of Irish poetry that faces outwards not inwards, that inhabits an open not a closed endlessly self-consolidating introversion.

Who are the poets you are most excited about now?

The seventeenth-century English poets - their devotional, marital, metaphysical preoccupations are those of middle age, which is where I am. Love as endurance over time, the imminence of death on the horizon.

What books of poetry should every person own? 

A good anthology going all the way back, and a couple of half-decent contemporary ones, as a way in to the traditional, timeless preoccupations in the first case, and the newest idioms/forms in which they are being handled in the second.

Publishing and bookselling are facing challenging times - physical book sales are down, e-reading is on the rise. Do you have a view on how poetry will survive in the next ten or fifteen years? Do you worry for its future?

No worries (unlike, say, for extended fiction). A poem, if fully achieved, is like a micro-organism, virtually un-killable, migrating through systems, print or electronic or any other, going to sleep for a thousand years (Sappho, the old Chinese or Japanese poets for example) and waking again, or being rediscovered,  as real and alive as at the moment of writing.

Laureate na nÓg - Niamh Sharkey

Laureate na nÓg is an exciting project recognising the role and importance of literature for children. It is an initiative of the Arts Council with the support of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Children's Books Ireland, Poetry Ireland and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

The laureateship is currently held by illustrator Niamh Sharkey. Niamh is the second person to be awarded this unique honour and will hold the title from 2012 until 2014. The Arts Council's Head of Literature Sarah Bannan caught up with her in December. 

So...what does a laureate do?

During my time as Laureate na nÓg I hope to raise the profile of Irish children’s authors and illustrators both in Ireland and abroad. I really want children to get excited about reading and drawing.

Is there one thing that you’re exceptionally excited about doing?

I’m excited about Pictiúr, a major new international illustration tour of 20 contemporary Irish picture book Illustrators that will travel in Europe and Ireland in 2013. My wish is to make the exhibition very child-friendly; we've designed Picture Pods that children will doodle on and can construct into pop-up igloos to read our books in. I also hope to run lots of doodling and illustration events alongside the exhibitions to make a real impact.

What's a Monster Doodle?

The Monster Doodle is a large-scale doodling event! I roll out a huge rolls of Fabriano paper over 10 metres long and get down on the floor with the children and do a step by step how to draw a monster with oil pastels. It’s a fantastic way to encourage children of all ages to get involved and excited about books and illustration. We’ve even had a 15-month-old join in one session!

What were your favourite books growing up? What got your writing and illustrating?

I loved books and reading when I was small. The tangled wordplay of Dr Seuss’s The Cat in The Hat was one of my favourites. His books are brilliant read-alouds, and I loved the madcap illustrations too. I also adored Maurice Sendak Where the Wild Things Are. One of my biggest influences was Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. He loved to doodle too. Both Sendak and Henson inspired my lifelong fascination creating my own monster characters!

What do you want to accomplish as Laureate?

One of my aspirations as Laureate is universal access to books for every newborn child in Ireland, either through a national book gifting scheme or national library membership.  I think it would say a lot about us as a country, so I’m working hard to get this off the ground.

I hope to shine a spotlight on Irish illustrators and picture book makers and to bring illustration to new public audiences in traditional and in innovative ways through events, exhibitions and partnerships both in Ireland and internationally. 

Most of my projects and events have a general focus on books and reading within families and communities and encourage creativity via doodling and drawing. Reading and drawing should, above all else, be fun. Literature for children is profoundly enriching precisely because it is something that can be enjoyed, and we’ve such a wealth of quality Irish children’s literature out there to influence and inspire.

Do you really believe ANYBODY can draw?

Yes, I truly believe everyone can draw. I love this quote from Picasso: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’ 

Children have a natural creative streak and it is up to us to encourage this creativity. Ireland has a reputation for being a creative nation so I feel it is hugely important to value and nurture creativity.

Who are the Irish authors and illustrators that you admire the most?

We have some fantastic picture book authors and illustrators including Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Mary Murphy, Kevin Waldron, Chris Haughton, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Judge, PJ Lynch, Martin Waddell and Sam McBratney. 

As well as a wealth of children’s authors, including Siobhán Parkinson, Roddy Doyle, Eoin Colfer, Derek Landy, John Boyne, Judi Curtin, Oisín Mc Gann and Sarah Webb. 

Which Irish children’s books should every family have?

I Kissed the Baby by Mary Murphy
Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson
There by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick
Mr Peek at the Zoo by Kevin Waldron
A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton, which is also now available in Irish as Ar Strae Beagán
Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
When Jessie came Across the Sea by PJ Lynch
Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney.
It is important to remember that children of every age can enjoy picture books. They are not just for babies and toddlers but all readers young and old will enjoy a great picture book.

What can other people do to help you as Laureate?

I encourage everyone young and old to pick up a pencil and doodle. Encourage children to keep a doodle journal that they can use for writing and drawing. Share books and your own love of reading with a child that you know, inspire them to love books.

RVB (3 screen video installation) - Anne Clea
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RVB (3 channel DVD installation) - Connolly & Cleary, 2004, Arts Council collection.

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