I met poet Tony Curtis by the railings of the Irish National Gallery in Dublin, right after lockdown was eased in Ireland. The author of numerous books of poetry, he has won several prizes for his work, and is a longtime member of Aosdána, Ireland’s coveted association of artists. His latest collection, This Flight Tonight, was published last year with Occasional Press.
I recognized him immediately, a quirky figure in a black waistcoat and crisp white shirt, looking anxiously up and down the road, one leg resting on the railings, a brown leather satchel bulging with books in his arms.
We skipped shaking hands on this blustery day, and began walking in the direction of Kilkenny, a long-established café on Nassau Street, just off Merrion Square where the poet Elizabeth Bishop, one of Curtis’ favorites, walked. Curtis is a mine of information and a treasure trove of literary anecdotes, showing me where James Joyce first met his wife, Nora Barnacle, pointing out a dark building where Thomas Beckett lived and the famous Sweny’s Pharmacy, which hasn’t changed since Ulysses was published, back in the 1920s. Later, over scones and jam, Tony told me story after story, because that’s what he is at heart — a storyteller.
JOANNA CHEN: In “Currach,” a poem named after a traditional Irish boat, you say, “My people’s story was written on water, / most of it was washed away.” Might this define your role as a poet?
TONY CURTIS: That’s how we are in Ireland. We’re storytellers. Our storytelling goes way back into the mist. Do you know the reason? Because the Romans never came here. If they would have come, they would have replaced our gods with their gods, they would have straightened all our roads (which might have been a good thing) but of course they never came.
So poetry is something of a tradition for you.
Poetry has always been in my life because my granny, who died 11 years after James Joyce, loved poetry. She was almost a hundred when she died. My father was a great storyteller. So when the family got together at night — they were teetotalers — we could tell a story, we could sing a song, we could recite a poem. And these were working-class Dublin people. My granny could recite reams of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Service. And as I got older and began writing my own poetry, I would ask her, why do you always do such a long recitation? And she said, “I always do a long recitation because after that it’ll be a long time before they ask me to do it again.” So that’s where I come from.
I’ll tell you another one. My granny was a tea-oholic. She spent all her time going to church and after Mass you got tea with the priest. When she heard WWII was coming she sold the double bed that she slept in with my grandfather, she moved him in with my father and his brothers, and she filled the rest of the bedroom with boxes and boxes of tea. My father said she could have made a fortune during the war selling tea on the black market. Did you read my poem about tea? “Sometimes I think I’ll drown in all the tea I can drink.”
You seem to go from story to story. I’m thinking of the line you wrote: “The end of one voyage is the beginning of another.” I like that.
I wrote that sitting on Puget Sound, on the coast of Washington, watching the ferry going back and forth, back and forth, all day long. I said to myself, I’m like a boat, this is my life as a poet — I go from poem to poem, book to book, I finish one poem, I go on to another poem. The ferry goes across, comes back. It just grows rustier and rustier — and that year they even found cracks in the bottom of the ferry… So I’m like an old cargo ship, you know, I thought it was very interesting.
During normal times, I know you travel a lot. But what is your writing practice like here in Ireland?
I’m very mono. I go to a town called Skerries, North County Dublin. I leave the house every day at half seven, I drive three miles over the hills to Skerries, and I have my breakfast in Olive Café. I always have the same thing — coffee and toast. COVID disrupted this terribly. I hadn’t had breakfast at home for 40 years and suddenly everything was closed and I had to start having breakfast at home. It was very disconcerting.
I go to this place on the headland. It used to be called Red Island. It had a popular hotel and all the Irish bands used to play there. Now it’s just a carpark.
That doesn’t sound too promising.
This place is made for writing poetry. The hotel was famous as a place where couples used to come from all over Ireland. They’d spend the weekend there on the island, dancing and making love and all that, so the energy is still there, in the ground. For a hundred years they came from all over Ireland. They danced, laughed, drank beer and made love. And it was all there when I was a child.
And now it’s gone and all that’s left is the carpark, and me, and there’s a big sign for the swimmers that I love: “Competent Swimmers Only.” And sometimes when the tide is way out and there’s no water, I think it’s really funny. So that’s where I stay until lunchtime.
After lunch have you finished writing for the day?
I won’t say I’ve finished, but I’ll read. If I didn’t read, what would be the point?
Do you read your poems out loud, like your granny?
Yes, on the beach. That way I can remember them all.
But you take a notebook.
Oh yes. But sometimes poems just come to me quickly, in my head. I wrote one between the red and green traffic light. There was no time to write it down.
You also read a lot in public.
I especially love reading to children. From the age of about 3 to 13 children absolutely love poetry so I enjoy writing poems for them. “The whole world is watching TV. Me? I’m watching a tree.”
Is that also from one of your poems?
Yes, but I never read on poetry day, I think it’s an awful idea. Every day should have poetry. It would be more dramatic to have a day of no poetry. When I’m asked to read on poetry day, I always say, “Put me down for the following week. That’s world mental health day.” And I always read on that day.
In “The Blackbird’s Lullaby” you admit “my rhythm /has always been / off beat. When young, / I was often found asleep / face down in a book.” I’m intrigued by that.
You see, my other granny lived with us for a while. My brother Brian, she called Brian. My brother David, she called David. My brother Phillip, Phillip. But she always called me Odd. She’d say, “Where’s Odd?”
“Odd” was how my granny used to introduce me to strangers. Men we’d meet on the steps of church, women we’d meet when visiting the dead or the dying. I can’t imagine she brought much comfort. She’d point to me and say, “He’s Odd.” She’d also say I was good at poetry, as if she meant, He’s a bit slow. Even though my granny loved poetry.
As you also did.
I was terrible in school as a child, no school could hold me, but I had a very good memory. The teacher, Brother Kenny, wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Mr. Frost” on the blackboard and we had to learn it by Monday. I was 11 at the time, and there were 45 boys in the class and I started laughing. Brother Kenny came up to me and said, “What’s so funny Mr. Curtis?” For me he may as well have written “Falling Leaves by Mr. Autumn” or “Water Flowing by Mr. Rivers.” But it was easy for me to remember that poem. There was no other word than the next word. That’s how it’s always been.