I used to be a poet. Probably my most famous poem was my very first published piece, called ‘Swimming.’ It appeared in The Sunday Tribune in 1988. I was thrilled, then mortified, then resigned to greatness. At work, someone pinned the poem to the notice board in the canteen, along with the weird picture of myself that The Sunday Tribune photographer had taken in an alleyway off Baggot Street. I looked, my mother told me in an attempt at flattery, like Dostoyevsky. In the only photographs I’d ever seen of Dostoyevsky he looked old and ill and Russian. Nevertheless, I was flattered, if a little confused. At work, while they made their morning coffee, I heard two of my colleagues assure a third that ‘Swimming’ was about sex. This was news to me, though in retrospect probably accurate, and may have been why my mother concentrated on praising my looks rather than my poetry.
I blushed through all of this. I took the poem down from the notice board at work. I feigned modesty, indifference even. But secretly I knew that there was nothing I could do to stop it – my fame as a poet was assured. I was very young. Sure enough, after several months of puzzling silence, the nice man at The Sunday Tribune telephoned to say that ‘Swimming’ had been short-listed for a prize. So along I went, to the Rotunda, I believe, where I had my first taste of what it’s like to mix with literary types. All the nominees wore name badges. All the famous writers didn’t, so I took mine off. I glimpsed John Banville slipping out early. I thought I saw Dermot Bolger but I wasn’t sure. David Norris kept on yawning and laughing. I didn’t win anything. Joseph O’Connor won everything.
Afterwards, as I pondered the sudden derailment of my fame, I ended up by some strange mechanism in Grogan’s, with a bunch of people I didn’t know. One of them was Evelyn Conlon. I listened to her talk about writing-about how hard and unrewarding it is, about how it had been the death of some and the ruin of others, and about how she loved it, lived for it, and could never think of doing anything else. She talked about how it is fixed in time and place. She talked about responsibility and craft and honesty, and the long days and months and years of solitary, difficult, endeavour. She terrified me. And she made me understand, for the first time I think, what it would mean if I were to go on with it. I left Grogan’s without saying goodbye to anyone, which is typical. I was a little drunk. But I was determined too. If I had been a poet, it had been by accident. And if I had learned anything it was that you cannot be an accidental artist. It does not happen to you. You create it. Slowly.
I don’t think I said more than a couple of words to her that evening in Grogan’s, but I’ve been lucky to get to know Evelyn since then. She’s a writer.
So am I