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Interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

Author of Feed the Beast

Black and white photo of Pádraig Ó Tuama. He is wearing a slightly torn denim jacket, and has curly hair, glasses, and stubble.
Photo credit: Trevor Brady

When did you write the book, and what was the inspiration behind it?

The poems in Feed the Beast were written over the past decade. What initially started as a desire to explore the aftermath of anti-gay therapy grew into explorations of the sonnet form, the Irish mode of sonics in English language poetry, erasure and rage.

I am interested in time: what it is, how it works, where it resides, and how it does different things to different people at the same time. So this, too, is an inspiration behind the book. ‘The Past is such a curious Creature’ Emily Dickinson says. Yes indeed. A curious beast.

How would you summarise this book in 100 words or fewer?

Homorage in poemshapes.

How would you characterise the style of your book? For example, would you see it as lyrical, prose or experimental? (to name but a few!) Can you provide some commentary around why you feel it falls into these categories?

One of the things a poem is is a sound (whether voiced or not). The sound of this book is firmly in the range of what WB Yeats categorised as 'the Irish mode’: whereby rhythms of assonance are built up and modulated at unequal intervals. Assonance, repeated and elongated vowel sounds, can have the quality of lullaby or haunting. Or both.

So I was interested in writing sonnets that are built less on formal rhyming structure and more in an emotional onomatopoeia based on vowel sounds. I’ve been haunted by God for a long time. Taking sonnet shapes to explore - and undo - conventions of culture, gender and religion that narrated predictable expectations of masculinity, the poems in Feed the Beast attempt to take religious literature as seriously as the critique of religion. Strangely, as someone who was put through three exorcisms to get rid of gay devils in me, I haven’t rejected the notion of exorcism. In some ways I am still trying to figure out what needs to be exorcised. (But I love my gay devils. They’re staying).

Erasure, too, is an interest in this poetry: I wanted to take the erasures of lived experience and manifest them on the page, curious about what might emerge. Sometimes it’s black ink contrasting with greyed-out typeface; other times it’s struck-through words.

Form is many things: sometimes it’s an engagement with the mathematics of music, sometimes it’s the enjoyment of the visual and the absent, but in Feed the Beast I was also keen to use form as an architecture for psychological states of being. Multiple narratives are possible for every lyric line.

Seven Deadly Sonnets And some deep prayers were shaped like sonnets  		— Patrick Kavanagh (i) 	The Exorcism  I wished you weren’t American. I wished you didn’t see intrinsic evil in me. I wished you hadn’t dragged  my secret from me. Now I know you knew already,  someone squealed. I wished you didn’t put your hands on me  while you were screaming at the devils in me, all my homosexualities. I wished you’d never gathered people round, instructing them to pray in tongues, or read from Revelations, or chant JESUS.JESUS.JESUS. I wished you’d shut up. I repeated jesusjesusjesus.  I wished he’d answered.  I wished you dead.   And I was frightened at the violence in me, and the  nest of demons in me, I wondered where they lived:  in my semen? in the dreams I had of being kissed?  Why did they breed in me? My God. My Exorcist.         ‘Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’  But Jesus rebuked him, saying,  “Be muzzled and come out of him.”   — The Gospel of Mark, chapter one
The first of the 'Seven Deadly Sonnets' from Feed the Beast

During the writing of this book, did you learn anything new? either about yourself as an author or about the crafting of the work itself?

One of the things that I half-knew — but which went deeper throughout the writing of this short book, although I still only half know it — is the power of rage. Rage is an invitation: to look at its layers; to go deeper, to consider its sound, shape and syntax; and then to go even deeper.

A word in Irish for rage is ‘fraoch’; a word also meaning ‘heather.’ I love heather — it’s gorgeous to look at, it grows in inhospitable places and is probably impossible to digest.

There are things to rage at, and I wanted to let the rage do its revealing, creative work in me. The outcome was a series of poems that surprised me. Monster, for instance, is in the voice of the devil I was told I was possessed by (being told I had a devil put a devil in me). I love that monster now. Combat boots and a tutu, issuing declamations against the God who hasn’t turned up yet.

Can you list some of your main influences? Feel free to include writers, literary movements, but also any influences outside of the literary sphere that have had an impact?

I am influenced hugely by the sonics of Irish language poetry, particularly poems that rely heavily on assonance. The poets whose work has helped shape the poetry are Máire Mhac an tSaoí, Patrick Kavanagh, RS Thomas, Kei Miller, and Marie Howe.

It isn’t just because I’m writing this in the summer of 2023, but Sinéad O’Connor’s lyrics have always impressed me. I love her capacity for turns, voltas, objective correlative narrative anecdotes that are like the undercurrent of a song’s imagination coming to the surface. (“Young mother down at Smithfield,” for instance, from Black Boys on Mopeds.)

I tried to believe in God for a long time. I don’t now, and not just because I can’t be bothered, but mostly because I’m unimpressed by the verb belief. I like verbs like mine, circle, chew, question, bite, suck, swallow, lick and chip. To engage such verbs — especially in conversation with liturgy, language of religion, and the texts of scriptures — is to treat their original authors in the truest light: as artists whose work is there to be exploded, mined, sifted through and praised. So I am also moved by the work of the weeping prophet Jeremiah, the strange Ezekiel, whomever it was that chose the verbs for the book of Genesis, and the complicated mytho-biographers of the matriarchs and patriarchs. Their works are like cracked rock: evidencing power and easy to cut yourself on. I praise them.

Please can you list some stylistic or technical elements contained within your work, and why you feel that these are important?

As mentioned above, erasure, assonance, and allusion to religious literatures are all features in the work. One other aspect to mention is the Volta within the body of a sonnet (whether formal or not), and, indeed, also outside of the sonnet.

The Volta — the turn, the etymological sibling to words like revolution, revolver and revolt — rests in the poems as a demand, an unease, and a belief in the power of language to continue to reveal. “The author of a story cannot control a story’s power to reveal” the theologian Terrence Tilley wrote in Story Theology and I admire his understanding about the complicated relationship between an artist and their art.

The volta is one of the pieces of machinery that poses editorial, psychological and imaginative demands of the language in a poem.

There is a Time to Love and a Time to Hate; a Time for Making War — The book of Ecclesiastes. Chapter 3, v 8 Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex  TO THE QUESTION PROPOSED:  Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex? RESPONSE: Negative.  Explanatory Note:   Therefore, only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the Church. For this reason, it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex. The presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated, cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.
'There is a Time to Love and a Time to Hate; a time for Making War' from Feed the Beast

Can you give some commentary around the book’s central themes and why these are so important to you?

Some of the central themes of the book are the vitality (and sometimes violence) of religious literature. While much public usage of such texts can be associated with interests in religious recruitment, deepening devotion, or apologetics, these literatures are art, written, often, anonymous authors on the edges of empire; people without official function or formal access to the halls of power. Engagement with these ancient texts is of interest to me, not as a devotee to religion, but as a devotee to language and its potency for longevity, reinterpretation, sharpness and shock. That much religious language — think 'abomination' for instance — has been appropriated for the purpose of burdening those who are already living under systemic burdens, I was interested in revisiting this language: sometimes in the register of revolution, other times in the register of tenderness, other times in the register of confusion.

I’m from a musical family, and — after failed attempt at the fiddle, tin whistle and chanter — I landed on the guitar at the age of 11. I play it most days still, over thirty five years later. Much music rests on an idea of a resolve, a return to a chord that has been the underground stream of the work. A final musical resolution can be a small relief. Poetry has — for good reason — some ambivalence about such resolutions and often ends with a note of unresolved. A poem is not a homily, it does not need to make itself easy for the reader. It is not an act of pastoral care. It is something else. Perhaps I’m talking about hope here. Should a book that charts experiences of rage in response to homophobia plot a journey toward hope? No. It should do something else. I can’t say what someone else should have done, all I know is that I needed to follow my own hungers into places that once had signs that said ‘Danger’.

For someone who enjoys your work, which other authors do you think would also be appealing to them?

I don’t ever know how to answer this question, but here’s the answer to another question: Joelle Taylor, Kei Miller, Lorna Goodison, Marie Howe, Patrick Kavanagh, Toby Martines de las Rivas, Raymond Antrobus, Jericho Brown, Nick Flynn, Vivre Francis, Gail McConnell and Andrew McMillan. I praise them.

Is there a personal story or inspiration relating to this book? If you feel comfortable, please feel free to share!

I was giving a poetry reading at a very queer bookshop in Melbourne. Porn and dildoes and Tom of Finland books on the shelves, oh my; posters for HIV support groups, coffee mornings and protest parades papered the walls. It was a place of brilliance and bravery and inclusion. A community hub, a place of eros and organisation and literature and experimentation. Hares and Hyenas it’s called.

Anyway, just as I was about to begin the poetry reading, I noticed that a former reparative therapist of mine was in the front row, holding the hand of another man. I always knew he was gay, that wasn’t a shocking thing. What was a shock was the strength of feeling in me when I saw him (blueblack hair, shirt with the top button done up). I didn’t have the energy to face him — rage and shame and sympathy all wrestled in me — and I was undone by the demand in me. A demand for what? I don’t know. Noticing. I thought of the line from the Inferno where Dante and Virgil finally see Lucifer: frozen in a lake of his own tears in the ninth circle of hell: "Oh what a marvel it appeared to me." (Longfellow's translation). I couldn't approach this man. Something was calling for artistic attention. Feed the Beast is a response to that.

The Butcher of Eden Now God made Adam and Eve coats of skins and dressed them.  — Genesis 3:21  And when he was finished, he scraped fat  from the backs of stretched skins, wiped the blood, sewed the seams, bit the thread with teeth and said: Dress yourselves in these.  And they said: what is this verb?  God shoved his knife into the earth, and said: It’s like make believe but for your body.  They looked at all the meat still steaming from when it was alive.  God said: Eat. And watched while beasts of Eden fed on beasts of Eden.
'The Butcher of Eden' from Feed the Beast

Is there a particular audience you had in mind when writing this book? How did this impact the writing process?

There wasn't a particular audience in mind for this poem. I'm fascinated - and moved - by the variety of people who come to me, telling me which poems they connected with. A poem takes its own life, and looks back at me as it leaves me.

Pádraig Ó Tuama (b. 1975, Cork, Ireland) is a poet and broadcaster. His most recent book is Feed the Beast with Broken Sleep Books. He presents Poetry Unbound, a podcast from on Being Studios, a popular podcast, with over 10 million downloads, that offers a meditative reflection on a single poem. A companion anthology to the series has been published by Canongate, with two more anthology forthcoming.


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