John Saunders, CEO of Shine, interviews Kevin Nolan, co-author of Shizo-Poetry


Kevin, before we talk about the poems and poetry in general perhaps you could tell me a little about yourself?

I was born on the 10th of January 1981 at around 9pm in The Old Comb Hospital, Dublin city, Ireland. My father and mother were both teachers then. I grew up not excelling academically but I could run very fast and so I won many medals for the hundred metres sprint, the relay and the long jump throughout my childhood. Then around the age of twelve my parents split up and I quit sports completely and took up playing the guitar, piano and violin. Also around that time I began to read veraciously, the likes of, Camus, Sartre, Hess, Thompson, Kerouac, Kazantzakis, Blake, Rimbaud and Thomas. Every single day of my life then I played guitar and piano and as I grew into my teens I began to attend school less and less. When school eventually finished I received a modest leaving cert and I went to study Philosophy in the Milltown Institute. I studies there for six years. I loved every second of those six years and had a very close relationship with the then Dean of Philosophy, Kevin O’Higgins. After coming first in my class in my second year exams at college I took a plane on my own to Texas and there had a psychotic break down, I was living on the streets and was soon admitted to St. Patrick’s Hospital where over many months they nursed me back to health with a mixture of psychotropic drugs. After my breakdown everything changed, my mind had opened a doorway it wished it had not found, and I was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia. Throughout college I was in and out of hospital as my health worsened and eased. After I graduated from college, which was a herculean accomplishment given my illness and my yearly admissions to hospital and the fact that I was not in touch with reality for most of it; I began to write my debut album. I worked on my album for eight years, writing and recording it. It took this amount of time due to my poor mental health. During the making of my album I also began to work on my first volume of poetry
entitled ‘Vibrations Of The Soul’: a collaboration with my artist uncle John Nolan. I launched the book in 2012 in The Gutter Book Shop, Cows Lane, Dublin City. After dealing with my illness for about 6 years my diagnosis was refined, as it became apparent that I had bi-polar depression as well as schizophrenia and so I was re-diagnosed with Schizo-affective disorder. After I graduated from college at the Milltown Institute I was accepted into The National College Of Art and Design but left after only a few months as my health got worse. Since my breakdown in 2000 my illness has become a part of every process in my life and has to be managed on a daily basis. I began writing my debut album in 2006 and finished and released it on the 4th of the 4th 2014. The album is titled ‘Fredrick & The Golden Dawn’ and has received across the board critical acclaim both in Ireland and abroad. The album features choice music award winning singer/composer Julie Feeney who has said that the album is ‘simply a masterpiece’ and Hotpress Magazine say it is ‘Spell-binding’. In 2013 I met artist/poet Susanne Wawra and swiftly began writing a book with her which would eventually be titled ‘Schizo-Poetry – Fragments Of Mind’ and would be produced by Shine.

So much has happened to you in such a short period of time. Can you trace back and identify what brought you to poetry. Was it one of the writers you mention or something or someone else?

The first poetry I read seriously was Blake’s Auguries of Innocence. I was in Wexford on a holiday and I walked about eight miles to a beach on the very edge of Ireland called ‘The point’ in Rosslare Strand. I situated myself on the top of a hill and sat hunched down to read, my long hair blowing frantically in the wind. I was completely alone on that beach and something, happened. It was extremely windy and I found in the yellowing pages of that book which I had borrowed from my father with the marble painted cover, something defining, some sort of solidarity in the sentiment, some sort of load stone of the heart, my heart. From then on poetry just made sense to me.
However it wasn’t till much later when I met a young man in St Patrick’s Hospital around 2001 during one of my early stays there. I was 20. I was in a group therapy session with him. He was pretty non-descript except that I noticed he had a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl under his arm. I approached him and after talking for a while I asked him could I borrow the book. He agreed and so began one of the dearest friendships of my life. He was only 18 but had been writing poetry for some time. As it is with friendships I was very influenced by him and he urged me to try and write and so on his advise I put pen to paper and began my story as a writer.

You also have a strong musical strand to you life and as you mentioned have recorded and performed. Is there any relationship between your poetry and music.?

My first thought is to say that there is very little relationship, except to say that the research that goes into each of them is similar and I’m quite obsessive about both. For my most recent book I wrote all the poems in free verse. I then tried to make some of them into a song but found it almost impossible. Free verse is very difficult to use for song lyrics. Also with my latest book, ‘Schizo-Poetry’, all the poems are confessional poems. Where as for my debut album, most of the songs are dramatic, theatrical, fictional songs. I guess there is a relationship between my poetry and songs in that the two art forms can influence each other to some extent. For example, I’d like to switch my next book of poems to dramatic, theatrical, fictions and switch my next album to confessional songs. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. I’ve just begun work on an aphoristic novel in collaboration with Artist/Poet Susanne Wawra where I’d like to include elements of the theatrical. I can think of my music and poetry like two very close brothers, an older brother and a younger brother, because I’m much more experienced and have been working longer
with music than poetry. And so my music (the older brother) is always looking out for the younger brother (my poetry). One always informing the other, yet at the same time they both have something to learn from each other. For the most part my poetry and music have a very tenuous relationship for all sorts of technical reasons but occasionally I’ve tried to join them. For the lyrics to my song ‘Ballade to St. Dymphna’ I wrote the lyrics using an old poetic form known as the eight line stanza ballade. It’s a thirteenth century French poetic form and was believed to have magical properties associated with the number eight. Jean Cocteau once said that even though he worked with Film, Writing, Design, Art, among others, all his work was really just poetry. For me, even though the two forms I work with don’t explicitly cross over there’s an underlying quality which I’d like to think you can derive from both. You can tell if a song or a poem is genuine or comes from a genuine place, you can tell if it has Duende. You can tell if it’s an expression of something real, no matter what the medium or genre, and in this way I like to think there is a cross over with my poems and songs. Their cross over or relation is that they are both my expression of Duende, of something genuine, something real, something guttural. Duende is a term I first read in a lecture by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, in which he outlines the properties of the expression. He says ‘All that has dark sounds has Duende’. It’s a type of life exuding fire and this fire comes from the author of a work of art, from the person, the plight, the place and then this is distilled and poured into the work. In time the author may die in the Barthesian sense but the Duende remains. It pours out of the pages of Proust, it leaks from the lips of Lautreamont; Waits has it, Billie Holiday had it. Lorca gives an example of a lady he saw perform. She performs an old Gypsy song. The woman sings the first song and it is less than impressive for Lorca but then she takes a glass of whiskey before she sings the next, and it is then that Lorca says that she has Duende. It’s a fire in the soul. Maybe this woman could have sang that same song twice but only one of the renditions had Duende, so you see it’s an exaltation of
the spirit, borne out of a great celebration of sadness and it’s capacity to uncover the deepness of life, it’s an expression of the inexpressible, but it is none the less immediately discernible to any audience. It’s is something you can’t derive from the lyric or the music explicitly. It’s a quality that accompanies or underlines these elements and if it’s there, you know it, it’s immediately apparent. It serves as a kind of validation, a sense of something true, something real, something genuine behind the song or poem or any work of art for that matter. Leonard Cohen once said that poetry is a verdict, if a poem or song causes a reaction in you, if it moves you in some way then that reaction in the listener or reader is the affirmation of the verdict and this verdict is a validation for work as a work of art. In my latest volume of poetry ‘Schizo-Poetry – Fragments Of Mind’: a collaboration with Artist/Poet Susanne Wawra, I think that it is my most successful attempt at expressing Duende.

How did Susanne and you meet and how did the concept for the book develop?

Susanne and I met firstly in St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital when we were both in- patients. However we didn’t really know each other very well as we were both dealing with the problems which led us there. Much later after Susanne and I had been discharged I met her again at an art exhibition in Temple Bar, Dublin City. This time when we met we were both in good health and hit it off immediately. Not much long after we met we decided to write a book together. We met in a coffee shop in Rathmines and brainstormed our ideas. In fact the dedication in our book reads ‘Dedication To- The summer of 2013 and in particular Monday July 22nd of that year’.
The reason we dedicated it to that day is because that was the very day we met in the coffee shop and the entire idea for the book was thought up in one big brainstorming session.

Is there a rationale for choosing colours as the theme and what were the mechanics of writing the poems? Did you share drafts or discuss as you progressed the poems?

As I said earlier research is a big part of my practice. Every time I find something that challenges me in some way, or surprises me, I keep it and store it away in my filing cabinet in the hope of someday finding a work in which to use it. And so it was with these colours, Flavescent, Rubious, Amaranthine, Glaucous and the others, I came across these strange names for colours many many years ago. I was immediately turned on by them and so stored them in my filing cabinet with the rest of my notes for a time when I could use them. I tried to use them many times since then but just couldn’t find a work to compliment them. Then when myself and Susanne were brainstorming for our book and I thought of them and they seemed to be custom made for our book, they were perfect, so that was where I got the colours. We were also aware of the Russian formalist technique known as defamiliarization. The theory states that when we become too familiar with something, like a chair or a cup or the colour blue for example, we cease to perceive it. And so through the process of defamiliarizing these objects we begin to perceive them again. Another word for defamiliarizing is to make-strange. And so for myself and Susanne, to switch the word ‘Niveous’ for the word ‘white’ was a kind of making strange which the Russian formalists spoke about. It also served as a way for myself and Susanne to look again at these colours, and write in our own direction. We never showed each other any drafts or discussed our poems with each other while they were being written. We would just meet with our finished poems of the same title
and read them to each other. Only then would we discuss them. There is a poem in the book about our process by Susanne called ‘Maroon’.

Perhaps this is a good moment to look at one of the poems and talk a little about it. Can you choose one and share it with us?

When you ask me this question, I am immediately thrown into a Barthesian dilemma. Do I want to talk about my poetry or do I want to leave it to the reader to discover their own meaning and significance. Am I the author/ity of my own work or am I conceptually ‘dead’, thus leaving the work itself to speak for itself. In this case I will talk about my poem ‘Niveous’. This poem deals with the difficult nature of editing one’s own work and rebels against the general rules of editing in particular the ones posited by T. S. Elliot in his essays. It ends with a almost nihilistic, Kerouacian, porno-graphia, gothic and gleeful anti-resolution. This poem doesn’t end with the cowboys riding into the sunset but rather the cowboys gouge out their eyes so the may never see the sun set again and they to it in a euphoric gleeful state. T. S. Eliot once wrote in his essays that no matter how good or inspired a particular line in a poem is ‘if it does not serve the poem as a whole, it must be edited out’. And so in spite of Elliot’s wise statement, the opening lines of my poem read ‘There are lines in this poem which lack power. The do not serve the poem as a whole. I love them, dearly each loaded phoneme
in all it’s delicate naïve beauty’ Here I express my limerence for these lines. Even though I attribute the negative adjectives ‘loaded’ and ‘naïve’, to them, I still ‘love them’ and enamoured by their ‘delicate beauty’. The next lines read ‘I imagine myself As I softly lick the linings of their vowels, lament the lipograms and kiss away all deferred meaning my perfect sentiment of intimacy’ Here we see that my love for these imperfect lines is almost a perverted and sensual love. I am obsessive about these lines which ‘do not serve the poem as a whole’. Here there is also a minor reference to Jacques Derrida’s work with the words ‘deferred meaning’. Then as the poem goes on I express my inability to edit out these lines because I am so bewitched and torchered by my love for them and I begin to question the reason why I write in the first place, calling it all a ‘Hellish business’. Echoing the blissful and hellish love in the novel Loita. Then I end the poem by asking permission to leave these lines in, so that they may ‘bathe naked amongst the finer specimens’ i.e. the finer lines. The last line reads ‘like cadent deviant nymphets’. Here’s another reference to Loita, calling the bad lines nymphets. As if to say it’s wrong or somehow morally unacceptable to love these bad lines that ‘do not serve the poem as a whole’. The reader is left to decide which lines in
the poem are the inferior ones which the author has left in. The inferior lines left in the poem are the very lines stating their own inferiority, as follows, ‘There are lines in this poem which lack power, The do not serve the poem as a whole.’ That’s a wonderful exposition. Finally can you share your present work. You say you are working on a novel with Suzanne that has strong elements of the theatrical. Thank you John. Yes, it’s an aphoristic novel which will be illustrated by Susanne. The novel covers a 10 year period. It’s the kind of work for me that doesn’t come from a decision you make one day to write, but rather you find yourself in a particular place in your life (up against a wall) and you kind of want to write your way out of it. It’s a confessional novel with elements of the theatrical. You’ll forgive me for neglecting to say more. It’s just the story is so close to me now and I wanna let it fester like a slight in me and never talk about it. I haven’t even told Susanne yet. For now I’m just getting the first draft down which I will then give to Susanne to read and imagine some images to go with the text.

Kevin. J. Nolan, Dublin born, holds an honours degree in Philosophy from The Milltown Institute. He also studied fine art in the National College of Art and Design. His writing has appeared in, Skylight 47, Colony and Studies, among other journals. Also a singer/composer he has recently released his debut album entitled “Fredrick & The Golden Dawn”, notably he has recorded a duet, “Aubade” with Julie Feeney.

John Saunders is the CEO of Shine. Shine is the national organisation dedicated to upholding the rights and addressing the needs of all those affected by mental illness including, but not exclusively, schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder and bipolar disorder, through the promotion and provision of high-quality services and working to ensure the continual enhancement of the quality of life of the people it serves