INTERVIEW: FIRE & DUST MEETS JIM CRICKARD
Interviewed by Raef Boylan
Jim Crickard writes and performs camp, entertaining poetry that explores culture, sexuality and identity. In 2019, he was selected by Poetry Ireland for the inaugural Versify series, and performed to a sold-out show at Dublin Fringe Festival. That same year, he came second in the All Ireland Poetry Slam Final. In 2018, he was shortlisted for the 2018 Ó Bhéal International Five Words Competition, won the Cuirt Spoken Word Platform and was awarded a slot to perform at Electric Picnic. Jim also has work published in Automatic Pilot, A New Ulster, and Contemporary Poetry.
In 2020, Jim was one of two poets from Cork (Ireland) who participated in the annual international poetry exchange between Cork and Coventry (UK). You can find out more about the exchange here. Jim gave a brilliant performance on 4th November at the Coventry-Cork poetry event, as part of Coventry Peace Festival, and again on 5th November when he headlined at our Fire & Dust Twin Cities special. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both events were hosted virtually on Zoom, with people joining the audience from all over the UK, Ireland and further overseas.
HCE caught up with Jim after the Fire & Dust gig, to ask him a few questions…
RB: Tell us a little about yourself. Your background, your work, and the themes you like to explore. When did you first know you were a poet, and what has been your journey as a writer so far?
JC: My background, I think, was writing in my diary. Just to kind of decompress after a day at school when I was a teenager. And then I started getting interested in the poets on the Leaving Certs – GCSEs/A-Levels, whatever the one is before college in the UK – I was really into them and inspired by them. The journaling started kind of meshing with poetry and I found that instead of writing journal entries, it was more like poems or bits of poets. Eavan Boland was on the Leaving Cert, she’s a famous Irish poet, she just died this year, and her poems always had a message in them. So I was young, like 17, trying to have a message for the wider world in my poems! But less so of that now, I think I just want to capture tiny little things, observations that are funny and that might not contain a message but are still saying something. With teenage poetry, you’re sort of expelling everything that you have going on, and that mightn’t always make the most interesting work – it’s raw and stuff, but I think you learn to file it down a bit.
RB: At that age, I guess it’s an honest way to do poetry because that’s how it feels at the time: everything seems so big and urgent? Weirdly, the more developed our world view gets, the more we hold back. Instead of putting it out there all in one go, we try to just sprinkle it through our poems.
JC: Yeah, I think I’m being hard on them, it IS honest. I love when young people write. They seem to not be afraid of going really personal. I think I used to be a bit more like that as well, and I’ve maybe scaled it back. That’s an interesting thing as you get older, you get more defensive and protective of yourself or something.
RB: In your opinion, is Cork a good place to be a poet/writer/creative? Like, do you feel nurtured and is there a thriving arts community?
JC: Definitely, yeah. If you’re a singer, there’s an open mic night. If you’re an artist, there’s an open drawing night, like a drawing challenge in a pub and it’s social. And then, of course, there’s Ó Bhéal for the poets. It’s a really creative city, for sure. I think that’s really important, if you’re going to be creative and doing poetry or art or writing, to find a group of people doing the same thing. Getting feedback is important, and not even ‘feedback’, just being acknowledged. You don’t need everyone to tell you how to fix your poem (!) But for other people to hear it, that’s the thing, isn’t it?
RB: Growing up, you can feel a bit freakish or lonely when you’re a writer because it’s this solitary thing that you go away and do in secret. So, when you find a community of people who are doing the same thing and can relate to that experience, yeah, it’s pretty validating. On a wider scale, do you feel Ireland is a good country to be based in for writers and artists?
JC: Well, we have a legacy of writers. We’ve James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh… We’re known as the land of saints, scholars and poets or something like that. (I’m tripping myself up there because I’ve a poem called ‘The Isle of Saints, Scholars and Cross Dressers’ but that’s not what it is, that’s not the known tradition!) Definitely a legacy of writers there, but that’s maybe more historically, though. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, like ‘Ooh, he’s become a Writer’, you know? I think you’re still regarded with the same raised eyebrow for a number of years, until people start seeing your work and then ‘Oh okay, that’s what he’s about’. But until you start showing people, I think it’s kind of this weird thing you do that you don’t tell anybody about.
RB: Ah, that’s a shame. It’s not like He’s had The Calling, let’s send him forth to be one of the Greats! then? You have to prove yourself first.
JC: I think so. Before, it used to be the oldest son would get the farm, the middle son would become a priest and the daughter would be married off or something. But no, it’s not a cultural thing like ‘That one becomes the poet/the writer’! Writers are a rare breed, maybe?
RB: That’s good news for us, I guess! Poetry seems like it’s getting bigger though, with more people engaging with it? Maybe not taking it on as their career path, but engaging with it.
JC: It is actually more popular. Like, there are scenes in every city, I suppose. Coventry, Dublin, Cork, London…there’s a scene everywhere you go. I don’t know if that’s always been there. Like, Fire & Dust and Ó Bhéal, they’re official platforms that are there, it’s not an informal writer’s bar where people just bump into each other at, it’s a thing that’s hosted and a fostered community. So it is a big thing, alright. Am I giving a mixed message here?
RB: I was just curious, because of the literary history, whether it’s something people still take pride in or nobody’s really bothered with it anymore.
JC: There’s still a rich culture of writers in Ireland. I dunno if it’s as elevated or as renowned as it was. I mean, James Joyce, you can’t get more famous than that. And then we have Seamus Heaney, and that’s a huge poet name, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so I suppose the pride is still there.
RB: Is there an active scene for literary magazines in Ireland as well?
JC: There’s definitely some literary magazines. I think there’s a little division between performance poetry and page poetry. There’s obviously the main journals – Poetry Ireland Review, Stinging Fly – these big household name journals that people submit to, and then there’s the more fringe magazines, and zines. So people end up in different ones depending on the style of poetry they have.
RB: Would you say poets tend to place too much value on being published as their end goal? And for you, is publication what’s most important, or do you focus more on other aspects, like growing your reputation as a performer?
JC: I think there’s kind of a set path to getting your first collection, and that’s to build up a portfolio of publication in magazines – a bit like a pop star getting singles, you know? So there’s a traditional way of going about it. And I think it is important for publishers to see that you are getting published by these presses and magazines and things, so they’ll sell books, which is the main thing at the end, for the publishers. But for myself, I don’t know if I find it that important. I think what’s important to me is performing it and writing it and cultivating it. I think whenever you submit to a magazine, you have to pay the price of being rejected. There’s a tax that goes along with it. To get the publications, you have to send your poems out there. There’s a pretty famous UK poet called John McCullough who I follow on Facebook; he’s always rooting for people trying to get published, but he said he could wallpaper his room in rejection slips. I think you just have to be brave and get past it, and just do that. The magazines have limited resources as well, and limited time, limited energy, limited budgets…
RB: Yep. It helps when big names like John McCullogh acknowledge that rejection happened to them, and maybe sometimes still happens to them – it’s comforting. It doesn’t necessarily mean our poems are shit if they don’t get in, just that the magazines can’t publish everything they’re sent in one go.
Do you see ‘Poet’ as a potential career trajectory?
JC: I’d like to see it as a career but I’m also realistic. I keep a day job. I’ve plans to study psychotherapy and do a day job I like even more than the one I’m doing now, so that I’ve got something stable. I would love to enjoy my day job and enjoy doing poetry as well – and then if a career happens out of it, fabulous. But if it doesn’t then I’ve still got the community I’ve found in it and the expression I find in it, and the entertainment I bring to people…I still have all that. It doesn’t have to happen. No one promises you success, it’s not guaranteed.
RB: Really sensible plan, but also a positive answer there! How did you find the experience of doing the Twin Cities Exchange?
JC: I actually loved it. I didn’t really know what to expect, with it all being digital, if it would feel like an event. But it really did. I did feel like we were welcomed to Coventry, even though I haven’t put even one toe on the soil over there, I haven’t touched it! But I feel I was really welcomed by you all – the radio interview, meeting the Lord Mayor, the events themselves, it did feel like something was happening those couple of days.
RB: Yeah, I think both sides did a good job of making it feel like a proper event. Hopefully we can get all four poets to visit their respective twin cities sometime in the future… Compared to what you’ve observed in Ireland, did you notice any interesting differences between the poetry/gigs/attitudes in Cov and back home? It’s maybe a bit tricky to judge, when you don’t get to chat with people in-between gigs.
JC: Yeah I think that would’ve been quite a good indicator, if we’d had more chances to chat. But I think there is something similar, whether it’s Cork or Coventry. There’s a special thing about poets, I think: they’re not afraid to engage in any kind of conversation or any kind of philosophical pondering. You know? Like, anything is on the table. Whether it’s political or about beauty or about rhythm or lyrics or whatever. I kind of found the same between the UK and Cork, similar vibes and types of people.
RB: That’s really cool to hear. I enjoyed that about the gigs in Cork: poets were talkative and unafraid, whatever you threw at people, there was a conversation to be had. I guess poets tackle so many topics, you need quite a wide conversational range to respond to each other’s work.
I don’t know how many poetry slams you’ve been involved in, but I’m assuming there were a few before you competed in the All-Ireland Slam? Do you enjoy being part of slam events?
JC: I love slams, yeah. I actually love the energy that comes with them. I was in one in the Court Festival in Galway, and I won that. It was the first big win of anything, really, for me. It just all happened so fast. I knew at that time I had the crowd hanging on my words, and if there was a perfect performance I’ve ever done, it would be that time, when I just felt so attuned with everything. And I didn’t really expect too much either, I just wanted to have fun with it. That was just a really good night. And then there was one the following year…I think I’ve been in three or four slams. I just love the nervous energy between everyone who’s competing, and the breaks in-between where everyone’s smoking furiously and their legs are tapping and stuff, I just love it. I just think it’s so much fun, the pressure. I love the pressure. It reminds me of 8 Mile!
RB: It’s funny you say that. I’ve only competed in one slam, but even the toilet at that gig reminded me a bit of 8 Mile. Staring into the mirror, bricking it, giving myself a little pep talk – and the whole time thinking ‘whoa, I’m basically B Rabbit right now!’
What are the big differences for you, when it comes to choosing poems to perform for a slam and poems for a headline set?
JC: For a slam, it’s more about crowd reaction and ‘the audience that’s gonna be there, will they get the references I’m going to drop?’ You have to be a bit more strategic, I think, for slams. And then, when it’s a poetry reading and I’m asked to be a guest poet, I kind of bring whatever I want and I think if I enjoy it, they’ll probably enjoy it, you know? I try to maybe fit the themes together, like two similar poems and then move into something else that might be more serious or funny or more fantastical. I kind of twin them up and take people along. But with a slam poem, it’s more strategic and about crowd reaction. Someone I know saw someone at a slam taking a really ballsy move: they did like a 3 or 4 line poem and…that was it. I think they did well but it’s just kind of ballsy. I’ve never done that, I wouldn’t take a risk with the opportunity like that. You need to use the opportunity, the full thing.
RB: Does it help that if you’re headlining, you get more time to talk a bit in-between poems, to explain what you’re doing/provide context if you want to prepare the audience?
JC: Yeah, it can help a lot. I think that’s important when you’re doing a guest spot – if the poem might be a little bit more esoteric or veiled, I like to have an idea of what the poem is going to be about or a map through it, or at least just something to have in mind as we go through the poem. Because if you just drop them without any introduction or preamble, it can be a bit hard to penetrate. You can do it without, and just let the poem speak for itself, but I like a bit of preamble.
RB: With some of your poems, does it feel like you’re speaking TO and providing a voice FOR LGBT+ communities, who are often underrepresented? Or are you more aiming to offer up a fresh perspective to ‘outsiders’ that might change how other audiences see and think about things?
JC: Yeah, I think with some of my poems, like about growing up and being in the closet and stuff like that, I am sort of trying to push that out into the foreground as a sort of statement, for people to see what it’s like to bear that. When I think about the little horror caricatures I’ve been doing, and I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit, I think it’s more the ‘outsider’ I’m trying to give a little platform to. I think outsiders is a big part of my work. The horror ones, I think they’re like cultural outsides. And then LGBT people are, I suppose, more social outsiders. In this heteronormative world we’re in, you do navigate it a bit differently, or as an ‘other’ when you’re LGBT. Just simple things. Like recently, with the Covid-19, pregnant women were only allowed to go into their pre-natal check-ups on their own and there was basically a lot of fighting to get their husband/male partner to be allowed into the room with them, to accompany them. It just seemed like there was a strong, swift movement of people to make things happen for straight people – it happened, and there wasn’t really much else to it. But then when you think about transgender people trying to be allowed to use the bathroom of the gender they identify as, that’s taken years and it’s still a problem.
RB: Ever had an audience not dig your sense of humour and take offence?
JC: I once had a poem about customer service where I become an Asian girl and have a kimono on and I’m bowing to the Master who’s the customer, stuff like that, and someone took offence to that. And I guess it’s okay. I mean, if they’re offended, I’m sorry. So it happened once. But I dunno, I like the poem and I stand by it still – I didn’t mean to offend anyone, it’s just where I wanted to go with it.
RB: That’s a shame. Metaphorical short-hands can be tricky. But you’ve never had a hen party of straight women on their way to a gay club in the audience, just going mad at you?
JC: No, no hen parties have ever started throwing tomatoes or anything like that!
RB: I think at the Peace Poetry Q&A, you guys spoke about the rule of ‘show’ vs. ‘tell’. Like, how we should hold enough back in our writing to make sure the poetry is stimulating, and to give readers more credit for their intelligence.
What is the top piece of advice you would give to a poet about achieving this?
JC: See if you can cut the phrase in half and have it still make sense. Like, if you were going to make a Biblical reference, see if you can just leave the actual line from the Bible in the poem, leave that on its own, don’t try to introduce where it’s coming from. Give the reader some credit for being able to take in the reference. For showing rather than telling…I think, maybe come up with an image and let the image speak for itself. It’s about creating a mood around an image rather than telling people directly. Like, if you had a lonely vampire, you could maybe create that mood of aloneness rather than just saying ‘its heart was ravaged by loneliness’. Like, evoke the emotion more than specifying it.
RB: Nice. Who would you say are the biggest influences on your poetry?
JC: I think drag queens are a huge influence on my poetry. It’s how they hold themselves and how they deliver lines and one-liners and stuff, I love all that – a bit of edge and sassiness inside the poetry. I love that kind of vibe. So drag queens would be a big influence, they give me some sort of inner power and inspiration. And also Anne Sexton, I think I mentioned her at the gig? There’s loads of YouTube videos of her reading her work and she’s almost like a Preacher/Pastor, the way she sounds. She’s daring and bold. And Jane Yeh. I like to build little poems that are kooky and I think she’s the master of doing that.
RB: Have you found it tough writing this year, or has the pandemic been a source of inspiration?
JC: Yeah, really, really tough. I kind of feel it’s like a year off, as such. With what’s going on in the world, I think we’re all following the News every night and just taking care of our basic needs: working, feeding ourselves, showering, watching the News and TV – rinse and repeat. Just those little things, consuming and minding ourselves, that’s what this year has been all about for me, and creativity takes more than that. You need more going on in your life than the basics. So I didn’t really write much at all this year.
RB: Do you feel being out and about in the world, interacting, that’s a big part of your inspiration?
JC: For sure, yeah. I’ve done The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and there’s these little quotes on the left-hand side of it; I’m not sure which writer said this but it was something like ‘If you want to work on your creativity, you need to work on your life.’ Like, a good life, a happy life: creativity will follow. That’s important to me. And the Artist’s Way, I believe what that has to say about things like artist’s states and things like that. But if I can’t go out, I can’t nourish that side of myself. So I’m kind of just holding up, and when this all blows over, I’ll take a big burst back into it. I think I need that.
RB: Any tips for handling writer’s block?
JC: I have broken through it at times. If you feel happy enough about what’s going on in your life, you feel able to write. Like if you feel connected and your needs are fulfilled, that’s when you’re ready to write and write well. Maybe some simple things to overcome writer’s block for me, would be just going out for a walk to clear your head. It’s the simplest thing but it’s kind of like a mind reset. I think there was one writer who used to wash his hair? I can’t do that! Maybe one of those little scalp massage things…
RB: That’s interesting, about just getting the basics right. It seems like so many writers throughout history have been quite tortured people, so I wonder if achieving happiness is necessary to write? But yeah, meeting your basic needs makes sense because you haven’t got the time or energy to think about writing when there’s no food in the cupboard.
JC: Yeah, as I was saying that I was thinking about the tortured artists, many of whom produced work while suffering. So maybe not… That’s just my take.
RB: I guess there’s no one cure-all for the writers! Damn.
It’s not a simple question to ask or answer in 2020, but…what projects/gigs have you got coming up next?
JC: I don’t really have any projects coming up, to be honest. Just waiting, I suppose, to move back to Cork in the next couple of months and tie back in with the writing community, hopefully that will all open back up again soon. Maybe, just for myself, to reconnect with writing, maybe just drop my excuses and find time to do it. Yeah, that might be my little plan.
RB: What’s the best way for people to get in touch for bookings, etc.?
JC: Instagram/Facebook. I’m easy to find, just search for Jim Crickard.
RB: Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to share with our readers?
JC: I don’t have much else to add. I hope you got a sense of my work and what I’m about. I hope everyone’s happy and surviving the lockdown.
Jim and Molly’s joint poetry chapbook is available to read online here: http://www.obheal.ie/TwinCities/spokenworlds/southernsyllables.pdf