Previously described as “poetry’s answer to John B. Keane” by Books Ireland, Gabriel Fitzmaurice has just published Will You Be My Friend?, which he says may be his last collection for children. We recently caught up with Gabriel to chat about his latest collection and his career to date.
1. Hi Gabriel, thanks for taking time out of your schedule to chat to us. First of all why don’t you tell us a little about your latest collection, Will You Be My Friend? and the poems readers can look forward to discovering within?
Will You Be My Friend? is my latest – and very probably my last – book specifically written for the young and young at heart. It is a book of poems; serious and silly, happy and sad, naughty and nice that have been written over some 30 years with 26 new poems.
I have published many collections of poems for the young and young at heart in both English and Irish and Will You Be My Friend? is a collection of the very best of them.
2. Can you talk us through your selection process for the collection? How did you decide which poems to include?
In choosing the poems for Will You Be My Friend? I picked my favourite poems and poems that have proved favourites with children and their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins! I chose poems that work on the page and on the stage.
3. Do you have a favourite poem in the collection?
I have two children, John and Nessa, now grown up and two grandchildren, Katie (six-and-a-bit!) and her brother Paddy Crowley (2). I love them all. How could I possibly choose a favourite? It’s the same with my poems. I have written hundreds of them, some are better than others, but I love them all!
4. Did you always know you that you wanted to be a poet? Was it something you discovered at a young age?
I have always wanted to be a poet. As a kid I loved poems and stories and was always writing. When I was young there was no ‘creative writing’ in schools, no writers in schools scheme so we never saw a poet or writer.
The poems we learned in school were very good and respectable but they were all written by poets who were dead. Still, I loved writing poems and stories in my spare time. I loved reading – comics, ‘good’ books, anything I could lay my hands on. And when my first collection of poetry was published in 1984, I discovered, quite by accident, that my grandfather, Maurice Cunningham, my mother’s dad, had written poetry. So it was in my genes all along!
5. We know you worked as a teacher for many years, are any – or all – of the poems about teaching based on your own experiences?
I was a primary teacher for all my working life – I spent 35 years at the chalkface. I was inspired by the children I taught and wrote many poems about them and the things they said and did. But not all of my poems are about teaching. I was a very cross child and I wrote about that when I grew up to be a poet.
I also wrote about our two children, John and Nessa, who were brilliant subjects for poetry and didn’t mind being written about. I have also written a few poems about Katie and Paddy, our grandchildren, but I have exhausted my poem-hoard and that is the reason why Will You Be My Friend? is possibly the last such book I will write. But ‘never say never’, as the proverb goes. Who knows, I might be inspired to start writing for the young and young at heart again!
6. Some of your poems are about the death of a loved one, specifically a grandparent. Do you think it’s important that parents talk to children about death?
John and Nessa were very attached to their grandfather, Jack Fitzmaurice, my father, and Myra Downey, their grandmother, my wife’s mother. They had a very special relationship with them. Grandparents and their grandchildren go together hand in glove. When they died, we were all very sad but we have great memories of our times together.
It is hard to explain death to anyone, especially to a child. But it is a natural part of life. Pets die, people die. As Nessa used to say to me when I was out of sorts “Get over it, Dad!” and, yes, we do get over the death of our loved ones. They are gone but not forgotten. And it helps to talk and write about them from time to time.
7. Tell us about your creative process. In general, how long does it take you to work on a collection?
When I get an idea for a poem, words, lines or even whole verses are gifted to me. I write them down immediately because if I didn’t, I’d lose the whole poem.
I always carry a biro and a piece of paper with me and, when I get the inspiration, I drop everything and jot down the words that come to me. Then, later, I can come back and finish the poem. But that is not the end. That is only what we call the first draft and will need to be improved – a word here, a line there, until, in the end, I am satisfied with my work. This can take a long time. Days, weeks, months, sometimes even years. This doesn’t mean that I am working on a single poem for all that time. I put it away and come back to it from time to time.
Unfortunately, sometimes the poem doesn’t work out and I have to put it in the bin. Not a nice experience! So a collection of poems can take quite a long time – a couple of years at least.
8. What’s your favourite thing about being a published author?
It feels fantastic to be a published author! It’s what I always dreamed of. And it’s the same feeling with every new book I publish. Of course the elation is often accompanied by the niggling thought that, now that the book is published and I have used all my new poems, I will have to face the blank, white page again if I am to write another book. And that is scary. Very scary.
9. If you could offer one piece of advice to a budding poet what would it be?
Advice for young writers. Read, read, read. And write, write, write. Trust yourself and show your poems/stories to someone whose opinion you trust – a parent, grandparent, teacher, whatever.
Work hard. Like, I said, the first draft isn’t the completed poem. If there is a school magazine, good! If there isn’t, suggest it to your teachers. And keep on writing!
10. What’s next for you? Are you working on something new you can tell us about?
I have just completed a book of translations from the Irish of my favourite poems of Seán Ó Ríordáin, a poet I have loved since I studied his poetry in secondary school. It is due from Liberties Press next year.
And I am working on a book of religious/spiritual poems which will be illustrated by my wife who is a fine artist and which we hope will be launched as a book and exhibition of paintings at Listowel Writers’ Week in 2018. That’s enough to keep my going for now!
A former primary school teacher from Co.Kerry, Gabriel Fitzmaurice is the author of more than 50 books, including collections of poetry in English and Irish, as well as several collections of verse for children. He has translated extensively from Irish and has edited a number of anthologies of poetry. One of Ireland’s best-selling children’s poets, Gabriel Fitzmaurice’s latest book, Will You Be My Friend? is published by Liberties Press and is available now!