Pat Boran was born in Portlaoise, Ireland, in 1963 and currently lives in Dublin. Prior to taking over the running of the press in 2005, he had published four collections of poetry with Dedalus: The Unwound Clock (1990), which won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, Familiar Things (1993), The Shape of Water (1996) and As the Hand, the Glove (2001). His New and Selected Poems (first published by Salt Publishing in 2005) was reissued, with minor revisions, by Dedalus in November 2007.
In addition to poetry he has published a collection of short stories, Strange Bedfellows (1991), and his short fiction title for children includes All the Way from China (1999), which was a finalist for the Bisto Book of the Year Award. His non-fiction titles include the writers’ handbook The Portable Creative Writing Workshop (1999/revised and expanded 2005) and A Short History of Dublin (2000). A former editor of Poetry Ireland Review and presenter of The Poetry Programme on RTÉ Radio 1, he has also edited Wingspan: A Dedalus Sampler (2006) and Flowing, Still: Irish Poets on Irish Poetry (Dedalus, 2009). In 2007 he was elected to the membership of Aosdána and in 2008 he received the Lawrence O'Shaughnessy Poetry Award of the University of St Thomas, St Paul, MN.
In a recent review of The Watchful Heart: A new generation of Irish Poets, Nessa O’ Mahony wrote: ‘Imagine my surprise to discover editor, publisher, anthologist and teacher Pat Boran as the first poet featured. Surprise mingled with pleasure of course; Boran’s lambent poetry has delighted me for a long time. Yet I have always seen him as a mentor of an earlier generation’.
O’ Mahony’s surprise is perhaps understandable. Though born only in 1963, to those active on the Irish poetry scene Pat Boran can seem almost to have been around forever. This is no doubt in part due to the multi-faceted nature of his contribution to Irish letters. For, as O’ Mahony notes above, Boran is a man of many talents.
This versatility is evident in Boran’s account of how he became almost accidentally involved in the administration of Poetry Ireland, the country's national poetry organisation. In an interview with Stinging Fly magazine he tells how “Poetry Ireland at the time was in 44 Upper Mount Street, in the basement and I got into the habit of dropping in there occasionally. I hadn’t much going on at the time. Before I decided what I was doing, I just started turning up there on a regular basis, and asking ‘Right, what has to be done?’ I did that for a year, maybe more, just went in, did bits of typing, or fixed up books. Again it was just a way to be involved. There was no great mission to it. I ended up doing a FÁS scheme there and after that I did about a year as part-time administrator”.
In the intervening years Boran has continued to involve himself in the business of literature. For nearly a decade he directed the Dublin Writers Festival. He is well known as a challenging and inspiring teacher of creative writing and has published a superb writers’ manual entitled The Portable Creative Writing Workshop. Between 2006 and 2008 he presented The Poetry Programme on RTÉ Radio 1 and has been a regular contributor to several other radio programmes. If all this wasn’t enough, since 2005 he has been publisher and editor of the Dedalus Press, one of Ireland’s leading poetry imprints.
However, it is important that these successes and activities not obscure Boran’s central achievement: the body of poetry he has published over the past two decades. Boran’s poetic journey began in Portlaoise in the Irish midlands, which he describes as “our once congested, now double by-passed town”. In his introduction to Boran’s New and Selected Poems, Dennis O’ Driscoll remarks on Portlaoise’s lack of literary glamour, suggesting that the town “would have been largely by-passed by literature too, were it not for the fidelity and clarity with which Pat Boran has portrayed it in his work”.
Boran’s excellent first collection, The Unwound Clock, does indeed see him at work as such a local chronicler. The focus on local characters evident in such fine poems as ‘The Immortal’, ‘Widow, Shopping in Portlaoise’ and ‘Homecoming’ might see him aligned with other gifted recorders of Irish small-town life; with the sprawling collage-works of Michael Coady and with the early short fiction of John McGahern.
Yet this early work is also marked by a tendency that can only be described as quasi-surrealistic. Boran’s realistic portraiture is mingled with visions that are by turns both eerily dreamlike and wittily nightmarish. Particularly memorable are the haunting ‘When you are moving into a new house’, the elemental ‘House of Shells’, and ‘Guitar’ with its dream-like freeze-frame street-scene that might be something out of Balthus.
In this regard it is impossible not to recount Boran’s initial and highly fortuitous encounter with East European poetry. As he describes the incident in that same Stinging Fly interview: “I remember as a kid at home in Portlaoise in my father’s Travel Agency, every spring the new holiday brochures would arrive. It was myself and my brother Michael’s job to stamp the name of the travel agency, AirBoran, on the back page of all the brochures. This particular spring the brochures came wrapped in the off-cuts of some book and there were poems by Miroslav Holub, and lots of people, lots of living people, with strange names from other countries, writing these very simple things. What I noticed was A) they were simple and B) they didn't seem to be overly concerned with form. They weren’t sonnets and they weren’t villanelles. They were built on something else.”
Dennis O’ Driscoll suggests that Boran owes to Holub one of his great strengths as a writer: “an objectivity which might be described as scientific; an ability to maintain a determined detachment from his subject matter”. Indeed it might not be altogether too lazy to suggest that Boran’s work as it developed through Familiar Things (1993) and The Shape of Water (1996) has a subtly pungent Eastern European tang. This is poetry marked by unadorned and often seemingly simple language, by the aforementioned moments of quasi-surrealism, above all by the icy objectivity O’ Driscoll so adroitly identifies as Holubian.
Boran emphasises the importance such impersonality plays in his aesthetic: “I'd always be suspicious of poems that have the word ‘I’ in them. Or poems that are based on something that actually happened: one day when I was a child X happened with my father or my mother. I think the real test for the writer comes after you've written the poem. Be yourself, don’t deny yourself, while writing the poem. But then try not to be yourself and read the poem as if the ‘I’ was someone else, or as if the ‘I’ was someone who didn’t exist, or might not exist. Does the poem still work? I don’t think the confessional thing is enough.”
Yet Boran’s most recent full collection As the Hand, the Glove (2001) sees him edge toward a more nakedly personal, if not straightforwardly confessional, approach to poem-making. Almost certainly the high point of his career thus far, this collection is lent a markedly elegiac tone by poems such as ‘For S with Aids’, ‘Afterlife’ and ‘A Box of Keys’. However, the old wit is still present, especially in ‘Milkmen’, ‘Am’ and other poems where the poet grapples with the ridiculously swift passage of time and the grim reality of growing older. The volume is particularly distinguished by several startlingly delicate elegies for the poet’s father. As Boran puts it: “It took a lot of fictions to give me enough freedom with the ‘I’ to be able to go back and write things that actually did happen, things that are almost factual. I couldn't have written them before.”
The new poems in Boran’s New and Selected (2005) ably cap rather than massively extend his achievement to date. Boran, it should be noted, is also a highly talented prose writer, having published and broadcast both short stories and fragments of autobiography along with pieces that seem to exist on the border between memoir and fiction. His next book, The Invisible Prison, is a prose autobiography focusing on his Portlaoise childhood and is forthcoming from Dedalus Press.
Pat Boran’s website
Interview with Pat Boran
New & Selected Poems (revised) Dedalus Press, Dublin 2007
Strange Bedfellows, Salmon Publishing, Galway 1991
The Invisible Prison, Dedalus Press 2009
The Portable Creative Writing Workshop (revised) Salmon Publishing 2005, Co. Clare.