Monday, 19 May 2014

Author Interview #4: Billy Ramsell

Posted By Daisy

THE LAST TIME I met Billy Ramsell, he was searching for a waistcoat. Having been invited to appear at Cuirt International Festival of Literature in Galway, he had decided that an event of this calibre warranted a three piece suit.
‘While my girlfriend was living in Galway, we used to drink in Naughton's pub on Quay Street. There are many fine posters on the wall there, including posters of previous Cuirt festivals and some of them are signed by the authors who had participated in the festival that year. I was thinking that I’d love someday to read at the festival and never really thought it would happen. This year I got the call and it was really exciting,’ says Ramsell.
‘Cúirt was a whirlwind of literature and sociability. The readings and discussions were varied, exhilarating and  uniformly well-attended; it’s great to see the affection with which the city embraces the festival,’ says the poet, who also recently spoke at the Over the Edge Writers gathering in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, probably ‘one of the best places to browse in all of Ireland’.

Since he started writing poetry almost by accident nearly 15 years ago (he was bored in Barcelona and gave it a whirl), Ramsell has been widely published in literary journals, held the Chair of Ireland Bursary for 2013, taught poetry in Sierra Nevada College on the shores of Lake Tahoe, continued co-running an educational publishing company (Forum Publications), and recently published his second poetry collection 'The Architect’s Dream of Winter.'

From 'Breath' in 'Complicated Pleasures'
And while women, love and romance feature heavily in his first collection 'Complicated Pleasures', Ramsell focuses in some part on technology and its infiltration of our lives in his new book.

Available from

'The first book, and if this sounds pretentious now you can just smack me if you like, was very much a lovers book- a young romantic fool trying to understand women and the world and failing. And the second book is a much more philosophical effort, a self-conscious effort to understand human nature and the human condition. So there's perhaps a little less direct romance in it,' he says.

In his new collection, he writes about waitresses and rock festivals, Coronation Street (he compares himself to Ken Barlow), the gentle lament of unconceived children who don't exist because of a 'caught train' or 'a hesitation', and one of my favourite poems 'Half Time', about a group of bored Greek Gods watching a hurling match in a shabby sitting room.

But it's 'The Silence Bar' that I'm still thinking about (and creating more entries in my mind for) long after I close the book.

A taster to whet the appetite from 'The Silence Bar'

'I got the idea in a hotel while looking at the wine list there. There were all these high falutin descriptions of the different vintages on offer and I started thinking about the different flavours of silence. Even in the most silent places, you can still hear a heart beating and the nervous system going,’ says Ramsell.

He often lets poems ferment for a while before polishing and publishing them, and usually spends about three months writing each poem.

'I tend to have ideas in a queue for a while before I get around to them. I used to be able to work on three or four ideas at a time but I can't do it anymore.'

From 'Half Time'

And while many poets look backwards to their families for inspiration, Ramsell is adamant that he has no interest in this trend.

'I'm lucky that my parents are alive thank god. And I think that most people tend to write about family when their parents pass away, and also when they have kids themselves. My family is of average f****d-uppedness for an Irish family, so it's relatively normal. There's no perfect family out there and it's not something I'm really interested in exploring,' he says.

'A lot of Irish poetry is saturated with family poems. So you find younger male poets avoiding that stuff and saying I'm never going to be that sentimental fool who writes about his dad and grandad or whatever- and then all of a sudden they find themselves changing their tune in later years. So perhaps I'm one of them, although it might be more important later in life.'

Ramsell's native city of Cork also serves as an important backdrop to many of his poems.

'Jazz Weekend' has 5 verses - 'Friday, The Long Valley', 'Saturday, The Metropole Hotel', 'Sunday, The Ivory Tower', 'Monday, the Triskel Arts Centre', and 'Tuesday, River Lane'.

And while he is not afraid to show the unattractive side of the city (in 'Hanover Street' from his first collection, there is 'vodka sobbing' and 'girls squatting and vomiting in the alleys behind the night club'), Ramsell is inspired by, admires and contributes to the city's vibrant literary scene.

‘I do by and large find Cork an inspirational city. Our provinciality is a reality, but that said I would argue that Cork punches above its weight culturally,' says the poet, who organises the O Bheal weekly open mike poetry sessions, as well as holding the annual Winter Warmer weekend of poetry festival.

As I walk back through the city streets, I spy Ramsell's photo printed on a North Main Street hoarding, and a man in Waterstones quotes poetry at me as I buy 'The Architect's Dream of Winter' - and spend a week thinking about the nature of the early morning tube silence.

'A silence that's punctuated only by coughs and the click of thumbs furiously cranking up iPhone volumes as yet more commuters board and the atmosphere shrinks a little more, and strangers forced into standing back to back gently transfer sweat to one another in the airless heat.'

Probably not a silence anyone would want to relive at leisure though.

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