“Just the Right Amount of Detail” – Interview with Billy Ramsell

Billy Ramsel, at “Dissensus”, Literaruy Machine Festival, photo by Sara Kecman

Billy Ramsell was born in Cork in 1977 and educated at the North Monastery and UCC. He has published two collections with Dedalus Press, Complicated Pleasures in 2007 and The Architect’s Dream of Winter in 2013, which was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award and was recently published in Italian translation. He was awarded the Chair of Ireland Bursary for 2013 and the Poetry Ireland Residency Bursary for 2015. He has been invited to read his work at many festivals and literary events around the world. He lives in Cork where he co-runs an educational publishing company. 

For Rizom, conversation was led by Stefan Đurđević.


Rizom: You are the editor at an educational publishing house. Can you tell me more about that and also your previous experience with editors? What is it like to be on both sides, as a writer and as an editor?

Billy Ramsell: Yeah, the educational publishing company that I co-run. It strikes a separate note to the literature because it’s a commercial enterprise and it’s just about creating textbooks that would be useful for young people in the 18, maybe 15- to 18-year-old age range. So editing for that audience, editing for that media is very much focused on outcomes. You know, what kind of outcomes will bring these children, or these young adults, success in the exams that they’re doing, their state exams. I don’t want to say it’s unartistic, because it is a creative endeavor as well. There is a creative component to it, but that’s very much secondary to the commercial imperatives that guide one’s decisions in that regard. Now, I’ve done editing for various journals and magazines in Ireland as well, literary magazines, literary periodicals. And that, of course, is a very different endeavor where you’re trying to find exciting work, work that hasn’t been seen before and bring it to an audience. Yes. Regarding my own experience with editors, like I’ve been lucky. I’ve published two books of poetry with a very good press and a very good editor. He was a very supportive figure and wrote both of those processes for both books. In the first one, he was more interventionist in terms of suggesting changes to the text of the book as a whole and to individual poems within it. The second book I did with him, he was less interventionist and I guess, hopefully, because he liked the work more and felt it needed less alteration.


R: Yesterday you read a poem that was not written from your point of view, Dusk and Tomatos. What is it like to think as another person? And also, that poem, like some others, has a rich poetic imagery. How do you, if I may say, ‘paint’ these images?

BR: Oh, thank you. Okay. So, the first question, writing from another point of view. Some years ago, when I embarked on my third book of poetry, which is not finished yet. In fact, I’ve been working on it here in Novi Sad in various cafes around town. I hadn’t intended to focus on writing while I was here, but perhaps for writers and poets, being in a new city and just being in the streets and experiencing different smells and different sounds brings one to take out one’s pen, you know? And when I began it some years ago, I came up with this idea that it would be all written from the point of view of  someone who is not me, specifically a Catalan poet who has lived his whole life in the city of Barcelona. So, I’ve been writing in that voice off-and-on for a number of years and the character has become kind of real to me. And like I’m aware of many different aspects of his life and personality. Hopefully that comes across in the text. So, to some extent choosing a voice like that for me was very helpful as a trigger to create inspiration maybe, and as an anchor or a hook upon which to weave a number of poems together. And so, perhaps writing as somebody else also liberates your imagination to go to places I would not go if you were speaking as your true self. In terms of visualization and imagery in poetry, which you very kindly mention there: perhaps the crucial thing is to have just the right amount of detail. From too much it will burden the text and make it unwieldy, so it can’t take flight and too little will leave it bare. So, if you’re in that visual mode where you want to create a picture, and not every poem has to be that, of course, but sometimes you are, and you’re aiming, you’re striving for such a product. Well. Having just the right amount of detail I think is key.

Billy Ramsell, at “Collective reading”, Literary Machine Festvial, photo by Sara Kecman

R: You published your first book in 2007. What is the situation now for young and new poets in Ireland? Is it more difficult for them to publish?

BR: No, I would say it’s good actually. I think there are more avenues and outlets now than there were a number of years ago, which is positive. So, it’s good. I’m not saying it’s perfect, and I’m sure a lot of people are still struggling to publish where they want. There is a flourishing of options. It is relatively healthy, and I think to be a young poet now, or a margin poet now is definitely better than it was in 1980 or 1990, even 2000.

R: Last night you read a poem in Gaelic, and while reading you were standing. Is there a big difference for you when you read in English and in Gaelic? Can you tell me what are they?

BR: Yes. Well, for me, Irish/Gaelic is a second language because it’s not necessarily my mother tongue. I’ve been speaking it at school, you know, in some capacity, since I was four or five years old, but I still wasn’t raised in an Irish speaking household or an Irish speaking part of the country, or an Irish speaking district or region. So, I was brought up with the English language, and Irish was just in the back room as a sort of a state, institutional thing or something you did at school. And it was only in more recent years that I have acquired it to be reasonably fluent. So, for me, for one thing, it’s something of a second language. Like yesterday, Mariagiorgia was doing the whole interview in English, which is a second language for her, which is, you know, you have to say hats off to her for being so articulate and eloquent in it, a language that is not her mother tongue. So, for me, when I’m reading in Irish, for one, it’s a second language. So, just as you are speaking a second language now, that introduces certain challenges and you have to concentrate in a different way. So perhaps that’s part of the reason for standing up. The other reason is I wanted to up my energy, which I think we often get when we’re standing. And the reason I wanted to up my energy in that fashion was to emphasize the musicality of the language for an audience in Serbia that might not have heard it before.

R: What are your views on tradition and modernity, or better yet, technology? What did literature gain through it and what had it lost?

BR: Oh, what a question. Well. Tradition. Maybe because I’m getting older now, I kind of like tradition. When you’re younger, you think, ‘Oh, f**k that’. (laugh) You know, you just want to overthrow all the tradition and to a greater or lesser extent, you see the tension against the senior writers and poets who occupied the plateau at the top. To answer the second part of your question. The advent of technology, specifically the Internet has dissolved so many previously existing national boundaries, so younger poets and even older poets are absorbing influences from all around the world in a more fluid and liquid way than ever before. And this, well, it’s good in a way, isn’t it? Because you’ve got all this to draw on, so many different influences and styles that one can learn from and absorb. And yet there is a downside as well that it dissolves the concept of a national tradition. So, for instance, the poets in Scotland were doing one thing, the poets in Canada were doing another thing. The poets in New Zealand were doing yet another thing, and the poets in Ireland were doing something else. Now, because there’s so much back and forth, everything kind of ends up something similar. That’s a danger, I think. So, there is positivity and negativity associated with this change, in my opinion.

R: Is there a way to exclude the political in writing? Should we even try separating it from poetry?

BR: Is there a way to exclude the political? It’s always there, isn’t it, in some capacity. So perhaps it’s like an ambient texture that can never be fully dismissed because even by choosing not to do something in a way that is still a choice. And yet, you can bring it to the fore to varying extents or let it recede into the background to varying extents, this political animus. I mean, some very, very bad poems are political poems because it’s hard to do it well, it’s hard to write. I mean, when I say political poems like protest poems or poems that respond to the current moment or particular events that are happening in the political sphere. To serve both poetry and politics at the same time. To write a poem that is a good poem, but that also responds adequately or in a very definite foregrounded way to political events, to do both of those things at the same time is really, really hard, I think. Would you agree? I can think of some poets and poems that do it, that succeed in pulling off that double act, serving those two masters at once, if you will. But there aren’t too many that come to mind.

Mariagiorgia Ulbar and Billy Ramsell, at “Dissensus”, photo by Sara Kecman

R: When you recited your poems a couple of days ago it sounded very rhythmic, even though the rhyme was not always included. On the other hand, when you heard it in Serbian, how did it sound to you? Is there a difference that can be overstepped?

BR: Well, it was amazing to hear it in Serbian. I mean, when we were in Zenit Bookshop on Tuesday, it was quite emotional, actually, to hear the text in Serbian. And I was speaking to our Austrian colleagues about this as well, that there are moments when you think you can understand Serbian because you lock on to a certain stanza or a passage in the poem, so you know what it means. And then you’re hearing the Serbian, ‘Oh, yeah, of course. Yeah’. And then other passages seem very alien and like, the rhythm or the flaw that’s in the original, isn’t there. So, it comes and goes. There are moments where you detect in Stevan’s translation the music of the original, and there are times that you don’t. But that’s a translation. That’s poetry. I mean, I translate poetry myself from other languages and into English, and you approximate. So, there are certain passages and certain lines where the music of the original is a ghostly presence, and there are certain lines where you’d like to think it’s a more concrete presence, and there are certain lines where, unfortunately, it can’t be there at all.

R: For the end, I would like to ask about sports and poetry/singing. Since the sport is often seen as a place where fans can express their emotions, they mostly do it through singing. Is there a connection between expressing yourself through poetry and through singing as a sports fan in a game or in a pub?

BR: What a question! Well, firstly, while I think about the answer, I’ll work my way up to the answer if I can. So, I like sport and I like poetry. Not everybody likes both of those things. Perhaps, a lot of people who like sport don’t like poetry, and a lot of people who like poetry don’t like sport, or they choose not to. So, there’s a big match tonight between Serbia and Brazil, but it’s probably a different audience to the audience that will be here. Now, I mean, there are some people actually from the Literary Machine who are very excited about the match. So, I don’t know. They are two overlapping worlds. Okay. So, I think I’ve got an answer: the songs and chants you hear at football matches or rugby matches or any sport for the sports we play in Ireland, Gaelic games. They’re kind of poems, aren’t they? You know, they’re kind of rhymes. Sometimes they’re songs, like people might sing a national anthem or something, a national song or a song associated with a club. But very often they’re more chanting, kind of rhythmic, and repetitive. Kind of rants or pulses that have a strange poetic quality to them. They rhyme. They’re almost written in meter or stanzaic forms. Yes, it’s a form of poetry. That’s my opinion.

Billy Ramsell, at “Collective reading”, Literary Machine Festvial, photo by Sara Kecman

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