A class act and an accidental poet
Colm Keegan is a straight talker, but he is still having a bit of trouble with the idea of being a poet, writes DAVIN O'DWYER
IT TOOK A long time before Colm Keegan became used to being called a poet. “I still don’t think of myself as a poet,” he says, a chuckle bubbling under his words. “When I started performing, I kept expecting somebody to stand up, point at me and say ‘He’s not a poet.’ The word comes with so much baggage.”
It’s a description Keegan has had to adjust to, particularly with the publication of his debut collection, Don’t Go There. He might not fit the cliched image of the poet, but the fresh-faced 36-year-old has been a prominent figure in Dublin’s live cultural scene for the past few years, impressing audiences with taut, frank poems that give powerful voice to the all-too-often ignored experiences of Dublin’s working class.
“There was plenty of material, a lot of stuff to draw on,” he says of his childhood. “I lived in Ballymun until I was five, then I moved to Tallaght, then Clondalkin, and my da lived in Crumlin, so I stayed with him a lot, and I also lived in the city centre for a while. I’ve been everywhere. You look at the city, out to the edge, it’s like the rings on a tree, with different histories and demographics. I’ve lived in them all.”
It was only in recent years, however, that Keegan channelled those experiences in poetry. “When I had the urge to be creative, I was a bit waylaid in my own life; I felt unfulfilled in my late 20s. I never went to college, never had a formal cultural education, and so I decided at that stage to be creative.”
He joined writers’ groups and at one creative-writing workshop he became friends with another writer, Stephen Kennedy, who invited Keegan to help him organise a monthly arts salon, Nighthawks. Amid the musicians and comedians, Keegan took the opportunity to regularly perform some of his poetry – the reaction was enthusiastic. Keegan cites his involvement in Nighthawks, and all the creative people he has befriended through it, as a key part of his development as a writer.
“I didn’t know the difference between working class and other classes until I was in this scene, and all of a sudden I was like a ‘raw talent’, and ‘gritty’, and ‘urban’,” he says, laughing again. “You mean I’m poor? That’s really what that’s all about. And ‘raw talent’ means uneducated. If I’d got an education, I’d be a ‘polished talent’.”
Is he concerned about being typecast as a working-class writer? “I wouldn’t worry about it as such. It’s inevitable, you know. I’m not a cliche, I’m not a stereotype. None of us are. I have to just do what I can do, and if it’s about where I’m coming from, that’s what I have to do, because it’s true.”
That dedication to writing the truth fills his writing with a rare sincerity, although giving voice to communities that normally don’t have an audience comes with its own responsibilities.
“This is why it’s called Don’t Go There, because there are parts of Dublin that are off-limits to other people,” he says. “It’s showing people places where they don’t necessarily go – this city doesn’t realise how segregated it is. And it also represents the way I write, taking a risk and going in a bit deeper than you might necessarily want to go.”
That sincerity and authenticity was also on display in Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About, a series of deeply personal monologues he co-wrote and starred in with two other Dublin performance poets, Stephen James Smith and Kalle Ryan. It premiered as part of the Dublin Fringe last year, was performed in the Project in April, and will travel to Kinsale Arts Week in July. After that, he insists, he’s going to focus once again on prose, working on short stories and a novel.
The self-proclaimed accidental poet appears slightly bemused by it all. “Publishing a book wasn’t the plan,” he says, smiling wide. “It’s all just part of the road I’m on, and I don’t know where it’s going.”
Don’t Go There is published by Salmon Press, €12
Fridays ('for Damien')
Youre wearing your
because it’s cold
and you have to go
across that road
the childhood road
you always picture
in the “quick quick
call John an ambulance” joke.
Skippy’s on but
you’re missing it
your ma had her reasons
but you’re blaming her.
She wouldn’t even bother
to walk you over.
In the time before phones
you stand and wait
in the pre-arranged
the empty space
the airlock between
the outside world
and the next life
inside the pub
for your Da
who’ll never turn up.