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Theo Dorgan: I had not thought to last this long. I propose to continue for as long as I can get away with it

Dorgan talks about his new collection, Once Was a Boy, turning 70 and the arts scene in Ireland

Tell me about your new collection, Once Was a Boy.

I promised myself as a boy, every day, “I will remember and speak of all this”.

The new book hopes to keep that promise. It tracks the child I was through his schooldays, through his awakening to the powers of language as an instrument of control (backed up by continuous low-level violence) and as a path to escape and freedom. It also, I hope, celebrates his joy in being alive, as that particular boy, in that particular beloved city.

How big an influence has Cork been on your life and work?

All pervasive; the city was and remains the matrix of my first mind.

You recently celebrated your 70th birthday. How does it feel?

Surprising, I had not thought to last this long. I propose to continue for as long as I can get away with it.

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Looking back on your career, how has your work evolved stylistically and thematically?

I’ve had a life in poetry, I don’t think of it as a career. I hope I have become clearer, more exact, more rigorous, that the work still feeds memory and the imagination.

You’ve edited many anthologies, made documentaries and worked on projects with musicians and visual artists. What stands out for you?

The Great Book of Ireland/Leabhar Mór na hÉireann, with Gene Lambert, was a gallant venture; working with Alan Gilsenan in film, with Colm Mac Con Iomaire in setting two long poems to music, with [the] wonderful ANU on Staging The Treaty – these are among many blessings I have enjoyed.

You’re married to fellow poet Paula Meehan. Has she influenced your poetry? And you hers?

I hope I have been as supportive of Paula’s distinctive work as she has been of mine. Each is the other’s first and most merciless reader. We are very different, of course, and we take great and constant pleasure in the differences.

You have an extensive track record in arts administration: literature officer in the Triskel Arts Centre; codirector of the Cork International Film Festival, 1984-1988; director of Poetry Ireland; on the boards of the Irish Writers Centre, Project Arts Centre and other ventures; the Arts Council 2003-2008. What are you most proud of?

Helping Robbie McDonald achieve his vision for Triskel, rescuing the Cork International Film Festival with Mick Hannigan, making Poetry Ireland /Éigse Éireann a hospitable house for all poets.

You presented two long-running literary programmes on RTÉ Radio and TV. How well served are we by arts programming today?

With the exception of TG4, RTÉ's Arena, Lyric FM and sporadic short series or one-offs, we get little more than gesture programming. We have a thriving and internationally-lauded cohort of poets, writers, visual artists, filmmakers, theatremakers and musicians in Ireland today. With the exception, perhaps, of musicians, we learn little of these artists and their work through indigenous radio and TV. The pity is that there are so many gifted and underused producers.

You’re a keen sailor and wrote about long voyages in Sailing for Home and Time on the Ocean. What’s the appeal?

The great salvific emptiness of the deep ocean. Coming through storms alive and laughing. I like long voyages – across the Atlantic, or Iceland to Dublin for instance – where time stretches out and all that matters, to you and to your fellow crew, is who you are right now, [and] whether or not you can be trusted, can trust yourself, to sail the boat.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Keep it clear, be hard on yourself, stick at it.

Who do you admire the most?

In my life – Paula Meehan, and my brothers and sisters, especially my courageous brother Pat, gold medal Special Olympian, the heart of our family. I am blessed with staunch friends, it would be invidious to single any one out – they know they have my gratitude and my admiration. In public life, I admire President [Michael D] Higgins for his articulate passion for justice, Catriona Crowe for her fearless devotion to the truth, Seamus Heaney for his exemplary modesty in bearing his great gift. I would add, all those who give selflessly in great work and small work to advance the public good.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

I would make it illegal to speak Irish in public, with on-the-spot fines. Obviously, being the crippled post-colonials that we are, everyone would immediately recover the Irish they thought they’d lost and flaunt it defiantly.

Which public event affected you most?

The signing of the Belfast Agreement.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

I’m keeping that quiet.

Your most treasured possession?

My life.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Doris Lessing, Robert Graves, Katerina Angelakhi Rook, Colm Tóibín, Ciaran Carson, Carol Ann Duffy.

What is your favourite quotation?

I have two: “All things considered, a determined soul will always manage” – Albert Camus. “The world is a blue bag, knock a squeeze out of it while you can” – The Tailor Buckley of Gougane Barra.

A book to make me laugh?

Anything by PG Wodehouse will always cheer anyone up.

A book that might move me to tears?

The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing – tears of frustration, sorrow, compassion and rage. Equally, and for the same reasons, I recommend Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two volumes, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned.