Speech at AWB Vincent Award Ceremony

My last book, Profit and Loss, contained a poem written partly in response to the financial crisis of 2008, and when it was nominated for a poetry award from which two of the other contenders withdrew because the award ceremony was sponsored by a hedge fund company, I was asked, on an radio arts programme, what I thought about this: should poets oppose the existing economic system, especially where there has been greed, excesses and mismanagement of that system?

I said that I thought I’d already had answered this by writing about it (this was when I thought the journalists always read the books) – but more generally, that poetry, and literature, was always set against a system in which there was a quick or cynical financial incentive. That I believed – and I believe – that writers, in setting themselves formal challenges, takes risks. They have to keep going against the odds, not knowing if it will all necessarily pay off in terms of a successful work. They have an idea, and have to follow it blindly, even slavishly. And in writing in this way, with an eye to telling some half-apprehended truth in a new way, writers are thus probably hard bosses on themselves, paying below minimum wage – and certainly forcing themselves to keep unreasonably long hours. Poetry, as Seamus Heaney wrote, is self-governing, and written out of out of fidelity to our consciences or higher poetic selves. And if poetry (and I was warming to my theme now) is done in response to our better selves, or at least our less rational selves, then in this way it is like other things we do not for profit, but for love.

This was something I was acutely aware of writing my last book, when my father was dying of Alzheimer’s disease and I had a baby daughter. But if love is hard work, there is a different system of reward here. Writing – poems in particular– sometime feels incredibly insubstantial, hard to weigh up in black and white, or in terms of concrete value. But this very intangibility is also what makes it free, honest and important. For if it can’t be written, or written well, for money, or even as part of one’s job, but is done out of sheer dedicated, irrational love – then this sets it apart in a world where it sometimes feels like everything is for sale.

… but let me qualify that now by saying how very grateful I am for this most generous reward. I am so honored to receive the AWB Vincent Award for 2014. I am honoured in light of its illustrious list of previous winners: many of these writers, poets and novelists, Irish men and women, are heroes and inspirations to me. I have already mentioned Seamus Heaney, but there are so many more. I would like sincerely to thank the American Ireland Fund, some of whom I’ve met tonight: Loretta Glucksman, fellow Co Down-person Maurice Hayes – you have been generous to me in the past, but I really can’t tell you moved and pleased I was to receive, out of the blue, the news of this award. If only all emails contained such good news, and all literary windfalls were delivered with such grace. Like, I’m sure, so many Irish writers supported by the American Ireland fund, I felt as though I had discovered some transatlantic family relations I hadn’t known about, but who, it turned out, were keeping a close eye on me all the time.

I’d like finally to thank my actual family, which is, like so many, transatlantic as well as cross-border. I have stayed in Northern Ireland, because here you always got to feel as though you are in a couple of places at once – and in the last ten years it has become somewhere new and different again. So thanks to my lovely brother Colm and family in Seattle. To the entity I sometimes refer to as ‘my sister’, though in fact there are three of them: who knew we’d be allowed to do the things we are doing? Thank you for making up the rules as you go along, Aine, Maire and Una. I’d like to thank Philip, for putting up with my constant efforts to revive the outmoded concept of the tortured writer. Thanks. And I’d also like to thank my friends, old –mostly – and a few new.

And thank you finally to my mother, who isn’t here tonight. She remains my greatest teacher, certainly my most inescapable. A woman who would deserve the description ‘formidable’, if she was wasn’t so very small – and so very kind. She isn’t here tonight because she is babysitting my other greatest teacher – my daughter.
Thank you for making them so proud of me.