Arts

Frank Ormsby: I would hate to be remembered as the poet with Parkinson's

Having recently been honoured at the BBC Proms in the Park concert in his home county of Fermanagh, poet Frank Ormsby has just published a new collection, The Darkness of Snow. Although it contains some poems about having Parkinson's disease, he does not want to be known as ‘the Parkinson's poet', he tells Joanne Sweeney

Poet Frank Ormsby amid his books and with a painting of his younger self in the background at his home in Belfast Picture: Ann McManus

FRANK Ormsby does not want to be known as the 'Parkinson's poet', though, of all the poems in his new collection The Darkness of Snow, he's had the biggest response to those about his condition.

He says Parkinson's has neither slowed his writing nor sapped his creativity over the last few years. In fact, the 70-year-old says he has been experiencing the most prolific period of his career, after he was diagnosed with the condition over seven years ago.

Formerly editor of The Honest Ulsterman, from 1969 to 1989, and also of the Poetry Ireland Review, the Enniskillen native is surrounded by nearly 4,000 alphabetised books of poetry or about poets on bookshelves which line his work study in his north Belfast home.

"I cannot live without books," he simply says of his collection.

He's still in the promotion phase following the launch The Darkness of Snow last week at the Ulster Museum, where he was introduced by his friend of 30 years, fellow Belfast poet Michael Longley.

Ormsby wants his new collection from to 'breathe' for a time, as it resonates with readers, but he has another collection ready to go, apart from a final selecting of which poems to include and which to jettison.

"It used to take me nine years to do a book," he tells me as we chat in the wonderful kitchen/conservatory decorated by his wife Karen, head of English at Mercy College secondary school in north Belfast.

"The book has just come out, which is a large collection as poetry books go, two years after the last one, and the next one is ready."

Describing this as "by far the most prolific period of my life", the poet, himself a former head of english at Inst, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, muses: "It may be a sort of delayed reaction to retirement."

He retired in 2010, after 39 years teaching.

"Another possibility is that it might owe something to the medication that I'm on. Among the side-effects is obsessiveness and I think that I have written obsessively over the last couple of years. I would think of nothing at all of working for six hours on a poem without lifting my head and then I would leave the notebook open on my study desk overnight so I can start again at 9am the next morning. It seems to me that there's a far greater intensity in my approach to writing than there was before.

"I've been very lucky; although [Parkinson's] is a deteriorating type of condition, that's my main tremor hand," he says, showing me his left hand which barely shakes. "And if I get a bit excited watching football on TV, then I might start a bit then too," he adds, without any hint of self-pity.

The Darkness of Snow is a Poetry Society recommendation; Ormsby's other accolades include a Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the University of St Thomas at St Paul, Minnesota, and a Cultural Traditions Award given in memory of John Hewitt.

The section of poems about his Parkinson’s is full of dark humour, anger, and questions and clues of how it might affect him in the future. In the poems Hallucinations (1), (2) and (3) he writes of the side-effects of his medication.

In Agitans, he writes, with wryness: 'My left arm is jealous of my right, the one without a tremor'.

"I think that's really the only way you can treat it – what's the alternative?" he says. "To wake up in a cold sweat every day, expecting to die? I don't think so. But I would hate to be remembered as the poet with Parkinson's."

He writes in The Later Stages (2), of mourning the loss of being able to do simple tasks such as buttoning a shirt: 'Assuming I'm alive, expect an outburst/once a year at least, a tantrum at seventy, a rant at seventy-five.'

"Each collection begins with poem set in Co Fermanagh, where I grew up, and they are very sensuous in the sense that I seem to be able to recover the sights, sounds, smells of life then. From that point of view, I think the sensuous quality of the poetry has increased considerably," he says.

"And a number of people have commented on how expansive the work has become and I agree with that up to a point. But the opposite is actually true as I write short poems in a way that I never did before.

“I blame Michael Longley for this as he's one of the masters of short poem. I love oriental poetry like the Japanese haiku and short resonant poems have always appealed to me."

The collection also contains poems on his joy of walking in the Waterworks park and several on his friends and fellow poets Longley and Ciaran Carson.

While he and Longley still regularly meet to catch up in the Crown Bar, the number of pints downed has decreased due to them both being diabetics now.

"If I made a list of the debts that I owe Michael Longley it would take several sheets of paper, I can tell you," he says.

He, Carson, Longley, Paul Muldoon and James Simmonds were greatly helped by a young Seamus Heaney in their early writing careers as students at Queen's University. He has two short poems on Heaney's death in 2013, At the Graveside and Visiting the Grave. A third is likely to be added and included in his next collection.

Was it hard to write about Heaney?

"Yes of course it was, as Heaney happened to be a bleeding genius at elegies which makes it all the more difficult."

Ormsby was recently guest of honour at the BBC Proms in the Park event at Castle Coole when fellow Fermanagh man, actor and director Adrian Dunbar read out his poems On Devenish Island and News from Home from his 2015 Bloodaxe retrospective Goat’s Milk: New & Selected Poems. The reading was accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra and harpist Richard Allen in a specially commissioned work by Graeme Stewart.

He will be reading from his new collection at a Literary Lunchtime event (1pm - 3.15pm) at the John O'Connor Literary Festival at the Charlemount Arms, Armagh on Saturday, November 5 with music and song from Belfast songwriter Anthony Toner. Also next month, he is to be featured in a Radio 4 programme in a profile by presenter Marie-Louise Muir.

:: The Darkness of Snow by Frank Ormsby is published by Bloodaxe Books (£9.99).

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