The best-selling and acclaimed Irish novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet Colm Tóibín has released his debut poetry collection Vinegar Hill (2022), published by Beacon Press. Tóibín has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize and has won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for his novel The Master (2004). Tóibín is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. He is currently the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. Tóibín is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a vice president of the Royal Society of Literature.
Poets.org: You began writing poetry early. What do you think initially drew you to the form?
Colm Tóibín: I began first at the age of twelve in the family house. It was September 1967. My father had died in the summer. In our family, from the age of twelve, you were meant to study every evening, go into the front room and be alone. I started to write poems. It just happened. I did one and then I did more. I continued until I was twenty and then I stopped. Compared to others who were writing poetry when I was at university, I was not good. My stopping was no great loss.
Poets.org: Having published numerous works in every literary genre, why did you decide to release your first collection of verse so late in your career?
CT: When I finished The Master in 2003–2004, I had nothing to write, no new novel. In the months after the book went to press, I wrote my first short story in twenty-five years (the earlier ones had not been successful) and my first poems in almost thirty years. The poems were short, most of them, and underwent a great deal of revision. Fifteen years later, I had about twenty-five poems in a file. Then, with steroids that I was taking while undergoing chemotherapy, I wrote two new poems that seemed stronger than the others. I sent these two to Poetry Ireland Review and they accepted them. The poet John McAuliffe, who is an editor at Carcanet, saw them and asked me if I had more. He said he liked the earlier poems. Maybe all I needed was some encouragement. As soon as the pandemic began, I devoted most of my time to poems. And that was how the book came about.
Poets.org: For a recent profile in The New Yorker, you mentioned that the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed you more time to write. You composed this book of verse and your latest novel simultaneously. You noted, too, in that interview that you don’t do much rewriting on your novels. What was your writing process like for this book?
CT: In the pandemic, I was revising the novel The Magician, but mainly making cuts and adding small sections. In the novels, I don’t labor over every sentence. If it doesn’t come right, then there is something wrong with the way I am imagining. I try and get a sort of flow or easy rhythm with the prose. With the poems, the most important thing was I keep no record. With fiction, I generally write in longhand and type later. I keep every draft. With poems, I only type on a laptop. If I don’t like a line, I erase it. Or I add something. I am always hoping for a finished poem. It is as though I am painting. Then, an hour later, I read the poem again, find it is still unfinished, and I go back into action, cutting and adding. I do not save drafts. If a line or a stanza goes, then it’s gone. And that adds to the excitement, the immediacy. This could go on for two or three days. Going back every hour.
Poets.org: Are there any poems on poets.org that you’ve enjoyed?
CT: The poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt. And recently, Sharon Olds’s “Not Once.” And “Big Clock” by Li-Young Lee.