This is a ballsy poem. From the beginning, Adam White grabs our attention in the forthright manner that a labourer might grab a nail. The title itself is like a spark that sets it off on a whirlwind journey, and the tone throughout keeps us on the edge of our seats. Yet, there’s enough variety to save it from becoming monotonous.
Who could’ve guessed that hammering a nail could provide so much material, enough for a poem of 32 lines? Only someone who works in the industry could go into such fetish-like detail. It’s not just a poem for nail-trainspotters, though. The skill of a poet is in his/her ability to draw a non-believer into a new world of belief and wonder. And that’s what the poet does here.
“Strike!” marries the physical with the abstract, sketching a portrait of the psychology behind a labourer’s art, as in phrases like “trusting superstition/ before your own science”. It’s a poem of experience, of one person’s familiarity with an object, an act. Then again, the last phrase is “an age-old friend”, taking it away from the sense of an object. Maybe it’s a love poem at heart. We all fall in love with those little acts that leave us with a great sense of satisfaction, whether it be hammering a nail, writing a poem or something else.
Be careful how you start and strike a nail;
if it stands shallow in the wood’s grain
the shock of an inaccurate hammer
could leave it on its back, frolicking down off a roof.
And to land, but not land dead square despite intent,
to not lend a brave pinch that might keep it there
whatever the outcome of course metals meeting,
is like to propel it out left or right or head on,
severing air with a snipping sound.
Then you’re a nail less and this changes everything.
Admittedly some heads are known to be difficult.
You’ve bitty brads for the boards of a floor,
others are shaped oval like sailors’ caps
and hard to catch because of that.
Tales of ill fortune after a hammer’s
smashing out sparks first touch even led men to trust they had
it in them to brand a house as bound to burn down.
Doubtless such talk’d set a wee tremble
in your hold on things when staring down a target.
You’d just as soon give it a playful tap
or two, go on trusting superstition
before your own science.
But I’ve seen some nails four inches long
pounded in in an act, wire heads kicked in
as if a horse’s shoe had done the job,
wood blunt-thump bruised with the brunt
of an anvil-heavy hammer’s head
in a blow and peppered rust to mark the spot.
I know that sort of thing’s uncommon,
the fruit of a life perfecting the gesture.
So what begins as handling a means to an end
becomes shaking the hand of an age-old friend.
(from Accurate Measurements, published by Doire Press, available here)
I am from Youghal, in east Cork, but have been living in France since 2010 with Karine and our son Gael (well, Gael didn't show up until summer 2014). I worked in the building trade for a while, eventually serving my time as a carpenter, and did a lot of roofing in Brittany. Now I teach English. My collection Accurate Measurements was published by Doire Press in 2013 and shortlisted for the Forward prize for best first collection. The difficult second album is due out in the spring of 2016.
This is a poem of potential energy, it seems to me. I suppose its title invites the reader to imagine the nail being struck, but we are held, suspended, in that moment before action, teased out in great detail. There is something of this potential energy in other poems contained in your collection Accurate Measurements, published by Doire Press. Particularly, I'm thinking of your poems about fishing and your poem about a dam, as well as those about manual labour. How would you describe the relationship between energy and your writing (or writing in general)?
Could you tell us a little about the importance of verbs in poetry? Your poem shows evidence of careful "verbing", so to speak (especially "frolicking", "lend", "severing" and "set"). Are verbs an element of language that you pay particular attention to? Do you focus on them, or any other element, when writing second drafts?
I feel like answering these two questions at once. I would have thought, very simply, that there must be energy in a poem. I heard someone once say that a good poem is like an espresso – small and full of energy. We were talking about lyrics more than narrative poetry, obviously enough. Short poems of that type, snatches of things suddenly remembered, should pack a punch the way a memory can move, or disturb, you. The poetry I like tells a story, but has something more to it than other forms that do this, like a short story, for example, in that there's not just something happening behind the ink, but in the ink, where the words we use have been fully charged, or recharged, let's say.
I suppose the thing about the verbs in a poem is that, in them, you not only see what someone's doing, but how they're doing it. You get a picture, but it’s a moving picture. In the poem you mentioned, for instance, you can see someone holding a nail, “lend[ing] a brave pinch”, as it goes, but you see, maybe, that it’s a guy reaching out to hold the nail and sort of pulling away at the same time, doing what’s required of him a little reluctantly, doing the job, but not being that confident, or experienced, in it. I’d say you cannot but pay particular attention to the verbs in a poem.
There's an unexpected rhyme at the end of the poem, considering the lack of rhyme before it. Was this planned or did it just come about incidentally? What are your thoughts on rhyme in general, and particularly in your own work?
Besides a rhyme being a neat, tidy way to finish the poem, to finish it on a nice note, we'll say, there was no intention there, no.
As for rhyming in poetry, I definitely have a thing for it. One could ask why rhyme? I suppose it's because poetry is, after all, primarily about the sound of what you're saying. Wasn't it Robert Frost that said the fun is in the way you say a thing? Otherwise you'd just write prose, like an essay, or something, if what was important was what you were saying. He also said that writing poems that don't rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down. I mean, if you love the sounds that words make, why wouldn't you dabble in rhyme, have fun playing words, or the ends of words, off each other?
As with this poem, your first collection brims with explorations of manual labour. Are there other writers who examine certain subjects at length that you particularly admire? As regards two common pieces of advice for writers - "write what you know" and "go beyond your comfort zone" – which do you feel is most useful?
Hard to say. I have always felt that you only write the poems you can write. I was asked at a reading once about the manual labour poems, about how far I could, or intended to, go with that material. I didn't really know what to say at the time, but now know that it's not really about intention, but more the way you see the world, which impresses itself on your writing, and has probably got something to do with the way you grew up and first experienced the world (a "first impressions last" kind of a thing). Most of my family work, or worked, in the building trade, and I did, too, and loved it. It's a big part of my life, so when I write I think of the world, and am very often drawn to the same images.
As regards other poets and the subjects they go back to again and again, I admire everything Heaney has written about life on the farm. Then there's Hughes's fishing poems. I love trees, so go back myself again and again to many of Frost's poems.
Why do you write?
Firstly because I love making things. I need creativity in my life, whether that be working with wood, doing odd jobs around the garden or writing. If I go without it for a while I start to miss it, and get restless, so it's an absolute necessity.
Secondly, when I see something done, and I like it, I have to have a go at doing it myself, want to learn how it's done, to be in the know. This was the case with many, many things, like cooking, baking, woodwork, gardening/growing things, playing the guitar, teaching and, as soon as I really started to read, writing.
Then there's the pleasure of being on your own for a few hours in a room with a pen and paper, the silence and meditation that is just a lovely way of passing the time.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer of poetry, what would it be?
My advice would be read poetry.