IN his sixtieth year, and in the midst of his retirement, John Rodgers embarked on an ambitious adventure.
In 2017, he started a a course for an MA in creative writing at UCC, and undertook to commute to Leeside two days a week, all the way from his home in the picturesque town of Rostrevor, just outside Newry in Northern Ireland.
Then, in February, 2018, John was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, six months after beginning his studies. Sadly, he died just four months later.
Now, in his memory, his son, Fionnbharr, is releasing a book of his father’s treasured poems and essays, called Deadlines, which will be launched in John’s home town, as part of the Rostrevor Literary Festival, this Saturday, November 23.
Some of the poems were written by John while he was being treated in his final weeks in the Mercy Hospital in Cork.
John was born in 1957 and raised in Newry. As a young man, he moved to Kilburn, London, and worked as a chartered building surveyor for more than 30 years.
He started writing creatively in the early 1980s and continued until his death.
Fionnbharr explained how his father’s experiences influenced his poetry and creative writing.
“A lot of the poems in Deadlines are from times in dad’s life where emotion was too much to bear, due to reasons ranging from death, divorce, illness, and, of course, The Troubles, though there are also a lot of funny poems and a glint of humour undoubtedly shines through.”
Fionnbharr described his father as having “a stoic energy which involved long nights with a drink and a Leonard Cohen album”.
After John’s death, Fionnbharr found “piles of notebooks scattered around the house in Rostrevor, which included surveyor’s drawings, diaries, poems and doodles.”
In honour of his father, Fionnbharr decided to gather a selection of John’s work together and publish it.
He said: “Dad, along with his friend from Newry, Paddy McGuinness, had been talking about publishing Deadlines and printing the book in Malaysia.
“At the time, Paddy had been in the process of publishing the latest work of Cecil Rajendra, a poet and human rights lawyer, called Extremists And Other Deviants. The idea was for Dad’s book to come next.”
“The title, Deadlines, was dad’s idea, after being diagnosed with cancer at the start of his second semester at UCC.
“It’s a tongue and cheek reference to essay deadlines and the great, illusive essay deadline in the sky; Northern humour, dark as the nights.”
The poems in Deadlines span nearly 40 years of John’s life, and the oldest of the poems is entitled October 1980.
The most recent poems in the collection address John’s feelings about dealing with a terminal illness.
The mix of personal themes, alongside poems that are humorous and deeply lyrical, give the reader a sense of what John was like as a man; a hard-working, good-humoured, intelligent person who was adept at capturing universal moments and feelings in his writing.
Fionnbharr said: “Illness certainly played a role in dad’s writing. One poem, Admission, was literally written while he was on a hospital trolley.
“Other poems he wrote are about the physical pain that cancer caused him. There are also some meditations on staring into the void.”
In the middle of the collection, there are a selection of poems that illustrate John’s love for his native home in Northern Ireland.
The language he used to describe images of the Northern Irish landscape is both sensory and lyrical.
Fionnbharr explained that a love of music and words was the norm in John’s family and the area he grew up in, and subsequently influenced John’s creative writing process.
“My granny, Bridie, was from Lislea, County Armagh, and pretty much everyone on that side of the family is a musician or a poet.
“The area is very much typical of Irish life. Songs and stories have always played a large part.
“You can see this in dad’s poem, Where Are Ye From, which allows the reader an intimate view of John’s home on the border —
“a wee place
where tatty bread
sizzles of a morning on the pan
where the kettle boils and whistles
telling the taypot
to stand to hand…
this is the place
where the wee mountains rise
denying where big borders run
where the beating
of the chopper blades
drowned out our Gaelic song”.
John embarked on his MA at UCC after retiring from his job as an engineer in London and returning to Rostrevor.
Cork poet, Leanne O’Sullivan, taught him when he was studying Creative Writing. She said: “John’s poetry was very much grounded in the Ulster dialect, his love of music and art and a sense of magic and possibility.
“Relationships and language were also very important to him.
“There was always a sense that his poetry was seeking to capture these moments of connection with everyone and everything around him.
“He appreciated that life was fleeting and precious and that to make a mark and to connect was all that mattered.”
Leanne described John as “a terrific student — lively and interested. He saw the class as being a small community, collaborating in a shared artistic response.”
She added: “We miss him very much. I am certainly aware that it was such a gift to know him when I did.”
Deadlines will be launched as part of the Rostrevor Literary Festival, an all-day event, featuring acclaimed poets Paula Meehan and Padraig O Tuama, as well as a roundtable discussion on “The Irish language crossing the divide”, followed by a music session, courtesy of Matthew McGrath and Alfie Corr.
The book will be available for purchase at the festival.
Copies will also be donated to libraries around Ireland and will be available for purchase in selected bookshops.
When asked how John might feel to see his book published, Fionnbharr said his father would be “relieved to see it done”.
He said: “In publishing dad’s book, I’m just carrying on with the plan.”