LIKE Groucho Marx, Cork poet Gerry Murphy says he wouldn’t like to be in any club that would accept him as a member...
But he is speaking in jest (as is his wont) because he was delighted to have the honour recently of being elected to Aosdana.
The Arts Council established Aosdána in 1981 to honour artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the creative arts in Ireland, and to encourage and assist members in devoting their energies fully to their art.
The group came about after the late writer, Anthony Cronin, an advisor to Charles Haughey, suggested the idea.
Now Gerry is proud to be one of Aosdana’s 250 members from the worlds of arts and architecture.
If they fit a criteria, Aosdana members are given the cnuas — a stipend — which is worth around €17,000 per annum, by the Arts Council.
Their earnings from art can’t exceed €25,000 in order to qualify for the payment. Recipients of the grant report annually on their work and after five years, they may reapply for the cnuas.
The Arts Council was embroiled in controversy recently over looking for productivity from artists in order to avail of the cnuas. At least, this was how the row was perceived.
“The Arts council was trying to assess artist, Patrick Pye, who is in his eighties and gets the cnuas” explains Gerry. “He’s a religious painter who hasn’t been working for some time.
“The Arts Council was talking about taking the cnuas from him. But now they’re saying they weren’t going to do that. They’re going to make some arrangement with his pension.
“I think the whole thing was badly phrased. They presented Aosdana with a fait accompli. That’s my impression.
“If they had consulted with Aosdana first, there might not have been an outbreak of hostilities.”
Writer Colm Tóibín compared talk of artists’ productivity as being akin to what would be requested in North Korea.
In a recent newspaper article, Sheila Pratschke, chair of the Arts Council, said it was looking forward to meeting representatives of Aosdana to work on reforms “that will benefit artists and the people of Ireland”.
Aosdana has been accused of being an elitist organisation and the question has to be posed, why should artists receive special treatment in the form of state aid?
Gerry points out that as a poet, earnings are very low. He has a day job, working as a lifeguard and swimming pool manager at Mayfield Leisure, Sports and Fitness Complex which is attached to Mayfield Community School. It wouldn’t be possible for him to make a living from poetry, even though his satirical and witty collections sell more copies than most other poets working in Ireland.
“You’re hoping to pick up some readings,” says Gerry. “(Cork-based poet) Matthew Sweeney is one of the few I know that is working full time at his writing. He is dependent on the cnuas to keep him above the breadline.
“Poetry is such a small part of the books market. You’re not going to be rolling it like JK Rowling by writing poetry. I think poetry is 1% of the literature market. With a poetry book, you might be talking about selling ten or twelve copies a year. I might sell 100 copies a year.”
Gerry’s most recent collection, Muse, published two years ago has sold about 300 or 400 copies so far. “You wouldn’t want to be depending on it,” he says. “If you sold your poetry books in pubs and on the streets, you might make more.”
While poetry and other genres of literature are far from lucrative, it’s all part of what Ireland has to offer the tourism market, Gerry points out.
“There are hidden funds coming in because of Joyce and Yeats. That’s recognised by the Arts Council.”
As well as that, there is the argument that without the arts, society would be a lot poorer.
Gerry, who will be 65 this year, thinks he will be entitled to the cnuas when he retires in the near future and admits: “The cnuas makes retirement less ominous.”
Asked if he will be liberated by retirement, able to concentrate on his writing full time, he says he actually likes working at his day job. “I know people who write full time. They can get too involved in it in one sense. It’s like there’s writing to do and nothing else whereas I think having a job keeps you grounded and in touch with reality.”
If poetry is so poorly rewarded from a fiscal point of view, why stay with this genre? “You can’t really say you’d prefer to write bestsellers. It doesn’t even come into your head. I am wired this way, this is the way I was made.”
So what is the poet’s life like?
“Poetry is random. I might make a note at work and bring it home and drive myself mad working on it. You get little runs at it.
“Things can go quiet. You can’t really audit something like this. Michael Longley stopped writing for 12 years. Then, all of a sudden, he started off again and is one of the best poets we’ve ever produced. Is the Arts Council saying that you take someone like that out of the system? You can never tell with creative work.
“You might go completely quiet and you might just be storing stuff. Writer’s block can last for a month or years and years.”
In Gerry’s early writing career, he admits he “came to a standstill while I was living in Israel”.
He adds: “I got more and more worried about it. Sean Lucey (the late poet and academic) told me I should keep a journal. I did and it started me back again.”
Has Gerry’s pursuit of his art resulted in any sacrifices?
“I can’t really say. My life is monastic in one sense. I think most poets are very self-absorbed anyway. You get some who go down the road of getting married. With me, it’s not that I ruled out marriage. But anyone that went out with me knew after a while that it would be good fun for a few months but as for settling down, forget it. Not having kids is my one regret.”
Gerry doesn’t have his own home. He rents an attic in a friend’s house.
Described by the late John Montague as ‘a spiritual anarchist’, Gerry has seven collections to his name. There is a collection of his being published in France and some of his work is being translated in Macedonia.
Gerry Murphy is the real deal; a dedicated poet but one with his feet firmly on the ground.