Martin Dyar. Photo: Ann Hennessy.

Poetry in motion: An interview with Martin Dyar

Martin Dyar is a man who clearly loves language, in all its forms. A published poet and the current John Broderick writer in residence in Athlone, he is so passionate about the written word that he has devoted practically all his working life to imparting his love of writing to others through his teaching and mentoring work.

Evidence of his growing popularity as one of Ireland's most influential poets can be gleaned from the fact that one of his best-known poems. “Death and the Post Office” has been placed on the prescribed syllabus for the Leaving Certificate 2020, and he has amassed a huge number of awards for his poetic endeavours.

Since taking up his new appointment in Athlone earlier this autumn, the Sligo native has certainly hit the ground running and says he has been “overwhelmed” by the wealth of creative writing talent among the local groups he works with.

“It has been deeply enriching for me to work so closely with such diverse groups of people and to be given the chance to bring them on their creative journey” he says, adding that it has also been “a very humbling experience.”

Although he was born in Sligo, Martin Dyar grew up in the picturesque town of Swinford, in Mayo, before heading to University College, Galway, after his Leaving Certificate to complete a BA in English and Philosophy, which was swiftly followed by a Masters in English.

His love of the English language took him over 3,500 miles away after his home in Swinford to the sprawling campus of Southern Illinois University in the American midwest after his graduation, where he spent a year lecturing on the creative writing programme, a concept which had not yet made its way to Ireland.

“Poetry was my main focus at the time, so I came home with a huge sense of momentum...I suppose you could say I was possessed by writing,” he admits. That passion led him to completing a PhD in English at Trinity College, which resulted in him joining the staff of Trinity and lecturing for the next 10 years in the School of Medicine.

Growing up in a house where his father worked as a pharmaceutical representative and his mother as a nurse gave a young Martin Dyar a unique insight into the medical world, so he welcomes the fact that medical education is “awake to the positive role that the arts can play in helping students to communicate more empathetically with their patients.”

During his time lecturing in the Trinity School of Medicine, Martin's main role was to lecture medical students on all aspects of communicating with their patients in a sensitive and caring manner.

Such is his fixation with effective communication in the medical field that Martin Dyar hosted a workshop in the Aidan Heavey Library in Athlone last week entitled “Poetry, Illness and Healthcare” which he says was “completely over-subscribed” and stirred a great deal of emotion in many of the attendees.

“Everyone has a illness story and everyone has experienced loss, so medical stories resonate with all of us, and they can often be the start of a great writing journey” he says. 

Since taking up his appointment in Athlone, Martin Dyer divides his time between Dublin (where he lives), Limerick (where he lectures in creative writing in the University of Limerick) and Athlone, where he spends two days each week.

Three local creative writers, Philomena Barry, Paul McCarrick and Jackie Gorman are being mentored on a weekly basis by Martin Dyer as part of his writer in residence brief, and he is also conducting a series of public creative writing workshops in the local library, all of which are currently over-subscribed. 

As part of the schools brief, he is working with the fourth class pupils in Athlone's Scoil Na Gceithre Maistri, where he uses his own poetry teaching tool “My Poetry Animal” to teach pupils. “We are focusing on nature and biodiversity and I come out of the school every week invigorated and elated at the sheer talent of the kids and at their amazing observations and is very worthwhile work,” he says.

Another very worthwhile aspect of Martin Dyar's work in Athlone is his weekly poetry course every Tuesday afternoon with the students in the Athlone Training Centre, which he says is conducted in “a very vibrant atmosphere.”

Not only is he in awe of the “dedication and commitment” of the teaching staff in the centre, but he has been “incredibly inspired” by the students, many of whom would not have had a positive experience of English in the mainsteam education system.

“We literally talk about everything in the class, and the feedback and enthusiasm I get from the students is an inspiration, and is proof that poetry can be accessible to everyone if it is broken down and explained as being just another form of storytelling.”

One of the things Martin Dyar wanted as part of his writer in residence brief in Athlone was “diversity of access” and he is delighted that he has been given a chance to instill a love of poetry and of the written word into many different groups in the town, including schoolchildren, retired people and those seeking a second chance at education in the local Training Centre.

From his office in Aidan Heavey Library (where he is full of praise for the staff), Martin Dyar describes his life at the moment as “incredibly busy, but very fruitful” and he says it can often be hard to fit in time for writing, but he adds that he allows himself “to write badly.”

The extremely busy poet enjoys walking and tries to fit in a daily swim, and he is also planning his wedding to his fiancee, Rosie, who lectures in the Trinity College School of English next February. 

Given that he is surrounded by poetry every day of his life, what is his favourite poem?

“It is a beautifully written and poignant poem from Cork poet, Bernard O'Donoghue called “Tre Conatus” (Latin for 'three attempts') which captures the grief of a brother as he reflects on his failure to offer tactile comfort to his sister when she is in is a poem that everyone should read.”