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One day I was broke... then I got a call that changed everything

Colm Keegan is the new writer-in-residence at DLR Lexicon library in Dun Laoghaire.

Source: Storymap Dublin/YouTube

LAST SUMMER, WRITER Colm Keegan was in Waterford to perform his poetry. He had just a fiver to his name, and had borrowed money to get there.

The Dubliner had left his permanent job a year earlier in order to pursue his writing career, a decision that took some time to come to. If you follow the self-help guides and the have-it-all books, you’re always encouraged to follow your dream. But sometimes, it’s not an easy journey.

Looking back, Keegan says it had been a “hard year” for him. He had been visiting schools and prisons to nurture other people’s writing skills, which he enjoyed, but – ironically – it didn’t leave him time to focus on his own writing.

In an attempt to move things on, he’d applied for a position as writer-in-residence at the under-construction DLR Lexicon library in Dun Laoghaire.

“I thought it was pie in the sky that I’d get it,” he recalls. “I thought it would be for a really established writer. I consider myself a rookie.”

The call that changed everything

This rookie was tired and worried about the summer during that visit to Waterford. It was a low time for him. And then his phone buzzed unexpectedly, and he was offered the role of writer-in-residence at the DLR Lexicon.

He says it was like being told he’d won the Lotto. “I was overjoyed – I could have cartwheeled across the road in Waterford.”

The library only officially opened a few weeks ago, but Keegan was initially given a room at the back of Blackrock library, with (crucially) no-wifi, to get stuck in.

“Usually if I’m spending a day writing, I’m spending a day not making any money,” he says. Now, he could write and get paid – and get the support he needed.

colm keegan

Not wasting the gift

“I feel there’s a huge pressure on me now to use the time,” says Keegan of his new role. “I can’t waste this beautiful gift I’ve been given.”

Keegan describes himself as “the product of libraries”. He’s always felt loved by books and he’s always loved the library, and he first realised he could write by attending a library creative writing class.

From January, he will be doing outreach work with schools, and holding workshops with adults. He is also planning on putting on performances at the DLR Lexicon, like the Nighthawks shows he has done previously.

Becoming a writer

“All of this is a big accident in a way,” says Keegan of becoming a writer, understating his own talent.

Someone once told him: “Just try out the poetry and before you know it, the poetry will take you”. Now he calls himself a ‘gateway drug’ to poetry for others. The words took him, and he’s doling them out to others.

Books were his life as a child. “That was my superpower – I could read a lot.”

He grew up, had children, and settled down. But he needed something more. He’d talk to his friends in the pub about books he had read, only to be told “that is a bit deep for me”.

He even tried to write a book once, by scribbling in an old diary. “What am I doing?” he thought. He had no clue.

Then he stumbled across a creative writing class in Clondalkin library. Serendipity.

He learned how to structure a poem, and was told his poems were good – “are you sure, are you serious?” he asked them – then learned how to write short stories (one was about a rat who attacked a couple in a tenement) and quickly found his voice.

He describes learning the craft as “about negotiating the gap between your own personal taste and your ability”.

He began working with Lucan Writers Group, and had Dermot Bolger as a mentor.

Learning a craft

Source: havagawk/YouTube

Keegan works with people who might have issues around literacy, helping them to turn their experience into a story. .

He feels like “the man who fell to earth” in the affluent seaside town of Dun Laoghaire. “It’s just taken for granted to be educated out here,” he says. But in other areas, “there can be a ‘back of the class’ mentality that can filter into a whole area. This weird sneering attitude to knowing stuff.”

He tells schoolchildren they are “playing into all the wrong hands if you remove reading from your lives”.

It’s like this weird trick that’s being played on people without them knowing it. They’re enabling their own disenfranchisement; enabling their own removal to access to achieving their dreams, to their own potential. I see it all the time.

He knows there are children who aren’t encouraged to read, and who might grow up without the language necessary to write. “That kind of divide is the thing that I really like to negotiate,” he says.

Writing for the future

Keegan is hoping to have his next collection of poems ready by 2016, but says there’s a bit of “second album syndrome” to the process.

The first collection was like everything I’ve ever written, thought and experienced in my whole life.

“There’s a lot of naivety involved in your first anything, a lot of unintentional arrogance,” he says. Life is different now, and his taste in poetry is different. Keegan says that today, he is “less ignorant and a bit more freaked out by the whole thing”.

He’s also working on his first novel, a “huge project” that’s the biggest risk he says he has ever taken. Keegan doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a poet, so this book is showing another side to him, which has remained hidden to the outside world.

Leaving a legacy

Keegan doesn’t want to spend his residency holed up in the spacious library. His writing needs oxygen to create a spark.

He’s no stranger to pushing out of his comfort zone, having recently taken part in the Dunsink Horse Project, where writing poems and stories would be topped off with a gallop around the Dublin mountains. “That was deadly,” he enthuses. “I learned so much about myself, like I’m terrified of horses.”

He says he’s not not really interested in the idea of ‘legacy’. But during his time at DLR he wants to help and inspire others.

He loves the idea of meeting “some guy like me who doesn’t know that all of this stuff exists”, who has been plugging away trying to be a writer on their own… and for him “to enable them the way I have been enabled”.

It would, he says, be a dream come true.

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