Meet Pádraig Ó Tuama: poet, theologian, conflict mediator — and host of The On Being Project’s new podcast, Poetry Unbound. Those who have listened to Pádraig’s two On Being interviews (the first in 2017 and second alongside poet Marilyn Nelson in 2018) may know him as the former leader of the Corrymeela community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. The author of several volumes of poetry, a prayer book, and a memoir, Pádraig often draws connections between poetry and his work as a theologian and conflict mediator. And he brings to the podcast this dance between making sense of the world through poetry and finding poetry in the world.
How might you describe your life in just a few words?
The first iteration would be just a list: Ireland, poetry, conflict, religion, whiskey, hospitality. Another iteration might be: Make yourself at home.
You start each episode of Poetry Unbound by saying, “My name is Pádraig Ó Tuama. I’m a poet from Ireland.” What does that combination of Ireland and poetry mean to you?
Well, partly it’s because the Irish curriculum in school is so poetry-heavy. So from the age of 5, we were learning poetry in two languages by heart every week. That didn’t stop until I was 17. And then you study history and [learn] so many of the great historical figures were poets, and many of their manifestos were written in the form of poetry.
There is something deep in the blood about the public role of poetry in Ireland. However in many parts of Ireland, women were prevented from learning how to read and write and … their poetry wasn’t written down. So the legacy of Irish poetry is predominantly a male legacy.
So to call myself an Irish poet is both filled with pride and warning about the dangers of poetry and the dangers of calling yourself that — and, also, a recognition that poetry, if it’s doing its work, is doing something other than poetry: It’s speaking to something bigger than itself. It’s not just poems for poems’ sake. It’s poems [that] speak about belonging, speak about what’s happening, and poems that are in contact with the world around it.
What I love about Poetry Unbound is how it gently suggests a different relationship we can have to poetry — one that’s less esoteric and more personal and reflective. How would you describe your own relationship with poetry, whether as a poet or as a reader?
Like many people, I have turned to poetry throughout my life to make sense of difficult times. I have found myself in grave need of language to soothe or to confront or to make sense or to make meaning or to make connections. And poetry has been that scripture for me to turn to. Sometimes it might be a very well-known poet — maybe Yeats or somebody who won a Nobel Prize for literature — or sometimes it might be a poet that very few people know.
I also think that art is always bigger than the artist. There’s a line in Terrence Tilley’s book Story Theology that says, “The [author] of a story cannot control the story’s power to reveal.” I’ve found that to be an extraordinary thing. He was speaking about scripture, in that context, which is an audacious claim for a theologian to make, because often people want to speak about religious texts as being perfectly in control of their message of “The God.” And he is saying, actually, no story can be controlled by the person who wrote it. Art has its own intelligence and intuition, and the point is to eavesdrop into it, through the lens of the story of your life, as it eavesdrops into you.
That’s what I think Poetry Unbound is about. This is opening up the door of a poem, where it’s the poem that’s being hospitable to the person who’s listening. The poem is saying, “I’m interested and I have something to share of my experience.” The poets we’ve looked at are exploring great themes like friendship and love and lament and school and childhood and loss and politics and rage and discrimination — these things that have been part of the human condition. And the poem is preparing a place of conversation — across cultures, across continents, across life and death, and across all kinds of barriers — and preparing a place of hospitality for people to meet each other.
I’m less interested in people respecting poetry. I’m really interested in people realizing that poetry respects them.
How has your role as a community leader interacted with your role as a poet?
Being a leader of an organization that’s focused on peace — and focused on peace in a place of conflict — inclines you towards the power of language. Because while not all conflict resolution is about language, much of conflict resolution — and much of conflict escalation — is about language and the way that we use language. And when you can find a way to take something that is creating a spark of destructive conflict and allow that conflict to be productive, rather than destructive, mostly that’s a skill of language. Not just knowing lots of words, but listening to the intuition, to say, Can we do something unpredictable with this, rather than allow the predictability of conflict to continue to escalate, and then whomever is strongest will annihilate the other?
And poetry is always thinking, Can we listen to something deeper? I’ve found that the poetic intuition really influenced my questions when I was involved in being a conflict mediator, to say, “OK, we’ve got this and we’ve got that, and we know where that’s gonna go. Great. You used a really interesting word earlier on that I’d love to come back to.” I would listen to people’s stories of conflict the same way that I’d listen to a poem. So I always found the vocation of being involved in conflict resolution and poetry to be very complementary.
What was your process for choosing the poems for the podcast?
The canon of poetry has often been taught in a way that is so particular to the question of European men. I wanted to make sure to have poems that were broad, in terms of recognizing that poetry has always been owned by people of all identities.
I wanted to choose poems that weren’t all sad or poems that weren’t all political; poems that had different registers and poems that used some form and some without. I also wanted to use poems that might be considered slightly less accessible than others, because sometimes people think, “Oh, if I don’t get one line, well, I don’t get any of it.” It’s nice to say, “I haven’t a clue what that line means, but I love the sound of it in my mouth.” So I wanted poems that operated on different levels like that and that addressed different themes. I wanted to make sure that there were some about love, some that were more private poems, and some that were much more public [in their] commentary.
Each Poetry Unbound episode is bookended with the reading of the featured poem. Is there any significance to that for you?
There’s something lovely about hearing a poem twice. There’s a technique in some forms of contemplative spirituality where you take a sacred text, read it, reflect on it, and then read it again. With each reading, you hear something different because you know what’s happening with the second reading, so therefore, you can see a little bit around you. Maybe the first part is getting the map, and then the second part is looking around you while you walk through the poem with the map.
What do you hope listeners will get out of Poetry Unbound?
I hope that Poetry Unbound allows people to listen with great dignity to the everyday events of their life, because sometimes the everyday events of your life do fit into the great themes of human experience: friendship, love, hatred, violence, the ongoing impact of trauma and politics and dispossession of land and discrimination, as well as, then, dignity and fortitude and delight and love. So I hope that Poetry Unbound opens up a door in people’s lives, for them to listen to the poetry of their own life.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Poetry Unbound is out now with new episodes every Monday and Friday during the season. Subscribe today so you don’t miss an episode — on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Overcast, or wherever you find your podcasts.