At 11am on a grey Saturday morning the shutters are raised in Wall & Keogh cafe on Richmond Street, Dublin 2. I order a coffee, signalling the official start to my day, and head to the basement. I’m waiting for poet John Cummins to join me for an interview.
John Cummins has two loves in his life. The first is football, it dominated his early years. The second is poetry. Recently he has given up football to focus on his scribbling. But for twenty odd years the round ball was his thing.
As the interview progresses the central role that football played in John’s youth is somewhat hesitatingly revealed. He was more than just your average Coolock lad with a ball attached to his feet. He was a player, a semi professional at times and a coach from his late teens. He had trials for Arsenal at 17. He played League of Ireland as a ‘banger’ for a number of clubs before leaving Ireland as a nineteen year old to head to Germany. There he held a “footballing passport” through his twenties, playing semi-professional football for 1860 Munich before ending his playing days back in Ireland as a player/coach for Grange Woodbine in Raheny.
This is news to me. John, it turns out, was a decent player and he went to England briefly and then to Germany until injury intervened in what could have potentially been a career in the beautiful game. He is somewhat reluctant to talk about those days. To him they’re over. He sees no point in re-hashing them but I insist, probing him to tell us about them.
So tell us about your football past?
Football. Off the record (smiles). No, no, only messing. I played football to a fairly high standard. I was over at Arsenal briefly as a kid. Had a trial. Then during my decade living in Germany I played for 1860 Munich. I’d a couple of serious injuries and that was it. On my 21st birthday actually, in 1994. I was on a pre-season thing to Austria. It was before the World Cup. I went up for a header and woke up in hospital. I had been knocked out and fell awkwardly and snapped all my ligaments in my left ankle. That was the guts of a year out. Six months on crutches. I got fucked over by them during that time. 1860 Munich sent me the hospital bill to pay. I couldn’t afford it.
So were you contracted to 1860 Munich?
Yeah I was a semi-pro. I started to receive letters in Munich, legal letters in German. It inspired me to learn German actually. I wanted to know what these letter were saying? They were saying I had to pay the bills, the medical bills.
What happens in Germany is that you have a little football pass. Every player has to have one. You couldn’t get away with being a banger over there like I did in Ireland.
What’s a banger?
A banger is an unsigned player. A phrase you’d hear in Irish football. I played with various League of Ireland clubs as a banger, under different names. It was easy to do that here. But you couldn’t do that in Germany. Each player had to have a passport and the ref would check each of the teams before the game to make sure that everybody was a registered footballer. You’d have your own identification number and no matter what the level the ref would check for it. That’s how you got to play. I had trouble with the football pass originally. I thought you could just head over and play a game like you could in Ireland. But not in Germany. I was naive.
When I was filling out the forms it asked had you played anywhere before. I put down England. That meant that the pass had to go to England to be stamped by my old club and then to Dublin to be stamped again. It was six months before I could play a game. I was just able to train at the time not play. When the passport finally came through I was playing for a local club before 1860 Munich came and bought my football passport. I was playing for 1860 then the injury thing happened.
What did you do about the bills?
I was writing letters back to the Eastern Health Board in Ireland. Had to. They were helping me out. They eventually gave me a dig out. 1860 were asking for 10,000 Deutschemark. 1860 could have paid the bill easily themselves, it was nothing to them. I was their player but they wanted me to pay it. I didn’t have it. Long story short, the Eastern Health Board sorted it out. It took about two and half years. A mess. I learnt German out of it, that’s the positive I guess. I didn’t really play during that period. 1860 kept my pass. They wouldn’t stamp it to free me to play. When they were eventually forced to I was 24. Bastards. Bad eggs. I played some 3rd division in Germany for a couple of years. I’d a dodgy ankle by then and it didn’t come to much.
John came on my radar two weeks ago after capturing the attention of the audience at the Culture Vultures night in Odessa. His spoken word set was crisp and unique. It stayed with me over the next few days as the stars from that night – Lenny Abrahamson and Lisa O’Neil – faded somewhat. I was curious about this so called “performance poet” who I hadn’t seen or heard of before. So I started googling him. Youtube returned various amateur videos of his sets but they failed to capture the essence of the live performance I’d seen – the electricity sparking from his every rhyme.
How was the Culture Vultures night in Odessa?
I was mad nervous that night. I was only in about ten minutes and I had to get up on stage. It was real punctual. I arrived and just had time for a quick smoke before going up. I had only met Tony (Clayton-Lea) that night, just five minutes before performing.
What was it like being on the bill with Lisa O’Neil and Lenny Abrahamson?
Well I was happy to share that bill, to go see Lisa O’Neil. She’s deadly and Lenny Abrahamson, Adam & Paul, I was pinching myself. It was a fancy gig for me. I was up first and it happened so quick I don’t really remember it.
The mix between the three of you was special and you set the tone from the start. I went looking for your stuff after; some of it’s online but it wasn’t all there. I mean there’s a Soundcloud and your Facebook page, John Cummins Poetician, but generally the quality isn’t that great?
Yeah most of the stuff you find up there is just recordings that have been done at shows and people have posted them themselves. I haven’t done any apart from the Messi one which I did with Padhraic Cuthbert and the sound on that is shite, pardon my french. Visually it’s very good but you can’t make out the sound. The original recording is lost that’s why it can’t be turned up in the mix.
That’s a pity because the rhythm of it and the video is beautifully shot. I have played it for friends and you have to strain to listen to hear your voice.
That was me just goofing around. A little project I did. Recording Champions League coverage of Barcelona trying to get George Hamilton saying ‘Messi!…Messi mesmerises!’ and catch the whistle blowing. Padhraic told me to do some keepy uppys in Howth. Howth looks well in that video, she shines, but the sound…Look it’s up there, I wish I could work on it but it’s done. That’s why I’m keen to get other stuff out there. A proper collection, a true reflection of the stuff I’m doing now.
There’s a good scene around Dublin, lots of spoken word gigs – opportunities for you to perform your work?
There are nights on all the time in Dublin. Nights have sprung up right across the city in the four and half years I’ve been performing. We try to support each other. There might be an ep launch on a Tuesday or Thursday, a friend and you open up for them. Then you have the regular monthly nights like the Brownbread Mixtape and Slam Sunday in Accents cafe. The Glor Sessions have now become the Monday Echo and you have the Dublin Underground Beat on Wednesdays in The International Bar. That’s the real hub for spoken word in my experience.
Here is a list of spoken word gigs to check out: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ZuSV06fcBGlkX6a1rkDkbuhNEqHwtCvtx3RrUiChkhQ/edit
Festivals as well. Electric Picnic’s Mindfield. I had the pleasure of doing that a few years ago and was down again the year after. Knockanstockan, i just got that. There is the Lingo Fest in October this year. That is going to be a big one. A dedicated spoken word festival, the first of its kind. These are all great things to be involved in. And other things come your way when you’re doing these gigs. Take Culture Vultures, I got a few gigs outta that. The plan now is to publish my poetry, play the game.
Tell us about those plans?
I have all the contents mapped out in my head. Soon to be published I hope. Like I said it’ll appear on a football pitch. I’ve a formation for the poems. Each of the poems are like a position on the football pitch and the poems will run into each other. The plan is to self publish and have some product to give out when people ask me at the next gig. I’ll do a few things football poems with the World Cup buzz.
So are you happy to be introduced as a poet now?
I’ve always messed around with words. That’s what my poetry is really. It’s word play. Ms.Bourke said that Oscar Wilde had no respect for someone who couldn’t spell a word in five different ways. That made sense to me. I’ve always broken down language and syllables and tried to express them in different ways. That’s goofing, I use that word a lot, it’s the freedom I try to have with words. Recently I’ve realised that I am a poet, it’s what I do. I want to be more serious about it and try give it a proper go, for my daughter if for nobody else.
The Sunday Times recently carried a piece about Ireland’s determination to look towards dead poets and commemorate them at great financial cost. Our literary heritage does indeed need to be celebrated, one would imagine that the poets being celebrated might prefer if their commemoration took the form of support to a new generation of Irish poets. John Cummins is part of a new poetry breed who are dedicating themselves to a craft that is revered but less and less practiced in this country. This new breed must be cultivated if Ireland is to reap a similarly wordy future.