He is hailed as a literary giant whose prolific writing career has made him a New York Times best-selling author. His novels include The Master, The Magician, Nora Webster, and Brooklyn. Brooklyn was, in fact, adapted as a feature film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, so he has movie-vetted cred, too. Now we get to see Colm Tóibín flex as a poet in his debut collection, Vinegar Hill.
Vinegar Hill explores the liminal space between private experiences and public events as Tóibín examines a wide range of subjects: politics, queer love, reflections on literary and artistic greats, living through COVID, and facing mortality. The poems reflect a life well-traveled and well-lived; from growing up in the town of Enniscorthy, wandering the streets of Dublin and Barcelona, and crossing the bridges of Venice to visiting the White House, readers will travel familiar locations and new destinations through Tóibín’s unique perspective.
Known for his novels, Tóibín began writing poetry early. “I began first at the age of twelve in the family house,” he told the Academy of American Poets in a Q&A. “It was September 1967. My father had died in the summer. In our family, from the age of twelve, you were meant to study every evening, go into the front room and be alone. I started to write poems. It just happened. I did one and then I did more.”
Tóibín was, by admission, a late reader. On NPR’s Weekend Edition, Scott Simon asked him if being a late reader strengthened his appreciation for words. “I think it left me free to imagine things,” Tóibín said during his interview, “to wander around the house in a sort of dream. While my siblings were all busy buried in books, I was sort of looking at them, checking them out, going into the other room to see what was going on there. I think it allows you, in a certain way, when you’re maybe seven or eight, to become a better noticer.” Reading his verse, you’ll notice his keen sense of observation, emotion, and humor.
It took several decades for the collection to come together, and the wait was worth it! Beacon Press acquired the book after Tóibín sent a small group of poems to our director, Helene Atwan. She raved about them but told him he would need to write three times as many to make a full volume. Tóibín joked that he would do that in a couple of decades. Then, while COVID and his (successful) treatment for cancer kept him in lockdown, he found himself with a lot of free time and plenty of motivation to write new poems. In Publishers Weekly’s roundtable poetry feature, he described his writing process:
“I was in LA in my boyfriend’s house, and I started to write poems in the evenings out of the blue. This was new in that, really, the poems came every day, and I would just work at getting them down, and then the lovely business of going back every half hour to see if there was anything more that was wrong with it. It wasn’t just the silence, but the fact that there was no getting on a flight, no dinner coming up, no reading that I had to do—all those things that take up a lot of imaginative energy were just not there.”
So in less than five years, he had the volume ready to send to Helene!
The collection is named after his poem “Vinegar Hill.” Not only is the location described in verse; it’s also depicted in the cover art in a painting by his mother. A twofold experience of the place for your senses.
Included in poetry roundups in the Sunday Times, Publishers Weekly, and The Guardian, Tóibín’s collection offers us lines and verses to provoke, ponder, and cherish. You can read the title poem in the New Yorker and other excerpts in The Atlantic.
About the Author
Christian Coleman is the digital marketing manager at Beacon Press and editor of Beacon Broadside. Before joining Beacon, he worked in writing, copy editing, and marketing positions at Sustainable Silicon Valley and Trikone. He graduated from Boston College and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Follow him on Twitter at @.