'I would drive through Moy, the venue of many of Paul Muldoon's poems, every Saturday on the way to visit my granny'
The oldest poem in the 1,100 pages of the 2010 Penguin Book of Irish Poetry is an anonymous 6th-century Christian lyric. One and a half thousand years of verse and history later the chronological selection concludes with a poem by Nick Laird, born in 1975. "So I'm the end of the line of Irish poetry," he laughs. "The one who killed it off. Let's hope that's not the case, eh?"
The poem, "Pedigree", from his 2005 debut To a Fault, illustrates well the strong sense of place and history that has been a feature of Laird's work: "Me, I've forty-seven cousins. // A scuffle over rustling sheep / became a stabbing in a bar outside Armagh, / a murderer swings / from a branch high up in our family tree."
"More seriously in regard to that anthology, I would hope to be of the tradition. There's one and half million people in Northern Ireland so it is obviously over-represented as far as world-class writers go. And that is not a coincidence. Where there is a tradition in a culture of respect and application to an art form, then that art form tends to get good. Of course you want to be a part of it."
Laird emerged as a bright young voice in the late 1990s, although he points out he was in fact 30 before he published his first book: "I was no Muldoon, publishing at 20." A sense of literary celebrity also attached to him from the beginning by virtue of his marriage to the novelist Zadie Smith. He publishes his third volume of poetry, Go Giants (Faber), this month and has also written two novels. "I have always written fiction and I think I'm not bad at it, and while there is no hierarchy between oranges and apples, poetry is my first love and remains special to me as a unique art form that can do things like nothing else."
He is currently judging the National Poetry Competition and has so far read 4,000 of the 10,000 entries. "Even if they are not all good poems, you do realise how incredible the thirst is for poetry as a way of apprehending and thinking about life. It sort of deals with the same questions as philosophy does, but it builds up from the ground and from specific detail whereas philosophy comes down from above and abstract generalisation. It allows you to experience other people's thoughts in a way that other art forms just don't, and reading all these entries together you see that people are looking for a way of dealing with the other. I don't want to term it spiritual exactly, but certainly the numinous aspects of existence aren't dealt with much in our culture."
The first half of Go Giants is taken up with poems that range from Ireland to Rome and beyond and exhibit Laird's sharp eye for the details and textures of contemporary life. "I always have a lot of poems that don't go into books. I have half a book of new poems already done and some of them are older than this work. I'm not one of those people who writes a poem and puts a date on it and it is done. I'm constantly fiddling and redrafting so it's more a case of picking and choosing the ones I think are ready."
The second half is a single long poem, "Progress", in which he moves through his own and Northern Ireland's history. "Progress is a very Northern Irish word. It's often used in news reports in terms of the peace process. Wallace Stevens said that when you write a long poem, many things drop from it. I wanted to find a way of gathering up lots of things about growing up in Northern Ireland without keeping them in a discrete time-frame."
The poem is structured around Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and takes in references as varied as to a school friend killed in the Troubles; Willie John McBride, the Irish captain of the 1974 British Lions rugby team; and Body Shop lip balm.
"I go back all the time and the place is on my mind a lot. My internet alarm clock in New York wakes me up with Radio Ulster. That long poem is kind of in dialogue with some of Muldoon and some of Heaney, and while I'm not from a Catholic background, I'm not from a straightforward Protestant background either. My father is from Donegal and my parents are both Irish-passport holders. They met in Dublin. I wanted to write about all these crosscurrents as I think I wanted to clarify some things for myself. As so often in Northern Ireland, the situation is not quite as clear as it might at first appear."
Laird was born in Northern Ireland in 1975 and brought up in Cookstown, County Tyrone, where Martin McGuinness later went on to become the local MP. He says home was not bookish but by the age of 11 he had polished off his mother's Jeffrey Archer and Maeve Binchy novels. He always liked poetry at school and even wrote some: "soft Celtic twilights, Yeatsian wind among the reeds sort of thing". Then he studied Heaney's Death of a Naturalist for GCSE "and here were these very hard, clean-lined poems about things you could see out of the window".
Bellaghy – Heaney's home and the subject of his work – was only 10 miles from Cookstown. "I knew it. I would drive through Moy, the venue of many of Paul Muldoon's poems, every Saturday on the way to visit my granny. The fact that these places were being made strange by poetry was very exciting. That ability to look at something again, to open up a space of second thoughts, is so important to Northern Ireland, where all of your instincts have been trained by politicians and churches to go in a particular direction. Poetry seemed a way of clearing all that away. You suddenly realised there were other ways of approaching certain questions."
The family were churchgoers and he enjoyed the communal experience of services, "but as you get a bit older and start to see the Bible as a historical document the whole thing just crumbles". He still has his old Bibles and prayer books, full of highlighted lines, "not of theologically interesting verses, but interesting language and sounds that caught my ear. Those fabulously thick biblical names were very exciting to me."
While at school Laird won national poetry competitions but was set to study law at Cambridge before changing to English. "As is fairly usual for any small town, if you were regarded as having half a brain it was assumed you should become a doctor or a lawyer. So while changing was obviously the right decision for me, it was a big thing to give up a vocational course for something more abstract."
He says he was homesick for the first year at Cambridge. He was also surprised to encounter a degree of anti-Irish feeling. "I used to run the college bar where usually very posh people would get drunk and do all the 'go back to Ireland you Paddy' routine. It was quite astonishing. Real 1970s stuff. But it was another twist on the complexities of being a Protestant, in that you're Irish when you're in Britain, but you're not Irish when you're in Ireland. You're a bad fit everywhere."
At university he met, and edited, Zadie Smith and won a writing competition that she had also entered – prize: £60 worth of book tokens – shortly before she was given her first book deal (reported advance: £250,000). They married in 2004, had a daughter in 2009 and have another child due in the spring. Despite his writing promise, Laird says that after graduating he saw no obvious literary path, and certainly not one he could make a living from, and so he returned to law and joined a City firm where he worked for the next six years. As an international litigator Laird worked in Warsaw and India, took on Ted Heath as a client in the Bloody Sunday inquiry and represented prisoners on death row in Jamaica. "It was really interesting stuff, and if it was 100 years ago I would still be doing law and writing in my spare time. But in a city law firm today the hours are just crazy and there is no room for anything else so I took a sabbatical to write."
He says he had been sensible enough with his lawyer's income to buy a four-bedroom house in Dalston, London, specifically so he could let out three bedrooms, which allowed him to live and write in the fourth. He was then offered a visiting fellowship at Harvard, where Smith was already teaching, and where he prepared his first poetry collection, To a Fault (Faber, 2005), and debut novel, Utterly Monkey (Fourth Estate, 2005).
"I did go back to work as a lawyer but it became clear after about three months that, while I still enjoyed it, I just wasn't doing my job right and I also was never going to finish the books." He says he still looks back fondly on the law, "and not just for the salary every month. It was lovely to work on a team and feel that the work you are doing is important. The writing life can be difficult. Time just dissolves away to nothing some days, and it is sometimes hard to believe in the validity of the enterprise. Who cares if you get up and write a sonnet or not? As a lawyer, someone is actually relying on you to help them at what is a crux moment of their life."
Laird landed an Eric Gregory award and To a Fault was shortlisted for the Forward best first collection prize in 2005. His 2007 collection On Purpose also picked up a Somerset Maugham award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize. Utterly Monkey, part thriller, part social comedy, featuring a young Irish City lawyer, won a Commonwealth writers' prize. But the reviews were more mixed, as they were for his 2008 novel Glover's Mistake (Fourth Estate), a contemporary London love triangle taking in bar workers, flat sharers and the international art scene. But unlike most debut novels, at least his work had not been ignored.
"I can't complain about it. But I was very aware that part of the interest, if not nearly all of the interest, was because I was Zadie Smith's husband. In one way that is good because you will get interviewed and reviewed and so on. But in another way you are ripe for a kicking. It's a weird spot to be in."
Laird is currently working on a third novel, alongside husbanding his ongoing cache of poems, editing an anthology of poetry with Don Paterson– "no real theme beyond poems that we like" – as well as working on a TV project with Smith ("something historical and not an adaptation"). They previously collaborated on a projected Kafka musical with a musician friend that went unfinished, and Laird says that while they regularly engage with each other's writing, "it has been nice to work together on a new project".
He also teaches, most recently at Princeton and Barnard in the US, where their daughter is in school and where their next child will be born, after which they intend to spend more time in London.
"We've lived in 13 places in 13 years. I love lots of things about America, but there's so much that is completely crazy: the health system; obviously the gun thing. To be away from your home as a writer can be good in some ways, but can also be a limitation, especially as a poet. To be away from your first language can be difficult, but at the same time Joyce – not that Joyce has anything to do with me – reconstructed Dublin from Zürich and Paris and I suppose I've just written a new book which sometimes seems as if it's entirely about Northern Ireland."
He says it wasn't until he left Ireland for Cambridge that he really appreciated that his upbringing had been unusual. "There were, taking into account the usual complexities, essentially two separate realities, a Catholic one and a Protestant one, that would meet every now and again in certain bloody ways."
He still praises Northern Ireland as a good place to live and to grow up in, "but it was not until I was 18 did I realise that taking 40 minutes to get half a mile to school because you'd have to go through three police checkpoints was not most other people's reality. But there's so much going on there that maybe it's a pressure cooker that produces some kind of reaction. I've never felt an obligation to address any issue, but when you sit down to write, whatever is going on in your subconscious tends to rise to the surface. So while you don't feel an obligation to speak on behalf of other people, it is usually enough to feel an obligation to speak on behalf of yourself."