We've been talking recently about the early sound maps of childhood. You grew up in the city off Gardiner Street and moved as an older child to Finglas. Were there sonic elements of your childhood that particularly formed you as a poet?
One of the most noticeable things about it, even to me as a child, was that there were no books, not many at least, in the houses around, in the flats. So an awful lot of the energy, the excitement was in the oral. I grew up in an oral tradition: the stories, the singers, the old people, the lore, the sometimes very empowering lore. I soon developed, I believe, a hunger for ritualized sound, in and of itself. The rhetoric around trade union politics, for instance, would feed it as much as, what seemed in childhood, the continual ceremonials around the church. Then, it was the part of the city where the Citizen Army had been active. That had a whole set of stories and dramas. It had the old lore of the Monto, which at the turn of the last century was the biggest red light district in Europe servicing the garrison, the docks, the Ascendancy, and the laboring classes. The old whores were still around when I was a child, it had the lore of the docks and the dockland community. It was a vivid, interesting, and textured world forme with a lot of song, a lot of music, not least the music of the city itself, the steel hoop rims on cobbles, the horses' hooves. There was an abattoir near us. I remember the squealing of pigs and the cries of sheep waiting to be slaughtered. The music of the Latin, of the bells of the church, all of that—a fantastically rich childhood in sonic terms. [End Page 239]
What was the Dublin of your childhood like?
Dublin was a much darker place in those days. Buildings were encrusted in grime, the grime of centuries it seemed and still seems in memory. The city center was dark. This was before they sandblasted the granite of the iconic buildings so Trinity, the Bank of Ireland, the GPO, even the houses we were living in, they were all much darker. There was less advertising, much of it still painted rather than electric. So less light. A ban on hydrocarbon fuels was a long time away so the winters were smoggy. It was a wonderfully mysterious place to me as a child. The tenements themselves were full of life. There were people and families in each room—a whole family inhabited a room. And the tenement houses were porous to a child—you could wander in and out of other peoples' rooms, sometimes find yourself getting fed at dinnertime in a completely different family. I had a direct plumb line into a very vital and lively oral culture. Story telling, songs, the actual language of the people themselves, the pure Dublin accent. Even today if I've been away a few weeks the minute I come back to the city and hear the rich Dublin accent, something visceral happens in my stomach. Incidentally the Dublin accent is an endangered species. Those elements of sound, of the sonic, were a huge influence on me. Now I don't want to romanticize it, talk about story and song alone, because those were desperately hard times. A girl in my class, one of a family of thirteen living in a two room flat, died of diphtheria. This was about 1960. A beautiful quiet gentle girl called Clare. For the next few weeks the health authorities were crawling all over us, we were tested for everything. And I saw old people lying literally on pallets of straw in basement hovels, and I don't want to romanticize that part of my childhood.
In that vital oral culture of your childhood, a story telling culture, what stories were you drawn to?
There were a lot of street sellers and each of them would have their own spiel. People had a lot of time—the relationship with time has shifted—and I remember being brought around by my paternal grandmother, Hannah. During the fifties my parents were back and forth to England for work so I would often be left with my grandparents. My grandmother would go in and visit old pals and they would go for hours, sifting through story and lineage. They could get three hours out of placing an individual exactly in their relationship to everyone else. I was under the table listening to stories [End Page 240] I wasn't supposed to hear—there'd be people having babies, people disappearing, bodies and blood. Often in the way of childhood, you overheard things, rather than heard things. Some of the best things I ever heard were from under the table on the edge of the adult world.
But I think spending so much of my time with the old people I entered their time zone, which was really the zone of the nineteenth century. My grandmother's people would have been in the famine, her grandparents, and she would have those terrible stories. Then my grandfather's mother was one of the big brothel keepers in Monto where she had seven houses. Of course all that lore would have gone underground in the family in the '30s with the triumphalism of the emergent Catholic state, so I wouldn't have heard the brothel stuff directly as a child but I was picking up the stories of it. I was picking up the anecdotes, the incidences, but it wasn't until much, much later that I put all the pieces together. It was Terry Fagan of the North Inner City Folklore Project who came up to me one day, "I have great material on your great grandmother," and I said "What? Wattie's mother?" "Yeah, Mrs. Meehan, she was something else, you'd love it." He told me this mind-blowing stuff, about my own family's history. The stories had gone completely underground. I was always told she was a dealer and then they'd laugh. They used to say I took after her, that she was very well read, and then they'd really laugh. Of course she was dealing in flesh. But she had seven brothels and she seemingly catered to the workingman, the soldier, the aristocrat, all comers. She had fancy houses and she had the kips for the ordinary working men. That area, my old childhood zone, was a law unto itself. The police didn't want to go in there, they didn't want to find some lord in bed with some young one, or indeed young fellow. They didn't want to find the soldiers in the same place as the revolutionaries, drinking in the she beens. It was a no-go area where the laws pertaining to the rest of the country just didn't hold, so the police didn't go in. It was sort of a territory unto itself; it's the night town that Joyce visits. He would have been seeing it just before its end. When the troops pulled out that was a lot of the customer base gone. Many of the old prostitutes ended up as meths drinkers, they came to terrible ends. At its demise, when the economic base was shattered and there was no political protection, Frank Duff was able to lead his Legion of Mary in with their crusades to "clean up" the area. They went through daubing crucifixes on the doors of the old brothels. A lot of the old prostitutes ended up as Magdalenes, penitents, working in the laundries for the rest of their lives, for the religious. I remember those sad women the times I used to haul our family sheets down to the laundry up the street from us, with their brutal haircuts and their cowed spirits. My [End Page 241] great grandmother went all religious at the end of her life and under Frank Duff 's influence left all the houses to the Legion of Mary and the Church. Unfortunately, because you know all those beautiful Georgian houses, gone. Well, at least that's one version of what happened to the family fortune. There are a few other versions nearly all of which involve gambling.
By 1972, you were studying in Trinity. You also became involved in street theater around that time. What captured your interest?
I had gone along to The Non Stop Connolly Show, the life of James Connolly in six full-length plays by John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy that were being rehearsed in the Sinn Fein headquarters in Gardiner Place. I went to have a look—my good friend Garrett Keogh was going along to audition. Some people had been brought over from the Welfare State Theatre Company in Britain which was at the time a radical outfit who went into communities and wrote plays for them. They would go into, say, a mining community, and they would work with the history of the place and the stories and songs of the workers and put together plays based on the research, sometimes pageants, spectacles. It was early days in Ireland for that idea of a committed theater and it was influenced by this British model. And I got talking to the woman who was making the masks and outfits and puppets, and I became her de facto assistant for the three months that the Connolly plays were in rehearsal. Maggy Howarth was her name. She taught me old-fashioned mask making, with the papiermâché and animal size glue. We'd be stirring up the glue pots and drinking very strong coffee, and she'd show me all these fantastic tricks of property making, old fashioned theatrical knacks. Or we'd go round to the dumps or the second-hand shops to forage for clothes and stuff because we had to make hundreds of costumes for six full-length plays, puppets, guns, masks, props. The plays were performed over the course of twenty-four hours on the Easter weekend in Liberty Hall itself, in the heart of the North Inner City. Arden and D'Arcy had researched Connolly's life in Scotland, his life in the trade union movement, his life in America, where he met Eugene Debs and all the American labor leaders. The plays were full of the songs of the time, the American folk tradition, the Scottish tradition, the Irish tradition, and full of the poems. Maggy let me make the giant puppet for Queen Victoria, the famine queen. And as I made her crown from papier mâché skulls I began to realize how powerfully healing the making path could be, you could actually transform what was oppressive into something very powerful. I don't think anything on the curriculum in the history department at Trinity at the time could [End Page 242] really match up to it, and I was kind of lost to an academic life when I discovered the theater.
Around that time you also became involved with a street theater group?
Yes, out of the Connolly shows came a group called the Children's T. Company which included some of your neighbors here in Dalkey, Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan! Many of the members went on to make lives as artists—writers, directors, actors, singers—Garrett Keogh, Peter Sheridan, Des Hogan, Susie Kennedy. Some of us were refugees from the universities. We didn't feel any draw to, or maybe even any welcome in the theaters. So we put shows on the streets, without resources, and thought, we can do this. We took our own permission: making up our plays, writing them, making masks, making puppets, making what we needed and going out, putting it on the streets—that was a defining moment and a very empowering one.
After Trinity, after the street company broke up, you turned back to poetry, ended up in an American MFA program on the West Coast for two years, then returned to Dublin. At what point did you begin to see yourself as a working poet?
I don't know if turned back is what happened. It moved into a more central place in my life, maybe the central place. When I finished college I wandered around Europe for a few years, always with a poetry notebook on the go. Back and forth to Dublin. Then in 1981, I went and studied for an MFA in Eastern Washington University under Jim McAuley. He was a brilliant teacher, especially in relation to craft matters; he gave me a remarkable grounding in the prosodic traditions of English poetry without ever trying to curb my wilder instincts. His teaching was a foundation gift that I draw on to this day, habits of attention at the heart of my daily work. I very nearly stayed in the US. There was a sense that I could have made a life there within a writing community. There were writing programs. There were lots more opportunities for making that kind of life. But I felt that the poems I had to write I would only get in Dublin. I had felt that earlier too, when I was on a tiny island in the Shetland Islands, in a small croft writing. I was very remote up there, halfway to Iceland. There was no electricity so I'd go out and gather firewood, driftwood from the shores, to light the range to cook and heat the old stones of the croft. This was in my early twenties, and I was writing for the first time knowing that this was the beginning of poems that I would publish. I don't know for sure how I knew it but it was a sense that I was shaping the work for the eyes of another, and that truth, [End Page 243] I mean literal truth, was becoming secondary to the impulse to make a powerful thing. Up to then I had written in a kind of diarist mode, as a form of self-expression, a way of processing the confusions of my young life. I was there on my own on the island. I had enough money saved to live there for the winter or to go back to Dublin and I really couldn't make up my mind which to do, which was the right path. So I threw the I Ching, and the hexagram I got was "return and no blame," which eventually became the title of my first book. I took that return and no blame literally for sure and went back to the city. I definitely came back to Dublin strong in my intention to follow a writing path.
The city has been a major theme in your work, from your earliest poems on the destruction of your neighborhood to your most recent work. But some of your city poems seem to be in direct conversation with other writers. I am thinking in particular of "The Apprentice" and "All I Ever Wanted."
The older self sees that the relationship with the city is one of the central relationships of my life. With its habitats, with its buildings, with its streets, with its statues. With the very fabric of the port of Dublin and ultimately with its literature. I go back and I'm nourished by, say, the tenement plays. I recognize the grandparents of the people I grew up with in O'Casey's tenement plays. I read Joyce and I see his love affair with Dublin. I read Behan, and I see the hopeless love he had for the city. I read Eavan Boland as one of the great poets of Dublin—of the statues, of the buildings, of the bridges, of the river.
Was Yeats an integral part of that conversation for you? In "The Apprentice" you appear to be negotiating directly with the legacy of Yeats.
Yes, he was a huge part. "The Apprentice" was about having masters, literary masters like Yeats, who so bedazzled the eye that the city you're walking around in becomes invisible to you. That the suffering of its people becomes invisible to you because you're walking around in a mythical Hazelwood. You're tying a berry to a thread to catch the glimmering trout. And yet, the more mystic elements in his work and in his life spoke very clearly to me—his striving for self knowledge and arcane knowledge, his looking for soul experience. His music is woven in and certainly his great poems of war, of the Civil War, and of the revolutionary rising—they're graven in. They were some of the most powerful utterances ever made in poetry on the island. [End Page 244]
In "The Apprentice" you set up a tension between the gilded words of Yeats and the "tales of chaos" of a "brother in the trade." Between a remote poet staring down from high windows at motley and a local, hard won, vernacular narrative. In America, William Carlos Williams accused T.S. Eliot of setting poetry back ten years by his refusal to use an American vernacular. That sense of a vernacular was not covered by Yeats either. Was there any way in which you felt Yeats had made a false Ireland?
I would have felt that as a young woman. But in retrospect I see that Yeats is very much a personality shaped by his own milieu, he couldn't but be other than himself. I remember being quite astonished by a British critic who asked how did I estimate Sylvia Plath's position in British poetry. The frame didn't make sense to me. I wrote back saying, "but look, Plath is an American poet, always has been, it's one of the things that is distinctive about her work." I would have understood Yeats as an Anglo-Irish presence in that whole adventure of the Twilight. I would have felt as alienated from Lady Gregory, married to that hated landlord. I would have seen the ramifications of that and as a young woman been quite angered by it. But that was my problem, not Yeats's. The anger, I mean. I was at times a very judgmental young poet and my judgments weren't necessarily literary. But I find in the actual music of his poetry something that certainly feels very Irish to me, very much of the people—I don't mean where he puts on this kind of a peasant, faux rural identity. I mean I'd hear the music that I grew up with in it. An under song maybe that hits the same visceral place that Dublin accent of my childhood hits. Goes right into the hara, or the dantien, or as we say in north Dublin, the guts.
When I look back earlier in the century at the beginning of modern Irish literature, I see not a poetic but an almost uncanny sense of purpose in the way, say, the world of O'Casey seems oppositional to the world of Yeats. Which writer was more available to you as a young writer? Or was this a false opposition?
At the end of the day the oppositions were false, O'Casey and Yeats. I would have had to work through Yeats, to whom I totally related and loved passionately, but I would also have had to "de-Yeats" myself, detox from him, he was like a drug, try [to] see beyond him. He had such an effect that I was wandering around the city seeing through these kind of tinted glasses, through a poetic that wasn't mine. I would relate to him all the way on the mysticism, on the learning of the craft. Nearly everything he said, even the wackier edges, seemed quite ordinary—why wouldn't you be a voyager in [End Page 245] the mind? Isn't that what we were doing on the street corners in Finglas? Or in the dark aromatic rooms were we gathered to listen to strange sounds on turntables? I was completely comfortable with it, but I would have had to work through the class thing in a way I wouldn't have with O'Casey who, though he's from the Protestant tradition, was working class and his culture was similar to my own experiences growing up in Dublin. The people in his plays were people I was meeting in the street. O'Casey has fallen a bit out of fashion and people say of his characters "oh they're only caricatures." They actually aren't, they're real. Maybe in the Dublin of that time, that culture, that era, maybe part of their survival was to turn themselves into performers. Maybe if people have nothing but their personalities they use them, and hone them, and develop a persona to get through the mind-numbing drudgery of poverty. O'Casey was a recording angel. He saw something in that Dublin, the community there where people would make of a small event a marvelous drama because they had to, because their whole status was to do with a thing like that, how they told the story, how they carried the story through the community. He was very acute on that. And yes, of course Yeats is from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, but when you actually go in deeper than the stereotype, he's not that normal either, he doesn't fit any of the rigid categories, he's not exactly exemplary of his class. And O'Casey ended up in Torquay, for God's sake. I was there while he was alive, in the '60s—my aunt and uncle had washed up there where they ran a hotel. Torquay is in Devon, very sedate, very middle England and very beautiful but it's an idea of Britishness—The Palm Court Hotel and afternoon tea, the Promenade and bowls on the manicured green—and the idea of O'Casey ending up there is so strange. I'd say I've integrated both O'Casey and Yeats, I can say I love them both, and I don't feel I have to be championing one at the expense of the other.
Eavan Boland approached tradition by metabolizing Yeats in her earliest work, then went on to challenge the way women were left outside history, outside tradition. As Moya Cannon observed, she gave Irish women poets the vote. Michael Hartnett approached tradition by addressing Yeats head on, but also by looking back to seventeenth-century Irish poets because he felt he had an inheritance that he had not acknowledged. Did you ever feel a similar sense of imperative in poetry, a silenced constituency, an unacknowledged inheritance?2
I distrust senses of imperative! I had a sense, an instinct that my own poetic was bound up with inscribing into my work the voices of the people in the city who nourished me and made me a poet and yet didn't seem to get [End Page 246] much of a look in anywhere. These would have been the people from the poorer areas, from the flat complexes, people who were burying their children in the heroin epidemics. People who not only never had work, but never even had hope of work. But whether I ever sat down to a poem with this in mind is another thing—and I've a terrible distrust of on-behalfism. But then the people I have in poems, who barge in actually, who insist on getting their spake in, whether I want them to or not, are usually not an abstract category, they are usually specific people I love—neighbors, friends, family. And it is specific beloved faces that I see when I'm making the poems. Eavan Boland gave a very practical and powerful example of how to integrate what was outside the poem, and troubling it, with the poem itself. Her way of making certainly, but especially her articulation of the pressures she came under as a young poet has been a huge influence—she outlined pitfalls I was able to avoid, though no doubt there were others I stumbled into in the dark, so to speak, or that were of my own making.
As young poets, the generation before you connected imaginatively with the generation before them—Heaney and Boland were reading their Kavanagh; Mahon and Longley, their MacNeice. All four were metabolizing and sometimes resisting Yeats. But you took a very different route. Instead of connecting with the generation just ahead of you, you dove into mid-twentieth-century counterculture. With that globalizing counterculture came a shift in spiritual consciousness. By the time Dharmakaya (2000) was published, Buddhism was an explicit resource in your poetry. When did you first encounter Buddhism, and how did it become a literary resource to your work?
It came from the counterculture that was I was floating in when I was a young teenager, from West Coast literature, from books that were passed around like the Holy Grail on street corners in Finglas. I'm thinking of books by Alan Watts. He had a phrase that stuck in my mind as a young teenager (he was talking about the spiritual path, the life path): "be careful to follow the road and not just climb up the signposts." Gary Snyder's poetry, his whole adventure in Buddhism was also filtering through to us. The first book of his I came across was Regarding Wave (1970). I had "What You Should Know to Be a Poet"—"all you can about animals as persons, your own six senses with a watchful and elegant mind." I would have taken the injunctions literally. "At least one kind of traditional magic, tarot, astrology, the book of changes." It was an opening out into a perception of a world where there could be integration. What was flowing in under the guise of the counterculture, or what was called "alternative," included access [End Page 247] to a hinterland of American folk tradition in building and craft and poetry and song and music, and I think we latched onto that like drowning puppies as an alternative to what we would be getting through the schools certainly and through the messages that our own culture was sending us as working-class kids. We were the first generation to, of right, have access to second-level education let alone third-level education. And there were a lot of radical forces in play, disruptive forces. The North was building up and it was about to blow. All those ideas—around socialism, around colonialism, around revolution—were filtering through strongly. We were quite disaffected. My memory is we were constantly harassed by the cops in our local station for nothing other than maybe the boys had long hair and the girls wore long skirts. So the ideas coming in through poetry like Snyder's were giving me the questions I needed to ask, and they were also giving me an alternative to what I was getting through the church, the state, and the family.
So the Buddhism was sparked from America?
Yes, the Buddhism was sparked from America, it wasn't a looking to the East. Snyder reinforced the idea of a path that was poetry, that could use the spiritual traditions, the Native American traditions, that could use the great philosophies of the world. In his exploration of Native American traditions, Snyder would also have helped me look at our own past in a different way. Because if you look at the Táin, the great cowboy epic of the Bronze Age, if you look at the stories of the Fenian cycle and if you look at the Fianna, the band of warriors, they were hunting salmon, they were hunting deer, they were berry gatherers—that was our Bronze Age. Snyder was showing me in his work Native American traditions that were still within living memory—vestiges of the hunter-gatherer traditions right up until a hundred years previously, pre-colonization. Snyder was radical to use different strands, to use history, myth, poetry, archeology, linguistics, to use anthropology, to use working-class traditions of the American West, of logging and building, to pull them together into what would much later be defined as a holistic vision.
And so I started to read in Buddhism, the different kinds of Buddhism, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Taoist thought. That's been a constant source. I wouldn't even like to describe myself as Buddhist—I'm probably as bad a Buddhist as I was a Catholic—but it did give me a powerful support system at a time when I couldn't have had any kind of a spiritual life within Catholicism. It was just so septic, the whole patriarchy, the priesthood, the role in our culture, the way I saw my mother's generation churning out [End Page 248] children because they were denied access to contraceptives. There was no way I could go to the church after about fourteen or so even though I had great respect for the piety of my grandmother, her generation, how much they loved Our Lady, the May altars; I too loved all that ceremony, devotion. And that's the word, devotion; they were so devout and good and powerful models as women. But I just couldn't handle the whole patriarchal thing, the hierarchy of these men in skirts calling the shots; I was very disaffected from the church. In Buddhism you don't even have to believe in a god, it's a practice; well, it can be as practical as building a table. It's a part of my daily routine, trying to live a mindful and compassionate life and I like the holistic vision at the heart of it: the interpenetration of all species and all creatures on the planet. I've heard stuff that leads me to believe that the monastic systems in places like Thailand or Japan can be as corrupt as anywhere else, they're open to the same venal impulses and vices, but as a path it's been very useful tome. I would distinguish always between a belief system and the institutions that grow up around that and eventually become political systems whose real business is temporal power and not the spirit.
Dharmakaya begins with an elegy and, like several elegies in your most recent volume, it associates death with breath and memory (memory that keeps "the drowned forever singing their last breath"). Is there such a thing as a Buddhist elegy? Could you talk about how Buddhist teachings about breath, body, and memory inform your elegies?
I wouldn't have the perspective to say if this is a particular Buddhist elegy or just file under elegy in general. Certainly the idea that we're all dust in the wind eventually, that transience is at the heart of the life, is at the heart of the Buddhist path. It might help with grief—I believe that, in fact, I believe death is a gift. I see that in my own garden, when things are dead they're ready to be pulled from the earth, they'll come with you. If a flower is dead, it withers back, it just pulls away easily; if you try to pull it before it's ready it resists. You begin to feel that death is the great compost heap out of which new life comes, whether it's death of an idea or actual death and composting in the natural world. Snyder's lines, "we live on the dead and down"—he's talking about a great tree in the forest, the amount of life that gives to microfungals, to other creatures, to birds, to little bugs, to spoors, to bacteria—that death is the soil out of which the life comes and to integrate it in a life is a kind of freedom. It doesn't mean that you don't grieve or you don't feel enormous loss or sorrow but the great perspective of millennia of loss can help with the human span of day-to-day loss. I don't know if it makes it easier. Certainly you see that death is in fact nourishment and it is a gift, and [End Page 249] accepting that I find very helpful for going on and even for living through the deepest griefs. And certainly if you have a great tool like poetry at your disposal for transformation you can use the most horrific things that might happen to you or your family or community, you can use all these things as ways of transformation, either personally or even within the larger tradition that you work in. Maybe within the larger community if you can give people these elegies that allow grief to be focused. Certainly the elegies I've done for the children of the inner city, "The Lost Children of the Inner City," seem to be helpful to people outside myself.
You've described your early workshop with Gary Snyder as influential on your development as a poet, and you mentioned that the workshop was on breath. Were you working on breath and speech? Breath and thought? Breath and line break? Breath and the stanza?
All of that. Basically to root it back down in breathing, in actual breathing into your lines, breathing into your poems but also to root it in the physical which is your body, to pull it back in there, which is where we all start from. Physically to make a poem is to shape breath in space. The text is the record of that. As a young poet, as a maker, as the crafts woman I was becoming, I was moving from an expressive mode into a desire to learn the trade in a practical, honest way. Snyder's reminder of its root in and route through the body came at a crucial moment, toward the end of the two-year MFA sessions. The workshops had been wonderful but very biased towards poetry as an intellectual practice. So this was perfect to go back out into the world with poetry brought right back into the body, into breath, rooted right back down in the body for me.
In many of your poems, the truth of the body replaces the truth of nationality or the truth of an orthodox religious identity. In early poems like "Hunger Strike," from Reading the Sky, "the small cage" of a body remembers the "rude march of history" through kitchens, parlors and bedrooms. In "A Child's Map of Dublin," from Pillow Talk, Connolly's Starry Plough is replaced by "the charts of our bodies." And in Dharmakaya , truth and body are brought together in a single word in the title. In other poems, bodies—especially women's bodies—are revealed to be both wounded and wounding. Are private senses of the body here opening onto the public discord?
I think if breath is at the heart of poetry, and I believe it is, then the manipulation of breath, the changing of breath, the regularizing of breath, the disruption of regular breathing, all of these are technical impulses in poetry. [End Page 250] The religious orders know it through chant, the shamans know it, the holotropic healers know it, like those researchers with the Esalen Institute. In research done into body work over the last thirty years it's pretty much accepted that grief, that trauma, can lodge in the body and one way of healing, one way of clearing trauma is through breath work. So tome that mirrors things I would be doing in poetry before I even had that language for it. It was a powerful site for healing forme always, from the time I was a young teenager and started my first poems, it was a place I could really absolutely be myself in the way I breathed in what I believed in the way my body actually felt, unmediated by the culture around me; maybe only mediated by my own lack of craft and also by the sovereignty of language itself because the words themselves have power quite apart from you or what you do with them. As you learn to use them and to play with them and to explore them, to feel what Pasternak calls the "ghost of each word," its own etymology, its specific gravity, you learn to value and respect the autonomy of words and their historic valence. The words are outside you, their external power meeting your body and your breath work and your rhythms of being. I believe that is the cauldron where the brew starts fermenting. Breath seems to be at the heart of all transcendental experience. Certainly meditation, the concentration on breath, in all traditions, leads to an a historical plenum, a transpersonal consciousness.
Which is not to say the poet sits down generally and starts to concentrate so much on the breath, but the rhythm, seeking toward a rhythm, searching for a line, a cadence, a music, all of those involve breath. The great thing about poetry is that it's the human voice, the one human voice breaking the silence. And how you make that voice powerful, trustworthy, capable of communicating, capable of changing other people's energy, I think at the root of that is the manipulation of breath.
And you hope that what you make transcends the maker. Poetry is public speech, no matter how private or intimate the material.
You had a series of influences, some of which weren't anti-Irish but un-Irish: American counter culture, Buddhism, Gary Snyder, the 'Beat' poets. You later brought those early un-Irish elements into a powerful national poetry at a moment when the country was caught up in national conflict, at a moment when poetry was caught up in a conversation about national identity and fragmentation of identity. Did you have a sense of yourself as being caught up in these shifts of identity?
I would have had a strong political impulse in my later teens around the time I was starting to get interested in going to university. I had been expelled [End Page 251] from the Convent School in Finglas and was traveling cross-town to a Vocational school. I had excellent teachers there and the emphasis was not academic in the narrow sense (their remit was to train young women for the commercial sector so I studied with surprising enthusiasm economics, accountancy and business organization). They laid on a course in Latin, then still a university requirement, when I and a few other girls expressed an interest in going to university. I became close friends with a couple of sisters, who were very Republican, and from a Republican family. And I started to get interested in Republican politics, even to the point of going to political classes at night in the Official Sinn Fein offices and selling The United Irishman around the pubs of North County Dublin.
In "Ard Fheis" you bring a political meeting into the poem. You bring the big Georgian windows into it, an execution in Kilmainham, the Pro-Cathedral girls at prayer, a mother nursing a child to sleep, an echo of Yeats, a reference to Connolly—all brought into an early poem. So even at an early stage you were gathering these different elements and trying to locate them in the actual city.
Yes, and I think I was trying to find a political self or political way to channel my social beliefs. But I found the political vision very narrow, especially as the physical force tradition started to reassert itself and come to the fore, and I'd just begun to think no, I don't want to die for Ireland. I might have wanted to die for Ireland if I'd been a few generations earlier, but I actually wanted to live for Ireland, and I began to get more interested in non-violent and active pacifism. I was trying to find a way that I could be a conscientious citizen and put my enormous hunger for social justice into action, but without subscribing to what seemed to me a failed politics of the gun.
But when you returned from the States, where you had a very rich MFA program with workshops from a host of American writers, how did you integrate the richness and sustenance of your experiences there with the city and the tradition you came back to?
I came back from Washington State with a whole new sense of access and possibility. It wasn't until I came back that I began to engage with contemporary Irish poetry, which I found to be riddled with negative stuff, quite septic in its toxicity. A lot of alcoholism, a lot of darkness, a lot of sodden misogyny. The way I integrated back into the city was through teaching [End Page 252] workshops in the prisons, where I began working with the children, later even the grandchildren, of girls I'd been in primary school with. While I'd been in the States for two years in a kind of a lotus-eating poetry zone, heroin had hit our city communities with enormous devastation. When a disenfranchised community is hit by a level of addiction then it is a public health crisis and the children, who are the potential class activists and community leaders, are zonked out of their heads and dying like flies, then it is a political issue rather than one of personal choice. Unemployment was growing when I left, because the traditional industries were gone, the sewing and the city manufacturing, the docks. The last of those industries were gone by the time I got back—there was 80 percent unemployment in some flat complexes by the mid-eighties. Heroin is a powerful pain killer. AIDS had just hit. It was a terrible, really dark time. In the prisons you really see what your culture is like—I saw a class criminalized, the beautiful children strung out and abandoned by their public representatives. I didn't have a lot of time to think about Irish Poetry with capital letters, I was also the Literacy Organizer for the South Inner City, living in Fatima Mansions, a community in crisis, where I was involved in writing grant applications to try to get workers co-ops off the ground. We got a launderette (very few of the people had washing machines) and a food co-op going. The launderette thrived for many years.
Did you feel a gulf between the literature in which you'd been immersed in Washington, and the work you came back to in Ireland?
No . . . I wouldn't see a dichotomy between them. I'd teach "Howl" in the prisons—"I saw the best minds of my generation. . . ."—you know the opening lines of "Howl," and they'd love it.
"Who bared their brains to Heaven."
Yes, "the starry dynamo," the broken wounded characters, they loved that. Sure that poem published in 1955 (the year I was born) spoke directly and powerfully to the prisoners. What I was also able to bring in was contemporary women's literature because I was working with the female prisoners—stories and poems from the women I'd read in the States—Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange. Black women writers especially spoke clear as a bell to my workshop participants. And then of course I was beginning to find material; I was beginning to discover my own contemporaries like Rita Ann Higgins, Mary O'Malley, Roz Cowman. [End Page 253] So I was beginning to put the map together then. We were starting to come into print—a generation of women, generally later than our male contemporaries, and finding copies of the books was really hard but an awareness of each other, I think, a sense of not being in it as an isolated voice—that was nourishing.
In your growing awareness of Irish women poets, did feminism come into the frame at all? And if so was it the Irish Women's Movement or American feminism?
I'd say, again, that I looked to the American tradition. It was definitely through the American writers that I started to connect into feminism. And strangely enough it was the liberation politics of people like Snyder that prepared me to hear the powerful arguments that feminism was to put at my disposal. Through my early engagements with Connolly, Sinn Fein, workers' movements, I would have been nourished and galvanized by the idea of the brotherhood of man which was a revelation and energizing force, but it was nothing compared to when I began to see the sisterhood of women—that was the true revolutionary moment in my lifetime.
Through Snyder and the Beat poets came a politics of liberation that extended to women as well as men. Yet it has always seemed curious to me that the women poets associated with the Beats, with the exception of Anne Waldman, did not thrive. Even as accomplished as Waldman is, she is still very much in the shadow legacy of the legendary men.
It's a problematic area. I'd put pressure on that word "thrive." Do you mean in careerist terms? Do we, any of us, know what will be useful in the coming times? As Chou En Lai, Mao Zedong's deputy, said when asked what he thought of the French Revolution—"It's far too early to tell." The memoirs of some of those women are terrifying and terrific in equal measure. But yes, Anne Waldman is still writing, Diane di Prima is still writing, I noticed Joanne Kyger, who was Gary Snyder's second wife, had a Collected Poems out recently. So they have gone on, continued writing, and have made writing lives. There were costs I would imagine, and despite the liberation aspects of the whole Beat philosophy, their treatment of their women doesn't seem to have been any better, as far as I could see, than anyone else's. And then the Beat movement—to use terms I'm not entirely comfortable with—became a kind of journalistic entity, long after many of its early members had moved on. But you work with what you're given and the only hope I give to younger women—when I'm working with younger poets and [End Page 254] they're up against this kind of wall—is to say that these oppressions and negative forces in your life can become powerful, transformational energies if you know how to work with them and how to integrate them. You can use them and not be a victim of them. Something I remember Eavan Boland saying quite early on, at a talk or a workshop, is that if you problematize a poem with your obsessive issues, that that will be, in itself, a huge energizing moment in the poem. Rather than keeping your own real obsessions at the edge or outside the poem, bring them into the poem. That's often where the real action is—in the problematic around the poem, and sometimes it's left at the gate of poetry.
In a recent review Anne Enright commented: "Edna O'Brien was the first Irish woman ever to have sex. For some decades, indeed, she was the only Irish woman to have had sex—the rest just had children. This was a heroic and sometimes difficult position to maintain in the national imagination." Your work has also contributed to that unsettling of the national imaginary with respect to women's sexuality and iconized images of women. Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted when you brought sexual themes into your poems?
I would see my writing about the body and writing about my sexuality and the power of sexuality as being in a tradition that way predates the coming of English on to the island. You only need to look at the Irish language tradition to know that the bawdiness, the direct treatment of sexual matters or body matters, was already there, long before we ever started writing in English. If you read Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill on the old traditions or talk to Biddy Jenkinson, or Bríd Ní Mhóráin, any of the Irish language women poets, you realize they are working in a language that gives them different freedoms in its very vocabulary, in its very range of tones. How difficult it is to write about sex in English—because the language itself can trivialize it. Hallmark cards have a lot to answer for—it's very hard to find a real language of passion and love that is powerful and authentic and doesn't just sound vaguely embarrassing.
But sexuality has always interested me politically, both the control mechanisms on women through the church—we have forgotten in a generation how much control the priests had, and the idea that they would be telling me what to do with my body through their minions, the political and power-wielding classes. I don't mean "they" as an abstract idea of Roman Catholicism, I mean these people actually standing in front of you, in your classrooms, in your churches telling you what you should do with your body. I felt huge anger because it's one thing laughing and saying they're [End Page 255] eejits, but when I saw the function they had in my mother's life—the women I actually knew who bore these enormous burdens on their bodies and on their psyches—I saw how it was a poisoned chalice that we were being offered as young women. I was also very aware, especially as I began to read other women's writing from other places, that the Irish situation was septic and corrupt, that there were other ways of being in the body, joyous ways, that sex was great, and I was finding that out, obviously not just theoretically through reading other people's writings [laughter]. I've always been into the rhythms of it, both the poetry and the sex, and would have made the connection very early between the two, the different dances of the body. But I don't sit down and say "okay, today I am going to write a poem whose theme is sexuality for Irish women looking at my granny's life." The thematic investigation comes much later than the making, and it shifts with time. Theme is maybe the most unstable element in a poem because it's a function of reading rather than making.
John McGahern led your first writing workshop, Eavan Boland was the reader for your first poems, Gary Snyder was one of your earliest teachers. Looking back now, how did that constellation of influences work?
You know nearly every university in Ireland now offers a year's MA or MPhil in creative writing, there are workshops adjunct to most of the literary festivals, there are night classes locally everywhere, there are occasions generally to work with many of the best practitioners of the various genres of writing. This is a profound change. When I was starting out where did you go? Most of us were self-taught initially, not a bad idea indeed, as we're ultimately all self-taught in some real sense. The first time I ever read my work publicly, the first time I had critical feedback was in 1978 in John McGahern's workshop, the National Writers' Workshop, over in Galway. Not so much from John who was a great one for the autonomy of the writer: you really are the expert, you know what you're doing underneath it all, this is just an occasion for us to have conversations about writing. "I can't teach you," he used to say, "I can't teach you about poetry." But one thing he did say that stuck with me, he said publishing is a way of burying your dead. By the time you publish that's the end of the process. Another thing he said, which I've taken to heart and live by, is: don't measure yourself by what others see as success, measure yourself by the grandeur of your failures. They were important things to hear at that stage. Eavan Boland was my outside assessor on my MFA thesis. Jim McAuley knew the high regard I had for her (I had been reading her poems with my English 101 students and in a beginner's [End Page 256] writing workshop that the English Department at EWU had me teach as part of the fellowship arrangement) and, unbeknownst tome, Jim asked her would she be an outside reader for the thesis. Her comments were perspicacious—a really sharp critique of the work that was invaluable. So that, tome, was a much greater gift—that was the best gift that contemporary Irish poetry could offer me.
But the complexity of influences, that's something each writer has to integrate for herself. I wouldn't say I was directly influenced by Snyder's mode of writing. I wrote out of my own tradition, the Irish tradition. When you go to write, the model, the music you're carrying in your head is often from your childhood. But his poems dropped like stones into deep pools of my consciousness. And his way of seeing America in terms of bioregions and watersheds was the most useful analysis to apply to Ireland during the war, the Troubles. Cultural workers for instance, poets, actors, musicians, North and South, never recognized the border except as some kind of mad thing you had to get through without getting caught or stopped. So Snyder's idea of bioregionalism, that whole nexus of ecology, Buddhism, and liberation politics was certainly integrated into my sense of what was happening in Ireland. Also of course it offered a radical path that didn't involve the gun.
An Irish writer recently commented in an interview that "We didn't have class in Ireland until the 1990s; before then everyone was just Irish." I gather that comment refers to the consciousness of class, not to the experience of class. Critics have credited you with bringing an awareness of class oppression, class consciousness, and particularly gendered class consciousness, into contemporary Irish poetry. Is that something you see yourself as having done?
That would make my head fall off, to be honest, to feel that responsible or prescient. I do see those obsessional concerns in my work but they were articulated organically, there wasn't an agenda beyond keeping going poem by poem and where the poem might lead—into the next poem one always hoped. Where those energies of conflict are bubbling up and erupting on the surface, I work with them, especially in the plays where they can actually give flesh and bones. But I don't think this was an individual act; I think it was a collective energy bubbling up out of that moment when an underclass of writers who were enabled in childhood to have a middle-class education had taken those middle-class tools and used them to explicate, express, celebrate, critique, an under song. Poetry grows out of areas that are not necessarily fluent. "Inarticulate speech of the heart" as Van Morrison [End Page 257] has it in a song. What you're seeing in the '90s is the full articulation of a process that began in the '60s with the free education act and the product of that. Without that act would Mary O'Malley have gone to university, a poor fisherman's daughter from Ballyconneely? Theo Dorgan, the eldest of fifteen children of a factory worker, would he have gone to university? Would I? We might have individually made the struggle, but what you're perceiving is a generation coming into full power of expression whether it's poets or fiction writers, film-makers, painters. Whether or not we liked the education, whether or not we used it as the original givers of the gift intended, our generation was enormously empowered. We were given enormous access.
Which is not to say there's no class in Ireland. One of my earliest feelings of the power of language was not being allowed to play with children because I was from the tenements. We inherited the British class system and we inherited it as a colonized people with our colonized eyes and our fevered colonized brains, so we fetishized class even more. There was extreme class rigidity here. It was manifest in all areas—medicine, law, education. Everywhere people had to interface with representatives of the ruling classes, or the middle classes was where you read all the class drama. You only had to go down to the local dispensary clinic to see it. We saw it as young kids in the way our teachers taught. We called our schooling "cultural imperialism," as soon as we learned those terms. The good thing about coming from the underclass—the remnants of the traditional working class after the jobs are gone—is you have the language of the Other. It's a very similar position to the colonized writer or the postcolonial writer, that you must have the language of the Other, because that's how you survive; you learn their language to survive their excesses of power. That's how you get your education and you learn to pass as middle class, don't you, you learn to play that game. And as you're playing it you know it's a game and it just gets you through it but that doesn't mean you value it or put any store in it—it's just the way things are. Maybe you'd only see that if you're coming from the underclass. Maybe if you're already in a position of comfort, I wouldn't even go so far as saying a position of privilege, if you're in a position of comfort and you're in the majority, and your values and beliefs are the ones that the majority of society holds up as right and real and true, then maybe you're blind to Otherness. Quite a dark statement really.
But it's very reductive sometimes to think in class terms. It can simplify what is incredibly complex interplay between generations as well as between a generation. Often the best you can do for a young poet—and it [End Page 258] would have been people like Eavan Boland, Michael Harnett, and Brendan Kennelly, who was one of my teachers at Trinity, who did this for me—is just accept them as a poet, without putting them under any pressure, or without having great expectations, as part of the literary community, which, in a way, ultimately does demolish the class lines, and sometimes the gender lines.
One of a series of things I see happening in Painting Rain is an analysis of the way people are weighed upon by a society. I see this particularly in the politicization of family experience. Is the family a microcosm for Irish society?
I certainly have used it as such. I would have felt from quite an early time that the energies within the family are filtered down and filter back up in a biofeedback loop to the state. The authoritarian roles in the family, the subservient roles in the family, happen in a kind of collusion with the bigger institutions. So if you want to look at patriarchy it's your relationship with your father and your brothers that you look at and maybe you'll find away through that doesn't remain rhetorical. Because the things I really want to write about are power and how control of power brings huge responsibility, how execution of power carries huge responsibility. How do we, as individuals and collectively, use our powers to the good? And as we know, when the responsibility isn't embraced we have corruption and the misuse of power; but forme to write about that, it's only going to be rhetoric, it's only going to be empty and hollow because there's nothing there that I love. But if I write about my father and my brother, the emotional power of their lives and the love I have for them and the conflicts I have with them, well then that's going to give me a poem, there's no doubt; whereas if I start to write about the state I'd be lost in reams of abstraction, I'd probably end up writing a rant about the local county council and their dodgy planning decisions. So the family can be a powerful prism, and gives you a freedom to explore your whole culture through those intimate relationships. Of course the family might have a different response to finding their lives reflected in my poems—as in "Don't you dare put us in your poems!"
There are two groupings of poems that reflect on family in Painting Rain. An earlier group that elegizes and celebrates family dolmens—aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather—while a later group reflects on the politics of the family as a place of unrest: the poems in the "Troika" sequence in particular, but also "Archive," "My Brother Becomes a Man," and "Hearth Lesson." Were these latter poems part of a formal initiative? An area of experimentation? [End Page 259]
Toward the end of Painting Rain, I grew very interested in re-examining the whole area of confessional poetry. I started to read again poets who were labeled confessional, some of the American poets—Sexton, Lowell. I was reading the poems written more in organic forms where the lines just come and follow each other in their own pattern. I was especially interested in its use as a put-down, as a negative term. And I wanted to write confessional poetry, to return closer to the mode I composed in as a young poet; I wanted to put a lot of pressure on the word confessional. I wrote what one of my friends calls "the shallow grave poems," excavations of material in my own family life, material that has always disturbed and frightened me. One poem, about a suicide attempt that my mother made a few years before she died, I called "This is Not a Confessional Poem" because I wanted to signal that I knew that would be the exact word that would be used to dismiss it. It's a word I hear even today in workshops as a put-down—somebody reveals something intimate and potentially important (for them to write it and for us to hear it) and it can be instantly dismissed with a sneer and a blasé label. I was aware that this was a mode that women have often written in, and that I was drawing on a long tradition of poems dismissed as confessional. So I wanted to politicize that sequence of poems, to get them some context where to affirm again that the witness of individual suffering is of value and is indeed central to the longer, wider river that is world poetry. I think we've come through a postmodern dream where we've replayed ironies and cleveralities into a kind of mannered stance. In architecture and drama and in literature itself, postmodernism has been in some way, or could end up as, just a cul-de-sac of ornamentation and exuberance. So I wanted to affirm again that the private-and-personal is important, especially in this phase of the tradition. Those family poems, while they come from some well within myself of grief or shame or hurt, as they engaged my ability as a crafts woman, I began to see that they're not as private as you imagine. In fact, a lot of our heart's desires, a lot of our shames, a lot of our deepest fears, are shared. Poetry in the twentieth century and in the opening of the twenty-first century, in the traditions I've worked in, is chiefly concerned with private memory—a kind of holding up against the mass totalitarian-type states we live in now, of the witness of a single human life. I wanted to push at the border—to try to reconnect with the idea of the poet as holder of public memory, community memory, tribal memory, which has been our job for most of the possibly forty thousand years we've had poetry as a tool of culture. Could I integrate my work as a private memorialist with an impulse to express collective memory? [End Page 260]
In the sequence "Six Sycamores," six monologues in contemporary voices alternate with six sonnets that create a backdrop of eighteenth-century grandeur. Two poem titles are actual addresses on Stephen's Green. Can you talk about the structure of the sequence and the relation of the sonnets to the short monologues?
Well, a bit of background to the poem. The Office of Public Works, which is tasked with minding the material fabric of the state, from police stations, to great public houses, museums, galleries—our built heritage so to speak—they had a commission going. Under the Per Cent for Art Scheme a percentage of the purse for new public buildings, roads, canals, bridges, etc. up to a maximum amount which escapes me now . . . anyway they were putting in a link building behind two Georgian houses on the east side of St. Stephen's Green—their national headquarters. Because I grew up in a Georgian house, albeit a tenement slum, I know how they work. I know how the shutters work; I know how the great iron clasps on the shutters work. Even though they broke my heart as a child, I love those buildings; the intricacies of the craftwork, and the imagination, the ceilings, the stuccodoring work and yet what they stand for, the ascendancy class, the class privilege of the whole colonial adventure, I have real problems with. That tension between something I loved and something that oppressed me interested me, so I tendered for that commission.
I thought that the sonnet would be a good form to mirror something of the architectural complexity and the ornamentation of the houses themselves and how they had been shells for many different kinds of lives, for office workers now, for tenement families, for the rich, for the original owners of the houses, for the merchant and professional classes. I think of the sonnet as a kind of a shell in the literary tradition. Both house and poem are received forms that can be re-inhabited and are re-inhabited, that can be played with and changed.
And yet the sonnet, if you know any of its history, it came into English with the Elizabethan courtier soldier poets some of whom were also the agents of colony here in a policy of ethnic cleansing in Munster. Paddy Bushe has a wonderful poem, "Poets at Smerwick" where he has Spenser and Raleigh going back to their tents at night having organized on one day the execution of six hundred people—they apportioned out five prisoners to each soldier so they could share the burden of killing—so he has them going back to their tents after a day's campaigning cleaning the gore off their swords and getting out their quills to pen a few lines. The last line of the last sonnet in his sequence is "such tidyminds could make [End Page 261] a sonnet scan." So I thought that the sonnet would be the ideal form to bring some of that energy in; even if that's never stated, it's there in the karma of the form.
Are the monologues intended as challenges to the formal structure?
I wanted to put them together, to say this is a sonnet, but this is an actual human voice, unornamented in plain speech with its own little dramatic vignette out of a life. Just as the ordinary life goes on in these beautiful structures, these edifices. So I wanted to get a conversation between the casual throw-away vernacular of the little pieces and the more tightly wrapped language and ritualized energy of the sonnets.
The small voices are individuals who, just as most people are in their cities, are not stake holders, they don't actually own any of the grand buildings. The buildings are part of the fabric of their imaginations and their minds but they have very little control or say over what happens, especially in that area of the city where there's so much power, in that Georgian nexus of the Green and Merrion Square, that whole area of government culture. I wanted specifically voices of citizens who weren't part of the gravy train to be in that poem.
The titles of the short monologues, are they based on naval time?
I had a sense of a kind of a watch over all of this. Over all the sonnets and little remarks, the small voices, was somebody watching. Keeping a log as it were. Naval time is very good, an expression of that: someone who is keeping the watch. And that is the poet really.
And the epigraph on the custodial requirement to plant six trees?
The planting is emblematic of the kind of custodial work people in the Office of Public Works do, or what the National Trust do over the border in Northern Ireland. I wanted to honor people who want to hold in good shape what the earth has to offer us, and hold it for future generations. I saw the voices as moments snatched out of time in the long patient witness of old trees. Trees have memory, they have longevity if treated right, they are crucial to a civilized city. So these are the moments of our lives cast against non-human time. Trees endure while all these lives flick past them. [End Page 262]
One of the most exciting questions raised by ecopoetics lately is a question not of subject matter but of form. How does the poet bring nature, and the relation of nature to culture, to form? Pound talked about the difference between artifical form and organic form, but is that a real division? Does organic form exist in thematic tension with artificial form? Where do you locate that?
When I was in the States studying at Eastern Washington University there was a debate raging (it got very heated in our workshops as well), the debate du jour about organic form as opposed to received form. There was, in my estimation, a ridiculous and for all I know still active movement to link the use of received forms and modes of composition to Conservative politics. The Neo-cons of Verse! I thought that debate was a complete waste of time. Received forms are forms that we can live in if we want to. If we choose. If you go into the history of most received forms, you'll find they have their roots in the folk tradition, songs of the people. If you look into the history of the villanelle for instance you're back to the slave song of the Roman lata fundia, the slave farms that had the villa as the administrative centre. All the obsession that you get in the villanelle, and here we might remember that Plath cut her teeth on the villanelle—so many of them in her juvenelia—you can see that her obsessional craftiness originally honed its edge in the villanelle. So if you can retrieve these so-called high literary artifacts and see the magain as folk, as things that people make, as songs of the oppressed. The villanelle if you wanted to find a parallel to it you'd look at the slave plantation of the American South. It has much in common with the Blues. I certainly didn't see that these received poems were politically conservative, to go back to the debate in the EWU workshops. They're like the shells that you find on the beach, if you can crawl in there and live as creatures do, great, they're beautiful. They're irresistible to me, especially the sonnet. Because of its relationship with women and because of its historical relationship with Ireland, it's a site where all sorts of mischief can be made. Organic form is just a structure too, it doesn't mean that it's any less crafty, or that it doesn't take as much work. I think you use what you need and everything is grist to the mill. If you want to use a two-beat nursery rhyme as your formal pattern, great, whatever turns you on. You know Ginsberg's remark when he was asked what was the formal impetus or influence on "Howl"? He said it was a long scream he heard once in a lunatic asylum. I think the division between modes of composition is artificial. They feed each other. [End Page 263]
The title of the poem"The Wolf Tree"was taken from a footnote to Adrienne Rich's poem "Slashes" from The School Among the Ruins. Was Rich's work a strong presence for you?
Yes, that particular book is there always on my shelf just at my left hand at my work desk. Rich is just a great companion on the path. Any time I feel the low point—why am I doing this, the whole shebang if you like, of doubts, and niggling uncertainties that come in and out of the writing life, I just reach for her and she always steadies me up. I just read and feel yes, well look, just get a grip, get your act together, keep going, there's no problem really that isn't of your own making at the minute. Whatever's out there, I think you do get oppressed by it, the paraphernalia around poetry, the poetry business, the publishing life, the literary milieu, the negativity that I experience sometimes certainly from my own culture—she can slash through that, she can just push through it and has done and I know she does it all the time. She's a real warrior presence. I need a blast of her to steady me up every now and then.
In the making of the last book, which came in fits and starts, I had difficulty finding a path at times. I came across Rich's poem "Slashes" which contains the line "In wolf tree, see the former field" and it blew my mind the way a line of poetry can transfix you and shift all the elements of consciousness and reality around. The wolf tree grows in an open field and anything else that grows up around it is striving competitively around it for the light. Every time after when I was walking in the woods I would look for the wolf tree. It took me a long time to see my first one. And took me even longer to see the wolf tree of my own making. I saw my own inner wolf tree! I saw this original tree in its clearing in its original field and I saw all that had grown up around it and tangled it and confused it and sought to impede it and I just thought, I've connected. It really opened up the path to finish that book.
An early poem "Borders" is prescient in the way that it brings together landscape and violence, the Troubles and climate change. In recent poems like "Number Fifty One" or "Them Ducks Died for Ireland," you seem to be reaching for a more planetary consciousness, setting local history against a scale of archeological or deep time. Has your sense of the relation between landscape and violence altered with the dramatic changes of recent years: peace, prosperity, and the current sobering "post-tiger" realities?
I think I have always had that strong sense of landscape, community, and selfhood as the triangulation for the work. The peace process, though riddled [End Page 264] with problems and contradictions, is the most positive thing that's happened politically in my lifetime. And if it hadn't happened, I think it would have been side-washed by history. I think the concerns are global and always have been. The global perspective puts nationalism and the Irish Troubles in a different light. What is the point of debates around a United Ireland or devolution if the island won't actually sustain us because we've fucked it up? Then whether we're loyalist or nationalist is beside the point. Bioregionalism, the idea of Ireland as an integrated region, has always been the way forward, to see it holistically as an island. In the distant past we've had enormous connection to the other big island. If you go to Callanish on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides, the megalithic stone circle there, and you go to West Cork to the Ardgroom stone circle, you won't have any doubts about the connectivity. It's just that the historical framework can impede progress if you think in very small cycles.
The whole planet is obviously facing into a period of enormous uncertainty now. But I wonder if living in the modern has always been that way. If you went back to medieval times, were they sitting around saying, "Jesus, what's going to happen with this Black Death that's coming at us?" [laughter]. Is being in the now, the modern, always a terrifying experience? I'm sure there are peaceful back waters where nothing happens and everything is fine, but I know, even remembering my grandmother's conversations, each generation is always on the edge. That's why we're part of nature rather than controllers or separate from it. We don't know anymore than the wolf where we're getting our next meal from. We have these elaborate constructions and artifacts that tell us that we're in a continuum that makes sense, but it's really superficial. And the global reality now is that we can't not be aware that events on the other side of the planet have a direct impact on us. Our boom here, our boom time that drew all these extraordinary people to the island, that was part of the movement of transnational capital which settled for a short time, as we knew it would, on the island, and then fucked off. Who didn't know that? Were we not saying this? Were we not saying that the multinationals would not develop loyalty to local community, would not prioritize local community when it came to decision making? Were they not the conversations we had at the beginning of the boom? Yes, they were. The media manufactures a kind of an ignorance or naiveté around these issues, as if people weren't aware of exactly what was going on. If you look back to radical publications here, like The Ripening of Time, a political journal of radical politics, published in the late '70s or early '80s, it foretold all this as part of late development capitalism. So it wasn't a surprise the way things happened, although I was taken by surprise at the intensity and the rapidity of it. [End Page 265]
Was there a particular moment or turning point when the connection between nature poetry and environmental consciousness came together powerfully for you?
When I started being in a space within myself that I think of as the place of poetry. It's often a dreaming kind of place before it's a writing place. That place is completely bound up with kind of a mindfulness of environment, of the absolute enjoyment and delight in other creatures and in plants. A very early memory that was given to me by my godmother just before she died was of me sitting as a baby in the garden, just at the point of getting language. I was looking at flies and leaves and pieces of grass and I would say "Nice, nice, nice." I really cherish that image because that is the space, for me, where poetry starts. It's like a nature rapture.
One of Snyder's foundational questions that spoke volumes to me as a young woman was along the lines of "Is there a senator for all this?"—this while he was walking in the mountains. Who actually will speak out with the voice of animals? Who will speak out with the voice of stones? Who will speak out with the voice of habitat? I wouldn't ever have allowed myself to write "nature poetry" because I would have associated it with a narrow, pastoral, English tradition I was wary of. So if I found myself putting in a tree or a meadow, I'd say oh no, hang on a minute, put in a corrugated site fence there, a padlock on a gate—I would have had this corrective impulse because I would have found the pastoral to be a dead hand. I would have tried to find away to write about nature that actually took into account the fact that I was part of it. I suppose similarly to what Eavan Boland says about women as the object in the poem, equally "nature" is an object, it's a kind of imperialism to use it. So I was always trying to find a way to integrate nature that didn't privilege me.
"Death of a Field" is an anti-pastoral poem in which the speaker is quite nearly a Romantic figure, except that she's a woman and she's walking into a future of environmental destruction.
Well, there you've put your finger directly on the problems and tensions that I perceive in the whole idea of "the nature poem." Those are the dilemmas. In the poem I'm playing with the idea of Mother Ireland and the Four Green Fields and the serious environmental damage we're doing to the island. Certainly at the back of "Death of a Field" is the very strange poem of Christopher Smart, "Jubilate Agno" ("Rejoice in the Lamb"), a long eighteenth-century poem discovered in a private library in 1939. Never published in his own time, it was probably considered a curiosity if it was considered [End Page 266] at all. It went into this family library where it survived up to the end of the '30s when it was discovered and hailed as a great ornament of the English tradition, which it is. Now I know Smart wrote it in Bedlam, in the madhouse, where he was incarcerated for religious mania. I don't know if you know Smart's other work but it consists for the most part of fairly mainstream hymns and poems to his god. He became a religious maniac, he would fall on his knees and pray in the streets, and I just have this image of him as an ecstatic out of time. In parts of India it would be considered quite normal in the spiritual traditions, but falling on your knees around London to praise the Lord was a fast track into the lunatic asylum. But, it's a fantastic synthesis of listings of herbs, minerals, the great families of Britain, a huge synthetic vision that pulls it all together. And because of the chant elements, what it does to your breath, it's a litany, pure litany, prayer of the highest order. If you actually read it aloud you will be transcendentally elevated.
Does speaking "Death of a Field" aloud in the performance space of a reading create a different effect or a different politic than reading it on the page?
I think we sometimes lose sight of how the speaking of the poem, the speaking into it, changes things—changes body, changes mind, opens the mind too. It's a transpersonal experience, and the poetry reading can be a site for that. I think everyone has lost a field. The ravages of turbo development in the last decade have meant enormous loss, erosions of rich biodiverse fields and the communities they sustained, and I don't mean in any simple way. I'm not talking about a row of beans. Isn't that what we're all trying to do—just survive the deep grief at what is being destroyed? That enormous grief at environmental destruction is the bell note of a lot of contemporary poetry. The danger I see is that you have an awful lot of grief and elegy—as Eavan Boland called the lyric poets, hand-wringing elegists at the end of the century—without having political vision for how you could act and act wisely.
"Death of a Field" reflects on memory as environmental memory: what is lost with the loss of the flora. It also reflects on how memory is carried in language—the language of the poem and the language of the machine. Did a kind of amnesia come with prosperity? Is poetry a stay, against that kind of memory loss?
One of poetry's oldest functions is to not just memorialize place, but to translate a place into language so that it can be an archive in itself but also a measuring stick for future change. It's really salutary to go to places, even [End Page 267] places that poems were written about in the '60s, and read the poem and look at the place. I'm sure as a scholar of Eavan Boland'swork you've found that's actually a major concern of her poetry—how memory in poetry is nearly a sacred duty. In "Death of a Field" I very consciously put in "the archive of the architect's screen" because when young people talk about memory now, they really are talking about buying it. For a poet, that's really interesting but slightly surreal. I'm the professional memory of the tribe. My work hasn't changed through the millennia, or through the technology changes or through different cultures or different times: all these wonderful mnemonic devices—rhyme and rhythms and metres that were developed to make an art of memory. Suddenly now you're talking to this generation for whom even memory is commodified, and they're buying it for their machines which have assumed, or rather been given, responsibility for memory. They go to Facebook to see what they did last night. Google as the custodian of memory? Now there's a scary thought. For many people raised in the machine age if it's not in the first five results of a search engine then it has no importance.
The shift of custodianship of memory to the machines is as big a change as the shift from the oral into the written. To see where the poet is going to be in this shift, as the professional rememberer, will be really interesting. Through the twentieth century it seemed that our job was to remember the deeply private as if to hold up these memories to the totalitarian states we all live in. Whether it's the USA, the Soviet Union, the European Alliance, or the huge Muslim empires, we live in giant political conglomerates. So to hold up these small private memories you wouldn't think would be a terribly dangerous thing to do. But you only have to look at Stalinist Russia or the McCarthy Era in the States, you only have to look everywhere now, west, east, north, south, to see it, how dangerous private memory is to the state. The poet's job through the twentieth century became more and more the holders of the individual private conscience. But what is the poet's role in an age in which the responsibility for memory has been handed to the machine as both researcher and archive? If you think of the trouble that the first books caused—the Bible, the holy books, if you think of the wars caused when the oral got written down and institutionalized through subsequent history, you can imagine the potential for trouble with the enormous shift that's happening now.
While colony isn't mentioned specifically in "Death of a Field" the poem seems to make a double exposure between an active world of plants supplanted by global cleaning products and the older dispossessions of colony. Is there a reconfiguration [End Page 268] here of old relations of power and dispossession with capital coming in as a neo-colonial presence under the guise of progress?
I think that's there thematically in a lot of contemporary poetry; I don't think it would be just me. I see globalization coming in with terrible dangers to habitat and environment. I also see the extraordinary potential for a globalized consciousness that is positive and powerful. Certainly in a historical sense, our great dysfunction as ex-colonials is evident in the way we've treated the migrant workers. During the boom when people were coming in chasing the work and bringing enormous energy to this Ireland, our racism and xenophobia astonished me. An island community always needs new blood, but I don't think we stepped up to the line. I think we missed a great opportunity. As the boom passes, a lot of those workers are going home, but I think what they brought in the long run will be seen as gifts. What I found interesting was some of the communities that were most courageous and brave in embracing the new people were actually the poor communities, like my old neighborhood in the North Inner City. For all its deprivation and troubles, the community leaders there did enormous work in smoothing relationships between the newcomers and the old community. And in understanding and setting up projects to make connections, to network, to build a new community.
I think the big loser has been the environment. There are ecosystems and marginal zones that will never recover. Where I live now, low-lying estuarial land in North County Dublin, our local Fingal County Council whose emblem is the Brent goose is actively involved in destroying the very habitat to which the Brent geese migrate every winter from the Arctic Circle. So you get all these hard global ironies—the geese have been here before us, they've been coming here since the end of the ice age. I think they have some prior rights. I wrote a fairy story which was staged at the National Theatre [The Abbey Theatre] a couple of Christmases ago, an animal groom story [The Wolf of Winter] about a girl who goes off with a wolf and mates. He comes to the village initially in the guise of a youngman bearing gifts but the gifts only inculcate greed for more, they only provoke need, and the village destroys itself with the use of the gifts. I was trying to make an emblem for what I saw: that we were given so much and we made such bad use of it. Now that may be considered too negative a read, but I don't think so, now that the transnational capital has moved on to places more easily exploitable and we're left with mop-up operations. But that said in my old neighborhood there's a zendo on Gardiner Street, there's a Russian shop, [End Page 269] there's a Polish Community Centre, there's a Chinatown, there's an African hair dressing salon and the languages! It is like Finnegans Wake come home to the streets of Dublin. There's every language snagging at your ear—it's Babel, it's magic.
The Ireland you returned to after your time on the West Coast was still in the grip of the Troubles, some of which you had seen at close range in Trinity with the Talbot Street, Parnell Street, and Nassau Street bombings. The Ireland in which your first two books were published was the Ireland of abortion and divorce referenda, the birth control debates. Later came revelations about the treatment of women, the abuses of the church, and the harsh effects of the criminalization of homosexuality. In the mid-nineties, the economy exploded, nearly doubling in size over the next decade. Today, with journalists asking questions like "If we blew the boom, let's see how we handle the bust," it looks as if we might be sinking into recession.3 Looking back across the quarter-century since your first book was published, on these rapid fire changes, does it seem that identity now comes from different sources than from those of an older Ireland? Is "post-tiger" identity a post-national identity?
I think it's very much in flux. I think we will listen to the children of the boom, the kids who are coming into adulthood now bringing their own journeys into expression, and that's where we'll begin to gauge effect. New modes of expression, how those new communities interact with the kids that were already here and what they will build together, that will be the interesting thing. I think it's post-national. I don't think national identity, the idea of being Irish in a narrow sense can sustain itself with so much new influence. I think with great fondness of the first trace we have in the written literature of the island of a poet, the first mention of the word poetry or poet. The Song of Amergin, poet of the Milesian invaders who came and stood on the island and uttered this wonderful piece of transpersonal identification and being with the landscape and creatures—"I am a wind of the sea, I am a wave of the sea, I am the stag of seven tines, I am a salmon in a pool,"—that utterance of the landscape, almost an aboriginal calling of the landscape into being. I think powerful new poetries are in the making from these people who have come like Amergin and stood, not as an invasionary force, but as people who left their own countries to find work and make lives among us. So their utterance is going to be interesting. What's most interesting about the Amergin Song is that it's a Bronze age utterance of the Milesian invasion, carried a long, long time in oral transmission, mouth to ear across millennia, not written down until the ninth century, not bound into a manuscript book until the sixteenth century, so it goes [End Page 270] right back into the mists of the oral tradition. Amergin says, "I will go to the rath of the Sidhe" (this now is a Victorian translation) "to meet the poet, that together we can concoct a powerful incantation"—so even though this is the first written mention of a poet we know there must have been poets there before. The Milesians come in, the Tuatha Dé Danann—they may be the folkloric trace of fairy and leprechaun—were the people who literally went back into the raths to live, their underground sanctuaries. They were living in an occupied country, they went underground, so maybe there is a version of Irishness that is doing that now. But whatever happens, what comes in must connect with what's here, and what's here must connect with what comes in. Underneath the rampant egotism, the greed, and the destruction, there is real work going on, connections being made. The new poetries, the new modes of expression, are going to come out of the meeting of these two powerful channels.
And the Irish poetic tradition now, in our time, how would you describe it?
The tradition now, especially in my lifetime, has opened up. There's no such thing as a narrow Irish tradition, the Irish tradition is fed by so many streams. That's healthy. It would just disappear in a kind of complexity and Celtic knot of our own insularity if we didn't allow these new forces and energies to come in. We're actually poised on the brink of a very interesting moment where the whole of the future of Irish poetry is probably in the hands of children of people who've just arrived on the island, and that all feels natural and the way it should be. I have never believed in tradition as a narrow thing.
Jody Allen Randolph, guest editor of this issue, served as Assistant Dean of the British Studies at Oxford Programme at St. John's College, Oxford, and has taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, University College Dublin, and Westmont College. She has edited or co-edited special issues of journals on Eavan Boland, Derek Mahon, and Michael Longley. Recent publications include Eavan Boland: A Source book (Carcanet, 2007), selected for a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation and the London Independent Best Books of 2007, and Eavan Boland: A Critical Companion (Norton, 2008). She is currently at work on Interviews from a New Ireland, a series of interviews with Irish writers and visual artists forthcoming from Carcanet Press in 2010.
1. This interview took place in Dublin over three sessions: the first in January 2008 and two more, on August 8 and August 15, 2008, a month before the nosedive of the global economy that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15. I am indebted to Theo Dorgan for recording the January session from a list of my questions.
2. Poet Theo Dorgan, Paula Meehan's partner of twenty years.
3. Daire O'Brien. "If We Blew The Boom, Let's See How We Handle the Bust." Irish Independent 26 Jun 2008. [A month after this interview with Paula Meehan took place (15 August 2008), consumer spending collapsed, followed by the banking system, and Ireland became the first eurozone country to officially enter the "Great Recession."] [End Page 271]