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Contemporary Literature 46.1 (2005) 1-17

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an interview with Medbh McGuckian

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Figure 1
Medbh McGuckian
Photo credit: Ken Bennett
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In January 2003, the Northern Irish poet Medbh McGuckian visited the English department of Mainz University in orderto present a couple of lectures and give a poetry reading. When I collected McGuckian and her husband from Frankfurt Airport, everything seemed to go wrong. At first they didn't appear because a bag had been lost (as a very excited McGuckian told me over the barrier, handing over her suitcase for me to keep an eye on while she continued the search); then we almost missed each other because they had somehow got out through a different exit; and, finally, I seemed unable to locate my car in the underground parking lot. Thanks to all these mishaps, the ice was broken immediately; indeed, we laughed and joked throughout the McGuckians' memorable four days' visit, during which I learned more about Medbh McGuckian's personality, her views and outlook, and ultimately her poetry than the two-hour interview we conducted during her stay can convey.

Medbh McGuckian was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1950. She received an M.A. in Irish Literature from Queen's University, Belfast, where she had been taught by Seamus Heaney, among others. In 1979 she won the British National Poetry Competition forher poem "The Flitting," an honor that launched her career as one ofthe best-known, most productive, and most accomplished Northern Irish poets. Today, her amazing poetic output comprises thirteen major collections of poetry, including The Flower Master (1982), Venus and the Rain (1984), On Ballycastle Beach (1988), Marconi's Cottage (1991), The Flower Master and Other Poems (1993), [End Page 1] Captain Lavender (1994), Shelmalier (1998), Drawing Ballerinas (2001), The Face of the Earth (2002), Had I a Thousand Lives (2003), and The Book of the Angel (2004). McGuckian has received numerous prizes and awards, among them a Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, an Ireland Arts Council Award (both 1982), and an Alice Hunt Bartlett Award (1983). She isalso the winner of the 1989 Cheltenham Prize for her collection On Ballycastle Beach, and she was awarded the 2002 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Single Poem) for "She Is in the Past, She Has This Grace." McGuckian lives in Belfast with her family andteaches creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre, Queen's University.

Surprisingly, despite her Northern Irish background, McGuckian's work has generally been labeled as "nonpolitical." Her supposed refusal to address political and national issues has been considered all the more amazing for a Catholic poet who has lived all her life in Belfast and has thus had firsthand experience of the euphemistically named "Troubles" and the violence and suffering they have entailed. McGuckian's dense, oblique, and at times cryptic style, her use of domestic and nature imagery, as well as occasional comments by the poet confirming the "unpolitical" content of her work, have contributed to the widespread view among critics that McGuckian's poetry is essentially private, personal, and exclusively concerned with feminine issues such as pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. However, while political messages, allegiances, or realistic depictions of war and violence certainly do not surface in most of the poems, the attentive reader will soon sense that McGuckian internalizes and privatizes the political conflict of her nation. Since her poems are multilayered, the political level is frequently obscured by a private, domestic one. Given the traditionally strong link between images of gender and nation in both Irish literature and rhetoric, this approach may well be obligatory for a woman poet writing in a cultural environment in which myths of political and religious sacrifice and images of a suffering holy Virgin Mary or a militant Mother Ireland still loom large.

Thus in her early poem "Eavesdropper" McGuckian links images of female sexuality and political conflict by depicting a girl'sonset of menstruation in terms of "a bullet / Left in me" (Flower Master 15). Similarly, the colors white and...


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