- “Nature Doesn’t Stop at the Limits of the City”:An Interview with Paula Meehan
In 2015, the University of St. Thomas Center for Irish Studies presented the nineteenth annual Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Paula Meehan of Dublin. Meehan, the author of six books of poems and several plays, was elected to Aosdána, the Irish Academy for the Arts, in 1996. Currently, she holds a three-year appointment as Ireland Professor of Poetry. While in Minnesota to receive the O’Shaughnessy Award, she took time to sit down with poet Janna Knittel for a far-ranging conversation. Their conversation took place on April 24, 2015, in the university’s Luann Dummer Center for Women.
Thanks so much for taking time to meet with me, and congratulations again on the award. You’ve received many honors over the course of your career; perhaps you can start by talking a bit about what this sort of recognition means to a working poet.
Well, I am very conscious that the first recipient of this award was Eavan Boland. She has been a profound influence, in terms of being a poet in the world. It was really important to me when I first came across her work. It was at a time when I wouldn’t have even bothered sending work out. In the journals I was opening at home, you might occasionally see a woman’s name. I certainly didn’t feel there was a place in Ireland for my work, that there was a place where I could aspire to being published. So I never sent work out. To me it’s nearly a miracle that I became a published poet because I felt a certain—not hostility, but lack of interest.
Eavan was a great force in changing this situation; she articulated some of the underlying issues and tensions around being a woman poet in our time, and she wrote so eloquently in her prose works as well as the poems themselves. The dance between her essays and memoir and her poetic work has been a way for myself, and for many of the women of my generation, to understanding the literary culture that we were not just part of but to some degree were entrusted with changing. So Eavan has been a huge influence in that way, kind of a moral influence, and she continues to be. [End Page 77]
I’m very lucky, I come from a culture in which women’s poetry through the last twenty years has moved into a space that is strong, powerful. I do say to the younger women coming up that nothing was granted, everything was hard fought for, that they must be very careful that it’s not lost.
There’s an extraordinary couple of generations after me coming along, both men and women. It’s a very vital time for Irish poetry. The spoken word scene is just so energetic and enthusiastic and full on, absolutely full on, while the poets coming through the universities, the more academically rooted young poets, are prodigiously gifted. It is a great time for Irish poetry.
I want to talk about how emotionally affecting your poem “Child Burial” is. I tell students that poetry isn’t about expression; it’s about communicating, getting the reader to feel something they might not have felt before. “Child Burial” is about an experience not everyone has had, and yet the speaker’s feelings are conveyed so intensely. How consciously do you think about the effect you want your poetry to have on a reader?
I can’t determine what a reader takes from a poem and, when I hand over the poem, it’s really none of my business. It has a life of its own. You hope that the work would have a life of its own and find readers and that they will find what they need to find in it. I believe poems are mirrors that read the reader. Take an enormous, giant text like Finnegans Wake: the experience actually is of reading your own acculturation, your understanding of language...