The interview was conducted by e-mail, Byrne being in Ithaca, Healy being in Enniskerry.
Randolph Healy: When did you get started writing?
Mairéad Byrne: I was a slow starter. I used to go into bookshops and run out again, unable to bear the excitement. Same with theatres. On one of those short runs, I came out with a book by Augustus Young. That made me happy. Once I actually started, I was shy to the point of excruciation. In my twenties, I wrote two plays, a short book about Joyce, some love poems, and a lot of journalism. After six or seven years as a journalist, I realized and accepted that my primary interest was the language, not the plot. As far as writing was concerned, it was form that interested me most. My second play bit the dust; that set me back. I remember the exact moment when poetry jumped into focus for me. It was in 1987, soon after the birth of my first daughter. We were living in Provincetown — my husband Martin Folan was a visual arts fellow there. I was sweeping the floor of the barn where we lived and listening to a tape of Alan Dugan reading his poems. Dugan was and continues to be associated with the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown; I had missed a recent reading he had given and was catching up. Suddenly I realized: this is GREAT! I LOVE this! I LOVE this man! It was the first time I was totally sold on a reading, without pretence. It helped that I was on a high because of Marina's birth. Also, I had been drawing rather than writing and I was getting a huge kick out of the materials I was using: graphite, strong resistant paper, oil pastels. These things came together for me in a great burst of exuberance: elation at Marina's birth, the joyful concentration of drawing, and the realization that I genuinely and terrifically enjoyed what I was hearing on that tape. It was a turning point.
RH: Your work covers a wide range of styles, from what some would consider mainstream to what others would consider experimental. Do you feel, in these days of product definition, that this may in some ways work against you?
MB: I have no doubt that it works against me. Publishers are not shy about saying what they want and I usually have some but not enough of it. The problem would be solved if I were more prolific. Then I could grow my various crops — short compact poems and loose billowy poems, lyric poems and concrete poems, found poems and worked poems, political poems and alienated poems, Irish poems and not-so-Irish poems, too-much-woman poems and not-enough-woman poems, poems about love and home, and experimental poems. I'd like that: all the collections could be published ten or fifteen years from now and I could change my name ten times. One publisher, Dillon Johnson, recently told me: your muse is childhood, your mode anger — advice that held no interest for me.
RH: Has living in the U.S. changed your views of the Irish scene?
MB: I was fairly detached from the Irish poetry scene, even when I was there. I was extremely shy. It upset me that the scene, such as I knew it, was impermeable for me except as a sexual partner. I was on my own with my daughter Marina for five years and didn't have much access to the pubs and meeting places of Irish poetry. I went on a train to Belfast once, to give a reading, with two Irish poets who tore strips off me the whole way, though delicately, I think because I had participated in some workshops.
I was much more involved with the visual arts scene — I loved the smells, the materials, the studios, the good food and drink. Henrietta Street was my home. Certainly some of the happiest days in my life were spent in Mick Cullen's studio in Henrietta Street, watching him work, talking. In Ireland, I worked as a gallery manager in the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny Castle, and later as the director of the Belltable Arts Centre. I loved the physical work of hanging shows, and I generally loved the company. I have always been charged by poetry in translation, or by the writings of painters, or by the way painters talk about literature and use poetry. I like to see one form intersecting with another. I wrote a fair bit about art in Ireland — articles, catalogue notes, two short books of interviews. I like when disciplines come together, and I like functional work. I did a collaboration with Mick Cullen last year: he lives in France and I live in Ithaca and the resulting piece, "The Pillarfish," was exhibited in Belfast — we did it without meeting up, unfortunately.
I haven't been in Ireland for five years. I interpret the poetry scene through The Irish Times, which I get once a week, through Poetry Ireland,to which I subscribe, through e-information from the Irish Writers' Centre and Maighread Medbh, through various listservs, and through Irish poetry published in the United States, often by Dillon Johnson at Wake Forest Press. The poetry often strikes me as very insipid, with a particularly narrow range allowable to women. This narrowness of range and reliance on tradition is discernible in other art forms too: I saw the movie "I Go Down" last night and was enraged by its dreariness. Basically, it's just an American road /buddy movie, with a bit of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers thrown in, grafted onto an Irish landscape, with some native wit and irony to leaven the theft. It was maddening to watch the Irish countryside — and Dublin — sail by, and to know that there are all sorts of people living there, men, women, and children, and to be stuck, in this movie, with these petty and not so petty criminals. At one point, in the city, an oldish woman passed briefly in front of the camera and I would have given anything to follow her, to hear her, to see what she was doing, what she was up to. But women only enter these stories when the petty criminals/murderers/boxers enter or want to enter the women. It's not long since I saw "The General" and I saw "The Boxer" last week. The titles are pretty self-explanatory, I suppose, but I find it amazing that Irish writers and film-makers seem totally unaware of the tedium and predictability of the movies they are making. Whatever about being an Irish woman poet, being an Irish actress must really be an extraordinary exercise in self-abnegation.
RH: You've written a book about Joyce. Would you say that he is a presence in your poetry as well?
MB: My first impulse is to say no. After I wrote the Joyce book I decided I had dabbled deep enough in his life. I was getting bogged down in his various superstitions and dates. It was his life or mine.
I did the book because I was asked to do it. It didn’t turn out as the publisher, Syd Bluett, expected. He had commissioned a biography and got something between prose and poetry.
He was very true and published it exactly as given. I have never stopped thinking about Joyce. His decisions in relation to politics took a long time for me to understand. Now I think more about his eyesight, his letters twelve inches high. My partner Gabe Gudding’s birthday is on Bloomsday. We went to see some of the Joyce manuscripts at Cornell. James had written lucid, disciplined arguments about theatre on one side of the page — a speech for the L&H debating society at UCD. Stanislaus had wallowed in speculations, recriminations, denunciations, longings of all kinds on the other side. It was funny — I have to admit my sympathy and kinship with Stanislaus. Vivas for those who have failed, maybe. Patrick Kavanagh was a huge influence on me. Maybe it’s genetic. I’m a city person of peasant stock. Unlike Joyce, I see myself as part of the emigrant rather than the exile tradition. I've been here nearly eight years now: it's probably time to broach the word "immigrant."
RH: You occasionally use Irish language phrases in your work. What would be your attitude to the official language of the republic?
MB: The conditionality of your question is delightful to me, Randolph. Language is often laid out like a grid here, planed and levelled. It surprised me, when I came to America, that people were uninterested in accent: nuance is the luxury of homogeneity. The slang, dialect, and Irish language phrases I used in my poetry were not enjoyed by my MFA colleagues. After six months I got depressed; my poetry quietened down: "That's the first poem of yours I have understood," someone said. I love the Irish language and wish I could speak it more fluently. Phrases flit through my head but I don't let them out because they would sound exotic. My daughter Marina spent her first two years of school at Scoil Lorcáin in Monkstown, which is Irish-speaking. I'd love to be one of those guys I used to know in the Department of Irish Folklore in Dublin. They spoke such beautiful Irish — regardless of their country of origin. They spoke French, German, Finnish, maybe a bit of Icelandic, and had a good grasp of Old English, Old Irish , Old Norse, a smattering of Old High German, Late Latin, and an excellent grasp of the history of the European languages. And they could probably play a few tunes on the tin whistle and bazouki too. I also wish I could sing.
RH: You mentioned the "impermeabiltiy" of the Irish poetry scene to you as a woman. I suppose you'd be talking about the eighties. Have things improved, is it even slightly less blokey now?
MB: I don't know. I have changed. In those days, I wanted to talk about poetry. So I went to the pubs. They were full of men. I drank and talked about poetry. I think the men were mainly interested in me for sex. That wouldn't be true now. Furthermore, I no longer have any interest in talking about poetry in pubs. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if Eavan Boland had held "open kitchens" in Dundrum.
RH: Has e-mail or the internet affected the way you write or your sense of yourself as a writer?
MB: Gabe and I have a monthly ezine, SUBMIT YOU DOG. I use it as a magnet to ensure that I have at least one piece of new work at the end of each month. The poems I put into SUBMIT YOU DOG tend to be short and fairly pointed. I find it hard to wade through screen after screen, or to luxuriate in a poem onscreen: usually my time at the computer is rationed anyway. The poems I write for SUBMIT YOU DOG are unabashedly ephemeral. I'm not technologically sophisticated. But the internet has been one of the great, happy surprises of my life. I'm poor, I'm always short of time, I have two children, I rarely travel or even go out — but still, I feel the world is more open to me because of email. I own a few lists, and I subscribe or have subscribed to others — Buffalo, subsub, fop-l, Cap-L, poetry etc, British Poets, WOM-PO, Poetry Poetics & Practice. It's the end of the century and poets have salons and soirees and coffee-houses all over again; it's just that they're virtual. You would think that email would be the great leveller: that men and women would meet to exchange ideas, play with language. That hasn't happened. The lists are very heavily marked culturally. This is not surprising in view of their medium. Men like to talk;they like to talk at length; and they like to talk to each other. The removal of the woman's body from the scene has actually lessened her value as an interlocutor. I'd like to start an all-female list so I could get down to some serious female bonding and networking. But I'm very fond of the human voice; that's what poetry is largely about for me. I miss reading. I miss the tumult of the espresso machine. I miss the makeshift community.
RH: I find my protective instincts roused by your saying that the poems you write for SUBMIT YOU DOG are unashamedly ephemeral. Do you mean this as a put-down, or at least a relegation? They seem fine to me.
MB: Whatever about the poems, SUBMIT YOU DOG was ephemeral. It was something I did in the last hours of the last day of each month for seven months. My poems for SUBMIT YOU DOG, being among the tasty snacks it gobbled, share the ephemerality and mercuriality of the medium. True, at the time I saw those poems as scraps — hamburgers as opposed to the great big tasty steak I was cooking up elsewhere. Turns out hamburgers were all I got a chance to make that season. They still pop up in more or less satisfying burps. I'd like to give SUBMIT YOU DOG another run around the block too. At the time I was discouraged due to overwork and a cold feeling that no-one read it, not even the contributors. But I'm not trying to put the dog down. Are you a member of the ISPCA? I think, underneath your question, there's a shark lurking. What might that shark be all about?
RH: I'd like to return to what you said about Kavanagh. Forgive my limited imagination, but, while I appreciate a fair few of his poems, I'm not entirely sure how anyone could still be influenced by him. You mentioned on an e-mail list recently that he brought improvisation to Irish poetry. I'm struggling here. Can you help me out?
MB: Kavanagh had a huge influence on me from when I was about 10 to 30. In our house we had everything he wrote, every edition of every book, multiple copies, everything Peter Kavanagh published, newspaper cuttings, letters, his album (Almost Everything!). I read everything and also wrote about him a lot. I read the poems but the prose had at least as much influence on me — articles, journalism, letters, essays, stuff in Envoy and The Bell, Kavanagh's Weekly, Collected Pruse, Self-Portrait, November Haggard. It was not just the adamance and humour of his stance, it was a sketchy map of an ignominious but lived (in close proximity to me) career. Peter publishing the lot so laboriously was another consideration. It was the closest I came to the production of poetry until I started writing it myself. I think professional rivalries can be damaging to one's perceptions. Kavanagh was a writer of great originality and an astonishing figure in twentieth century Irish poetry.
When I spoke about improvisation, I was thinking of his late, conversational poems. I also think of him musing on Almost Everything, or singing, if you could call it that, "If Ever You Go to Dublin Town," which seems almost made up and huffed on the spot. "Sensational Disclosures! (Kavanagh Tells All)," or "Literary Adventures" — "I am here in a garage in Monaghan ..." have the same quotidian reporting feel. Which poems do you appreciate and why?
RH: I imagine I appreciate the usual ones, so I'll spare you the catalogue. Kavanagh's name is so often used as a wedge to keep all sorts of interesting doors shut that I'm almost wrong-footed by your actual pleasure in his work. By the way, his statue features in an advert for R.T.E. in which our national station rejoices in its self-diagnosis of being "bold, creative and strong." Who'd have guessed. The English poet John James, in discussing being subject to attacks of invisibility, describes standing at a wall and then someone parking their bicycle against him. Do you ever feel invisible? Would you like to comment on the pros and cons of such a state?
MB: I think the Kavanagh sculpture is brutal. Kavanagh was a little self-conscious about the size of his hands. It's horrific to have him sitting there, larger than life, for everyone to gawk at. I saw Joyce's head once in Stephen's Green with about four inches of snow stacked on it.To remodel a person in bronze or stone seems insensitive. I am practically invisible myself, except on the home front where I loom large. It surprises me that Gabe, Marina and Clio seem fond of me. I have barely any impact on anything outside my home. It is as if the connecting wires have been cut. Poems go out and are never heard of again. I entered the Patrick Kavanagh contest five times and never heard a word back, not even a postcard. I lack the job, house, car, etc — things that might lend me structure. I was surprised my family knew me when I returned to Ireland for a visit recently. Well, we had good luggage. The good side to being invisible is that there's no need to be self-conscious anymore. Sometimes the invisibility can lapse. At poetry readings, for example. Last time I did a poetry reading, it was in Binghamton, New York, I could hardly restrain my impatience to get to the mike. The fellow before me was in physical danger though he didn't know it.
RH: There are a large number of articles, programmes and essays appearing about Admiral Nelson at the moment. Your poem, "The Pillar" could be said to use his monument in Dublin as a barometer of the life of the city in the sixties. There's a fair amount of historical information in the poem. Where would you plot it on the deliberation/inspiration axes?
MB: "The Pillar" was an absolutely deliberate exercise. It was written as part of my response to an essay by Eavan Boland which was published in the American Poetry Review in 1997. The essay was called "Letter to a Young Woman Poet." It described, among other things, Eavan Boland's days working in what I guessed was the Gresham Hotel one summer during the early sixties or thereabouts. Every day she walked past the statues of our patriotic fathers in O'Connell Street. She noted how invulnerable they seemed, compared to a manager in the hotel who had a peculiar wound which needed regular dressing. I thought of Fr. Matthew, champion of temperance, and the beer bottle I'd once seen stuck in the hand of his statue in O'Connell Street. And I thought of Nelson, much wounded, both in flesh and stone. Boland didn't mention him, although the Pillar dominated O'Connell Street during the time she was describing. I disliked the essay a good deal, partly because of this erasure of the Nelson, and partly because it was a "letter" addressed to no-one in particular. I am very fond of letters, particularly if they are addressed to me. Boland seemed to be addressing her younger self; that seemed spurious to me. My response took two forms. Firstly, I wrote an essay of the same length as Boland's, filling in the gaps. I sent that to the APR. Secondly, I wrote "The Pillar." I wanted to put Nelson back into O'Connell Street, to claim what I could of this small, lower middle-class, emotional, much-wounded fellow, who could never really be "our Nel." I got to like him very much as I was writing it. What started in deliberation relied desperately on inspiration in the end. For a while, I couldn't read the ending without crying. People thought the essay would be easy to publish but that the poem would be too long and remote from American interests. The opposite happened. APR rejected the essay — it never became a real "letter." But "The Pillar" was published almost immediately by the Seneca Review and nominated for a Pushcart prize. It meant a great deal to me that Wild Honey Press published it in Ireland in January 2000.
There followed a hiatus as we got caught in the wheels of our respective domestic juggernauts. Then Mairéad mailed me the following four questions.
MB: Have to make this short and sweet Randolph — can only type with one hand, i.e., one finger, as Clio has appropriated the other forearm and wrist for the purpose of removing and restoring my watch again and again and again no matter what corner of this tiny apartment I fly to. If you have answered these questions in previous interviews perhaps you can have a further shot. Can you say a little about "other" poetry as you understand it. Do you think it is more a male than a female thing? And if so, why?
RH: By "other" I'm presuming that you mean the Caddel/Quartermain anthology and the idea of being "other" in general. The first part is the easier. "Other" in that case reflects economics rather than aesthetics. Or something along those lines. What unites those writers for me is that they haven't been published on anything but the smaller scales. They've very little in common apart from that. If you cleared Butlins and shacked them all up there, the "community" wouldn't last an afternoon. The choice of poets is I think on that basis, and the editors were not concerned to be representative, which is just as well. The gender imbalance is striking, and depressing. It's certainly not "other" in that sense. Gender problems can be hard to solve in practical terms. With Wild Honey, I've found it can be very difficult to get manuscripts from women compared to men. For instance, last year I contacted 8 women and 3 men soliciting chapbook length work. The chaps sent stuff by return of post. All the women replied, very positively, but after repeated requests, only one submitted work. Gender balance is important to me, but though my wish list is in perfect equilibrium, the visible output is very skewed at the moment, running at 11 to 4.The second part, the idea that "other" might have the usual meanings of "alternative," or (sigh) "avant garde" or (yawn) "experimental" means very little to me. Such stark divisions are a product of the Ph.D. industry and do not exist in nature. Also I like to have as many choices as possible when reading a text and resent the sense of entering a funnel, not a poem, that much of the polemic provokes in me. And the idea of a poetic loyalty card seems quite mad. Any suggestion that men are formally more 'other' or more adventurous than women seems demonstrably incorrect.
MB: The Irish are reputed to have a way with language but there's little sign of that in Irish poetry. Is Irish poetry under some lyric geasa? Why do you think Irish poetry is so middle of the road? Or do you disagree?
RH: The apparent uniformity of the kind of poetry you can find in Irish bookshops has more to do with not frightening the horses than any formal unanimity. My feeling is that, faced with a tiny audience, the grant machine has decided to go for "accessibility." I met the finance officer of the Arts Council a while back at one of the very rare parties I've been to in the last decade. He was very pleasant. I was there in my capacity as friend of the host, not as a writer, since none of my work is published in Ireland, apart from Wild Honey. He got talking about things like directing money away from poetry and into street theatre and community projects. So the poets who get grants are continually having to justify their work in these terms, i.e. how involved they are, how available (He had a great way of using his eyebrows to convey that these terms were not part of English as we know it.). So they frequently end up writing poetry aimed at the kind of people who never actually read any poetry whatever. The thought of justifying one's work is a bit foreign to me, in that I see art as part of biology (by which I mean part of the unfathomableness of being a living organism, not a machine trying to mate) and thus a thing of grace, gratuity, something freely given and to no end.
MB: Describe how you first starting thinking about what became Wild Honey Press? How did you get from the idea to the thing?
RH: Wild Honey started very simply. I was invited to the first Cork Conference in April in 1997. This was the first time I'd been asked to read in Ireland in 12 years (I'd been asked twice before that) so I got quite excited. I had nothing in print so I thought I'd assemble some booklets just for the reading. I made seven copies of Rana Rana! and brought them down. Then when Arbor Vitae was finished I made some copies of that. Later that year Maurice Scully, Catherine Walsh, Billy Mills and myself were invited to Providence. Maurice was in the same position as myself so I made up three linked booklets for him, Prelude, Interlude and Postlude. It's not a real press in the conventional sense, but I'm glad I'm doing it as it takes so long to get rejected by other publishers.
MB: Vat are your ambitions as a poet, my friend?
RH: One of my ambitions is to have a garden pond with frogs in it. But with the kids so small I'm terrified of one of them doing an Ophelia by accident. And I can't contemplate any fence that they wouldn't be able to climb. We've an ash tree in the garden having no branches for the first fifteen feet but they still managed to get up it using skipping ropes and kitchen chairs.
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