For a number of years I have taught a course in Irish Literature and Culture at my home institution, Reinhardt University, and among the standard author readings I petition of my students are William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh, George Bernard Shaw, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Edna O’Brien, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Paula Meehan, Anne Enright, and Mary Devenport O’Neill. The harsh Irish conditions depicted in works including Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, the societal mores and repressive climate for women in O’Brien’s fictional County Girls, the destructive nature of overall oppression, and the Irish demand for independence from Britain contrast with our experience of a liberation of spirit as we ease into contemporary poetry.
The young women I’ve taught are especially drawn to Eavan Boland, who for years has steadily fashioned a career as one of the best Irish poets, but even more so as one of the best poets writing in English. Boland’s themes of social violence, oppression, Irish history, the “unburied dead of history,” the significance of myth, and the compulsion to confront reality resonate with twenty-first-century American students in unexpected ways. Boland writes about her experiences of being a woman in the suburbs of the modern world, a locale which, as Vincent Hanley has said, is “a setting not associated traditionally with poetic inspiration.” Boland acknowledges in her essay “Object Lessons” how she “realized that the Irish nation as an existing construct was not available to me.” Thus, she made a personalized map of the world with her own traditions and ideas of where she placed herself in the world. And, even though “On the one hand, I knew that as a poet I could not easily do without the idea of a nation,” she has expanded her vision into a world that inspires beyond the Irish borders.
In “Object Lessons” Boland admits her reliance on all that Ireland has to offer a poet, yet she has built a life beyond what was probably expected of her as a young girl: “I could not as a woman accept the nation formulated for me by Irish poetry and its traditions.” What you will find in Boland, here and in her writing, is a strong presence refusing to accept the rules for being a woman in a country oppressed by a foreign government whose oppression filtered down from each level of hierarchy to the young women of Ireland, demanding that they behave and adhere to what was the norm. Boland would have nothing of it.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944, lived for several years in London as a young girl, then returned to Ireland at fourteen to attend the Holy Child School in Killiney. While a student at Trinity College, in 1962 she published 23 Poems. In 1969, Boland married Kevin Casey, a novelist, and they have two daughters. In addition to having been a member of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, over the years she has taught at Trinity College (Dublin), the National Maternity Hospital, the School of Irish Studies in Dublin, University College (Dublin), and Bowdoin College. Currently, Boland is the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in the Humanities, the Melvin and Bill Lane Professor of English, and the director of the creative writing program at Stanford University, where she has taught since 1996. In 2017, Boland was presented with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Her body of work comprises more than twenty-five volumes, including New Selected Poems (2013); New Collected Poems (2008); and a collection of essays, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming A Woman Poet (2011).
As I guide my students through Boland’s work, usually A Woman Without a Country (2014), Outside History: Selected Poems 1980–1990 (1990), or An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967–87 (1996), the young women feel empowered by her life and poetry, knowing she escaped conditions many others could not. Having never met Boland except through her poems, the students admire the personal strength needed to carve out a life, whether in Dublin or at Stanford University, a life that has roots in all the oppression and hardships we explored with other Irish writers, as well as in an Irish history wrought by British oppression. When studying Boland’s poetry, the students rightfully began to discuss their own struggles—and, remembering Yeats’s “I, being poor, have only my dreams”—were better able to resist the oppressive forces in their lives, to understand the strength needed to overcome provincial societal norms, to rally against antiquated ideas and histories that demand women conduct themselves in ways antithetical to a free-thinking person. After encountering Boland, many students engage the world in a more powerful voice. As Gerard Smyth has written in The Irish Times, Boland “pioneered a poetic language for those living unseen lives in the new territories of Dublin suburbia.” Although correct, Smyth fails to acknowledge that those new territories expand beyond Dublin and the Irish coast, and like radio waves venture out to the world to touch, one by one, anyone listening.
When I think of Eavan Boland, I am reminded of numerous beautiful poems and individual lines, as in “Shame,” where there are “So many names for misery”; “Anna Liffey,” where “Love will heal / What language fails to know / And needs to say”; and, in her early work “From the Painting Back from Market by Chardin,” this: “I think of what great art removes; / Hazard and death, the future and the past, / This woman’s secret history and her loves—.” In Boland’s work there is an invitation from the poet to enter a secret history of Ireland, including what the world has forced upon that country and its people, and how they have developed unbendable strength over centuries. There is also the secret history of Boland’s life made public through the mirror she calls, in “Menses,” “the moon’s looking glass.” She reflects through these mirrors what she wishes the world to see, in whatever ways individuals interpret her poems.
This interview was conducted over the course of several months, from December 2018 through April 2019, as we emailed each other questions and answers.
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William Walsh (WW): A colleague of mine, who has been on sabbatical, stopped by my office recently, and when I mentioned my research for this interview, she lit up, because several years ago she wrote her MFA thesis on your poetry. Subsequently, the paper was published in Contemporary Women’s Writing by Oxford University Press (2012). I had no idea she’d written about your work, and in our conversation she brought up the idea that you were now an American poet. I disagreed with her, mentioning how there are, and have been, many Irish poets who’ve taught in the U.S. and elsewhere but remained faithful to their Irish identity and heritage: Eamon Grennan, Seamus Heaney, Dorothy Molloy, Paul Muldoon, Paula Meehan, Audrey Molloy, and Angela Patten among the many. How do you feel about this idea of being an Irish poet in the United States and perhaps straddling two worlds?
Eavan Boland (EB): I’m an Irish poet. I always have been and always will be. It’s not a transferable part of who I am. Nor is it alterable. So much of a poet’s formation has to do with rootedness, not just in a place but in a past. For good and ill, I’m constructed by that past, from the journey of those events and the struggle of that history. There’s no way of unwriting that and none of unliving it.
In fact, I think the radical differences between American and Irish poetry make nation-changing impossible. Formative American poets, like Whitman and Dickinson, emerged in the nineteenth century when the audience surrounding them benefited from a comparatively high literacy rate. Their poems were largely experienced on the page. They were for the ear, certainly. But they weren’t primarily aimed at or shaped by an oral culture. That wasn’t true in Ireland. In the nineteenth century, poems in Ireland—in both languages—were memorized and taken into public memory in a different way. The culture had a deep, complicated relation to an oral tradition. The poet who emerges from that inevitably has a different identity than the one who begins in a literate culture. The ghost presence of an oral past affects the whole sensibility and identity of a poet. I don’t think you could have an Irish Wallace Stevens. Nor could you have an American William Yeats.
None of that prevents my recognizing the other culture. I’ve loved American poetry since I was young. I came to school in New York at the age of eleven and spent three years there, which is where I first heard the names Whitman and Dickinson. As time went on, I became more alert to the way American poets ended a poem, established a narrative, gestured towards an audience. Some of those maneuvers still seem to me elegant models for constructing a poem, just as the Irish poem historically can offer exemplary models of rhetoric. But, the roots of the poem will always be Irish for me. I teach at Stanford. I lead one of the poetry workshops for the Stegner Fellows there, with my colleagues Kenneth Fields and Patrick Phillips. There’s always an illuminating conversation that elaborates on my Irish sense of a poem, but doesn’t overwrite it.
WW: Concerning your love of American poetry, who are the American poets you turn to, and what is it about these poets that sparks your interest?
EB: There’s a large number, so maybe names aren’t the only useful things here. But I’ll provide a few anyway. Obviously, Sylvia Plath was important to me. Gwendolyn Brooks became more so as I grew older. Her 1945 book A Street in Bronzeville with its vesting of history in the local and intimate seems so important, then and now. I also read Robert Lowell very intently. His shuttling between a feeling of psychic loss and a bold historical pastoral had a special energy. I read and re-read Stevens. And I read and re-read Louise Glück. What interested me so much about Adrienne Rich—apart from my admiration for both the woman and the poems—is that she was Whitmanian. Women poets I admired—Rich, and also Sharon Olds, and even parts of Brooks—seemed to draw on the energy Whitman had rather than on Dickinson. They self-selected tradition in a way I found intriguing: with a flexible sense of the past and the poem I don’t think I saw in Ireland. There are also younger poets, really too many to name. Maybe one I would single out would be Solmaz Sharif. Her first volume, Look, has an original and consoling political power.
WW: It’s interesting that you chose Solmaz Sharif, who in poetry circles is relatively young and whose debut book was published when she was thirty-three. In some ways, this choice seems antithetical because we tend to look toward older poets for wisdom and influence. What was it about Look that attracted you to her poetry?
EB: Solmaz’s book has a connection to themes I think are present and powerful now, but will be in the future, too. In some ways, it’s a book about exile and loss. But more importantly, it’s a book about language—how common words, the ones that nourish lives and people, are co-opted by power systems that reduce their meaning and by doing that injure a whole community.
WW: In my colleague’s article on your work, her opening declaration states, “The female body that Eavan Boland portrays in her poetry is, more often than not, a body in pain.” Is this an accurate portrait of your poetry?
EB: It’s an interesting perspective. And of course you often see your work differently than someone else might. As I see it, the female body in my poetry is not usually rendered through a single interpretation. It’s a site of challenge more than of pain.
WW: Do you read reviews or critical analyses of your work?
EB: I do read reviews, of course. But critical analysis, although I always look at it with interest, is a bit harder for me. Analysis has never really been a way for me to approach poetry, and when it is applied to my own work I can all too easily lose track of the argument that’s being made.
WW: When I teach Irish Literature, I thoroughly discuss the idea and reasons for the Irish oral tradition of the fili memorizing poems and stories. As you mentioned earlier, the ghostly manifestation of an oral past can affect the complete sensibility and individuality of a poet, dating back to when poems in Ireland were memorized and absorbed into the national memory in a distinctive way. I see this as a continuation of the fili traveling around Ireland spreading and preaching Irish history and lore from village to village and farm to farm, all as a result of England’s hold on the country and the Irish fearing the loss of what could be destroyed, such as books and printed texts. Is that an accurate sense of that particular situation?
EB: It’s complicated. One book that I think gives a powerful picture of a wounded oral tradition is Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland. He was born in 1878. The book was published in 1924. He wanted to evoke the crisis of that tradition, when Irish poets were losing their language and their future was slipping away. This is a quote from the book, describing the circumstances of those poets: “Their language is dying: around them is the drip, drip of callous decay: famine overtakes famine, or the people are cleared from the land to make room for bullocks. The rocks in hidden mountain clefts are the only altars left to them; and teaching is a felony.” The idea of an oral tradition as a survival mechanism makes sense to me. It was the only way language and memory could make it out of those dark centuries. That braiding of backs-to-the-wall literature with lyric purpose is an Irish inheritance coded into the oral tradition.
WW: For those who do not know about you and your poetry, can you paint a picture of your early life in Ireland and England?
EB: I was the daughter of parents who had—unusually for an Irish couple at that time—met in Paris in the Thirties. My mother was a painter and was studying there. My father was a diplomat in the Irish embassy. They went back to Dublin, married, and had a family. I was their fifth and last child. We lived at that time in a house near Stephen’s Green. Dublin back then was an enclosed, willful city, part of a country which had been neutral in the Second World War. It was not prosperous. It bore the scars of its struggle against colony and for independence. But there was a rich, vivid linguistic and cultural life. The city and the country lived every day through its vernacular—witty, subversive, alive to details and human comedies.
I left there at five and went to London, where my father took up an appointment. From then on it was English schools, a different perspective, and often a sense of estrangement. I wouldn’t say it was painful, but it could be disorienting.
WW: What were some of the disorienting aspects of being Irish and living in London?
EB: They were simple enough. Just in terms of geography, I had come to a city which was deeply anti-Irish following the Second World War. Through that lens, I saw that I didn’t belong. And never would. It wasn’t a sophisticated idea. Just a child’s sense of being outside.
WW: You live in California and teach at Stanford University, in the Bay Area, and you have taught there since 1995. You have a level of inclusion into the American culture, whether it is artistic, political, or in the general sense of inclusion—an acceptance that you may not have had elsewhere. After twenty-four years, I assume it has worked out. What are your thoughts regarding leaving Ireland and Trinity College to teach in the United States?
EB: I didn’t leave Ireland. I go back about every ten weeks—when the quarter is over at Stanford—and I spend from early June to late September there every year in our house in Dublin. For the past couple of years I’ve been fortunate enough to edit Poetry Ireland Review, the journal of the really exemplary Poetry Ireland organization, which does so much for poets and writers in the country. The Review comes out three times a year and gives me a vantage point from which to see the energy and vitality of Irish poetry at the moment. So, I feel part of things in both places. Writers’ lives are more migratory now. Stanford is a wonderful place to teach. The Stegner Fellowship program, which brings emerging poets to the campus every year on fellowship makes the conversation there rich and interesting. And I think these details prove something beyond my own personal experience: barriers, boundaries—the village restrictions, so to speak—that bound in and contained poets in the past are largely gone. Travel and technology provide access. So, a poet now in one place can much more easily join the conversation in another.
WW: For years now, because of your reputation, you could pick and choose where you would like to live and teach, in the U.S. or back in Dublin. What has been the draw to the San Francisco Bay Area that has kept you here?
EB: To start with, Stanford is a remarkable environment, an aspirational one. It shelters our fellowship program and encourages exchange and collaboration. When I’m back in Dublin I give workshops, readings, and become part of what’s happening there. But it’s not geography that’s guided me. I’ve been aware for years of a conversation in and about poetry which reaches across places and locales. I pick it up where I work in California. When I get back to Ireland, I find almost the same conversation going on. I want to be part of it, and when I change locations I don’t lose that dialect.
WW: Did you ever feel as if London was your home?
EB: No. The opposite. I was there nearly six years, and the longer I lived there the more the word home was gradually bleached out. I went to school. I made friends. But the idea of home was not something all that present in my mind. You need some sort of community to assemble that idea. And there wasn’t one.
WW: I just finished teaching a survey class called Irish Literature and Culture, which touches on many aspects of Ireland so as to give the students a broad brushstroke of what life is like in the country, historically and in contemporary times. There is no opportunity to delve for too long into any one particular area or writer; however, what occurred was a gravitational pull toward the historical plight of Ireland, the sheer devastation and oppression, and how it has influenced and continues to influence nearly all aspects of life and art there. We particularly looked at the Catholic Church oppressing women, and England oppressing the entire country. How do you, if you have, reconcile the oppressive forces in Ireland?
EB: Ireland is a postcolonial country. Even now, the ghost of colony can be visible. The power of the Catholic Church after the establishment of the State—a power that lasted for decades—was able to transcribe itself onto that ectoplasm. I’ve always respected the faith of Irish people, but the history of Catholic institutional power is separate and ominous. As stories emerged in the last decades of the suffering caused to families, to mothers of abused children, to other children in Industrial Schools, to women in laundries—much of it enabled by a braiding of church and state—I found the accounts extremely painful: just the fact that it happened in our time and our country.
WW: In your book A Poet’s Dublin  you state in the interview section, “When I came back [to Ireland] at fourteen I was just a foggy, displaced teenager with little understanding of my surroundings and even less consciousness of its inequities.” When did you become aware, and were there any particular incidents in your life that woke you to what was occurring and what had occurred?
EB: I came back to Ireland at fourteen and I went to Trinity College in the last days of my seventeenth year. Somewhere between those dates I became more aware of contradictions. Despite the fact that Dublin was a literary city with an apparently welcoming demeanor, it was still true that for women Ireland could still be deeply, ruinously conservative. In 1932, the marriage bar had been introduced: a law that required Irish women in government or public service to give up their jobs when they married—no matter how long they’d worked or how productive they had been. Teachers were dismissed this way, civil servants, and so on. The civil servant bar remained in force until 1973. You have to think: how many lives were injured by that, how many achievements discarded in a state that needed them?
WW: Did the marriage bar have any influence that may have led you toward the idea that an artist can work on her own terms outside of the workforce?
EB: The marriage bar didn’t touch my life, as such. I was twenty-eight when it was repealed. I wasn’t working in a semi-state job. It was the women a generation before me and in the one before them who were affected. But, of course, I knew about it. And it was terrible to think of Irish women working in education, in commerce, in the financial sector, contributing their best efforts to a new society, and then that effort being discarded when they married. Apart from its practical effect, it was a symbolic show of disrespect for what women had achieved in the state.
WW: This past semester I had five students in my class, all female, and when we discussed poetry and literature by such writers as Edna O’Brien, Anne Enright, Caitlín Maude, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, yourself, and even Frank McCourt for Angela’s Ashes, we gravitated almost exclusively toward the lack of economic freedom and opportunities for women, and how a job—or better, a career—is the key factor for women to break the grips of their oppression by men, the church, or outside political forces. This being said, how have things changed during your lifetime for women in Ireland? Or, better stated, what have been the predominant changes you have observed?
EB: Economic freedoms matter. When women began to go into the workplace in real numbers in the Eighties and Nineties, there was certainly a shift. But the predominant change had as much to do with mind as money. When I was a student only 10 percent of Irish people went to the University, and only a small fraction of those were women. Now many young men and women expect to go to third-level education. They expect to be able to earn their living. They can travel more easily. Technology gives them access to other cultures, other perspectives. All that has happened in the space of fifty years. No society is perfect, but Ireland is certainly a more open, liberal, and self-aware society than when I was young. Differences of color, of ethnicity, of gender, and of class are more easily assimilated than they once were. The conversation and the culture are more generous than they were. To me, those changes seem welcome and necessary, even if overdue.
WW: What has most changed in your sense of being a poet?
EB: I think I take a fairly practical approach to work. Poets write poems; it’s what they do. All the noise around that, the perceptions others might have of who or what a poet is, haven’t really shifted things for me. So, in that sense nothing has really changed my sense of being a poet. It always comes down to whether I can write the poem I hope to write, and if not, why not.
WW: As well, what do you find most troubling in writing your poetry that when you were younger seemed effortless?
EB: Nothing seemed effortless when I was young. Nothing seems effortless now. I wrote poems when I was young which I couldn’t write now, and I write poems now which I couldn’t write when I was young. As much as possible, I’ve taken an unstressed approach to that. In the end, one fact is always going to be there; no one is going to write your poems but you. You just have to do your best with that.
WW: With your success, do you feel the need to expand beyond where you are now as a poet and find either a new style or a new form? Is there pressure to discover something new?
EB: That may well be the case with other writers. I’ve always greatly respected the poet who moves towards change, towards experiment—mostly, I think, because they want a new way of saying their old truths. But that isn’t how I’ve ever worked. In my case I think of the language, the craft, the learned strategies, simply as a way to have more choices. And those choices would always be tied up with trying to say the same things, but more accurately, with more precision.
WW: My ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s and 1870s, and throughout my childhood, from the earliest time I can recall, from my grandfather on my father’s side all I heard were stories of horrific poverty, oppression, and difficult lives of those living in Ireland. I had this eternal image of everything being bleak with no food, no support system, and no opportunities. Although you lived in England for a number of years, your father was (as you’ve said) a civil servant, which provided for a secure position and income, and which translated to a certain lifestyle for your family. What were your perceptions of money and poverty when you were young and still living in Ireland?
EB: There certainly was poverty in Ireland, and in certain parts it lasted well into the twentieth century. But by the mid-century there was an economic effort to improve trade, to open the country to better economic opportunities. I didn’t come across the hardships in Ireland through experiencing them, but like many other people I came to them through family history. My father’s family were relatively secure. He was a civil servant. His father was one. My mother, however, came from a far more hard-pressed community. Her family were seafaring. Her father was often away at sea. I have a newspaper cutting from the Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal in 1904 in which my grandmother appears in court, a young woman of twenty-six with very small children, having come back from Dublin to find an eviction notice on her door. Her rent was a wretched amount, but she was still accused of being in arrears. It’s a wrenching account to read and it’s a reminder of how vulnerable Irish people still were at that time. She would die at thirty-one in a hospital ward in Dublin. My mother’s father drowned in the Bay of Biscay. It may be a world away but for so many people in Ireland those kinds of stories still have the power to chill. My grandmother died when my mother was a year old, nearly forty years before I was born. My mother never heard her mother speak and didn’t keep many of her things. I have one photograph. I have a copy of the newspaper account of her eviction. And a copy also, a photostat, of a poem she wrote. I wish I had more. But that lack of information, almost an erasure, was typical of life in Ireland back then, at least in that sort of hard-pressed circumstances.
WW: In an interview you did with Paula Meehan for A Poet’s Dublin, there is a phrase you used, the layering of power over people. As a person who cannot tolerate one group of people oppressing another, whether it’s a country, a religion, a political party, or just some guy down the street, would you elaborate on that phrase in relation to your observations of Ireland?
EB: Paula and I were talking at that point about different senses of Dublin. When I look at the city, I see colony in so many places. The eighteenth-century buildings. The old statues. The mark and scar of a previous culture laid down as decoration and violation on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dublin. Some of that, of course, ironically enough, made the city beautiful. But there’s no getting away from the fact that these are after-marks of the oppressor. And they don’t get erased.
WW: One of my favorite collections of yours is A Woman Without a Country. One of many reasons for my interest in this book is the wonderful opening line in “Shame”: “So many names for misery.” As well I recall lines from “Lesson 1” and “Lesson 4”—respectively, “My grandmother lived outside history” and “I have come to accept that the story of Irish history is not her story.” What was the process for you and the journey you took en route to these revelatory ideas about your grandmother’s life?
EB: I have a sense that women like my grandmother were not included in the story of Irish history. They lived it. They went through it. But they’re shadows in the story. In our time in Ireland now we know much more than we once did about how silences as well as voices are important. My mother once told me that my grandmother was a poet. She wasn’t educated. Her life was hard. The seafaring communities in Ireland were at the mercy of changes in work, storms at sea, and so on. My grandfather was captured while on shipboard at the start of the First World War and spent four years as a prisoner of war. But, I’ve always held on to the thought that my grandmother loved language, and I’ve always hoped that it consoled her.
WW: In A Woman Without a Country, the last poem, “Becoming Anne Bradstreet,” is revealing about the beginning of your becoming a poet, and there appears to be an open-ended sense that the younger you was compelled to strike out on her own.
EB: I didn’t come to the U.S. until I was fifty, when I was hired then by Stanford as a full professor. As I’ve mentioned, I return to Ireland every ten weeks. I had no desire whatsoever to leave Ireland, and I remain strongly connected to its literary life and purposes. I have been editor of Poetry Ireland Review for two years and will do another year. The poem on Anne Bradstreet was commissioned by the Folger Library, so it isn’t really an ars poetica at all. Also, Bradstreet did not leave with male relatives having merely “jobs and means of support.” Her father and husband were the two most powerful men in the Colony, both governors of it.
WW: In The Irish Times in 2015, Gerald Smyth wrote a nice review of A Woman Without a Country stating that “Boland brings a spirit of deep inquiry to her experience of womanhood and motherhood, marriage and the domestic space, her Irishness and the historical and psychic inheritance that comes with that state. She pioneered”—and here is where I think he is spot on—“a poetic language for those living unseen lives in the new territories of Dublin suburbia.” Do you feel you speak for the people with lives that go unseen?
EB: Gerry Smyth, I think, was getting at something broader—new lives were forming and coalescing around new spaces when we were raising a young family. These Irish lives were unseen in cultural ways back then. We were part of that, Kevin and I and our small daughters. For all that, I’ve always resisted the idea of representation. I don’t feel that I speak for anyone but myself in a poem.
WW: Do you have a sense of representation for women, specifically Irish women, in that you have been or could be a role model for their ability to step away from whatever might be controlling their lives or might be preventing them from achieving more in their lives? What about the young women you teach at Stanford and how you must influence them?
EB: Ideas of representation and influence make me uneasy. They can verge on vague ideas of literary colony, where one writer is seen as clearing a space or, more likely, prescribing it for poets who come after. Many writers have been important to me. But I wouldn’t describe them as influences. And I’m not drawn to anyone’s work because it’s representative; I think of myself as a working poet, and I’m comfortable with other people in the arts who are practitioners, who try to make practice a proving ground for their ideas about moving forward.
WW: My aforementioned colleague is a fourth-generation American who still feels connected to Ireland. She visited this year and found her dead relatives’ cemetery and met distant relations accidentally. There is an immense connection for many people of Irish ancestry, especially in the United States, through your poetry, and I believe your landscape, language, and subject matter bridge the spectrum of time and place into a perspective for people searching for answers to this life by looking toward Ireland. Even though your poems are contemporary, there is a consciousness of the past for people who may never be able to return for various reasons. Is this a fair assessment?
EB: Some of my work comes from the feelings of distance I had when I was young. Place, landscape, and belonging have always mattered to me because of that. I’m very glad when any reader tells me that my own language or my own poems touch their experience.
WW: Someone has put forward the notion that poets write one single poem their entire life—a work made up of many small poems to form the one long poem over the span of a career. Does this ring true for you in any way?
EB: I don’t have a single poem. But I do have something I go back to, maybe a theme—or maybe some kind of argument is a better way of describing it. When I was a young woman, I was aware of the dangers of writing someone else’s poem. I wanted my life to find its own language, its own forms. That was keyed into everything I did. Even now I think of that intersection between a lived life and language as central to how I think about poetry.
WW: When I discuss with my students the Penal Laws that were inflicted upon the Irish by the British, they cannot fathom such things occurring. Then I discuss the history of Irish oppression, up to and including the Troubles. You have a poem, “Child of Our Time,” as well as a photograph in A Poet’s Dublin of a memorial for the seventeen people killed in 1974 in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. What was it like for you during that time in Ireland, during the Troubles?
EB: That time was a terrible ordeal for the people in the North. There were constant bombings and very cruel civilian killings. The people there had to live through that. Every single day. Like everyone in the south I was conscious of what was going on. Everyone turned on the news in the morning to a litany of descriptions of violence. But events in the North didn’t touch our daily lives the way they did the people there. What they did touch, as time went on, was some psychic sense of identity that even now I find hard enough to describe. Like everyone else, I was born into a country that was a new nation, that described the national struggle as a heroic narrative. In that quarter century of Northern violence the whole narrative was shaken. So, I was aware of the visible actual violence, but also increasingly aware of an invisible aftermath, a poisoning of the roots of the Irish story.
WW: The ending of your “Child of Our Time” refers to Baby Doherty: “Child / Of our time, our times have robbed your cradle. / Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken.” There are no overt references to the Troubles and Britain, but this poem is a direct result of what occurred in those cities, of the bombings. Did you write this poem at the time the bombing occurred?
EB: The bombing happened on the 17th of May 1974. I finished the poem a day or so later and the Irish Times published it the following week. I was moved by a newspaper photograph of a fireman lifting the dead baby out of the rubble and holding it almost the way a midwife holds a baby at birth. Those were terrible images. I didn’t reflect on things before I wrote the poem. There was a very intense atmosphere in the city, and the poem partly came out of that.
WW: Your poem “In Our Own Country” is about Ireland in a state of transformation, “making a new Ireland . . . where we once lived / into vistas we will never recognize.” There is a lament the speaker has for what is occurring, “tearing away the road to our village . . . The air clearing away to nothing, nothing, nothing.” For me, the last stanza is a defiant rebuttal to the future as well as the past: “We are now / and will always be from now on— / for all I know we have always been— // exiles in our own country.” Do you feel like an exile? If so, or if not, why?
EB: Those lines weren’t political. They were personal, shaped by feelings of change and disruption. These were the years of the boom in Ireland—a new rhetoric of prosperity, a new expression of it in terms of buildings, roads, bridges, and so on. All of that fell apart later. But for that moment there were things I no longer recognized. The poem tries to get at that: every generation gets pushed from the center to the margin; people grow older as their environment changes. This a human process, not so much a political one. I wanted the poem to say that.
WW: During my research, I found a list of the Top Fifteen Best Irish Poems: #3 was “Fill Arís” by Seán Ó Ríordáin. #2 was Yeats’s “Easter 1916.” And listed as the best Irish poem was your “Quarantine.” I love this poem and am pleased to see it as #1. What is your reaction to this list?
EB: I don’t have too much reaction to lists. They’re part of the recreational aspects of the internet. I’ve been pointed to good movies by them, and to bad books and to impossible places to stay in places I’ve never heard of. But I’m also truly complimented when someone picks out a poem of mine and recommends other people read it.
WW: What do you see as being the greatest obstacle in Ireland at this time, and can you propose any solutions?
EB: I don’t have any answer. I wouldn’t have had an answer thirty years ago. The life of a country is intimately joined with social, political, and economic narratives. They’re all important. But they’re also different for different people. I can only try to understand my own life. And I’ve barely managed to do that.