Thank you to the poet Caitlin Doyle for tagging me for “The Next Big Thing” interview series! You can read her self-interview here. For “The Next Big Thing,” each participating poet or fiction writer engages the same set of questions pertaining to a recently published book, a soon-to-be-published book, or a book-in-progress. Here are my responses regarding the development of my first poetry collection.
1. What is your title of your book?
2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
I wrote the title poem of the collection a long time ago, probably in 1998, and ever since then, this family of poems has gathered around that flag. Along the way, I considered Sandymount Strand (since that beach in Dublin features in the three poem-sequence of that name, and is referenced in one other poem). The Irish College at Salamanca was another possible title. But, luckily, the Brendan title stuck, and it’s the right one.
There was no “idea”, in that the book didn’t start as a deliberate project. It evolved naturally out of my concerns and obsessions. Each poem came about because at the time, I needed to write it. But, what’s been amazing has been how the poems have emerged. After the title poem, and other poems about emigration, I wrote a poem about a visit to Norway, and a found poem (“The Paradise of Birds”) taken from the Irish medieval geographer, Dicuil‘s book De Mensura Orbis, an extract which supposedly describes the Faroe Islands. The grouping, or placing, of the poems evokes the stepping stone route that Saint Brendan may have taken to North America, via the Faroes and Iceland. The Norway setting evokes that, however indirectly. (An inspiring background source is Tim Severin’s The Brendan Voyage.)
Similarly, the remora sub-theme in the book is something that evolved organically. This kind of development gives immense satisfaction, because it comes, most probably, subconsciously. Here’s an example. I noticed that I had, at times, longer poems that were followed by shorter, “baby poems” that glossed or commented on the same experience, but from another angle. I remembered the remora, or “sucking fish” that swims with, and sticks to sharks, and decided to subtitle these short poems “remora”. In the end, I decided to remove this subtitling, as it seemed somewhat obsessive. I’d also come up with the idea to adapt a Wikipedia entry about the fish into a found poem. One day, during the MFA at NYU, I brought it to my workshop teacher, Kimiko Hahn, during office hours. She thought it was interesting, but said that she felt that the idea needed to break through into another level of story, or psychodrama, in order to “live” – rather than simply be the reworking of an encylopaedia entry. Just as I left her office, as I was walking down the stairs, the line came to me. In a moment of almost lucid day dreaming, I actually said out loud: “I was your remora”, and I had found the first line of “To a Predator”. In the end, I cut that line, but it was the start of that poem, and of a theme in the book relating to predation, and gave me a whole metaphorical structure: a way of using prey and predator, in the animal kingdom, to speak about psychological and sexual predation in the human world.
How we found the cover is another story – not quite of synchronicity, but of something falling into place that is satisfying on a number of levels. Siobhán Hutson of Salmon, who designs the books (beautifully), asked for my ideas. I started looking at British Admiralty maps of the coast of County Kerry, where a lot of the poems are set, and where Saint Brendan has a presence in placenames (he was from nearby Fenit); I then moved on to look at portraits or paintings, but nothing really satisfied. Then the Harry Clarke stained glass “Saint Brendan Meets the Sorrowful Judas” jumped out at me, and that was the one.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Liam Neeson(!) or Viggo Mortensen, would play Saint Brendan; perhaps a modified version of the CGI Gollum would play the Judas of the cover (who doesn’t appear in the book, by the way). The speaker of a lot of these would be played by my own kind of Matrix residual self image. The villiain of the Digesting a Scorpion sequence in the middle of the book (the “he” / “you” addressed throughout in these sequence of what I have heard Sharon Olds call, not confessional but “accusatory” poetry) could be played by any number of actors. The important thing would be that the actor would need to convey that sentiment in The Lord of the Rings, where the “goodies” often note that evil often comes masked as too “fair”.
Frodo: “I would think that a servant of the Enemy would look fair and feel foul.”
Aragorn: “Ah,” laughed Strider, “and I look foul and feel fair?”
This is interesting, given that it echoes Macbeth’s witches, with their “Fair is foul and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.” Interestingly, in order to suggest the utter deviousness of the grooming process, the poem “Unrhymed Sonnet” is epigraphed with the quote “To beguile the time, / Look like the time” (from Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5)
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
An embedded report back from the Irish Diaspora of the 1980s, with several poems spoken through the voices of Lazarus, St. Christopher, St. James; poems of travel that are at the same time exile, displacement and spiritual journey; poems that explore betrayal, parasitism, sexual violence and evil (told through a number of zoological metaphors reflecting domination and submission (shark and remora; cleaner wrasse and “client fish”)); poems of emergence from that hypnosis into healing and greater selfhood.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book was published by Salmon Poetry in July of 2012.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
At the beginning, I didn’t exactly think I was writing a book. I felt / hoped that the poems would be a book, but I didn’t know when, especially because the first publishers I sent it to weren’t interested. I think it’s important to write the poems for themselves, and after that, to think about a book. Otherwise, one starts to put “product before process”, and that is fatal, because it can bleed the pleasure out of the writing. (Ultimately, why else do we write?) The earliest poem in terms of chronology is “In the underground carpark”, a poem about a friend’s grandmother’s funeral, and it was written probably in 1996. The first section of the book was written largely between then and 2008; the middle section (“Digesting a Scorpion”) was written while I was studying an MFA at NYU from 2010 to 2012. (Having Sharon Olds as a teacher, and thesis advisor, was hugely helpful, as was being able to attend office hours with Marie Howe and Yusef Komunyakaa.) I also reworked a lot of the poems from sections 1 and 3 during my MFA. I think a lot of the poems had already been finished, but I think what I learnt at NYU about craft helped me to drill the decay out of the poems, and I was hugely lucky to be able to do that. Friends and fellow poets like Thomas Dooley, and my fiancée, the short story writer Adrienne Brock, were a big help. The workshop process also helped me to lose “custody” or overprotectiveness. Jessie Lendennie had accepted the book for publication in January 2010, but it was an entirely different kettle of fish then, pardon the pun, in that it didn’t have the middle section. So, even though the book was on the back burner from 1996 until 2012 (I wrote the last poem in April 2012), in many ways it was largely “written” as a book, between 2010 and 2012.
One last thing: I wrote my second collection at NYU also, so I had to work out where to draw the line in the sand between what would go into Brendan, and what would belong to some future collection. It was difficult at times, enjoyably difficult, especially because the “Digesting a Scorpion” vein was still spawning poems. At times it came down to: “is this poem finished yet? No? Then leave it.” 8 months after publication, I’m happy that what seemed arbitrary in terms of cutting the umbilical cord between me and the book has a satisfying aesthetic symmetry in how the poems in the book speak to each other. It’s a kind of deep satisfaction that gives creative peace of mind, because although no work of art is ever finished, you’ve done your best.
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The middle section would have a lot in common with an aspect of Sharon Old’s Satan Says, in that it has unity of theme and purpose, and is built around an evolution within the same family of imagery. The first and third (last) sections of the book would have something in common with aspects of Irish poets like Seamus Heaney’s work: the importance of landscape or, loosely Dinnseanchas, “place lore” in the Irish tradition. This is not to say that I go deeply into mythology or history, although I do reference it, but simply that landscape, for me, is both a symbol, and reality, of alienation, and belonging. Place is hugely important to the Irish.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What most inspired me was the Yeatsian argument with the self that poetry constitutes. Each poem was, at the time I wrote it, a healing of that argument, or an equation that gave me equilibrium. So, a poem like “The Irish College at Salamanca” was a search for belonging. Since I felt unmoored by having left Ireland as a child, when I lived in Spain as an adult, I was drawn to the Irish College in Salamanca. The physical place became hugely important as an emblem for Irish exile, or presence abroad, and gave me a metaphor for my own experience of the complexity of travel, and having left home and trying to return. Another example: the poem “Saint James as a Young Man” came out of a visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid. I noticed that out of Ribera’s paintings of the apostles, only one was a young man. It was Saint James, patron saint of Spain, who is supposed to be buried in Santiago de Compostela cathedral, where I lived for a year at the age of 21. So, the poem reflects the paintings, indirectly, but it is also my way of merging my “studenty” experiences with something outside myself—in this case, Spanish apocryphal history, which is a place I think poetry thrives, in the interstices between fact and myth. Even though the short stories I have tried to write haven’t seemed to have worked as fictions, I think fiction works best in my poetry. That’s not to say that I am not a confessional poet: in almost every poem in the collection the speaker is me, let’s not be coy. Then again, the confessional in the most personal of the poems is mediated via image, metaphor, story, and the tension and hold of craft, the hawsers and ropes that craft is, that allows the ship to sail. Without it, the sails would puddle on the poop deck, as it were!
10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I would hope that the reader would be piqued, or interested, to know that I strive to write for the kind of person who often says “oh, I don’t read poetry.” I don’t go for the lowest common denominator in terms of my word choices; and, sometimes, indeed, people who don’t read much poetry say that they don’t understand a particular image or idea. I am happy, though, when a non-poet friend-of-a-friend comes up to me at a reading and says that they enjoyed hearing my work, and that that was their first time at a reading. Although I write for myself, when that moment happens is another reason why I write.
FOR THE NEXT ROUND, I’ve “tagged” some talented poets. You can click on their names (as the links become available) to read their interviews: Cat Richardson, Ken L. Walker (whose interview is hosted on this blog), & Thomas Dooley.