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An Interview with Mairéad Byrne
By Rebecca Seiferle
Mairéad Byrne is both an Irish and an American poet; the first by birth and the second by choice. Her work is innovative, as if using her own words, she had 'kicked down the paper wall' between herself and poetry, and profoundly moving, if unexpectedly so because her work chooses subjects like a gallon of milk, a year long poem of THE WEATHER, the contents of her cupboards, and eschews the poetic "I" in favor of a listening to other presences, in the audience, in the weather or in the cupboards. I first heard her read in Cambridge and found it an experience unlike any other; there is great humor in her work, but it is very sharp, and combined with a sense that I can only describe as if she spoked/poked God in the blind eye. This interview developed out of my interest in her work and was conducted with several interruptions in the spring of 2005 and then continued and updated in mid-summer. Accordingly, the time frame is a bit askew; the Minsky reading was discussed in the spring, and her trip to Ireland and conducting research at the Boston Library just this summer, and as our discussions went here and there, this might be better defined as a conversation than as an interview.
Mairéad Byrne immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1994 for reasons of poetry. Her collection NELSON & THE HURUBURU BIRD was published in 2003 by Wild Honey Press. Recent and upcoming publications include two chapbooks, AN EDUCATED HEART (Palm Press 2005) and VIVAS (Wild Honey Press 2005), and poems in 5 AM, CONDUIT, DENVER QUARTERLY, and VOLT. She is the author of two plays, two books of interviews with Irish artists, a short book on James Joyce, and a lot of journalism in Ireland and the United States. She earned a PhD in Theory & Cultural Studies from Purdue University in 2001 and lives with her two daughters in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches poetry at Rhode Island School of Design.
Rebecca Seiferle: THE WEATHER is a yearly account of the weather in Providence, Rhode Island, where you wrote an entry per day. What poetic preoccupations led to this work?
Mairéad Byrne: The Bosphorus. Definitely the Bosphorus. If it wasn't for the Bosphorus & its cargo of Soviet memory ships & bashed jetties & matchstick villas & the sheer breadth & extravagance of it at Istanbul I don't think I'd have a clear answer to that question what is your favorite body of water. That would have to be the Bosphorus.
Rebecca Seiferle: While many of the entries seem ‘as if' they could be short clips from weather reports, others seem more idiosyncratic, to mingle with reports of what might be called ‘internal' weather but since there isn't a speaker, it seems to me as a reader to allow me to hear it as ‘my' internal weather, as much as yours, or anyone's. Was this partly what you hoped to achieve? Also the text has a materiality about it which may arise from the daily date stamp but also from the the short weather clips for each day, so that when “there is snow in dirty heaps and damp clumps” or “birdsong both fluting and trilled” it has, for me anyway, something like the effect of actually walking out the door to such. Do you view poetry, language itself, perhaps as a materiality, as a thing or representative of a thing? And how did this play into your writing of this poem?
Mairéad Byrne: Perhaps I can draw closer to you by saying: 2004 was a very challenging year for me, following on 2 excruciating years & really a whole life time of struggle. The unusual thing about 2004 is that the struggle was both profound & productive. In one 5 month period, I got divorced for the second time, bought a house for the first time, got a contract renewal at Rhode Island School of Design where I teach, designed & taught an interdisciplinary course, moved for the 37th & possibly last time, got a black cat named Vincent, did 2 readings in Ireland: at Cúirt International Poetry Festival with Tomaž Šalamun, and in Castlerea Prison, made my first solo highway drive—to Orono in Maine, my car died (only a few flakes of rust prevented me dying with it); also one of my daughters was not doing so well health-wise. In August, consequent to the dead car, I bought a car for the first time. It was a tough year but gratifying. THE WEATHER is marked by only the faintest traces of this struggle. It is a glorious thing to have day after day to go out there & engage with the world. I hope that exhilaration is transmitted in the work.
Rebecca Seiferle: Ah, well, I'll take down the literati fence, though no sooner have I said this then I'm thinking of ‘drawing' the hand with a colored pencil or crayon making shapes or lines upon the page. And in a way THE WEATHER seems to me to have aspects of drawing, those bright spots of color, some line. Yes, I understand that intense productive and profound struggle, for during 2004 I was going through many similar changes I guess that's why I find THE WEATHER so interesting, an unexpected continuity. The weather and THE WEATHER' s like a kind of thread that one can follow and with a stitch between oneself and world.
What about Ireland? I noticed those entries in THE WEATHER that are noted as places in Ireland that I'd guess you were at the time. Is that your favorite body of land? some particular place there?
Mairéad Byrne: Of course when I mention drawing closer, I also include the reader. That's who we're here for primarily. I like very much how you see THE WEATHER: a stitch between oneself and the world. My world is Providence. Ireland is otherworldly. I didn't record the weather there, or anywhere else, except one day in Chicago when not to give tribute to the sublimity of the day would have been criminal. During 2004 also, the war in Iraq, on Iraq, continued; George Bush was re-elected, and a tsunami on December 26th took the lives of so many people they cannot be counted. Truly a hard number.
Rebecca Seiferle: Yes... And, yes I agree that we're here primarily for the reader. Do you have some idea of who this is?
And how is Providence as world?
Mairéad Byrne: I'm finding it hard today. But a couple of nights ago I went to a presentation by book artist Richard Minsky at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. That's a lot of Brown but isn't Minsky the best name? The lecture was in a most beautiful room, with a hundred white middle-class middle-aged people in it, maybe two hundred. A large rectangular high-ceilinged room with carved wood and tapestries. Often I would find such a scenario and context quite alienating. But there was something about Richard Minsky's approach: a combination of flair, expertise, liberty and range of reference, idiosyncrasy, belief in the applicability of art, chutzpah: that combination was very freeing. I felt like the whole room was mine to walk and talk in—if I wanted, I could swim in it! It's such a relief sometimes when someone occupies a form on their own terms, and according to their own values. It can be very stifling when people fit the bill too tightly. Within a few minutes of the start of Richard Minsky's presentation, the wireless access failed and he could not link to the wealth of book arts sites and references he wanted to present. But it didn't matter. I went home and looked them up later, as he advised.
My idea of the reader is somewhat like my membership of the audience that night. There was something miraculous and sublimely relaxing about the event for me. Maybe every now and then there's a reader like I was a listener to Richard Minsky. I have been that reader for other people. I have faith in the value of that.
Rebecca Seiferle: That's a great description of Minsky's presentation. Yes, I'd say from my own experience at your reading in Cambridge, even though that was in a much more thought to be ‘fitting' environment, a bookstore, two readers, that had that combination of “ flair, expertise, liberty and range of reference, idiosyncrasy, belief in the applicability of art, chutzpah: something about that combination was very freeing.” And it was very freeing to me, unlike any reading I'd been to previously, I don't think I've ever so laughed as I did, for instance, at your “Pitch” for a Hollywood film of Bridges and Hopkins, an idioscyncratic take combined with a range of reference to the details of that literary friendship, and chutzpah with what's usually taken most seriously, as a matter of literary scholarship, the humor but a humor which seemed to reach the heart of the matter much more lightly and sharply than a more ‘fitting' view would have.
It was very freeing to me, and I'm still thinking about the implications of it. I wonder if it's true, this sense that I have that you see poetry just as milk or bread or a pair of kid's shoes on the stairs, life? Did you feel overly ‘fitted' into various poetic modes, expectations, roles? What made you ‘unfit'?
Mairéad Byrne: I have a poem about milk:
A JUG FULL OF MILK
A jug full of milk
A jug full of creamy milk
A jug full of milk with a buttery head on it
A jug full of milk like a stagnant pond
A blue and white banded jug
A blue and white banded jug with a yellowish-purplish glaze inside, with sandiness
A jug full of milk with a hair in it
A jug full of milk with a thick black horse hair like a wire
A jug full of milk with a coarse black horse hair
A jug full of creamy milk which tilted leaves a loose creamy skin clinging to its inside curve
A jug full of milk
I have a poem, not about bread, but about a lot of other staples:
Please help yourself to the
Pipe Rigate Nº91
Almond Slivers (half pack in extra bag)
Medium Egg Noodles (one block)
Basmati Boil in Bag Rice
Finest Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Stoneground Coarse Oatmeal
Herbs & Spices
Demerara Brown Sugar
Rich Soya Sauce
Granulated Irish Sugar
Sun-dried Tomato Paste
Strong Irish Mustard
Natural Brown Rice
Vegetable Stock Cubes
Or anything else you might find.
I have one about tea:
You will you will.
Ah you will.
You will you will you will you will you will.
Ah you will.
You will you will you will you will you will.
Ah go on.
I don't have a poem about a pair of kid's shoes yet, or the stairs. Going to Payless is alright and I'm very glad my children are growing and needing shoes—and that I can buy shoes for them— but there is a chore aspect to this. The stairs likewise: they're warm and a little bit grand and very delightful when washed with sun but they sure gather dust and need to be painted and represent all sorts of lead hazards. I am quite wary of the stairs. I don't know that I see beauty in them. Sometimes I notice it. With poetry you don't have to try: it just floods and dashes through everything. I do think that going out can be exhilarating or a wobbly tight-rope walk between ecstasy and fright. I can also feel very pinned down and harried. Poetry is the most marvelous help. But not practically: The more I get into it, the more I get out of everything else.
Regarding Ireland: I did not fit the role of poet in Ireland in any way. Very bad Payless shoes. The Internet gave me a shoe-horn. Now I can walk around quite happily there. Randolph Healy, of Wild Honey Press, has published a full-length collection of mine, and two chapbooks; Trevor Joyce's SoundEye International Poetry Festival is a fantastic forum and reinvention of the céilidhe or celebration or dance or meeting at the crossroads.
Rebecca Seiferle: Ah, with “poetry you don't have to try.” Yes, I'd guess that's what a poet friend of mine called the difference between something being “interesting” like your milk with the “thick black horse hair like wire” for who could forget such a glass or gallon milk? and “taking an interest in” something as one “might sometimes notice” the stairs. Everything else seems to require some ‘trying', for, yes, I agree that it is something of a chore to buy new shoes every few months at Payless.
If your material is the materia you serve, the basmati rice and the gallon of milk, do you wonder what other poets have in their cupboards?
Mairéad Byrne: I hope they have audiences in their cupboards. I hope they're feeding them globe grapes--if there are such things.
Rebecca Seiferle: Yes, there are, they're large and purple and very good to eat, both in the seeded and seedless variety.
Mairéad Byrne: Artichokes would be too crunchy. I had a friend, John Barna, whom I would have liked to ask to whisper poems in people's ears. I would have done it myself—but he was very handsome. When I open my cupboard doors in the morning my audience sings out like eggs in a carton, the half-open lid like an awning shadow-splitting their swelling cheeks. When I heave open my garage door there's a whole swing orchestra. Actually I don't have a garage. But some day.
I've been thinking about your “fit” question, the fit & type issue. I realize I like my art mediated or naked. Head-on art makes me tense.
Rebecca Seiferle: Yes, but which is meditated _or_ naked? I remember reading comic books that were renditions of various classics, Moby Dick in comic book form for instance, and really in a way I preferred it, though I do like the novel very much, still there's something about those comic books. For the examples you gave, of postcards of famous paintings, translations, how painters wrote, all seem meditated. So I'm wondering what's naked? perhaps the words that one doesn't know how to pronounce? those are naked?
Mairéad Byrne: When I was young I liked postcards of famous paintings more than famous paintings. I liked translations. I liked how painters wrote. That's what I mean by mediation. Naked for me might relate to the pungent and intoxicating smell of oil paint, the invitation to touch. Once, alone in a room at the Courtauld Institute in London, I touched many Van Gogh paintings. My first husband, Martin Folan, surprised the hell out of me once when I walked into the Orchard Gallery in Derry where he was preparing a show: He handed me a brush and said, Touch those up for me will you? It was a great moment. I subsequentlyhad a short career in forgery.
These days I'm going to Boston Public Library every day to work with the Anti-Slavery materials. Yesterday I was looking at the subscriber records for William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator. These books are pungent in the extreme, not to speak of the exquisite torture of such record-keeping. Basically, the name of every person who ever bought a copy of the paper is recorded, sometimes in multiple forms. That phrase keeping the books acquired new meaning for me: I got a glimpse into what keeping the books is all about. A hell of a job. Another phrase the import of which I glimpsed when I worked in the relevant environment, i.e. a prison, was doing time. These innocuous phrases give pause in the relevant contexts.
Anyway, what I wanted to say was that I love libraries but have a prickly relationship with gate-keepers. It's a trip to do research in archives and Special Collections: you might even begin to think you're special yourself just for having access there. It's actually the archivists and librarians and assistants who are special and you rely on them for everything. A weird form of hyper-courtesy evolves. I adore working in archives and fully appreciate guardedness, but I also appreciate the librarian who is generous, or who makes mistakes. It has happened once or twice in my life that I have found a very rare book on the open shelves in a library: ecstasy. That's a sort of naked.
Unpronounceability (how do you spell this word?) is a very interesting way to interpret nakedness in art. When I was a child I was a serious reader. I had no-one to talk to and didn't know how to pronounce anything. It made sense in my head. It's still the same. It's a totally different sort of sense: the hunch, the certainty, the gestalt, the unarticulated. I value it but not totally. It's hard to beat the humbling experience of having to articulate something to another human being. The unarticulated can be a powerhouse but also a hot bed of illusion. Boy that's a lot of clichés.
Rebecca Seiferle: Yes, but true, about that “totally different sort of sense.” I did this too, not knowing how to pronounce anything for years, in later life finally meeting someone who knew how to pronounce the word that had taken up some other sound in my head. This often worries me at poetry readings when I'm reading something that has a word in it, usually a name from the Greek or something, that I've not yet heard anyone say. I wonder if this is in part what you mean by listening to the audience? reading something that you haven't heard from them yet, how to pronounce the word?
Mairéad Byrne: An audience is a scary thing and I think most poets pretend it's not there and it almost isn't. I am trying to turn toward the audience. I'd like to be able to pronounce something, however humbling. Listening is the present adventure for me, and awareness of listening. Poetry is a very strange art form, almost a voice afraid of itself.