Sunday, November 18, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Mairéad Byrne

Mairéad Byrne is 50. No-one can mess with her now.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Well, it meant I could stop writing it forever. It’s kind of a blast from the past now because I would never have a book with a black cover. The good thing is that the cover also has a painting by my old friend Michael Cullen. The painting is called “The Pillarfish,” and it’s actually a collaboration between Michael & myself: he painted it on taped-together fax sheets of my poem “The Pillar.” The framed painting is hanging on my dining room wall and is one of the few material constants in my life.

2 - How long have you lived in Providence, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I’ve lived in Providence longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. It’s my home. I love Providence. It has a big sky & huge trees. You can imagine what it looks like right now. Insanely beautiful. Salvador Dali need not even try. Leaves: smattered to the ground—pink—yellow—ivy green—a sudden vortex mid-air or still bristling on the trees. The mix is intense. The color is show-stopping.

Before I lived here, I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, before that Ithaca, New York, and before that Lafayette and West Lafayette, Indiana. I’ve lived in Providence longer than I’ve lived anywhere except Dublin. I feel I have entered the middle ground. To know and to be known is an amazing experience.

I’m an immigrant and a migrant. Providence is quite close to my own home environment of Dublin, at least Dublin before it became prosperous. South County Rhode Island is uncannily like South County Dublin. When I look out over the bay at Narragansett I expect to find Howth and am disoriented not to.

I’m very aware of place but move on easily, or at least have so far. But I still think about the places I have lived; and the places members of my family have lived: all their smells & atmospheres. I have very acute memories of my older sister’s first flat in Dublin, in the late 1960’s. That was the first place I ever smelled curry. The first place I ever saw an eggplant, or tamarind. I remember the smell of America when I first came to New York. That was an apartment, not a flat.

I value mobility. When I was a young journalist, I had nothing, materially, but I had access to those who had less than nothing, and to those who had a lot more. I came to America with $400 and a 7-year old child, knowing no-one, not even being able to drive. I kind of believe in the American dream, and I still believe in America. I teach at Rhode Island School of Design, a private school, and that 7-year old child, a daughter, is now a Junior at Brown, studying Applied Math & Economics.

I’m still an inbetweener. I work in a situation of privilege. My colleagues and students are predominantly White or Asian. I live in a situation much closer to poverty, and there is much poverty in Providence. My neighborhood is predominantly Hispanic, and Black, as is my younger daughter’s school. Black America has had an enormous influence on me, ethically. Also Black music and poetry. The America I emigrated for was Black rather than White. These terms seem harsh when I write them; the reality is harsh too but not quite so stark. The fabric of my work is quite similar to the fabric of my life. The relationships are visible.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

The poem often begins with the title, I just note it down and it’s there for me to conjure from when I go back. Of course if I don’t go back, or if I don’t go back soon enough, the titles stop coming. I’m probably an author of short pieces, in lots of modes, i.e., a range of books developing, though that sounds like all your birthdays coming at once, plus Christmas, or something, which is a bit arrogant.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Public readings are integral to my practice and process. In my job as a teacher
at Rhode Island School of Design, we’re constantly talking about interdisciplinarity. That’s where language comes in. In order to collaborate, or work for someone, you need to be able to talk and listen. Readings are a type of interdisciplinarity, or collaboration for me.
I did a reading with Trevor Joyce at Brown University recently, it was sponsored by RISD. There were students from RISD there, students from Brown (including my daughter and a few of her friends), faculty and staff from RISD and Brown, my friends from Providence, Mark Weiss from New York, my ten-year old daughter, her friends. The reading was in a theater in a university but there was a mix beginning to happen in the audience.

There was one thing I would do differently if I had the chance again. When I walked into the theater the first person I saw was one of my friends from Providence and her beautiful baby daughter. When I started to read, this beautiful baby started cooing and exclaiming. I am used to that and just continued reading, not against the baby but not with her either. Very soon, my friend left, maybe not wanting her chatty baby to disrupt the event. Afterwards I was so disappointed when I thought about it. How often will I have a talkative baby at a reading I give? I wish I had acknowledged her, and maybe read to her rather than past her. My friend might have left anyway, and may have had somewhere to go, it was late, probably the end of a long day. I’ve been there. I’ve been outside readings with babies and other very good company. But what I was thinking about afterwards was the rare opportunity offered here. I’d somehow missed it, and might never have it again.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

The main question I’m thinking about is audience. I get a big kick out of poetry as a meeting place for a diverse group of people, in terms of age, experience, and interest in poetry. There are some poems I read and when a deep laugh comes, I know: that person knows the score of that particular poem. It might be a poem about poverty, though the word is never mentioned, and that person knows what it’s like to be poor. Most people in the audience might think, if they think at all, that the poem is kind of odd and eccentric. But that person recognizes the territory and laughs.

Tim Peterson said I wasn’t funny but nonetheless people laugh. I should be thinking about global warming but I like to laugh. Laughter makes more priestly audiences nervous but some of our greatest virtuosos and experimenters are funny: Kenny Goldsmith, Christian Bök, Michael Basinski.

I’m very interested in color. Almost the most important question I ask every morning is about color. Often I would just like to stop there, considering tangerine, or vermilion, all day.

I’m interested in silence, in shades of meaning; poems that are actually three poems; small poems that are large; language that lies on the surface of meaning; aposiopesis; flatness; the inability to speak; prose which is poetry; poetry outside language. Last night I had a great dream about commonality and difference, how a comparison between every single thing can hatch both (and how politically preferable that is). I think about metaphor a lot. I love the applications George Lakoff makes. Applied work interests me more than any other. Which does not exclude the absurd.

I think about sound.

I’m probably more temperamentally pre-disposed to asking questions than answering them. I’m more of a student than a teacher, which might be annoying for my students (because I’m also more of a teacher than a student in some irksome ways!).

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’ve hardly ever had the experience, since my days as a journalist 25 years ago. I mainly worked with sub-editors then. I had a bad experience with an editor at the Village Voice, twenty years ago, where my work basically seemed to be raw material to be shaped according to her prejudice.

In poetry though, editors are generally your best readers. It’s generally at a micro rather than macro level, though book design is consummately important (and Randolph Healy once shrank a full-length book manuscript to a 14-poem chapbook (but what a chapbook!)). Deborah Tall was a wonderful editor—the Seneca Review was a work of art, the fact-checking was phenomenal. Randolph Healy, of Wild Honey Press, was my editor for three books. Randolph not only published my first book, he connected me to a whole community, the Wild Honey list, of which I am very proud to be a part. I cherish my alliance with him. I feel the same about Kenny Goldsmith, sort of like I died and went to ubu.

Nobody knows your work like an editor does. He or she makes that journey over semi-colons and italics with you, patiently, exhaustively. Jane Sprague was endlessly attentive in formatting An Educated Heart. That book is something I can sell with pride. It’s far from easy to describe and resolve through email minute issues of spacing and font. It takes a lot of describing to specify tiny visual or formatting issues. You’re not standing side-by-side with editors, pointing something out. Almost everything is communicated through language, via email. It requires real patience. Every small visual decision, if problematic, takes a lot of describing.

Kenny Goldsmith just kept saying, I want you to be happy with it, we’ll get it right. The pdfs for SOS Poetry went back-and-forth dozens of times. In the end, it is a book I’m proud for people to steal. Really, it is like that equation where two percent of the world’s population own more than half the world’s wealth. With editing, the tiny questions take the most time. They diminish but never seem to end. But if you keep winnowing, you do get to a point where you know it’s madness to go further. Third Policeman country. But the pay-off for going as far as author and editor can possibly go together is a book without typos. A book which is as carefully formatted as vision and resources permit. A job well-done, even a microscopic level.

Editors are your best readers. They know the poems better than anyone except the author. They have to have endless patience and stamina. I love my editors for the journeys they were willing to take, the places where they were willing to meet me—the hard shoulder of the emdash, the tower block of justification.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

If you’re talking about writing books, I find it easier. If you’re talking about publishing books, that’s easier too. If you’re talking about how I feel about the end product, well, there’s generally an upward curve there too. My most recent book was Talk Poetry (Miami University Press 2007). A mistake was made in the first printing, the cover came out highlighter-yellow. But Keith Tuma did a second printing, with the originally selected apple/lime green cover. I am very happy with the look of the book: small, square, vivid, fun. Some day I would like to have my own operation, in the attic, i.e., to publish my own books. I like the idea of Leaves of Grass as a model, a living, breathing book, expanding and contracting over the course of a life. I think Talk Poetry has the potential for that.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?


9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Turn up the music.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I love poetry. I love theatre too and would love to return to the spaces of stage and auditorium. I’m writing a little play at the moment, for Stephanie Young. The working title is Factory of Terror. I’m very interested in writing essays, almost to the point of need. I have written about Frederick Douglass, and would like to continue my work in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Room of Boston Public Library, where I’ve always been completely happy.

I like when things are more than one thing. My poetry is written in prose. Brendan Lorber asked me to do a talk/reading at the Zinc Bar a few years ago and the piece I did for that, “Some Differences Between Poetry & Standup” has persisted as model for me: a talk studded with poems. All the relevant words have degrees of movement within them. “Public” can be a space for intimate connection. “Talk” can be invested with poetry. “Poetry” can be outside language. I love genre. I appreciate categories. I think of most of my writing as poetry though, and poetry seems infinitely generous and tolerant about that.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

My life is kind of horrific, time-wise. Rhode Island School of Design is a very intense place to teach, and work. Twelve hour days, 7 days a week, are not unusual. I’m also a single parent; it’s almost my identity. And I do a lot of readings. A typical day begins at 5am, with me doing what I was too tired to do the night before. And it usually isn’t writing poetry.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?


13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My most recent book is Talk Poetry (Miami University Press 2007). I felt it was a breakthrough. Patrick Kavanagh used to talk about wanting to “play a true note on a slack string.” There’s some of that in Talk Poetry. The book just before that, SOS Poetry (/ubu Editions 2007) is visibly leading to Talk Poetry. But some of the strands in SOS Poetry—very short poems, for example—I would like to continue. The textured, collaged, appropriated work of my chapbook An Educated Heart (Palm Press 2005) seems a long way from me now; that chapbook constitutes half a book, which I have to finish.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Music. I adore music. I listen to music in my car. Today it was Louis Armstrong—one of those Hot Five or Hot Seven recordings, with Lil Hardin. She was a professional piano player before it seemed possible a woman—or young girl—could do something like that. You don’t hear much good about her—she was Louis Armstrong’s second wife. But I have a lot of admiration for her. One of my babysitters, Hannah Ressiger, is a rap artist, so I’m listening to her. Van Morrison. But mostly I listen to Bob Marley.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I don’t know exactly have a life outside work. But I’m working on it. The boundaries
are blurry. We just finished reading The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien, in my Literature & Composition class. So that book is as assigned text, but it has also been essential fuel for my own imagination for so long I had forgotten about it. Until I read it again in this class, and then began thinking of another possible class—Brian Merriman, Laurence Sterne, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien: an Irish comic imaginative tradition to which I myself could belong. Designing courses allows me to build or rebuild structures to frame crucial aspects of my aesthetics and understanding in an interactive, communicative, even integrated way.

My life outside work is principally my family. That can actually be a lot of work too, with a wide range of interesting reading, some of it from banks.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to be rich. I’m not sure I could handle it. But I’d like to give it a shot.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Well I would have liked to play with the Wailers. I would have liked to dance at the Savoy. If I wasn’t a writer I probably would have ended up just being a writer or something. I might have liked to be an obstetrician. Or a pediatrician. But I mightn’t have been able to stand seeing children in pain. Well, it would have been great to have been a comedian. A painter. But I work in an art school. I’m happy.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I was tempted. I tried lots of other things. I managed art galleries. A theatre.

I worked in hospitals. I was a cleaner in many cities. Maybe I should have stuck to all that but I was tempted to write. It’s a lot of fun. I loved being a journalist, the design problem of the word-count or the page, having my work published overnight, seeing people read it, getting free passes into things. I adored writing plays: I loved theatre space. What I learned when I wrote plays was that there was no point in squandering that great opportunity on anything resembling real life. You could do anything with theatre, so why not? I feel like that about writing too. It’s a miraculous form. I was in a Chinese restaurant in L.A. one Saturday night recently. It was filled with big round tables around which sat exhausted families attended by even more exhausted waiters. I would have loved to film it. But you can film it with your eyes, and write it, very cheaply, if you have time.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I re-read Aristotle’s Poetics a couple of weeks ago, that’s a great book, even in fragments. My last great movie saturation experience was the complete 54 hours of the South Korean TV series Dae Jang Geum.
20 - What are you currently working on?

Right now I’m working on hope.

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