I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Why am I here-in this house-in this world-which also holds a man screaming as other men saw at his neck with an inadequate knife? In episode 11 of Phoned-In, BOMB Magazine’s poetry reading by phone podcast, Mairéad Byrne reads from her book, The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven.
Luke Degnan How has teaching at an art school informed your poetry?
Mairéad Byrne It’s a slow process. I was attracted to the job at RISD because I wanted very much to teach at an art school. When I was a young journalist, longing for poetry, the paintings on the walls of the studios of my friends, and the conversations we had in those studios, and watching them work, the visibility and practicality of it, made art real for me and gave me confidence. I am indebted to Michael Cullen in particular, who was just consummately hospitable towards me in every way.
In my twenties, I also worked in theatre, where many arts meet. I later ran an art center for a while. When I decided to emigrate and pursue an MA, and then a PhD, of course I found writing—and literature—separated from the other arts. A historicity entered into it; a vivacity was gone. RISD seemed a way to join things up again. But it is an institution like many others and the place for writing as an art form is still undetermined here, structurally. However, I have got to work with amazing students, and I have amazing colleagues, all of whom, in their multiple talents and generosity, reinforce my native understanding of writing as material, performative, and hospitable to collaboration with the other arts.
As a teacher, I’ve been able to design and teach courses in Visual Poetry, Sound Poetry, Writing as Art + Design, even the Irish Comic Tradition (in which I carved out a place for myself of course). Teaching allows one to foreshadow, as well as draw from, practice. It’s a wonderful way of life. Sometimes I long for a life of action but I don’t know how suited I would be to it.
LD There’s a section of The Best of (What’s Left Of) Heaven titled “Interviews.” What is it about interviews that interests you in a poetic sense?
MB Probably the thing that interests me most is the gap, the silence, between question and answer. In these interviews, I generally write both question and answer so it’s really just play-acting. Sometimes I leave the questions out. I’m drawing casually on techniques I used as a journalist but, because I’m inventing rather than representing characters, I’m just having fun. Also, I’m fundamentally interested in tone and intonation and that plays into almost everything I do.
LD In an interview with the Poetry Foundation you said, “These days I am much more inclined to compose in HTML, or Photoshop.” Can you talk about this process a bit?
MB When I did that interview with Sina Queyras, I was participating in a project, Lingua Ignota, by Samantha Gorman, Danny Cannizzaro, and Edrex Fontanilla, which involved translating an invented language. Because the markings seemed iconic, I made some of my contributions in Photoshop. It’s kind of ironic: Samantha Gorman—whose work I knew best—was graduating from the Brown University MFA program in Literary Hypermedia, but she worked intensively with manuscript culture, especially the Book of Kells, and Lingua Ignotaseemed runic. There are strong connections and tensions between early and current writing technologies in terms of visuality. That’s exciting, as I am obsessed with color.
Every poet with a blog or website probably has something to say about this. You can feel you’re working for Google so saving Word files or hard copies might be your insurance, or shares. At the same time, Google can feel like a colleague or companion (one who colonizes your brain).
I’ve always been interested in the technologies of writing. I remember, in a very early workshop (with Eavan Boland) someone asked How do you know when the poem is finished?And I said, That’s easy—it’s finished when you get to the end of the page. Since then I’ve developed a subtler appreciation of the space of the page, and palpable space. It seems to make sense to compose in the program of production. I am writing sound poems now, in Audacity. I can do them live, but it’s a different thing. Your question makes me realize that what I’d really like to do is a whole new set of degrees in new writing technologies. After that I would be able to talk about it better.
LD How do you think working as a journalist has influenced your use of language?
MB I’m amazed at the extent to which my poetry is formally influenced by my early practice as a journalist. You’ve already mentioned the interviews; I’m preoccupied with voice, hesitation, silence. Also, I was shocked recently to realize that the text-block prose poem form I use inTalk Poetry is a reincarnation of the 300-word theatre reviews I used to do for In Dublinmagazine—they were boxed off, usually with an image. My sense of the page is probably influenced by the magazine spread: the economy of text and image, the juxtaposition which, serendipitous or jarring or not, is just the condition of the form.
As a journalist I was always counting words, and trying to make every word count, and figuring out ways where the approach or lay-out could carry some of the meaning for me. Like, I mightn’t have a lot of words but how I chose them and how I disposed them could pack in more punch. I think I use time, in poetry readings,in the same way. It’s a constraint. It can generate the form. 18 mins, 8 mins, 25 mins, 35 mins: that’s the starting point and shapes what you do.
Then the daily, as with newspapers, is a pulse in my poetry. Putting some sort of news into people’s hands. It was a kick to be up late writing, then see someone in a coffee-shop next day reading what you wrote. It was really pleasurable, a type of performance, and I love everything that is performative in poetry.
Other parts of journalism were difficult for me—the pace, the interface, the in-your-face. Journalism educated me about my city, Dublin. I had a chance to do it all again in New York when I started writing for the Village Voice but I didn’t want to learn about another city in that way. I wanted to be a poet in America. Journalism was the first form that allowed me approach and relate to the world on my own terms—through writing. That’s still what I do. Ultimately, poetry is my form. It’s probably the sculpture of writing genres. You can do anything with it. I identify so fervently as a poet it’s a wonder I don’t write more identifiable poetry.
LD What do you think of the Flarf poets?
MB What is there to think about? Flarf is a phenomenon, very valid. It’s always entertaining, though probably more fun to engage with as a writer and performer than as a member of the audience. But that’s almost always the way. I have friends among the Flarf poets. They’re a vivid, ingenious, strategic, smart and game bunch.
LD Can you ask yourself a question and then answer it?
MB Q: Mairéad, do you think there’s any chance you might write better poetry?
A:It’s possible. I want to read more but I’ve lost interest in reading. I want to write more but I’m no longer interested in audience. It’s a bind. Maybe if I had more sex. I want to put poetry in danger and put myself in danger and to write the sort of poetry I would not be ashamed to read to people in danger. But I’m a coward in many ways. Poetry has always led me out. I hope for the courage to follow it into danger.
Mairéad Byrne emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1994, for poetry. Her books include The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven(Publishing Genius 2010), Talk Poetry (Miami University Press 2007), SOS Poetry (/ubu Editions 2007), and Nelson & The Huruburu Bird (Wild Honey Press 2003). She lives in Providence and teaches at Rhode Island School of Design.
Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.
Li Young Lee