An Interview with Paula Meehan

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An Interview with Paula Meehan
by Amanda Sperry, Wake Forest University graduate student in English
November, 2008

Q. Will you discuss the title of your forthcoming collection, Painting Rain? What does “painting rain” evoke for you, and what does it say about the way in which you form poetry? Why the change in title from The Wolf Tree to Painting Rain?

A. The title comes from a small poem called ‘Coda: Payne’s Grey’ which is at the very end of the book. “I am trying to paint rain …” runs the line. It may be the rainy summer seasons we’ve been having (we’d floods in July this year in Ireland); rainy summer seasons that segue out of rainy spring seasons and into rainy autumn seasons has rain very much on my mind. Payne’s Grey is a colour beloved by watercolourists, a mixture of ultramarine and black that is useful for clouds, for shadows, for mists, for sheets of rain, for drizzles and mizzles, for downpours, for lake depths and seas on cold winter days and is especially useful, I like to think, for shifting boundaries between this world and the otherworld of memory and dream.
The whole manuscript, up to quite late in the process had been called The Wolf Tree after a poem I got when I read a line in Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Slashes’ in her marvellous collection The School Among the Ruins. Her line is “In wolf tree see the former field”. Wolf trees, also known as veteran trees over this side of the Atlantic, are the oldest trees in what may have been once an open field, or simply the oldest trees in the forest. They are unrestricted in their growth being the first in to the habitat so they can grow in whatever way they desire, sending laterals out into the air. Subsequent generations of trees, the wolf trees’ descendants or another invading species have to compete for light and so tend not to have laterals, to grow straight up in competition for the light.
Eavan Boland, to whom my book is dedicated, mentioned the title rang a bell for her; I subsequently discovered that Wolf Tree, Alison Calder’s first poetry collection, was published by Coteau Books in 2007 in Canada. I think if Calder’s had not been such a fine strong collection I would have gone ahead anyway, on the basis that all’s fair in love, war, and poetry, but out of respect for her work I changed the title. There was also an historical novel of the same title by Helen Rucker, published in 1960 and set in the logging camps of the Pacific Northwest and in high society circles of San Francisco.

Q. The first poem of your collection is “Death of a Field.” Would you say that this poem is in dialogue with Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist,” and if so, how?

A. Not consciously in any way. The Heaney poem, of course, is well grooved into memory so it no doubt is part of the biosphere out of which my poem comes. I was thinking more of (and in!) the post nationalist moment. So many of our vulnerable ecosystems were (are still) under threat from mindless turbo development. Late century capitalism run riot. Now that the boom is over and we’ve gone into recession and the government is using taxpayers’ money to bail out the banks, we may have a breathing space to estimate what’s been lost through the unmediated and rampant greed that characterized both planning and building in nineties and noughties Ireland. In there too is the ‘Sean Bean Bocht’, poor old mother Ireland with her four green fields — “each one is a jewel” as the song tells us, only now she’d more likely sing about her four green sites. House and site for sale was a common advertisement, whereas before you’d have House and garden for sale. In fact you’d be afraid to stand still too long in case someone built an apartment complex on your head.
My own specific field, the field of the poem, was behind the house I live in, a small coastal meadow which acted as a kind of pressure valve for the surrounding housing estates. Its traditional hedges, its rich flora, its bird and insect life all made for an increment of connection and biodiversity in an otherwise suburban and highly concreted environment. It’s an almost finished housing estate as I write. My poem and old maps are part of its memory apparatus now.

Q. The concept of “transmission” or communication is in several of the poems in
this collection including “On Howth Head” and “The Following Message Will Be Deleted From Your Mailbox.” The idea of the mechanical interruption that occurs in the later poem even seems to affect the former in the context of the natural world. How does your poetry address the concept of communication in a technological world and how it affects the natural world?

A. Transmission is very much a word I associate with both the poetic and religious (especially Buddhist) traditions. It is very important to both: where you get your direct permissions from, who your masters are (I use masters in a non gendered way here), in what lineage you place yourself. In an age when we are handing over responsibility for memory (communal memory certainly, but maybe even personal/private memory) to the machines, at least in the developed world, then I am fascinated and worried in equal parts by the implications of this change. It is a change as great as that which occurred when oral transmission became written down and responsibility was vested in the books. The laws were codified and people turned to the book, rather than to the individual keeper of memory, (who was often the poet) for the truths which held the tribe, group, society together. When my students talk about memory they are often talking about buying more of it! When you think of the trouble some of those early books are still causing, the wars over the word of God, say, thousands of years after the shift, one can only wonder what this latest shift in transmission might bring.

Q. In your poem “Tanka” you take an ancient Japanese poetic form to depict the interrelatedness of travel and associated emotions of longing with poetry in Ireland. The poetry of Ireland and Northern Ireland increasingly deals more with global issues rather than Irish historical issues. Also, many contemporary poets such as Sinead Morrissey and Nick Laird use Japanese images or themes in their poetry. Can you discuss why you use the Japanese form, and why you think Japanese images and themes are being used in contemporary poetry from Ireland and Northern Ireland?

A. Well, Sinead has lived in Japan and written powerfully out of that experience directly as have other poets such. Many poets are drawn to Japanese poetry because of its imagistic richness and maybe drawn there for the same reasons Pound was, and which is explicit in his Imagist Manifesto, a manifesto we still feel the reverberations of almost a hundred years later.
I’m drawn to that nourishing well myself because I grew up with it, at least from the time I was a teenager. One of the first contemporary poetry books I held in my hands was Gary Snyder’s Regarding Wave, back in the seventiesI still read Snyder on a daily basis. I’ve made many proxy journeys to Japan through his work and when I finally went there a couple of years ago I found the years of reading Snyder a perfect introduction to that culture. And, bye the bye, a helpful companion on the Buddhist path.
I also remember here fondly a young fisherman poet, Finbarr Davis, from Howth who was starting out on the path of writing, and his delight in and enthusiasm for The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, which he loaned to me when I was in my first year at Trinity College. I never got to return it as he drowned off Skerries when the St Ibar, a fishing trawler he was working on, went down only a few miles offshore. He was a really beautiful young man, a kind of ghost friend I carry with me through my life.
Then there was Maura O Halloran, a gifted young poet and writer who was a contemporary of mine at Trinity, but whom I only came to know through her magnificent memoir of her training as a Zen monk, Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind. She is revered in Japan as a Zen saint, there is even a statue erected to her in one of the monasteries she studied in. She died in a bus crash in Burma. She was bringing the dharma home to Ireland after her training and hoped to establish a centre here.
Strangely, I say strangely because I’d never have imagined it in a thousand years of imaginings, there is a Zendo now on Gardiner Street, over twenty years since Maura died, a street of my childhood. Just as I couldn’t have ever imagined the Polish Community Centre, also on Gardiner Street, or the fact that in parts of Dublin there are more speakers of Mandarin Chinese than of the Irish language. It is like Finnegan’s Wake come home to the city, so many different tongues snagging at the ear as you walk the streets.
And though the new book is critical of how we are mindlessly jeopardising vulnerable habitats, I believe it also relishes the new streams of influence and confluence — the inflow of peoples who will enliven both the bloodlines and the culture of the island, revivifying and making strange that old saying, ‘I am of Ireland’.

Q. In a previous interview you mentioned that you felt that you had a muse at work in your poetry and that the muse was female. Can you describe how your muse helps you to create poetry? Do you rely on inspiration to create poetry? Do you revise your poetry often?

A. If I might quote in full a short poem of Anna Akhmatova on the subject of her muse?

Muse

When at night I wait for her to come,
Life it seems, hangs by a single strand.
What are glory, youth, freedom, in comparison
With the dear welcome guest, a flute in hand?

She enters now. Pushing her veil aside,
She stares through me with her attentiveness.
I question her: ‘And were you Dante’s guide,
Dictating the Inferno?’ She answers: ‘Yes.’
1924

I do have a strong feeling when I’m in the presence of what I call, with a nod to the tradition, my muse. When she is around I’m driven and I’m completely enthralled and the poems are given to me. When she is busy elsewhere I am bereft and lonely and occasionally desperate. If I call her ‘she’ and picture her as a liiving female presence it is just a way of personifying what can be a vague and shifty energy. Indeed a flighty energy. And sometimes a fatal energy. I have felt very like the knight in “O what can ail thee, knight at arms,/ Alone and palely loitering?/ The sedge has wither’d from the lake, / And no birds sing.” which is how John Keats apprehended her as ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, his beautiful woman without mercy, who is surely a muse manifestation.
All that said I have a strong conviction that if the muse is looking for me, I want her to be able to find me. I’m easy to find at my desk with my sharp nibs and my dictionaries. I am ready and waiting for her.
Do I revise? Yes, I rewrite and revise—each poem seems to have its own path. Some come easily and require only a bit of polishing and fine tuning. Others will change radically and even dramatically so as to have only a passing resemblance to a first or earlier draft. I love this work. Shaping and making. I get a physical pleasure from it and will carry a poem happily through as many transformations and incarnations as it seems to need. I relish it. I also have intense gratitude when I get a poem straight away, when it tumbles out fully formed, each word in the right place.

Q. Finally, is there a question that you have wanted to be asked in an interview but have yet to be asked?

A. Yes. Most certainly.
The question is: How do you recognize the Kerry Mafia?
The answer is: They make you an offer you can’t understand.