Wake: Up to Poetry
“It felt like a breaking of some taboo I’d placed myself under”: Caitríona O’Reilly on writing Geis
Caitríona O’Reilly’s Geis is out this week, and in honor of its publication, WFU Press interns Shannon Magee and Alex Muller asked her about her influences, her writing process, and the relationship between science, myth, and poetry.
WFU Press: The word “geis” is described as a mythological taboo or injunction on behavior, and there’s more than a whiff of the uncanny in your work. What kind of dialogue do you see existing between ancient, supernatural proscriptions and modern life?
O’Reilly: Well, I was brought up as a Catholic, which makes you profoundly aware, from an early age, of the links between the ancient traditions and modern life. The feast of the Annunciation, Ash Wednesday, the saints’ days—these were a familiar part of the calendar, of the rhythm of everyday life. In my small-town Irish childhood, a pagan festival like Hallowe’en was also very significant. I can remember my grandmother telling me about having heard the banshee, that the banshee followed certain families and that hearing her crying presaged a death or calamity. She was not generally a credulous woman but she believed this. So even during the 1970s and 1980s in the east of Ireland, these stories and myths were still current. I’m not sure that that is still the case now. I also read children’s literature such as Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service which plugged me into English and Welsh myth at an early age. I am naturally of a deeply skeptical mindset, but I am fascinated by myth and it is partly a way of escaping my frustrations with the highly rational, highly materialistic globalized world we now live in; myths represent a compelling, entirely localized way of understanding uncontrollable phenomena, of relating to the landscape, a means of placation and reassurance, an explanatory style. I am aware of their double-edged nature—they also represent a sump of ignorance and prejudice—but I think we are the poorer psychologically for the loss of our myths.
Regarding the geis specifically: this had a psychological significance for me—the notion of a person being controlled by certain supernatural prohibitions or compulsions (spells, really) is related to blocks or compulsions in the personality, our self-limiting behaviours, our irrationalism. This is the sense in which it is used in the title sequence in the book, which describes a time of personal trauma and the fallout from that.
In The Irish Times, Patrick Crotty compared your first collection to Paul Muldoon’s, and the parallels can also be found in Geis, especially in the tension between scientific terminology and the playfulness of poetic conventions such as rhyme and form. Of course, you were born the same year that Muldoon’s first collection was published. How do you see your generation of poets responding to previous generations? Do you see (or foresee) any trends in poetry by younger Irish writers?
The single most dominant trend, to my mind, is diversity. We are a disparate bunch. A number of us have completed doctorates (I’m thinking of poets of my generation such as Justin Quinn, Sinéad Morrissey, and so on), so there is perhaps a more conscious academic bent there in some of the work. There is of course an acute consciousness of the prominence of poets such as the brilliant generation of Northern Irish poets: Montague, Mahon, Longley, Muldoon, and of course Heaney, and I think Muldoon in particular has been very influential. He was himself reacting against previous generations, of course, with his highly ironized style, suspicious of lyric earnestness or of anything that takes itself too seriously. But there are also brilliant women poets like Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Vona Groarke who are keeping the flame of the musical lyric alive. Openness, diversity, these seem the biggest trends, with younger poets selecting affinities and interests from a wide base and being bold in their experiments, which can only be a good thing.
In your Ph.D. you concentrated on Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Sylvia Plath. Were you interested in a dialogue among these writers about poetry itself, or were you more interested in how they differ? Or both? Which contemporary American poets have influenced you, and which Irish poets?
My Ph.D. focused specifically on conceptualizations of space in the work of these three writers; space being a metaphor for their poetics, their sense of their own poetic power. So in Dickinson there is a vastness, despite the tininess of the lyric space—somehow an imagination of the whole North American continent is lensed into her sequestered New England brain. I argue that this is an expression of her consciousness of her own immense poetic gift, even if it could never be stated explicitly. H.D.’s spaces are Hellenic, nurturing and maternal, while Plath’s become claustrophobic, stifling and eventually deadly—think of the bee box, the ‘grave cave’ of ‘Lady Lazarus’ or the plaster of Paris mausoleum of ‘In Plaster’. So the discussion of images of space became a discussion of poetics and self-consciousness in the work of these three female modernists (I regard Dickinson as a modernist avant le lettre).
In terms of my own influences, I love American poetry with a passion; for me it is the great English-language poetry of the twentieth century. Dickinson, Moore, Stevens, Lowell—the giants. Recently I’ve been reading John Haines, whose sensitivity to the landscape of Alaska has had a big impact on me. Winter News, his 1966 collection, is a beautiful book. I’ve also been enjoying Kay Ryan lately, and Spencer Reece, who I was lucky enough to hear read in York, England, a few months ago. Irish influences are harder to pin down. Yeats is the poet you come back to, come home to, again and again, although that formidable rhetoric was of its time and unrepeatable. The quadrumvirate of Heaney, Mahon, Longley, and Muldoon have probably had the deepest influence on me. I was taught by Michael Longley when I was nineteen and his workshop was a turning-point in my life. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s work I love for the stunning balance it strikes between mystery and clarity.
You have an almost scientific precision in the way you look at objects, no doubt influenced by your study of archaeology at Trinity College Dublin. What attracts you to archaeology? And do you see poetry as a sort of archaeological act?
The scientific thing probably has more to do with an interest in science per se, and particularly with the natural sciences, than with archaeology. My two brothers are scientists—one an ecologist and the other a computer scientist—and my father’s family are very science-oriented. So perhaps that’s in the genes. I was, I fear, a poor scholar of archaeology at TCD, but it leaves a trace, largely in my interest in Greek and Roman myths, sites and remains. Poetry is an archaeological act in that it involves digging down into the ‘layers of destruction’ in one’s own personality and situation, in order to bring things into the light. It is an attempt at preservation; the metaphor fits very nicely.
How would you describe your writing process? Do you start with an image or an idea? More specific to this collection, did you set out to write about the “geis” you encountered in society, or did you realize after the fact that geis was a common thread?
Often an image, idea or object becomes an obsession, seems to loom large out of the fabric of everyday life. Things sometimes seem already to be poetry and to demand an acknowledgement. Sometimes it will be a more conscious process; I’ll be interested in something and deeper thinking about it will eventually turn into a poem. I didn’t set out to write about the ‘geis’, no. I had a period of about five years when, following a traumatic incident in my personal life, I wrote no poetry at all. This was simultaneously self-punishment and survival strategy. ‘Geis’, the title poem, was the first thing I wrote after those years of nothing. It felt like a breaking of some taboo I’d placed myself under, and then, thinking about this, the rest of the sequence fell into place, allowing me to write about things that had been too painful to approach. To paraphrase Adrienne Rich, the metaphor is like a pair of protective gloves, allowing you to pick up and examine material that otherwise might threaten you. The ‘geis’ is a loose theme, rather than something programmatic.
We’ve already noted that archaeology plays a part in your poems, but there are also terms from anatomy and astronomy, among other sciences. Can you talk about your relationship to science and why you find it particularly inspiring?
Well, to refer back to a previous question, science has largely displaced the myths that used to be important to us. It’s become the dominant explanatory style: the way, the truth, and the light. In certain respects this is a loss; it leaves us exposed, alone, and comfortless. But in other ways it represents an enrichment—it gives us back the wonder of the world, but in a different way. The discoveries of science exceed the contrivances of the most fertile human imagination, and learning about these is exciting and inspiring. Moreover, we need this knowledge urgently, and we need it to be disseminated, since science is allowing us to understand fully the disastrous effect our actions are having on the planet. I have no scientific training whatsoever but I am curious about it as a way of understanding the world. The things of this world fill me with wonder and I think it’s only natural to make poetry out of that.
Where do you like to write? Do you have a writing routine? And has it changed over the years?
I have an antique roll top desk. When we acquired our current house I bought it and placed it proudly in a room I call my study, which doubles as our spare room. And then I perversely wrote almost all of the poems of Geis at the kitchen table or in the living room. I don’t know why this is. I seem to be intimidated by my own desk, which sits there accusingly, making demands of me. I’d like to be one of those poets who can write in cafes, as I sometimes struggle with the isolation of writing, but in reality I need extended solitude, peace and quiet and no interruptions. I go for long solo walks in a nearby wooded park, during which time ideas often occur, and then I go back home and write them down. I suppose it is a routine of sorts. Each book has its own rhythm of composition, so there have been slight variations to the routine over the years, mostly to fit around work schedules.
Caitríona O’Reilly was born Dublin in 1973, grew up in Wicklow and Dublin, and now lives in Lincoln. She studied archaeology and English at Trinity College Dublin, where she wrote a doctoral thesis on American literature; she has also held the Harper-Wood Studentship from St. John’s College, Cambridge.
Her first collection The Nowhere Birds was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2001, and won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2002 (given to the best new book by any Irish writer). Her second collection, The Sea Cabinet (Bloodaxe Books, 2006), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award in 2007. She is a freelance writer and critic, has written for BBC Radio 4, translated from the Galician of María do Cebreiro, and published some fiction. She has collaborated with artist Isabel Nolan, was a contributing editor of the Irish poetry journal Metre, and has been editor of recent issues of Poetry Ireland Review.
Her newest volume, Geis, is out this week.