Interview with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Q. How did you find your experience on your recent American tour, and how did you like your most recent visit to Wake Forest? Did you have any time to enjoy yourself away from the readings?
A. I always enjoy coming to Wake Forest and was fortunate that the weather was so fine. I was able to wander around Graylyn and the campus and admire the buildings. [I was also able] to spend time with Jeff [Holdridge, Press Director] and Wanda [Balzano, WFU Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies] and (more briefly than I hoped) Candide [Jones, Assistant Press Director] who was terrific. Went to see the art collection in the ‘Bungalow’ [Reynolda House Museum of American Art] with Jeff and Wanda and was astonished at how rich it was. I also went to Kentucky which was new to me and rather strange, and to New York which is a place I love. I got to an excellent bookshop there and dislocated my arms dragging the books back to my friend Lucy McDiarmid’s apartment. NB: The breakfast in Graylyn is really great.
Q. During your readings…what is your goal when reading your poetry? Obviously the audience adds a public aspect to your poetry, but do you find reading poetry to be primarily a public or private experience in terms of poem selection? Do you aim to fulfill some theme?
A. I try to keep it fairly fresh for the audience and to follow themes that seem to get a response from them. So it is a public experience. I’ve had the private bit when I’m writing and revising the poems.
Q. There is heavy religious imagery in your poetry, especially with references to nuns. Why do nuns resurface in your poetry time and time again?
A. There were three nuns in my family, and they impressed me a lot as a child. I’ve a friend now who is a nun, the historian Margaret MacCurtain. They offered a way of writing about women in history because nuns have always had their own way of living, their own community, their own rituals and festivals – they are surprising people.
Q. From where do you draw inspiration for your poetry writing? Are there ever times when writing seems tedious or forced?
A. Inspiration comes from everywhere, from the places I go and the things I do. I never write unless I’ve had an idea that seems to me really interesting. I have plenty of other calls on my time so when I find myself neglecting my duty I know the idea must be a good one.
Q. When translating others’ poetry, to what extent do you find yourself consciously trying to preserve the original author’s attitude, and to what extent does the poem become yours? What roles have translating played in your other compositions?
A. I very much want to preserve the original author’s attitude. I’ve written a number of poems about translation, especially “Gloss/Clós/Glas”, and about language.
Q. In her preface to the first volume of The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry, Peggy O’Brien emphasizes the contributions that you and other contemporary Irish women poets have made to the poetry movement in Ireland. Do you feel the acceptance of the woman voice in Irish poetry has correlated with a similar change regarding women in Irish society today? How has that changed since you started writing poetry, and how has it changed in the ten years since O’Brien’s preface?
A. The position of women changed a lot in the 1970s, and what changed from the point of view of a woman poet was that people expected you to write about feminism. Maybe that’s why I started writing about nuns. Since then other issues have become important: gay rights, immigration and the treatment of immigrants, the growth of a populist demand for heavier policing. I don’t want to be stuck writing just about “women’s issues”.
Q. We understand you have just finished your new book, The Sun-Fish. Could you discuss this work a bit? It has been recognized on the short list for the T.S. Eliot Prize…How does it feel to be placed on such a prestigious list?
A. I was initially depressed by the TS Eliot nomination because I think poetry should not be about prizes. There are good poets who never get nominated for such things. The book is the first for eight years and it was originally called (in my head) Water. It has lots of sea and ocean references. But my [Irish] publisher wouldn’t go with that title.
Q. Is there any question you wished we had asked? If so, what is the question and what is your answer?
A. Not in those terms. The question I ask myself constantly is ‘is this real? Do I really believe this, do I really feel this?’ But that is a question I cannot answer except by trying again in a poem.