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Interview with Eavan Boland

20 July 2007

Do volumes of Collected Poems serve a purpose for the author as personal milestones or a stocktaking exercise? Or are they created to meet the needs of a reading public?

A bit of both. Its like a painter's retrospective. You can go into a room where the work is displayed and see the styles of different decades, the decisions to change or not to change. It adds something to your senses of the whole, as against the part. I like Collected Poems as a way of gathering in a whole statement. I like them for other poets as well. I always watch out for the Collected Poems of a poet I like. They're not meant to replace single volumes, but they give a wider view.

Your New Collected Poems has just been published by Carcanet. It is ten years since your first Collected Poems appeared. Has this intervening decade changed your own view of your work?

I'm not sure. I don't think it's time that changes your view. More like the poems you write, and those you don't. I'm glad to have the chance to put together the book, though, and to make it more complete.

New Collected Poems has been extended in surprising ways as it includes not just your two most recent volumes, The Lost Land and Code, but also poetry and sections of a verse play that you wrote as a young woman. What were your reasons for including this earlier work?

I think a Collected Poems is just less Darwinian that a Selected. It ought to be less involved with winnowing out the successful and more occupied with trying to put together a biography of the poems. That's the reason I put in early work. Just that I wrote it - it seemed right to put it back in the time frame.

When collecting your poems and ordering them in a new arrangement is it tempting to revise or alter things?

Not really. It's not that you can't change a line, or cut out a stanza. But the reason you can't change things in a larger way is that you're no longer the poet who wrote that poem. The poet who wrote it is long gone. You're looking at your own ghost, and one, what's more, under years and layers of technical change, different perspectives, altered choices. So it's a bad idea. A poem is like a weave: if you touch one line, undo one word, you might unravel it all. And taking an early poem and revising it according to skills you have now, and didn't have then, is a kind of forgery. It's not something I want to do.

The American edition of your most recent collection Code has the alternative title, Against Love Poetry. Why is this?

Both titles fit. Code is the earlier one. But I like the second one as well. I often change titles. I have poems in the American editions of Outside History and In a Time of Violence that have different titles from the UK and Irish editions. I take some kind of quirky satisfaction in it. Titles are just working notes. I don't know why they would need to be set in stone. I like to keep them as open options.

Both The Lost Land and Code contain some of the most intimate lyrics that you have written. You acknowledge the challenge of addressing the theme of married love. Why is it such a troublesome subject?

It's not troublesome. It's just below the radar of a few poetic conventions. The traditional love poem has a short attention span which generates specific subject matter: beauty, disappointment, desire, betrayal. Those tend to be the themes. A marriage poem needs a different time span, and you have to throw the voice from a different place in the poem. I wanted to write these poems and at the same time push back a bit on the conventions.

Poems about mothers and daughters do not tend to loom large in literary canons. Is it difficult to find a mode and language with which to broach these connections?

I come at that slightly differently. Mothers and daughters loom large in reality. If they don't loom large in a literary canon, that's a loss, an absence. It's important to be clear about what that absence means. Above all, it doesn't mean that the subject isn't important. What it means is almost the reverse: when a literary tradition fails to include something central and humane, the response should be that an absence like that has no authority. All it means is there is some flaw of inclusion. So I didn't find it hard to find a mode or a language. I would have found it hard not to. It felt natural to look for the place where something I lived and understood could be included in poetry. The point of entry, of course, was in my imagination, not in the canon. And I didn't feel that my imagination was bound by anything that was missing from the poetic past.

Your poem 'Code' engages in a moving dialogue with Grace Murray Hopper, the forgotten inventor of COBOL, one of the first computer languages. Computers and poetry often seem at odds. Can you comment on why you undertook to write this poem and how you chose to shape it?

I love computers. I did from the first moment I connected with them - maybe at the end of the 1980s. Through a friend I learned how to build them, when it was still an exciting thing to do. Now, I'm afraid, there's a much more matter-of-fact feel to it all. But then there was a touch of Orpheus about it - a magic of syntax that could unlock the mute world. The problem was, I never did programming. I don't think I could have. Grace Murray Hopper was one of the people who pushed forward with a new kind of language. If she hadn't published the first compiler paper, there wouldn't have been a way to talk to the hardware in the early 1950s. There's something poignant to me about all that. There's also something enviable. Poets struggle so much with the questions of private and public language. I do anyway. And the ideas of power in language and its absence. And here was this woman in New Hampshire, on her own, not concerned with any of those ideas or reflections. Just looking for the symbols to make it safe in the world. I felt a real relation to that. That's what the poem's about.

American themes and especially landscapes and places crop up visibly in your two recent volumes. Have living in the United States and teaching at Stanford University changed you as a writer?

It's hard to divide the change from the circumstance. Stanford is a vivid, exciting place to work. The Creative Writing Program keeps up a continuous conversation about writing and poetry. I have really wonderful colleagues. But change - that's a different matter. As far as that goes, I think I was shaped somewhere else. The real events and effects happened in my work when I lived in a suburb of Dublin and had small children and had to decide on the exact angle of relation between the life and the poem. I didn't feel I had a lot of sanction in those times. I sometimes even felt I was skewing the Irish poem I had learned to write. But at the same time there was something self-taught and exciting about it all. All of that's in this book. That's not to say the conversation and landscape and change around me no isn't a real plus. It just comes at a different stage.

New Collected Poems provides a welcome retrospective on your work and offers many fresh insights into your unfurling achievement. Are you currently working on a new volume of poetry?

Yes I am. I just sent back the contract - the American one - yesterday. So that makes me see a little light around the edges. The book is fairly well finished. It's about a year or so from publication. It's called Domestic Violence. It's a play on the dark side of the title. But the real theme - the argument - of the book is something I've felt for a long time, which is that somewhere poetry became too invested in the exterior, the pastoral, the moral landscape which celebrated the poet in a designated outside world. Along that register, the domestic space was given a very subordinate role - confined, ornamental, inert. But my mind as a woman and a poet has always been nourished by charged-up, awkward, powerful interiors. Not just kitchens, objects, familiars of a daily life. But the small. Seismic relations and spaces between them. It's reclaiming the energies of those interiors that I'm interested in, as well as protesting the distortion of those spaces. Of course, my home, my life there, my memory is part of that. But also my sense of what poetry - the cannon, if you like - short-changed and suppressed. I published a poem earlier this year called 'An Elegy For My Mother I Which She Scarcely Appears' which deals with some of it. I want the book to contain some kind of insistence, some kind of protest, as well as - hopefully - some workable poems.
Previous interview with Eavan Boland... To the Eavan Boland page...
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