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A few words and poems: Mairead Byrne
At sundown men in loose powder-blue overalls come in a white city truck and unfurl tarps stashed between the bars of the wrought-iron fence and nudge them up and out over the park occluding the darkening saturated sky, making a sky beneath the sky, a darker place through which they feel their way back, by smell, by touch, to the edge, where they hang briefly, more audible than visible, before zipping the park up for the night, piling into the truck and driving away.–Mairead Byrne
SQ: Mairead your new book, The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven, is a compilation of poems you composed on your blog, can you tell me how it came about?
MB: I saw a diffident guy off to the left side of the rostrum after an AWP panel in New York in 2008. It turned out to be Adam Robinson who had solicited me for Baltimore Is Reads Adam is a phenomenon but I didn’t know that then. I thought he was just a diffident guy.
After the next AWP, in Chicago, where we both happened to read in Jennifer Karmin’s Links Hall space, which had gigantic adamant trains noising through at grim intervals, he sent me a “reverse query,” offering to do a book with Publishing Genius, one of the many operations in his empire. I gave him 5 options, of which The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven was the second. That’s the one he took and I was glad. About a year later I was looking at the finished book. In the interim Adam and I exchanged hundreds of emails. That was very important to me because I had read an interview with Adam Robinson in the Faster Times in which he talked about dozens of emails daily zipping between himself and Shane Jones, whose first novel Light Boxes (Publishing Genius 2009) was bought by Penguin and optioned by Spike Jonze. So I definitely wanted to exchange a lot of emails with Adam. Adam originally proposed a 65-100 page book. I knew I wanted closer to 100, but as I worked I found I wanted 200. I was thrilled when Adam agreed. Only Adam would have done this book. It is his book, and mine. And anyone’s who wants to make it theirs. I thought the blog, which was 6 years old then, was coming to an end. But it’s still going, though changing direction.
SQ: I think I was at that reading and recall those trains. In terms of the poems, I’ve been wondering about this in general, whether poet’s are actually composing in blogging software….did you compose them in blogger and if so, what was that like, or did you compose on word and then cut and paste? Do you notice a difference composing in one medium over the other?
MB: You were at that reading Sina! It was huge! Those were the days before you became Queen of the Blogosphere but you already had that Princess Di shine! The poems usually started with a manic smile! As far as writing goes, the title or concept and a cluster of lines, maybe the first few lines, usually came first. I collected those immediately in a notebook–I was usually out and about, driving, etc. Then I’d put them in Word documents and develop anything that seemed to have legs. I’d finish it tightly in Word, then put it on the blog, often re-formatting it for that environment. and also making diction or phrasing changes up to the point of publishing, or after. Some of the poems–which use color, for example–were written directly on blogger. These days I am much more inclined to compose in HTML, or Photoshop. I like to compose in the medium of publication; it’s also a way to learn. As with many poets, the bulk of my publication is online, almost live. The book becomes retrospective, and of course offers different constraints. Going from Heaven to The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven was an act of translation. I spent many months thinking about a print manifestation of the work, and how to carry blogginess back into the book. Although Adam and I did almost all our talking and trying out online, meeting only once, we were both thinking of books: this particular book, and how it should instantiate a dialogue between blog and book; and also the respective book traditions of all the books Adam has published with Publishing Genius, and my own books. I wanted a comrade for Talk Poetry (Miami University Press 2007) and I got that; Talk Poetry is also, of course, a blog book, as is SOS Poetry (ubu /Editions 2007). The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven, demonstrates more consideration, structurally, of the blog/book dialogue.
I’m very interested in all aspects of the visual in poetry, whether in terms of the book/page or onscreen/online. I’m equally interested in the aural/oral. No matter what environment I’m working in, live, print, or digital, I’m thinking of voice also. I’m working very consciously with voice now.
How about you, Sina? You’ve also dealt with these questions in Unleashed (BookThug 2009).
SQ: Yes, I have, and I have noticed that I am increasingly been composing in blogger and I’m not sure that I like it….or that I like being Queen of anything, let alone the blogosphere…but that’s another matter. And I suppose I’m not composing poems as you are, so it’s a kind of middle voice I have there. You on the other hand, seem to not have a distinction between blog voice and poem voice. You do have themes, and strands though. I have read your blog for a few years now, and noted threads–a lot of sadness, for one, but also joy. In fact I think you made a conscious decision to find joy in poetry did you not?
MB: What have I to be sad about? Nothing much. When I broke I broke into a smile. I don’t know how that happened but it did. Writing has always made me laugh. Even when I was a young journalist tramping around Dublin with my little wire-bound notebook I was often laughing at the ridiculous things I was about to publish. It’s a way of keeping yourself happy. It’s not exactly consciously chosen. It’s more of a visitation.
I like what you say about middle voice. I have a sort of middle voice in poetry which works in everyday life too, so I can actually be talking in poetry even though it sounds pretty normal to anyone in conversation with me. Maybe just a little more clipped, with crisp silences.
SQ: If I think of humour, women and poets very few names come to mind–Jennifer L. Knox yes, Susan Holbrook, yes, but few others. What’s up with that?
MB: I think there are a lot of funny women in poetry. Adeena Karasick is outrageously funny. Maria Damon is funny. Mel Nichols is funny. Laura Moriarty is funny. These are just some of the funny women poets I saw in the last week. There’s a bit of the purloined letter about it. There are a lot of funny women poets but we don’t necessarily see and remember them as such because the category isn’t sufficiently valorized. Humor in women isn’t valorized. Humor in poetry isn’t valorized. So it’s a double-whammy. But it’s there, liberated by performance, even if not invested in by poetry culture or the wider culture as yet. There’s still something of the sacerdotal about poetry, and poets tend to take their priestly function as tenders to the Word painfully seriously. They tend to intone. And patriarchal culture hasn’t been a big fan of humorous women. What man wants to see his wife shaking with laughter? Patriarchy prefers a stiller model.
Understanding poetry as performance can be liberating. There are lots of models for funny women in a range of performance traditions: Bette Midler, Chelsea Handler, (wow I should change my name to Mairéad Byrner), Becki Newton, Tina Fey to name the first who spring to mind. Even if funny doesn’t make it onto the page, women poets are almost invariably funny offstage. That’s probably true of poets in general. We still tend to think of poetry as being invention with language / invention of subject. But we can invent lots of things: perspective, attitude, tone, character. The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven doesn’t mention Ireland once but it’s an intensely Irish book, in structure and attitude. I consider my work firmly in the tradition of Irish comic literature, both in early Irish and 20th century prose, especially Beckett and Flann O’Brien. Look, people don’t say my name because they don’t know how to pronounce it (it rhymes with parade). In this case there’s a kind of gap, an awkwardness, an awareness that something is being left out. With humor + women + poetry, the category just hasn’t been articulated yet. But there are plenty of vivid practitioners. Watch out for them. Talk. It’s happening.
from The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven
I couldn’t stand Christmas anymore.
I had to go out.
It was raining.
I didn’t bring an umbrella.
My boots leaked.
It was great.
I could write poetry again.
Free of charge!
In your own home!
No skills needed!
Be your own boss!
Better than sex!
XXXXXXBECAUSE YOU SAW ME
XXXXXTHE SHINING CHILDXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXXDRAGGED FROM ME
XXXXXXYOU WOULD HAVEXXXXX
XXXSTAYED WITH USXXXXXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXBUT NOT SOXXXXXXX
DONALD HALL WOULD HATE ME
if he knew me
I don’t want to be great
it takes me 10 minutes
to write a poem
I want to whisper or
shout it about
My poems are usually brief
they resemble each other
they are anecdotal
they do not extend themselves
they make no great claims
they connect small things to other small things
I LIKE SHORT!
I just want to kick the leaves
& have done