For someone who’s recently graduated from college, your poetry contains a mature, defined voice. How did you come to discover your voice? How would you describe it yourself?
I think it was Joyce who remarked how Columbus made his name by being the last person to discover America. Something similar might be said of my undergraduate work. And work it was: those poems took a good deal of shaping and swearing and sleepless nights. I wanted to sound mature, I suppose, and––as an infant does with the voices of those around her––I absorbed and imitated as best I could the poets I was reading. Mostly Heaney, for sure: my line about the “auger in the heart of things” could have been lifted straight from “Exposure.” He perfected that blend of idiom, abstraction, and specific object, which––generally speaking––I wanted to try my hand at.
Having said that, I find the idea of discovering one’s voice suspect. If each poem is unique in its demands––since each poem, even a sonnet, is a sort of exploration or investigation––then the poet must remain flexible enough to follow. I could say that my voice is that of the speaker from “Somewhere On the Eastern Shore” because that’s the way I want to be perceived: mature, contemplative, imaginative, etc. But in terms of diction and syntax and imagination, the speaker of “Joseph,” with his freewheeling, idiosyncratic bent, might be more me. It’s closer to my speaking voice, my day-to-day way of putting things, but shaped in such a way that it outsteps the ordinary. I hope.
I agree with you about the overemphasis by young writers to “discover” their voice when the best thing one can do is to read and experiment and enjoy the writing process. For you it sounds like other writers like Joyce and Heaney really influenced your sensibilities. What other poets do you adore?
Well, to mention Heaney is to summon the others in the Trinity, as I regard it: Heaney, Yeats and Paul Muldoon. Anyone reading this might think all I read is Irish literature, but there’s a good deal of other voices speaking to me, too: Frost, Lowell, Larkin, Bishop, Brodsky, late Eliot, Bruce Bond, Natasha Trethaway, Hardy, Plath, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Sappho, Catullus.
When did you write your first poem and what was it like?
I was 15. It was awful.
The poem in question, “Wandering from Eden,” was built on a marching-band rhythm, with these cloyingly-perfect alternating rhymes. Archaic, emulative (or so I thought) of Wordsworth, to whom I had recently been introduced in class. I’m afraid I wrote that way for some time.
What moved you, or as Auden would say, “hurt you” into writing poems?
It makes a nice line, but I doubt “Mad Ireland” hurt Yeats into poetry––at least not at first. What moved me to poetry, I’m sure, was the desire to play with language in a way that went beyond playground rhymes. To play constructively, perhaps, and to order and reorder language, that it might yield something interesting.
I said “I’m sure” about this because, though I can’t recall any clear decision to take up poetry (or let it take me), the idea of playing with and exploring language is still what guides me today, and maybe even more so, given my recent stuff.
What role does the body play in your poems?
Having paraphrased Joyce on a lighthearted matter, I’d like to quote from a bad movie in earnest: “Intimacy is our last sanctuary.” While I don’t agree with it (I might deem intimacy our last congregation), oddly enough it’s the first thing that came to mind when I read the question.
The body, the vehicle for our minds and voice boxes, must be as fluid and mutable as its contents. In “A Lore,” it’s something that manifests intangibles like creativity and inspiration. In “Joseph,” Mary’s body has both a “navel” and a “belly,” an unlikely pairing; the egg that bonds with God’s seed is “somewhat swanlike.”
In truth, I’ve never given things of this nature too much thought for fear it might de-something something: destabilize my susceptibility to image or idea? Desensitize my inner ear? I’m not sure what it is, but something compels me to leave part of the poetic process––including readings of my own work––in its mystique. Maybe not leave as much as accept.
What are your plans for the future in regard to writing? Have you considered MFA programs? Why or why not?
I’ve actually just moved to Indiana to attend Purdue University’s MFA program this fall. I see graduate work as an obvious way to build upon one’s interest and passion. And for one who wishes to teach poetry at the college level, as I wish, the master’s degree is necessary. Unfortunately, I hear the doctorate is becoming more and more a requirement rather than a leg-up, which could mean more and more schooling for me.
I’d be disingenuous, though, not to at least mention the immediate economic benefit of this MFA: If my grad schooling comes fully-funded, and the institution will pay me to teach, then I’m spared the agony of finding a decent job––one that is somehow related to my bachelor’s––as just one applicant in a large, highly competitive pool of applicants in a strained market.
I appreciate your honesty with your turning to the MFA for experience and opportunity. What could you see yourself doing if you had to do anything other than write and work in English/creative writing/literature?
I could never really do it––I lack the muscle and the fortitude––but I’ve always, somewhere in a corner of my mind, wanted to be a fisherman. In the antiquated sense. The big wool sweater and overalls. The pipe. Something about sleeping in a damp bunk. It’s probably terrible in reality, but it’s a nice idea and a comforting one.
More seriously, though, anything other than poetry would be good. I can only assume I’d be just as happy malingering.
What has been your family’s reception to all of this poetry stuff? Do you have any family members that are creative?
My parents both are proud. There are the more practical elements in their pride: I’m not working the same sorts of jobs they had at my age, for example. But they are proud as well for me to be doing as much as I can on my own terms. I admit, all this fiddle might well be beyond my father, whose poetic radar mostly blips at the well-turned rock lyric. But, to be fair, he is a voracious reader of nonfiction. A great storyteller as well.
My mother possesses a wicked sense of humor. She’s prone to gravitate towards lines like “On the night God’s seed lay fresh / in the somewhat swanlike egg” for their boldfaced disregard. I haven’t shown her “Cava” yet, but I know a stilted tryst that ends with one participant choking on a strawberry would make her laugh. If that’s all that poem accomplishes, I’m happy.
Your fist poem contained a reference to Eden. And in your newer poems I notice—would it be fair to say—a Biblical influence on you? Where did this come from and what is your specific fascination in regard to the character of Joseph?
Well, I should start by saying I grew up in a Protestant family, a lax bunch of Methodists. I went to church Sundays with my father, but even from an early age I felt a certain amount of slippage, a sense of falling away from religion. What followed, through adolescence, was a painfully awkward period of tension between not believing in God and fearing retribution––His retribution––for my disbelief. Kind of comical now, really, but then it was frightening.
Having said that, shedding the Protestant skin has got to be much easier than the Jewish or the Catholic skin, which I think has to do with those communities being much closer, more unified maybe, than the WASP’s. Who knows? I don’t want to loiter.
Anything religious in my poems, I have to admit, is appropriated as a vehicle for my sensibilities rather than for an agenda per se. What strikes me about Joseph, and I could be wrong, is that he was a normal guy. A carpenter, right? Everyman thrust into the extraordinary. That’s what I’m interested in: not so much Immaculate Conception, the Spirit, the Annunciation, etc., but this one fella who must now make sense of what’s happened. Make sense and choices.
In that vein, my fascination might fall more with people named Joseph (and its variant spellings) and not that Joseph. I have another poem called “What Became of Josef?” that’s a vignette in the life of Dr. Josef Mengele (Auschwitz’s “angel of death”) in a Germany without Hitler. There is the risk, especially mentioning it in the context of this question, that it’s barbaric to link the two Joes, however tangentially, but I feel the work is sufficient enough to at least generate an argument to the contrary.
If you had to give an emerging poet five books to read—any books be they novel, criticism, poetry, or a coloring book—what would they be?
- Romanticism: An Anthology edited by Duncan Wu––Bought this hefty thing for a course freshman year. I quickly tired of lugging it across campus, but it was one of the first things I packed when I moved to Indiana almost five years later.
- The Iliad by Homer (Fagles’s translation)––Go to the root of western literature.
- Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 by Heaney––The closest thing we have, for the moment at least, to a collected.
- Four Quartets by Eliot––I think it’s his best, but what’s more important is that Eliot thought it was his best. Don’t worry about following the logic of it, but its music.
- At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien––Good for its “comic genius,” as I think Joyce put it, as well as its unbridled imagination and love of language. Something literary to loosen up with.
Are there any literary journals or magazines that you frequently read or enjoy?
I received a subscription to Poetry for Christmas last year. There’s a handful of interesting things I’ve come across in the six or eight volumes that come packaged so nicely in plastic, but that’s about it. I frustrate easily with poems trying too hard to be eye-catching rather than ear-catching––the kind that come in spades in Poetry––so it’s difficult to sit and read it. Different sensibilities, I suppose.
What’s your favorite food?
Arroz cubano: Cuban rice, a peasant’s dish that spread through Spanish territories in colonial days. It’s something I was introduced to when I began dating my fiance, whose mother is half Filipina. There are countless variations––the true mark of utilitarian food––but the one I know comprises ground beef in tomato sauce over rice, with raisins and a fried egg on top. I was skeptical about beef with raisins, but, god, it’s delicious.
What’s your favorite animal?
A good house cat. I identify with them. I’ve been missing Oscar the Wild and Maeve, my Maryland cats.
Lastly, if you could travel anywhere in the world where would it be and why?
Ireland. I was fortunate enough to go once, but only to one particular area. I’d like to see the whole island, pay my respects to Yeats and Heaney and Kavanagh and Brian O’Nolan. Also, for the rain and the food and the conversation.
I like the honesty.