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10 Questions for Peggy O'Brien

"The shortcut proved the long way round. Mid-summer,
Insomniac sun. She ambled through the market.
Throngs pressed the flesh. Is this salmon firm and fresh?
These strawberries plump and sweet, as ripe as June?
Crubeens and chickens, carrageen moss and peas.
The price went up according to the depth
Of hunger in a voice. "Cheap flowers,""cheap flowers,"
from “Barter,” Summer 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 2)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
For many years in my twenties and thirties I listened to another’s poetry rather than wrote my own. I was not just married to a well-known Irish poet, I was also his first reader. I would criticize draft after draft, witnessing yet another poem being born. Of course, I scribbled a bit in secret; but I hadn’t the audacity, let alone the dedication or craft, to call myself a poet. Besides, Ireland back then was a very patriarchal place and I was a “wife and mother,” indeed a very fortunate “poet’s wife”. It makes sense, therefore, that the first real poem I wrote, real in Heaney’s sense of having not just the sound but even the scent of me, was a love poem to my now husband, an avid fly fisherman in his day.

One summer evening he took me to the Deerfield River and from the height of his angling expertise instructed me in how to “read” (his word) the river, to detect like some dark, buried secret where the trout might be hiding. He also instructed me in how to wade the river. I felt its deceptive power, its peaceful surge. That love poem is called “Reading the River”. I plucked up my courage and sent it to The Yale Angler’s Review, where it was published, not, mind, in The Yale Review, which was miles away, far up river at that stage.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Since I spent my early adult life in Ireland, it is still Irish poets who set the gold standard for me. Obviously Seamus Heaney, for his scrupulous, sometimes self-punishing honesty. If I risk in my own work the slightest grandiosity, try to hide shortcomings with showiness, Seamus still scolds me from above. Another poet, who has increasingly taught me by example how to articulate a growing sense of being simultaneously in two places and two times, is Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Imbuing her poems regularly with multiple locational and temporal layers, she was my chief mentor for the forthcoming book, Tongues, in which the poem “Barter” appears, a poem that straddles both Paris and Dublin, the medieval and the modern.

What did you want to be when you were young?
A lawyer. My father assured me that “I would argue with Saint Peter.” Or maybe an actress, since my very life was one of trying on identities.

What inspired you to write this piece?
A glacial encounter, which took place in a don’s “rooms” in Trinity College, Dublin. My focus for most of the poem, however, is a certain market, which still exists on the north side of that city on Moore Street.  In the context of Tongues with its persistent ambiguities, this bustling, haggling, vital place may as well be Les Halles in 12th century Paris. At the conclusion of “Barter,” a door frame with stone lintels leading into that man’s chambers echoes a portal into a Parisian underworld, the Catacombs, where, as you start to descend, you read these premonitory words above your head: “Stop. Here lies the empire of death.” That is still how I think of that black night I endured once in Dublin at the summer solstice, when actual light seems never fully to die.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
My poems swing freely between New England and Ireland. I once had the luck to meet the American poet CK Williams on a train going from Dublin to Belfast, where he was going to give a reading. Williams lived in Paris for a good portion of his life; but, he explained, if he saw on the Metro something that began to resonate as a poem, he’d often transfer the incident to the New York City subway, which he knew more intimately.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
For me the writing process is all about coaxing, even berating myself into listening only to the music of some proto-poem begging to be heard. My challenge always is to turn down the volume of the world’s cacophony in my head—references to write, grocery lists to make—to hear an otherworldly sound, at first often a whisper.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
A poem, if it’s meant to be, usually begins for me with scribbling on the run, whether in the supermarket or the doctor’s waiting room. I put these snippets, inchoate phrases, or stabs of lines in a tiny, spiral notebook.  Most of these jottings are as ephemeral as snowflakes in late spring. Occasionally, one will acquire more durability and start to grow like a real storm brewing. At some point, when the pocket notebook hasn’t enough empty space to let a potential poem start to expand and take shape, I turn to a larger spiral notebook, the kind I used in college to take class notes.

That’s also the point at which I begin to slip in and out of my study upstairs at home, the door left slightly ajar, and make my first fumbling attempts at form. I usually have no idea then whether the poem will be free or formal. I don’t even write consecutive lines or thoughts at this stage. I pretend to let the poem snowball with a will of its own, though it’s my will, of course, that crosses out much more than I keep. In the end, one of those big notebooks will contain at most one or two poems. I don’t commit a syllable to the computer until I think I may have an actual poem, which, of course, I never do. The so-called process never seems to stop. 

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
A variety of people. It depends on the individual poem, often where it is set. Many of my poems deploy an Hiberno-English, which can sound like gibberish to the most sophisticated American ear.

What are you working on currently?
A memoir beginning with my first twenty something years in Western Massachusetts—my childhood in Westfield, undergraduate years at Mount Holyoke—and ending with my fraught departure from Dublin after roughly two decades of raising a family there and teaching at Trinity.

What are you reading right now?
I’m perverse. When I’m in Ireland, I read mainly Americans and vice versa. (I've also taught American Lit in Ireland and Irish Lit in America.) Right now I’m reading a poet from Belfast, Leontia Flynn. Her new book The Radio marks a major break in her style. She’s suddenly found the knack of electrifying a stretch of erudition with a sudden, colloquial zap, like the moment she discovered that  “…Coleridge’s inflamed / humours would slink about his drug-wracked form, / we were, like, 'woah’” I couldn’t show my face in Dublin again if I hadn’t read this.

PEGGY O'BRIEN is the author of four collections of poems: Sudden Thaw, Frog Spotting, Trusting Ice and Tongues (available December from Orchises Press and forthcoming in 2019 from New Island Books in Dublin). She is also the editor of the Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry and the author of the critical study, Writing Lough Derg: from William Carleton to Seamus Heaney. She spent half her teaching career at Trinity College, Dublin and the other half at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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