Eavan Boland

Q&A with Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1944, to diplomat Frederick Boland and artist Frances Kelly. She was educated in London, New York, and Dublin and has taught at Trinity College, University College, and Bowdoin College; was a member of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa; and is a regular Reviewer for the Irish Times. She currently lives in Stanford, California and Dublin, Ireland, and is Professor of English and Director of the Stegner Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. She is Co-Founder of the feminist publishing company, Arlen House. Her books of poetry include Against Love Poems (Norton, 2001), The Lost Land (1998), An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987 (1996), In a Time of Violence (1994), Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990 (1990), The Journey and Other Poems (1986), Night Feed (1982), and In Her Own Image (1980). Boland is also the author of Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (Norton, 1995), a volume of prose, and co-editor of The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (with Mark Strand; Norton, 2000). Her awards include a Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry and an American Ireland Fund Literary Award.

Ms. Boland, what poem of yours was most difficult to write, either because of the labor involved or the emotional aspects of the subject matter? Thanks for your time.

Cindy V.R. — North Dakota

EAVAN BOLAND: One poem that gave me trouble, and in a strange way, was a poem I wrote called “The Pomegranate”. I began to write it one winter in Dublin. My beginning of it wasn’t much different from any other beginning. But somewhere in the middle of it I began to lose track of the poem. It just didn’t move forward in any coherent way. I once gave a workshop in Cork with the fine Irish writer William Trevor and he made a remark, in answer to some question that I never forgot. He said that sometimes, when he was stuck in a story, he had to put it away as a writer and leave it there till he could take it out as a reader. And that’s what happened to me with “The Pomegranate”. I had to leave it. And a few months later I was able to take it out and read it and see where the delay was, or the impasse or whatever it had been. And then I began to work with it again.

In short biographies that describe your work and accomplishments, you are often described in terms of your gender, such as “Ireland’s premier woman poet,” “Ireland’s preeminent female poet,” “the finest woman poet of her native Ireland,” and so forth. Is it frustrating to you that “poet” is qualified in a sense by gender? Does that take something out of the praise or do you feel that those kinds of descriptions are irrelevant to the true reception of your work?

B.N.R. — Durham NC

EAVAN BOLAND: I suppose the way a poet is spoken about in their own time is always a bit of a shorthand. People are compressed into titles and definitions, and even more in this particular age, which is one of quick descriptions and sound bites. I suppose that’s one answer to the question. But the other answer is this: I began to write in an Ireland where the word “woman” and the word “poet” seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word “woman” invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word “poet”. I found that a difficult and resistant atmosphere in which to write. I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation. So that was a difficult time and a difficult situation. And the result of it–and I do think things are different now–is that I feel very honored to be called “a woman poet”. I’m thoroughly aware that for some people there is an inference that the word “woman” dilutes or modifies the power or purity of the word “poet”. I think the opposite. I think it indicates–by being in proximity to it–that poetry is more of an open city now than it once was.

Do you think a poet’s power diminishes, as the poet grows older?

Superwomen — Las Vegas

EAVAN BOLAND: I once heard it said of ballet dancers–by a ballet dancer in fact–that their understanding of the art increased as their physical ability to execute it decreased. It seemed a very poignant comment to me. But it’s not true of poetry. There haven’t been many poets who have continued to write into their later years. But there have been some. Yeats wrote his best work within days of his death–I’m thinking of “Cuchulain Comforted”. Elizabeth Bishop’s best work was her last. And there are other examples

Does the poet have a role in our society or is it a personal endeavor? Maybe this is a broad question. As a poet do you feel an obligation to society? Thanks for answering my question. Thanks to Smartish Pace for having you here. What a great idea, no? Do you answer questions anywhere else on the internet?

J. Burnitz — Brooklyn NY

EAVAN BOLAND: There have been a lot of shifts in the relation of a poetry to a society. The Romantic poets–certainly Shelley and Wordsworth too–were deeply involved in the critique of social injustice. Shelley’s printer was prosecuted for “The Mask of Anarchy”–though Shelley escaped. Wordsworth’s earlier poems were polemical about the affects of the Industrial Revolution. And so on. But by and large, poetry is a solitary art. Its social consequences come later. And since I’m Irish- and Irish poetry has had to struggle with a national tradition which can conscript the poem into public statement and posture- I really value the freedom to take a private, enquiring stance within the poem. The true obligation of the poet is to make the poem well and truly. In doing that, she discharges every obligation an artist owes a society.

I really love “The Pomegranate,” and part of the enjoyment I get from it is the description of the mother’s tender awareness of her daughter’s need to make her own decisions. I’m aware that you’ve been writing and publishing for quite some time, and I was wondering in what ways, aside from content, are your poems affected by your motherhood? Do you feel that having daughters informs your poems?

Kim — Baltimore

EAVAN BOLAND: Motherhood was central for me–I mean as a poet, as well as in every other way. “The Pomegranate”–and thank you for your kind remarks about it–came out of a series of realizations like that. And having said that. I don’t think I realized at the beginning how much the perspective of motherhood could affect the poem in strictly aesthetic ways. Take for example the nature poem: when I was young and studying poetry at University I had a very orthodox, nineteenth century view of the nature poem. That the sensibility of the poet was instructed in some moral way by the natural world. And it was an idea I just couldn’t use. I couldn’t get close to it. But when my daughters were born, that all changed. I no longer felt I was observing nature in some Romantic-poet way. I felt I was right at the center of it: a participant in the whole world of change and renewal. “The Pomegranate” is a sort of nature poem in that way–there’s a deeply seasonal aspect to the raising of children. And I wanted to write that.

Are your first drafts of poems very rough or do they appear something like the finished poem? Do you ever just start with a group of ideas or images on the page and then later make them into a poem? Thank you for answering questions at the Smartish Pace website.

Trent I. — Silver Spring, Maryland

EAVAN BOLAND: I’m happy to answer these questions- and that’s a very interesting one. And I would have answered it differently twenty years ago. My drafts are very unlike the final version now. When I was younger I wrote drafts which resembled the finished poem much more clearly. And when I was very young–just beginning–I would write a poem from beginning to end and then make only a few changes. But drafting a poem is one of the things which changes most as you go along–at least in my experience. The poem may be much rougher in draft for me now, but I can see it much more clearly in that rough version than I once could. The danger of drafting in and out, and backwards and forwards, is that you can lose the poem in the shuffle. And–to answer the later of your question–I do indeed start with images at times. Images more than ideas. And sometimes just fragments of images–not even the whole thing!

Your statement that feminism makes a good ethic but not a good aesthetic strikes me as being very insightful. It seems that you strive to record life from your own perspective as a woman without being didactic. Do you think that poems about the details of women’s lives change the way that readers think about women? I suppose the core of that question is can poems change the world?

Lilly-Bet — Athens, GA

EAVAN BOLAND: It’s certainly true that poems establish a subtle, strong and assertive relation with memory. People inscribe a line, or a couple of lines, or a fragment of a cadence into a deeper part of their memory and understanding than most arts ever reach–with the exception of music. And there’s no doubt that when a poem records a life, or a detail, or an experience, it also dignifies it through that continuing conversation with memory and comprehension. I’m not sure that readers change their view of women because a woman’s life is recorded in a poem. I think it happens at a slightly different angle. I think it’s very difficult for someone who–in that conversation with their memory–has been transformed, illuminated, consoled by some lines of a poem to dismiss the authorship of the poem according to some standard societal prejudice. People are grateful for poems. Poems humanize people. And somewhere in that circle of light it can happen that poems are agents of change as well: there is no doubt that the poets of the Harlem Renaissance opened a new window–not just into their own world–but into a wider world as well. I think poetry by women has been a very strong and dynamic part of the last fifty years.

Eavan, Until recently I have mostly read more of what you might call classical poetry. I was surprised to find, after surfing the web, that there seems to be very little rhyming verse out there anymore. Is this the new trend? Has free verse become the new standard? This might seem like an odd question, but I was baffled when I had troubles finding the type of verse I am used to. Thank you for your time.

Joe Moore — Baltimore, MD

EAVAN BOLAND: I’m very sympathetic to that–and I think my own answer is a mixed one. There’s no doubt that there’s a move away from what might now be called closed form–in terms of meter and rhyme. Robert Lowell–who was both formalist and non-formalist–said in an interview that he liked his poems both “cooked” and “uncooked”. And that breezy, cheerful answer gives you an idea of the sort of eclectic mid-century American optimism about poetic form. Poets felt free to use it but not be confined by it. And I admire that. In Ireland we were more conservative technicians, but also fairly pragmatic and open to change. The idea of the poet accepting a program of metrical constraints–which nineteenth century poets did unquestioningly–is well over. The modernist movement in the teens and twenties of the twentieth century put paid to that. One of the most telling remarks was Eliot’s statement that it was “not a revolt against form, but against dead form”. That suggests the kind of frustrations poets felt with a series of rules they could no longer associate with the complex, challenging post-First World War environment. So there’s been a steady progression towards a more open attitude to form. But meter and rhyme will always be part of the mix. In ways, they are survivors of an oral age. They give the texture of music and memory. And there will always be a kind of Doppler spectrum to poets and poetry. A sense to sound spectrum, that is. Some poems will always make more sound than sense. Some poems will always make more sense than sound. It’s the first category who will always seek out meter and rhyme. And in the meantime, there’s always Housman, Rosetti and Herbert!

Many of your poems convey a weightiness of a very long history, even when they don’t directly address it. Is that intentional? What kinds of qualities do you work toward in your poems? What difficulties do you struggle with?

Virginia Paul — Gary, Indiana

EAVAN BOLAND: Certainly, Irish history is a compelling presence to me–and I think to anyone who’s Irish. But I think the thing that’s influenced me most is not exactly history. It’s the discovery I gradually came to in Ireland when I was younger, and putting together my first books of poetry, that there’s a huge difference between the past and history. History is the official version. It tells the story of the survivors. It is the mouthpiece of those who survive the outcome. But the past is fugitive, often silent, filled with shadows. Irish history is a story of heroes. The Irish past is the far more interesting space to me–of whispers and shadows. The qualities I wanted for my work was some kind of ability to suggest that.

“The Best of the Best American Poetry” selected by Harold Bloom is mostly comprised of poetry written by men; it has an incredibly narrow view of “poetry.” It seems that women are still under-represented in the world of poetry. Do women poets still have a difficult time being published? Or a more difficult time then men? Or is this example not a good one considering the editor? Thanks for taking time to answer my question.

Thomas Walls — Green Bay, WI

EAVAN BOLAND: All poets have a difficult time today getting a first book published. That’s a debilitating international phenomenon. And I’m no longer certain that it’s worse for a young woman poet than her male contemporary to get that first book published. But that aside, women still face a struggle with magazines, with acceptances, with establishing themselves. But things are certainly improving. And even when there are conservative books and conservative editors it’s worth remembering that there is a distinction between the canon and the tradition. The canon is that powerful but often exclusionary thing which is sometimes most visible. Very few people disagree with what it puts in. Many disagree with what it leaves out. The tradition is different–informal, subversive and, in my view, far more influential in the end. The tradition is what makes one person say to the other–you have to read this. It’s the tradition which makes the mother take one poem out and write it down for her daughter. The tradition is what makes people hand poems on to one another–year after year, generation after generation-outside formal parameters, but with enormous effect. And history shows that the tradition triumphs over the canon just as surely as that the margin always comes to define the center.

Have you ever published poems which now you wish you hadn’t had published?

Mark D — U Penn

EAVAN BOLAND: Yes, when I was younger. I think everyone does. As time went on, I prevented it by holding on to poems longer and looking at them more carefully before they were published.

Do you work with one editor, or does a different person edit each book? Do the editors make many suggestions? Do they request changes that you make?

David M. — New York

EAVAN BOLAND: I’m lucky enough to have two wonderful editors–Jill Bialosky of W.W.Norton. and Michael Schmidt of Carcanet in the UK. Both are poets. Both have poets’ sensibilities and both are good friends. But an editor’s job is still to see the book and not just the poems and not just the poet. Neither Jill nor Michael would make changes in the text–neither suggest them nor request them. Nor have I made any in that way with any book that I can remember. But they are very important readers for me–both as poets and editors. I listen to what they say. Sometimes a good reader can see something that your own proximity to the poem–especially when you consider it finished–makes you blind to.

Do you consider yourself a certain type of poet? In other words, do you find yourself belonging to a certain school or writing in a certain style that groups you by name with other poets? I used to hear more about “writing schools” than I have lately.

Dan Pulver — Scottville, MI

EAVAN BOLAND: No. I never felt I belonged to a school of poets. Sometimes I wonder if anyone does. Schools are groupings. They are collectivizations. I think they might have a use in that way–as a flag of convenience. But an individual working artist doesn’t seem to me to benefit much from the collective identity.

In American there seems to be a real explosion in the amount of poetry being published. Each year more books of poetry are published than the last. Is this a good thing? Is there too much poetry being published, or isn’t that possible? I’m wondering if you see any possible negatives to this publishing explosion. I like your work a lot; thanks for answering my question.

Brent D. — New Richmond, WI

EAVAN BOLAND: No. I really don’t. I’m glad to see it. I’m glad to have the chance to come on some strong poem in a book somewhere, that I mightn’t have read otherwise. But your question really interests me. I think the unease people sometimes express has something to do with feelings about art and restraint. I don’t exactly feel like that. I know–everyone does–that self-expression isn’t art. But who decides which is which is a very sensitive matter. And the truth is that there never has been a strong art without the widest base of self-expression. There is nothing but good, it seems to me, in a vigorous poetry publishing scene.

Dear Ms. Boland: from where did your writing style come? Out of your character? Influences? Who were/are your biggest influences?

Allen S. — Strongville, OH

EAVAN BOLAND: Style is a hard thing to pinpoint. I suspect it has far more to do with contingency and compromise than choices or even influences. My first influences were Irish writers like Joyce and Yeats, and they are still right there. When I was young their fierce, intense presences helped to locate me and made me understand where I was. And of course women writers have been deeply important to me–Plath, Millay, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov.

Eavan, In your opinion, what is the best poetry city in the world? By best I mean, the city that has the most poetic activity (readings/poets/publishers/bookstores)?

Wendy Smit — Rockville, MD

EAVAN BOLAND: Well, the best poetry city in the world–at least for me–is a city that doesn’t exist any more. And that’s the Dublin of my youth. When I was a student it was a small, inward-looking place–more a town than a city. In the winter the cafes had peat fires and brown scones and endless pots of tea and it seemed to me that everyone talked about poetry, everyone read it. Of course later I changed my mind about some of that. It was also a very hierarchical world, and one that was inhospitable to women writers in many ways. But I am still grateful that I saw the sparkle and �lan of an intensely literary city when I was young enough to take it all in without suspicion.

Is Oscar Wilde’s poetry read today in Ireland? Is it important?

Fanny — Pentwater, MI

EAVAN BOLAND: Oscar Wilde is a much loved, much claimed Irish writer. There is a statue to him in Merrion Square. At the same time–though many people can quote at least a bit of “A Ballad of Reading Gaol”–he’s most admired, most remembered there for his plays.

Do you know the poetry of Carl Dennis? It seems like a lot of people (poets) didn’t know too much about his work until he won the Pulitzer Prize a few weeks ago. Is it common for there to be “major poets” having their work published by established publishers and yet others in the poetry community are completely unaware of their existence? Is the poetry world that large? This seems surprising to me. Thanks for taking the time to read/answer my questions.

Brenden Peters — New Haven, CT

EAVAN BOLAND: I certainly knew and admired Carl Dennis work! But I can see the point of your question. Poetry is not really a popular art in the way fiction and drama so often are–at least not in our age. And even in the era of Byron or Pope, that was fashion rather than popularity that they had. Poets are always scribes in the margins. And only gradually does that margin work to the center. When it does, people find a poet the way astronomers find a comet. It’s a discovery but not a revelation. Both the poet and the comet have been there for a long time.

What do you think of your earlier work? By this I mean, do you like it as much as your later books? Any regrets?

Brain T. — San Diego

EAVAN BOLAND: I think I have a fairly steady view of it. Having said that, I think there’s always a charged relation between a writer and their early work. At least there is in my case. It’s hard not to see the flaws, the awkwardness and feel somewhat the same as when you see an early photograph of yourself. You think–why did I wear that? How did I let myself look at the camera like that? But it’s a misplaced self-consciousness: You aren’t–and you never will be again–the person who wrote those poems. The most vivid evidence you get of that is when you’re putting together a Selected Poems, as I did some years ago. You have to make a conscious effort to leave the poems alone that should be left alone. There’s a temptation to take poems that you wrote in your twenties and give them the smoothness or understanding you have in your forties. And it can become a kind of forgery. 

I’m thinking of setting a writing schedule because I can’t get myself to write except when I want to (once/twice a week). Do you write every day? Every week? Do you have a schedule? Is this a good idea? Thanks Eavan.

Clyde D. — St. Paul, MN:

EAVAN BOLAND: My mother was a painter. I start with that as the answer because painters aren’t moved by inspiration or mood. They wait for the light. They work according to the most practical work disciplines of all–doing a thing when the circumstances are best for it. That really influenced me. I don’t always write every day–but when I’m working on something I feel connected to, I need to work every day to get the feel for it.

Dear Ms. Boland: which book of yours is your favorite? Do you have one? I like all of your work very much, but would be interested to hear why you like one of your books more, if that’s the case. Thank You.

Teri — Kansas City

EAVAN BOLAND: I don’t so much feel connected to books as to poems. There are poems in books that still stay alive for me years later. And I’m afraid the opposite is also true.

Do you like going to poetry readings? Do you recall the first great reading you attended? How old were you and what impact did it have on you as a poet?

John Tutor — E. St. Louis

EAVAN BOLAND: In my early twenties I covered poetry readings for the Irish Times. I know it must seem strange now that a national newspaper covered poetry readings. But the Irish Times was a very literary paper. I attended a lot of poetry readings and reported on them–and I learned a lot from it. It helped me to hear a poem–in fact hearing the poem just like that, first take, was often all I had to go on. I can’t exactly say which was the first great reading, but probably the one that made the most impression on me was seeing the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmuid read. He was an old man even then. But that fierce, unswerving stance and his passion and his poetry all stayed with me–and they do still.

You’ve spoken in previous interviews about Irish poetry’s debt and continued connection to oral tradition. In a terribly simplified manner, the development of language could be charted from the oral to the printed to the electronic. What sort of effects do you think that electronic media (e.g., the web) will have on Irish poets? What effects might the web have on your poetry?

Alice Giles —

EAVAN BOLAND: It’s an interesting question, but hard to answer. There’s no doubt that the verbal and oral parts of Irish literature have been at the heart of the strengths of the tradition. That’s particularly true of its poetry. Probably one of the reasons for it is that poetry is one of the most fugitive arts: it can be assigned to memory, taken and hidden in the mind, smuggled into smoky cabin back rooms, recited there and then conveyed only by speech to another person. So it’s one of the most adaptable arts–and therefore one of the most likely to survive colonization. Irish poetry kept the shape of its fugitive resilience long after colonization was over. And the Bardic, oral parts of the poetry were really a shaping force. But there’s no denying that change has come rapidly to Ireland in the last twenty years–and technological change especially. I doubt that it will have much effect on a poet like myself–my poetry methods were shaped in the age of the pen and the typewriter. But the web will inevitably become a second-nature feature of the environments of poets who are still being formed. I’m fatalistic about that. The struggle of the poet–to be exact, to be truthful, to convey experience in language–won’t change because the broadcast medium changes.

I’m no poetic historian, but Marianne Moore seems to be the most important, or one of the most important, American poets. It seems like she was getting published widely when most women weren’t and that her success opened the door for other female poets. What do you think? Is Ms. Moore important to the history of poetry in this way?

V.V. —

EAVAN BOLAND: I’m not sure. Certainly in herself Marianne Moore suggested a very distinguished presence for women poets when there were very few. But she was also a modernist, and while modernist poets like Eliot were very sympathetic to a poet like Moore who shared their views, there was a distinctly anti-populist stance in modernism which went against other women poets–like Edna St Vincent Millay for instance. It’s a complicated situation. But of course I read and admire Moore, and I teach her also.

Who are some contemporary Irish poets that we Americans should read. I’d be very appreciative if you could list a few names and a book or two. I look forward to reading your selection and thanks for answering my question-I love your poetry.

B. Cripe —

EAVAN BOLAND: Thank you for your comment. There are some wonderful younger women poets in Ireland whose work is beginning to be known here–and I thought I would mention two of them. Mary O’Malley has written three books and they have a wonderful tang of satire and lyricism, both–she comes from the West, from Connemara in fact. Her work is very powerful. Paula Meehan is a superb poet–from a diametrically opposite background. She comes from Dublin, from the inner city. Her work has a marvelous, humane lyricism. Some of my favorite books by both? A Consideration of Silk and Asylum Road by Mary O’Malley. The Man who was Marked by Winter and Dharmakaya by Paula Meehan.

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