AN ACCIDENTAL ARCHIVE: ON INTERVIEWING POETS By Belinda McKeon
This is how I make my living, or a large part of it: I sit and talk with poets. Sometimes, I go to their houses to talk with them; sometimes, I spend an hour with them in a café, or a restaurant, or hotel bar; sometimes, I sit on the other end of a phone, time zones splintered, a voice and a view and a story flowing through from halfway around the world.
WS Merwin: a phone call made at dawn form the Irish Timesoffice to the Hawaiian island where the poet lives; talk of form and poetic friends and how politics in poetry was suddenly unavoidable all over again. Outside my window, rain and the grey rooftops of D’Olier Street; outside the porch where he stood, hundreds of species of rare palm trees. I imagined I could hear them, rustling, or breathing, or whatever it is that palm trees do. Eavan Boland: two days before Christmas, upstairs in Neary’s, people crowding in from all sides. She talked about the need for a critical climate, not the work of journalists but of the poets themselves. ‘Where’s this going to be published?’ interjected a man at the next table. I kept mispronouncing her first name; I’d heard it differently in my head for years. Charles Simic: Bloomsday in his hotel room in Dublin – hard to believe now, but a June day so hot that the window had to be open. He held it open with one of his own books. He laughed a lot, at things you’d never imagined were conveyed laughingly just from looking at the transcript. Such as: ‘The world as it exists has always been very important to me.’ Patti Smith, at home in Soho, in a brownstone tumbling with her incredible life; Donald Hall, at home in New Hampshire, in a farmhouse tumbling with his, and that of his late wife, Jane Kenyon (the Hall interview is one I haven’t yet written up, but would like to, now that I’ve admitted to it.) Mark Doty is in a New York café, talking about a memoir and grief in the week before he headed to Galway for Cúirt. John McGahern, who had just died, had been due to read at Cúirt that year too. Doty was surprised when, after the interview, I handed him a copy of McCahern’s Memoir; I don’t blame him. But a lot of what Doty had written about the art of memoir had made me think, even before his death, of McGahern’s book, and in the week after his death it felt right to pass it on. Doty said he’d read it on the plane. Then, probably, he ran like hell from the crazy journalist.
It’s a privilege, this thing called literary journalism. I know that. They’re almost always writers I hugely admire; writers I’d be half afraid to talk to if I met them in another context. And in any case, no matter how brave you are, or how full of cheap red wine you are, it’s difficult, in most other contexts, to have a conversation about writing with a writer you’ve just met. Or to say to them, as I usually do at the start: when, and why, did you start to write poems? Or, when did you know that poems, and the writing of them, was something that mattered to you?
The answer is always a story. A narrative, concrete and certain, told fluently and vividly, like a dream recalled in extraordinary detail, thirty, or forty, or seventy years later. The kind of childhood moment the rest of us will forget, or dismiss, or doubt; to such a moment, the poet always seems to cleave, as proof of the beginnings of their identity as a poet. Elaine Feinstein talked of being eight years old, bouncing a ball in the garden, marrying rhythm with language and realizing that she was making a poem. Mark Doty recalled burying himself in the poetry section of a bookstore, loving how language could go ‘beyond the denotative to point to something outside of itself’, and of writing ‘baby surrealist poems’ for school which led to his teacher accusing him of plagiarism. Patti Smith, who started her career as a performance poet, remembered, at six, telling her mother to buy her no more clothes, no more toys, just books. And WS Merwin described, in a line that could have been a poem itself, his earliest grappling with the written word: ‘Since I could first make letters, what I wanted to do was write poems.’
They seem remarkably polished, these stories of beginnings, but even if these earliest memories are heightened or romanticised versions of reality by the time they are told - by the time they are told, maybe, for the third or the thirtieth time – there is something interesting in that, too. Because if some experiences are offered as a carefully-composed snapshot, as something deepened and tinted in the memory just-so, others come through more suddenly in conversation, like a camera flash on the present moment. Other words, other stories – and these are the ones you hope for, wait for, try to push for - come as though for the first time to the poets themselves, and you are there, watching as the memory transforms their face, listening as it tugs or leans in on their voice.
Then there’s the question of where the poems come in; how you talk about their poems, maybe hundreds of them, maybe thousands, how you ask about language, about form, about cadence, about meaning. Think about it too much and it’ll feel like you’re walking into your Leaving Cert Oral Exam all over again. Think too little and you’ll forget, amid all the talk of childhood memories and literary acquaintances and influences and issues and identities, that you’re here because this person writes poems. But they’ll find their way in; they always do, because the voice you’re hearing is, somewhere, the voice of those poems, and as the conversation goes on, those poems – some of them, maybe one of them, maybe a clutch of them – stick their heads into the room and demand to be seen.
Mark Doty quoted a line from the poet Alfred Corn that day in Chelsea that has stayed with me, that I think of often when I think about what happens during an interview with a poet, with all those stories and ideas in the room, and with two people trying to understand one another – and about what happens afterwards, in the agony of trying to distill that interview, that encounter, into seven or eight paragraphs of newspaper prose. The idea ‘hard to get in focus’ wrote Corn, ‘is not how things / Looked but how the look felt / then – and then, now.’ Then, and then, now – again, the splintered time zones, with the poet and the journalist sitting in the space between. And there, the conversation can begin.