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A Vocabulary of Belonging: An Interview with Eavan Boland

An Interview with Poet Eavan Boland
by JP O'Malley
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

A Vocabulary of Belonging: An Interview with Eavan Boland

An Interview with Poet Eavan Boland
by JP O'Malley
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

A Vocabulary of Belonging: An Interview with Eavan Boland

JP O'Malley
50 Snaps

When Eavan Boland began publishing her poems, in the 1960s, she faced two problems. The first was that she was a woman in a homogenous, conservative, and extremely Catholic Ireland. The second was the burden of history: just five decades after winning independence, the Irish nation—especially its poets—clung to an obsession with a past of myths and romantic landscapes. 

While raising small children in the middle-class suburbs of Dublin, the world of the Irish literary canon was a universe away from Boland’s own experience. In response, her work remained modest, often focusing on domestic life: the sound of a kettle boiling, of a child falling asleep. But it also merged the public with the private, and sought to look at a past that was left out of history books, skipping across centuries in a single line, like a camera gliding through time. 

I first read Boland’s poetry as a teenager. I learned it by heart for my Leaving Certificate Examinations in Irish high school, and came to it again much later, through her New Selected Poems, published in 2013. The following interview was conducted over several long correspondences by email. I had hoped to meet with Boland at her home in Dublin, before I learned that she was in California, where she lives half of the year, teaching as a professor of English at Stanford University.

—J. P. O’Malley

THE BELIEVER: In your collection of prose, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, you say: “My mother was my hero… I measured history by her life… The dates and events of history had little hold on me. My mother’s life did.” How did your mother’s influence shape your experience as a poet throughout your career?

EAVAN BOLAND: My mother’s early life was certainly harsh. She was the last child in a seagoing family, the fifth daughter. Her mother was thirty when she was born. In fact, she was so superstitious that, though my mother was born on the thirteenth of February, just past midnight, my grandmother would say she was born on the twelfth. My grandmother died at thirty-one in Holles Street, shortly after the birth of my mother. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was drowned in the Bay of Biscay when she was fourteen. And shortly before that her eldest sister died of tuberculosis. It was a misfortunate family. For all that, my mother’s scars were hard to see. She was a generous, loving mother, a gifted painter, a very sociable and hospitable person. Where the scars showed was in her indifference to the past. She didn’t want to remember. She didn’t want to talk about history. She had no faith in looking back. I saw my mother as a resilient and inspiring woman. She really was my hero. But this issue of the past was a real point of difference and sometimes of argument between us. Her past was important to me. I wanted her to remember it, to make sense of it. And she only wanted to forget.

BLVR: In that same book of essays you talk about your journey of finding your voice as a poet. This is something that seems to have taken you a few years to do. On the one hand you enjoyed the very ordinary life you were living: being a housewife who lived in the suburbs and who was raising children, but you felt this wasn’t a subject that was worthy enough to write about.

EB: I always thought ordinary life was worth writing about, and that included my own. But I was also aware that in the Irish literary climate in which I found myself, the ordinary or domestic life was a devalued subject matter. I began writing in the ’60s—a time when people were still defining and redefining the writers who had gone before. I had to struggle with the sense of not writing in an approved way or a familiar one. The subjects of the Irish poem back then were often landscapes or historical events or political memory. I was a woman in a house in the suburbs, married with two small children. It was a life lived by many women around me, but it was still not named in Irish poetry. I’ll have to repeat myself here to make my point. But I’ve often said that when I was young it was easier to have a political murder in a poem than a baby.

BLVR: You once described your experience of coming back to Dublin at age fourteen as follows: “I returned to find that my vocabulary of belonging was missing. The street names, the meeting places… I had lost not only a place but the past that goes with it, the clues from which to construct a present self.”

EB: In many ways childhood gives a secret language to people, especially if you’re born somewhere and grow up there and recognize the place as your own. I didn’t have that secret language. I didn’t know the passwords. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop once said about her unsettled childhood: “I was always a sort of a guest and I think I’ve always felt like that.” I didn’t quite feel like that, but when I came back to Ireland at fourteen I knew I couldn’t make up for the years I hadn’t been there. For the years, that is, of not being an Irish child. I felt there were missing pieces. There were gestures, customs, ways of speech I just didn’t have, and never would. And I did think once that those missing pieces were clues that helped you build a self. And without those clues, who would you be? I understand enough now to know that’s not true. That you can build a self out of what’s missing just as much as out of what’s present. And many writers have done just that.

BLVR: Watching a reading you once gave at Boston College, you said: “In many ways, Irish history has been a story of heroes; it has been the casting off of oppression. But the past is a very different place.”

EB: As a young writer I began to see a real difference between the past and history, and that had a strong influence on me. It was plain that history was the official version. And often enough it was a clear and sometimes heroic narrative in Irish writing. The past, on the other hand, was a place of shadows and losses. A place of silences as well. A completely different story. The problem for me was not just that history recorded events. It also claimed the right to say what was worth recording. When I looked at my mother’s life I knew I wouldn’t find its meaning in a history book. It belonged to a past where ordinary lives were lived and where, if they were remembered at all, it was in whispers and fragments of memory. By the time I’d found my voice as a writer, I knew I was a poet of the past and not of history. That brought me to think about the merging of the public and private poem. To insist on the private experience, to bring it out of the shadows, to make it a central part of a poem even if that poem was about a public event, seemed to me central. By that time, far from seeing the ordinary life as a devalued theme, I was convinced it could be a powerful lens.

BLVR: Why is the nineteenth century, particularly the Irish famine, a period of history that figures so heavily in your work?

EB: I often go back to nineteenth-century Irish writers. I go back to writers like Carleton and Samuel Ferguson and Lady Morgan and Kickham. The nineteenth century is a pivotal point in Irish writing, as well as in Irish history. It’s the century in which writers engaged with all kinds of defeat and began to formulate their responses. It’s instructive to see them struggling at the crossroads of self-awareness and language. You can see them pondering whether an Irish identity actually exists. That’s not to say I admire all their writing, or agree with all their conclusions. But they’re important to me. I’ve always thought Yeats’s description of their writing as “a fiery shorthand” was just right. But there’s more to the Irish nineteenth century than that. It’s also the century of the famine. And I see that as a watershed: a powerful once-and-for-all disruption of any kind of heroic history. The most wrenching part of the story of the famine is how utterly defenseless people were in the face of a disaster they couldn’t control. It’s also surprising and revealing when you look at the writing of that time to see how little of it actually turns to what was happening. There were nationalist poems and stories and novels all through the 1840s. But by and large the writing skidded off the terrible truth. Looking at the nineteenth century was the first time I began to think that writing could add to a silence rather than break it.

BLVR: In an essay called “Becoming an Irish Poet,” you wrote that two words haunted Irish poetry: I and we.

EB: One of the biggest changes in poetry over the last century is that the we of traditional poetry—the shared purposes poems explore of society, nation, religion—began to fade at the start of the twentieth century. A poet could no longer write we with certainty and be absolutely sure they were making a poem out of shared values. Poets from the Middle Ages to Victorian times had certainly been able to do that. But after two world wars, the decline of organized religion, and the huge changes in society, the audience was now more fractured and far less willing to share their world with the poet. A poet can still write I, of course. But without the we, that I was inevitably going to seem much more subjective and self-involved. I know it sounds strange to say that two pronouns could influence an art as old and established as poetry, but they did and they still do.

BLVR: In the essay “Domestic Violence” you write: “Can a single writer challenge a collective past? My answer is simple. Not only can, but should. Poetry should be scrubbed, abraded, cleared, and restated with the old wash stones of argument and resistance. It should happen every generation.”

EB: I was writing about a poet’s attitude toward the poetic past. A young poet can be very intimidated by that past. There was an attitude of reverence, even of intimidation, about the canon of poetry when I was young. It was taught and talked about as a sacred space. But of course it was a collection of poems by poets who had struggled and asked questions in their time the way any poet might in my own. When I was young I wanted to write poems so I learned poems. They were almost all by men, which isn’t to say that the poems themselves weren’t powerful and moving. Many of them were. But I learned them in a way that made me think I had no real relation to them. That my own journey as a poet couldn’t possibly join or change that past. It took me years to realize that no writer can afford to be passive about the past. It may seem set in stone. But it’s not.

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