from Totally Fushed, Christmas 2003
Back in the days when I was captivated by my pal Shane T.’s poetry…Scratch that…Back in the days when I was first captivated by my pal Shane T.’s poetry, I used to show his stuff to my good friend and randomly appointed English tutor, John Douglas, before I put it in the mag. JD, of course, was also arrested by Shane’s work, and used mutter rumblings about sending the poems off to some ‘poet’ he knew called ‘Eamon Grennan’ who taught in ‘America’. As it turned out, I don’t think JD ever got ’round to doing that. The bastard.
Years later (two, to be exact), my fellow students and I were innocently trying to study the poetry of Derek Mahon (from the book Poetry Now by Niall MacMonagle) in English class, when we would have to answer such loaded questions as: ‘Eamon Grennan, commenting on this poem, says that Bruce Ismay delivers a ‘distraught yet dignified’ confession to the world. Would you agree with this description[?]’ And I was there thinking: Eamon Grennan…Eamon Grennan…Where have I heard that name before?…Ah yes, John’s poet friend!
What happened next is a blur; all I know is that pretty soon I was receiving autographed copies of Eamon’s books and attending his poetry readings, and he was offering advice on how I could improve my atrocious writing. Eventually I mustered up enough bumptiousness to ask EG to do an interview with me, via e-mail, for TF. And this is why we are gathered here today.
According to the blurb on the back of Eamon’s latest collection (Still Life with Waterfall, 2001), he was ‘born in Dublin in 1941 and educated at UCD and Harvard’. Where did his interest in poetry and writing come from? As a child, was he an avid reader? ‘As a kid in Dublin I wasn’t really “an avid reader”’, Eamon begins. ‘There weren’t many books in the house. But I was a reader, and loved the library in Rathmines. I read the usual kids’ stuff, English books kids my age would be reading – the William books, Biggles, Hardy Boys, then PG Woodhouse, maybe Agatha Christie. Then, when I left home and became a boarder in Roscrea, I started to like English in a particular way, and I was encouraged by good teachers…I was good at it – writing essays and all, and I felt it was important to me in some way. I remember loving Wordsworth. I guess his stressing solitude and nature and feelings all appealed to me, and felt familiar enough in the context of a boarding school set beside (and run by) a monastery in the middle of the country. So I started to write then, the usual stuff – stories, poems, for the college magazine. So then I became “literary” I suppose, and that was the sense I think I must have had of myself when I went to UCD (where I did a degree in English and Italian) in 1960, where most of my friends were also “literary”, whatever that meant. Writing poems, stories, editing the college literary magazine, St. Stephen’s, it all seemed part of the life we lived then, and what we talked over in the pubs and in the halls of Earlsfort Terrace.’
I have heard tell that many writers set aside specific times of the day to ‘do the business’. Others allocate a number of words to scribble each day and stick to that religiously. Does Mr. Grennan write every day? ‘For a couple of years I did write every day’, he says. ‘My next book will be of poems I wrote every day in 2000, for example – not all of them of course, just a culling of the ones I think work. I wrote every day, too, in 2001 – I’d just grab a little bit of time in the day – maybe an hour if I was lucky when I was also in full days’ teaching…But since then, since January 2002, I haven’t written much at all, hardly anything in fact.’ Eamon comments that he hopes this lack of writing-activity is merely temporary. ‘Since the time I started writing poems seriously, back in 1977-78…I usually wrote very regularly, trying to get something done every week at least.’ Eamon’s first book, Wildly for Days, was published in 1983 (‘I was 42 then, a late starter you might say’). ‘And then there’d be spurts of activity in summers, or when I’d have leave, a few weeks of a lot of writing. When I look back at the books, I can see that some of them were mostly written in smallish batches of time – quite hectic three-week segments for example, when I’d be lucky enough to be working in an artists’ colony called MacDowell, in New Hampshire. But now [I’m doing] very little, for the moment…I am busy, or will be, in the business of revising. Sometimes, even with small poems, writing is really re-writing. That’s when a lot of the real “work” happens.’ My Junior Cert. English teacher, Mr. Agnew, would be proud! ‘The essence of writing is re-writing’, he always would say. That, and ‘Nobody ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the public’. But that’s another story.
How does Eamon approach writing a poem? Is there always an essential idea or a single line to start with, which is then explored? ‘It varies. Mostly though there isn’t an “idea” to start with’, he admits. ‘I might see something or feel something and then a phrase or a sort of statement or line might come, and that would set me off, like finding a note in music, I suppose, and then working from that.’ Does the work always turn out as he originally imagined it? ‘I wouldn’t actually imagine the whole of a poem, though I might feel the contours of a feeling and want to do something that would follow that, contain that. [I like to work] in determined form, making it so that I [have] to get everything said in so many lines – 13-liners in the last book, 10-liners in the next one…this constraint in some way [can] organise what I want to say, or what I find myself saying. By the time I finish something it’s hard to remember how I “originally imagined it”.’
The aforementioned Mr. Agnew used also to say that all writing is essentially entertainment. ‘You’re in showbiz’, he would advise. And there are times when writing is very much about the immediate performance as well as the crafted work: public readings. Does Eamon enjoy reciting his poetry publicly? ‘A certain amount, yes’, he says. ‘I mean the anxiety of composition is done with at least, but of course there’s always the anxiety of performance, thinking of how you’re going to appear to this crowd (of 10 or 100 or whatever) – the usual nervous edges of vanity and ego-worries, that sort of thing. But it’s nice to get the responses, when they’re positive, get them face to face, I mean, since so much of the time it seems as if you’re flinging your poems over the Cliffs of Moher or into the Grand canyon – not much echo coming back. But being good or a success at this sort of thing in the end isn’t a guarantee of the work being “good” – if you know what I mean.’ The ability to perform before an audience and the ability to write poetry are two quite different talents, after all.
The Internet has in recent times been credited with revolutionising personal expression. Nowadays, provided he has a little money, too much time, and access to a computer, Average Joe can create a website where his viewpoints and/or art will be available to millions. Hence, the‘blogosphere’ – the world of ‘web logs’ or ‘blogs’: online journals, usually run by opinionated and feisty individuals. So the Net offers new avenues for creative writing, certainly, but does it provide new opportunities for poetry? ‘I think the Internet makes things more accessible’, EG says, ‘just to browse, it makes things universally available and that’s all to the good.’ And does Eamon have any favourite sites himself? ‘I like Poetry Daily [www.poems.com]…But, given the way I’ve been brought up, as ’twere, the book and the hard copy journal/magazine are still my ordinary means of reception.’
Mr. Grennan is currently teaching at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York. In Poughkeepsie, he lives with his partner Rachel (a Classics teacher – the two have just finished a translation of Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus together), and their daughter, Kira. Eamon has two other grown children: Kate and Conor. He divides his time between NY and his home in the wilderness of Connemara. How do the two places compare? ‘Different worlds’, he admits. ‘I move at a different pace in each. I take in both landscapes and write “out of” each of them – human and otherwise. I don’t know – they are just the two places I live, and when I’m writing in either one it’s that place that tends to shape and colour what I’m doing, that and the inner landscape and weather of course…’ What’s good about Vassar? ‘I like the students – they’re bright, energetic, eager; I like seeing their enthusiasm and their skills develop. I like being in touch with books, poets, authors I love, I like the actual performance of teaching. There are negative aspects to teaching too’, Eamon concedes, ‘it can drain away the same creative juices as you need for writing, so it’s hard for me (now at least) during term-time to get much done on my own stuff. But Vassar is a good place for a writer – good colleagues, and a place truly committed to teaching undergraduates.’ And this advertisement was brought to you by…
But returning to poetry itself, does it have a role in the modern world? Is this role different to what it may have been in the past? ‘I’m not sure of any “role”’, Eamon begins. ‘I think poets who are serious about what they do want their language to be honest, and in being that I suppose they understand poetry as somehow keeping faith with the language in a way some other aspects of the world don’t, like politics, commerce, religion even…Maybe poetry also reminds us that there is somehow sense in things, no matter how this may seem not the case, in the private world and also in the world at large. Poetry, a poem, is a place for, maybe, attending to the little things of the day and night, the mostly unspoken zones of the psyche, the minute observations of the ordinary stuff in the world we mostly pass through without paying much attention to. Even if it’s “about” some big issue (the North, Palestine/Israel, South Africa, terrorism, whatever) I think it’s best when it enters at an oblique angle, through something specific and small. A good poem always wakens me up a little more, makes me say “someone was really here“. In the past maybe poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the race” as Shelley says. But [I think about today]…and I don’t know – unacknowledged yes, but what would the noun be nowadays? Hardly “legislators”. Maybe, “registrators”?’
And EG has plenty of his own favourite ‘registrators’…‘[I admire] heaps of the living and the dead, yes. Among the dead: Herbert, Traherne, Vaughan, Marvell, Jonson, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins, Hughes, Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, WBY of course, Kavanagh, Plath, Leopardi, Celan, Amichai, Tsvetsaeva, Mandelstam, Montale, et al. et al. et al. The living? Milosz, and a host of my own contemporaries in Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, America, Australia…’ And on the list goes.
But to finish with a plug, Eamon’s aforementioned collection-in-progress – any title yet? ‘The title I have at the moment for the next collection, when it arrives, is What Matter. So – there y’are.’ There y’are, indeed. That’s Eamon for ya. To paraphrase his poem Agnostic Smoke, countless his ways of being, being like that.
Postscript: ‘What Matter’ became The Quick of It, and was published by The Gallery Press in 2004.
Some quick qs we put to Mr. Grennan…
Are you a heart or a head person?
‘I hope both or at least I’d like to be both, though it can be a struggle to let the heart have its full say in things, for me I mean…Poetry that’s exclusively one or the other will not be as nourishing as poems that have roots in both – maybe a good poem is some sort of dialogue between the two.’
Is the glass half full or half empty?
Who would you most like to have breakfast with?
‘Maybe, for fun, Yeats, who must have been a sight at breakfast, before he buttoned himself into his persona. Seriously? Depends. Someone loved.’
Who has influenced you the most?
Name a person you admire. Why?
‘Kofi Annan. How he holds his peace.’
Name a person you don’t admire. Why?
Name a favourite song. Why?
‘Very random taste – one time it’d be something by Sting or Taj Mahal or a bit of blues – another time it’d be a bit of Schubert or a piece from a Mozart opera.’
Name a favourite book. Why?
‘I’d be random again: Ulysses, Emma, Under the Volcano, The Unnameable. The language is leppin’ and the human understanding is deep, surprising, true-seeming.’
Name a favourite film. Why?
‘La Dulce Vita – it struck a chord at a certain moment (in sixties). Of course there’re loads of others.’
Name a favourite poem. Why?
‘The life so short, the poems so many to learn…’