Jean O’Brien was born in Dublin where she now lives after an eight year sojourn in the Irish Midlands where she was Writer-in-Residence.
She has four previous collections to her name; The Shadow Keeper (1997), Dangerous Dresses (2005), Lovely Legs (2009) and Merman (2012). Her Awards include the Arvon International Poetry Award, and the Fish International Poetry Award. Her work has been placed and highly commended in a number of other competitions including the Forward Prize.
She holds an M. Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, and tutors in Creative Writing.
Q: The American poet Robert Lowell once wondered why “those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme” were “no help to me now / I want to make / something imagined, not recalled.” Reading your work, however, it appears that memory and imagination mingle quite naturally. Domestic and personal recollections (of relationships or family life) seem to sit easily alongside folkloric re-inventions (like ‘Merman’), for instance. Are you aware of this dynamic in your poetry? And, as I’ve mentioned him, was Robert Lowell ever an important poet for you?
A: I have been more interested in Lowell as a person perhaps than his poetry, as he suffered the same illness as my own mother and was perhaps one of the only ones of a loose group of American poets who died of natural causes rather than by his own hand. I have poured over Ian Hamilton’s biography of him and always remember his faint horror when staying with Seamus Heaney down in Glanmore Cottage in Wicklow, he said according to Heaney (in an interview with Henri Cole in the Paris Review), “You see a lot of your children”. But back to your quote at the beginning, he also said further on in the same poem, “I hear the noise of my own voice… yet paralyzed by fact”. I can only say I have a rather magpie approach to my own poetry, it’s whatever glitters bright enough that catches my eye.
Q: For all its lucidity and fluency, your writing often sheds light on situations of harm, trauma, transgression, and consent – in many cases highlighting the gendered reality of such experiences. I’m thinking of ‘Merman’, of course, and also of powerful pieces like ‘The Stolen Sheela-Ná-Gig of Aghagower Speaks’, which reads: “In the unconditional dark someone dethroned me, / un-croned me, made me young and beautiful again. / I shrieked leave me be, I am happy.” Is this a fair interpretation of your work? And if so, can you tell us why your poetry flows that way (for a long time, after all, such themes were arguably hard to find in Irish poetry)?
A: I remember once at the Dublin Writers Workshop, which ran very successfully for about 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s and many, many now well established poets came through the door, I was one of the founding members if such a loose gathering could be described as having such, anyway after I had read my poem out a young man said with the supreme confidence of young men, “Your poems are for women, I write for everyone.” He escaped with his life, but it got me thinking. You say for a long time such themes were hard to find, I say they were also hard to get published. After all Eavan Boland was almost regarded as ‘ruined’ when she dared to write‘'Night Feed’, a lesser intellect would have quailed at the outpouring of criticism she received. I like women who push boundaries be they real or imagined, I have written poems about Alison Hargreaves the mountaineer and Amelia Earhart (amongst others), as I feel they should be celebrated. My poem about Amelia Earhart is called ‘Yes, I can bake a cake’. In response to the headline of a French newspaper that could only think of the headline after her tremendous success, the headline read, But can she bake a cake. I know this was back in the day, but there is plenty of that nonsense still around, myself and poets like Mary O’Donnell are writing about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), again a subject not many want to tackle. I do also write plenty of lighter verse, such as my Skinny Dipping poem.
Q: Yes, of course! It occurs to me that there’s also an almost preternatural sensitivity throughout your poems (“heavy” or “light”) to the rhythms of time as it passes – moving through individual lives (and individual bodies), as well as the world at large. Your poetry tunes in “to rhyme and reason and to all the seasons” (‘Spring Equinox’), at times to “[f]reeze the moment, make it stay” and at others just to bring the “wordless flow” to some kind of expression (‘Body Talk’); the results are often both luminous and illuminating. Do you have any inkling of where this urge comes from, and why it happens in the form of poetry specifically?
A: Well I do think that myself and many other poets like to bear witness and as a women I am aware of the passing of time, going from childbearing age to older age, I often think women are meant to stay set in aspic so to speak. I am very aware of the generations of women who came before me, perhaps because I lost my mother and my beloved grandmother so early in my teens and felt bereft of much needed advice and support. I have a daughter myself and this makes me almost more aware. A startling thought is that a woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have already in her body, therefore when my mother carried me in her womb I was already carrying the egg that would one day fertilise to be my daughter, if that doesn’t give you a sense of continuity nothing will. I am also interested in that idea that we live so much ‘behind’ our own face and only interact with the world through our bodies, I am interested in where that border is crossed.
Q: I asked you earlier about Robert Lowell, but there’s an abundance of inflections from other poets in your work – quite a few of them, coincidentally (or not?), from the Boston/Massachusetts area. I’m thinking of ‘Called Back’, which references Emily Dickinson’s gravestone, and ‘The Gates of Horn’, with its echoes of Sylvia Plath. Is poetry, then, an international and time-spanning art, for you (as opposed to the 20th-century Irish bracketing that it’s often lodged into on this island, for example)? And would you like to comment on either of those poems that I’ve mentioned – the emotion or identification with Plath and Dickinson that you needed to express?
A: Well spotted, I did go through a period when I was very interested in poets from around there, including Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Robert Frost etc. I had been reading lots of biographies, including Peter Davison’s wonderful book, The Fading Smile (Poets in Boston from Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath), and Plath’s mother’s book of letters to her daughter. Given their mental health difficulties I was probably trying to find some understanding of my own mother’s mental health difficulties, which I have written about a lot. I was also interested in the fact that a lot of them had visited or spent time in Ireland, Frost stayed out by Sandymount I believe, Plath had the famous dinner with Richard Murphy etc. Emily Dickinson’s coffin was carried by six Irish men who worked for her father, there just seemed to be connections everywhere, which I didn’t get with European poets, except Szymborska who did spend time here. Many years ago I wrote a poem lamenting the fact that I was from the city and didn’t seem to have the wealth of things to draw on that poets from the countryside have, I know city poets like Peter Sirr and the late Dennis O’Driscoll managed perfectly well, but the Irish are a sentimental race and any mention of the ‘aul sod’ seems to get a lot further than city streets. This is one of the reasons I have always preferred Muldoon’s high jinks to Heaney’s country matters (which is not to say that I don’t like and appreciate Heaney’s poetry). My poem, ‘The Gates of Horn’, is based as you know on the idea of the gates of ivory and horn, easy passage in sleep is given to true shades through the gates of horn and Plath seemed to spend a lot of time striving to become a shade. At the time I also used to typeset everything in [the font] Arial in homage to Plath’s Ariel. Often it is just a word or definition that sets me off and I like to play around with it a little.
Q: You’re known (I can confirm!) as a diligent supporter of poetry and other poets – a regular attendee at readings and literary festivals, as both participant and audience-member. Judging by your example, I’d say that poetry exists at two levels (at least) simultaneously, the communal/social and the personal/private. Is this accurate, do you think? And can you say anything about how those two levels relate to one another, in your experience as a writer (do they conflict at all, or are they mutually enriching)?
A: When I was involved in the previously mentioned Dublin Writer’s Workshop and then the Stephen’s Green workshop, I liked the idea of community and the support we gave and got from one another. So in a way I am continuing that on a social level, I was also given help along the way from people such as Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland, Thomas McCarthy, Theo Dorgan, etc, so I like to support and encourage other poets and newer poets, this is one of the reasons I enjoy tutoring, as it energises me. I am interested in how poets emerge and what’s new such as Spoken Word etc, I think creativity is not static or shouldn’t be. When we (the members of DWW) were operating as a group we gave readings outside the mainstream and published our own yearly pamphlet called Acorn and sold it ourselves often on Grafton Street, so I don’t have an ivory tower view of creativity and where its energies come from. I am fairly gregarious it has been said, but I do have a private part, which I protect and often conceal by perhaps too much kidding around, I am trying to keep it safe. Writing as you know is a lonely business, at the end of the day it is just yourself and the blank page and words.