Sarah Byrne is a writer and editor based in Co. Cork, Ireland. Sarah’s poetry has appeared in Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Examiner, Prelude and in various anthologies. She has received awards for her work from the Cork County Council, the Cork City Council and The Arts Council of Ireland. As editor of the poetry journal, The Well Review, Sarah has published work by John Burnside, Anne Carson, Ishion Hutchinson, Nick Laird, Sinéad Morrissey and many more.
Her original background is in criminology and psychology, and she worked in a wide variety of settings, including psychiatric hospitals and prisons until 2017. Sarah was educated at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. She is particularly passionate about cognitive science, photography and hip-hop, and the relationships these disciplines have with contemporary poetry.
Sarah will teach an online Poetry School course from May 2018:
Q: Mos Def / Yasiin Bey once suggested that if "You wanna know how to rhyme you better know how to add". Do you agree? Is Mos Def an MC you’re interested in—and do you think of him and other figures in hip-hop as poets? What does hip-hop offer to you as a writer?
A: I partially agree with the assertion. I think to count might be a more appropriate verb, though, in relation to poetry. Christopher Hitchens once called Mos Def 'Mr Definitely' in a panel that featured him and Salman Rushdie, and I think he had a point. In art and life, I’m more of a 'Definitely Maybe' kind of person. Mos Def/ Yasiin Bey is an exceptional rapper and an innovative collaborator with the likes of Talib Kweli, and of course Hitchens always liked a barb, but there’s a fine line between conscious hip-hop and propaganda, and I think Mos Def/Yasiin Bey points from one side of the fence at times. I’m skeptical of letting one’s reaction dictate one’s creative output. For me, the making process is an iterative one and to make something compatible with itself takes time. For me, self-certainty is a degenerative force, not a creative one.
My interest in hip-hop music has probably developed in a more linear way than my intrigue with, let’s say, Norwegian literature, but perhaps not as directly as my lifelong passion for pugs. What I mean by this is that I haven’t applied discernment to hip-hop quite as sharply as I have to other genres. I’ll listen to Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Snoop Dogg in the same sitting as Madlib or Jurassic Five. I’m a broad listener in a broad church. It doesn’t happen so linearly in other interests but I’ve a roomy tolerance with music, whereas I’m a demon when it comes to film or poetry. Rap music, which I guess is what we called hip-hop in the 90s, served as a communication tool for me. I regularly stomped off to my bedroom and put on 'Ms Fat Booty' or Wu-Tang full blast, but took care to turn the volume down during the songs' profanities. I’m sure I did this in moments of anger that I couldn’t verbalise, but all prismed through a deeply uncool Irish context where I would taper the crude sonority of the fucks. Music is as much a linguistic device as it is a musical one, and vice versa. So I don’t know if I think of Mos Def/Yasiin Bey as a poet—I think that’s for him to decide.
I’m excited by sampling in hip-hop, especially in the music of MF Doom, which makes you encounter the work of musicians like Galt MacDermot. I feel that’s a good meeting place for the genres, especially if we think of the epigraph. I think hip-hop is far more honest than other creative arts as it integrates the shadow self, especially in the form of self-doubt. People pretend not to be consumed by sex, money or violence in other art forms. They think that it’s cheap and beneath them. I prefer expressions of art that acknowledge all of our strengths and flaws, be they biological, social, or whatever. So it might be at that juncture where hip-hop and poetry meet up and I want to be invited to that party.
Q: In 'Mathematics' (if you'll excuse my hopping over to that side of the fence again!) Mos Def tethers the thrust and flow of his rhymes to a series of statistical facts and social contexts, making the song a critique of American society as much as anything else. So, we get lines like: "Sixty-nine billion in the last twenty years / Spent on national defense but folks still live in fear like / Nearly half of America's largest cities is one-quarter black / That's why they gave Ricky Ross all the crack." Of course, and you've hinted at this already, Mos Def’s injunction (that we "know how to add") also serves as a reminder of the importance of metrics, form, and craft to aspiring hip-hop artists. Can you comment on this dualism in poetry, and specifically in your own work—on the need to map out an approach to material realities and at the same time to create a persuasive verbal art-piece on the page? I’m asking because you seem to value formal artistry, while also being willing on occasion to implicate a wider social world in the psychological life of your poems. I have in mind pieces like 'Letter from St Jude’s Ward, April 1956' and 'Ghouls'. Could you talk to us about these poems — how they took shape, and whether they (or others you’ve written) relate to each other, as it were?
A: I was lucky enough to participate in a week-long workshop with the poet, Matthew Dickman, in 2017. Among the hundreds of insightful things he said, his observations and feedback reminded me of the reason I pursued my original career in criminology—because I fervently believed in nuance, pluralism and empathy. One of my heroes, Erykah Badu, recently suggested in a interview with Vulture that we should extend our capacities to understand individuals we inherently deplore. People who have committed repugnant, odious acts—often criminal and genocidal. Dismissing something or someone that contradicts what you believe in is for me, again, destructive. It shuts everything down and imprisons it. Matthew talked about the importance of not self-heroising. The minute he said it, it was remarkable how much I noticed the plenitude of poets and writers pointing at everything and everyone except themselves. Why presume you’re the hero of your work, when you’re certainly not the hero of your own life?
We do shitty, unsexy things all the time to one another. There’s a David Foster Wallace quote about how unbearable we all are: "The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day". I think it’s more of a synthesis than a dualism. In both of the poems you’ve mentioned, the caregiver role has been alloyed to achieve an ambivalent presence (I hope). Because I’d like to believe that we’re constantly changing our minds about things, people and environments.
Q: For all their compositional care, your poems very often seem immersed in and fascinated by experiences of fracture — psychological, physical, linguistic, etc. Is this a recurring theme in your work, do you think? I’m thinking of a piece like 'SAD', in which the poem’s persona wants "to practice // the language of cracking delph on sideboards", or another somewhat eerie poem, 'Seaware', which reads: "I lean over this white kitchen crib, / want to unstack my own ware: / my bones, my ribs, want to rinse them / one by one till they’re sharp and silver."
A: I think of a poem as a fracture, or a fragment. It breaks off from you like a branch and a new one will replace it in your head and hand, and that will break off too. There’s no healing in poetry, only breaks. In all honesty, the poems you’ve mentioned are overworked and the overextended metaphors relate to my own personal life at that time. That and a hatred of washing dishes in a Belfast sink. More crack than break!
Q: I’m conscious that I may be on the wrong track entirely with the question above. Perhaps the flip-side might be to ask: is poetry fun? Feel free to answer as a reader, writer, or anything in between.
A: Poetry is just one of the many cells waddling around the body of life. Of course it’s fun. Add an "!" if you don’t believe me. But like all parts of life, there’ll always be a committee (usually comprised of homo sapiens) who want to turn the business of life into a dour, self-righteous and indignant affair. Poetry can be a king-sized bed of grievances and that’s a real pity because when you eliminate mischief, trickery and levity from poetry, you desiccate it to the point of extinction.
Q: In addition to garnering acclaim for your own work, last year you made headlines (quite literally) when you set up the periodical, The Well Review (TWR) — based in your own native Cork, but with a transatlantic, if not global, literary reach and audience. What was the impetus behind your founding of TWR? How have you found your work as an editor affecting your own writing process since (if it has)?
A: I had a deep disdain for how I was spending my time and energy. I was working full-time when I set up the journal with Christian Carley and was experiencing chronic insomnia. So I decided to make use of these extra hours allotted to me in the middle of the night and to develop a journal. After I spoke with Christian, I told my late friend, Niall, whom Issue Two is dedicated to, and I also disclosed my intentions to Mary-Jane Holmes, who at that time was my classmate on a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford. Without those three people, The Well Review wouldn’t exist. I had the idea in my head for over a decade and it was really a case of saying it to the right people at the right time. Sort of like living out Dragon’s Den, except with people you love and trust very much, and you also have luck on your side if they affirm your ideas. Otherwise you don’t know if your thoughts are weeds or flowers. You need a few passers-by to stop and say, yes this works and I will help you.
The international element you mention is just reflective of who I am as a person. I am a dedicated disciple of Danilo Kiš and like him, I also rally against what he called "the tyranny of the adjective". Growing up, my favourite writers were Paul Celan, Haruki Murakami, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gabriel Garcia Marquez etc. Stories are portable—there are many reasons for that. Politics and religion are nothing without narrative; people across languages and cultures relate to the same things across centuries. With my own writing, it’s an arid place to be right now. The poet, John Mee, recently called me a lapsed poet, but it may be more final than that. The editing process is an immensely tender one. People have endowed me with their time and energy, and invite an exchange. That has affected me as a person and as a flailing (flapping & failing) writer.
Q: As editor of The Well Review you’ve published poetry by figures as diverse and acclaimed as Anne Carson and Ishion Hutchinson. Can you tell us about what drew you to these two poets in particular, and what approaching them and eventually including their work in the magazine was like? Similarly, I wonder if you could give us an indication of your own interests as a reader - who have you been reading lately, and has this played in to your plans for and understanding of The Well Review as a creative project at all?
A: Acclaimed—undoubtedly, but I’m unsure if they’re diverse in relation to one another, which probably relates to my previous answer. Certainly both Anne and Ishion are dexterously original poets in the context of their own work, but I see a lot of coincidences in their writing. Perhaps returning to the "tyranny of the adjective" quote I mentioned, I find their work mischievous, formal, ironic and spacious. There I go being tyrannical with my own adjective use. But they’re both deeply vigilant poets and eschew cliché or over-explaining the world to the reader. They’re equally macroscopic and microscopic in their deployment of language. Anne’s writing is at ease with dis-ease. I admire her inversions and how she uses the integrity of the document for alignment/disalignment. For me, this seems to be the biggest human problem at the moment. How we are all related to one another and are simultaneously different. One of my favourite lines in the poem 'Ghost Q&A', which The Well Review published by Anne, reads "Paris is a ghost". I answered this line in my head with of course it is. And when I returned to the page, I noticed that the second speaker replies with "No, it isn't". This sort of fractalized and spectral testimony makes me so bloody happy. And Ishion makes use of the document too. In House of Lords and Commons, we need to just halt at the title to consider the reality of the historical and contemporary lives that we face—those elected and those inherited. These can be privileged, but they can also be full of doubt, anxiety, fear and they articulate themselves at different atmospheric pressures. To relate to your opening question, Ishion seems more like a composer to me, transcribing the world, sometimes with an orchestra or sometimes with the dropping of stones—he is making and sounding.
Approaching both Ishion & Anne simply involved googling their email addresses and sending them an email. Not very glamorous but accurate.
My ambition for The Well Review is to try to produce original publications and events. I want to continue to ask poetry what it’s up to through rhythm, form and posture, but I also want to probe my own understanding of poetry through other systems of thought like science, art, psychology etc. There’s no one answer and I certainly don’t have it. I also find it fun and informative to place the work of high profile writers alongside emerging writers. It’s great to have a breadth of talent, range, experience and so on. When I’m soliciting work and going through the shortlisted unsolicited work, I’m often making a decision at a cellular level— unit by unit and seeing what elements would clash, which would coalesce and which ones would bring depth and perspective to the pages of the journal and ultimately to the reader.
With my most recent reading habits, I’ve continued my obsession with Norwegian literature so lots of Knut Hamsun, Jon Fosse, Karl Ove Knausgård and Stig Sæterbakken. I re-read Aleksandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars last week and could barely cope with how much fun it was a second time. I recently discovered the poetry of Natalie Shapero, whom I now adore. I’m very much looking forward to new poetry collections by Nick Laird, Matthew Dickman and Terrance Hayes in 2018. Outside of poetry, I’ve been reading some bits by Daniel Dennett and Robert Sapolsky, and I tend to dip into my Guardian Book of Dogs every few days (hours). I also think that the prose Galley Beggar Press is putting out is astounding (especially Alex Pheby & Preti Taneja). I don’t sleep very much so I’m lucky to have a few extra hours every day to read and to think. And to eat Taytos, obviously.