Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

'Poems are a Lightning Rod'

An Interview with Paula Meehan, conducted by Ryan Van Winkle

Paula Meehan is an extraordinary poet from a country reknowned for extraordinary poets. She is attuned to the tragedy, turmoil, and suffering of people both close to her and far away. Her work boldly stares down and seems to absorb trauma while remaining startling upbeat, caring, and even optimistic. We began this excerpt from my Scottish Poetry Library podcast by talking about her home in Ireland.

PM: In Ireland, we are in the middle of a very important political moment. The peace process is holding up, but it’s very frail, we’re in a crash situation very different from the crash I survived in the 80s when I was a young poet setting out. Back then everyone was broke and poor and suffering and everyone emigrated, but we didn’t go into that situation with massive debt individually and collectively. We went into the current recession with an awful lot more burdens. So there is real trauma and my obsession, as a poet, is how do you live with the trauma, what do you do?

In the North and South of Ireland we're beginning to re-examination the history of a hundred years ago. There's the Dublin lockout which was very significant in terms of labour history, and in terms of  women’s rights because it was the Women’s Workers Union of Ireland that, in its earliest manifestation, led directly to the lockout and the General Strike in 1913. The women workers in Jacob’s Factory, one of the major employers in the city, were also the women who got us the vote, eight years before the universal franchise in Britain, and 23 years before France. So these were extraordinary women. Maud Gonne, Yeats’ muse, was involved in that early struggle too. It was a great time for activism among women.

And of course, in 2014, we’re going into a period of commemoration of the Great War or, as James Connolly called it, 'the great slaughter of the European working classes in the trenches', so that’s another wound that’s going to be examined. And, of course, there's the big commemoration of 1916, the Rising, the significant event that gave us independence.

RVW: Do you address these histories directly as a poet?

PM: I wouldn’t say I directly use the material in any straight, historic way, but I use it through my characters, through the lives they’ve lived over the last century, from my great-grandmother down to my mother, father, great-grandfather and my own life. I’m more interested in what happens in  private domains. Archives have been opened you can now read the testimony of the people who lived that history. Which is important because, as Eavan Boland the great poet says, 'there’s a significant difference between history and the past'. The great song collector Frank Harte said “rulers make the history but people write the songs”. I’ve always looked for the true register of the emotion of people in song.

Recently at a talk a great American poet was asked, 'What should a poet do?' His answer was extraordinarily simple: ‘write poetry’. I have to curb my own messianic streak and just get to work and make the poems.  In a way the making of the poems reveals to you what you are experiencing  poems are a kind of lightning rod which earths the energies of the zeitgeist that the poet is living through. As I say, we’re in the middle of this important political process, the peace process, and often to get real peace you have to reopen the wounds, to clean it.

RVW: You’re dealing with a lot of dark stuff in your poems, how do you stop yourself from getting ironic, or cynical, staying supple emotionally?

PM: You sometimes feel as if you’re swimming against the tide, and I do enjoy it, there’s fun to be had! But I have a feeling that I want to stay true in some way to what I took from my upbringing in Dublin, both in the tenements then in the new suburb of Finglis, on the northern plain when you rise out of the river valley. I want to remain true to some of that early experience, especially to the suffering of people. Part of me feels it as a heavy yoke but I would like to enshrine   ‘shrine’ is something I’m interested in  how do you formally send certain energies out into the world and allow them some kind of free passage? All the goodness I experienced as a child, I want to send it back into the world.

RVW: How do you keep that fidelity to the emotional facts?

PM: By writing a poem really! Time gives you certain facilities with tone that you mightn’t have early on. And it’s amazing how tone will carry both authenticity and respect, even when dealing with ferociously hard material. I have a poem about my sister, a foster sister, who lived with us from when she was a child after her parents’ marriage broke up. She had a very troubled and afflicted life. I feel her as a kind of ghost, I feel haunted by her life and her subsequent suicide, it really freaked everyone out. I remember it being a particular zone of grief and fear and anxiety and in fact there’s one poem I wrote for her one called “The Following Message Will Be Deleted From Your Mailbox”. It is the last voice message from her that I listened to again and again, until I got the recording which said ‘the following message will be deleted from your mailbox’  probably the last human contact she tried to make.

You can hear the whole conversation with Paula Meehan on the Scottish Library podcast. Her latest collection is available from Carcanet Press. In our full interview we discussed the troubles in Ireland, issues with the priesthood, witchcraft, abuse and suicide, but at all times Paula remained sparklingly eloquent, thoughtful and maintained a sense of intense wonder and joy with the world. Her many accolades include the Irish American Cultural Institute’s Butler Award, the Denis Devlin Award and the Marten Toonder Award. You can hear it on our Scottish Poetry Library Podcast.

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship for writing in 2012.