Volume 2 is no longer available in print or ebook. It's a collector's item!
Volume 1 is no longer available in print or ebook. It's a collector's item!
Excerpt from Volume 10
A CONVERSATION WITH GIBBONS RUARK ABOUT HIS COLLECTION THE ROAD TO BALLYVAUGHAN
With Anne Colwell, Poetry Editor
Colwell: In his review of The Road to Ballyvaughan for World Literature Today, Fred Dings says that the poems in this book “find the exact place on the ledge of speech where ordinary expression lifts off into song.” One of the things I find particularly engaging about the book is not just how the poems themselves sing, but also how they follow the thread of song, singing and keeping time through the geography of the volume. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of music to the journey?
Ruark: Fred Dings's remark is a lovely one, and I don't think I can improve on it. But I do like that idea of the poem somehow being poised in that mysterious space between speech and song. For somebody who can't even carry a tune, I've always had an inordinate love for music of various kinds. It's partly jealousy, I'm sure, wanting to do something somebody else can do and you can't. I suppose the first music I took to heart, after the lullabies sung to me as a child, was really, like those, not chosen by me, but something I was just immersed in because of how I grew up. As you know, my father was a Methodist minister, which meant that as a child I spent a lot of time in church, where the old hymns of course were being sung. Those hymns have stayed with me even though I've long since ceased being a churchgoer. There's a poem about that in my second book called "Singing Hymns Late at Night for My Father." And the title of my most "Irish" book before The Road to Ballyvaughan, Rescue the Perishing, is of course the name of an old hymn. A notable feature of hymns for me, I think, is that they are relatively short. I'd say a typical poem of mine is closer to a hymn than to an oratorio, closer to an aria than to an opera, closer to a jig or a reel or a hornpipe than to one of those sometimes seemingly interminable sean-nós songs. So, my instinct is for the small rather than the large musical canvas, which makes it more difficult for me to talk about the music of a book as opposed to the music of a single poem. For what it's worth, while I was putting together this book I was listening mostly to two different kinds of music, both arguably related to national character. At home, I was listening mostly to early jazz: Armstrong, Pee Wee Russell, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, you name it. On Sunday afternoons, every time they could rouse a quorum, I was out at a local pub listening to friends who are superb musicians play traditional Irish music, almost all instrumental, with the occasional song thrown in for good measure. I can't really say for sure how either of these fed into my poems, but I think they did, and I think maybe the subtle shifts from tune to tune in many an Irish set might have influenced the tonal juxtapositions of individual poems within the larger groupings in the book. But let's face it, those groupings are first of all geographical, except for the middle section, whose poems take place in different counties or no discernible county at all. So the music is there, but it's an undertow. The surface tidal movements of the book are geographical.
Colwell: Following up on that question: the poems themselves are gently yet insistently musical, many of them in traditional forms. Sometimes the juxtaposition of these formal and musical poems creates a deep resonance in the larger collection, like the pairing of the sonnets “With the Bust of Maecenas at Coole” and “To a Countryman from Riverside.” Many of the open form poems in the book also exert a clear metrical cadence and rely on assonance and consonance to create music that elevates the language. Do you set out to write in a certain poetic form, or do you find that some poems move that way in composition or revision? In other words, do you find the form or does the form find you?
Ruark: The two poems you mention face each other partly owing to layout and pagination. I was lucky that way in this book. For instance, all of the two-part poems end up with the parts either fitting on a single page or facing each other on opposite pages. There are other felicities as well, like the two sonnets for my daughters being opposite each other. With regard to the Maecenas and riverside poems, they are together first because they are both set or at least begin in County Galway. But I can see that there are other resonances, the issues of neighborly or brotherly loyalty and internecine violence which plagued both Ireland and ancient Rome. And they are both about "face-offs" of different kinds. When I say, "at least begin" it's because in the riverside poem the scene shifts unannounced and probably undetected in line 5 from Galway to the Dublin quays. The only signal I suppose is the shift from "One night" to "Tonight." That was my first visit to Ireland in 1978 in the company of an old school friend. We found each other not the best of traveling companions, and I spent only three nights on the island before traveling on to England to visit another old school friend, who remarked that I had mistaken Ireland for a green light and gone right through. But enough of that. I want to take mild objection to the use of the term "open form" in describing others of my poems. For me the term is synonymous with "free verse," and although I've written a handful of free verse poems in the past, I haven't done so in years, and I don't think there are any in this book. But you say yourself that even in poems that might be called "open" I'm using various musical devices to lift them out of the domain of prose, and that's true. One of those devices I think is the lengthening of the line for a couple of syllables beyond the standard pentameter. For instance, I've not done a precise count, but I think that in "Written in the Guest Book at Thoor Ballylee" the lines generally run from 11-13 syllables. Once Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell were in the same room and Jarrell was going on about Hopkins and "sprung rhythm" and all that, and Frost just said something like "Oh Jarrell, it's all just 'loose iambic.' " I think I've written a fair amount of loose iambic. But as to your question about the stricter forms, do I find the form or does the form find me, the short answer is: we find each other in the dark. Sometimes I have to go more than halfway toward the form. Other times I can relax and let the form come more than halfway toward me. If that sounds faintly erotic, it's meant to. I think of Seamus Heaney's beautiful command toward the end of his poem "North." "Lie down in the word-hoard." The liaison between the OED, that great neutral hoard of words, and the sonnet, that small selector and refiner and enhancer of words, is a conjugal one. More pedestrianly, I admit to having at times set out to write in specific forms. When I was at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan in the 1980's, I felt the need to work in short forms, so that when the time came for my three-mile afternoon walk into McGinn's pub in Newbliss, I might have got something at least sketched out from start to finish. So I worked on sonnets. I'm happy with a number of poems that came out of that ritual, but I'd rather, under ideal conditions, which never of course exist, have crept up on them more stealthfully. One of my friends who plays in the Irish sessions on Sunday afternoons, a former English teacher at West Point, has expressed a special fondness for my poem called "Session Beginning in Sunlight," since he says he loves the way it becomes a sonnet. I'm not sure if that's true, but it pleases me to think so.
Colwell: A question about compositional process: the book moves across a real geographical landscape, but also across an emotional and temporal landscape of connection, love, friendship, discovery, loss, and aging. How did you choose the poems and the arrangement of the collection? As a reader who knew many of the poems from earlier books, I was particularly struck by how their voices harmonized in this new arrangement. Did you try several different formats or did this one seem to arise organically out of the journey that the book itself takes?
Ruark: Choosing the poems themselves was relatively easy. I just gathered up all the poems I had written "out of Ireland" over four decades that seemed up to the mark. A handful didn't make the cut, sometimes because of quality, sometimes because they seemed out of tune with what the book wanted to be. The arrangement of the poems was more complex in conception, if not quite so difficult in execution. I think my primary or at least initial inspiration was a book I have loved for years, James Wright's Moments of the Italian Summer, first published as a beautiful limited edition by Dryad Press in 1976. That book, by the way, has beautiful black and white drawings by Joan Root. When Richard Krawiec of Jacar Press was designing The Road to Ballyvaughan with his son Daniel, he had no way of knowing that Wright's book had anything to do with mine, and yet he and Daniel chose seven beautiful photographs to precede the book's seven sections. The cover photograph is by our old friend Moira Haden and shows the stone-filled road along The Flaggy Shore in North Clare after a terrible winter storm. Moira and her husband Peter were the owners for years of the elegant Gregan's Castle Hotel up the hill from Ballyvaughan, and when Peter saw the mock-up of the cover, he said, ever the hotelier, "I like that, but what about the car rental people?" So, you can tell without my saying that I have as deep a personal investment in this book as in any book I ever published. But I'm talking now about the look of the book, which certainly contributes to its shape, and not the choices I made in arranging the poems. The first choice was to arrange it geographically, so I assigned the bulk of the poems to the four counties in which they are set. Occasionally, as in the case of "To a Countryman from Riverside," there was some question as to which county the poem belonged in, but I usually settled that by putting it where it started, even if it wandered. "Newbliss Remembered in Newquay" is mostly about County Monaghan, but it begins in Clare, which is where the speaker is talking from, so it goes in Clare. That left me with the five poems in the middle section, which I have given a title which would suggest the movement from the Knocknarea poem to the Newgrange poem. At some point the question occurred to me, if the book is to have a geographical movement, in which direction should it move? Since the conventional movement, which is of course the movement of life, is from east to west, from sunup to sundown, I thought it might be more interesting to go the other way. Then I thought of putting a one-poem section at either end, with the titles Departures and Arrivals, like the signs one sees in airports. The opening poem would be set at Dunmore Head, the westernmost point in Ireland excepting the offshore islands, and the last poem, if it has a setting at all, at least begins in an airplane on the way to Dublin on Ireland's east coast. But of course, it's a sundown rather than a sunup poem, being about aging and a fifty-year marriage, so the book is going two ways at once, which poetry so often does.
Colwell: One of the things that I find remarkable about this collection is that you speak in the voice of the traveler and also the voice of the native-born resident. Your poems have a traveler’s love for the names of places and an acute sensitivity to the details of the landscape and customs. However, the poems also capture the genius of the place, and that bespeaks, I think, a deep spiritual connection of someone who “belongs” to the land. Can you speak to the idea of Ireland as a personal and poetic landscape for you?
Ruark: If I can be said to "belong" to Ireland in even the smallest way, it's because of the extraordinary welcome of those Irish who became my friends and still are, if they are on the planet. The landscape and the history and the artifacts and the music all mean a great deal to me, but I would not have been returning for nearly forty years were it not for the people. I was lucky in that the first Irishman of any stripe I met was the splendid Benedict Kiely, writer, broadcaster, raconteur, all-round man of letters. We met when he arrived as a visitor at the University of Delaware in the spring of 1976. Many people, even in Ireland, don't recognize my name as Irish. Not so Ben Kiely, for no sooner had we been introduced than he recited lines from a poem by Mangan: "O'Ruark, Maguire, those souls of fire, their names are shrined in story-" It turned out he had been assigned an office next to mine. We shared a phone, made a few sorties to the Deer Park Tavern, and began a friendship which lasted until his death in 2007. We said what we couldn't know would be our last farewells on an October afternoon in 2000, when he was laid up in the bedroom at the back of his Donnybrook home, suffering from a back injury incurred while playing football as a boy in the streets of Omagh, but fully enjoying the occasion and the wine and edibles provided by the lovely Frances.
To make clear how lucky I was that Ben was the first living Irish writer I encountered (I had met many dead ones, both great and small, among my books), I'll give you a brief account of the second Irish writer I met. I was on my way back through Ireland on that abortive 1978 trip, and on Ben's recommendation was in Charlie St. George's bar across from the Limerick train station. There was a fellow there in a rumpled topcoat damp from the rain and carrying a battered and bulging briefcase. Shortly after he heard me tell Mr. St. George that Ben Kiely had told me to call in, he sidled over and said, "Do you know anything about contemporary Irish poetry?" I had the presence of mind to say "No," and the next thing he said was "Well, I'm it." It turns out he was a certain Munster poet planning to take the next train to Dublin to see his publisher. When I left an hour or so later, he was calling for another pint and planning to take the next train. This was three years after Seamus Heaney's breakthrough book North had prompted Robert Lowell to call him "the best Irish poet since Yeats." I confess that I scarcely knew Heaney's work at the time, and I may be the only American poet in my generation to own three books by Kiely before buying one by Heaney. But all that was to change. Ben gave me Heaney's address in Strand Road, we exchanged a number of letters and finally met at Bryn Mawr in 1982, when he wrote in my book, as he had doubtless written in the books of many admirers, a treasured bit from Shakespeare, "Our poesy is as a gum which oozes from whence 'tis nourished." Later that year he would meet my mother(!) at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo and write beneath a poem in a magazine (How very like him): "Gib - I know that name from your mother's lovely accents!" We met again on Bloomsday 1983 in Dublin, when I was taken on a memorable twilit tour of the sites and pubs. The next afternoon as the Holy Hour approached in his favored snug in Doheny and Nesbit's, he asked what I might like to do to pass the time between pints. I suggested that we might go out to Glasnevin to see the Jesuit plot where Hopkins lies. He had never been himself, so we went, and thus began a ritual for visiting poets that lasted until at least 2009, when he told the poet he had taken there that he did not want to go back. He came to read for us at Delaware in 1984. By that time something between us was ratified; we met off and on over the decades whenever the Atlantic and his impossible load of obligations would permit, and we last saw him in September 2012 when we waved goodbye to him and Marie as they headed home in a cab from Leeson Street Bridge.
It was when I was with Ben or Seamus that I felt most at home in Ireland. They were friends with each other, of course, but the three of us were never together. The Road to Ballyvaughan is dedicated to the memory of both of them.
Excerpt from Volume 8
A CONVERSATION WITH
SUE ELLEN THOMPSON
With Anne Colwell, Poetry Editor
In her article for the Las Vegas Review Journal entitled "Jenner Might Not Be Transgenderism's
Best Face," Kathleen Parker writes:
I’ve learned more about transgender individuals and their families from the tender poetry of Sue Ellen Thompson than from magazine displays and televised hype. In her latest collection, They, Thompson writes lovingly of her own transgender daughter’s journey and the challenges her evolution poses for three generations of family. I commend her book to those interested in insight over titillation.
Sue Ellen Thompson's poetry collection They offers readers a narrative arc that juxtaposes relationships between grandfather and granddaughter, mother and daughter, father and daughter, and opens for us, with great honesty and love, the struggles and joys of dealing with a transgender child. The poems in this collection are colloquial and crafted, deeply personal and universal. Hilda Raz, the author of What Becomes You urges, "Read it. It may change your life."
Colwell: In his thoughtful essay “Disparate Voices,” Hal Wilson says that you “curate” the postcards from Thomasin to bring together her voice as she writes to her grandfather and your voice as you struggle to come to terms with and accept her movement beyond the “she” of gender. I want to push the metaphor in a slightly different direction and suggest that you orchestrate the voices. One of the things that occurred to me as I read the book was that the postcards are - almost certainly unintentionally – poetic in their voice and their detail, while the poems – so carefully crafted and deeply musical – also evince a plainspoken forthrightness. Would you talk a little bit about how you see these two voices interacting?
Thompson: The decision to include the postcard poems came at the very end, in the last few months before the manuscript was complete. My father had saved them all and given them to me the week before he died, and in rereading them, I became aware of how uncomplicatedly loving my child’s voice was when writing to her grandfather—and how, in contrast, complicated my feelings toward her had been since she passed through adolescence and gradually moved toward a new gender identity (I’m going to refer to Thomasin as “she” here so as not to confuse “them” with the postcards themselves). I didn’t want everything filtered through my voice, as tends to be the case in my poetry. At the same time, I didn’t want to put words in my child’s mouth. So I decided to let the postcards speak for themselves.
But to answer your question, I don’t see the two voices—my own and my child’s—interacting much at all. She is speaking to her grandfather and I am speaking about my father. We don’t really speak to each other much in these poems. It was my hope in writing the book that my father would become the “medium” through which a mother and her child could communicate and find common ground. So in that sense, “orchestrate” is a good word to describe what I was trying to do.
Colwell: You and I have talked some about the question of a poet’s right to explore personal territory that readers might consider off limits or embarrassing. Whenever any writer uses personal experience, we risk exposing ourselves, but also the people in our lives, in ways that may seem problematic or unfair. Would you talk about your experience with balancing the creative necessity of self-expression with the natural desire to protect our own and our loved ones’ privacy?
Thompson: This has always been a huge issue for me, in this book even more so. Because I saw the poems as portraying my child in such a positive light, it never really occurred to me that she/they would be upset about them—the postcard poems in particular. But we exchanged some very painful e-mails in the year leading up to the book’s publication. If I thought that not publishing the book would turn her into my best friend overnight, I probably would have withdrawn it. But I knew that wouldn’t be the case. I also knew that if I didn’t “come out” as the parent of a transgender child as bravely as she had come out to us nine years earlier, I would have missed an opportunity to expand my generation’s understanding of the issues surrounding gender identity. I had broached the subject in conversation with a few close friends, but they all looked puzzled and confessed that they just didn’t “get it.” So I knew I had to take a more public stance—to use poetry as a way of initiating a larger conversation.
I guess my own rule of thumb has been to ask myself, first of all, how “private” the information really is. In most cases I am dealing with well (if not widely) known facts. My child had been very open about her “genderqueer” status for a number of years before this book was published. I also ask myself whether the “private” information in the poem serves a larger and more important truth. In this case, I thought it clearly did, because almost everyone I knew—even as recently as a year ago—was still confusing gender identity with sexual orientation.
This doesn’t mean that it has made my relationship with my adult child any easier. But I knew that if I didn’t publish this book, I would be denying who I am and what I do, which is to write about profound, complex emotions in the context of family and marriage.
Colwell: Many of the poems in They explore how experience changes and challenges language. I’m thinking, for example, of poems like “At 89, My Father Takes Up Swearing,” “Echo Rock,” and the title poem, “They.” One of the things poems can do is to nudge the language to the very edge of the expressible. Like dreams, poems contain the thing that is just beyond the reach of our everyday grammars. Would you talk a little bit about the way that your poems confront learning and “unlearning the rule” about the intersection between language and experience?
Thompson: Deciding how and where to use the plural pronoun “they” when referring to my child in this book posed an enormous challenge. As an English major and sometime teacher of college students, I have always believed in the importance of obeying the rules as far as grammar is concerned. But my child’s request that I refer to her with a plural pronoun caused real difficulties in putting this book together. Some of the poems are written about her as a child, when we all thought of her as “she.” Many others were written about her from my father’s perspective, and I can tell you right now that he never thought of her by any other pronoun, despite her boyish appearance and dress. Many of the poems had been published individually in literary magazines, with no context to explain an unconventional use of pronouns. In the end, I think there were only two or three poems written about her after she came out as transgender that referred to her as “she.” I tried rewriting them using “they” and the result was just too confusing. And given the widespread lack of understanding (at the time) about pronoun preferences and the transgender community, my editor and I decided to stick with the language that would be most readily understood by my audience—primarily parents and grandparents.
So if I was pushed to the edge of the cliff as far as language is concerned, I clearly drew back rather than take the leap. It bothered me at the time and probably always will, but I decided that exploring the issue of my child’s humanity—as opposed to masculinity—was the most important thing. And the best way to do that was to use language in a way that my readers would understand. If I had written these poems five years from now, the outcome might have been quite different.
Colwell: In line with that question, could you also give us some insight into your use of established poetic form in the book? I’m thinking especially of sonnets like “My Father’s Laundry” and “A Birthday Gift,” and also the beautiful - and to me very “Bishop-like” villanelle - “Moving Out.”
Thompson: I am hardly the first poet to use form as a container in which to place difficult emotions. A widowed father’s helplessness, a toddler’s adorably headstrong behavior, a young adult’s final departure from the family home—these are subjects that could so easily lead a writer into the sentimentality trap. Using established forms is the best way I know of to resist this temptation.
I also have lots of off-rhymed ABAB, ABCB, and ABACA poems, as well as a “nonce form” poem called “July 17.” I use rhyme and form to divert my own attention from the subject matter, which might otherwise prove overwhelming.
Colwell: A question about compositional process: the book has a loose narrative arc and the arrangement of the poems moves the reader through important moments in your life with Thomasin and your father. At what point did you conceive of this arc and this arrangement? Did you know before you started writing the poems for the book, or did you realize in the middle of writing these poems that they were moving in this direction?
Thompson: There is definitely a “narrative arc” in the book, although the poems themselves are not arranged chronologically. I did not start thinking about how the poems would be arranged until they were all written and spread in piles across my office floor. I decided that I did not want to foreground the transgender issue, but that I wanted that understanding to dawn gradually on the reader—much as it had on me. I also wanted to place that discovery in the context of other lives—my own, my father’s—that were moving forward even as this understanding began to take shape. I actually use the word “transgender” only once in the book, fairly close to the end. So I wanted the book to present not just a narrative about gender identity but one about family life, with memories of my own childhood and relationship with my parents coexistent with those about raising a very strong-willed and unconventional child, along with others about leaving New England to come to the Eastern Shore just as my father was struggling with the indignities of old age. Above all, I wanted this to be a book about the love of a grandchild for her grandfather, and I wanted the structure of the book to follow that relationship, via the postcards, to its purest expression in the final poem, “Inheritance.”
Colwell: Finally, I want to ask a broader question about poetry. The powerful response that I’ve had to the book and that I’ve seen this book elicit from my students and from fellow readers suggests to me that, despite what many people think, poetry does not or does not have to occupy a rarified world. Do you have any thoughts about the cultural place of poetry going forward?
Thompson: Perhaps because I have spent so little time in the academic world, and perhaps because neither of my parents graduated from college, I have always thought of poetry as something that anyone should be able to read and understand—although I admit it takes an education and some training to appreciate the subtleties of craft. I’ve never understood why more poets don’t write for the people who don’t normally read poetry. To me, the highest compliment a poet can receive is to be told, “I hate poetry, but I loved your book!”