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LIDIA VIANU -- CATHERINE BYRON
The best critic is the editor within
Interview with CATHERINE BYRON (born 22 August 1947), Irish poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: You are Irish and a poet, which, together with some of your lines, brings Yeats to mind. Is he a model?
CATHERINE BYRON: An inspiration from very early on, rather than a model. What I admire most about his work is his continual re-invention of his poetry, both in content and in style, and the way it becomes ever more pared down.
LV. Seamus Heaney is partly the subject of a splendid pilgrimage book (Out of Step), which is as much personal as literary. Is he a model in any way, or just a literary love?
CB. Heaney’s work was extremely important to me at the time I began to write seriously, in the early 1980s. His interest in the rural chimed in with my own interest in my mother’s family history and the family farm in East Galway. I loved the clumpiness of his language in the early books, too: like him I studied Anglo-Saxon poetry at university, and wanted to emulate that concentration of poetic diction. Out of Step: Pursuing Seamus Heaney to Purgatory records my painful realization that I need to move myself and my writing away from his influence: as male poet and as self-appointed bard of the Irish people.
LV. What do you expect poetry to be and do? Should it be crystal clear or veil its emotions in cultured lines?
CB. Yeats wrote that ‘there is more enterprise in walking naked’. I agree with this, and in my poetry I can trace a continuity from the self-consciously poetic to a more direct, natural syntax based on the voice. On the other hand, I hope that while my diction may flow more naturally, my poems contain greater depths of meaning and emotion: this is a paradox I try to enact in my writing!
LV. In Redemption: A Litany we read: ‘I am an archivist of dreams’. Your poems are all veiled dreams, more or less. They have a halo of unreality, which masks the intensity that caused them. What can you reveal of the real life that lies hidden? Your family background, your marriage (followed by separation, much later), your daughters, your profession?
CB. When I assembled my first collection, Settlements, in 1985, I was quite shocked to realize that it was ‘really’ about the breakdown of my marriage! I write in a ‘cloud of unknowing’: I think of poetry as a method of divination, of truth-telling to the self. I still discover unexpected things in poems I wrote twenty years ago!
LV. Why poetry? What made you choose words as your medium?
CB. Poetry chose me! I would love to have been a visual artist, and wanted to go to Art school, not university. But my father, an eminent research physiologist, would not hear of it. He wanted me to study medicine, of course. Instead, I studied Classics and then English Language and Literature.
LV. I have found a stanza that perfectly defines your poetry, to my mind, as a mass of words carved in living flesh. Here it is:
The Getting of Vellum
Have you ever scribbled a telephone number, or a name
on the handy back of your hand?
Written something there on your own soft skin,
pressed and tickled across the grain of you
with the fine running point of a ballpoint pen?
It has the right ink that’ll slide on
oily and easy, and stay there for hours.
Even a soapy scrub of your hand
won’t shift it altogether.
Its perfect for jotting something down
in a hurry, something you need to hold onto
oh, for less than a day, maybe,
but vital for that day.
Paper is flighty, easy to lose,
and it isn’t always to hand.
You’ll not, after all, mislay
your own skin – will you?
You write, as Yeats put it, ‘in the marrow bone’. This connects you to him. Is biography a safe or advisable refuge for poetry? Do you use it much? I have not come to know much of your life after reading your poetry, but I do know your emotions, and that means your goal was reached, I guess. Yet, what do you think of autobiographical poems?
CB. Your questions are fascinating, and get very close to the marrow bone themselves! My introductory essay to my recent PhD by Published Works reflected on this interface between autobiography and fiction in my work. I think that I tend to start from stories that I have heard from others, and make connections – emotional connections – with my own experience. Hence my ‘Galway’ sequence based on tales I heard from my mother and aunts. Another instance is ‘Let-Down’: Poet Medbh McGuckian told me about her experience of getting engorged after giving birth to her first child, and her father, a rural man, telling her to think about the slow milking of a full-uddered cow: this helped her relax, and therefore let her baby suckle more effectively. I put that story alongside my own remembered pleasure in breastfeeding (without such problems!) and a personal memory of being taken to milk a cow while on holiday as a child in Donegal. The two tales together form a sort of fiction...
LV. In your book on Seamus Heaney ( who is more a pretext than a text, I feel), you confess:
I am a foreigner there myself, half-English and half-Galway by blood, Belfast by raising; but Donegal is my country of the mind, and the physical country to which I keep returning from various and ever-changing exiles. It is the source-book of my identity, both as woman and as writer. Long-lapsed from the religious faith of my childhood, I come to Donegal for my own, usually solitary, retreats, and the land itself is my spiritual director – along, of course, with the ocean. As Alan Watts says of the motion of another ocean, the Pacific: ‘It harmonizes with our very breathing. It does not count our days.’
One feature of Desperado poetry – as I call it, because the term Postmodern is no longer significant to me, and because I have found a number of features that bring these poets together – is that it relies heavily on displacement, just as much as Desperado fiction. Displacement is a common feeling these days. We are all more or less displaced. Exile is our inner state most of the time. What is interesting about your poems is that your exile is at the same time emotional and intellectual. You feel displaced wherever you are and there is only one way to feel at home, for a brief space: writing poetry. Is that a wrong line to pursue in discussing your poetry?
CB. That is very interesting! I am not familiar with the term Desperado poetry, I’m afraid. But I think that poets generally are or would like to be ‘outsiders’ – especially in privileged Western democracies, where poetry, on the whole, is not any more central to the literary culture!
LV. The first words I could find to describe a Desperado is a writer similar to others in dissimilarity. Each Desperado wants to be his/ her own trend. How about you? Do you feel you belong to any group of writers or would you much rather be judged as your own person (which you are)?
CB. I am very proud to have my work included in the just-published Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Vol. 5: Irish Women’s Writing and Tradition (Cork University Press). And to have a poetry collection (Vellum) published at last by an Irish Press, Salmon. But it doesn’t matter to me where I fit in, really. I have a loose collection of poets geographically near to me, and we meet to workshop our poems. They are of every sort of ‘school’ and style: two of them are gay men but write entirely differently from their respective ‘out’ positions: a Kenyan/Indian man who refuses to be pigeonholed as ‘South Asian’, though it would help his work to get about more widely; a woman scientist; a Protestant Irish woman who writes most lyrically and wickedly in a sort of ballad style; etc etc. We are all entirely individual in our intentions and our work – and therefore (?) find that workshopping new poems together is very helpful!
LV. Contemporary feminine poetry, Desperado feminine poetry, is much stronger than feminine poetry ever was before. What is the cause of that, do you think?
CB. Well, women are gradually getting heard, and published, more. This has been much slower in Ireland, North and South, than in my adopted homes of Scotland and England.
LV. What is your attitude towards literary criticism? Should the poem leave room for it? Hadn’t the poet better make himself totally understood and thus discourage interpretation? Or is interpretation absolutely necessary to the life of a poem? I am aware no poet can exist outside ambiguity. The question is, how far can he go, if he means to keep his audience by his side?
CB. I really think that the poet must not think of any critics, literary or reviewing, when writing. The best critic is the editor within, and even that editor needs to be kept switched off most of the time. Self-consciousness is a great enemy of poetry.
LV. A Desperado writer is a writer who takes the literary law in his hands and makes his own rules as he writes. He is an inventor of laws and rules. He needs to try what has not yet been tried. So do you. What is the major law of your poems, the one you always obey, and which is, I suppose, of your own making? I say this because yours is an indomitable poetry, which does not conform. You alone can tame it. How do you get your message through, what are your own devices, which you weave into the text?
CB. Each poem has to find its own form, and voice. I tend not to use traditional poetic/verse forms. I think of rhymed poetic forms as ‘invertebrate’, i.e. they wear their skeletons on the outside, e.g. like lobsters! I like to think of my poems as vertebrates: their formal skeleton is hidden inside their flesh, but it is none the less firm for that. And they take much of their suppleness and muscularity from speech, but artfully ‘boiled down’ to a sort of essence of speech. I like giving voices to characters, especially the ‘I’ who tells many of my tales. ‘I’ is not necessarily ‘Catherine Byron’! But I have also given voices to several distinct characters, such as the women (and some men) in the ‘Galway’ sequence, or the linen-weaver in ‘Shears’.
LV. When did you start writing poetry? What led to it? What incidents made your life cross that of a poem?
CB. I started when I was six, and continued until I was about twenty, when I met my husband. We married when we were 19 and 20, as students. I had this crazy idea that my urge to write poems was a sort of yearning that had been answered by meeting him! I did not write again until I had the dream that led to the poem ‘Night Flight to Belfast’ (Settlements) – that dream unlocked a great deal. I was living and farming in Scotland, and missing Ireland more and more, especially as it was engulfed in the chaos of the Troubles conflict. My uncle was murdered in Belfast in 1974, and it was soon after that that I had the dream.
LV. Obvious love poetry is not your favourite. Yet there is incandescent love in every line. It may be more love of words than of living beings that you express. I should say you are in love with life, on the whole. What do you love most about poetry? What do you love most in real life?
CB. Thank you for that sentence ‘Yet there is incandescent love in every line’ – that is a wonderful confirmation of my poetry, and what I hope to give the reader – along with the trouble and pain of human (and animal) existence. On a more literal level, I love the landscape of a particular peninsula in West Donegal as if it were a human lover. I love the wild wet world of plants and lichens – would love to have been trained as a botanical illustrator. I think that there is quite a lot of erotic content in my poems, especially the last book – troubled eroticism, perhaps? I’ve had a few excellent lovers in my time, but I mainly seem to write about the pain of love. I only began to write poetry again as my marriage started to crumble, which perhaps suggests that I ‘imprinted on pain as my first lover’ in poetic terms as well as physical ones? I have been a fierce lover of my two daughters, now grown up, though I have not written very much about them, or about motherhood... The connections are subterranean, as predicted rather spookily by my early poem ‘Redemption: a Litany’ which is the intro poem to Settlements.
LV. What kind of literary criticism do you favour? I would like to know your opinion versus scholarly criticism, written in a largely inaccessible language, with words taken over from other critics and used just as figures in mathematics. Would you allow/ require criticism to be literature itself?
CB. I like some of the criticism that poets write, e.g. I think Seamus Heaney writes marvellously about other poets’ work. But on the whole I avoid reading Lit Crit. I prefer to read books of geology, chemistry, exploration, art, etc. ‘All trades, their gear and tackle and trim’, as Gerard Manley Hopkins has it in his poem ‘Pied Beauty’!
LV. Is the internet a good way of bringing writers together, or are you afraid that the screen might one day kill the pleasure of the book?
CB. Hmmm. Very big question. Too soon to say. I am loosely connected to trace, the internet community of writers based at my university: http://trace.ntu.ac.uk I think the codex book is such a wonderful piece of technology for the individual reader that it will not be easily superseded. Perhaps the Web will be another mode alongside, rather than a replacement. I hope so. Also, I am anxious about the fragility of the digital media – if the platform changes, or the links fray a bit, a work/text can simply be lost, after a few years, even a few months. The Lindisfarne Gospels, written circa 700 on calf vellum, survive in superb condition!
LV. Are interviews the right way to approach a writer? Should we be satisfied with what we see in his books? Are readers entitled to know more than just the written literary text about a writer whose fans they have become?
CB. I and many poet and reader friends love to go to poetry readings at which a poet talks around the work as well as performing it – we are hungry for the little nuggets of information, things very close to what you have asked me in this interview!