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LIDIA VIANU -- MAURA DOOLEY
I look for the poem that will haunt me for a while...
Interview with MAURA DOOLEY (born 1957), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: Your poems so far are a desperately intimate and sacred book. You are so secretive that you refuse revealing the incidents, and muffle the emotion. You almost refuse the poem. That seems to be the key to your magic: uttering so little, you suggest immensity. What would you say your themes are? I detect love and absence. What more?
MAURA DOOLEY: Themes... Past and future: the way they converge in what we know as the present... The silences between people and what may or may not be being said or imagined in those silences... Friendship... Love in a difficult world... the spirit and where it might be found... Politics... Fear.
LV. Your images are crystal clear yet shy to pinpoint an experience. The ‘streets are paved with flesh’ in London. Hope is ‘that old antiseptic’. There is a burden of pain in all your lines. Whether love for a father who seems to have been lost, or a man who seems to have been lost as well, both have scars in your soul to boast of. What do words need in order to qualify for images in your poems? How do these images come to you?
MD. Images come to me visually and then I have to find words for a complex mood or emotion. Or they come to me sometimes in words, as a means of picturing the essence of a feeling or mood I am trying to capture. Robert Frost said, ‘a poem begins as a lump in the throat, a homesickness, a lovesickness’. Isn’t that just right?
LV. Postmodern poets rely heavily on incident in their lyrical texts. I for one try to avoid the term post- or post-postmodern, and my alternative suggestion is Desperado. One of the features that make up the wanted profile of this kind of poet is the fact that you read his volumes in search of some biographical narrative. A volume is the story of one period in the poet’s life, like a belated diary, spiced with afterthoughts. I can feel the story in your two volumes, but there is no way I could say ‘I know what has happened, this is what she has gone through’. You watch your experiences jealously. Could you wrap a story round the two heroes of your two volumes?
MD. I think if I wanted to do that I would have written a novel. The collections are full of separate poems. Certainly there are links and recurring themes but the collections are just that, collections, a gathering up of poems written over a number of years but not specifically addressing a theme or character. Perhaps too, we as readers should be careful not to suppose that the ‘I’ in a poem is always simply the writer of the poem. Like many other poets, the ‘I’ that I use in my poems is sometimes an imagined or borrowed ‘I’ and not simply me.
LV. In Mind the Gap I find a faint Eliotian echo of London, spiced with the rats in the Underground and the mechanical announcement, ‘Mind the Gap’. It is hard to detect definite influences in your verse. Whom would you say you feel akin to, in poetry?
MD. Influences... Growing up I read Philip Larkin, William Blake, WB Yeats, and Seamus Heaney most of all. Then the Metaphysicals, Miroslav Holub, Wallace Stevens, the New York School and Rimbaud. At school we read T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. All men, you’ll notice. It’s different now. We just did not have so many women in print then. But I’d say that music and song lyrics were at least as strong an influence at that time: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello,
Joni Mitchell... then the end of a strong moment in the British Folk scene, Reggae and the beginnings of Punk.
I read Sylvia Plath when I was very young but didn’t understand her till later. Then I read Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, early Derek Walcott, Michael Longley, Fleur Adcock, Gillian Clarke, Anne Sexton and at this time
discovering some great work through translation: Marina Tsvetayeva, Czeslaw Milosz, Nina Cassian. In the late 80s I was stunned by C.K. Williams and Sharon Olds: lots of the Americans. At the same time, in this country, the emergence of what was called ‘Performance Poetry’, which often involved music and was far more culturally diverse than the mainstream in British poetry at that time, began to have a profound effect on the presentation of poetry to audiences. Now, it would be too difficult for me to begin to name my own contemporaries, there are too many of them to list. Isn’t that a joy? So many interesting poets to choose from.
LV. Your poem goes ‘home lonely at night’, but your reader does not. You share with this reader the need for sharing. What makes you so secretive and careful with the stories in your life?
MD. I don’t think that I am particularly secretive. I hope to write something which satisfies the reader but it’s true that I do like mystery.
LV. Speech is a denied gift with you: ‘Each time we meet there is more to say,/ fewer ways of saying it.’ Language is a mirror in which you see yourself and the very reflection makes you freeze, fall silent and articulate each word with difficulty. Do you write easily? Are your poems an easy result of inspiration or a concentrated effort of digging, bringing up the tip of the iceberg and burying the rest in understatement?
MD. I don’t think speech is so much ‘denied’ as withheld in my poems. The same is true for so many of us surely? Life is full of compromise, ‘the road not taken’... that interests me and it is a big subject. My poems rarely come quickly. I can think only of two such gifts in my whole life. An idea, an image, a phrase begins to turn around in my head and slowly it grows. Then I dig.
LV. Everyday, common, flat sentences like ‘And I’ll get back to you as soon as I can’, which you hear on an answering machine, are loaded with magic. One such sentence is followed by, ‘My calls to you, like a shoal/ of little wishes...’ Disappointed love screams in whispers. The music of your soul can only be heard with earphones. Were you aware when you wrote in this way that it was the most efficient way of dragging readers into your private world? Of impressing them without letting them know what attracted them in the first place?
MD. Certainly I was aware of the magical within the commonplace. I like looking at the overfamiliar and making it new again, making it strange. Isn’t that always one of poetry’s greatest strengths?
LV. ‘There is a train to anywhere’, says one poem. The question follows, ‘Why are you never on my train ...?’ Your lines are steeped in a gentle solitude, a burden that breaks your back but is described angelically, in mild images and half-uttered wishes. How would you describe yourself, a poet of passion or of restraint (in Eliot’s words, ‘the heart would have responded beating obedient...’)?
MD. I’d like to be a poet of ‘passion’ AND ‘restraint’. Life seems, to me at least, to be about the balance between those.
LV. Rarely, some poems mention age: ‘In the year/ I grew old...’ Is growing up (rather than old) an obsession with you? The past is. Time is not often mentioned. Your poems are not obvious lyrical clocks. They may be time bombs, with hidden machineries meant to blow up your surface composure at a certain, pre-established moment. What inner discipline makes you so discreet when you write about loss?
MD. I think loss or grief is particular rather than general. It would be boring of me to write about my own personal sorrows ( or joys) but dull too, perhaps, to write in a broad way about such huge subjects. I try to move within the poem from what may be particular and personal to what I feel may be a shared, often unspoken, perception or experience.
LV. What Every Woman Should Carry advises: ‘Anguish, at what I said/ I didn’t say/ when once you needed/didn’t need me. (...)/ His face the last time,/ my impatience, my useless youth./ That empty sack, my heart.’ This is a revelation of your unconfessed tragedy. How would you describe this painful experience which spurs you into hunting peace of mind within the brief space of a poem?
MD. This poem is also wry and knowing I hope. It invites the reader to move from my trivial collection of odds and ends (which are, of course, also symbols, or signifiers, if you like) to their own and on out into the larger question of all that we carry with us, in our hearts, minds and souls.
LV. Pathetic Magic is a statement of loneliness forever:
At the door
the love we want to offer
Safe Home, Take Care,
Good Luck, God Bless,
a rabbit’s foot.
Nothing saves us
from the boat tossed over,
a leaf in storm,
like my heart
as darkness takes you,
a door slams,
long, long into the night.
Your poems are not long and they do not claim the sound of rhyme. You are discreet in your writing as you are in communicating your experience. Do you have a lyrical ideal, one kind of poetry that you would like to write, or do you discover your form as you go along?
MD. In fact I do use rhyme occasionally and, no, I don’t have a lyrical ideal. For most poets , perhaps, once they have found their voice the real challenge is to keep on moving and not just to write the same kind of poem, in that same voice, over and over.
LV. I think of you as a Desperado poet insofar as you reject all previous conventions and strive to build your own. Am I wrong to attribute this ambition to your poetry? How would you describe your poetic credo?
MD. I don’t reject all previous conventions but I do want to try to say something my way. I write as a way of working out how I feel about things: a way of looking at and trying to understand life. Sometimes then, I write what some term ‘a political poem’ but I never do so directly. I use allegory or a personal perspective. I hope it is lyrical.
LV. Do you like telling stories in verse? Do you plan on revealing the incidents from now on, or is there a deliberate strategy in your hidden stories, whose visible halo the poem is?
MD. I very much enjoy telling stories through the verse but I do feel that there is a contemporary concern with the ‘confessional’ or the autobiographical which borders on prurience. I am not deliberately secretive. The poems reveal what is necessary for the poem to work. I hope that the rhythm and the language are persuasive. If a reader found particular images lyrically beautiful then I should feel delighted. These poems offer glimpses of my experience and my perception, my imagination and my moods.
They are not my autobiography.
LV. For our readers to know you better, could you tell us more about your activity as a poet among poets? Your social role in British poetry?
MD. I’ve always worked in the fields of Literature and Education, encouraging new writing. I set up writing workshops for the Arvon Foundation, a National organisation, outside the conventional educational centres, that holds courses for those interested in writing: any age, any background. Currently I teach an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, part of
the University of London and previously I founded and directed for six years the Literature series at the South Bank Centre: a programme of 150 talks and readings annually, by writers, for small and large audiences. In that role I also revived an old and important biennial festival: Poetry International. I read, listened to and worked with poets from all over the world. I learnt a great deal. I have also worked in film, for the Jim Henson Organisation and theatre, for Performing Arts Labs. All of this has
fed my own work, I’m certain.
LV. What do you think of those contemporary poets who play upon rhymes and neglect emotion? As a reader of poetry, do you look for the experience of life or the experience of the word?
MD. I enjoy rhyme even though I do not use it very much myself. We have had a return to ‘form’ and there is some good work around. As a reader I don’t care if a poem rhymes or not. I look for a poem that offers a fresh perception in memorable language, where not a word is wasted. I look for a poem that will haunt me for a while: a poem that I’ll have to come back to
again and again.
June 14, 2002