Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Mairead Byrne, Seriously: A Conversation & 3 Poems

LH: I love your piece, “Some Differences Between Poetry & Standup,” which I heard you read at Zinc. Can you tell me a little about the origins of that work?

MB: Brendan Lorber asked me to do it, for a January date, one fall. Not the fall preceding the January date but the fall before that! So I had about 15 months to put it together, like a jig-saw puzzle on a table that’s not needed.

As you know, the Zinc Series describes itself as "Talk/Reading." Brendan asked for a talk but I had a lot of poems so there was no way I wasn't going to read. I had something I wanted to talk about—the conventions of the poetry reading itself—but I also wanted to read poems. So I did both. I folded the poems into the talk. Both the "talk" and the "poems" were expository. Both the "talk" and the "poems" were poetry. The combination wasn't polemical as much as comic. Tim Peterson said I wasn't funny but people laughed.

Kenny Goldsmith was at that reading, looking glamorous in an afghan coat. Sina Queyras was there too. Kenny asked for "Some Differences Between Poetry & Standup" for UbuWeb. You can read it here. I was in heaven meeting Kenny & I was in heaven in the Zinc Bar. There just was something about the shape of the place, the shallow stage, the cool audience, the brick walls, Tim Peterson. Aaagh!

The Zinc Bar talk/reading was a really serendipitous mapping of talk/reading onto talk/poetry, which was what I was developing. One of my books last year was actually called Talk Poetry (Miami University Press 2007). I was surprised David Antin hadn't used the title.

LH: Did you always see poetry as performance, or did that notion develop over time?

MB: In the beginning, when I used to read my poetry, I'd cry. It was intense. I was very shy. Definitely I see poetry as performance now. But I'm pretty restrained. I saw Patti Smith at St. Mark's in one of those New Year's Day marathons. To see Patti Smith perform at a poetry reading is to get a glimpse of the gap between poetry & performance. But you do what you can. I'm less interested now in attending readings by poets who aren't interested in performance, at some level.

LH: Have you ever tried doing stand up? Would you ever?

MB: As it happens I’m starting what I hope will be a regular gig tonight at Tazza in Providence. One of my colleagues at Rhode Island School of Design, Mark Milloff, does a blues night every Tuesday, & one or two nights a month I’ll MC a poetry hour with readers from in town & out of town & passing through town. Tonight we have Randy Bretzin, Nehassaiu deGannes, Henry Gould, Justin Katko, Hannah Resseger, and Lisa Samuels. I don’t know what to expect. I’m hoping to take more of an improvisatory approach myself. Read stuff I wouldn’t usually read. Have fun. Not quite stand-up but what can you expect at my age.

LH: Is there some weight that comes with being an "Irish poet?" More pointedly a female Irish poet?

MB: Not necessarily. Not that I've noticed anyway. My daughter & I were talking about that the other day. Like how come people at Ivy Leagues aren't so overweight as the American population in general? In terms of your question, there's a little bit of weight to be expected with advancing years, and that's generally how poetic reputations are established. You know, gravitas. And you probably can expect the female body to accumulate a little more weight. Pregnant women are actually referred to as gravida. In Irish hospitals anyway! I'm G5P232, according to that notation. But whatever about Gravida/Para, I wouldn't like weight to be the first thing people thought about when they read my work, no. I've just been reading Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Lightness is much more of a value for me.

LH: You mention Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium which explores the idea of lightness, the difference between "light" and "shallow," or depth and surface. There is resistance to lightness it seems to me. We monitor tone so carefully, don't we? We want humor, but we want it to be substantial no?

MB: I don’t know. I like pure ridiculousness. That’s what probably makes me laugh most. I keep myself company a lot of the time & just want to enjoy everything. My standards aren’t high. There’s no “we,” just I & I.

LH: Regarding the recent Chicago Review debate about publishing and gender, do you feel that there is some relationship between gender and the reception of one's work?

MB: Sina, are you kidding me? There's a profound relationship between gender & just about everything; & a profound relationship between power & reception & a profound relationship between power & gender & just about everything…. So yes.

I have an odd first name though. It sounds sort of Arab or Welsh. So it's possible those who don't know me might think I'm a guy. Though the photo kind of gives it away. But reception is not nearly so big a problem for me as the feeling nobody's there, nobody's reading my books. Seriously though, one or two people are. Maybe it's a gender thing that I'm happy about that. As long as one of them has the casting vote on a VERY IMPORTANT COMMITTEE for A VERY BIG PRIZE!

LH: I suppose that would include gender and humor?

MB: It's important to be funny about gender, certainly. Your question makes them sound like Harold & Maude.

LH: Did you see the recent round table on humor in Jacket 33? Ron Silliman, and others, try to eke out the difference between humor in poetry and a "funny poem." Any thoughts?

MB: I didn’t see that Sina but it sounds hilarious. I’ll look it up. I always thought Ron had a great name.

LH: You mentioned UBU web earlier, and your admiration of Kenneth Goldsmith. Do you think there is a difference between the kind of poetry one wants to read (hear) and the kind of poetry one wants to hear?

MB: That’s a really subtle question. Yes, I think there’s always a difference between the kind of poetry one wants to hear and the kind of poetry one wants to hear. It’s just human nature never to be satisfied. It was more Kenny’s coat….

LH: I love Steve Evans Notes To Poetry, the idea that there are books that will linger over time, continue to engage. Who, or which books engaged you over the past year?

MB: Yeah, I noticed neither of my books made that list. On the strength of Craig Dworkin’s recommend- ation, Bill Kennedy & Darren Wershler’s Apostrophe is on my bedside table right now. My short term memory’s not good though. All I can say is that the other books right beside me now are Michael Harnett’s Collected Poems, David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Kwame Dawes’ Bob Marley Lyrical Genius, World Literature Today, Walter Lew’s Muae 1, Vivian Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition, Oscar Wilde’s plays, Waiting for Godot, The Magic Mountain, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, & lots of Ntozake Shange. I don’t think anything there was published in 2007, though there’s one 2008 publication, and one 2009.

LH: Is there someone you can say we should be reading now?

MB: It has always surprised me that Charles Reznikoff isn’t more of a household name.

LH: Are you going to AWP? Where will we find you?

MB: I’ll be participating in this panel at 9am on Thursday in Conference Room E, Sheraton, Lower Level, Executive Conference Center:
R116. The Transatlantic Writer: Challenges and Strategies. (Tim Liardet, Mairéad Byrne, Anthony Caleshu, Benjamin Markovits, Lytton Smith, Carrie Etter) The transatlantic writer faces unique challenges in both the composition and dissemination of work. How does one "write native"? Who is the imagined or intended audience? Panelists will also address differing habits of publication and public reception, the internet's relationship to concepts of a national literature, the creation of conversations between writers and cultures, and nationalism's influence on an author's reception.
After that (11.45-12.45) I’ll be signing Talk Poetry at the Miami University Press table in the Book Fair (#461). I have to leave at 1pm to get back to Providence. But on Wednesday night I hope to be at the Nightboat readings at McNally Robinson and the Cave Canem readings at the Bowery Poetry Club. How about you, Sina?

LH: I will definitely see you there. And happily be your straight man should you require one.

Lemon Hound posted on Talk Poetry last year, and on the Difference Between Poetry and Stand-up here.

And you can hear Byrne read The Pillar.

3 Poems by Mairead Byrne


There’s so much emphasis on the individual we forget how much a single person is actually a double. For a start, we are symmetrical: 2 eyes, 2 nostrils, 2 lips with two halves in each one. Our 32 teeth can be divided in two so many ways they deserve a poem of their own. And, taking a bird’s eye view—2 hemispheres in the brain. The story goes all the way down: 2 shoulders, 2 arms, 2 lungs, 2 kidneys, 2 testicles, 2 ovaries, 2 bums, each one divided in two, 2 knees, 2 legs, 2 feet. We are actually really 2 people in one. And what do we do? We pair up. We get married, shackled, whatever. Why we do this I do not know. We are already getting quite enough action being 2 people in one but whatever. We have to have an outside person too, who is also more 2 persons than one. It gets complex. Now you have a 2 X 4. Kids arrive. Each kid adds 2 to the mix. Sometimes there’s twins. Pretty soon you have chaos masquerading as a family. I’m thinking of Ben Franklin. Now Ben was the 15th child out of a total of 17 born to his mother. This figure may or may not include 2 children who died. The numbers are staggering. I’m thinking of Mrs. Franklin. This is a woman or, to my way of thinking, practically 2 women, who had 17 or 19 children proceed through her, i.e., 34 or 38, in addition to providing accommodation for the regular visits of Mr. Franklin. This is not a woman. This is a pomegranate. This is the fabled village it takes to raise a child. Mrs. Franklin herself was the green on which the townspeople cavorted. Is it any wonder we thought of mitosis and meiosis and all that. It’s written all over us. How do you end something like this? It never ends.


I was finding it a bit tedious climbing the stairs so I decided to up the ante. First: Wash the stairs. Next: Lay squares of paper towel down. Then: Move up & down the stairs landing only on the squares of paper towel. Rationale: My slippers tend to leave marks on the wet steps. Effect: Increased difficulty climbing stairs, which action now requires tri-partite effort a) almost vertical hoisting of the legs, with b) frantic whole-body follow-through, propelled by c) pumping action of right arm against banister; with d) descent involving a domino-effect toppling, always in danger of skidding off the paper towel & the step, always in danger of plunging straight down the stairwell like a bucket in a well. Going up & down the stairs is much harder than before, & also much more unusual. Going up is more like ice-climbing. Coming down is more like bungee-jumping. I have started going around the whole house like this. I have put squares of paper towel down in all the rooms & halls so that I can lurch around like Frankenstein, having close encounters with the floors & walls. The house has shrunk & I have grown huge, like a monstrous erection, mindless yet programmed to seek. Full report to follow.


Editors of anthologies & special features on Irish poetry take note: I am available for inclusion in such publications in 3 guises: Irish Woman Poet, Innovative Irish Poet and, as the field is currently wide open, Ireland’s First Concrete Poet.* I can furnish a complete set of poems for each identity, in addition to sensitively selected yet pronounceable names: Minnie O'Donnell, Irish Woman Poet; Clare Macken, Innovative Irish Poet; and Bo Doyle-Hund, Ireland’s First Concrete Poet. Sample available sets include: “My Transistor Radio,” “Léim an Bhradáin,” “Rites of Passage” (Minnie O'Donnell); “Trans/is/t,” “Apostrophe for Finnegan,” “Electoral Capacity” (Clare Macken); and “ciúnas,” “’,” and “18” (Bo Doyle-Hund). I am working on a fourth identity—“A Remarkable Poet in Her Own Right.” The tentative
title for this character is: “Mairéad Byrne.”

*No further jokes about building sites please.

from Talk Poetry
Photo of Mairead & Bob, New Years Eve, Mairead Byrne
Mairead at Zinc, Lemon Hound

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