Eavan Boland is one of the most distinguished female voices in Irish literature. She was born in Dublin, Ireland, and published her first collection, 23 Poems, in 1962. She is now a professor and director of the creative writing program at Stanford University; she lives in Stanford, California, and Dublin, Ireland. Over the course of her long career she has published many volumes of poetry, the most recent being A Poet’s Dublin (2014) and A Woman Without a Country (2014)—more about these two books follows the interview. Also, notably, New Collected Poems (2009). For other titles, see this W.W. Norton page. She received the Lannan Award for Poetry and an American Ireland Fund Literary Award. Her primer on poetic forms, The Making of of a Poem (2001), co-authored with Mark Strand, is a book for readers who have always felt that an understanding of form (sonnet, ballad, villanelle, sestina, among others) would enhance their appreciation of poetry. Her prose memoir, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (1995), explores a woman’s life in Ireland together with a poet’s work.
Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Eavan Boland: I don’t agree. His words seem to imply that distraction and fulfilment are separate. I’m not so sure. I think they’re often braided together, wound around each other in ways that aren’t always clear. I was once in the west of Ireland doing a reading. I was early and wandered into a heritage center that had photos of a currach—the small boat that travels the edge of the Atlantic and manages some very rough water. The information said the currach was mostly made of willow. That certainly distracted me. I’d always thought of a willow tree as graceful, suburban, shy of utility. Hardly a migrant out on a rough ocean. Somehow the contradiction there opened a reality about the west I hadn’t thought about. So in that case at least. the outcome of the distraction, at least for me, is what made the travel fulfilling.
Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.
Boland: Looking out south-facing windows. Going to small shops. Always trying out coffee, and if that doesn’t work trying again with tea. Looking at old signs in windows or new construction.
Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.
Boland: I have a fairly unstructured view of writing. Built mostly around not just where but when. Because I prefer mornings that helps to dictate where I write. In an upstairs room maybe or downstairs with the back door open. But as for choosing a cagibi, it’s definitely going to be whichever notebook I’m currently using. Which I think comes into your definition of a restricted space. With a notebook, I can move it around from place to place and still feel my writing has a habitat.
Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?
Boland: A book about the words we use to talk about poetry. And a new book of poems. Neither as far along as I’d like!
Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?
Boland: I mostly travel to new places to work. So I’m not exactly sure how they come into my writing as experiences. For all that, I’m sure they do. The point about traveling to places is not so much that they’re new as that—for those first few precious moments—so are you. Some of the big context of identity that everyone wears gets shorn off for a while. And that has to be, however indirectly, an immediate influence.
Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?
Boland: No, neither. Travel always seems a task to me—a way to get somewhere so as to get something done. I’ve never been able to think of it as either recreation or escape. Which I think is just proof that I’m not a born traveler. I know people for whom travel is a dialect, a side language in their lives that they speak with ease under certain circumstances. I’m afraid I don’t have that. Or speak that.
Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.
Boland: There’s a book called “The Hidden Ireland” by an Irish writer and scholar called Daniel Corkery. It came out in 1925. It’s about Gaelic Munster in the 18th century, and specifically a small region called Slieve Luachra which bordered Cork and Kerry. It’s been a very important book to me since I read it as a teenager. It’s here that the 18th century Irish-speaking poets faced the doom of history and lost their language. And it’s here beside the River Blackwater that a huge pivot in the future of Irish poetry happened. I’ve never been to Slieve Luachra because of course that version of it no longer exists. But I’ve often wished I could see it as it once was.
Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
Boland: I’m afraid I’ve a dull answer. No I never did. Poets often have fugitive, flexible writing circumstances—at least I did. My writing was done openly in open rooms. My mother, however, was a painter. She often locked the door of the room she was working in, maybe even hiding in. But different arts make different circumstances. For myself, I’m glad I never had to hide. Now whether the poem I was writing hid from me—that’s a different story.
About Eavan Boland’s A Poet’s Dublin and A Woman Without a Country
Eavan Boland’s A Poet’s Dublin is a collection of her poems accompanied by photographs of Dublin. From the publisher:
Written over years, the transcendent and moving poems in A Poet’s Dublin seek out shadows and impressions of a powerful, historic city, studying how it forms and alters language, memory, and selfhood. The poems range from an evocation of the neighborhoods under the hills where the poet lived and raised her children to the inner-city bombing of 1974, and include such signature poems as “The Pomegranate,” “The War Horse,” and “Anna Liffey.” Above all, these poems weave together the story of a self and a city—private, political, and bound by history. The poems are supported by photographs of the city at all times and in all seasons: from dawn on the river Liffey, which flows through Dublin, to twilight up in the Dublin foothills.
Eavan Boland’s A Woman Without a Country is a new collection of poems. From the publisher:
Eavan Boland is considered “one of the finest and boldest poets of the last half century” by Poetry Review. This stunning new collection, A Woman Without a Country, looks at how we construct one another and how nationhood and history can weave through, reflect, and define the life of an individual. Themes of mother, daughter, and generation echo throughout these extraordinary poems, as they examine how—even without country or settled identity—a legacy of love can endure.
From “Talking to my Daughter Late at Night”
We have a tray, a pot of tea, a scone.
This is the hour
When one thing pours itself into another:
The gable of our house stored in shadow.
A spring planet bending ice
Into an absolute of light.
Your childhood ended years ago. There is
No path back to it.