Conversation: Eavan Boland

BY Jeffrey Brown  March 9, 2012 at 2:31 PM EDT

Still a student when her first book was published, Eavan Boland has grown into one of Ireland’s most prominent poets. Her poems often examine the lives of women, looking at larger cultural issues through the lens of the details of everyday life.

To date, she’s published more than 10 books of verse, most recently, “New Collected Poems.” She is also professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Stanford University.

I spoke to her earlier this week:


In the video below, Boland reads her poem “Quarantine”:


A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still a student when her first book was published, Eavan Boland has grown into one of Ireland’s most prominent poets. Her poems often examine the lives of women, looking at larger cultural issues through the lens of the details of everyday life. To date she’s published more than 10 books of verse, most recently “New Collected Poems,” and she’s professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Stanford University. Welcome to you.

EAVAN BOLAND: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was struck, just going back through your collected poems, by titles of collections, such as “Outside History,” “Against Love Poetry,” “In Her Own Image,” going back even further, a sense of being a kind of outsider examining the world from a different lens. Do you sense that?

EAVAN BOLAND: It was certainly when I was a younger poet. It was the most present thing in my mind. I lived in a city that had the sort of charm and power and glamour of having been a great literary city, and of course it was. There was no illusion about that. Lightning had struck there, but I also looked at that tradition and I didn’t see women in it. I didn’t see their voices. And I felt it wasn’t a good portent, and so in some way I thought of myself — I’m sure these are the self importances of youth — but I thought of myself as an exile at little bit within that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even when you were, before you had left the country?

EAVAN BOLAND: Yes. And it’s quite a vigorous, abrasive place to be, and I did feel that grit of being outside.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read an interview where you said, “I began to write in an Ireland where the word woman and the word poet seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other.” It was that strong?

EAVAN BOLAND: I really did. I certainly put that when I was younger. I think of those as those magnetic opposites. I once gave a workshop and I asked the women poets there, If you went back to that little town you’ve come from — these were from small towns — would you say, I’m a poet? And one of them said, If I said I was a poet in that town, they’d think I didn’t wash my windows. And that stayed with me for so long, the sense of the collective responsibility of someone as against the individual thing it takes to be a poet.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do the poems start with that, an overt nod to that sense or that responsibility or is that just your voice?

EAVAN BOLAND: I think if they begin with that overt nod, they don’t do so well, but that way of thinking helped me. It helped me make a critique for myself. I think probably there are writers who want to make their own critique if they can, and it’s full of dangers because it’s full of self-delusions and self-importances, but it’s a thing which can sustain you if you don’t see the permission around you to put the life you live into the poem you write.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that allowed you to write about everyday things. There is one called “Ode to Suburbia.” You were willing to just look at things that perhaps weren’t grand or epic.

EAVAN BOLAND: I began to feel a great tenderheartedness toward these things that were denied their visionary life. Nobody thought a suburb could be a visionary place for a poet. Nobody thought a daily moment could be. And I also said often, in that political poem or that Irish poem in my moment, and I’m more softhearted about it now, but you could have a political martyr in that poem but not a baby. And so it was some way of trying to bring those things together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, when one says Irish poet, of course, there is an identity, but how important is that indentity today? Have things changed?

EAVAN BOLAND: It’s great honor. It has always seemed to me a great honor to be called an Irish poet. I don’t think I will ever lose that, but it’s also a great honor to be a woman poet. I put those things together. To be an Irish poet after that 19th century in which there was such a struggle toward the light, I think still will always be in the hearts of the writers of my generation and the generations before and hopefully the generations after.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting for us on a news program, we’re always covering what’s happening in Europe and the European Union and the Euro and the sense of coming together, but now some questions about coming apart, cultural identities — the Greeks doing this and the Germans doing that and the Irish. So I’m just wondering do you sense that this national identity, whether it as a poet or just as an identity, is as important as it once was?

EAVAN BOLAND: I think it’s a really important question and a very good one. I suspect that the real passion for Irish-ness will not be there. I have two daughters and I don’t think it can be. My husband and I felt it and knew it. I don’t know whether it translates for them in the way it did. Perhaps they live in a different country than we did, but we saw behind us this extraordinary, how important it was to have a green bus not a red one. How important it was to be in our own country. I don’t know how that will go into the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have lived and worked in the U.S. for many years now, 15 years you told me, at Stanford now. How does that affect your sense of who you are and how does it affect your writing?

EAVAN BOLAND: I’m really fortunate to be at Stanford. I go home every 10 weeks, but Stanford apart from being just a wonderful university is one of the places that are part of a great conversation. There is a creative writing program and my colleagues in that and myself. I see the conversation among young American writers, and I have always loved American poetry, which is very different from Irish poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: How would you describe the difference? Is that easy to do?

EAVAN BOLAND: It’s easy to do. I think. Well, global generalizations. The United States’ poetry emerged when there was a high literacy rate in the United States, even in the 19th century. People read the poetry when it was written. In Ireland, there was a poor literacy rate and people remember that poetry. That was handed on as a memorial tradition. You couldn’t have an Irish Wallace Stevens. The experimental traditions are more with the written, and so the difference in the oral is important, I think, between the two.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you see in your students or when you go back to Ireland today, again I’m thinking of where you were many years ago when you started, is it a more embracing culture, a poetic culture of writing about suburbia, writing about real life, writing about all kinds of things?

EAVAN BOLAND: I think we learned through the terrible troubles that the rhetoric of identity that excluded the ordinary, the daily, that’s a dangerous rhetoric. I think it’s a much more plural country now and for the good.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Eavan Boland, thank you very much.

EAVAN BOLAND: Thank you.