“Nature has no mercy at all. Nature says, “I’m going to snow. If you have on a bikini and no snowshoes, that’s tough. I am going to snow anyway.”” – Maya Angelou
Poetry has the tendency to divide opinion. Usually considered either something you read about and forgot since 6th year English or as something that always rhymes. The thing is, poetry is subjective as hell. The right poem is right for the right person, right?
To help dispel the myths and clarify a version of the truth The Circular caught up with Irish-based American poet Joe Boyle to get his opinion on his chosen craft.
Boyle also plays piano and sings in The Moxie Collect.
Boyle’s Christmas in the Spleen, one of his latest poems, features after the interview.
- Who is Joe Boyle, tell us about yourself. (Age, locale, hobbies.)
I’m 26 years old, born and raised in the state of Ohio, U.S.A. I graduated in 2013 with an M.A. in creative writing from University College Dublin, and I have since lived in my hometown of Kent, Ohio.
- How long have you been writing poetry?
It wasn’t until I was about 20 when I took an undergraduate creative writing course and discovered that poetry was not something I could just read, but write as well; something that wasn’t just a way to organize words in a pretty way on a page, but something to live through and perform. Or maybe just something to seek out. That’s how I feel most of the time, for better or worse: chasing after the right words.
- What inspires you to write poetry?
There’s always nature (for me, plants more than animals, perhaps strangely). Things people say, especially really sharp and hot words, or the rhythm of speech and the music of how people phrase things. Music and art generally provide lots of inspiration.
- What is your definition of poetry?
That’s a doozy of a question. I think poetry can arrive in any form or medium, as long as words are being written or spoken. That’s key, naturally. There may or may not be a story being told. There may be a real-life woman or man in the flesh behind the words, a fully-formed personality from which the words issue forth; or it could come from a disembodied voice, purely a device of some kind. I think when it comes down to it, if it’s concerned less with making meaning or sense and more with an experience, some kind of transformation or performance, then it’s poetry. Or, at least, it’s going there.
- When do you write? How often? Night, day, morning?
On rare occasions it happens in the morning, but mostly it’s the afternoon or late at night. I’m not a very structured writer. Some poets might be, but I’m not quite there. It usually seems to collect of its own accord, until it simply needs to get written down. If it’s not channeled effectively it’ll overflow and I’ll lose some of it. Ideas, phrases, angles typically attack in the shower, or while driving. The lightning seems to strike mostly when I’m not looking for it, or for anything else particularly interesting. When it’s time to sit down and write, I feel moved in a general direction, and use what I’ve collected to get me there.
- Can everybody create poetry or is it more of a honed vocation?
I think nearly everyone who’s ever lived has done it, whether they knew it or not. I briefly taught poetry writing to area primary school students and discovered that the initial openness is fundamental. I think anyone can write a poem, but I do believe that there is inferior and superior writing, which comes mostly from the work put in – how serious one is about reading, being comfortable doing or saying intimate things in front of people.
- What does poetry mean to you? How important is poetry to you?
I think poetry is mostly testifying, like submitting your confession or reaction to the forces around you. I think it’s more of an interpretive art than a creative art. So in that sense it’s extremely important to me, and like I said before, I think nearly everyone does poetry, almost without knowing. It’s a very human thing, to try to translate and make sense and lose sense.
- Who are some of your favourite poets? (Which of the poet’s poems is your favourite?
Some of the poets who have meant the most to me as a reader (and possibly as a writer) are John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Derek Mahon, T.S. Eliot, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley. Czesław Miłosz is great too. Yusuf Komunyakaa, Robert Hass. I have a soft spot for John Donne. I’ll just go for one favorite poem right now: “Prayer” by Carol Ann Duffy.
- A poet once told me a poem is never finished and can always evolve, be this through a poet physically reworking, editing the poem or the reader reinterpreting the poem differently to the poet. Are you generally satisfied with your output or is there always a “I could change that, I should change this” mentality?
I agree with them. So far no poem of mine that I am really happy with is, at least from what I can tell, finished. The poems that bring me joy are the ones that demand another look, at least once every so often. Sometimes it’s a rapid series of revisions, other times I just poke my head in the door to see what’s happened since I was away. I think the only thing that makes a poem “finished” is its being published. And even then it can still grow.
- What led you to write Christmas in the Spleen?
I’ve been warned by former poetry tutors not to explicate one’s own poetry, that it could be a dangerous road to go down. But without getting into much detail, it started when I drove home to see my family on Christmas Eve and passing, on the other side of a divided highway, several police cars and ambulances. I didn’t see any obvious wreckage from a car crash, but emergency workers had shut down the opposite lane and were zipping up a body bag in the middle of the highway. It was a sunny and warm day for late December, but I was in a black mood. A few hours later I wrote my first draft.
- How long did it take to complete Christmas in the Spleen?
It only took about a week to get to its present state; that is, when I had settled on the lineation and most of the language.
- How important are titles to your poems?
Titles are certainly important, but they’re damned puzzling things. Sometimes a title is better when it leads a reader directly into the first line of the poem. Others are more descriptive or staid. I like titles that are absurdities, or somehow play as punchlines to the joke set up in the poem.
13. Any words of advice for aspiring poets?
Nothing, except to read as much as you can. That seems glaringly obvious, but even I’ve found that if I’m lacking inspiration or any creative desire, just taking a quite half hour to myself and reading one or two new poems will pick me up.
Christmas In The Spleen
Christmas could be Florida,
a telephone call Ship to shore?
alright put him through.
Gored through with wrought iron
and garland, sweating
in a low-slung chair.
It could be bits of apple skin
stuck between teeth, could be
thoughts of pure evil.
I saw a body
tucked away in a silver bag
in the southbound lane of the freeway.
Depression, notions of purity,
Failed sex lay under me,
wheels turning up I-90.
O Christmas o my! an old woman
passed not long ago
in Watertown, New York,
my mother tells me when I arrive,
returned to the needle
in a friend’s family, in frequent
Irish Catholic families,
the metallic suggestion of bile.
For a while December’s vigil
for a new Christ
is renewal in a shattered time.
So spilleth the old wisdom: none
but churches and chinese
doors left ajar.
The peace you find
when you reach and touch
the godless air, is that defeat?
Some, for some, but comfort
for others, and who does that make,
who the weaker ones?
O great mass Waxing here
with a future chosen for them,
primed and in the barrel
of a gun No! of course not silly
an atheist would say
That implies a Finger
I would say That
implies a Trigger.
Dear, it’s not all that bad:
the quarterly bonus
at work arrives without fail;
Full to burst with dirty jokes
and rum, the Finger
reappears along the hem
of a floral dress
at the holiday party, the spontaneity
of love persists;
Later, with the family, my niece
will skip beside me,
breathe garbled words, giggle,
and why not? When she’s in middle age
the columnists, maybe Charlie
Rose’s head in a jar
will look back amazed
at American jackals, spoiled
and anxious generation of pansies
who couldn’t take a joke
much less true horror
or even a little darkness.
The century may save her,
harden her resolve
at the center of survival.
Somewhere in America’s Fantasy Belt
a priest stands; for a sleeping veteran
the flag unfurls;
a poet sits and writes, in fits and starts;
with luck, she’ll let us in.
live long enough to say
All’s right in our reluctant world
that even love, even for a moment,
can be got easy. All Christmas night
trees burn bright: LED,
aluminum, and PVC.