AP: Your last full-length collection, Self-Portrait in the Dark, was published in 2008. What have you been doing since then?
CB: Well, I’ve been keeping going as a freelance, which involves many small employments. For four years I worked as Poetry Editor for this magazine, the kind of work I really enjoy. Magazine work tends to expand to fill your time, so my writing slowed quite a bit during that period. I also spent nine months in residence at the Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats and wrote a pamphlet of poems called Ballasting the Ark. Last year, I managed to scale back my freelance commitments and worked steadily on finishing my new collection, The Whole & Rain-domed Universe.
AP: You’ve always touched on your Ulster childhood – there are individual poems from your earlier collections that could easily sit in this one – but you’ve never approached it with such single-minded clarity. I wondered why you’ve chosen to re-evaluate your childhood and Northern Ireland in 2014.
CB: I didn’t set out to write with that intention, but the poems that arrived over the last five years seem to add up to something about that time. I like the idea that earlier poems could fit in; that makes sense. But to see the book as any kind of representation would be misleading, I think. Poems tend to deal in glimpses, little investigations into various aspects of experience. Or they grow out of a kernel of that experience and become something quite different, often fictional. Do you remember those crayon scratch drawings you did as a child, when you scratch sections of the black paint away to reveal the colours underneath? That’s a little like the way in which these poems address that time. They reveal vivid things, little windows, but you never really get to see a whole picture. There are a few things I’ve tried to write about before, over the years, that have only now found a form.
AP: Yes, there are certainly things that don’t come easily to poetry. In the Northern Irish context it does tend to be anything political – for example in Heaney’s title ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ – but with family issues too, perhaps.
CB: ‘Say nothing’ is still a powerful rule in Northern Ireland, as you know Alex. In my life, though, and in poetry particularly, I’m in favour of saying something. Perhaps I mean being honest, as much as one can. My poems have little to do with politics but when you write about the years of the Troubles, and the experience of growing up on one-side-or-the-other, there’s a lot of baggage that can attach to your work. People can be sensitive about how that time is presented in art.
AP: You have a ‘wisdom’ title too in the new book, ‘Don’t speak to the Brits, just pretend they don’t exist’.
CB: Oh dear, yes. That was a piece of advice you’d hear on the streets when I was growing up because the soldiers were physically very present in our area, on foot patrols and so on. The ‘Don’t speak’ part of that title seems significant to me, and I think that comes into other poems as well. The idea of suppression not only of speech but, by extension, thought. Difficult truths.
AP: It is often said that historical writing only succeeds if it has contemporary relevance. Our vision of Northern Ireland in those days has been very much shaped by the media, and you bring in many contextual touch points: Thatcher, Gerry Adams, Bloody Sunday and more. Is there something that makes these still relevant?
CB: Relevancies occur that you don’t expect, like the recent resurgence of Jean McConville’s story [one of the Disappeared – AP]. That case seems to encapsulate so much of the pain that lies under the surface and the damage that is handed down the generations. Change is slow and these things are still being worked out. Robert Frost’s words come to mind: ‘Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance’. Trying to write a relevant poetry book would be a difficult thing. Relevant to whom? I think most poets are really writing the one book, which appears in instalments. And that ties in with the way some earlier poems could sit side by side with these. In that sense, I’m not overly concerned with how my book fits with the present moment. With a poem, you’re trying – and more often failing – to make something that might last, and if it comes to form a part of an historical conversation then that’s interesting, but it’s not the motivation for writing.
AP: I wonder also about how you pitch the supposed openness of autobiographical writing against the undertone throughout of privacy, of putting yourself away or hiding. That comes across in earlier poems too, that need to be beyond the poem. How open is poetry really?
CB: I was speaking with the poet Julia Copus recently and she used an interesting phrase ‘the artifice of honesty’, and that could sound quite cynical out of context, but it relates also to Anne Sexton’s idea of ‘faking it up with the truth’. The poem needs to speak, and sometimes that voice or address involves candour; and the reader will take that to be the poet confiding and that is all part of the poem’s relationship with the reader. But a poem can’t be read as straight autobiography any more than a painting can. One poem in the book, ‘The Analyst’s Couch’, questions the reliability of memory, questions itself, even: ‘Am I making this up?’. That question is at the heart of all poems of this kind… Sorry, is that a very evasive answer?
AP: I expected no less.
CB: Well… I think a poem is no good if it doesn’t have an emotional truth. And, you know, autobiographical writing is not fashionable in poetry these days. ‘It’s all about form’ tends to be the gospel. But I believe content is equally important. I’d like to fly the flag for content because as human beings we are interested in each other’s lives, and the world. That’s why we read.
AP: Moving further into content, then. In your poems language is often not only the medium but a kind of oppressive force. It certainly comes across that people are negotiating what they should and shouldn’t say – at border crossings, at family gatherings, and more. To what extent is all language on this fault line between what is appropriate and inappropriate and in what way is poetry suited to that negotiation?
CB: It brings us back to the ‘Don’t speak’ directive. I come from a culture where the written word is simultaneously revered and feared. My mother used to say, ‘Put nothing in writing’, which seems quite funny now in terms of my inheritance as a writer. There’s a cultural sense that writing is evidence that might be held against you; also the notion of privacy – what people might think, the neighbours. That can be powerful, but it is the constant theme of literature how this material breaks out, what comes out. Some poems, regardless of how readers or critics respond to them, are more interesting for you because they uncover something that you didn’t know you knew. Poetry is your way of understanding the world. So yes, the sense of poetry as a filter, or vent, is strong, and I don’t mean vent in the sense of outpouring, but more the literal function as both restraint and portal. In every writer’s make-up, there are all sorts of factors influencing that vent, and the negotiation is worked out on the page. For the poet, it is worked out through the poem.
AP: Returning again to that issue of autobiography then, I have to ask about the ways in which you bring in your family. They appear as a cast of characters in this new work. To what extent is that something that is difficult for you?
CB: There are figures in the poems of sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, which are universal roles as well. The mother figure comes into a few poems. There seems to be an effort to trace a female line, in ‘Heritance’ for example. My own mother’s line was a Republican one – in terms of the fight for Irish independence – so that links with the historical theme of the border line that Derry sits upon. I hope I haven’t trespassed into the experience of family members in these poems, but sometimes just writing about your own life can seem to do that.
AP: And in ‘Derry’ there is the idea of collective identity within the family: ‘one of nine / faces afloat in the looking-glass’.
CB: Yes, often when talking about early memories, I’ll more naturally use ‘we’ than ‘I’, having grown up as one of nine children. But as you know, people in the same family can have very different childhoods, experiencing shared events in various ways. And then there are the narratives you’re told about your childhood, which come to overlay your own memories. There’s a poem by Carol Ann Duffy about that: ‘We Remember Your Childhood Well’. There are a lot of external events in the ‘Derry’ poem but, internally, people have other understandings.
AP: Having left Northern Ireland myself, I often feel like you are expected to be in those two places at once.
CB: Yes, it is like in ‘The Full Indian Rope Trick’ – ‘guardian of the fact / that I’m still here’. There is a version of you that is still there. But then, for my generation, there was also the idea that emigration was part of the script. I was brought up to leave and so it was inevitable. Derry was so economically depressed and my mother drummed it into us that education was our passport out.
AP: And your mother’s interest in education and learning comes through strongly in the later poems about writing. You seem to be using literal writing as a way to understand your mother.
CB: There is certainly the sense of an investigation going on there. My mother was a primary school teacher and at one point she had to introduce Gourdie italic handwriting to her school. That detail lies behind the most investigative poem ‘A Simple Modern Hand’, and then, in ‘Signature’, the speaker is emulating – forging actually – the mother’s script.
AP: And in exploring these things through writing, your use of form is a bit more self-conscious and experimental. Did you grapple with it?
CB: Yes. The form of that poem draws on a kind of calligraphic style sheet and it feels more experimental. It wasn’t going to be a continuous narrative, it needed to be explored in pieces which then linked together to make the poem. One section quite literally explores the formation of the word ‘mother’, in the way that sometimes a close technical focus can keep the left brain occupied, allowing the right side to explore meanings. So the speaker’s relationship with the mother is there, alongside, perhaps, coming to terms with not being a mother herself, the end of the line, the word. I think there is a lot in that poem about how, to be a writer, one might need distance, outsiderness.
AP: And the outsiderness is what makes writing about it possible?
CB: Just living as a poet involves outsiderness, whether we like it or not. And there are various other layers… It can be difficult to write about these things. No, that’s not true – I mean it can be difficult to publish writing about these things, it can feel exposing. I often come back to what Larkin said about not trying to write to some notion of ‘good’ poetry, decided intellectually, but rather ‘the poems that only you can write’. You know, digging down a bit? That search does require you to go to places in your own experience that might be uncomfortable for you or other people. You would hope that what results is in some way vital. As a reader, I look for vitality.
AP: We’ve spoken a lot about Northern Ireland – you might call it a shared interest. I’m conscious though that for people who aren’t from there it seems ubiquitous. What makes it so hard to be disinterested?
CB: Northern Ireland has an old habit of seeing itself as the centre of the universe. So there’s a humorous nod to that in my title I think. Whereas it’s tiny! It’s obviously an historical accident that you are from a place, a time, a particular war. When it involves your childhood, it’s your source as a writer, for good or for ill. The artist Louise Bourgeois said that everything she did came from her childhood. She created the most wild and wonderful body of work, but for her it was all coming from a particular dynamic in her early life. There are dynamics and energies in all of our childhoods that inform what we create. These poems are more about childhood than the place; but because some are overlaid with the Troubles it could seem that I’m going on about Northern Ireland. I’m not qualified to go on about it anyway – I’ve been away a long time. But the first part of my life was – is – contained there, and that’s inevitably reflected in my work.
AP: The poem from which the collection title comes, ‘Derry’, brings together many of the ideas of the collection. At the end of the poem, you leave. You leave too at the end of ‘The Full Indian Rope Trick’, in the poem ‘+’, and in others. Could you ever imagine life if you hadn’t left Derry?
CB: I fear you’re right, Alex. Maybe leaving Derry is some kind of trauma I’m doomed to replay! But, seriously too, emigration has been a central experience, a continuous experience in my life. Because of that, I didn’t become a poet in the Northern Irish contex, and I didn’t set my bearings within it. I think there is also the sense that it’s hard to transgress within such tight communities, so I imagine it may have been harder for me to write honestly. You are asking some difficult questions… Privacy and distance do come with a price. Poetry can lead to a precarious kind of life if you decide that is what you need to do.
– Alex Pryce