An Interview with Kevin Boyle

by Luke Johnson

LJ: Seamus Heaney writes in his essay Feeling into Words: “Learning the craft is learning to turn the windlass at the well of poetry. Usually you begin by dropping the bucket halfway down the shaft and winding up a taking of air. You are miming the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin on the pool of yourself.” With that in mind, how did you find your way to poetry? Do you remember when your mythical poetry-chain first tautened?

KB: I’m not sure how I found my way to poetry, though I do remember being struck at about the age of twenty with the desire to write—I think it came out of reading Whitman and Heaney, maybe Ginsberg and Wordsworth. Just something was stirring, and it was the blending of the reading life and the lived life that brought me to poetry; as Heaney says, “I began as a poet when my roots were crossed with my reading.” I think it was a moment of leaving one shore (Catholicism, home, neighborhood) and heading towards another that was invisible but for the moment included more women and literature than priests and bible verses.

I do remember a poem I wrote while in graduate school that felt large—maybe the fishing analogy is stronger than the well. It just felt as if the poem—called “Natural”—was able to speak about class, desire, nature, urban mess, and deception, and do it in a convincing, honest way. So after miming the motion of fishermen and catching my share of finger-long minnows, I had finally come upon something more substantial, something that rose from the depths—a bottom dweller that I forced to the surface.

LJ: I had the great fortune to stumble into several of your classes while I was a student at Elon University. One of the concepts I most remember from these classes is the idea of “yoking” in poems. That is, when seemingly disparate elements or scenes intertwine to form a poem. Perhaps it’s only because you introduced me to this idea, but I notice some of my favorite poems of yours form these yokes: “The Consumers” with a herd of elk and an ill uncle; “Lullaby of History” with a sleeping daughter and the battlefields of Ireland and the American South. First off, is “yoking” a term of your own invention? Second, is the possibility of these unions evident to you at the start of a poem or must you write yourself into them? Do you ever set out to form a connection and find yourself unable?

KB: No joke, the yoke is my own invention. At least, I don’t remember hearing anyone else call it by that name. But I think of poetry—at its heart—as being involved with a yoking together because of its reliance on metaphor. Also, the sonnet tradition seems to work with yoking a variety of emotions at least, if not scenes—“My mistress’s eyes…” could be summarized by saying my girlfriend ain’t so special, and she’s so special. A yoking of disparate thoughts. Then you have poems like Seamus Heaney’s that yoke together ancient bog deaths or Greek myths with scenes in Northern Ireland, or his wife’s undergarments drying on the line with St Brigid’s saintly powers.

My own poems that join things together evolve naturally, for the most part. I usually write my way into the poem. Though there are times when I have the idea for the yoke before I start the work: I always wanted to write about a scene I experienced at a Knicks game when a bunch of white guys were beating up two black guys, but I couldn’t get it to go until I remembered (perhaps falsely) that the great ball player Bernard King was injured that same night, and I was able to make a link, because of his last name, between Martin Luther King and the scene at the Knicks games.

When you start looking for it, the yoke is everywhere. Just reread a Beth Ann Fennelly poem this morning (“Favors”) in which her daughter looks like her father—whom she despises—so the child as it nurses is both adored baby and loathed father.

If poetry relies on tension almost as much as fiction, the yoke is a good place to find some friction.

LJ: With friction in mind, you’re the chair of the English department at Elon. I was fortunate to be a student of yours, and to quote Heaney again, “I remember [your] hospitality and encouragement with the special gratitude we reserve for those who have led us toward confidence in ourselves.” How does your teaching life affect your writing life, if it does at all? Any input on the relatively recent proliferation of MFA programs? What do you tell your students who are thinking of seeking out an MFA?

KB: Well, thanks for the Heaney quote—now I just need to have confidence in myself.

If teaching were really good for writing, people wouldn’t take sabbaticals. I do like preparing for class and rereading certain poets I love, but I guess teaching, for me, usually consumes the writing life. But I feel lucky that I get paid to talk about writing and reading, and it’s a great thrill to see students improve and learn to love reading and writing even more than they did. (Perhaps I feel less lucky to be chair of a department, but I shan’t be chair for too much longer!)

On the MFA proliferation—I think it’s better than nuclear proliferation and fairly harmless. I tell my students never to go into debt for an MFA, unless they already have an MBA. I think if a person has talent and drive (of some sort) then an MFA sounds like a great way to spend two years. It’s a luxury, obviously, that we have this opportunity; one of the perks of living in an affluent nation. It is fairly selfish, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with devoting two years of your life to your own writing, to looking into your own soul and (if you’re lucky) breaking the skin on the pool of the self.

LJ: There seems to be a fixation on the blue collar in your collection, and beyond that, on yard-work and the tools that go along with it. How does physical/manual labor figure into your poetic vision? I guess I’m just wondering: if you weren’t a poet, what would you be?

KB: I think I should have been an orthodontist—they seem to make really good money and they are striving for beauty.

I guess growing up in a neighborhood in Philadelphia that was very ethnic and maybe lower-middle class gave me a vision of the world that was in some ways based on work and wages and things like that; because my father emigrated from Ireland to the US and my mother emigrated from the Bronx to Philly, I think my “formative years” were an amalgam of work, church, love and repression. And all of that is in the poems.

LJ: The third section of your book is made up of one poem, entitled “The Death of the Drama” poem. The hilarious four page long prose poem is quite clearly pointing at itself, almost mocking itself. On the surface, it seems different than the other poems in the book, both in form and content, but then it touches on many of the elements that persist throughout the collection: husbands and wives, confessions, workmen. Was this shift in form a conscious decision? Did you immediately know that this poem belonged in the collection, with its own section? And I suppose this raises a more general question regarding how you go about putting together a book—do you have a larger arc or project in mind or are you living poem to poem? Could you maybe talk a bit about how Wayward Girls came together?

KB: I am a very disorganized person. The idea of planning out a book, or writing poems toward a specific section in a book, is beyond me. I just write the poem that is available to be written on that particular day. So, no, I had no idea that the Death of the Drama Poem would be its own section or that it would fit into the collection (in fact, it wasn’t in the manuscript for a long time–then I thought a somewhat comic poem that created a new genre (the drama poem as opposed to the prose poem) would be a nice addition/counterpoint to all the misery in the book.

Because I am disorganized I also have a hard time giving shape to a book. I knew that history (personal, national, Irish, international) would be important to the collection, so I knew I wanted to start with a poem based on history, and that would combine the personal and something larger than the self. So “The Lullaby of History” always seemed like a good opening poem to me; after that I struggled with the idea of including all the poems about the Boyle boyhood in one section, but I thought it might be a good idea to establish the voice/the person/the history of the person in the opening section and so I included mainly autobiographical early-life kind of poems there, but in order to show that I wasn’t only a person who could write about being 10-20 years old, I also included a couple of more “mature” poems in that opening section. The last section I thought would be a good place to showcase my death and dying poems–mainly poems about my parents’ slow declines and deaths, but, again, interspersed with poems about Paul Celan, Noah’s wife, Rwandan genocide, and Aztec ruins to give it some variety and texture. And the second section was devoted to having children or having sex and not having children, adoption—things like that.

LJ: Much of the book, particularly the last section you mentioned, deals with your relationship to your parents during their later years. These poems take on some capital-letter issues: Death, Faith, Sin. Though, to me these are some of the most personal poems in the collection. Was your process any different in writing the more personal poems such as “Death Doesn’t Occur” or “Masturbating on Ash Wednesday” than in writing the more public poems that dealt with some of the same subject matter (i.e. “Oneness” or “Recall”)?

KB: About confessional poetry: I suppose I feel closer to the confessional poets than to the more experimental poets whose poems often just make me angry: it seems as if once Gertrude Stein (who I love in small doses) made the language twist and turn in her eventful way, the way that turns and twists through the events of the day, that the experiment is over, or doesn’t need to be repeated that often. I think I prefer a warmer poem of feeling to the poems that are ratcheted up into the astral zones of the mind. But as far as being confessional, I don’t really have much to confess. I do remember learning, as a child, about sins of omission as well as sins of commission, so perhaps I am a confessional poet, but my sins are sins of omission.

But I do also enjoy putting on a mask and just walking through the town of the poem without saying anything about my “true identity.” Perhaps I reveal more about myself when I write that way—don’t know for sure.

Do I write autobiographically? Yes, especially in that book. Now I like playing a little bit more: less my life’s actions, more my perceptions, my inventions. But I have no problem with writing autobiographically. And the process I would use for writing the more autobiographical poems would be the same as I would for the looser, more wandering kind of poems. I guess for me to write the more personal poems does take an extra dose of seriousness or depth. I find the less autobiographical poems easier to write, perhaps, only because they seem funnier to me and I don’t have to travel to places that are as disturbing. Writing about my parents dying just makes me sad, so I would say that since their deaths I’ve been trying to write lighter poems, sometimes. Just to take advantage of those few death-free years (knock wood) given to us after our parents’ deaths and before our own. Not that there’s anything wrong with death.

LJ: I once saw you say in an interview that “writing without reading is like cooking without eating.” So, with that in mind, what are you reading these days? Who has been influencing your work lately? How does reading figure into your writing process?

KB: My metaphor is slightly off because it sounds as if I am suggesting that we should read what we write, in the same way we should eat what we cook. Maybe it would be better to say “writing without reading is like only eating your own cooking.”

I’m not sure who has been influencing me of late, but I’ve been eating up prose poems by Max Jacob, lyrical poems by Garcia Lorca, and I reread Joyce’s Ulysses. They are all brain-stretchers for me, and I suppose that’s what I look for: something to push me in a direction that feels foreign to me. I’m naturally left-handed, so I’m always looking for ways to work on my right-hand skills.

My writing process always begins with reading. Recently, I’ve been enjoying the randomness of reading “poems of the day” on websites, as well as books I might have at hand. That usually gets me in the “proper” frame of mind to begin.

LJ: What about contemporary writers? Anyone you’re particularly enjoying these days that’s still writing (and breathing)?

KB: Is Keats still alive?

How about a short list of people I’ve never met and who weren’t my teachers: Daisy Fried, Maxine Kumin, Barbara Hamby, Philip Levine, Albert Goldbarth & Dean Young. I’m also enjoying DeSean Jackson, a receiver for the Eagles.

LJ: Speaking of new directions: what are you working on these days? Do you feel as though your more recent work is a departure from the poems in Wayward Girls?

KB: Maybe the poems here in storySouth will tell the tale. I think some of my poems now are a bit wilder, but I still have a fairly domestic, narrative bent.

LUKE JOHNSON holds a BA from Elon University and an MFA from Hollins University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Crab Orchard Review, The Greensboro Review, Sou’wester, Third Coast, and Best New Poets 2008, among others. He has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He lives and teaches in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.