An Interview with Ciaran Berry
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Electrocuting the Elephant” is a poem of seemingly endless possibilities,
ranging vast distances from the basic narrative of the elephant’s extermination with a skillfulness that, as I read
it over and over again, still surprises.
First, we have the cloaked address to the reader that asks us to remember “the
boy, who sat in front of you / that year in school, led by the ear to the corner / of the classroom because he couldn’t
spell vengeance…” Next, it’s the bull led to sacrifice. Then Bartholomew.
The “say-nothing expressions” of the extras in “one of the first westerns.” And
the boy hammering his fist against his head and his father who “once tied a frying pan between the legs of his mongrel
/ to discourage it from running after cars”— an image I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
How do you think
you manage to cover so much ground in this poem without losing us?
Ciaran Berry: Well, first I’m very glad that the
process of ground-covering has been successful, though I’m guessing your skills as reader have almost as much to do
with that success as mine as writer. I think transitions and movements within a poem are mostly about timing though, about
allowing each moment its moment before you step off anywhere else, and getting that process right, it seems to me, has a
lot to do with listening to the heartbeat of your own poem as you make it and revise it.
AMK: How do these elements fit together so well...in a global sense…how do these various elements work so well
together rather than against one another.
CB: First, I think the elements of any poem have to work in the ear, and sonic
sense is a different sort of sense from the sense of what we might perhaps lazily think of as logic or narrative logic or
narrative sense. It’s true of any poem that I write that I’m listening to it first and trying to figure out whether
where it seems to be telling me to go makes narrative sense second. Usually though there is some sort of intuitive, maybe
even unconscious, or more likely half-conscious order, I think, trying to reveal itself in a poem. With this one, I think
that ordering is around small and large acts of cruelty. Electrocuting an elephant, flaying a missionary who has stamped
on someone else’s belief system, or pulling a boy by the ear across a classroom may not be equally weighted in their
callousness as acts, but they certainly seem to argue for a fairly common human capacity for callousness, and, perhaps even
more disturbing, a human interest in extreme cruelty as spectacle.
AMK: Do you
mind discussing how you arrived at these wildly different and yet interpolating movements in the poem? Are
these images largely imagined or autobiographical? Are the characters people you know, people you made
up? Etc, etc…
CB: They’re all real as far as I can make out or say. The story of the elephant
is true, as is the story of Bartholomew. Both are relatively verifiable and I put a lot of stock into being as historically
accurate as well as imaginatively accurate in my work. I’m not comfortable with rearranging facts unless it’s
totally necessary, though obviously I realize that a lot of what we call history is interpretive rather than factual, and
of course the lives of saints are probably as much myth as history. The people too are real, though I do often arrange and
cluster things to get at something that seems more telling and that takes the poem, or a moment in the poem, away from being
someone else’s straight biography. I’m from a small town, or really two small towns, in the west of Ireland,
which makes this seem both necessary and the only fair way to use the rich material those places and their people have given
AMK: Another aspect that I think really works well in the poem are the small imaginative (or, perhaps,
imaginatively revealed) details, such as the “ground sand of the lens,” the “carrots laced with cyanide,”
the “clock for seeing,” “this son of Tolomai,” and “after those four boys have done their dirty
work / and turned into something older than they were before…” to name a few.
Such moments like these
excite the reader in a way that I feel is (for the most part) only possible in poetry— at times transforming the perhaps
ordinary or mundane, (i.e. the video and video camera from a recording/recorder of history into something much more elemental
and precious to the human experience), and, at other times reminding us of how things actually exist in the world, such
as the various methods of execution and the “ground sand of the lens.” In one way, this keeps
the reader moving from line to line, but this also operates on a much deeper level, translating an unspoken, internal aspect
of the speaker’s experience…a lot like music in a film or the color pallet of a painting.
How much of this
is something you think you do consciously? How much of it is simply part of the poetic mind at work?
CB: I’m suspicious
of the moments in the writing of a poem when I think I know what I’m doing and much more sure of those moments where
I’ve been flailing around in the dark for a good long while, again just listening, and suddenly something that only
makes half-sense the first time it’s said into the silence of the room begins to make fuller sense as it’s committed
to the page, and even fuller sense when it’s read in light of what has already been said and listened to. This is the
hard thing about revision, I suppose, that conscious part of the writing process has to have more say when you go back and
dig at a poem’s flaws, and yet the magic of the poem, the sense of something beyond you walking into the room and onto
the page, can really only happen when those more conscious impulses are kept in check. Or at least that’s how it works
for me; the poems, when they’re working, are always a step ahead of me.
AMK: Are such moments, to your mind, simply elements of style or elements essential to poetry in general?
I think those moments are poetry. We are translators of the unspoken, whether we want to be or not. I think it’s just
that the nature of the ‘unspoken’ we chose to translate differs from poet to poet. If we think about Gerard
Manley Hopkins or Dylan Thomas, with all that music, and those tightly managed heavily stressed lines, and their shared level
of metaphysical concern, this makes total sense. But I think it also makes sense with a poet like William Carlos Williams,
who seems to be on the opposite end of the musical and metaphysical spectrum. Obviously he was more interested in the concrete,
in the quotidian, but I still believe that he had to translate the quotidian in order to illuminate it for us, in order
to find poems in it or make poems out of it.
AMK: Is this…errr…act
of “translation” one of the more unique aspects of poetry?
CB: I don’t know that it’s unique to
poetry or unique to art, or if it goes beyond that into the sciences, criticism, philosophy, religion, etc. I do think people
come to poetry, either as writers or readers, out of a need to make sense or see sense being made. Certainly, that’s
what I’m trying to do, though initially – and, let’s face it, selfishly -- for myself, when I sit down
to write. Obviously, though, “sense” means a very different thing in poetry to what it might mean in a novel
or a more academic text.
AMK: “Over By” is a poem that displays a really
intense focus. And while it does move around in its environment, the speaker has an interestingly singular
movement from landscape to myth and, finally, to the self.
I oftentimes want to write poems like this and run into the problem that there
are many readers out there who may never have heard of characters like Nachtan and Orpheus. The result
is a poem that strays a bit too far into the myth and probably gets a little uninteresting as a result. Kind
of more like a history lesson than a work of art.
Did you mind discussing the various problems you encountered writing this poem
and how you dealt with them?
CB: “Over By” was a poem I wrote a few years before graduate school and then just put aside as I wasn’t
happy with the way I was inhabiting the poem. I wrote it in a tiny apartment in Astoria, Queens, and
nowhere near the beach in Donegal where the poem actually takes place, though that particular beach is one of those places
that I spent so many afternoons that it feels very much like it’s part of my inner landscape now. In its first incarnation,
it was, as you say, one of those cases where the factual elements of the poem, and the crafting of those, the explaining,
seemed to be pushing everything else aside, and I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say or where I wanted to stand
in relation to all that myth and the swell of those image-heavy lines.
came back to it by accident when I was working on completing my MFA thesis at NYU. It was raining and I just started to write the poem out again, this time in ten
line stanzas with a more regularized line length. The breakthrough I remember was in the second to last stanza from “I
love these old stories,” which was entirely new and which seemed to be the first full suggestion of where the speaker
wanted to stand, what they wanted to say in response to all that was being evoked. I also moved out some other parts of
the poem that seemed to have become extraneous.
Mostly though, again, it was sitting in a room for a very long time listening
to it and stopping when it stopped that got me there. This, and the process of keeping things, letting them have their own
time, not hurrying them. It was the same with the title poem in my book, which again came out of a much shorter failed piece
from years earlier. I find waiting on poems very difficult but terribly necessary.
AMK: I’m also impressed how you managed to write a poem that exists in this parallel universe
of the mythic and non but without ever straying from today’s language. Did you ever find yourself
straying into a more mythic sort of diction as you composed this poem? Did you ever consider using it
more than you have here?
CB: Yes, probably, and I’m still not sure the poem doesn’t get a little too lofty at times
in its diction, which, coupled with a line that gets pretty iambic at times, can be dangerous, though here the danger seemed
necessary to get the sea moving through the poem, and it really moves loudly in the part of the world this particular poem
comes from. I suppose the test for me always though is whether a poem can be believably said. If I start to sound lofty
when I say the thing aloud, if I cease to sound like myself, then I know I’ve probably crossed a line. I’m not
sure I’ll ever write a poem that gives itself quite as much license as this one does again, or at least not the same
sort of license in terms of diction and rhythm working as high up the register as this, but who knows; I said about a year
ago that I probably wouldn’t ever write another sonnet and now I find myself fiddling with sonnet-like poems.
AMK: I’m struck by the word choices in the poem. They
remind me of reading Davis McCombs’s poems about tobacco farming and caving. Or Bridget Pegeen Kelly’s choices
in her book “The Orchard.”
Word choices can have a number of effects. They create a more
imagistic experience than would exist without them. They also induce a more vibrant encounter with language,
pushing beyond the language we read in most fiction or hear on the street.
But, beyond that
(I’m sort of stealing this from Rodney Jones), word choice is an element that has the ability to not only create an
image of whatever the speaker is looking at but to create an image out of the language itself...or, perhaps, of the speaker
in such a way that the typical character sketch simple can’t touch. The best example I can think
of that Rodney uses is Larry Levis’ “The Two Trees,” which opens
My name in latin is light to carry & victorious.
late in the library, then
walk out past the stacks, rows, aisles
of books, where the memoirs of battles slowly gave way
to case histories
of molestation & abuse.
The black widows looked out onto
the black lawn.
I can’t tell you how tempted I am to just site the whole darned poem, but this little sound bite reveals not
only a speaker but an image of the speaker as a result of the use of certain I words, syntactical ,structures, etc, etc…
I think “Over By” works in a similar way…we don’t get a whole lot of information about the
speaker but the way he/she speaks is enough.
Would you agree with this reading?
CB: Wow. Well it’s
lovely to be in the same paragraph as Larry Levis, it really is, as well as Davis McCombs and Bridget Pegeen Kelly, who
I admire greatly. It’s funny that Levis particularly comes to mind though, because I think it was from him that I learned
the art of inhabiting and then leaving a poem – when to step in fully as speaker, when to get out of the way of the
story or image and let it speak for itself. He does this so well so often, and his timing is always absolutely perfect and
completely unpredictable. So, yes, maybe the poem does attempt to work in a similar way to how someone like Levis might work, though far less successfully of skillfully.
Oddly, as I said earlier, it was finding the moment and the way the speaker ought to come into the poem most forcefully that
started to yoke everything together in the case of “Over By.” This and I suppose the fact that it’s so
grounded in a particular stretch of landscape that’s so loaded for me, made that sort of staying out of the way, or
at least not getting too much in the way, after being too far out of the way, possible. It also probably created the circumstances
in which I couldn’t really speak in any other way; the way of describing and the finding of the language in which that
description had to take place probably came down to being true to the place itself as much as anything else.
AMK: How did you find all of these words? I know, this seems like a dumb question,
but it’s pretty amazing the range of vocabulary displayed here and, yet, it’s a vocabulary that I’m not
Should we have the image in our heads of a poet bent over his desk flipping through pages of Roget’s
thesaurus, or is this the sort of language you’re simply at ease and comfortable with?
CB: I think, for me at least,
diction arises out of rhythm, and it was the rhythm that came first to me with this poem. So the diction kind of found me
rather than me finding it. I don’t typically use this sort of language in everyday conversation but it seemed absolutely
necessary to this place, this time, this ocean, that moment, and it was all with me and had been from quite an early life.
I can honestly say I’ve never looked at a thesaurus while writing a poem; a dictionary I’ll pick up quite often
because I often find words coming into my poems from very far away, or very far back in my brain, where I’m not a hundred
percent sure of their denotations and have to check. Oddly, when this happens the word is usually exactly the right one,
though if you’d asked me to tell you what it meant a few minutes prior to its entering the line I wouldn’t have
been able to.
AMK: Is word choice one of the ways
that you display your love of words, language, geography, home?
CB: I’ve never really thought about this, though
what you suggest is very probably true -- I do love all those things, though I think there’d be a danger in me trying
to consciously convey a love of any of those things. The Northern Irish poet Michael Longley says that all poems are love
poems, which I think is true, but then I also think that love is the vaguest and most abused word in the language in that
it covers such a multitude. Anyone’s relationship to words, language, geography and home is going to be quite a torn
and complex thing, and maybe the torture of those particular loves is necessary to poetry – if that makes any sort
of sense at all. As a maker, I’m more interested in faithfulness to the small details of the poem, getting the image
as accurate as possible, getting the line to sing in the right key, getting the syntax to carry the rhythm properly. I try
to stay dumb before the bigger loves or notions the poem is trying to get across; I really think they need to just come
through while I keep my finger on the pulse.
AMK: Finally, I’m wondering about
the shape of this poem. In your book, “The Sphere of Birds,” you like to move around on the
page, oftentimes composing poems with a fixed pattern of indentation within stanzas.
What do you think
that does for a poem that hugging the left margin doesn’t?
CB: To me, it makes the poem more fluid and flighty (which
I mean positively here) in some way. There’s something very static about the left margin that indentation seems to
upend. The poems read slower when they hug the left margin, at least mine do, and I was looking for ways to break away from
it. There’s something too about the shape of the poem on the page that’s important to me,
and those poems with the indented lines look more like themselves when I open the book than they would if they were all dropping
parallel to the book’s spine. The indentations suggest an attempt to push away, to leap, to lift off, which I think
the poems are usually attempting. I think also the simultaneity of narratives and images the poems tend to explore, their
back and forth, which arises out of a sense of displacement, is mirrored in the shape of those stanzas, their unmooring
from the dock of the left margin. Again, though, this wasn’t something I planned. The form of the poems seemed right,
looked right, felt right, even sounded right, when it was arrived at, but it wasn’t arrived at by a direct or predetermined
route. I had to find my way there fumbling through the drafts.
AMK: Thank you.
CB: Thanks for the questions; it’s been
a real thought-provoking pleasure.