Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Michael Begnal A Question and Answer Session with the Author of Future Blues, The Lakes of Coma, and Mercury, the Dime

March 1 to April 21
Michael Begnal

"Silver Ghost"

by Michael Begnal

Silver ghosts gleaming in the meadow
like butterflies
                          with razorblade wings
sniffing for pollen
            pink as pure blow—
            and more,
                        the poet will sing
Like butterflies with razorblade wings,
slash the clouds into bloody twilight
(thereof, also, the poet must sing),
once again suck the air of black night
Slash the clouds
            into bloody twilight,
celebrate all the dead in their graves,
once again breathe the air of black night—
poems come, furious,
                        in light-waves
            all the dead in their graves,
sniffing for pollen pink as pure blow,
poems come, furious, in light-waves:
silver ghosts,
                        gleaming in the meadow

This poem is protected under international copyright law and cannot be published in print or online without the permission of the author.)

Michael S. Begnal has published the collections Future Blues (Salmon Poetry, 2012),Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007), and The Lakes of Coma (Six Gallery Press, 2003), as well as the chapbook Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005).  His poems have appeared in Notre Dame ReviewPoetry Ireland ReviewPittsburgh Post-GazetteFree Verse, and Shearsman, among others.  He was editor of the Galway, Ireland-based literary magazineThe Burning Bush (1999-2004) and the anthology Honeysuckle, Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy (Arlen House, 2006).  He received an MFA from North Carolina State University in 2008.  Begnal is presently based in PittsburghUSA, where he teaches composition and sometimes poetry.

You can find more about Michael Begnal and learn a lot of interesting things by following his excellent blog

1. Who are some of the contemporary writers you admire? If you could hear a reading by three famous dead poets, who would you prefer? What classic poets do you find you keep returning to?

For contemporary writers, Maurice Scully, CA Conrad, Catherine Walsh, Mairéad Byrne, and Amiri Baraka come immediately to mind.  Off the top of my head, Mina Loy, André Breton, and John Wieners might have delivered good readings.  Of classic poets, Li Po, Valerius Catullus, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille.

2. I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish, and alcohol plays a much bigger part in the Irish stories. How should an outsider take this and what does it say about the Irish? As an American, when you first moved to Ireland did you see any difference between the attitudes toward alcohol among Americans versus the Irish?  In many of the literary works I have read, it almost seems as if no social interaction can occur without a drink. Is this close to the truth?

It is probably close to the truth.  What I think is interesting about that, though, is that the Irish pub is in many ways something like a communal space.  In many Irish pubs you’ll often see old people along with younger people, for example, whereas in America it’s often stratified into splintered social groups and different scenes.  That happens everywhere, I guess, but it’s somewhat less pronounced in Ireland.

3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work? Do you see this as more prevalent in Irish literature than American classics?

Perhaps Kiberd is right, but you see that in American literature too — look at On the Road.  In regard to my own work, I don’t know.  I didn’t have a particularly weak (or missing) father.  I suppose the dominant theme in my newest collection Future Blues is death, which sounds grandiose, but oh well.  Anyway, to quote someone quoting someone else, “It ain’t what ya do, it’s the way that ya do it.”  Which means, yes, we all have our themes, and possibly they’re all significant in some way or another, but what’s even more important in art is, do you render it in a compelling way?

4. When did you start writing?

I wrote song lyrics for bands I was in as a teenager.  I probably started writing poetry around age 18 or 19.  I started getting serious as a poet around age 21.

5. When you write, do you picture somehow a potential audience or do you just write?

I definitely write to communicate something to other people.  So I do have a conception of some kind of audience.  But I couldn’t say who it is at a given moment.  I guess it’s whoever reads something of mine or hears me read.  I write about what I think is interesting and hope that at least a few other people find it interesting as well.  I like to think that if my own writing can give me an effect similar to that I get from other writers who I like, then maybe it will do that for someone else too.

6. In your role as an editor of a literary magazine, what sort of works do you look for?   How did you go about trying to increase your readership? Is the internet going to be the end of the small circulation high-end print-only literary journal?

I edited The Burning Bush during its initial print run from 1999 to 2004, the first four issues with Kevin Higgins and the next seven on my own.  At the time, I was especially looking for work that I saw as critiquing or even attacking the poetic establishment, whatever that happened to be.  The magazine published a lot of good writing that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day elsewhere back then.  As for online journals, it’s the obvious way to go.  They reach more people, and there are a lot of good web designers around.  But I also like print as a medium and the book or magazine as an object, the layouts and physical forms they take, the textures and smells.

7. Tell us a bit about your non-academic non-literary work experience please.

I’ve worked numerous other kinds of jobs before, such as dishwashing, working as a clerk in bookshops, a parking garage, shipping and receiving, also market research and other telephone stuff.  Right now I teach as an adjunct instructor at a university.

8. Tell us something about your educational background, please.

I got a BA in English literature, and then much later got an MFA in poetry writing.

9. A while ago I read and posted on a long biography of Hart
Crane, author of The Bridge few read it but many know of his lifestyle as one of the first gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors — he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver candy and wanted Hart to go in the candy business with him — so if he Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in Ohio, fat bald and married, would he still be even much thought about let alone read?  Of reference here is poet Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life.   Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life?  Why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way too young from alcohol abuse?  If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet?  (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)

I love Crane.  Of course his work would still be read because it’s so good.  An analogue here is William Carlos Williams, who worked as a doctor and died at an old age, and he’s probably considered the greatest American poet of the 20th century, or at least one of them.  I think the romance of the tragic poet dying young attracts people because of its pathos, as does that of the self-destructive alcoholic.  Kerouac’s situation taps into a certain melancholy or nostalgia that some people feel, I think.  But what’s more important for me is the writing itself, rather than a legend.  All of the writers you just mentioned are great writers.  As for Pound, as an unrepentant fascist, I don’t imagine there’s much about his life that serves as a role model.  But, again, his poetry is great.

10. William Butler Yeats said in “The Literary Movement” “The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors; they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact that Yeats is alluding to, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature? In contrast, the national heroes of America were by and large tremendous successes.

There’s a clear difference between the values of a society that’s been historically oppressed and a society that believes in Manifest Destiny.  And as much as we might like to think that poets or writers are immune to this, the fact is that literature reflects these societal values.  Traditionally, the poet’s role is often even specifically meant to encompass them (the poets of the Gaelic Order being one example that comes to mind).  So, what you identify here makes sense.  As Nietzsche demonstrates in On the Genealogy of Morals, values that are purported to be inherent values are usually really these vast constructions used to justify one particular social group’s situation.  As Ireland’s perception of itself changed due to historical circumstances from that of a heroic society to that of the colonized, so did its poetry.  Of course there are always exceptions to the idea that the poet must reflect the dominant ideology — in America, in Ireland, and I’m sure in the Philippines, there have been and are poets who have defied such categorizations.  Not all poets are institutional poets, and obviously there’s a tradition in poetry that runs counter to officialdom.

11. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers?   One of the characters in
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, set in Mexico City and centering on poets, says that the main reason poets read at workshops is to meet the way disproportional number of women that come to them is this just stupid?

Probably there are also women there who are looking to meet men, or other women, or men who want to meet men, or whatever.  Why do we do whatever we do?  Because we’re interested in it first of all, hopefully, and then sure if we’re open to meeting someone in whatever situation, then that too.  But yes, poets have a social role.  They exist in society, and their work is connected to life if they’re any good.

12. “To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated — the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical.” Is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646). Is this somehow analogous to how white Americans once regarded African Americans, as being good at music, singing, and dancing on the one hand but also “inferior and barbarous”?

That’s a really good observation.  Many parallels have been drawn between Irish and African-American literature.

13. Why have the Irish produced such a number of great writers disproportional to their population? Or is this not really true?

As Kevin Higgins recently said here, it might be related to Ireland’s “semi-detached relationship with the English language” (I think was his phrasing).  I would also point out that the Irish language has one of Europe’s oldest literary traditions, and that art and scholarship have been valorized in Irish society for the last couple thousand years or so.

14. This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway do you believe in Fairies?  This quote from Declan Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:

“One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would ‘put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland’. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the ‘little people’, replied with terse sophistication: ‘I do not, sir – but they’re there.’”

The short answer is no I don’t.  But I think it’s a great metaphor, the idea that there are other states of being that humans can sometimes access, or other kinds of beings who occasionally interact with us, through some strange method or other.

15. Do you think the very large amount of remains from Neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped the literature and psyche of the country? One of the things that I respect greatly about the Irish is they seem to have a much higher regard for their own history than Americans as a rule do.

Yes, they have to make some impression.  Ireland is a small country; most people know about these monuments and have seen them.  In the U.S. there are numerous Native mound structures and other such sites, but they’re lesser known.  America is built on jettisoning history and beginning anew, which has its own kind of appeal.  But there’s a lot of valuable stuff in history too.

16. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?

I don’t think a writer has to be inevitably restricted by his or her landscape or natural surroundings, but at the same time it must have some effect in regard to mood or tone.  In Gaeltacht literature for sure.  Or in an ironic way, Joyce’s line from Ulysses, “The snotgreen sea.  The scrotumtightening sea.”  On a certain level (definitely not Joyce’s level), there’s an insularity to Irish society — and the root of the word “insular” means “island.”  Then again, the Irish are traditionally sea-faring people, and the sea can be a bridge.  Ireland has always had ties to Europe and even America.

17. The fall of the Celtic Tiger, the Irish economy, has caused a lot of pain and misery.  Is there a positive side to this?  What lessons for the future can writers take to their work?  Has it in any sense brought people closer to values other than consumerism?  Is it just another day in the life of the Irish?

Obviously, foreclosure and the IMF are not positive things, but when I was in Ireland during the main years of the Celtic Tiger, I thought even then that it was unsustainable and also that it was creating this society of sort of
nouveau-riche.  On the other hand, it makes sense that after so many decades of economic suffering some people would act like that, I guess.  But it seemed to me that it would take another big shift in Ireland before people really got things together in a good way.  

18. Does the character of the “stage Irishman” live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels?   Rude question is the performance poet a version of this?

Some performance poets can be silly, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with performance poetry; it just depends on who’s up there.  To me, stage-Irishness lives on in the dramas of Martin McDonagh and stuff like that.

19. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.

Certainly, Travellers have historically suffered discrimination, and are a distinct social group.  And certainly that discrimination should be ended.  “Ethnic” is a problematic term, though, as it implies something racial or genetic.  I’m not sure how genetically distinct Travellers are from the wider population.  My understanding of the subject is that some may be, and some may not be.  But it’s not an issue I would consider myself an expert on.  Generally, I think that everyone, whether as an individual or as a group, has the right to identify as they wish to identify.

20.  How did you come to live in Ireland for a long period of time? Where did you live? I know you don’t want to answer this, but can you generalize a bit about some of the differences between the Irish and Americans?

It’s something that I wanted to do, so I did it.  I lived in Dublin briefly, and then Galway for a long time.  As for the differences between the Irish and Americans, they are vast in a way.  In another way, we have at least one common language and are part of a broader trans-Atlantic, Western culture.  But as we discussed previously, Ireland has a deeper sense of history and an inherently different view of the world.

21. To me, never having been to Ireland, Galway seems almost like a magic place. Why do you think a city of only 100,000 people has such huge high quality literary output?

Well, Galway has been considered a “cultural capital” for a long time.  It has a major university, is located on the coast, and it’s always been a kind of crossroads for different kinds of people, for centuries, meaning that there is perhaps a broader exchange of ideas there — a mix of cultures — than in other places.

22. Who seems better read to you the people of Pittsburgh or Galway?

Push come to shove, maybe Galway.  I don’t know.  Then again, the people of Pittsburgh cannot be easily dismissed.  There is a literary tradition in Pittsburgh which does not always get its due.

23.  When you are outside of Ireland, besides friends and family, what do you miss the most?  What are you glad to be away from?

Being around Irish spoken as a community language is definitely what I miss most.  I suppose I’m glad to be away from the seemingly endless amounts of British soap operas on TV.

24. As a teacher of poetry in the US, what are some of the biggest rewards and the biggest challenges?

It’s a good thing to be able to connect with other writers and share some knowledge and enthusiasm.  The biggest challenge right now is probably the situation in academia.  It has been undergoing something of a crisis lately, with many universities moving from a scholarship-based model to a consumer-based model, and humanities departments getting squeezed as a result.  

25. Do you see writing short stories as kind of practice for novels?  Which form do you think is more of a challenge to achieve quality work and to get noticed as a writer?

Well, both are major prose literary forms in their own rights.  I have friends who are short-story writers and I see how seriously they take their work.  Plus, short stories seem to be coming back these days, thinking of the publishing industry.  Not that they ever really went out.  But as much as I like certain short-story writers and the form itself, I’m probably more partial to the novel.

26. Do you prefer e-reading or traditional books?

The latter.  I am not at all against technology, but I see no need to stop reading real, physical books.

27. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland or the USA, where would you live?

I don’t know, maybe Prague.

28. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?

Among the Duhare in the 1500s, on the coastal plain of what is now South Carolina, to hear what the dialect of Gaelic they spoke sounded like.

29. Quick Pick Questions:
a. John Synge or Beckett? Beckett if I had to choose.
b. Dogs or cats? Cats.
c. Best city to inspire a writer London or Dublin or?? Dublin, or Galway, or Pittsburgh, or New York, or San Francisco.
d. Favorite meal to eat out breakfast, lunch or dinner?  Dinner.
e. RTÉ or BBC?  RTÉ.
f. Yeats or Whitman?  I love Yeats, but forced to choose, Whitman.
g. Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC great for a quick break or American corruption?  Global corruption.
h. Night or day?  Night.
i. Cleaner city, friendlier city, safer city Pittsburgh or Galway?  They’re comparable in regard to cleanliness and friendliness, but America is a slightly more violent society.

30. OK let us close out on this note
what is your reaction these lines from a famous Irish poet?

I was born to the stink of whiskey and failure
And the scattered corpse of the real.
This is my childhood and country:
The cynical knowing smile
Plastered onto ignorance
Ideals untarnished and deadly
Because never translated to action
And everywhere
The sick glorification of failure.
Our white marble statues were draped in purple
The bars of the prison were born in our eyes
And if reality ever existed
It was a rotten tooth
That couldn’t be removed.
Michael O’Loughlin

O’Loughlin is of a certain generation that reacted to the official nationalism that dominated Irish society for much of the last century, which as those who hate the Irish language like to repeat ad nauseam, was “shoved down people’s throats.”  (I know from reading a bit, though, that O’Loughlin himself has come to appreciate the Irish language).  But certainly there are very good reasons for him to react in the way that he did and to express it in this early poem.  In fact, it’s a brilliant poem.  It would be hard to come up with a better opening line to describe the decay of a faded ideal than “I was born to the stink of whiskey and failure”.  “The scattered corpse of the real” seems rather vague and abstract at first, but then you realise it connects to the line “And if reality ever existed”, and suddenly it makes sense.  The closing metaphor is a bit heavy-handed, but it is an early poem, written by a then-young poet, and it has a certain persuasiveness regardless.  So I like the poem.  And O’Loughlin has been influential — I can see something of him in the poet Alan Jude Moore, a friend of mine, who also looks to Europe rather than to outworn notions of Irishness.  But for myself, as someone who wasn’t “forced” to learn the language or who became bitter about a propagandistic version of nationalist ideology, I think there’s a role for a positive kind of Irish republicanism, which is radical and progressive and stands against hegemony and imperialism.  You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  I would also say that the wrong side won the Civil War, and betrayed the idea of the Irish revolution, and in its place instituted a conservative counter-revolution — and that if the likes of, say, Ernie O’Malley had ended up in power instead, things might have been a lot different.  In any case, it’s clear that the dream of the Gaelic revival is not going to happen, at least in the foreseeable future.  But it doesn’t mean that, among the many different versions of Irishness that presently exist side by side, there isn’t room for a Gaelic one, which need not have anything to do with the “prison” (to refer back to the poem) that some people previously perceived.  That’s my dhá phingin, anyway.


I offer my great thanks to Michael Begnal for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and well coesnsidered answers to my questions.

No comments: