After A Journey with Two Maps — Poet and Essayist Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

EAVAN BOLAND is an Irish poet. Her father was a civil servant; her mother, Frances Kelly, was a noted painter. She spent five years of her childhood in Dublin and began her education at Miss Meredith’s. In 1950 she went to London, attended convent school in Finchley and Hammersmith and in 1956 relocated to New York. She returned to Ireland and completed her education in Trinity College Dublin.

Boland is the author of Domestic Violence (2007), Against Love Poetry (2001), The Lost Land (1998), An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987 (1996), In a Time of Violence (1994), Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990 (1990), and Object Lessons (1996), all published by W.W. Norton. Her most recent volume of prose, published in 2011, is A Journey with Two Maps. She has also published a volume of translations, After Every War (Princeton University Press, 2004).

Her awards include the Lannan award in poetry and the Literary Award of the American-Ireland Fund. In 2002 she received the Corrington Medal for Literary Excellence, among others. Director of the Creative Writing Program and the Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities at Stanford University, she divides her time between California and Dublin, where she lives with her husband, the novelist Kevin Casey.

You have an amazing facility with sound, although a subtle sound, especially rhyme and assonance. How important is sound to your poems, especially in books such as Night Feed? Do you have to work hard for that effect or does it come naturally?

I like the idea that the poem can be a small sound studio. Over time, I’ve changed my ideas on how to make it one. At the start, when I was very young, I liked what rhyme did. Then I found that too disruptive. It shut off to many after effects I wanted. So assonance became an alternative. And I still prefer that.

What compelled you to write your latest book of prose, A Journey with Two Maps?

I enjoy writing prose. I’m a poet who finds it useful to make a critique. And this book is an accumulation of different arguments, different critiques made over time.

In your last chapter in A Journey with Two Maps, “Letter to a Young Woman Poet,” you say “I wanted to feel that whatever I lived as a woman I could write as a poet. Once I did that, I felt there was a fusion, a not-to-be-denied indebtedness between those identities: the woman pondering the experience, the poet the expression. This fusion in turn created a third entity: the poet, who not only engaged in these actions, but began to develop a critique about them.” Would you talk more about this? Do you think women poets are afraid to write about their experiences for fear of not being legitimized?

No, I can’t say I feel that. For every poet, of either gender, it’s a deeply personal choice as to whether their critiques are in their poems, and/or written as prose. I’ve enjoyed both types of critique in the work of other poets. When it comes to me, I’m in the second category. I enjoy prose, argument and even polemic. I come from Ireland where argument is very familiar, where a back-and-forth on poetry is a common currency.

In “Letter to a Young Woman Poet,” you talk about the tradition you inherited, or the canon-makers and how you felt they had determined the “probable relation between the ordinary object and the achieved poem…. Gradually, it became apparent to me that the ordained authority of the poet had everything to do with permission granted or withheld. Not simply for subject matter, but for any claim that could be made for it.” This seems like a struggle all poets must face — whether to go with the canon or the current or to go against it. Often, poets cannot choose how they write or what they write about. What advice do you have for poets writing against the grain?

I wouldn’t presume to give advice. Poets can always choose. And the fact is, a poet writing against the grain has already chosen. They don’t need my counsel or anyone else’s. But in A Journey With Two Maps I wanted to make it clear that I don’t believe you absolutely have to choose to go with the canon or against it. The choice can’t be as stark as that. There’s an alternative — a sort of middle space, and that’s why I argued for two maps. I believe a poet can engage with the past and still have a powerful freedom in their present. Poets who have traditionally stood on the margins — women, minorities, post-colonial writers — often have a rich and contentious dialogue with the canon, and have shown they can still be nourished by a poetic past, while making sure the present is on their own terms.


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