The Poetry Porch: Poetics

Creating a Book of Irish American Poems:
An Interview with Daniel Tobin

Daniel Tobin is the author of six books of poems, Where the World is Made, Double Life, The Narrows, Second Things, Belated Heavens (winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry), and The Net (2014). His seventh book of poems, From Nothing, is forthcoming in 2016. He is the also author of the critical studies Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Awake in America, as well as editor of The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Light in Hand: The Selected Early Poems and Lola Ridge, and Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Art. His awards include the “The Discovery/The Nation Award,” The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, and fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Conducted by Joyce Wilson via email in January 2014, this interview examines the anthology of poems he created, The Book of Irish American Poetry, from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 2007.

JW: This anthology appeared in 2007, and I see that the introduction was first published in New Hibernia in 1999. Has the book been a long time coming? What prompted you to put it together?

DT: I believe it was in 1997 that the poet Eamonn Wall recommended me to provide an entry on Irish American Poetry for the Encyclopedia of the Irish in America. I consented, and that is what jump-started the project. As I conducted research for the entry I was stunned by how much poetry there was, as well as by the number of forgotten poets, poets who already existed in the canon of American poetry, as well as the overlapping themes. And I was surprised no one had produced such an anthology, especially one that covered the burgeoning of American poetry in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Someone had to do it, I felt, and I became swept up in the current of the idea, thinking that I would merely dip my toes into the water.

JW: It is very challenging at first to see some of the entries. I sensed that you were working inductively in the selection of poets and poems, that you discovered examples that you wanted to include and then devised the criteria to present them. How would you describe your selection process?

DT: The sheer size of the discoveries as I entered deeper into the subject meant that one had to maneuver by induction rather than by pre-ordained categories—those categories, such as they were, were exactly what needed to be challenged—all the stereotypes of Irish America. At the same time, the establishment of criteria involved a good degree of crossing—where did the experience of Irish immigration, for example, touch on the experience of other historically “traveling cultures”? One criterion from the start was this: no shamrocks, no schlock, to borrow a good old Yiddish word.

JW: Couldn’t you have found a way to include Seamus Heaney? Isn’t “The Guttural Muse” an Irish American poem?

DT: Others have challenged me on my not including Seamus Heaney’s work in the collection. I would not have chosen “The Gutteral Muse” in any case because it doesn’t strike me as particularly Irish American. I did think long and hard about “Westering” and “Remembering Malibu.” Here is the issue: both of those poems, as example, demonstrate the fact that Heaney’s vantage on America always involves a turn back to Ireland, especially Northern Ireland. I wanted Irish poets who engaged with America for the sake of that engagement and not as a matter of pure retrospection or of finding “objective correlatives” for purely Irish experience in America. It’s interesting to me that Heaney admitted his poems always turn back to Ireland—he did so in Stepping Stones, his autobiography through interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll. I’ve been on both sides and it was a very difficult decision—I was Seamus’s student at Harvard and I wrote a major book on his poetry. Had he published his poem “In Iowa” prior to the anthology coming out, I do think I would have included it, since it does meet the criterion of engaging with America qua America.

JW: Milosz’s poem to Robinson Jeffers presents a startling commentary on violence in a culture, particularly divided cultures. Was this the only poem to present such a judgment? Is it a judgment? Perhaps such a statement drives the truth, or a truth, home because it comes from someone outside the culture?

DT: It is interesting that you pick up on this poem—some have felt that ought not to be included, especially since Heaney isn’t in the anthology and Milosz certainly isn’t Irish or Irish American. Milosz does provide a unique perspective on Jeffers as a “Scots-Irish wanderer,” and that is why the poem is included, along with Jeffers’s own poems, of course. I’ve written extensively on Jeffers in my book Awake in America, and the crux of the matter is that his whole imaginative project comes out of Yeats and Ireland—Tor House in California is intended to be another Thoor Ballylee, and Jeffers made a point of touring Northern Ireland (his father was a Northern Irish Presbyterian minister) with his wife and family. Many poems came out of that experience—the California coast in Jeffers’s work is a version of the Antrim coast, removed to the American continent. As for issues of conflict and divided cultures—it’s a major current running through the entire book and many of the poets included.

JW: I was surprised and then fascinated by the inclusion of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and to read their “outside perspective” of the Irish. You have written about your determination to include them, but how did you come upon their suitability for your project?

DT: Marianne Moore is Irish by ancestry, like Jeffers and a good many others in the book. Stevens and Brooks clearly are not. Stevens’s “Our Stars Come from Ireland” and “The Irish Cliffs of Moher” came out of his fascination with the Irish—he writes about them often in his letters, and I’ve written about the motif of Irishness in his poems. Brooks’s poem “Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat” beautifully and complexly depicts the relationship between an Irish American maid and an African American maid—both considered subservient by the woman of the house. It’s an essential poem that dramatizes and exemplifies the parallel and often conflicting worlds of Irish and African Americans—two traveling cultures. I write about the issue extensively in Awake in America in an essay entitled “From Crispus Attucks to Mister Bones: Race in Irish American Poetry.” The point is, the anthology is a book of Irish American poems, not a book exclusive to Irish American poets—that was an essential criterion early on in the research, and I’ll stand by it.

JW: The political tastes of this anthology seem to lean to the left, or have I missed something? I had forgotten Eugene McCarthy was a poet and it was refreshing to find his work here. Are most Irish American literary figures loyal to left-leaning politics?

DT: I wouldn’t say all or most, but a good many are leaning left—most notably Lola Ridge and Thomas McGrath, though there are others. That particular current surfaced, so to speak, pretty insistently.

JW: Are you satisfied with the reception of the anthology? Were you greeted by a loud clamor by those who were not included?

DT: I am, though naturally some people were unhappy with the selection or the terms of inclusion. I know some Irish were miffed by not being included, which struck me as a little odd, though I understood. Again, the anthology means to draw attention to a hidden tradition of Irish American poetry and takes pains to avoid eliding Irish American experience for the sake of the Irish brand, shall we say. I had to send some painful rejection slips. My goal was to include excellent poems and to bring an invisible tradition to light, which I think the book does. It’s won several awards for anthologies, from the American Library Association for one, and has been lauded for its engagement with what’s loosely termed “multicultural”—that is, it places Irish American experience alongside and within other experiences of immigration and exile. So I’m very happy with that. Of course, the problem with anthologies is that as soon that they’re published they’re outdated to some extent—other poems and poets appear that the editor would have included. That’s just the nature of the beast.

JW: The emphasis on the historical and political, the practical and declarative, seems most prevalent here. Would you agree that you are interested in the historical first? In the introduction you emphasize tradition, but much of your processes seem innovative.

DT: I am interested in history and poetry equally—that’s the challenge. I choose poems both for their value as poems and for their significance to the historical context. The word “tradition” comes from the Latin “to hand over.” That implies both history and art with a slightly different inflection than the word “canon,” in my view, which comes from the Greek “to measure up,” as in a measuring stick. So the anthology is obliged to offer a range. And, also in my view, tradition is inherently innovative in that new work inevitably changes how we read older works. Eliot wrote essentially that in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” though always people seem to forget. His view was not a monumental view of tradition; rather he envisioned (within his own narrower definition) tradition as adaptive, organic. The anthology extends that principle beyond, perhaps, what Eliot would have been comfortable endorsing, but the book intentionally broadens the horizon.

JW: I was intrigued to see the category of the Scotch-Irish represented as a unit. This is such a large group, isn’t it part of the dominant culture of the US and therefore too amorphous to define? Perhaps more work is being done to verify the heritage and influence of those who left Scotland for Ireland and then Ireland for the US? But haven’t decades of assimilation diffused identities and allegiances?

DT: The Scots Irish American poems included involve, pretty much exclusively, the poet’s own self-identification as such: Jeffers and AR Ammons and Heather McHugh all fall into that category. Then there are poems that enter Scots Irish culture in an American context in a very direct way. So it’s not as amorphous as it might seem. Some families still keep those old cultural identifiers alive; others less so. Marianne Moore again: Ireland in “Spenser’s Ireland,” she says wittily, is “a place as kind as it is green, / the greenest place I’ve never seen.”

JW: How did you discover Lola Ridge? Why was she so little known for so long?

DT: I read exhaustively for the anthology and found out about Lola Ridge through a reference book on America poets of the 1920s and 30s. I then ordered through interlibrary loan every book she ever published, and read more books on the era. I write about her and her work in Awake in America. I’m very grateful to have re-established her in American poetry both with the essay, “Modernism, Leftism, and the Spirit: The Poetry of Lola Ridge” (which first appeared in New Hibernia) and by my work editing The Selected Early Poems—the essay appeared there as well as the introduction. In a nutshell her work was lost because she was a far left poet who died in 1941. That selected poems took something of a fight, and was a labor of love. With the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, America had little tolerance for Communists of any kind, much less female Communist poets. Thomas McGrath was also blacklisted, but managed to surface in small presses before Copper Canyon picked him up. By then Ridge was lost—that strangest perhaps of all literary creatures: a Catholic Leftist modernist.

JW: What is your next project?

DT: I’m writing a book of essays on modern and contemporary poetry, and I’m always trying to find time to write more poems. My seventh book of poems will be out in 2016. It’s entitled From Nothing, and is a book-length poem on the life of Georges Lemaitre, the Jesuit priest, mathematician, and physicist who first conceptualized the universe expanding from a single point in a massive explosion: the Big Bang.

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