David Gardiner interviews Eamonn Wall

Eamonn Wall was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in 1955, and raised there. He attended college in Ireland and the US and received a Ph.D. in English from the City University of New York-Graduate Center in 1992. He has taught at a number of American Universities including Creighton University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis where he is professor of International Studies and English. He is the Heimbold Chair in Irish Studies at Villanova University for 2014.

Wall has published six collections of poetry with Salmon Poetry, most recently Sailing Lake Mareotis (2011). A volume of New and Selected Poems will appear this year. His prose books are Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions (Notre Dame, 2011) and From the Sin-e Café to the Black Hills: Notes on the New Irish (Wisconsin 2000). At present, he is working on a study of contemporary Irish-American writers and Irish Writers in America. In 2013, Arlen House published two volumes of James Liddy’s essays that he edited: On American Literature and Diasporas and On Irish Literature and Identities. Eamonn Wall lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife Drucilla Wall, also a published poet and prose writer, and they have two grown-up children. A co-founder of the Scallta Media publishing and production initiative in Co. Wexford, Eamonn Wall manages to spend two or three months of each year in Ireland—in Wexford and Galway.


David Gardiner: How long have you been writing and how did you come to it?

Eamonn Wall: I began writing short stories as a teenager and then explored poetry writing. Though I published some poetry during my college and post-college years in Ireland—thanks to the encouragement of James Liddy and others associated with the Gorey Arts Festival in Co. Wexford—I did not become serious about writing in a dedicated way until my late-twenties. Coming to the US in 1982 took me out of my comfort zone and spurred me on. Also, my experience broadened so I matured, I think, and found new material and direction. Before coming to the US, I was a voracious reader and an occasional writer. Living in the US, I began to think of myself as a writer, as someone who would learn the craft, and push on. The poetry that appeals the most to me, and from which I have learned so much, is the more open-form verse favoured by American writers such as James Wright, William Stafford, Adrienne Rich, and others. I have great regard for Eavan Boland’s poetry and prose, in her Irish and American contexts, and for Derek Mahon’s, Paul Muldoon’s, Greg Delanty’s—all poets with deep roots in both Ireland and the US. Also in America, I discovered immigrant writing—Bernard Malmud’s stories in particular—and this set me off in a direction of tracing and exploring aspects of the Irish-American tradition and how it relates to Ireland and to other diasporas. Of the Irish-American poets, among whom I number myself and from whom I have learned a great deal, I would start with Terence Winch, Nathalie Anderson, and Daniel Tobin—all poets whose work has energized me over the years.

DG: When was your work first published?

EW: My first publication was a poem that appeared in Vexilium, the annual literary magazine published at Cistercian College, Roscrea where I spent three years as a boarder. Both the poem and the magazine are safely filed away somewhere. As a college student and after, I had poems published in some magazines and in the annuals published by the Gorey Arts Centre in the 1970s; however, at that time, I was much more interested in reading poetry and fiction than writing it. Looking back, I would think that at the time I had didn’t have much to write about or out of. I’ve never been interested in poetry for poetry’s sake, for wry cleverness and nothing else in writing, so I needed to experience something deeper of the world to be able to write seriously. In this respect, being in America helped me greatly. It also unhinged me and opened me up. Also, as a post-grad student in the US, I was forced to work and think in a more disciplined manner than I was used to. I learned how to concentrate and observe better as a reader and writer, how to revise work, and to reach for higher standards. Dyckman-200th Street, published in 1994, my first collection of poetry was my first publication in a real sense. I was almost forty by them so it took me a while to find my way, or I was a slow learner, or both!

DG: In your 2011 study you wrote that you “have found West of Ireland writers share much with their American counterparts. Moreover, it is clear to me that some of the theoretical approaches that have been developed for the study of literature of the American West will be of great use to scholars of the West of Ireland” (xiii). Are there current, past or canonical Irish or American poets that you see sharing that intercontinental divide?

EW: What I set out to do in Writing the Irish West was to look at writers from the West of Ireland, who wrote about this part of Ireland, and compare and contrast their work with Western American writers. The four poets I chose for the book were Mary O’Malley, Moya Cannon, Richard Murphy, and Seán Lysaght and I was able to demonstrate, I think, close kinship between Irish and American poets and literary parallels—between the Irish dinnseanchas and American Place Studies, for example. I found, too, in Gary Snyder’s work many of the same concerns about heritage that one will find in Moya Cannon’s poetry. Also, Snyder and Lysaght share an interest in science and incorporate it into their work and both look at the world through the lens of deep time—a time that is measured in thousands and millions of years rather than in decades and centuries.

A great deal of Western American Literature is urban, reflecting the explosive growth of such cities as Phoenix and Las Vegas and this is also true in Ireland. Galway has experienced huge growth, or suffered as a result of it as many writers have pointed out, and is, like San Francisco, a thriving literary city. From the past, we can pair Robinson Jeffers and Yeats in quite precise terms. The former’s Tor House in Carmel modeled on Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee. In addition to these poets, I also wrote on the work of prose writers (Tim Robinson and John McGahern) and Martin McDonagh’s plays. Both Wests share “Westerness” though I don’t think I was able to define what this is in any stable way though I did try. But, the reader might be able to do so after reading Writing the Irish West from the clues I’ve provided.

DG: Ultimately, the world is where you find it and you’ve been most articulate about the landscapes of poetry. You’ve reflected that you are “interested in exploring connections between parts of different countries rather than between nations. Both writing and ecology are local activities that are internationally dispersed” (xiii). Are there ways in which you see your investigation of the Great Plains of the US and your own native Wexford as similar? Or are these different planets altogether?

EW: I have been a latecomer to ecopoetics and ecocriticism. I became immersed in these ideas through my readings of Western American Literature. In addition to the overarching green issues that are important and the tools that both ecopoetics and ecocriticism provide for writing poetry and writing about books, I have been greatly helped by ecology’s focus on the local.

As an immigrant in the US and an emigrant from Ireland, I have always felt separated from the larger narratives of both. I have citizenship in both countries though, at some level, I belong to neither. My loyalties as a writer are to smaller units, to the parts rather than the whole. This division may well be artificial though it is one that provides me with a space for thought and action.

In poetry, one can bring the Great Plains and the Wexford strawberry fields together imaginatively. I have been formed by a variety of places and there are in free play in my psyche. My loyalties to place are multiple and complex though I think that this is something that is shared by many people today.

DG: Your writing – both poetry and about poetry — is both human and humane. You’ve written that “literary and moral imaginations have been formed by interactions with place, space and a natural world that exists in free play with the human.” Just cause I’m a friend and, like you, Rory Gallagher fan of riffing…anything you have to say about that?

EW: Two obvious formative elements for me have been books and place. I have read steadily since childhood and been molded both by the books I have read and, at some deep level, by the process of reading itself which allows, simultaneously, for separation from and engagement with the world. Reading has always provided me with a sense of security, has always be able to transport me to a safe place.

As a child, I could be unhappy at school, at the CBS, so I was lucky to be able to retreat into warm and secure places—the family home and books—and these sustained me, and they do still. Since childhood, I have enjoyed Enniscorthy—where I grew up—for its rivers, hills, streets, old buildings, cathedrals and churches, its walks, and conversation. And, equally, for the warmth and personality of its people because a place is always about people too. (Though my relationship to Enniscorthy is also complicated, I suppose, because I left at fourteen and have not returned except on visits, some extended.) To a great degree, I still live in an Enniscorthy of the 1950s and 1960s and this is not the Enniscorthy of the present. I have great friends in Enniscorthy still, of long duration, and I look forward to returning to be among friends and family, in situations where you don’t have to explain anything about yourself.

My initial space was an Irish one and the next space that become important was the space of the American West which I encountered while living in Nebraska and traveling west from Omaha over a period of eight years. Over time, I have written a good deal of poetry and prose about both Enniscorthy and the American West.

Going back to your question about Rory Gallagher and riffing, I’d say that part of what I do is blend and mix and shuffle place so that in a poem or essay Albuquerque and Enniscorthy, for example, are brought together imaginatively. The American West— New Mexico, South Dakota, Colorado, in particular—belong to my dreamscape, both waking and sleeping. I like to keep my poetry fairly straightforward, though with edges and swerves, and work through narrative in the fashion of Stafford or Wright, and to use, pretty often, a convincing but unreliable first person narration. I think that being in the American West with its vistas and spaces taught me the need for clarity in poetry.

Place and space can be great teachers. Gallagher’s influences were as American as mine as I learned when I wrote the article on him that you published in An Sionnach. Immigrants can’t be purists. I have written a great deal about the immigrant experience in the US and the American West and both are gifts given to me by America, I think. These are stories that needed to be told and I took them on. I wanted to represent for readers what it felt like to be an immigrant parent in New York and in Nebraska. Eavan Boland’s work helped me greatly in this pursuit—the idea that you could both parent and poet and vice versa.

DG: Can you talk a little, perhaps, about some significant developments, negative and positive if you like, you’ve noticed in poetry in Ireland over the last 10 years or so?

EW: For the past ten years or so, I have been involved in Scallta Media (www.scallta.com) with Paul O’Reilly and Niall Wall (my brother). It is an initiative to publish, produce, record, and distribute work by Co. Wexford writers and artists. From this involvement, I have observed how much good writing is being done at a grassroots level. I have learned how strong writing is outside of the urban centres. I notice, too, that writing is accepted more as a legitimate activity than it used to be when I was growing up. People are more relaxed about the arts. Nationally, there are many good festivals where Irish audiences and writers get to hear good work from home and abroad. Living at a distance from Ireland for most of the year, while at the same time thinking of myself as an Irish poet, I am able to avoid the negatives while often being unaware of it. I enjoy meeting with Irish poets, hearing what they have to say, and reading their books. The Irish poetry scene is lively and I appreciate that.

DG: Finally, what do you think needs to happen, and what would you like to see happen, in Irish poetry over the next few years?

EW: I hope that the map of Irish poetry will continue to broaden. That different styles of writing will be accepted as being valid and important, that the new immigrants settling into the Ireland will be afforded their own voices as writers and be listened to, that people in the Irish poetry community will begin to better understand their connections to writers of the diaspora. Though there is always a great deal of talk about Irish emigrants in Ireland, especially around St. Patrick’s Day, there is scant regard in Irish poetry for the immigrant voice. Whether this voice is coming from Scotland, Argentina or the US, it not likely to be welcomed in Ireland. There is a silence that needs to be addressed. Though “The Gathering” in 2013 was interesting in many ways, its purpose was to bring people of Irish heritage to Ireland to spend money and bolster the economy rather to incorporate emigrants’ stories and lives into a larger narrative. I can’t recall poetry readings that brought poets from the Irish diaspora home to read and discuss their work. A missed opportunity!

This interview first appeared in the Burning Bush 2 on 29th July, 2014. Our sincere thanks to Eamonn Wall for his time and patience. You can find out more about Eamonn Wall and his work at www.eamonnwall.net

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