An Interview with Michael Begnal

At the time that I lived there, Ireland was just about at the crest of that economic wave, and sometimes those contradictions resulted in thinking or behavior that was pretty strange. And in response my poems, in form and often in content, often took a position of critique, or an argument for an alternative set of values, or on the other hand also often embraced a certain kind of Irish strangeness.

This conversation was conducted by John Wisniewski through email.

JW: Hi, Michael. Thank you for granting this interview. Are you inspired by any Irish poets and authors?

MB: Certainly. Yes, a number of Irish writers have been very important to me, probably from day one. I grew up with James Joyce in my background, especially Finnegans Wake, as my father was a Joyce scholar. The Wake is a great book and has offered inspiration in many ways. I also like a lot of different Irish poets, past and present, too numerous to list them all I suppose. But Aodhagán Ó Rathaille is a major figure for me among the older Gaelic poets. I like Thomas MacGreevy as an early twentieth-century poet who doesn’t quite fit the Twilight narrative; he is a nationalist and modernist, but also a surrealist at times. He doesn’t just focus on Ireland, but also looks beyond it. James Liddy, who died relatively recently, and who I was lucky enough to get to know personally, still stands for me as a quintessential example of what it means to be a poet. There are many contemporary poets doing great things—I like Maurice Scully a lot, Catherine Walsh, Mairéad Byrne, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. I could go on and on. Randolph Healy, who publishes Wild Honey press, recently sent me a chapbook by a new poet named Sarah Hayden who I was really impressed by. Of course, there are so many non-Irish poets who I read too.

How is your writing uniquely Irish?

51un7n3fc1L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_It would be hard for me to say that it is uniquely Irish, because it’s a lot of other things as well, American for instance. But where it is Irish, I would say it is uniquely so in that when I treat Irish themes I do so from a vastly different point of view than most Irish or Irish-American poets. I’m often coming at Ireland from an outside perspective, but other times from an outsider/insider perspective as well. I also write in the Irish language — not as much as in English — but I am bilingual. I think your question gets into the idea of identity, and how one would define “Irish” to begin with. I liked what the poet Billy Mills said in his review of Future Blues, that there’s no reason why diaspora poets can’t be both Irish and not Irish and create identities for themselves out of ancestral and new traditions.

We spoke about Irish authors, but what about the Irish people or Ireland itself may have inspired your writing?

It’s really hard to say that there’s some essential quality about any people as a whole; people are people. Though, of course, people are also formed by the culture that they live in. Ireland has a fairly unique history, a history of oppression and colonization in the past, and more recently a cycle of economic boom and bust that has similarly affected many countries in the world. At the time that I lived there, Ireland was just about at the crest of that economic wave, and sometimes those contradictions resulted in thinking or behavior that was pretty strange. And in response my poems, in form and often in content, frequently took a position of critique, or an argument for an alternative set of values, or on the other hand also often embraced a certain kind of Irish strangeness.

Could you tell us Michael about the collection of poems, Ancestor Worship? Is there a common theme uniting all of the poems contained in the collection?

2_2_87c350c5-1994-4c0b-9803-86e7e4b4f7bd_largeYes, well, Ancestor Worship really is the one that is most “Irish.” It was written when I was living in Ireland and was published in 2007 by Salmon Poetry. And that idea — of Ireland or Irishness — is indeed a unifying theme throughout. With a bit of distance now, I think it’s a pretty idiosyncratic book and that the arguments I put forward in those poems about Ireland may come across to some people as weird. Maybe in some ways it’s more of an Irish-American book, which could put people off. I don’t know. In form, I felt that I was bringing new or at least less-common modes to the contemporary scene. Some Irish poets who I admire, however, might have believed that Ancestor Worship was to some degree retrograde. You can never really control how others see your work. But I stand by it and hope someday it’ll get a second look. For me, despite its title, it’s not so much about the past as it is that vision of the present and future. I would say it is certainly about Ireland or Irishness, but also the question of identity more broadly. I realize that what “Irish” may mean is contested. Ancestor Worship asserts a subjective stance, or stances. I wanted to do with Irishness something like what Amiri Baraka was doing with the idea of Blackness. Of course, that was never quite going to be possible.

I recognize the title of your book Future Blues. Why did you call the book Future Blues? Are you a fan of rock music? Does music inspire you in your writing?

The title comes from the blues song of the same name by Willie Brown, from 1930, I think it was. The opening of the song goes, “Can’t tell my future / And I can’t tell my past / Seems like every minute / Sure gonna be my last.” That’s pretty much why I called the book that, the state of mind those lyrics suggest. Also, I have the poem “Blues for Tomorrow,” which is sort of the title poem and includes “future blues” as a line in the text. I was also thinking a little bit about the Stooges song “Lost in the Future,” which is an outtake from the Fun House sessions of 1970. Not in terms of the lyrics, but the overall mood. So yeah, rock music (and a lot of other kinds of music) is a big influence on my writing. Three of the poems in the collection are specifically about the Stooges. But more broadly, I think that what I hope to do in a lot of my poems is to create a mood or a vibe, rather than to bluntly state something; and sometimes the vibe I’m trying to transpose onto the page is like the feeling or attitude you get from certain pieces of music. In the medium of words, though, it is of course something else.

Are there any further rock albums or artists that have inspired your writing?

I have a poem called “Black Flag,” which attempts to render something of the intensity of that band’s live shows, of which I saw many. The early-80s hardcore punk scene is a big influence personally, and I think something of that aesthetic — impactful and minimalist at the same time, in terms of both the music and even the graphics (I’m thinking of Minor Threat and Dischord Records here especially) — informs my writing. At least, I’d like to think so.

How do you decide on whether to write a poem on a particular subject? Do you carry a notebook when you travel?

Sometimes an idea comes to me beforehand, and if it’s a worthwhile idea, a poem might form around it. Other times a poem begins with just a line or two, and then develops in the process of writing it. Lately I have been thinking more in terms of longer, ongoing, or serial poems, and so the pieces I’ve written lately feed into that larger thing, whether they come out as sections of a long poem or as individual poems that are part of a series. I do write in a notebook and carry it with me if I know I’m going to be traveling for a substantial period of time. If I’m going somewhere for a day or two, I make sure I’ve got a few sheets of paper in my bag or at least a scrap of something stuck in my pocket. I still write poems by hand (whereas I write prose on a keyboard).

Could you tell us about editing the magazine The Burning Bush? What other poets have you published? What do you look for in the work of new poets?

The poet Kevin Higgins and I began The Burning Bush in Galway, Ireland, in 1999. Kevin left after issue four, and I continued as sole editor through issue eleven, which was in 2004. I would say that editing the journal for me was an education. We started it because we felt that Irish poetry at the time was dominated by what we saw as a kind of conservatism, a preference for quaint rural themes and mainstream lyric poetry which elided the more progressive or radical impulses that had existed in Irish poetry since the early twentieth century, and even before. Seamus Heaney seemed to be the embodiment of the conservatism of that moment of the late 1990s. I know that now after his death he’s being seen in almost saint-like terms. But at the time, he seemed to cast such a huge shadow. Everyone just wanted to copy what he was doing, and unfortunately it made for a lot of boring poetry. In retrospect, Heaney was never the enemy; he was just doing what he was doing, and doing it very well. After Kevin split, I continued to publish the magazine as a champion of experimental or avant-garde or at least interesting poetry and published a lot of good stuff (I think). Some of the poets I published included Maurice Scully, James Liddy, Alan Jude More, Deirdre Carr, Todd Swift, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Colette Nic Aodha, John Menesini, and equally important a lot of great pieces from writers who may still not be very well known but whose work was, and still is, good. There was also always a very critical, at times political, aspect to the journal. I like to think it might have had some small effect on the scene at the time, but who can really tell. Things go back and forth. But I’m glad to see that Alan Moore is continuing the ethos of the journal in the newly revived, online version called The Burning Bush. I am not currently an editor of anything at the moment.

You are friends with poet John Thomas Menesini. Do you ever plan to collaborate on a project?

Yes, I’m sure we will. In fact, we have already. I first met John in 1998 in Galway, where he showed up seemingly out of the blue at an open-mic night at the Café Apostasy. His energy was really inspiring, and we became fast friends. He and I and Kevin Higgins ended up doing a number of readings and performances together. Eventually, we put out a joint chapbook called Aphrodisiac Jacket, and in a way, having done that, we realized that we could get work out there. As a result, Kevin and I started The Burning Bush after John left Galway to go back to America. John and I are still friends and have worked together in a number of ways, and I imagine we will again. We’ve both published with Six Gallery Press out of Pittsburgh. He’s a great poet who should be more widely known than he is.

Finally, could you talk a bit more about your current writing?

As I mentioned, I’ve been working in longer forms. Since the publication of Future Blues, I have written a number of self-contained, chapbook-length long poems, or poem-series. One of them, I guess, I would describe as an idiosyncratic treatment of contemporary and historical Pittsburgh, with a nod to the documentary poetics of Haniel Long and Muriel Rukeyser. Another is a series of homage poems to a variety of figures whom I have felt are worth celebrating, or elegizing — fellow poets, artists, musicians. In these pieces, I sometimes enter into the mode of or want to channel the mode of the subject. At the moment, I’m writing an ongoing, I suppose weird surrealistic poem, in which I try to compose without a lot of conscious control, actually not always easy. Whereas some of my more recent poetry is concerned with form (albeit, I would say, in an oblique way), this is more free-form.

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