Pt. 1 of our interview with RISD English Professor Mairéad Byrne
Full Name: Mairéad Clare Byrne
Current City: Providence
Book of Choice: Somewhere between The Collected Poems, Letters and Journals of Gerard Manley Hopkins and all the works of Charles Reznikoff.
Album of Choice: The Complete Discography of Bob Marley, but I’m hoping to advance to Chopin soon.
Film of Choice: Movies are still very much for me about the total experience of the movie, even if it’s just at home on the couch, which it normally is.
Midnight Hour: What was the first poem you ever wrote?
Mairéad Byrne: I don’t know. I think there are lots of important relationships with writing, and publication is one sort of transition. Also, to write a poem where you recognize there is a life that you didn’t really invest it with. That’s another kind of thing. And then, just the practice of writing poetry. Like in my 20s I would write poetry in copy books and not share it or publish it or speak about it. And that was one step. And then after my first daughter was born, I joined workshops and you know, that was very significant. I don’t remember a particular poem, but I know the significance was basically that I was over 30. It was in a workshop with a poet named Alan Dugan, and somebody in the workshop had brought in a list of words from an article in the New York Times, and the article was about words which had retained their meaning. The words that had been the most consistent throughout the history of the English language, and they had identified a top list of those words. So I wrote a poem using those words; words like nail and tooth, and louse. Those kinds of words. Mother. The poem that I wrote magically related to a very distant experience, so that was the first time that I looked a poem and was surprised that I wrote it. That was good.
Midnight Hour: Why did you name your event series “Couscous”?
Mairéad Byrne: Couscous is a mixture that could be a feast or it could be basic. I was living in Paris at one time, and I was almost living on the streets. Even though I shouldn’t have been, I kind of was. You could for four francs or something go to university dining halls where you could have as much bread as you wanted, as much couscous as you wanted and vegetables. I could eat as much as I wanted for very little. Couscous here is a free event, very accessible, it’s a community event built on diversity, mixing poets from the universities and people coming in and out of town. Performance, spoken word, conceptual stuff, digital stuff and video, lyrics. Whatever. Poetry is a low maintenance art form. It travels very light, but still people travel in their own corridors. They might not necessarily be that open to other styles of poetry. Couscous is kind of eclectic, basic and free.
Midnight Hour: When did you begin blogging?
Mairéad Byrne: I started in March 2003 just before the invasion of Iraq. The first posts were all about that. I remember I had an apartment on Hope St. and I would be lying in bed with the laptop reading news reports and turning the news reports into poems because I decided that I would only write poems and nothing else. Then, after a few months I stopped it for a while and then started again. It became a daily log of poetry.
Midnight Hour: Why did you call it Heaven … on earth?
Mairéad Byrne: I think because earth was far from heavenly at that time. My actual perception of daily life was that it was rather difficult. The blog was a place where you go and can speak or write and you had audience, but it’s not an audience that impinges on you. It’s a place of free speech, and you can shape it yourself.
Midnight Hour: Can you tell me why you were living on the streets of Paris?
Mairéad Byrne: It was just the sort of thing that people do when they were in their twenties. I was just traveling around. You know I actually had a sister living in Paris, so there was no reason for me to be living in the street. But when you’re knocking around you meet people. You might sort of then pick grapes for a week, or maybe that doesn’t work out and you come back and you don’t want to go to your sister’s house. I was selling newspapers. I was selling Libération and you get a bit of money. It wasn’t too extreme; it was the summer time.