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A Gap in Definitions


January 15, 2014

The award-winning Northern Irish writer on life in New York, poetry as “a way of being alone without feeling alone,” and why “all writing is political.”

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Photo by Mark Pringle

Nick Laird is a less familiar name in America than in Europe, but one senses that can’t last. His latest collection of poems, Go Giants, is attracting the kinds of reviews that Laird’s wife, Zadie Smith, recently received for her novel NW. The Times of London says that it displays a “child-like wonder in the variety and slippage of language, alongside an adult sensibility of its boundless possibilities and dangers,” and The Guardian gushes that Laird, in his “most accomplished collection to date,” has produced “a poetry as expansive and thought-provoking…[as] an infinitely complicated universe needs it to be.” Writing in the Washington Post, Troy Jollimore describes the new poems as steeped in the old traditions of verse while somehow managing to be “streetwise, edgy and downright cool.” Those aren’t words you often find in reviews of a poet’s work. You’re lucky to find any reviews at all.

Go Giants is not a fulsome homage to New Yorkers’ favorite, ailing American football team. It is a slender volume about Northern Ireland and America, religion and war, astronomy and aloneness, the political and the personal. Lovers of literature will find this ambitious work deeply satisfying, and the football team does at least get a mention (they need some love from someone, right now). There’s pathos in Go Giants, and strangeness too; a boldness of scope and the occasional excellent joke. Laird weaves together Greek myths with gossip, and notions of gianthood with the satisfactions of small details. His thirty-one short poems are followed by a long final piece that borrows from the architecture of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s a sprawling song that brings to life, among other things, an Ireland attempting to grow beyond its troubled past: “Our mild and violent land of the giant / leylandii and four-bar bitumen fences. / Of porn mags stashed in blackthorn hedges. / The snout of a shotgun nuzzling out under the valance…”

Laird was born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, in 1975. He’s the recipient of many prizes for his poetry and fiction, including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Ireland Chair of Poetry Award, a Somerset Maugham Award, a Betty Trask Prize, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. I met him at the Swift Hibernian Lounge in downtown Manhattan on a Tuesday afternoon before Christmas. A barman was standing on a stool, making a half-hearted effort at festivity by draping a thin string of tinsel across some dark wood paneling. While several daytime drinkers sipped pints of Guinness and watched for a fall, Laird talked to me about the difficulties of writing about Northern Ireland’s political history, why there has to be a place for humor in serious poetry, and whether lines like this—from the title poem in the new collection—constitute a kind of call to arms for other writers:

Go and get help. Go directly to jail.
Go down in flames. Go up in smoke.
Go for broke. Go tell Aunt Rhody.
Go tell the Spartans. Go to hell.
Go into detail. Go for the throat.

Jonathan Lee for Guernica

Guernica: What’s special about poetry for you? What does it offer that other art forms perhaps can’t—things that you don’t find when you’re reading or writing a novel, or an essay, or watching a film?

Nick Laird: Poetry is a way of being alone without feeling alone. It allows you to experience another mind, I suppose. And it does that more fully than other art forms, I think. It doesn’t simply describe an experience, or a feeling, or a moment: it evokes it through, say, rhythm or tone or diction or metaphor. It creates a mood. A poem communicates before it is understood; it’s not a fully paraphrasable form, which distinguishes it from other forms of writing.

It’s also perhaps the oldest art form. We can go back to an age-old idea of naming things, the Adamic impulse—to give something a name has always been an immensely powerful thing. To name something is to own it, to capture it. A poem is still a kind of spell, an incantation. Historically, a poem also invoked: it was a blessing, or a curse, or a charm. It had a motile power, was able to summon something into being. A poem is a special kind of speech-act. In a good poem there’s the trance-like effect of language in its most concentrated, naked form.

Guernica: When you say “naked,” is there something inherently more personal about poetry than prose?

Nick Laird: Writing a poem is a more personal experience, I think, than writing prose. And perhaps reading a poem is a more personal experience than reading prose, though that’s harder to say.

Writing fiction, for me, is a more indirect form of self-exploration than writing verse. When I’m working on a novel I’m moving characters around and I’m thinking about plot and there’s a lot of other things going on at the level of structure and story. With a poem, a single idea or line or emotion can sometimes be enough—there’s often a sense, in the best poems, of capturing a single instant.

Perhaps poems differ from prose in the degree of solace they can offer—by speaking so personally, so directly, about shared experience. A few lines of poetry can provide comfort.

Though there’s barely a week I wouldn’t read Seamus Heaney, I’ve been rereading his entire oeuvre since he died and it’s hard not to be struck by the deep solace offered by a body of work like his. There’s a principle of bearing up, of keeping going, of being “quickened into verb,” and of finding, in Yeats’s phrase, befitting emblems. I think I mean that reading a writer who is responding adequately to life, finding symbols and music equal to the occasion, is a form of communion and relief and consolation.

If you grew up Protestant in Ireland, of course, at least in the twentieth century, there was always a contingent that would never really consider you Irish. Meanwhile in Britain you’d never quite be considered British. You fell into a gap in the definitions.

Guernica: If you finish a poem, does it generally end up being sent out for inclusion in a magazine or collection?

Nick Laird: No. Most of the poems I write go through forty versions and then stay in a file on my computer. I’m not very good at sending stuff out or feeling that something is ready to send out and I never have been. Part of the problem is that as soon as a poem is finished, it stops being all that interesting to me.

There’s a plus side to this, though. When I come round to putting things in a collection I have a big stack of things to choose from. And every now and then I’ll send a poem to a magazine. I have a poem coming out in The New Yorker next month, but before that it’s been a long time since I sent anything out at all. I need to get my act together.

Guernica: Are you writing poetry all the time, even when in the midst of a novel?

Nick Laird: Yeah, I’m working on poems all the time. I was writing a poem this afternoon, before I came here. I’ve got other work—teaching at Princeton, writing articles and so on—but I’m pretty much always working on a poem.

As for prose, I’ve been trying to write a new novel for some time, alongside my poetry. And this particular novel has been really tough to get out. I’ve always thought that it’s possible to write good poems and a good novel at the same time, but I’m starting to come to the conclusion that maybe you can’t. I may need a chunk of time in which I’m only working on the novel—we’ll see. A book can be all-consuming that way, and one of the beautiful things about a poem is that you can get a very rough draft of the whole thing down in just a few hours, though then, of course, the hard work of revision begins.

The current novel is set in contemporary Northern Ireland, but I’m still trying to work out if fiction is exactly the right form for it. You get to this stage in your thirties where you start to realize your limitations as a writer and it’s a fairly depressing experience [laughs].

If you grew up Protestant in Ireland, of course, at least in the twentieth century, there was always a contingent that would never really consider you Irish. Meanwhile in Britain you’d
never quite be considered British. You fell into a gap in the definitions.

Guernica: Could we talk a bit about your family background and childhood, and how that might have fed into what you write about? Your dad was brought up Donegal, and then you were, I think, born in Cookstown, County Tyrone?

Nick Laird: That’s right. And my mother’s family was from Cork originally, but moved to South Armagh. In the 1920s my mother’s family had been burnt out of their home and fled to the north, taking over the lease on a farm. So both of my parents had Irish passports. I had, and still have, Irish and British passports. It wasn’t a straightforward household—none of us fell easily onto either side of the Irish/British divide. If you grew up Protestant in Ireland, of course, at least in the twentieth century, there was always a contingent that would never really consider you Irish. Meanwhile in Britain you’d never quite be considered British. You fell into a gap in the definitions.

It interests me that, as you get older, your younger self becomes a stranger to you. A split occurs within yourself. But maybe we’re all always strangers to ourselves.

Guernica: Do you think that sense of not belonging has worked its way into your writing?

Nick Laird: At one time, yes. But I guess I’m less concerned about belonging than I used to be. What does it really mean to belong, nowadays? It seems to me now that the most interesting matter of identity is not what place someone was born in, but what point in time they are from—where they sit in relation to time. Age has become much more divisive than place. With the Internet and globalization, a twenty-year-old in New York has far more cultural references in common with a twenty-year-old in Nebraska or a twenty-year-old in Cork than they do with a thirty-year-old who lives next door. Differences are now stratified far more by time than place, I think, and—as I move between different cities—I feel happy enough that no single place claims me. Isn’t patriotism a bit crazy and outdated? National identity is what they trick you with when they want your feet in their army boots or your taxes in their bailouts. I’ve no love for the British government or the Irish one and I suppose I think of myself in local terms, in terms of the people I know and no further. I’m a Tyrone writer who moves around, and I think a freedom from geographical constraints—getting out of range, as it were—is useful for people, perhaps, and certainly useful for writers. A passport’s just for crossing a border, then it’s back in the drawer.

Guernica: It’s strange that in reviews of novels, a critic rarely comments on the achievement of inhabiting a character of a different age. Whereas crossing the gender divide in fiction—a man writing as a woman or woman writing as a man—rarely fails to be considered of note. It’s similar with race. In a book like Alexander Maksik’s A Marker To Measure Drift, a lot of the coverage is preoccupied with the idea of writing your way into another skin color—of whether there’s somehow something illegitimate or phony or presumptuous in doing that.

Nick Laird: Absolutely. And with an age difference comes a great gap in cultural references, and so on. It’s not all about race and gender.

It interests me that, as you get older, your younger self becomes a stranger to you. A split occurs within yourself. But maybe we’re all always strangers to ourselves.

Guernica: Perhaps we could talk a bit about the structure of Go Giants. After a series of short poems, the second half of the book comprises a single long poem that I take it is structured around Pilgrim’s Progress. And tonally across the collection there’s quite a range.

Nick Laird: In preparing a collection, I go through this big stack of material I’ve produced over a period of years and I suppose you find that there’s been some things that have dominated our thoughts, some thematic consistency. I try to make the books hang together as books, for the collection to have an overarching structure, and for all their surface difference I’d hope the poems in Go Giants have a sort of wire going through them—that looked at from one angle, pins them together.

Making the book, I started to see I’d been writing a lot about how ideas beyond a human scale impinge on the human one. This idea of gianthood, of “big men,” say, in relation to Northern Ireland, is one that bothers me. The kind of self-serving mythmaking that goes on. You’d hope for a more human relation, a more humane one.

Guernica: Perhaps linked to that there seems to me to be a sensitivity in your work to the smallness and separateness of people—their aloneness. You mentioned aloneness at the start of this interview, in relation to your definition of poetry, and a sense of isolation is dramatized in a poem like “Tuesday,” where the narrator spends the evening with a single mosquito and a lightly withered baked potato. Is it instinctive to you that your writing turns often to comedy when exploring this idea of aloneness?

Nick Laird: I think that over the last decades there’s been a consensus that, in prose, comedy can be an acceptable—even an appropriate—response to the horrors of the twentieth century. The novel as a form has accepted comedy as part of the makeup of a modern life. And I think, in poetry, humor is still less accepted. There needs to be room for humor in poetry, just as there needs to be room for humor in life itself. I don’t want to write comic verse, as such. But I believe when you’re writing about people’s suffering or their isolation, you should look for the comedy and let it in if it’s there. Sometimes it’s too easy to rely on just one tone—a tragic or elegiac mode, say.

Guernica: Martin Amis has talked quite a lot about this, hasn’t he? About comedy being the human mode and the greatest novelists, even the Russians, being comic writers at heart?

Nick Laird: Yes, Amis talks about it and makes a good case for all the best writers being comic. He doesn’t like Coetzee, for example [laughs]. But no, I think that this idea of the best writing being comic writing doesn’t quite apply in poetry. We’re used to lyric poetry. We’re used to admiring lyric poetry above all else. A lyric tends to be built around a transitory moment, a kind of epiphany, and it can sometimes be difficult to allow humor into that tight moment. Humor is more at home in a baggier form—a bigger narrative—than the lyric tends to allow. So you have to work a little harder to insert touches of comedy into a poem—but I might be overstating it. Maybe the lyric poem will always resist humor. It’s distractive, it can ruin the sense of the thing. I don’t think all poems should have a gag in them.

All writing is political. All writing shows a preoccupation with something, whatever that thing might be, and by putting pen to paper you are establishing a hierarchy of some sort.

Guernica: Do you think of yourself as a political writer? This collection didn’t seem to me to be trying to deal overtly with the Troubles on every page, but one of the consequences of being from Northern Ireland or China or Haiti is that you’re expected to be dealing with politics at all times, in a way that a writer from London or New York might not be.

Nick Laird: It’s never quite been defined, this idea of a political writer. But I think all writing is political. All writing shows a preoccupation with something, whatever that thing might be, and by putting pen to paper you are establishing a hierarchy of some sort—this emotion over that emotion, this memory over that memory, this thought over another. And isn’t that process of establishing a hierarchy on the page a kind of political act?

I’m still angry about Northern Ireland. I’m angry about what’s happened there and what’s still happening there. Angry about friends I know who were killed and angry about this long drawn-out process that should have brought a greater peace much sooner. The people of Northern Ireland have been let down on various sides, and of course we let ourselves down, too. In my poetry I’m trying to get that anger—and that sadness, and that hope—out in some way. I think all writing is an attempt to complicate and subvert the dominant narrative. Writing personalizes statistics. It puts a face and a name on a number. I suppose in that sense it’s always political.

Guernica: Does anger make good art? Is it a useful emotion in the writing process?

Nick Laird: Well, it’s definitely a motivating force for me. I seem to be born under the sign of Mars.

I was interested in Go Giants in the way we mythologize death—the way we deal with it as an idea. Whatever else death is, it’s not an idea. It’s a physical thing—a physical process. Finding a way back into the actual suffering of a so-called tragedy is what interests me.

Guernica: I was recently reading Lost Lives, with its astonishing litany of details of every death that has occurred within three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. Have you read it?

Nick Laird: I have. I’ve been writing about that very book this week, as part of a piece for The New York Review Of Books. The specificity in that book gives it an incredible power, I think. It made me think of battle books in The Iliad, where you’re provided with the gruesome, matter-of-fact details of this death, and that death, and the next death. The cumulative effect is overpowering. Lost Lives should be required reading in Northern Ireland. The book is a great undertaking, in all senses of that word.

Guernica: I suppose your anger is visible in some poems, like “Manifesto On Sunday,” with its beautifully-phrased rant in which you say, fuck this, fuck that, “fuck the pundits for they talk too much…fuck also the finest minds of my generation destroyed only by the soft lighting of advertising.” But it’s absent from some of the calmer poems. ‘Cabochon,’ for example.

Nick Laird: “Manifesto On Sunday” is a poem that was taken out of the collection and then put back in and taken out and put back in again. I couldn’t decide if it had earned its place within the book. I’m still not sure. But I like a bit of variety in a collection, and I like that there are angry poems and calm ones, sad ones and funny ones. I like that a collection can accommodate different facets of the one voice.

As for “Cabochon,” a “cabochon,” as you may know, is an unfaceted gem. It’s a stone in a kind of pre-state—it’s unfinished. I was trying to write about my wife being pregnant with our first child, and us going for the scan. Of seeing this kind of secret—something that’s known to you but not yet, perhaps, to your friends and family. You have the ultrasound and see this amazing secret presence and then minutes later you’re in the lift, and out on the street, and the people moving all around you don’t know about the mysteries you’re harboring, smuggling, hiding.

Guernica: The whole of “Cabochon” has a smoothness, a compactness. A naturalness. It’s a rhyming sonnet. Did you find you were deliberately fusing form with idea in that poem—creating an unfaceted object?

Nick Laird: It’s very hard to think yourself back into the person who wrote a given poem. But yes, I think so. And I’m playing with the sonnet form throughout the collection—there are all sorts of different sonnets and then there’s the poem entitled “History of The Sonnet,” too.

Guernica: I wonder to what extent, in your poetry, you feel you’re writing about writing. I read the following lines in “Go Giants” as a kind of literary manifesto: “Go to hell. Go into detail. Go for the throat.” (The words “go paperless” are also in there—if you’re not careful Amazon will start quoting you on Kindle ads.) Then there’s “The Workshop,” with its “turgid sonnets,” and “Envy,” which felt to me at times like a satirical take on the New York literary scene—the envious elbowing apes at parties trying to get to the star author, the sea lions content to applaud their own tricks.

Nick Laird: I think all writing is about writing. All writing is a way of going out and exploring the world, of examining the way we live, and therefore any words you put down on the page about life will, at some level, also be words about words.

It’s still amazing, though, how many poems can be read as being analogous to the act of writing a poem. “Go to hell, go into detail, go for the throat” is certainly about writing, but it’s also hopefully about a way of living.

Guernica: You used to be a lawyer in London and you left to write. Are you able to think back into how you felt when your first novel and first collection were published? Was there a sense of vindication?

Nick Laird: When the first novel was published it was mostly just vastly underwhelming.

Guernica: Really? It seemed to get a lot of coverage.

Nick Laird: Yes, and I was grateful for that. But it was nonetheless a weird experience, because I was well aware that I was in some cases getting coverage for all the wrong reasons—because of who I happen to be married to. As you know, there’s a situation where arts coverage often has to have a personal angle. An extra-literary angle.

Guernica: The articles about how you’re a superstar literary couple…

Nick Laird: Yeah. The press is not a problem for me. I’m not being doorstopped and I shouldn’t complain. But all that stuff can be tricky. With the publication of my first novel, all these articles came out that were supposed to be about my book. In reality, they were often about my wife.

Publishing a book is a great thing, and I’m grateful, but it’s also a horrible, exposing thing. Once you’ve published a book, you never write quite as freely again. You’re aware, from that point onward, of the kinds of things critics might say about it. You’re aware of the kinds of things your publishers might like and dislike about it. You’re half-aware of marketing strategies—of all the stuff around the book. Whereas with your very first piece of fiction, if you’re lucky, those things barely occur to you at all.

After the first book I had a period in which I felt inhibited in what I could write. It has taken a while to shake that off. I think I’m only now starting to recover some of the freedom I had before. Go Giants is a much freer piece of work than anything I’ve produced in a while.

Guernica: Have you found, living in New York, that the city has begun to work its way into your writing? In this collection your mind is still very much on Northern Ireland, but then there’s those lines at the very end: “What if you felt nothing more walking down / the streets of Cookstown than you ever felt / walking in New York or Rome or London.”

Nick Laird: I think New York is working its way into my poems. It takes a while for a place to filter its way onto the page, but I’ve been reading more and more American poetry and I certainly feel it as quite a freeing force. Coming from the formally ordered tradition of poetry in Ireland, I find the expansiveness of American literature freeing in some sense. Yeats’s music is very different to Whitman’s.

Also—I like New York. I like living here. I like popping out in the afternoon to an arts cinema like Film Forum or the Angelika. I just saw La Grande Bellezza. If you’re interested in Italian movies, say, it’s a great thing to be able to walk a block and watch one on a Tuesday afternoon. New York allows you to go deeper into the person you want to be. You’re able to explore whatever your specific interests might be. You can eat good Japanese food if you want to eat good Japanese food. You can go and see your favorite author reading, and you can still listen to Radio Ulster on the internet as you have your breakfast. I love that.

G

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One comment for A Gap in Definitions

  1. Comment by Sammy Serhan on July 31, 2014 at 4:59 am

    Some really good insights there and some really good questions to accommodate their weight.

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