Derek Mahon, The Art of Poetry No. 82

Interviewed by Eamonn Grennan
Derek Mahon, The Art of PoetryThe following conversation took place at Derek Mahon’s studio apartment in the West Village of New York City, not long after his Selected Poems (1991) had been published in America. Three more volumes of poetry have appeared since that conversation—The Hudson Letter (1995), The Yellow Book (1997), and his Collected Poems (1999)—as well as a volume of critical writing, Journalism (1996). The Hudson Letter takes homelessness as its theme: “I knew I had to take on the New York subject somehow, but couldn’t think how. Then someone said, You’ve just been homeless yourself, why don’t you write about the homeless?” I’d been teaching Whitman, Crane, Bishop, and Howl, among other things, all of which helped me set up my Hudson Letter topic, which turned out to be not just the homeless on the streets but the whole sexual-metaphysical homeless ache we live with as a species. I could see my boring little provincial home-fixation as, paradoxically, one of the big themes.” The Yellow Book, a more deliberately satirical book, takes up, notes Mahon, “where The Hudson Letter left off: back in Dublin, finding it changed, and reestablishing an Irish and European perspective. Both books are about the twentieth century really, the American century and the fin de siècle.”
The small white-walled space of Mahon’s New York apartment contained a long desk covered in neatly stacked books; a desk diary with its entries, day by day, heavily blacked out; the much revised handwritten pages of the poem Mahon was working on at that moment (its rhyming couplets crowded with local names); recent copies of the Irish Times and the TLS; and an electric typewriter. On the floor beside the desk were a couple of stacks of magazines. The bed—where the interviewer sat—was a futon resting on the floor. Mahon sat in the one armchair, and at intervals rose to make another pot of tea. White bookshelves contained a collection of Vintage paperbacks; a small television set was perched on a footlocker. On the white walls hung a few reproductions, picked up, I was told, at yardsales in Connecticut: a Monet over the bed, a Hopper lighthouse or two, a well-known photograph of Whitman, a Bonnard of an open window looking out on fields, a painting of a Nordic beach with two women walking near a wintry sea, and a print of the Irish artist William Leech’s Convent Garden, Brittany—nuns in sunlight, lots of flowers. Outside the window was a sunny street of brownstones and black railings; from the fenced-in patches of earth around still-leafless trees, dwarf crocuses were pushing up into one of the first truly warm spring days of the year. The impression indoors was of comfortable austerity—a room to work, relax, and sleep in. The conversations were punctuated by frequent bursts of laughter, which have been omitted from the printed version—this omission means that the quite lighthearted nature of the event is not as clear as it might be. In truth, while some demanding and painful areas were probed, the whole thing was, as they say at home, “great crack.”
Read the complete interview



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