Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Interview with Liz Gallagher

In the Event Museum, there is no pleasure like wine and no pleasure greater than drinking wine with Liz Gallagher while talking about her first full-length collection of poems, The Wrong Miracle (Salt Publishing, 2009).

As part of their contract, poets are given a superhero costume to wear during the interview... just so they understand that we are dead serious.

Arlene Ang: Welcome to the Event Museum, Liz. I hope you're comfy.

Liz Gallagher: Hi Arlene, it is lovely to be here at the Event Museum, thanks for awakening me out of my non-poetry slumbering life and getting me up and about again. I so love the superwoman outfit that you had laid out on the couch for me, as you can see, I have slipped into it and also have delighted in the fact that my legs took on a new spurt of growth while doing so... I am totally comfortable sitting here and yes, if there is a large Martini going, I would be delighted. Hope you join me, and I adore your outfit too, I want your dressmaker's name after the interview.

AA: I'm pleased to say that our supporters have provided us with every type of liquor, but no glasses. It's probably a study on human adaptation. Just pick what you want and drink directly from the bottle. It's perfectly okay.

Talking of adaptation, I've always been intrigued that you were born in Donegal, Ireland and have been living in Grand Canary Island these past fourteen years. What impact did this have in your writing? Would you have any poems that shout Donegal or Grand Canary to you—they don't necessarily have to be about these places, but more of a feeling, maybe how they remind you of a period or time there?

LG: I really began writing while living here on Gran Canary Island. We are so fortunate as to live in a very beautiful and protected valley where there are only a few houses nearby so the quiet and relative isolation of the place is ideal for writing.

I think the fact that I am an 'outsider' here (even though I speak the language, know lots of people and am quite involved in the community) has also impacted on my writing as I can so easily go into 'objective mode' and sort of remove myself from my roots, so to speak, and thus feel freer to actually write about personal and 'root-like' things! I suppose there is some contradiction there!

I never really write while I'm in Ireland, I take notes and jot down expressions and things I hear as the wealth of expressions and sayings that my parents and neighbours use is very inspiring and amusing. One of the things I have found is that the minute I am on the plane out of Ireland, I am there with the food tray down writing away and usually it will be about Ireland, even if indirectly! It will take maybe two months for me to shake off the Irish experience and move on to other themes.

AA: I noticed some religious elements in your book, The Wrong Miracle—even the title hints on an "act of God" gone wrong. I remember exchanging notes with you once and talking about our Catholic background. In one of the poems there, "Sun Over a Tree Line," I'm fascinated by this image:

                        God becomes
a ragged fellow who moves
from tree to tree in the back of the mind.

He pursues the living and the dead stay dead.

Will you tell us more about this poem? It's almost as if God or religion is being relegated to the back of one's mind, to be taken out only on special occasions, like for an illness or a funeral. I'm also struck by the use of the verb, "become"—does this mean that we tend to use religion to suit our needs?

LG: Oh gosh! Yes, G/god, in lower or capital does make his/her way into my poems a lot. I was never really aware of the pattern until putting the book together and thinking: 'Here, we go again, God/god is everywhere'... I will confess (!) to actually spending quite some time wondering whether to put G/god in lower or capitals in some of the poems in the book after having written them. And yes, Arlene, I was brought up a Catholic and was educated by the nuns and no doubt that has left its mark and it comes out in a sort of half-rebellious way every so often in some poems.

This poem was written after the invasion of Iraq. There were protests and general disgust at this whole event happening. It felt like a collapse of civilisation, the fact that something so barbaric could happen in the 21st century and that the world stood by and let it happen. The over-riding feeling was one of chaos as shown by some of the images in the poem ( e.g. Humpty Dumpty, hoof-prints, pedicures for Dictators, door frames collapsing, dead bodies and water-logged blankets..) ..... and at the end I suppose God is being implicated in what is happening, like the lurker behind the tree who comes to pick at the spoils... I've never really analysed this poem before but yes, it is a move away from an all-loving G/god to one who is part and parcel of the chaos and the resulting deaths.

And to answer your question about using religion to suit our needs, I think this is possible, even though Catholic religion, as I know it, has always been so 'boxed-up' and 'defined' that I have never felt that I could make it adapt to my needs, that in fact it was a case of adapting to it or nothing, but yes, I know what you mean about all of a sudden finding a purpose for a G/god /religion, especially non-institutionalised religion, in times of grief and sadness.

AA: Another favorite poem, "Cosmic Noise" is such a perfect depiction of marriage—not just between two people, but also between two opposing forces.The pullmi-pullyu bickering in the first stages, then the establishment of balance:

                        I settle
to enjoy lunch. You settle to enjoy lunch.
Two people, their bearings found, and settling.

Would you relate this to your writing, too? Can you discuss your own relationship with poetry?

LG: I love your interpretation of this poem, Arlene. And yes, I do think that balance is needed to be able to write. I cannot write if I am unhappy or worried. The word 'settling' to me is really important, it's about that 'stretching-out-of-one's-legs' and the 'sigh-of-contentment' feeling that means turmoil is held at bay for a while but like you said the 'pullmi-pullyu' bickering is a sort of foreplay to settling as settling implies having been unsettled beforehand. This is my relationship with poetry, to a certain degree—there are so many preludes/interludes/general-life-happenings that prevent me from writing and when I do actually get down to writing, I always give a sigh of relief. And since I physically write with my back against my study wall (cushion between back and wall though and my legs stretched out before me on the study futon and laptop on lap, then it is the physical act of settling as well as the psychological.

AA: I have to say that after all this time, "Episode iii: The Day the Shelling Started" remains in my mind as one of the best poems I've come across. There's this haunting tango between the horrific and banal happiness:

The doctors said her tumors had shrunk. A wedding
took place across the street...

                        ... An artist in Lebanon ties
a microphone to his balcony to record the "Summer Rain"

of bombs breaking the sound barrier, he plays the trumpet
in the background and sketches drawings in the hushed

seconds of a starry night. An ex-hostage dreams of the blood
letting being over. He imagines one day sitting under

a magnificent oak and letting the beauty of the place soak into him.

I've always wanted to ask you about this poem, what made you write it. Will you tell us more about Zena el-Khalil to whom this piece is dedicated?

LG: As you know, Arlene, I have taken part in poem-a-day activities with yourself and others in Inside The Writers' Studio 30:30 forum. It was during one of these 30:30's that I wrote this poem (just to explain to other readers, 30:30 means writing a poem-a-day for 30 consecutive days! ) It was in July 2006 and it was during the invasion of Lebanon. I used to read the Guardian online every day to find out what was happening and I remember reading Zena el-Khalil's account of being there during the invasion and it affected me greatly.

At one stage for about 10 days during this particular 30:30, I lost my Internet connection but I didn't want to give up the poem-a-day activity (nor to give up reading the Guardian) so I used to go to the nearest village which is 10 minutes away and go into a Cyber CafĂ© there to read and write my poems. Because it was duirng the summer holidays, there used to be lots of young teenage guys there playing very loud computer war games and there I was stuck in the middle of them trying to get inspired to write poems—actually, most of the poems that came out of that time evolved around the invasion of Lebanon and war in general. The artist mentioned in the poem is a real person, his name is Mazen Kerbaj. He actually did record from his balcony the 'summer rain' of bombs. He blogs here and has a 6 min. 31 second recording of the bombing alongside saxophone improvisation.

Another weird aspect that added to the 'war' element was that in mid-July the rabbit-hunting season starts here on the island and the ironical thing is that where I live is big-rabbit-hunting ground (it is ironical considering it is actually a protected-valley, but not for rabbits, seemingly!) and every Thursday and Sunday there are loud gun shots which brought the whole horror of killing that little bit nearer.

AA: WOW. I never imagined so many outside events influenced this poem. The rabbit-hunting came as a surprise. It does sound harrowing.

You're such a gifted photographer, too. Have you ever found yourself using images from your pictures in your poems or vice versa? It would be interesting if you could point out some poems or stanzas in the book and show us what images inspired them.

LG: Arlene, thanks, that is very kind of you to say so. Funnily enough, I have never used actual images as inspiration for writing. I do have a visual memory though and find that just seeing words or phrases brings up the image for me and I can then go with that image. I very much enjoy taking photographs and find it indirectly helps me get worked up and inspired to write.

AA: Okay, here's a fun last question, then we can go fishing: Do you have any bad habits that actually make you a better poet? Any suggestions to aspiring writers?

LG: Oh, love this question, Arlene! Well, one bad, (well maybe more odd than bad), habit might be that I write in the dark with only the light of the computer screen. I suppose in that sense I am a vampire-writer. It is a little ironical too considering the near-constant light and brightness I have here on the island. Not sure why I write in the dark but know for sure I cannot write in the sunshine. I also love writing with my night-wear on... this falls in line with the dark thing, I suppose and the fact that I write at early dawn-ish accompanied by the very welcome first cup of tea. I am also a pre-shower, pre-combing hair writer. Maybe it's the earthiness and primitive back-to-basics feel of it all that gets me going!

I am also quite obsessive, a possibly or possibly-not bad habit. I obsess over whatever poem I happen to be writing but it is never long-lived and usually within a few days I am obsessing about another poem. I still consider myself to be an aspiring writer and the things I do that help me get writing would be things like 'disciplining' (ha!) myself to get involved in daily writing activities with other writers, not taking myself nor the writing too seriously, always being open to different types of writing and wanting to read, read, read as much poetry and other forms of writing as possible. Oh and one last thing, what keeps me wanting to write is the need to recapture that feeling of excitement that comes from seeing a piece of writing take shape... even if after a week or so, on return to that piece of writing, I sometimes begin to wonder what got me so excited about that particular piece in the first place. And so the cycle begins again....!

Thanks, so much for having me here, Arlene, I so enjoyed slipping into the Superwoman suit you had ready for me and I know it will be replacing my night-wear to become my writing-attire. The questions you posed were so interesting even if it did take me a few months to settle-down (there is that word 'settle' again!) and answer them.

Next week I'll be crossing the Atlantic to land in Texas with Brenda Nixon Cook at her 'The Art of Breathing' Blog... I'm looking forward to it a lot.

AA: Thanks so much for dropping by, Liz. I look forward to seeing you at Brenda's place. If we catch enough fish, I think she'll cook it for us. I hear she's a mean cook.