Joyce in 2011: Finding a language use

Trevor Joyce. Photo by Jessica Jones.
Trevor Joyce. Photo by Jessica Jones.

Note: This interview took place on November 28, 2010, at Trevor Joyce’s house off Shandon Street, Cork. The weather was bitter, and Joyce was fatigued, having stood outside hours the previous day at an antistate/anti-IMF protest he had organized in the city to coincide with the national protests in Dublin. With thanks to Trevor Joyce, Lee Jenkins, and Justin Katko. — Niamh O’Mahony

Niamh O’Mahony: How do you understand language and what do you think it does?

Trevor Joyce: Well, to start with, I’m not at all rigorously theoretical, so my view of things and the way I approach things changes as I go along. I constantly contradict myself, so take it that this is a sort of an answer as of recently … 

I think, when I started out, I had the same general attitude to language as communicative that most people have. Then at sixteen or seventeen I discovered Paul Klee’s paintings, and I read something in a book about him, something that appeared to be a quotation. I just read in the past year it seems as though it’s a misinterpretation. It’s a sort of partial translation or quotation to begin with, so it doesn’t necessarily represent his view; but I think other people have taken it the same way that I have. His method was to start with normal elements that he knew very well — we’re talking about visual study here in the Pedagogical Sketchbook, things like spirals, serrated lines, lines going for a walk — and he would allow these to interact on the surface of the canvas, then maybe add color, add tone, and so on and at some point he would recognize a subject in the painting, which would then become the title of the painting, and then he would stop.[1] So the painting could be titled something like “Christmas Night in Augsburg”; it wouldn’t have started out as a painting of that, but it would end up as a painting of that, achieved unconsciously by a play with objective formal elements.

So, in the same way, I think that there are interesting objective formal elements in language, things that you can pick on, and which you can see other peoples’ minds working on. You can see language constantly forming and destroying itself in various ways in other peoples’ mouths; for me, it’s a question of doing the same thing.

Most thinking, the vast majority of thinking, is done through language — the stuff at least that interests me. So, what’s felt usually finds itself in language. Everything that’s been felt, everything that’s been thought, has been expressed already through language, this objective body of signs that’s out there. What I do then is try to ingest that, play with it in formal ways, let it take shape in the same way that Klee talks about it and put it out there when it seems to me to have a coherent shape. And then I spend a few years in some cases trying to figure out what the hell it means! 

O’Mahony: Is language, then, the point at which feeling becomes material?

Joyce: Language is the medium through which it happens and it has a thickness that we don’t control, the stuff below the surface. We control the surfaces in various ways, you know, with formal syntax and grammar and all the rest of it, but there’s an awful lot happening underneath. The nearest I have to any sort of theory would be Russian Formalism. I know it’s very limited; I know there are all sorts of places where it stops short where it could go on, but it serves me very well for working definitions. Past a certain point, I don’t want to know because I want to leave myself open to make mistakes that are interesting. I might have been stuck with rather barren certainties, but I prefer fruitful mistakes.

O’Mahony: So looking at something like music then, where communication is not through the medium of words and phonemes and yet the medium is expressive. Does that occupy a similar position to language do you think?

Joyce: To me, yeah, but, as I was saying to you, because I’m so woefully ignorant in terms of actual skills, either theoretical or practical with music, I’m sort of free to imagine music to be doing whatever I want. I remember a German guy, he once taught maths here in Cork; his English wasn’t perfect but he could be quite inventive. I remember him commenting on one occasion that you had a great freedom in a language that wasn’t your own; you could have all sorts of fun with it.

O’Mahony: Writing, for you, then, is an attention to “processes,” looking back at “The Point of Innovation in Poetry”?[2]

Joyce: It’s both, and as I said at the beginning, I don’t stay consistent.[3] At certain times, I’m actually trying to say something, I’m trying to get communicative, though at this point I’ve got so many weights connected to myself that it’s very difficult to move freely. I do find it difficult to say clearly what I mean so I’ve given up. I used to love arguing, years ago, and now I’ve told people that I won’t argue anymore. I try to stick to that because I just find myself saying all sorts of things that I don’t really mean, though it only occurs to me a week later that I don’t really mean it, that I can’t inhabit it.

With music and the visual arts and mathematics, they serve me well as ways of thinking about possibilities for language, the formal possibilities; and then you’ve got this extra stickiness of the surface of language, of specific meanings, that you don’t have to the same degree in those other fields. It’s that combination: sometimes going with the stickiness, trying to say something, trying actually to express something or put an external objective polemical point, and at other times, just letting something grow out of the material of language and “finding out” equally — “this grew for me, I recognized it, how and in what way is that my feeling?”

O’Mahony: So is language something that is outside, and that you come to, or that is always constructive in your perception?

Joyce: It’s both. If I’m doing a creative writing workshop and I’ve a small enough group (I’m highly dubious about creative writing workshops, by the way, but I do them, partly to sabotage them), one of the things that I do, and I tell them beforehand that it’s a really cheap trick, I say, “OK, look, we’re just going to take three or four minutes and I just want you to think about this, in your own mind, don’t say anything. I want you to think about some experience you’ve had, some idea, some fantasy, some dream that is very particular to you, that is yours uniquely, and that really, really matters to you but that is very private. I want you to express this, to describe this to yourself in your own words. I’m not going to ask anyone to say it here. I just want you to do this.” So, to start with they’re kind of looking at me in alarm, then you get the odd hand going up, and eventually everybody has done it and they’re wondering what’s happening. So I say “OK, so you’ve all managed to describe this experience that’s unique to yourself, that’s very, very private, you expressed it in your own words?” and then I say “No you haven’t. There’s no such thing as your own words. The words that you’ve used, that you’ve thought adequate to this thing which is very private, very personal, are also the same words that are used in advertising, used by corrupt politicians. They’re being used to scam, and so on.” There is no such thing as this intimate, personal field of language. It’s always the same, it’s crossing boundaries constantly.

O’Mahony: What do you think is the responsibility of the poet as someone who is particularly close to language and has a particularly attentive awareness of it?

Joyce: Well, to start with, not to allow meanings loose in the poetry that you can’t in some way … I was going to say in some way inhabit, or live with, but that’s not right … not that you have them under control, but that they’re not in control of you. You can’t at any point step back and say “I didn’t mean that.” Anything you put down, any meanings that are there, they’re your meanings. If you’re not going to bring them down and rephrase, reshape them, and control them in that very authoritarian way which I don’t believe works for poetry, what you’ve got to do is balance them elsewhere. So you’ve got this constant dynamic, a dialectic, going on.

What’s in Store is full of that sort of stuff; that’s why there are so many elements in there.[4] I don’t know to what degree I’m accurate or doing him a disservice, but I think that Yeats did much the same thing in his books. You’ve got expressions of different, polarized angles in different poems within a single book so that they balance one another. He does it, to some degree formally, and textually as well. There’s stuff that’s quite accessible and idiomatic sitting alongside stuff from A Vision, but he also takes up quite different, polarized, subject positions in relation to things.[5]

O’Mahony: So, in terms then of what you said in “The Point of Innovation in Poetry,” and I realize that this was written nearly fifteen years ago in 1996, but there’s a point at which you distinguish between expressive poetry and nonexpressive poetry; you’ve got “expressive” poetry on the one hand “speaking for” people, and on the other …

Joyce: Well, the other thing is more or less what I’m trying to outline; I mean, I was on my high horse, on my pulpit, for that thing. I was all fired up and we were doing this thing, putting on this festival and I thought I knew what I thought. I’m much less sure now, much less programmatic, so that rather than saying that prescriptively [i.e. affirming a non-expressive form of poetry through his own poetry], I’d put it descriptively of the way that I work; but it is a reason why I distrust and dislike a good deal of what other people consider to be good poetry. I think it’s too much the intellect dominating a skill set which I associated with poetry, but what’s being done isn’t poetry. I think poetry has its own specific ethics where you’re responsible for everything but you’ve got to let it go and you’ve got then something further to live up to. All those extra meanings you let loose, you’ve got to deal with them as well; so it’s constantly letting go more meanings, bringing them into the world and letting them exist rather than letting them down.

O’Mahony: So that then is the domain of the poet, that is the locale?

Joyce: Yeah, yeah. The rest, as far as I’m concerned, is not unakin to advertising copy.

O’Mahony: My next question regards your readership. Do you have a specific audience in mind when you’re writing, or who do you write for?

Joyce: I’d have said at various times, “No I don’t,” and I’d have said at other times that I write for myself, and in a way that’s true. I need to have some element of that, but I certainly don’t get as much of a charge from that as I used to. I hadn’t been writing for twenty years or so — I’d been writing in my head but I hadn’t been turning anything out, and I remember people commenting about me, “Trevor Joyce stopped writing,” and it used to really annoy me and get me down because I was constantly trying to work out why it was that I couldn’t write and free myself.

During the time I was doing stone floods Mike Smith was pretty much my only reader; and I’m glad, like, he used to have difficulty with it.[6] He would call me on particular words, phrases, lines, stanzas or whatever, but eventually, when he found that the thing wasn’t purely whimsical and that I was trying to move in more and more directions, he said “OK, don’t give me notes. Just write more and more of these because they’ll illuminate one another and they’ll function as their own notes.” I think that was really good advice.

By the time I went through the other stuff that’s in  first dream of fire and got on to What’s in Store, I had probably about six to ten people who would read it as I turned it out.[7] They would respond and it was funny because I got to recognize what some people like and others dislike, and I found that some people were open no matter what I did. There was one reader, Anna Khasin, who’s now around DC in the States; she was extraordinary in that no matter what I sent her she seemed to be able to find resonances in it immediately and feed them back to me, which often meant that when something wasn’t working dead right I could tune it. It was extraordinary, I mean, she wasn’t sending me essays in return, sometimes it would be just a line, but her ear was so acute and that just gave me a greater sense of belief in what I was doing.

O’Mahony: Does it matter to you that the reader will not always grasp it, or is it incumbent upon a good reading to acknowledge what you’ve tried to do?

Joyce: As far as I’m concerned, no. Keith Tuma asked me a question which may be similar back in 2005 the time that SoundEye sent an embassy to the Cork Caucus: cris cheek, Randolph Healy, and myself subjected ourselves to [public] interview by Keith. He asked me, with something like “The Peacock’s Tale”which is done using a spreadsheet, how important it was that the reader should know or get all this, and I said “Well, not really.” The poem should be able to function without it, to some degree, and I think in that case, it would function, to a large degree. It should open it up more, it should mean more if this is known, and for “The Peacock’s Tale,” the more I thought about it the more I think that it [understanding the structure] probably is more desirable than I thought.[8]

There is fundamental rhyming [in“The Peacock’s Tale”] between the prose drawn from the inside of Encyclopaedia Britannica about The Famine, and the native Irish, the “mere Irish,” not being able to put their clothes on if they take them off — clothing oneself as a sort of poor forked animal.[9] The other part of it is about the carving and breaking up of animals in butchery; and the two rhyme — the taking off of the clothes and the taking off of the flesh from the skeleton — but you don’t actually see that the butchery lexicon is there unless you know to some extent how the thing works, how the concept rhymes, and they’re scattered in a particular way across it. You would need to have them pointed out to you, I’d say.

O’Mahony: And that idea of conceptual rather than internal or overt rhyme — that is particularly prevalent in your work?

Joyce: Oh yeah, I think I probably take the idea from Pound initially, though I can’t remember where in Pound. In the last year it’s been occurring to me as a way of explaining. People often raise their eyebrows if they’re not used to the Poundian tradition of poetry, and the idea of concept rhyme. I talk about something like “womb tomb” as being partly there, you know semantic rhyme, but the rhyme in meaning is only part of that, you’ve also got the sonority. I was trying the think of an example of subject rhyme and of course you’ve got it in Heaney where he talks about hope and history rhyming.[10]

He doesn’t actually do it, that’s the thing, he talks about it. Whereas the people that I’m interested in and what I’m interested in doing myself would be a poetry which would enact it rather than talking about it.

O’Mahony: To me, your reading at SoundEye [July 2010] seemed to carry within it a patterning or movement richer than accent and local intonation. What do you think about this construction of language, and what are the possibilities for such interpretation of your work?

Joyce: Yeah, I’d like to think that it’s true and it was very much in my mind at the time because I was just back from this residency in Cill Rialaig (Co. Kerry), and then from nine months in Cambridge. Before I went over there [to Cambridge] I was thinking about these things in relation to Spenser and this alien, English voice and English mentality viewing a very different Ireland. Obviously there’s been a great deal of convergence since, and I wouldn’t want to sentimentalize or to try to throw myself back in a time machine. But, I was thinking about it, doing research on it, to some degree, theoretically in Cambridge. Then I got to Cill Rialaig in the Iveragh Peninsula — a place where folk material was being collected in the thirties. Also, I was amazed to find that it [Cill Rialaig] was beside where, in the Book of Invasions, the Milesians had landed.[11] Near Waterville, where Charlie Chaplin used to go on holidays, that’s where the Milesians landed!

So, I had all that stuff in my mind [the languages of Ireland and the English articulation of Ireland by Spenser etc.] and one of the texts that I used for thinking about it is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.[12] I mentioned it in that thing in For the Birds, and I think I bought it in 1997 in Swarthmore. It’s certainly not perfect and there are parts of it that I doubt, and I think he goes close to being new age-y at times, but I find it a really interesting book. I like that it sets out more to suggest things and to open up possibilities of awareness and sensitivity than to prove things, though I think probably that he thinks he did prove a certain amount in it. But I love it as an exercise in a particular rhetoric and I am very interested in what’s being suggested in it.

O’Mahony: So there is some resonance, something residual about the patterning, the sounds and shape of the language in your poetry that you recognize as distinctly Irish — it is difficult to determine whether this would carry through to the poem on the page, but I’d been reading a lot of English poetry in the months leading up to you reading at SoundEye, and it felt comfortable, then, to listen to Irish poetry.

Joyce: Ah, I’m delighted you say that! Because this was all stuff that I was immersed in but I didn’t deliberately do it around SoundEye; I mean, as usual, I just, sort of, talk in between and I read whatever comes into my mind to read. I wasn’t setting out programmatically to say what I’m at.

O’Mahony: But there is a danger to that kind of reading of language and poetry, of there being national elements or drives within the language which can lend itself towards a problematic nationalism in poetry and criticism?

Joyce: Oh I think so, yeah. I would say that that sense [of something residual to the Irish appropriation of language] isn’t peculiar to me; Catherine Walsh and Billy Mills try to mine that in their distinct ways, and perhaps Maurice Scully does also, and others whose work is in a tradition, a mode of writing that I find interesting.

I think that that may explain part of the reason why particularly the Language poets, but also perhaps, to some degree, the Cambridge poets are, at the same time sympathetic … I’m talking in a global or generic way, that they feel themselves sympathetic to what we’re doing, but at the same time, at the back of it, there’s something that they’re not quite entirely happy with. And I think they’re right not to be entirely happy with it; I think it is a different way of writing, and in fact I think, probably that myself and the Irish poets I’ve mentioned, (though Billy Mills would probably go after me with a crowbar if he heard me say this), that we have a good deal in common with people like Heaney and so on. It’s a sort of stuff that only really becomes visible maybe fifty or a hundred years later. Where people, in general, perceive antipathies and differences, I think actually there’s a great deal held or practiced in common.

O’Mahony: And so to avoid the nationalist rhetoric that has featured so heavily in Irish poetry and criticism of the last century, is it simply a case of addressing it in a different way in criticism, or …

Joyce: Yeah, well, by talking about it, and in criticism; you’ve got to bring an analytic mind to bear on it, testing the stuff. I’m a great believer in good criticism and there’s never been really good criticism in Irish poetry, or very little of it, stuff that’s fundamental, that goes to the roots of it. I think, once again, that a great deal of the material that I don’t like, that goes too far [and] plays nostalgically or sentimentally off this stuff, is material which comes closer to advertising copy than to poetry. It’s people who see, as it were, a niche for a voice or a viewpoint and occupy or trademark it. What I’m interested in, and the people whose work I’m interested in, is a work that is constantly changing and getting away from it; and yet they can’t, because it’s not that they’re choosing to say these things but it’s as if the things are choosing them to say them.

O’Mahony: Do you think that this approach to language and poetry is a distinguishing feature of Irish poets?

Joyce: No, I don’t. That vision is just within poets, certainly within that last two hundred years or so, across all the traditions that I know. There are some people like Lewis Carroll, Kurt Schwitters, Klee’s poetry and so on, whose writing is amenable to me in the way that I like. People like Christopher Middleton, a contemporary English poet — there’s one poem by him that I like very much called “Woden dog” which is written in a kind of hybrid Caribbean pidgin.[13] It’s very hard to figure out what it is, but it’s written in the voice of a toy wooden dog which is at times being driven around in a bus, and is asking, voicing the wish not to be pushed over. Very, very strange, but I just love it. I love nonsense poetry; however intellectual it is, however thoughtful it is, I usually prefer poetry the nearer it goes to nonsense poetry. Lewis Carroll is just marvelous. I always wish that I could read [Christian] Morgenstern; I think he translates very poorly from what I can gather but I’d just love to be able to read his material.

O’Mahony: And is your liking for Carroll and those other poets coming out in this collection [with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold]?

Joyce: Oh yeah, I hope so. I love the neatness of his rhyming. I wish I was as good technically as he is; he’s just superb and, you know, people like Jonathan Swift: such control on one level of the surface of language but letting other ones “run amok,” so to speak!

O’Mahony: My next question regards critical commentaries on recent collections. The first is by Alex Davis from his review of Syzygy,and the second is from Nate Dorward’s essay “On Trevor Joyce”:[14]

Davis: “its [Syzygy’s] close correlation of form to a content preoccupied with the opposition that matter, of various kinds, puts up to structuration.”[15]
Dorward: “the dissolution of boundaries and the permeability of stony barriers” exemplifying “a paradox of static motion.”[16]

Are Davis’s and Dorward’s descriptions of some kind of static flux, is that something you agree with yourself?

Joyce: I thought that what Nate was saying was more general; I didn’t think that he was saying that about Syzygy, the point that he was making [regards] the early stuff that’s in Pentahedron and stone floods, and Nate is bang on. He got immediately what I was on about, and he got most of it by himself.

With Alex, the reference was to material of various sorts, well it depends what he means by “various kinds.” Material can be “thematic material” or whatever, or it can be material as in substance and the world. If you accept that there’s a very wide spectrum of possibilities, then yes.

Somebody, years ago, was trying to get me to read Henry James, and nearly managed to get me to read The Golden Bowl.[17] This was on the strength of the argument, as I understood him and remember my understanding, that you have these long and very complex sentences and periods in James which, in a way, enact the difficulty of negotiating the world and enacting one’s agency within it. Jump sidewise: I’m not sure if I’m still talking to the same point, but David Lloyd said in a review somewhere about me having an odd combination of expressionist and constructivist approaches, and that’s true and as far as I’m concerned.[18] All of that’s derived from my understanding of Klee and how Klee works in his painting.

Some of the stuff of the last fifteen years or so, post stone floods,things like Syzygy, “The Peacock’s Tale” and so on, you might consider them a sort of an OuLiPian thing.[19] “The Peacock’s Tale” and Syzygy got published online with notes and commentary on Drunken Boat, and they were in the para-OuLiPian section. Now there are a couple of ways in which they’re not OuLiPian. One of those ways would be — and I remember Christian Bök going over the OuLiPian stuff with me — that you need a nontrivial constraint; you need this reference between the thematic and the constraint, but the constraint must be carried through rigorously. It must be carried through, and I don’t, I’m quite content to let stuff fall apart. It’s part of the way that I work.

Kit Fryatt, writing the review in the Irish Times, referred to my note which was very carefully worded about the thirty-six worders in What’s in Store.[20]What she said is“basically what he means is that he couldn’t do it.” Leaving aside my careful wording, the fact was that I chose these things in order that they might break down, because what I do, for the purposes of the poem, is reduce the world often into a constraint or a set of formal rules which then represent the world and maybe a specific thing within it. I use spreadsheets a lot with the awareness of their background in financial analysis and in banking and such things. It’s not accidental that I use them. I was working as a financial analyst in Apple when I started doing it, so it’s not whimsical. It’s not attention-seeking, although it appears that the most interesting thing a lot of people can find to say about Syzygy is “Oh, it’s written using an Excel spreadsheet. Oh, how interesting.” But once I’ve done that, once I’ve set up this constraint, then the thing to do is to try to smuggle meaning past or through it, and it has to be disguised in various ways. It will often find itself, if I internalize the thing properly, it will be disguised in ways that even I don’t recognize immediately.

O’Mahony: So does the constraint offer a degree of control through which you can work?

Joyce: It makes the problem smaller. It constrains it so that I’m not worried, you know, about what the IMF is going to do immediately. Instead, I’m worrying about how I’m going to deal with this rhyme or something like that. Also it helps me because I’ve got a very short attention span and I work on too much stuff at once. I’m just too changeable to write large-scale work in the way that … well, I’m no Milton let’s say! What it lets me do is to, sort of, subdelegate to various department heads in my head: you know, “you’ll go off and you’ll work on various constraints, and you’ll work on language, you’ll work on historical analogies and all the rest of it,” and you know, in the meantime, I’ll work on, sort of, getting my voice trained to give a good scream!

O’Mahony: Is there ever a point at which the constraint becomes unbearable? And is that you allow it to loosen?

Joyce: It depends on what you mean by unbearable. There are times where I find myself getting sloppy with it, and I wonder whether it’s just that I’m having a bad day or a bad week, or, is it that in some way the tension that was being generated has dissipated. If it’s the latter then I’ll just jack it in, but in some ways it’s sort of a safe zone. When I’m preparing these things, there’s a lot at stake for me, but when I actually get in to, as it were, close combat with the forms and the language and so on, at that point I’m just thinking about it in formal terms. And that’s the point, you know, that’s my thing about the Klee business, about working with spirals and serrated lines, working with purely formal elements. These are all charged for me with all the work that I’ve already put in, you know, with forty years of writing poetry and translating and reading and so on; so that even if something happens that’s entirely unforeseen by me, I can probably in some way recuperate it into meaning.

I found that fascinating when I did Syzygy; I programmed the spreadsheet with the algorithm, and when I got to doing the middle voice palindromically I found that the constraint was being sloppily managed in OuLiPian terms. The constraint itself was badly defined, but it suited me. It was the level of difficulty that I wanted and it stood for the right thing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the major point.

O’Mahony: So when you reference John Cage talking to Joan Retallack about his formal techniques, that would be important to your own poetry as well?[21]

Joyce: Yeah, what I think he’s saying is that too many artists are occupied with imitating the products of nature, whereas what he wants to do is to work analogously to the processes of nature.

O’Mahony: How do you understand this approach in your own poetry?

Joyce: I don’t know what I'm being analogous to, but I have a sense that it is analogous to something that’s much larger than what I’m doing, that there’s massive backdrop. It’s like watching Ivan the Terrible, or a film noir or something like that where you’ve got this huge figure in shadow on the wall. The camera goes round the corner and you find it’s a small boy — well, I am that small boy!

O’Mahony: What form does this attention to process over product take in the language of poetry?

Joyce: When I started out, there was this notion, we touched on it earlier, of language being private, personal and intimate, and [as a poet] you work at developing “my lyric voice” — I grew eventually to realize that that was codswallop and it is the greatest constraint.

I understand very clearly, Austin Clarke’s thing about “first I rope myself in chains and then I try to get rid of them.”[22] That is very freeing, if you choose the right chains; they’re much better than the ones imposed externally. So yeah, it’s almost like a sympathetic magic, isn’t it … that hadn’t ever occurred to me before. Language, as I understand it now, is a bit like Wordsworth’s “conversation of ordinary men,” rather than being a separated-out, elite field of language-use that is out of ordinary language usages.[23] It is always taking them [constraints] a stage further, a stage further, until they begin to tip over into something which is internally patterned rather than primarily patterned by the world.

O’Mahony: Difficulty and abstraction feature prominently in contemporary criticism of innovative poetry. Are these qualities that you value in poetry, or are they a byproduct of your writing process?

Joyce: The degree to which something is difficult or not doesn’t matter to me. I would be delighted if I could write perfectly accessible poetry that worked for me and that was adequate to what I was thinking and feeling and what was moving me, but I can’t. On the other hand, when I look at some of the generally “accessible” poetry that’s around me, it’s not doing it either.

O’Mahony: So it’s a case of finding the language that best suits?

Joyce: Yeah, not just the language that best suits; I think there’s a suspicion there, and I don’t think it’s what you think at all, but, you know, of le mot juste or something, “finding the language”; for me it’s sort of finding a language use, an approach to language, a way of deploying language …

Anyway, what’s difficult changes, changes very much, and the nature of the difficulty changes as the work goes out in the world and lives, so I think it would be a damn stupid thing to make that primary. I can understand that someone would make it an element of thinking in terms of texture, and taking that in a broad sense, you know, conceptual texture and all that, but to make it in itself a value I think is stupid.

O’Mahony: Well, a final question then: what do you think of the current state of Irish poetry, innovative poetry in particular, and how has it changed since you began writing in the sixties?

Joyce: I don’t know, I mean, this category of innovative poetry; I’ve used it myself, and I used to say “I never use the term ‘experimental,’” and then I go back and find it’s on the blurb to Pentahedron.[24] I didn’t write the blurb but I remember telling Mike Smith, using the phrase to him. In any case, I okayed his use of it in the blurb even if I didn’t write it myself … but yeah, I think that, once again, all of those terms don’t matter to me anymore really. Ha, as though I sat there, stroking my beard! But yeah, I just find them pretty boring.

I don’t like it now. There’s a lot of things to be said for the sixties. There were lots of poets then whose work I didn’t like, probably about the same proportions as now. Even the people that I didn’t like as much, (perhaps a poem here and there) they were much more varied in their approach, and the voices, to use that term, seemed to have more to them that was idiosyncratic. It wasn’t just temperamental idiosyncrasies; they came with different backgrounds and they came with knowledge that they had gathered themselves into language. Now … maybe it’s the result of writing programs and all this sort of stuff. I think it’s very much the fault of editors, the emphasis on publishing, coming down to the fact that if you go to bookshops, you’ve got a very limited range in terms of contemporary poetry, and the fact that so many poets don’t know anything about the history of poetry. So, it’s just very, very generic and very, very barren. Unfortunately a lot of the innovative stuff seems to me to be very generic, and I’m equally bored by both. I’m just not interested in reading that stuff.



1. Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook (New York: F. A. Praeger, 1953).

2. Trevor Joyce, “The Point of Innovation in Irish Poetry,” in For the Birds: Proceedings of the First Cork Conference on New and Experimental Irish Poetry, ed. Harry Gilonis (Sutton, UK: Mainstream; Dublin: hardPressed, 1998), 18–26; republished in The Gig 2: Six Poets: Views and Interviews, ed. Nate Dorward (Willowdale, Ontario: The Gig Document Series, 2001), 45–50.

3. “My suggestion is that we abandon this archaic cult of beauty which imposes such a barrier between the activity of poetry and what others, with equal exclusivity, refer to as ‘the real world’ … The processes of the world respect no privilege, recognize no distinctions of propriety. In making this our material, we need feel no guilt at separating ourselves from the mess of the world.” Joyce, For the Birds, 24; Six Poets, 49.

4. Joyce, What’s in Store: Poems 2000–2007 (Dublin: New Writers’ Press; Toronto: The Gig, 2007).

5. W. B. Yeats, A Vision (New York: Collier Books, 1937).

6. Joyce, stone floods (Dublin: New Writers’ Press, 1995).

7. Joyce, with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold (Exeter:Shearsman Books; Dublin: New Writers’ Press, 2001; 2nd edition, 2003).

8. Joyce, “The Peacock’s Tale,” in What’s in Store, 239.

9. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 7th ed., s.v. “The Famine.” For extended discussion of this poem, see Joyce, “The Structure of‘The Peacock’s Tale,’” Drunken Boat 8 (2006). 

10. Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy, After ‘Philoctetes’ by Sophocles (Lawrence Hill, Derry: Field Day, 1990), 77.

11. Book of Invasions, Lebor Gabala Erenn, a twelfth-century manuscript on the origins of the Gaelic people.

12. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1997). 

13. Christopher Middleton, Selected Writings: A Reader (Manchester: Carcanet, 1989; London: Paladin, 1990), 228. 

14. Joyce, Syzygy (Wicklow: Wild Honey Press, 1996).

15. Alex Davis, “Purity and Dirt,” review of Syzygy, by Trevor Joyce, The Irish Review 22 (1998): 114–116.

16. Nate Dorward, “On Trevor Joyce,” Chicago Review 48, no. 4 (Winter 2002–2003): 87–88.

17. Henry James, The Golden Bowl (New York: Penguin, 1985). 

18. David Lloyd, “An Impressive Collection,” The Irish Times,September 18, 2001, 10.

19. Joyce, stone floods.

20. Kit Fryatt, “Process, product and a peacock,” review of What’s in Store, by Trevor Joyce, The Irish Times, April 19, 2008, B10. 

21. Joyce, “The Point of Innovation in Irish Poetry,” For the Birds, 24, and The Gig 2: Six Poets, 45-50. 49.

22. “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free,” Austin Clarke, Collected Poems (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974), 545.

23. “[T]he language of the earliest Poets was felt to differ materially from ordinary language … In works of imagination and sentiment … in proportion as ideas and feelings are valuable, whether the compositions be in prose or in verse, they require and exact one and the same language.” William Wordsworth, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth (Cirencester, Gloucestershire: Echo Library, 2005), 201–203.

24. Joyce, Pentahedron (Dublin: Zozimus-New Writers’ Press, 1972).