Tuesday 25 June 2019

I believe that two lines of poetry can save a life - Paula Meehan

For decades, former Ireland Professor of Poetry Paula Meehan has used her works as a voice for social justice. Now, ahead of taking to the stage at the Rock Against Homelessness gig, she tells our reporter how a childhood that began in Dublin's tenements taught her that art can be a powerful form of activism

Poet Paula Meehan. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Poet Paula Meehan. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Paula Meehan at the launch of the 'Dublin: One City One Book' in 2014 with fellow poets at the statue of Patrick Kavanagh on Grand Canal Bank. Photo: Jason Clarke
Esteemed: President Michael D. Higgins announced Paula Meehan as The Ireland Professor of Poetry 2013. Photo: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Joanne Hayden

I first met Paula Meehan almost 20 years ago. It was in a hotel ballroom at an evening to celebrate the poet Michael Hartnett who had recently died and I was meant to be doing a quick interview with her for RTÉ's long defunct books programme, Imprint. Young and struggling with camera shyness, I asked her a question but the shake in my voice was beyond my control. Paula Meehan took my hand, looked at me, and began to recite one of Hartnett's poems. Her gesture, so simple, perceptive and kind, dissolved my nerves; I forgot about the camera, the background din faded, and for those few minutes I was alone with her and Hartnett's words.

Fast forward two decades: it's Poetry Day, my voice is no longer shaking and Paula Meehan has just come from the Saol project, an empowerment and recovery programme for women in Dublin's North Inner City. Unsurprisingly, her diary for the day is full. Later, she'll go to a lecture in UCD in honour of Gus Martin who edited the poetry anthology Soundings, part of the old Leaving Cert curriculum for over three decades.

It's fitting that on Poetry Day Meehan is spending time in the community and the academy. Like her poems, she inhabits several different worlds. A former Ireland Professor of Poetry, she has taught in universities but she has also worked extensively in prisons and second chance education and regularly lends her voice to movements for social justice.

In 2015, she was instrumental in establishing the Artists' Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. On Sunday, May 13 - along with Imelda May, the High Hopes Choir and others - she's taking part in Rock Against Homelessness, in the Olympia Theatre. The annual gig run by INM, publishers of the Irish Independent, raises funds for Focus Ireland.

Paula Meehan at the launch of the 'Dublin: One City One Book' in 2014 with fellow poets at the statue of Patrick Kavanagh on Grand Canal Bank. Photo: Jason Clarke
Paula Meehan at the launch of the 'Dublin: One City One Book' in 2014 with fellow poets at the statue of Patrick Kavanagh on Grand Canal Bank. Photo: Jason Clarke

"I think the great human adventure is for some kind of integration," Meehan says, as we settle into pots of tea in a Dublin hotel. Her hair, not dark anymore, is still long, her voice is still calming and she is still extremely present. From the outside, she seems to have mastered the integration adventure, though she thinks the process is a lifelong journey.

At any one point, she has a whole series of "free range" activities on the go; she's always trying to find a balance between her art and the activist's path. She has been called a "citizen poet" and a "poet of solidarity". While she sees it as a gift and enrichment to be able to associate poetry with the causes she cares about, "In an ironic and strange way," she says, "the artist can sometimes be more powerful as an activist by following the muse."

Again from the outside, it would seem that her muse is never too far away. She has published seven collections of poetry, for which she has won numerous awards and been inducted into Aosdána and the Hennessy Literary Hall of Fame. Some of her poems are now part of the Irish public consciousness. In 2015, The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks - written in response to the death of Ann Lovett - was one of 10 poems on the shortlist for RTÉ's A Poem for Ireland. Her poem Seed appeared on the Leaving Cert in 2010 - a sure sign that she's entered the literary canon.

Her work is visionary. Timely and timeless, local and universal, it encompasses themes such as ecopolitics, disenfranchisement, loss, love, ritual, community and the lives of women. She studied etymology with the poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin in Trinity and her poems reflect her vital connection to the history and origins of words. But they also reflect her vital connection to her own history and origins.

She won't be "cruising in a strange world" when she does the Rock Against Homelessness gig on May 13, rather she'll be reading a poem about being evicted as a child and what that looked like from a child's perspective.

Born in 1955, she spent her early years in the "old tenements" on the corner of Sean McDermott Street and Gardiner Street; it's what gave her language. "I can't imagine jettisoning my background and the riches it has given me," she says. "I only discovered I was underprivileged when I went into school. I had a very loving and intense inner city upbringing, largely reared by my grandparents."

Esteemed: President Michael D. Higgins announced Paula Meehan as The Ireland Professor of Poetry 2013. Photo: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland
Esteemed: President Michael D. Higgins announced Paula Meehan as The Ireland Professor of Poetry 2013. Photo: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Before they eventually got a home in Finglas, her family spent many years in and out of "unsettled and uncertain" housing. The eviction was traumatic; it shaped her and her values. "I think of children who are being raised in single rooms in a homeless situation and how that forms their whole imagination and how it'll form how they'll be in their society when they grow older, how it impacts on their education," she says. "One of the things I remember from my own childhood is constantly shifting schools... homelessness is not just about shelter, it's about having a strong place from which to grow as a child."

When she was very young, her grandfather taught her how to read. Having that power at an early age meant that to some degree she could "decode" the culture she was living in. Her relationship with poetry also goes way back. Her grandfather kept a book of Emily Dickinson's poems - given to Meehan's aunt by an American boyfriend - in his writing cabinet. She was drawn to the book and still has it today.

"There was just something about the space around the poem and how it looked on the page, I felt there was power and I still find that's the charge... I think the little quatrains look like jewels on the page."

When she was in fifth class she was castigated for writing a poem about her dead dog instead of writing a composition about milk. "So I had a sense very early that poetry could get you into trouble big time, and that's borne out just by looking at what happens to poets in cultures that become very oppressive. I mean, why would someone like Stalin be quaking in his shoes because of a lyric poet like Mandelstam or Akhmatova? Why were the McCarthy trials in the States so down on people who, not even wildly radical, they had mildly radical social consciences?"

Every generation has a zeitgeist, she says, and hers was "ferociously libertarian". She embraced the counterculture coming from the States and the music of Bob Dylan, Sandy Denny and Joni Mitchell. She was expelled from the Holy Faith in Finglas for leading a protest but did her Leaving Cert in a vocational school, re-encountering Emily Dickinson, who was the only woman included in Soundings but who has, in Meehan's mind, "a specific gravity that would balance nearly all the other guys".

She got into Trinity, lived through the grief of her mother's early death at 42, and later did an MFA at Eastern Washington University in the US. She came back in 1983 to a strange country.

"I arrived home into the referendum to insert the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution," she says, "and the other thing that had happened in those two years was that heroin had hit the poorer communities of Dublin... the kids, beautiful, intelligent kids, who would've been the class activists, were strung out and they were dying."

The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks was written in the context of those shocks as well as the shock of Ann Lovett's horrific death in 1984. Meehan wrote the poem "very much in a private mode" and sat on it for many years before it was published in 1991.

"There was an ethical as well as an aesthetical issue. How right is it for a poet or any artist to use private grief - and that was the private grief of a family and a community - to make their own statements?"

In 2012, she read the poem at a vigil to commemorate the death of Savita Halappanavar. When different communities take ownership of her poems, she feels humbled that the work can be useful.

If poetry wasn't useful it "would've died off like our tails," she says. "There must be an evolutionary purpose in ritualising language to some end, which remains a mystery to me."

Alive to the mystery of her art, she is also always working. She writes on the DART or as she's walking her dog on the beach in Howth, taking her notebooks back to her workroom in her house in Baldoyle, where she lives with her partner, the poet and writer (and one-time presenter of Imprint) Theo Dorgan. She believes that "if the muse is looking for you, she's more likely to find you at your desk than in the pub".

Her poetry reflects her passions; her references are vast. As well as the city she knows so well, she draws on geology, astronomy and nature, on different religious, mystical and mythical traditions and, crucially, on dreams. "I think the whole river of poetry is a history of the dream life and the dreaming of the human species," she says. "I think we can solve things through dreaming, I think we can embed important memories, survival strategies, through dreaming. It's the place where everybody is a poet, in the dream."

Her latest book, Geomantic - an extraordinary collection of 81 nine-line poems - reflects a preoccupation with very long cycles: fossil cycles, climate change cycles, cycles of oblivion and reconstruction. "They do make the human life seem puny but that wouldn't make me give up on anything. It certainly wouldn't make me give up on believing we can change the way we do things and we can make a better place, because if you give up on that, where do you go? You go to bed and you don't get up the next day."

Some of the poems in Geomantic were written while she was Ireland Professor of Poetry. Her term (2013-2016) coincided with many State commemorations and she was characteristically mindful of those not being commemorated. In a poem called The Commemorations Take Our Minds Off The Now, she writes: "I commemorate / the poor going round and round the bend."

Geomantic also includes two poems written to commemorate the boys who died in the Letterfrack Industrial School. One of these, The Cardboard Suitcase, is a window into Ireland's shameful past but, in nine lines, Meehan gives the young subject of her poem a whole life: a place, a family and, at the end, dignity in his imagination, in his dreams: "He slept / beyond reach of the fists, the lies / He dreamt beyond reach of our pity."

Though her poems can be heartbreaking, they can also be funny and few of them are given to despair. She has learned ways of negotiating with what oppresses her; poetry is a place where you can do this, and she has no problem with poetry - the reading or making of it - as therapy.

Just as a poem can contain a complete mystery of the universe, she says, it can also be a kind of salvation. "There are poems that tell stories but there are also poems that just give you a moment of vision or transcendence or colour even, or just an image that you can carry around with you. Two lines. Two lines can save a life, I believe it."

Rock Against Homelessness takes place in the Olympia Theatre on Sunday, May 13. Tickets are from €35 at ticketmaster.ie

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