In reaction to a recent review of his latest collection, poet Oisin Breen corresponded with our reviewer Thomas Gagnon. Here are the results of that correspondence.
How is your name pronounced, and is it a male name only?
So, on my name, yep, Oisín is a male name only…the typical pronunciation of my name is like Ush – een, with the í elongated…my own name is little fawn, and is in fact the hero of one of Ireland’s central mythical cycles. Without getting too deeply into it, he is called little fawn because he is wrested from the corpse of his dead mother after a magician has turned her into a deer, which in turn was ravaged by wolves, while her husband Fionn Machuill was away in battle. It’s a long story!
When did you start writing poetry? What motivated you to write poetry?
As to when I began writing poetry, actually my first piece was when I was only about 13, I wrote a — rather odd for that age — lament for the passing of chivalry, and it was I believe in sonnet form. Thereafter I only really wrote fiction for fun a few times a year until I was about sixteen, I think. All sorts of things KEPT me writing within my sixteenth year, from the fact that girls liked poetry, to the fact that I just found it both fun and relaxing, and thereafter it simply became something I did. That said, what got me to do it in the first place (the 13-year old’s poem was just for a competition)? Honestly I had learned that I loved writing, and very quickly moved to the sheer enjoyment of playing with words, and having read poetry, it was just a natural step. I mean there were plenty of poets who struck me and made me feel deeply, of course, but I think I simply wrote it because it felt like the right thing to do.
You make many references to specifically Irish places and characters, as well as characters that don’t sound Irish. Who is your target audience? (I got the concept of target audience on the brain, when I collaborated on a book with my father about the early years of UMass/Boston. For us—did we target academics, like my father, or a larger audience?)
Now, when it comes to specific characters and places, I do indeed, the collection is fairly global in terms of the references, both overt and hidden away — there are, for instance, tonnes of little Easter eggs of things that now and then get spotted — so, I wouldn’t say it’s solely Irish in reference at all… That said, I do, before answering the rest of this question think it perhaps best to challenge one aspect of your review that I thought was not a wholly apt point, that being referring to the idea that things ‘only a Dubliner is likely to know’ is perhaps challenging. Were I a New York writer I would mention the El; Parisian, the Metro; from London, the Tube… It’s a perfectly natural thing to simply use an environment as it is, rather than try and make everything globalized.
That aside, in terms of target audience, I actually would suggest it is far broader than you suggest in your review, for, yes, the word-play is dense, and yes, some of the words are challenging, but, first of all the work as a whole can be read purely for sense and for musicality, an in depth understanding of each and every word is not integral to the meaning of the whole; whereas secondly the reader can fairly simply look up a word, especially in the age of Google. Indeed, I also do dispute the idea that a complex vocabulary diminishes a work, if anything I think the broader one’s vocabulary the greater one’s precision and the more accurately one can hit a mark. Personally, I tire greatly of mono-form pieces in a single style written by people who feel generally sad about their boyfriend/cat/bottle of lucozade, and love when poets challenge us. But again, back to the idea of audience, I have performed pieces from this and other works, and had them read by academic types, yes, but also people who don’t normally read poetry, and in most cases the work has been very favourably received. I have performed them in front of very well versed poetic types, but also in bars, and at blues nights. So, I would actually say my target audience is everyone who reads poetry, who is interested in reading beyond the current popular trends.
I do hear you on the idea of target audiences being an interesting concept, but I don’t really write to specifically speak to a single type, more I want to create coherent, cohesive works that follow a particular design as art and that is all. So I write as art, rather than as communication…
Are you inspired by particular writers, like James Joyce? (Your wordplay made me think of James Joyce, or Gerard Manley Hopkins)
… flattered by the comparisons of course, vis-a-vis wordplay, and well yes, naturally we all have writers who we adore, but inspired to me has a feeling of being driven to pursue what drove them, which isn’t really the case — see my point on writing as art. If anything what inspires me from literature in general is writers who pursue that same goal, the creation of singular wholes that express meaning as an art-work. Naturally, therefore that includes Joyce, but it also takes in writers like Laurence Durrell, Yeats, Coleridge in his opium days, Samuel Beckett, Camus, Kafka, Borges, Pessoa etc. etc.
Do you favor writing lengthy poems like the poems in this collection, or do you write short poems (like a sonnet or ballad) as well?
In terms of length, I do indeed favour writing lengthier pieces. I have written sonnets and ballads in the past, but I don’t particularly enjoy the form. I understand when one learns a craft, one should learn to work betimes with restrictions, but I am more interested in using words freely to create that which I wish and focus more on four things, consistency of style, musicality, theme, and the interplay between words to create emergent contexts and meanings. So, my next work, which is of course underway in terms of pulling it all together does again consist of longer form pieces. I enjoy the idea of creating symphonies, rather than smaller pieces. That said, I should state with absolute certainty that’s not a value judgement in favour of one or the other aesthetically on a wider scale, it just happens to be the medium that I most enjoy working in.
How do you go about making a poem title? (I took a workshop once all about how to title a poem.)
As to the titles of poems, how interesting, I never imagined there would be an all-in-one workshop on titling poems. To be honest, if it were a shorter piece I was titling, I would want the title to actually spark an image or a reference or an idea, to help frame and set the piece in motion. With these longer pieces, yes there are clues of course … the first poem in the collection refers to the central act of the protagonist throughout the cycle; the second to the uncertainty of our movement through life; and the third to a burden of guilt, shed … so I guess, for the longer style pieces the titles themselves are intended to apply the same sense of musicality, and are themselves poetic statements, rather than designed to serve a purpose. As to how I go about it, I have positively no idea other than to say in the same way one writes 🙂
Other responses from poet Oisin Breen
Overall– …I do understand we have somewhat of a different reading on the idea of accessibility when it comes to poetry, which I feel was the butt of the critique you kindly offered, though again I was delighted to know that at least the musicality of the work hit its mark in your review.
Though I said I wouldn’t linger too long on your review there are a couple of points I’d be interested in making, which I hope you don’t mind.
So, on the idea that “it isn’t clear what they [the poems] mean”, I found this quite interesting, for two reasons, firstly other reviewers, both positive and critical have pretty much captured an accurate gauge of what the pieces mean (although some took them as FAR too autobiographical), so I was surprised to be honest, and curious. But what also struck me about this assertion was — and I admit I may be wholly wrong here — it feels somewhat like this is a form of statement about the poetry you like? Concrete and certain rather than one rooted in interplay and symbolism? Because the works themselves are a movement of identity, meaning and character in an interplay with theme, so while there is not necessarily one specific and whole totalizing reading (a piece I’ve recently finished actually is written so that the narrator can be any one of the characters central to it, but only one), I’ve never considered such a reducibility to be desirable in poetry, so essentially I’m curious!
On language, beyond things like haruspex, which I admit is a word few know, though it’s a great one, I would say that like things like DART, one should always allow one’s own language to filter through and one’s own voice. I’m Irish, ergo words like ‘whist’ are common to us, much like the great Jewish American protagonists are more often than not schlepping about, so I would argue that using and being part of one’s own diction ought not to be a downside to a piece’s sense meaning. Also my own background naturally reinforces things… I’ve been a salesman, a manager, a journalist, a teacher, and also a scholar of the interrelationship between the complexity paradigm and narrative structure … and all these things necessarily must come together in how and what I write, much as Joyce’s exile and linguistic voyages tempered his own work, for example 🙂
I’ll also add I was most curious that you didn’t enjoy the Dachau section, for I’m quite fond of it, mainly because it is a meditation on the horror of the banal. Essentially, an attitude very much like Peter Weiss attributes to his characterization of de Sade in Marat/Sade, wherein de Sade sees the horror of mechanization as destroying the vital elan of violence in human nature. To me, beyond the horror of genocide (my own people were slaughtered by the million through a famine that Britain at the very least let run, and at worst was a co-architect of), the great horror of the holocaust is the sheer banal mundanity of its bureaucratic mechanisation, and that is what marks it out as a horror without comparison… the cushions of the dead’s hair… the numbers… and I find it a fascinating and horrible aspect of humanity, to be able to engineer such mute violence. So, I guess, assessing that, looking at that, to me is interesting, because it’s not like that was the first great horror… Just think of the word decimate, literally to reduce by ten percent as a form of punishment enacted by the Romans! It is the banality that makes the holocaust; for each empire, from the settlers of the US to the Mongols has committed great great atrocity.
Anyhow, Delighted that you enjoyed the musicality of the piece, and very curious what you make of my warblings here.