An Interview with Joan Houlihan

Oct 15, 2010 | Archive, Interviews

Interview by J. KIRK MAYNARD

Joan Houlihan’s latest book of poems, The Us (Tupelo, 2009), revives the poet as storyteller with a tale of primitive tribesmen known as the “us,” surviving outside civilization. The story is told from the collective viewpoint of the Us, who travel from the mainland away from the more advanced Them to an island where they befriend the animals and live in harmony, until a single Us in an act of violence destroys all. Houlihan adds a new voice to an old tradition with a tale full of drama and morality. J. Kirk Maynard sat down with her in April of 2010, and had this conversation about the book.

Black Warrior Review: Initially, I wanted to know what inspired you to write The Us. How did it come about?

Joan Houlihan: It came about in two ways: the first way was really on the level of language. The seed came from one poem. In that poem I had used the pronoun “us” instead of “we” – I don’t know why – but the poem became bigger than itself and started to grow a people. And so that poem, which is not in the book by the way, started out with a journey and a people that journey to an island and led me into an interesting state I had never been in before, as a poet, and I assume novelists get into which is waking up and thinking: What will they do next? Who are these people? Why am I thinking about them? Where did they come from? So I started thinking about the idea that they existed in time but I had no idea where. In other words, I didn’t do scholarly research and then write this book. What happened was, these people began to inhabit me in some way and I began to wonder about their genesis, background, purpose. And I also began to develop a real sense of tenderness, and worry, and necessity about telling their story.

BWR: So the book came from a pronoun and exciting way of using the objective “us” as opposed to the subjective “we:” how did it turn into the subject verb disagreement that appear in the book?

JH: It’s hard to trace it exactly, but it seemed to me to be a natural evolution that the us, because they were calling themselves by that name and because they also spoke by that pronoun – it was always the pronoun – that it became objective when they referred to the group as the “us.” When you say subject verb disagreement, from my point of view there wasn’t a disagreement, the subject-verb are in agreement and in fact I was very careful to be consistent with all that. Once I worked out who the Us were and what they were about, the language to describe individuals within that collective flowed as part of the system. So Ay and Him and Her and all those pronouns ended up being used basically in the same way that I was using the “us.”

BWR: And there’s so much of a structure there, and it’s very fun to read through the book and reread looking at that structure.

JH: Yes, although I have to say that isn’t what I expected to happen. I mean, I went through it very carefully and made sure about the consistency in my own mind and according to my own standards of what the language was, but for some reason it seemed to me that reading it should be a transparent experience, that what the language was doing would allow the expression of these people to shine forth in a way that it wouldn’t be able to using standard English. What seems to have happened is that some readers end up more focused on the actual language than the consciousness that it describes. What I wanted was more of an emphasis on the idea of simplicity driving language, that there is such a thing as first sight, first sensation, and because of our over-processed language we lose that initial fastening of the word to the thing, and I wanted that to be what this language would . . . facilitate? to make possible.

BWR: And I’ve been reading some of your old essays on the Boston Comment. And one in particular back in 2000 the “Prosing of Poetry,” specifically mentions – I’m just going to read it . . .

JH: Yes.

BWR: “Before writing was invented, poetry was used to mark special occasions and strong emotions and to burn the necessary stories—the myths and truths of a culture – into the memories of a people.” Is this a seedling for the Us?

JH: Oh, I had no idea of the Us when I wrote that, or the essays in general. I don’t think . . . no. [laughter] I mean, it describes in some way what I ended up coming to in this book, um, via the word, the first “thing,” but, uh . . . no. The essays are in a different realm. I guess I should thank you for pointing out that I’m intellectually in agreement with my creative self.

BWR: And ten years later, too.

JH: Yeah.


BWR: Well, I find – and I think a lot of people do – find these essays . . . it’s good to hear about over processed language and trying to move from that. And I certainly see that going on here.

JH: And it’s always going on for poets. I mean, for poets who really are poets, that’s what their goal in life is. To revitalize language, to revitalize the sensation of experience and how it’s expressed through words, that’s where we kind of live in that space as poets. Whether we succeed in doing that is another subject. This is one way for me to approach that in what I think is an obligation as a poet, and also a responsibility to the people I created to tell their story.

BWR: So now I’m going to ask you a question that’s probably a complete departure from when you started writing about these people and sort of the creative process. As I said in my email, coincidentally I was reading Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life, which has a number of post-apocalyptic poems in it . . .

JH: Yeah, yeah.

BWR: . . . and as well last year I was knocked down by The Road, and I just sort of noticed that there’s a tendency in new poetry to sort of think a kind of end of days . . .

JH: That’s interesting.

BWR: . . . whether it is through global warming, through all that. And The Us felt to me – since I was reading Harvey at the same time – sort of went with that as well, and I saw a lot of interesting dynamics going on. That this was some point in the future and therefore the objective “us” becomes a kind of . . . it invites the reader in to experience it as well. Was any of that on your mind? Where did you find this being placed?

JH: Where did I find what?

BWR: Where did you find these people placed, in a time.

JH: Oh, where did I locate them in time?

BWR: Yes.

JH: I actually . . . at first I didn’t. And then felt as I was completing the manuscript that there probably should be more of a location in time. But, the people seemed to me to be outside of . . . I mean it could be on either end of time, it could be very, very early or very, very late. Post-apocalyptic late. And in both cases it had to do with beginnings, it had to with restarting, or beginning. It had to do with reconstruction of the self, the reconstruction of consciousness however it takes place or in whatever time. So, historically, you know, we like to think about the studies in Neolithic times, and we’re fascinated by early language and pictograph, but who knows? Maybe they are discoveries we’re making now but they were post-apocalyptic for that time. I mean the reason wasn’t to think, or care, what the time frame actually is, or the place. I really want the focus to be on is the connection between the development of consciousness and the parallel development of language.

BWR: Is there a favorite poem you want to talk about?

JH: That’s hard to say, a favorite poem? Um, well I liked – I felt there was a big turning point when I wrote “Bare evening ate,” because that poem came after the death of the father, and it was sort of the transition into the development of Ay. The development of Ay was based on separation – which is always the case psychologically, I mean the mother and child unity is broken when the child perceives itself as a separate thing from the mother. And I thought just the idea of that and the idea of the separation of the unity of the group were similar experiences. So to have Ay recognize that he was bonded to the mother, but at the same time separate from the group, gave the story a lot of energy and direction in terms of the development of his aloneness, his separation from the bigger group but then his connection to his family bonds. I think of the language as very simple and I wanted it to be as simple as possible but at the same time it was in the service of, for me, were thoughts I have had all my life and ideas about religion and spiritual development, psychological development and all of the . . . um, I guess the epic in the poem, the things that human beings go through in their lives that in some way are echoed in The IliadThe Odyssey; those epic journeys are internalized and we all go through them and they’re still contemporary. And I saw that in a big way while I was writing this.

BWR: That’s great. Yeah, and then after Ay breaks away you have “Why so noiseful,” which is one of my favorites.

JH: When he’s connecting with the baby [Brae].

BWR: It’s a really beautiful poem. And the structure of the poem itself, you have notes in the margins that we see in Beowulf, also Chaucer –

JH: “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was the inspiration for that. I’ve always loved the Argument and the Marginalia of the old books, and, partly because it’s making the point that the plot, the story, the kind of bare bones narrative of something is one stream, it’s not part . . . it can be separate from the internal, lyrical experience that’s going on the poem. And I wanted that to be true, and I wanted those things to be separate. I don’t – I mean it’s narrative, it’s certainly narrative, but it’s also a reflection of internal state of minds and feelings. So, I like the idea of separating out the sort of skeletal “well here they are now and this is what’s happening now,” very very plain. And I like the look of it too.

BWR: It does look great. So, I guess I have a couple more questions. I’m kind of interested in Greb, and how he turned up. It reminds me of . . . a number of things. I guess the question I’ll ask first is – did this end up being in a sequence? Did you begin writing this from start to finish without knowing how it was going to end?

JH: Did I have an outline of the action and the characters and all that?

BWR: Yes.

JH: No, I wrote it. As I thought of it I wrote it. I began to map a little bit ahead as things occurred to me, but for the most part the poems were written as poems and then later I worked the narrative. In fact, forming the manuscript was challenging because I left out fifteen or more poems that I thought were narratively linked but not as strong as the other poems. So the principle of organization drove a lot of the narrative too: what I thought were the pivotal poems that needed to be there, the ones that may have linked the narrative and may have been ok weren’t included. So partly the organization was afterwards, and part of it was that after I wrote each poem something occurred to me that as a result, grew out of that poem.

BWR: And the Greb sort of became that as well.

JH: Yeah, he became – and in fact I didn’t know about him until after they reached the island and after they . . . basically the horses befriended them. And the idea that animals and people were in unity appealed to me a lot and I wondered at some level what broke that unity – what would break that unity – and what came to mind was someone or something – more like not some one person, but more like the idea of what would it be like to eat the flesh of these animals. This seemed to me to be the crux of the disunity that they experienced. And it came from within, which is usually how it works. It came from one of their own. That break of the unity that was beautiful with the horses and the geese and the creatures on that island built on cooperation and trust.

BWR: You can say the same thing for when the G’wen has to stay behind is a similar breaking of unity.

JH: Yes, and that has to do with laws. The idea that, you know, in biblical stories and so on you get a sense of these laws being made and passed down to us – religious laws especially – but they were based on practical matters, like not eating infected meat and that became a religious precept: don’t eat pork or those kinds of things. And I think, probably, tracing many of these laws back has to do with finding very practical – in fact, all of these things when I was writing this had to do with “tied to the earth, tied to survival” ideas. And that made me start thinking about laws in general – human laws and why they exist, where they came from. The G’wen – leaving the G’wen behind: it was partly because they had to burn [the Father’s] body so that it wouldn’t infect them. And the G’wen was tied to that man who died, that leader, so leaving her behind was tied to their ritual. The fact that she followed, and the fact that the son broke that law by staying with her was also part of the energy of his genesis, the energy of his consciousness.