Sunday, July 12, 2020

From the Irish Troubles to Trump’s America: Talking Politics and Poetry with Andy Eaton and Philip Metres

From the Irish Troubles to Trump’s America:
Talking Politics and Poetry with Andy Eaton and Philip Metres


Andy Eaton: First of all, I'd like to say thank you again for agreeing to do this interview. I know that readers here in Belfast have appreciated Sand Opera, as do I. There are a few areas I'd love to cover, such as poetic form and invention, religion and faith, poetry in divided societies, violence, war, and also joy, peace, delight. To start us of, we met again recently in Belfast where you were visiting with some students. Would you mind telling us a little bit about how you got started with bringing students to Northern Ireland, and how these trips have impacted you, your thinking, and your work?

Philip Metres: I just got back a few weeks ago (June 2017), having led my fourth student/faculty delegation, and it really never gets old. I began leading our Ireland Peacebuilding program at John Carroll University in 2011, when fellow faculty of our Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program started talking about the desire to restart the program, which had begun in 2004. That first iteration, students and faculty spent a month in Belfast and around Ireland studying the Troubles and the peace process; they met with Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley, John Hume, Gerry Adams, Father Alec Reid, and many other luminaries and leaders of Northern Ireland. But faculty energy had turned elsewhere, and for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, I agreed to step forward and lead the program. Because of the intrepid and becalming encouragement of our on-the-ground coordinator, Belfast native and anthropologist Raymond Lennon, I took a leap of faith and led a small group in 2011. Where, indeed, can you meet with former paramilitaries and victims, political leaders and peacebuilders, all of whom willing to share their overlapping and often-contradictory stories, in a place where peace and reconciliation have been the dominant narrative for the past two decades?

I'd been studying war-making and peace-making since I was an undergraduate, radicalized by the Persian Gulf War, the devastation of Iraq, and the ongoing occupation of Palestine. I'd taken part in advocating for many lost causes, working for peace and justice at the center of empire, so the opportunity to study a fairly-successful conflict transformation was enticing indeed. Once I arrived, I became utterly smitten with Ireland, and have been teaching Irish literature and film ever since. Many years ago, I met Shakir Mustafa, who was completing his Ph.D. at Indiana University when I was there. I'd met very few Iraqis, and this was the 1990s. I asked him what he was studying. “Irish literature,” he said. I thought it was odd. Irish literature?! Since then, of course, I see how an Iraqi shares a lot in common with an Irishman, given the legacy of the British Empire. But that meeting always stuck with me. In my cynical youth, I thought of Ireland as a rather quaint place, but not of much interest. Was I wrong!

I love your question and feel unable to answer it fully, to plumb its deepest dimension, because I'm very much still trying to work out what it means to me. This time, a full six years after my first visit, I've finally decided to write about it, and have begun drafting some essays. The fact is that it's very difficult to write about a program that one is leading; I feel a deep responsibility both to the program and to the people with whom we have strong relationships. Many of our program contributors share incredibly difficult stories of their lives with us--particularly those who have lost loved ones in the Troubles. Trying to write something that reflects my own experience, and yet doesn't exploit the suffering of people like Alan McBride of WAVE Trauma Centre, whose wife was killed in the so-called Shankill bomb in 1993--that's the challenge. I've noticed that it's very easy for me, in this context, to start writing a triumphalist narrative about peacemaking, but the truth is that the story of the place is far more complicated than that. All dominant narratives elide stories that don't fit in, and if we're interested in telling the truth, we need to mark those elisions.

Still, when I meet people like the Reverend Bill Shaw of 174 Trust, I experience nothing short of radical hope. This is what he said toward the end of our last meeting: “That’s what this space is about. People coming for a concert or coming for a cup of coffee. To make new friends. When we’re in this space, the labels that we carry, like the suitcases, they don’t matter. The fact that I’m a Protestant and you’re a Catholic, or you’re a Muslim or an atheist. Those things do not matter. We make peace in this world when we recognize ourselves in each other. It doesn’t matter how much hatred that our groups have for each other. When we meet at that level, and we recognize something of each other in each other, then we’re changed. We’re never the same. It doesn’t mean that we love each other, or that can spread that love, but we’re changed.”

What first brought you to Belfast, and how have your impressions of it evolved over your years there?

Andy Eaton: I can imagine that your role in leading the program does raise difficulties in writing about your time in Belfast, as you say. But I think those kinds of difficulties are probably worth moving through or around when the work is going well. I think Belfast is a place that will benefit from a lot of different people looking at it, myriad voices speaking in and to its legacy. This opinion is based on the reality that Belfast is actually an incredibly diverse city, and the lack of cross-cultural communication is not only between two sides of one argument. I guess I'm sort of hooking up what you are saying here with an answer to your question. When I first came here it was to visit some friends who I had just met in Scotland. I had nowhere to be for the holiday break from grad school, so they brought me over, housed me, fed me, and I was part of the family. I'm still friends with these people, and my experience was largely positive. But it sort of gave me an initial single-layer experience of the area; one community, one cultural set, so to speak. Later, I met my wife through these same friends, and she and I started dating for a couple years after I was back in America, and then eventually I moved here so we could be in the same place. I was able to work on a PhD at the same time, so it was sort of a blend of personal and professional motivations which brought me here. That was in 2011, and since then my impression have changed dramatically.

I don't know, first hand, how it is in the States at the minute, but I lived in the Midwest and in or near Evangelical fundamentalism long enough that what seems to be happening now makes a lot of sense. I heard Shane McCrae in an interview on Commonplace recently say that he realised he had equated liberalism with morality, that he thought someone who identified as liberal was also moral, and that he was surprised to realise this about himself. I could really relate to that, as I'm sure others could, but in particular regarding Belfast. There's a traditional binary, "what side are you on" conversation, but that's a hard one for outsiders, which I think is why a lot of people from elsewhere find it difficult to settle into the culture here. However, there is also a conversation for "outsiders" which sees that side-based conversation as somehow not where it's at, and you have to just transcend it. I think I held that view for a long time without knowing it until recently; like there were these over-simplified value-based soundbites that I could get my head around based on my views, but it never helped me really listen to or see people from here. Last year I got to meet Carolyn Forche, and she sort of called me out on being shy and encouraged me to embrace my ignorance about the history and ask more questions. I think I still have some nervousness about saying where I live if I'm in one part of town, or whatever, but I find that my being American means that I can say, "Oh, tell me about that" or ask questions. With a taxi driver, for instance. But once they learn that I've been here for five or six years, there's a sense that I should know more than I do.

So I guess my impressions have gone from being basic to becoming more complicated. There is a culture of silence and suggestion here which I find always new, exciting and confusing, since I tend toward expression or long conversations. There's a way of speaking which is indirect, nuanced, and clever, and I find I'm always two steps behind it. But I'm enjoying it all the same. The evolution of my impressions, I hope, is toward patience and empathy, but sometimes you realise you have a utopian view and an agenda and need to set that aside for the conversation that's in front of you. I guess that's not a final stage of relating to a place, but it's where I'm probably at at the minute. I like what you've said from Reverend Bill Shaw. Maybe it is a matter of recognising ourselves in others; I just wouldn't want that to mean that what we don't yet recognise loses its importance.

What do you think?  And if I can add other question(s): Now that America is six months or so into its current administration, have you found the vocabulary or the language around heated issues changing? And sort of related, in what ways are you finding that artists and writers are responding; are we in any way in a moment similar to the Vietnam protests (I only mean within the artistic community)? I've heard W.S. Merwin mention that he was telling Robert Bly that if anyone wanted to know what he thought, they could ask him, and it probably wouldn't be a surprise, but he wasn't going to stand up in the street and proclaim a message because people would stop listening. Does that kind of anecdote have any currency to our current moment of "resistance"?

Philip Metres: Andy, your point about looking out for “what we don’t yet recognize” feels like a definition both for poetry and for peacebuilding. Marking the boundaries of the unspoken, the unnoticed, and either coaxing them into the light or acknowledging where one can’t (yet?) go. Thanks for that amendment.

The election itself revealed just how little real dialogue across the ideological divide has been happening; the fact that I and other progressives (and the mainstream media) were stunned by the results is suggestive of a great divide in American society, where left and right have almost seceded from each other (yes, that term may well apply in the metaphorical sense here). The recent shooting of Representative Scalise is yet another reminder that civil discourse and robust debate have deteriorated even further. As much as I’ve had a lover’s quarrel with the United States (its empire, its arrogance, its oligarchic tendencies), the Constitution and its bedrock principles founded in the rule of law are worth defending. I’m as guilty as anyone in avoiding conversations with people with whom I disagree. I’ve been calling my representatives more than ever, however, on a host of issues that are important to me.

Actually, I do have to say, in light of your comment about seeing some haunting parallels between Northern Ireland and the American Midwest, that the election of Trump and the talk about those “left behind” by globalization echoed hauntingly for me the conversations around loyalism in Northern Ireland. In some respects, weirdly, loyalists and the American redneck nation (for lack of a better term) have a lot in common, in terms of being once-proud members of a socially-conservative working class (sometimes even both Scots-Irish, by the way) that had some ethnic privileges (relative to their black or Catholic neighbors), but who experienced the loss of status during the globalization that began mid-century, when heavy industry gradually migrated to the developing world. They feel that the world has left them behind, and their culture is under siege. They are part of a backlash against globalization, particularly in the developed world (see also Brexit). That’s been the strange thing about the post-Cold War era; globalization’s foes have been scattered. Only Islamic radicalism has really posed anything like a coherent, globalized resistance—and its version is not exactly progressive.

Your question about “resistance” for artists is one that I spent 200 pages answering in Behind the Lines: War Resistance on the American Homefront (2007). However, since it’s been a decade, and the very term “resistance” has in some sense been coopted by the Democratic Party, I do have to say that I’ve felt ambivalence by the sudden memefication of a term that has a complex meaning in the context of colonial and postcolonial struggle. I’ve just completed a book of essays on poetry called The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance, to capture that sense that we need to about more than resistance. In the introduction, I write “In light of the flurry of poetry activity cohering around the term “resistance”—every other journal was devoting an issue to it, and anthologies published, Writers Resist readings and events—we need, more than ever, to consider possibilities and limits of resistance. After twenty-five years of thinking and practicing a poetics of resistance, I found myself oddly resistant to all this sudden talk of resistance. After all, there was plenty to resist during the Obama Administration—drone strikes abroad, police killings of black people on the streets, Bashar al-Assad’s massacre of civilians in Syria, bankers and predatory capitalists running amok around the globe, ongoing accrual of executive power, the buildup of a shadow security state—but these phenomena did not garner much resistance. And also: how will we last for years on resistance alone, if we have built for ourselves a refuge?”

I think what Merwin was addressing is that poets have a calling that moves beyond resistance—as important as political resistance is. I’ve been thinking about poetry also as refuge, as a space that enables the empathic imagination to dilate. To repeat myself: poets need to be engaged in the political arena because they are citizens and human beings, and sometimes that will change how they write. But to write a “political poem” to fulfill some idea of civic duty seems misguided, and a misunderstanding of where truly sustaining poems come from.

Andy, what’s your take on that question? Do you feel far from American political discussion? I imagine that there must be something similar around the Brexit discussions in Northern Ireland.

Andy Eaton: I really appreciate your language of “truly sustaining.” Sometimes it is perhaps too easy to act  though we know we already know what the world is, who we are, and how to be here; at other times, it seems clear that our posture to the world is one of unknowing, of discovery and even wonder—on bad days, horror and shock and outrage. A poetry that is “truly sustaining” seems, for me, tied to the later posture.

It’s been several months since we last corresponded, and the American political discussion(s) seem like a dominant export now. It’s everywhere, or at least there is more of it. I think the recent land grab from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments has just made me feel sick and pushed things over a line I didn’t expect to cross or know was there. I was already astonished and scared and sad but felt like there was hope and resistance. On Tuesday, when the news reached me, I just lay still where I was. It’s so easy to be melodramatic; I was tired from travelling, I was alone. But it just seemed like one more wake-up call, if anyone needed another one, that this is not what a country is for. We or someone is getting something wrong. If we’re fallen, I think it’s a good idea to try not to fall further.

So where poetry comes in, seems clearly on the side of living well, looking outward, which begins with looking inward, and I see that as the place of a practice of poetry. At least that’s what makes sense to me now. How that manifests for each poet, I think will ultimately depend on their personality.

I think what you’re saying about having an agenda for a poem (as I take what you’ve said here) as key. I’m teaching at a university in England, and while my students are great, a lot of them say they have an idea for a piece or say they are struggling with their work, but there’s nothing there yet; they’re trying to know what to write before they write it. Maybe that works for some folks, and there’s definitely something to drafting in your head first, but that’s not really what they mean. They mean if they have a good idea for a story or a poem, they can sit down and write it. I try to encourage them to listen and to pay attention and to grow a vision of themselves, of others and the world. I think that’s something truly sustaining that poetry helps with.

As far as Brexit and Northern Ireland goes, I feel conflicted in vocalising a position, partly because I know I don’t understand it all, and partly because it just seems ridiculous. I was in England this week, and my students told me they knew nothing about Northern Ireland. They don’t know the history. They had not even heard of The Troubles. I was totally shocked. They could not identify Seamus Heaney when his picture was on the overhead.

When I’m shocked, I try to take stock. And I realised it goes both ways. They’re all from different areas of England, and I know so little about the places where they are from. However, even though I might want to be fair, there’s not been anything really like the struggles in NI elsewhere in the UK recently. This plus anecdotal experiences—I’ve flown to England from Belfast and been asked if I had adjusted to the time difference (there is none); and I have definitely been in conversation with English people who refer to Northern Ireland as a “different” country, not in the way they would as Wales or Scotland. English people come to Belfast and call it “Ireland”. If someone from the South calls the North “Ireland”, then it’s one kind of statement, and if someone from Britain calls it the same, well it’s a totally other thing. And this I can’t help but interpret through my Americanness. It’s the same country. It’s not the same country. It’s a complicated thing. In full disclosure, the number of people I hear saying “I’m Northern Irish”, and this is a clarifying and sensible thing for them, is increasing. If you come from a divided society, sometimes you get on by making your own identity. I see this as something that Americans have understood on an individual level, and the more it’s something we can share, the better we will be. I think.

I’m not sure how clear I’ve been, and I know I’ll need to edit this down, especially so I don’t sound like I’m hating on the English! But I wanted to give you my honest answers to your questions.

If we can shift back to poetry more directly, in Sand Opera, you have several invented forms or shapes. We spoke about this briefly this summer, but I’m thinking of the poem “Cell/(ph)one (A simultaneity in four voices)” as well as the vellum pages, and how readers might be interested in learning how these shapes came about. Equally, while Sand Opera foregrounds erasure, the book also makes particular use of brackets, parenthesis, and other typographical choices.

It’s clear that your poems are guided by sound, but can you tell us something about your relationship to the page, to the discovery, creation or invention of forms and shapes of poems?

Philip Metres: We live in a moment where there is almost no limit to what one can do on a page, so why not play in that field? Of course, the danger always with experimentation is that one is merely engaging in gimmickry. I like to work the tension between the idea of the poem as an object of sound, and the poem as a visual work, meant to be read on the page. For a number of years, I got infatuated with performance and sound poetry. I was through with difficult and hermetically sealed page poems that required endless textual analysis; I wanted embodiment, feeling, lyricism. Then, suddenly, a fellow writer made me pivot when he said that poetry on the page contains all possible performances of itself. That sense of generativity seemed sweetly beautiful to me. This mute thing that could contain so much music.

Sound means more to me as a poet than ever, particularly since I started writing prose. I love the crazy music of words even more than I did when I began writing, and felt a fever to express and tell stories. I want my poems to be architectures of sound.  

So I want both: I want poems that convey the sensuousness of spoken language, loved on the tongue and in the mouth, and I want poems to live utterly happily on the page.

Andy Eaton: Who are some bands, musical artists, or composers who are important to you?

Philip Metres: How much time do you have? I have a hunch that what one of the vectors that led me to poetry was pop music. Like every kid, I listened to Top 40 and classical rock, but the first concert I saw was Peter Gabriel, thanks to heavy radio play of “Shock the Monkey” in 1982. As crazy as it sounds, listening to Gabriel and others opened a door not only to arty music and intriguing lyrics, but also to the world. From his music, I first learned about Stanley Milgram’s creepy social experiments about submission to authority (“We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37”), Apartheid South Africa (“Biko”), and got introduced to Amnesty International and the whole concept of human rights. His range of songs (from the goof erotica of “Sledgehammer” to the transcendentally grown-up love song “In Your Eyes,” from “Biko” to “Don’t Give Up,” from his amazing soundtrack to “The Passion” to his croaking cover of “The Book of Love” ), his primal weirdness, his political sensibility, the fact that he was of Lebanese descent—all of it captivated me. I could name a dozen others, but it’s fun to go back and think again about Peter Gabriel. Also: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., the Replacements, Husker Du, the Minutemen, Fugazi, and the whole indie rokk scene of the early 1990s. Later, Guided by Voices. I’ve written memoir essays on Fugazi, Bob Dylan, and the Replacements, and I have one to write about Guided by Voices. Songs that inspire me as a writer: “Eight Miles High” by Husker Du (a blistering, primal cover), “Hum Allah Hum Allah Hum Allah” by Pharoah Sanders (wait for that solo around minute nine), and “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane. Each of these are journeys of the soul, through the dark night, and each comes out on the other side.