Poet Spotlight: Oisín Breen
Oisín Breen, 37, is an Irish poet, journalist, and academic working in the field of narratological complexity. A Best of the Net nominee, Breen is published in 100 journals across 20 countries, including the Tahoma Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, About Place, New Critique, Northern Gravy, Reservoir Road, and the Madrigal. This collection follows Breen’s well-received debut Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten, published by HybridDreich in March 2020.
His poem, "Edifices," was in New Note Poetry's debut issue, Winter 2021. We sat down with Oisín to talk about his new book, Lilies on the Deathbed of Etain and Other Poems, now out with Bier Bua Press.
NNP: What inspired this new book?
Oisín: The answer, as always, is both short and long. The inspiration, in its simplest form, is that I write, so what inspired it is that I needed to write another book, or I would go quite mad. I mean, I’m already shopping two more, and have a crazy madcap thing in the works, too.
The less glib, or perhaps less overtly direct answer, is a combination of things. Books are assemblages. What I worked through with Beir Bua – a marvelous press – is something different than what would have arisen elsewhere. I tailored a selection of two long-form pieces and four shorter (well, for me) works that I felt really fitted their MO, and thankfully we hit it off. The pieces themselves, one is a few years old, and addresses the way in which we can be totally all encompassing swallowed as a spirit, soul, and flesh by love, how it can inch into every pore and swallow us up, beautifully, sadly, horrifically, and, also joyously. This piece is also a few years older than the long work that opens the book. It is, I feel, hugely sonically different. It definitely leans into the strange, the experimental, the post-linguistic, but I feel successfully remains rooted. So the drive behind it was to make music.
The poem that opens the book, to be honest, is inspired very simply by a very straight fact. My oldest friend sadly lost his mother several years ago. At the funeral, well, he held up brilliantly, he was sagacious, funny, urbane, dry, loving, honest, sincere, and just a pure rock. At the committal, however, when the curtain fell on the coffin, I saw him break in two. Equally, however, one word leapt to my face, and I couldn’t shake the memory of how he appeared. The word was ‘godstruck’, and in the end I had no choice but to write, and hope he wouldn’t hate me for it. Thankfully, he loves the work. So, I blended that notion of godstruck love and motherloss, with the sexuality of a young woman and her young courtier (something we forget when we discuss mother and father love, oftentimes), and that somehow got me onto the Irish myth cycle of Todchmarc Etine, which ended up a natural fit, strangely enough.
Of the remaining pieces, one directly relates to discussion and research with my friend the Molloy, who comes from a family of Donegal tweed spinners, but is himself a physicist, and a legendary chap. Our words have more than once given me inspiration, and the migrant potato-digging trade from Donegal to Fife in Scotland is so wrought with sadness, I couldn’t resist covering it. The best part of it, to be fair, is when a Donegal chap wrote to me to thank me for its accuracy. The research was suddenly extremely well rewarded.
A piece on ducks actually owes its genesis to an ekphrastic prompt, but I ended up going off-piste, and I love thinking about the hidden hardships and hidden joys of things. The hard hard reality of baby ducks coming to mallardhood/ladyduchood is one of those almost too twee tragic stories. So many die, hunted, killed, lost… So again, it seemed a natural fit to linger on the thought of the few remaining from a duck family (two actually) after the first season passes and the trauma they endure. It’s something that occurs every year, and we always miss it.
The second to last poem, again, fits, I suppose what’s something of an MO, namely digging deeply into the senses, sexuality, and feeling of events that are less often considered, in this case, making an anti-love poem, or a piece that addresses the hot frisson of a situation where two people, certainly attracted to each other, do not kiss, do not share a relationship, do not do anything beyond one momentary instance of near touch, and then nothing more.
Lastly, as with the duck poem, my lady and I took a wonderful trip a while back to the Isle of May, and it actually inspired a cycle of puffin poems. I read up on how puffins live, on the great mass puffin death events over the last twenty years, and on the sheer bloody mindedness those poor beautiful birds must exhibit to survive, and couldn’t resist. Overall, the assemblage of these pieces… perhaps I’d say this, each deals with meaning, love, loss, terror, sensuality, ideation, being and becoming, and the soul, and each does so without addressing that which is obvious, so they all work as a natural pair, I hope. Perhaps this is a long-winded answer, when I began aiming toward succinctness, but, in the end, it is an honest answer.
NNP: What was the writing process for the book like?
Oisín: Again, it’s never easy to really break-down process. It’s one of those questions that we swing back and forth with, I suppose. I mean, I’ve talked about it a lot with people, over coffee, over pints… Like I say, this book is two long pieces and four short, so the ‘process’ for this book itself, was assemblage, relatively swift, and based on considering what worked together, what sang together.
The writing process for the works themselves… Well, without recapping what I’ve just spoken of, regarding inspiration, I’d suggest, like all my work, there are four major modes through which I write, and all of them require a stark attention to the musicality of the language. The first, I call ‘still life’, i.e. a topic or a theme interests me, so I research it, look into it, find out facts, and minutiae, and details (and as I write, continue to research the piece), and ‘paint’ it, as sensually and ‘me-ally’ as I can. The second, is collage, where I take work from a document I keep lying around on computers, riffings, which is a collection of various lines and phrases that I went ooh I like that, but in the end had to gut from work, because it didn’t fit, so I often take a few of these slap them on a page and stare at them. If something comes out, then it gets written, and the words find freedom from riffings… I guess it’s kind of like an animal rescue for words and phrases, they always get food, water, and looking after, and hopefully eventually they find a home. The third, is one we’re all familiar with, rare though it is, that you just sit down, and go, "oh right, there’s a poem waiting," and an hour later it’s there, staring at you from the page. The fourth, my longest works, combine the research work, with just a hell of a lot more laborious thinking, pondering, back-and-forthing, and take months-to-years to write (like my current WIP, which I’ve been dipping into and out of for a good two years, though it will be book length).
There are two more, of course, though not usual for me… two more processes I mean, namely ekphrastic work, which I do a spot of, and find enjoyable, and somewhat relaxing, and then dream poems… and I’m aware how ridiculous that last one sounds, but it has happened to me twice now. The ending for the long piece “Her Cross Carried, Burnt”, in my debut Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten, I’d struggled to end that poem for weeks, then one morning, having stayed up late, fruitlessly trying to figure it out, I woke up, grabbed a dictaphone from my bedside drawer, having woken up with the damn ending, and just immediately read it out, so to speak, fighting off the need to sleep more, desperately struggling against the waves of the dream I was still half in, to push the work out, and I did, and although extraordinarily rough around the edges, the work was there. It happened again in 2022, the work “In the Half-light of Sleep, as Stones Fall”, published in the Gyroscope Review, it followed a very similar process – although there was no genesis – I simply woke up with a poem there waiting to bleed out into the world, as I fought off sleep.
NNP: What we love about your work is the striking use of repetition, especially in the poem "The Love Song of Anna Rua" from the book, which uses melodic refrains throughout. "Edifices" from our Winter 2021 issue uses repetition too with the word "edifices" itself. How deliberately is repetition used in your work? And do you think there's any significance in how or why you use it?
Oisín: First off, I’d be remiss not to begin with my thanks for the kindness, so my thanks.
I’m absolutely delighted, too, that the refrains, riffs, and musicality of "Anna Rua," possibly my most avant-garde work, at least in a musical sense, hit home. I have a real soft spot for this poem. Edifices, too, yep, very much so, when it comes to repetition having deliberate purpose.
To be honest, though this is perhaps the most technical question thus far, it’s probably the simplest to answer.
I use repetition often, extremely deliberately, and it pretty much always has significance. Very often, indeed, I repeat verses, but change them subtly, temporally, or semantically, to reflect change. I’m also a big believer in the semantic production of negative space, i.e. that which is unsaid (kind of a Genettian anti-frequency in a sense, for any narratologists out there) produces an equal amount of meaning… almost like all work has gravity that you can see, conduct, and unspool, if that makes any sense whatsoever.
Anyway, for me, like I’ve said (and I actually wrote in "Anna Rua") all poetry is songlines. I don’t understand poets who ignore the musical, and I don’t understand poets who see the form as a medium solely and primarily (and I do feel there are some "gatekeepers" of poetry who take this as an absolute stance) for the baring of their authentic soul, or rather, those who see that as the point of it. To me, that’s what non-fiction is for, or self-help groups. Craft, music, song, meaning that bleeds, that shifts… that’s important. I find authenticity to be a sham concept in poetry, because it means you haven’t let the work go, you haven’t taken the step to realize that the work is always improvable when it’s verity is removed in exchange for craft. This may be the Gael in me, or perhaps it’s something postcolonial, given the wide amount of postcolonial countries, including Ireland, that embrace a kind of magic realism or play… and I’m aware there’s a lot of love for the school of authentic quasi-auto-biographical work, but for me that’s always seemed like stand-up comedy without the jokes.
But the reason I’ve gone off on this little tangent is to say that repetitions, and pretty much every aspect of a poem with a musical or ‘sound’ edge, is to me hugely important, for I believe that media should do what it does best. Photography had to rethink itself after cinema, and return to what it did best, painting ditto, after photography, and so on… What does poetry do best? Well, to me, it isn’t biographical diarying in verse, it’s hidden nuance, it’s beauty in between things, it’s the strange space that exists between the way a novel can create worlds inside you and voices you know, and music can create spaces that fire you… Forgive me if I cut my answer short here, but ultimately I think my answer is that if poetry doesn’t produce the music, I don’t really know if it has a point.
NNP: We mentioned your poem "Edifices" from our Winter 2021 issue, which was our debut. How do you feel about that poem and New Note Poetry as a whole since then?
Oisín: On New Note, to be honest, I continue to be very impressed. You had me from the off with poetry is the jazz of the written word, as you say in your mission statement and your editorial in the first issue, well, again, it caught me. And again, I really like the work you continue to put out.
As to "Edifices," it’s an extract that I then spent quite a while playing around with and modifying from another work, part of a collection I’m presently shopping, I am only the song of owls, and to be honest, I really enjoy it. It brings to mind the memory of writing, the memory of thoughts that helped inspire it, particularly to do with when I lived in Syria, but most of all, it feels musical, yes, but also not-me, not-mine, which is something that makes it all the more enjoyable for me. It means, at least to a degree, I feel I’ve done my job.
NNP: What do you want readers to gain or walk away with from your new book?
Oisín: Woof...I mean, honestly, the real answer to that is that I hope they read it and that they have a sense meaning, perhaps just a word or two, or an image, or a flavor, or a smell, and that it lingers. To me, the best poetry lives on in you without the words, it just is. If I think back, to say being a teenager, reading Ginsberg or Whitman, or Heaney, or Yeats… It wasn’t really the words I remembered, but the feeling, the smells, the sights, the tastes of the poem. Beyond that, perhaps they might remember phrases, ideas, and pressing moments. Perhaps they might remember a sense of the immediacy, when they reconsider the work.
There are, of course, greater meanings to the work, a ridiculously large amount of Easter eggs (I do like to bury things all over the place), there is intent, there is structure, there… ah, there’s a lot there, and in my previous book, that even if I were to become a major success, poured over by scholars, I’d warrant will go unfound or unnoticed. The thing is, though, that’s not really the point of the work, so, like I say, what I want readers to gain is pleasure, sound, sense, feeling, meaning, and the ability to create their own meanings.
NNP: Any final things to share?
Oisín: Just my thanks!