Around the World in Poetry, Haiku and Haibun

Maeve O’Sullivan interviewed by Susan Lindsay

Susan Lindsay

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Maeve O’Sullivan’s fourth collection Elsewhere – around the world in poetry, haiku and haibun was launched by Paula Meehan at The Teacher’s Centre, Dublin in late 2017. Her former titles are: Initial Response, an A-Z of Haiku Moments (2011), Vocal Chords – poetry (2014) and A Train Hurtles West – haiku (2015), while she also collaborated with Kim Richardson in a further and first collection, Double Rainbow in 2005. All four books are from Alba Publishing (UK). Among other awards and appearances on short-lists, Maeve won The Haiku Ireland Kukai 2 and Kukai 3 awards (2011 & 2015) and was nominated by Revival Literary Journal for a Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2014. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. The poems from her current collection alone have appeared, for example, in Blithe Spirit (the journal of the British Haiku Society, and journals such as those of the United Haiku and Tanka Society and internationally in journals in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Peru and India and in a large selection of Irish journals and in The Irish Times. Her poems have been anthologized in publications such as evolution: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 2010 and was forthcoming at the time of Elsewhere’s publication in several haiku journals as well as in Wild Voices 2 (Wildflower Poetry Press, 2017. Her words have been translated into ten languages and she is a member of both the Hibernian Poetry Workshop and the Poetry Divas spoken word collective, which performs at festivals and other events. Maeve is a founder member of Haiku Ireland and also works as a tutor of journalism and creative writing in further education.

Susan Lindsay: Maeve, there are many ‘elsewheres’ visited in this collection. I am struck at the outset as much by the number of recent losses informing this book as by the geography covered –you visited thirteen countries, across four Continents, in nine months. In the last number of years, as you say in the Preface, 'Along with Maurice, Mairéad, and [your] dear friend Bruce...' your parents and sister Jean took their leave to go to the first elsewhere you mention and your long-time family home was sold.

Poetry itself could be considered a language of elsewhere in that it is not our daily vehicle of communication. What does access to this language mean to you and how important has it been for you to be writing as you went through these parallel journeys of transition - in family circumstances and on your travels?

Maeve O’Sullivan: It’s hugely important to me to be able to use the language of poetry, separately from the many other ways in which I use English, as a full-time educator, for instance. I’ve been writing poetry for over twenty years now, so it’s been my companion and chronicler through many life changes. I’ve heard that a person is walking on two paths after bereavement: the path of their life and the path of their grief. However, I think a writer who has been bereaved is also on a third one, the creative processing of that grief into a piece of writing, in the same way that we process other life events, I guess, such as falling in love, having a child or travelling.

One of my favourite quotes about writers is from Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones: “Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there's another part of them that they have been training, the one that lives everything a second time, that sits down and sees their life again and goes over it - [that] looks at the texture and details.”

However, I also think it’s important for poets to be in the moment and I think this is particularly true of writers of haiku poetry, a form which partly originates in Zen Buddhism. If you’re not able to observe what’s happening outside you right now in a mindful way, then what’s the point? Of course we need to observe and track what’s happening inside too, for personal and poetic reasons. I find that mindfulness helps with grief, grief helps me to be mindful, and both are capable of inspiring poetry - along with feelings such as love, anger, envy, and all of the other usual suspects. Reading poetry can also help with grief: two poems I’ve returned to again and again in the last seven years for comfort have been One Art by Elizabeth Bishop and Everything is Going to be Alright by Derek Mahon.

S.L. Your poems evocatively allow the reader to travel with you. Morning Practice, Scenes from Peru and Ecuador and Leaving Vigo are indicative titles. Sometimes they describe a place, sometimes bring it alive, commemorating its history in recollection or giving your response to art encountered: Thinking About Our Bodies at the Rodin Museum is a particular favourite of mine. How do you think the opportunity to write from these elsewhere perspectives has influenced and changed your poetry?

M.O’S: I’ve always found travel to be very inspirational, like many other writers and artists. Since I had only previously visited two of the fourteen countries on this trip (Spain and France), everything was new, so I was like the proverbial child in the sweet shop, with lots of diverse goodies to sample. The haiku were flowing freely throughout the trip, and the other work produced vacillated between haibun and longer poems.

Apart from the pleasure of creating and publishing new poems, the body of work also serves as an aide memoire. So in future years I hope to be able to read it back and remember experiences such as learning to salsa dance in Medellín, visiting haiku master Buson’s grave in Kyoto, singing karaoke in Kowloon or sweeping leaves during a retreat in the Himalayas. Thinking about our Bodies at the Rodin Museum was the last poem I wrote on the entire trip, in Paris, where I was visiting family after completing the Camino de Santiago. It’s a poem about desire and lust, inspired by visual art, and I think it serves as quite a good counterpoint to the poems on other themes such as loss and spirituality.

I found that, after I returned home, I was looking at Dublin and Ireland with fresh ‘tourist’s eyes’ after having been away for so many months. Hopefully this is reflected in the two haiku sequences in the collection’s Envoi, Back Home: Settling and The Wild Atlantic Way, which mirror - in a more micro way - the East and West of the previous two sections of the book.

S.L: The interaction you mentioned earlier, above, between mindfulness and grief brings to mind the Preface from Eavan Boland titled ‘Collaborate’ in issue 123 (Dec 2017) of Poetry Ireland Review where she talks among other things about the collaborations of the two languages under discussion. This is in the wider context of talking about the relationship between the hermetic space of the page poem and the more public space of the spoken word to which we will return. She describes ‘…the interaction of the two [languages] translating each other to further texture and depth, a collaboration as old as poetry, reaching back into its associations with music and magic’. And, later comments, ‘But it seems to me that something is lost if past and present collectives and collaborations are not brought back to be part of the conversation.’

It might also be applied to considering how the different sections in Elsewhere relate to each other and your different voices. The way the book is structured but also to the weaving of the transitions between forms and significant life events. Your book can be viewed as innovative and experimental in this regard.

In what might be considered the outer reaches of each extreme: you have included longer poems alongside the briefest of forms, your haiku. You also have an impressive history as a spoken word/performance poet with the Poetry Divas. How different is it for you to write, or express yourself, in each of these diverse forms? Do they draw out different parts of you or, would you say the more accurate question would be to ask - how they extend the range of your voice in particular ways?

M.O’S: Well, I’ve been writing both long and short-form poetry together for over twenty years. I think of them as a sort of twin track on which my poetry train runs.When inspiration comes to me directly through the senses the end result usually takes the form of a haiku or senryu ( a ‘human nature haiku). If I get an idea or a longer line into my head, it usually ends up as a long-form poem. You could say that the haiku are more reactive and the poems are more proactive. Most of my poems are lyrical, and descriptions or depictions of emotions tend to be more explicit than they would be in a haiku. One of the nicest compliments I got for my last long-form collection Vocal Chords (2014) was from Kevin Higgins, when introducing me at an Over The Edge reading in Galway the same year: he said he could identify the influence of my haiku practice in my longer-form poems. As well as freeform poems, I love to write in forms other than the haiku, the sonnet and villanelle in particular.

The haibun is an old hybrid form, which combines prose and haiku. The prose is meant to be ‘haiku-like’, and the haiku should add value rather than extending the narrative of the prose. I am relatively new to this form so I’m on a steeper learning curve with it. I included seven of them in Elsewhere. During the first half of my travels, I found I was more drawn to writing them than I was to long-form poems, but it had balanced out by the end of the trip. I guess you can be more descriptive in a certain way when using prose. This is not a new idea: Matsuo Basho’s seminal book Narrow Road to the Deep North described his travels in Japan using haibun. I found that the haiku were pouring out all throughout my trip, and made up around half of the book in the end, arranged in geographical sequences.

In her speech to mark the launch of Elsewhere, Paula Meehan spoke about poetic forms in general, and haiku in particular, and how they have been adopted and adapted by poets in countries and cultures other than the ones in which they originated. She urged us to guard against being too purist about sticking to the original criteria, and to make them our own. For instance, she said, if we were 100% purist about sonnets, we would write them not even in Italian, but in the language of the Sicilians. I’m paraphrasing her from memory here so I hope I’ve got the gist of it right.

S.L: And how important is it for you to bring these genres that exist largely alongside each other in the world of poetry, together?

M.O’S: I was delighted to have the opportunity to bring all of these forms together for the first time in one collection. It was actually much more satisfying to do this than even I had imagined, for various reasons. One of them was in relation to what you said in your last question, about the diverse forms‘ drawing out different parts of you and extending the range of your voice in particular ways’. Another was due to a desire to break out of the ‘quasi-ghetto’ of the haiku world, with its mostly separate journals, competitions and so on. A third reason is my own tendency to see my poetry and haiku as being separate. I’ve been trying for a long time to move on from this dualistic thinking. I don’t think I had the confidence to combine them up until now but the verified travel theme was what made it happen.

S.L: What led you to begin writing haiku and how did you come to progress to these other forms? Were you doing so alongside your spoken word poetry or did it come later? And how did you come to write in other forms? Was it a natural progression or were you writing in all forms from the start. 

M.O’S: I wrote my first haiku in 1995 during a workshop with Pat Boran at The Irish Writers’ Centre when he was introducing us to various poetry forms. I was new to most of the forms at that time, although I had written a couple of sonnets prior to that workshop, and this is still my favourite of the longer forms, with the villanelle a close second. I’ve written quite a few of both of these. My first villanelle, Form, won the Listowel Poetry Prize in 1999, judged by Eavan Boland, so that was a great confidence booster at an early stage in my writing life. I’ve experimented with lots of other forms in recent years. Kate Dempsey of the Poetry Divas introduced me to the mirror poem about eight years ago which is great fun to try and work out, a bit like a Rubik’s Cube. Around the same time I tried a couple of terza rima poems, influenced by Damian Smyth’s work, and I also wrote my first sestina, Manicure, around that time too, which was published in Abridged. Also in there are my first ghazal and my first pantoum. I love the challenge of tackling a new form, and seeing where it takes me.

S.L: You were a journalist, was that a factor?

M.O'S: I did a Masters Degree in journalism in 1999-2000, and rather cheekily did my thesis on poems written about news events, called News that Stays News, stealing the Ezra Pound quote, ‘literature is news that stays news’. If anything, though, it made me more cautious about writing such poems, though I made an exception for Leaving Vigo, a sonnet I wrote about the awful train crash in Galicia in 2013, which was nominated for a Forward Prize by Noel King of Revival, the journal in which it was published. It appears in Elsewhere too.

I’ve never worked as a fulltime journalist, but have written features and book reviews for print and online journals, and have also done radio work, including being co-presenter and producer of Writers Inc., a weekly half-hour live radio programme about writers and writers’ groups for Anna Livia (now Dublin City FM) in the late 1990s, initially with Nessa O’Mahony, who invited me to join her on the programme, then later with the aforementioned Bruce Carolan, the academic lawyer, writer and broadcaster who sadly died of cancer in 2015. I made two half-hour radio documentaries in the last decade and would love to try another one or two sometime. So many projects, so little time!

I have been teaching journalism and communications in further education for seventeen years now. Just this year I am teaching Leaving Cert. English to the repeating students, and creative writing to the Liberal Arts students, so there are now stronger links between my teaching life and my writing life which is quite gratifying.

In relation to the connection between journalistic writing and the penning of poems, haiku and haibun, the former is actually more of a hindrance than a help. Thankfully there are enough poets in the workshops to which I belong who will point out whenever my work is ‘too journalistic’.  This has been a particular challenge for me when writing haibun, since my default when writing prose is more journalistic than lyrical, so that’s still very much a work in progress. It’s like life itself, really, isn’t it? An ongoing exercise in development and hopefully progression, though that’s more for others to judge than ourselves.

S.L: I know that being a participant in the Hibernian Poetry Workshop, as I ought to acknowledge I am also – even if only recently returned to it, is important to you and being part of the Poetry Divas collective is also important. Would you like to a say something about these and other important influences on you in conclusion? In your answer you might like to address Eavan Boland’s description, in the Preface mentioned earlier, of ‘some tension, some suspicion, between the poets of the page and those of performance or the public poem. They are not divided by acrimony but by custom and tradition: deeply layered choices and commitments that not only change the poem but also the identity of the poet.’ Given your experience of both and your recent collection, you seem particularly qualified to comment.

M.O’S: As a poet, I’m very influenced by the various inputs I’ve had over the last twenty years, from my very first writing workshop, in 1995, I think, with Mary O’Donnell (who launched A Train Hurtles West in 2015). I’m lucky to have attended quite a few workshops with such talented poets and teachers as Maeve McGuckian, Gerry Beirne, Don Paterson, Tess Gallagher and Billy Collins. In 2010 I was selected, along with yourself and fourteen others, to be part of the six-month Faber & Faber workshop, Becoming a Poet, for poets who were on the verge of a first collection. We had weekly inputs from the workshop leader Paul Perry, plus occasional guest speakers. Although my first (haiku) collection, Initial Response, was already in the pipeline, I felt that my motley crew of long-form poems needed tightening up, and they also needed more companions to become a book. It was a wonderful few months, with fantastic inputs from Paul, the other participants and the guest speakers.

I came out of that workshop with the skeleton of a collection which would become Vocal Chords. The Hibernian Poetry Workshop was formed by around half of the participants and is still going strong seven and a half years later, having welcomed other talented  members along the way. I think it’s a testament to the quality of the workshop, and our commitment, that so many have published collections, or are on the verge of same, and I’ve lost count of the number of poetry awards that Hibernians have won during that time. I’m not going to name names as there are so many success stories that I might leave someone out. In 2015 we published our first anthology, The Lion Tamer Dreams of Office Work, skillfully edited by one of our newer members, Amanda Bell, and the project was expertly managed by Maurice Devitt.

Around the same time as the Faber workshop was ending, I was invited by Kate Dempsey to be part of the Poetry Divas collective of women poets. I jumped at the opportunity as it just seemed like the right project at the right time for me. I’ve always loved reading my poetry in public, and this group offered a chance to dress up and get in to festivals up and down the country such as the Electric Picnic and the Dromineer Literary Festival. Every gig we do is unique, and we rehearse for each one, carefully selecting poems that will work together and speak to each other. There’s also lots of ongoing fun and mutual support between all the divas, as I’m sure you can imagine.

The slogan of the Poetry Divas is ‘blurring the wobbly boundaries between page and stage’, and our aim is to have poems which work equally well on both platforms. As I mentioned,  most of my poems are lyrical and many of them rhyme, so performing them feels to me like a natural extension of writing them. The haiku are trickier to read live - one of the reasons I tend to group them in sequences - so I generally intersperse them with longer poems at such events, or with musical interludes. I have a number of published poems which wouldn’t work live, and I also have a few ‘diva’ poems which are unpublished, and likely to remain so. I hope that the majority of them work on both page and stage but, once again, that’s for others to decide. I can’t speak for the motivations of other poets who feel that they have to choose between page and stage, or who strongly prefer one to the other. I am reluctant to judge. Vive la Difference!

Find her poems in this issue here: http://humag.co/poetry/inside-room-102-the-rules-of-salsa-japan-haiku-sequence


Note: Elsewhere (£10 / €12) is available in Books Upstairs in Dublin and directly from Alba Publishing (info@albapublishing.com) or from the author (Twitter @writefromwithin). You can find Maeve's Irish Times feature on the background to the trip and the book here: www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-world-trip-bookended-by-losses-1.3320159. She'll be reading with Catherine Phil MacCarthy at the next Listeners event on Monday 26th February at 8pm in Eden House in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin.


Susan Lindsay has lived in Counties Dublin, Galway and, now, Wicklow. A third collection of Susan’s poems is promised from Doire Press in 2018 – following Whispering the Secrets and Fear Knot (2011, 2013). Her work appears in journals and anthologies – most recently #123 Poetry Ireland Review, December 2017, Bosom Pals, edited by Marie Cadden (Doire Press, 2017, in aid of Cancer Research in NUIG) and the 2016 Irish edition of The Café Review in Portland, USA. A psychotherapist for over forty years, before retiring in 2012, Susan read for Poetry Ireland Introductions in 2011 and was a founding editor of Skylight 47 https://skylight47poetry.wordpress.com/previous-issues/ where she interviews: Harry Clifton, then Ireland Professor of Poetry; Kay Ryan, former US Poet Laureate and Dani Gill, former curator of the Cuirt International Literature Festival. She has read her poems and facilitated ‘Conversations mediated by poetry’ at festivals and in local communities. More at http://www.susanlindsayauthor.blogspot.ie