Dylan Brennan interviewed by Dave Lordan

Many of the poems concern themselves with natural and or social disasters. Are you drawn towards the catastrophic, the apocalyptic? Why? 

I suppose I am! In the post-9/11 world we seem to have reached a heightened state of anxiety on a global scale, at least that’s my perception of things. Disasters—human, natural, despicable and brutal—are everywhere, and more are coming, to look away would be unpoetic. I’ll leave that to Bono

 
Many dark subjects, vistas. Did you are do you take any measures to emotionally protect yourself while ‘entering hell’ sp to speak.
No. Well, I often inhabit other voices, of both real and fictional speakers. That, I suppose gives some emotional distance, a buffer zone.
 
What attracts you to Mexico? I mean Mexico as a real place but also the Mexixo of legend and vision. 
As a child I was given a book about the Aztecs and became fascinated. Thinking about it now, they (like the figure of Dracula—a novel I read and re-read frequently) perhaps embodied (in the mind of my then child-self) the intoxicating, perfectly balanced, mix of fear and attraction that people find so alluring. Well, that was all before visiting here for the first time in 2002. Since then I’ve been drawn by the vastness of the place, not just geographical size, but the endless variety of, for example, fruit, vegetables, climates, deserts, tropical fronds, cacti etc. that and the constant contradictions—pollution/natural beauty; friendliness/danger; heat/cold; reproduction(there are young kids EVERYWHERE here)/death & murder etc……..I could go on and on here but I’ll leave it there.
 
 
How much study of/immersion into mexican culture, history, heritage did you go through befoire yiu fely confident enough to write a book which draws its inspiration from these things? 
To be honest, all reservations about writing came from concerns about the quality of my writing and not from any concerns of lack of immersion in Mexican culture. I’ve lived with a Mexican lady for quite a while now so that was not an issue for me. I didn’t plan to write a book about Mexico but when I found that I was happier with the quality of my writing, I happened to be back in Mexico. Most of ‘Blood Oranges’ was written between 2011 and 2014. By coincidence I was back living in Mexico and writing what I saw.
 
Tell us about Juan Rulfo, why he interests you, why you are working on him etc. 
Rulfo’s stories and novels (there are two of them, despite what most people will tell you) are wonderfully tangible—elemental pressures are keenly felt and depicted. However, there is more at work. In Pedro Páramo, his most famous work, the earthly and the ghostly are seamlessly interwoven throughout. It is a wonder to behold. Everyone remembers where they were when they first read it.
 
In a poem like cherries, there is a stark contrast drawn between the beauty of the natural world and the brutal ugliness of human affairs taking place in it. In other poems, nature itself is as aggressive and murderous as humans, or even more so, as in the mexico earthquake. Are humans the ugliest thing in existence, or are we just the latest in a long line? 
Well, humans are the greatest and the most despicable. Again, the perfect combination of disgust and allure. That’s what makes us so interesting, the contradiction. We are constantly at the mercy of nature and we constantly behave mercilessly towards nature, human or otherwise.
When you are writing mexico are you writing Ireland too?
Well, in a few cases (‘Bones of Anonymous Children’—unwittingly co-written by the secretary for the archdiocese of Tuam, Danzante—comparing carvings at Monte Alban to Longley’s Sheela-na-gig at Kilnaboy, and ‘Devils’) there are obvious connections between the two. But yes, is the simplest answer. You are what you are. What’s in my head comes from a lot of places, but principally from Ireland and Mexico. Whether I want to or not, that duality cannot be eroded.
 
At the centre of many of the poems lies the figure of a mutilated human body, or bodies. For the christian imagination, which is the imagination of the western literary tradition, this cannot but bring christ into the frame. You are certainly an apocalyptic poet. Are you a religious poet? A poet of revelation? 
Wow, these questions are good. Initial answer is no but probably not totally accurate. I do not subscribe to any religion (I think most people, in fact, don’t fully subscribe to a religion but are too scared or complacent to admit, or simply don’t see anything wrong or hypocritical in capricious, a-la-carte devotion). I am, however, fascinated by all religions and have read bits and pieces of many religious texts. I am not a prophet though, despite my Jack Wilshere prophecy recently coming true.
At the end of Now In Rainbows (published below interview) you declare ‘nothing is to be learned from this’ . Is nothing to be learned from any of the horrors you explore? Why write about them? 
That is the bit that people love or hate or love to hate. Any time anyone hears or reads that poem, that is the question they have. And it’s a logical and valid question. Of course we can learn from anything. But I wrote that poem enshrouded in pessimism, bewildered by the nihilist, ignorant, empty consumerism that drives much of the narco violence. I needed to highlight the pointlessness of it all. and to provoke the reader into asking themselves the questions that pursue me on a daily basis. There’s a line in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet—”why are there people like Frank?” I’ve always thought that to be a trite and naive question while at the same time being the perfect response to tortuous barbarism—utter bewilderment and resignation. I tried to replicate these feelings in the poem. How successfully I did that is not for me to say.  A while after the book came out an old friend emailed me to say the following:

“Now In Rainbows,” is terribly powerful. I won’t belittle the final lines (or the memory of the young orchestral conductor) with a ham-fisted commentary, but I was struck by a passage in Richard Flanagan’s “The Long Narrow Road . . .” where the narrator, recalling a savage beating administered to an Australian prisoner, says “There was no meaning in it, not then and not now . . .”, which reminded me of “Let it be known and understood — /there is nothing to be learned/ from this.”

I remember thinking that this was a far more thoughtful response than other responses that somnambulated along the lines of…”well now, we can always learn something, even from bad situations”…but, as I say, everyone is entitled to their own response.

 
Does the poet have a political role in your view? 
Yes, if they want to. Poets can write what they like. They are, perhaps, at their most political when their right to write whatever they like is put in jeopardy.
 
You seem to delight in fusing elements of different cultures and traditions in your poems. The six liner, in cholula, draws on Swift, on Marian Legend, on Aztec Mexico. The only place where all of these disparate strands can be brought into unison is the imagination. Are your poems maps of the imagination? Or a redrawing of reality in your own image?
Maps of the imagination, I think that’s an interesting way to put it and not one that I would’ve come up with. I think the human’s brain functions by constantly making correlations and the poem you mention is a good example of this. There are plenty of other examples of this in Blood Oranges. Seeing the comparisons and the contrasts at all times seems to strengthen the synapses. The repetitions of history, recurring dichotomies etc….
 
There is much use of the legends of others in the collection, from Buddhism to the Llorana, and everything in between. But you have your own legends too, don’t you? Tell us about the poem, The Lighthouse KIng, for example.
Some of the poems are inspired by the brutal and fascinating story of the inhabitants of Clipperton Island. Briefly, they were stationed there to collect guano (for phosphate) by Porfirio Díaz. During the Mexican Revolution and the demise of Díaz, the supply boat from Acapulco stopped arriving. Starvation and scurvy ensued. One day all the men drowned except the lighthouse keeper, he proclaimed himself king and began a reign of terror until he was murdered by Alicia Rovira Arnaud and she and a few survivors were rescued by a passing ship. The lighthouse keeper had previously told her that he’d rather kill everyone on the island, himself included, than allow them to be “rescued”. We originally had a lot of explanatory notes at the end of the collection but we got rid of them. By explaining these things, I think I rob people of totally different interpretations of the poems that I could never have envisaged myself, I find that exciting. I’m wary about “ruining” people’s interpretations. But, yes, Clipperton (and, indeed all remote islands) fascinates me. One of my favourite books of all time is Judith Schalansky’s ‘Atlas of Remote Islands’. Seek it out, it’s a jewel.
Is ‘the men in fake uniforms’ a true story? How long before you could process the trauma into a poem? 
It is inspired by a real event, mixed with bits and pieces of information gleaned from reading about or hearing about, the fate of people who have indeed been kidnapped, a fate I thankfully escaped. I read the poem recently in both Mexico City and Zacatecas (in Spanish and English) and Mexican audiences really respond well to it, which was a worry for me beforehand. I wrote about it  a couple of years after it happened. It wasn’t traumatic at the time, real horror and the potential for real horror, feel worryingly unreal in the moment, that may explain much of the horror in the world. It became more traumatic when it became real, when I heard of the murder of someone who gave me his sunglasses when I commented on them favourably, someone who’d stayed in my house, someone I’d shared a few beers with. His murder happened around the same place where my poem is set. Then I revisited the episode, the reality of it and the unreality too.
 
Any Mexican poets we should know about?
This is a topic that I don’t know enough about. I still feel like I’m catching up with some major names. I’ve been working my way through a massive anthology of poetry ranging from Pre-hispanic times to late 20th century at a guiltily slow pace. But some of my current favourites are Francisco Hernández, Rosario Castellanos, Nezahualcóyotl, Óscar Oliva, Juan Bañuelos, Sor Juana, José Emilio Pacheco and Efraín Huerta. A contemporary of mine deserves a shout-out too. Javier Taboada has published one book of poetry. It’s called Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems) and it’s a complete thing focused on one theme—his grandfather’s apothecary store. A great blend of nostalgia and humour, well worth checking out. Someone needs to translate it. Not me, I’m too busy.
 
Give us your writing tip. 
The question I dread. Because it’s always the same answer isn’t it and surely it’s just the answer that I give myself. Maybe other people need to hear a different answer, maybe not. But here goes my answer anyway— read, read, read, live, live, live. immerse yourself in this planet,  get dirty and wet in the sediments and fluids of this life and to record these things with words if you want. If you don’t want to write poetry, don’t do it. Do it because you need to do it. Make the poems you wish existed. Listen to children, observe them, replicate them. Their sense of astonishment with the world and everything in it is pure and logical, don’t lose it. We’ve heard all this advice before, there must be something to it. Stare at volcanoes, swish mezcal around your mouth before swallowing.

Now In Rainbows

i.m. Garo

Upon the sedimentary base of the Río Grande
or Río Bravo (depending on your line of approach)
his corpse was found. It probably stank.
It was probably bloated and purple
and was definitely shackled.

As they dragged the thing
that used to be him
to the twinkling surface
filthy liquids that had soaked
and stained his white cotton socks
must have streamed
from his trainers
through shoelace holes
and from his nostrils and pockets
rendering business cards or,
more likely, scraps of paper
with scribbled names and numbers,
illegible and pointless.

From Brownsville to Matamoros
he had crossed to visit his parents.
There were signs of torture.
He had rented a car.

Like others I decided not
to attend his funeral.
I hardly knew him I told myself.
He stayed in Condesa
for three days and nights
when down for the In Rainbows tour.
The last text I sent him
was to complain about
not moving his gear from my couch
at the agreed-upon hour.

Every death is an unacceptable affront.
The inexplicable murder
of a young orchestral conductor
is a dark leaden palm
that pushes down on the lungs.

Let it be known and understood –
there is nothing to be learned
from this.

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