“Almost with the amorality of a journalist I suppose. That sounds terrible, ‘the amorality of a journalist’. Objective, that’s what I meant. Jesus, that’s an awful thing to say to someone. You know what I’m trying to say.” No offence taken. Dylan Brennan is talking about the prose style of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a foot soldier under Hernán Cortés during the colonisation of Mexico who, in his old age, recounted his experiences in The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. Díaz is a voice in several of Brennan’s poems in his first collection of poetry Blood Oranges, published this month by The Dreadful Press. The idea of the foreigner in Mexico is key to Brennan’s poetry, no surprise given it is how he has spent most of his life since leaving college. Born in Dublin, he has been swapping between Ireland and Mexico since spending a year in the latter following his degree. It is a place that has always been present in Brennan’s mind: “I became very interested in Mexico as a kid. My mam came back from the shop one day and she had two little Penguin books, one on the Incas and one on the Aztecs, for myself and my brother and I got the one on the Aztecs. So it was in the back of my mind as I was coming to the end of my degree. I thought, right, I have to go live somewhere for a year to improve my Spanish and I’ve been to Spain, it’s great, but why not somewhere completely different? I suppose it was inevitable that I’d go there at some point.”
Brennan studied TSM Spanish and Portuguese (no longer available) and Italian in Trinity and it was here that he developed a love of Latin American literature. It was after finishing his undergrad that he spent his first year in Mexico: “After that [college] a couple of friends told me that they wanted to go to Mexico and I thought, yeah, sounds great. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go straight into a masters or what. They said they had got jobs organised for the two of them and kind of at the last minute I said, ‘well, I‘ll go too and I’ll look for a job.’ And I got to Monterrey in the north of Mexico, liked it, and got offered a job there. So we worked for a while, saved our money and then we travelled from there by car and we ended up on an island off the coast of Honduras. So I became pretty fascinated with that part of the world and ended up going back quite a bit.”
Brennan returned to Ireland to do an MA in Cultural Policy in UCD. As part of the masters he did his work experience in Poetry Ireland and it was here that he first really engaged with poetry outside of an academic setting: “Poetry Ireland seemed to me quite active and a place to meet interesting people. I worked there just helping generally whether it was data entry, answering the phone, or even serving the wine at readings. So I got to meet and listen to a lot of people like Pierce Hutchinson, Paul Durcan, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney. In one edition of the Poetry Ireland Review, I helped Paul Lenihan proof-read it and I really got to see what kind of poetry was being accepted and what was popular. And I got a feel for what I liked, what I didn’t like and noticed certain trends.
“But it was a godsend to find these new journals, quite experimental, open to all sorts of things. Colony and gorse and The Bohemyth are fantastic.”
Because I wasn’t really engaged with contemporary literature before that to be honest. Everything I read was before the turn of the century. I used to think you could trust a classic whereas you don’t know what you’re going to get with some new hotshot novelist. But I’m totally the opposite now. Since I joined twitter I’m very clued in.” Following his work with Poetry Ireland, Brennan returned to Monterrey in 2005. He would move from Ireland to Mexico twice more before settling in Mexico in 2011. He is currently living in Cholula where he has been working on his doctoral thesis on Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. It was from 2011 onwards that he began to write the poems that we find in Blood Oranges.
Brennan came relatively late to the poetry game: “When I was a little kid I loved to write stories but had never really thought about doing it seriously. There was no poetry, no stories, nothing like that in college. When I was in Mexico [in 2005] I started writing, scribbling some very short lyrics, nothing serious. I’m quite grateful to a friend of mine called Cody Copeland. I was working in a small town called Miahuatlán in the south of Mexico and he had done a degree in Creative Writing and we found we had a lot of free time. He used to like to play writing prompt games and got me writing stories and pieces of texts in like 10 minutes and it got the creative juices flowing. And I was telling him he needs to get back on his novel and he read a couple of my poems and said to me you need to start this again and from then really, 2011 into this year, has without a doubt been my most active period. Because before that I’d write maybe two poems a year and one of them would be crap, and very short. So I kind of thought well let’s actually really try and do this.”
Though he had been published in the Poetry Ireland Review, Brennan hadn’t gotten a lot of exposure in the Irish poetry scene. However, the dynamism of the new publications and publishers that have emerged over the last few years opened doors for him, as they have for many others: “I just knew the old [journals]. I was published in a few of them but not so regularly. I was in the Poetry Ireland Review once. But it was a godsend to find these new journals, quite experimental, open to all sorts of things. Colony and gorse and The Bohemyth are fantastic. And The Penny Dreadful, I remember seeing their first call out and I thought I’ll apply and I remember I was really impressed when it came out. It was only a small poem of mine but there were people like Roddy Doyle and Elaine Ní Chuilleanáin. In their second issue I think they had Paul Muldoon, Gerard Smith. And then recently Rob Doyle, who’s doing great things. So when I had enough poems together for a collection these were the first people I asked.”
Blood Oranges is a strong and vibrant first collection. Aptly named, it looks at violence, the natural world and humanity’s cultivation of both. The foreigner in Mexico, whether through the clear crisp voice of Díaz or the poet himself, is also central to the collection. The three have often found themselves united throughout Mexico’s history and violence is as present today, in the ongoing drug wars, as it was under Spanish colonisation: “My doctoral thesis is on a guy called Juan Rulfo, who is just an amazing writer. I was reading a lot of interviews with him and he was very interested in this idea of history repeating itself and how the violence of the conquests is still going on. An acquaintance of mine, a good friend of a friend, was murdered as I was reading these interviews on recurring violence, and so that kind of became an obsession of mine. I think that’s obvious in some of the poems, the idea of violence through the ages, whether it be the conquistadors or the narcos or police brutality. There’s a lot of blood and guts running through the pages. There’s a juxtaposition of old violence and new violence and they don’t seem so different to me.”
“The idea of the foreigner in Mexico is more personal than the idea of an Irishman in Mexico, I think.”
Brennan cites the Italian writer, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and the Northern Irish poet, Michael Longley, among his chief influences. While the foreigner in Mexico is a focal point for many of the poems in the collection, the idea of the foreigner being Irish is not something that Brennan consciously considered, though he recognises that his being Irish plays a role to an extent: “I suppose it must, I think every piece of writing has got to be autobiographical in some way, maybe very obviously or maybe very obliquely. You bring what you have to the table whether you want to or not. But the idea of the foreigner in Mexico is more personal than the idea of an Irishman in Mexico, I think. But there are some poems that were written very recently that are in the collection where there is a definite connection [to Ireland]. There was a time I went to Monte Albán and saw these sculptures called the danzantes, who were these people who they think suffered genital mutilation for purposes of sacrifice. So the sculptures show them writhing around in pain but the ones that are vertical they call the dancers. But it really links, for me, to a poem by Longley about Sheela na gigs and I incorporated some of his words into the poem and made a connection there. So there are some poems that are clearly referencing [Ireland]. And I think that’s how people think and learn, by making these kinds of connections.”
The French poet André Breton, who appears in Brennan’s poem Breton in Mexico, called Mexico “the most surrealist country in the world.” In his poem, Brennan examines the relationship between reality, surreality and the subjectivity that allocates something as one or the other. Breton becomes another of the foreign voices through which Brennan examines his adopted home: “Sometimes I find myself agreeing that it’s so surreal and then other times I think no this is just the colonial European projecting his viewpoints. Just because it’s strange to him doesn’t make it absurd or surreal, it’s just a different place. So it’s a contradiction that sometimes I find myself agreeing with him and then sometimes not. I thought about it once when I read in Chihuahua that there had been 23 people massacred on a lawn at a teenager’s party, something insane like that, and they caught the guy and it was a case of mistaken identity. He went to the wrong house and I thought this is bizarre, this is reaching the levels of surrealism. And then I thought that Breton’s statement was perceptive and condescending and ridiculous and brilliant all at the same time, in a sort of surreal way.”
Brennan is in Ireland to launch his book and defend his thesis but returns to Mexico at the end of the month, to his girlfriend and his job. It’s clear that Mexico is home and, from the strength of Blood Oranges, an inspiring one at that: “Cholula, where I live, they claim, is the oldest continually inhabited town in the Americas. From my house you can see the volcano, always steaming away. It erupted two days ago. It keeps you on your toes. I don’t want to fall into the trap of exoticising everything, it’s something I try not to do but I wake up every morning and there’s a volcano outside my window. And the locals are so used to it but I vow never to get used to it and I think that’s maybe the key to poetry: maintaining a sense of astonishment at things that are genuinely astonishing.”