On a grey November morning, I set off for the Rostrevor Literary Festival to interview the esteemed poet and Trinity graduate Paula Meehan. A serendipitous occurrence — she remarks, almost in disbelief, as to how I had traveled home from Dublin to interview someone from the very same city. “How wonderful to meet you, and to meet you here, in the beautiful Rostrevor.” She is striking, radiant — her hair in a long silver plait to one side, with a queue of people lining up to speak to her at any given moment. She introduces me to each one, a level of politeness completely unnecessary for a student to whom she’s kindly granting an interview. “This is Grace, from Trinity. She’s interviewing me,” she says to each one. Her warmth shines through every interaction she has — I imagine myself being irritated in her shoes which makes her all the more admirable.
Meehan is a Dublin-born poet and playwright who graduated from Trinity with a BA in General Studies before going on to complete a MFA at Eastern Washington University. She has published eight poetry collections which include Dharmakaya, Painting Rain, and her most recent collection, Geomantic. Meehan has worked extensively with inner-city communities and in prisons and her wealth of achievements include President Michael D. Higgins selecting her to be the Ireland Professor of Poetry in 2013. She also mentioned at the Festival that she is currently putting together her Selected Poems which are to be published in the next few years.
Watching Meehan perform her poetry on stage evoked what she calls the “incantatory” nature of poetry. She rarely looks at the page — eyes closed, words paced so perfectly they are almost sang. The words possess her and the audience is entranced. These incantations are punctuated with humour. At one point, she highlights an occurence in particular — when one of her poems was featured in the Leaving Cert a few years ago. A child from her neighbourhood told her that she loved it “because [it was] so short.” Throughout the talk, she muses on a range of key ideas explored in her work: personal and shared histories, the environment, overlooked communities, and those forgotten by the many “commemorative” efforts of the state. Her inspirations as a writer showcase her natural talent, a strong sense of empathy, as well as the work she has put into her craft and her deep love of language. As the lunch hour commences, I hang back and enjoy the venue’s view of a misty and glimmering Carlingford Lough, as she tends to her queue of readers. She then leads me to a large rectangular storage room full of instruments — a quiet place tucked away from the chaos.
“Her inspirations as a writer showcase her natural talent, a strong sense of empathy, as well as the work she has put into her craft and her deep love of language.”
“I went into Trinity in 1972 and I had just gone 17, so the world was a fantastically exciting place,” she begins. “At that stage, I think, there would have been very few people from my background studying at Trinity — it was before the Access Programme came in…” Meehan remains an avid supporter of Trinity Access Programme, as “…it really gives that extra year for people coming from backgrounds who wouldn’t have the culture of university education in their families or in their communities, so I think that’s one of the great developments in Trinity.”
The poet’s course, General Studies, no longer exists: “It was perceived, really, as being too general…But it did give you the opening of, which suited me with my magpie mind, having the taste of many different disciplines and areas of study and scholarship. And it was a fantastic opportunity for a big reader, which I was…” While reminiscing on her college experience, she resists idealising it. “I mean I never had any money, I always had to have a part-time job, because my family didn’t have resources to support me. But it did force an independence very early…I thought that was really valuable.”
Meehan’s memory of college in the 1970s is steeped in music and vibrancy, “from the English folk revival to the rock and rollers to kind-of psychedelic music.” And the fashion she describes is not unlike the kind we see around the Arts Block today — minus the real fur: “There was a lot of psychedelia, it was a very psychedelic generation…we all floated around in long streely clothes. I remember there was a big craze for tatty, kind-of moth-eaten fur coats from second-hand shops.” She draws inspiration from our setting: “An interesting thing…was the number of Northern students in Trinity and the friendships I made that have lasted to this day. And I don’t remember us ever asking each other what religion we were, it was all about what music you listened to. And of course Van Morrison was huge, absolutely huge. He was only a whipper-snapper then, as well.”
“‘An interesting thing…was the number of Northern students in Trinity and the friendships I made that have lasted to this day. And I don’t remember us ever asking each other what religion we were, it was all about what music you listened to.’”
Through studying English, History, and Classical Civilisations, Meehan “found there was great freedom.” She admits to exclusively attending lectures she was interested in, something many arts students are likely to relate to. “I wasn’t a good student in that narrow sense…” Here she found her passions in Greek mythology, Greek drama, and poetry, of course, which she “devoured”. One of her first lecturers is the current Ireland Professor of Poetry and Fellow Emeritus at Trinity, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. “She taught me the history of the English language…that was a very valuable course.”
In 1992, Meehan was a Writer Fellow at Trinity’s Oscar Wilde Centre, a position held by other renowned literary figures such as Anne Enright and Eavan Boland. At the time, she was also working with local communities and with female prisoners. “It was a very interesting contrast to go from…the circumstances of privilege, if you like, educational privilege, to the prisons… Some of the reasons why the women were in prison was because of a lack of educational opportunities, so that was a very sobering time.” Returning to college in 2014 as part of her term as Ireland Professor of Poetry, Meehan again remembers Trinity positively. “I have great fondness for Trinity, through all those phases of my life.”
Amazed at the span of her career, I inquire about any advice she might have for students aspiring to be published writers. “I think, especially for those who aspire to poetry…first of all you have to completely put any idea of getting rich out of your mind, though life is kind of flukey. And poetry is…a difficult path. It’s always going to be a difficult path, and maybe that’s part of its nature, because you’re looking to express truth, and your primary relationship is with language.”
“‘[Poetry is] always going to be a difficult path, and maybe that’s part of its nature, because you’re looking to express truth, and your primary relationship is with language.’”
Her answers naturally lend themselves to a meditation on the role of poets and poetry today. She recalls Ciaran Carson being told in an interview, “language serves you very well”, to which he responded, “on the contrary, I serve language.” “I think that is part of the poet’s role, to serve language,” she explained.
The poet emphasises the responsibility writers have to respect poetry’s nature, history, and power. “It’s never going to be easy. But if you have endurance, and you’re prepared to work hard, and understand that poetry predates literature, predates the writing down of literature that goes right back into our earliest culture. As human beings we’ve always ritualised language to a certain effect…I think poetry tends to choose its people anyway, you know, it breaks out of you.”
Meehan goes on to explore the capabilities of poetry and how it can be utilized in this particularly divisive time in history. “We live in a world where poetry can offer the opportunity to people who are disenfranchised or who are stateless or who have no access to power or advocacy.” It is clear as she moves through her answers that the poet prioritises empathy and inclusion, consistent with the nature of her work. “Poetry is a welcoming place for those voices, and part of its great power and dignity…comes from its inclusivity. And I think we need to remind ourselves [of that] in this time, when so many new people are coming to the island [and] bringing new poetic traditions that can only enrich Irish poetry.”
“It is clear as she moves through her answers that the poet prioritises empathy and inclusion, consistent with the nature of her work.”
For Meehan, young poets today face a startling environment, and she finds the impacts of the “machine age” we’re in on memory and thus, on poetry, particularly interesting. She explores how, historically, the move from the oral to the written transferred essential information from the memory of the poet to books they could refer to. “Authority became invested in the written word and we’re still fighting wars over those early books, you know. Now we have an even bigger shift into machine, artificial intelligence and machine memory and for many people the first ten hits on google are the authority and the memory. So for the poet that’s a very interesting shift of authority and the younger poets are heading…straight into that new technology. So that affects poetry, it affects the making of it and the dissemination of it.”
In the wake of these ideas, I can’t help but ask her about the role of poetry in our current moment of environmental and, in many places, humanitarian turmoil, as well as the unprecedented access we have to news from all around the world. “I think poetry is always political, because language is intensely political, and loaded,” she responds. “If I wanted political power I would have gone into politics, you know, not that you can’t combine both as we see in our President…”
Meehan mentions that the “fashions” of poetry also reflect the world around them. “The zeitgeist makes demands of the poet, so I just watch this with great interest and somehow the patterns repeat. And as Medbh McGuckian, the great Northern poet, says, some patterns have a very long repeat.” Her interest in dreams and community surfaces to create an illuminating picture of the kinds of poetry we need at different times in history: “…sometimes the dreaming nature of poetry is more needed, and [at] other times the political nature of poetry is more needed or the community nature. And we want people to use the pronoun “we” rather than “I”, or “he”, or “she”, or “they”.”
“‘…sometimes the dreaming nature of poetry is more needed, and [at] other times the political nature of poetry is more needed or the community nature.’”
Meehan notices that “young poets” today are very noticeably interested in issues such as those surrounding gender and the environment: “It is a time where identities are being worked out through language, and if poetry is like the crest of the wave (which it always is culturally), things find articulation first in poetry, right through the ages.” Similar to how she uses the past to inform her view of the present, Meehan presents a nuanced prediction of what kind of poetry future generations will need: “The kind of language that we will need…will be a dreaming language. So the great thing about poetry is that it will always answer to the needs of community and of selfhood, the individual selfhood in that flux.”
While the festival organiser made clear the interview should be quick due to their busy schedule, Meehan took her time answering my questions with care. She even chatted to me afterward, asking about my own writing and time in college, and inscribed my copy of her latest work, Geomantic, with a kind, personalised, and poetic touch. It is clearer than ever that Meehan is one of Ireland’s greatest poets to date, and an important cultural critic during a time when they are desperately needed.