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Arias of Consolation: An Interview with John Liddy

Tony Huang: Congratulations to you on the publication of this wonderful book of poems, Arias of Consolation! It’s quite clear that the majority of poems within this book are about Limerick. First of all, would you like to share with your audience here, many of whom are new to your work, how you are related to the city?

John Liddy: My relationship with Limerick began when I was 4 years of age. I was born on the south coast of Ireland, in County Cork, a place called Youghal, Eochaill in Irish, which means the place of the yew tree. That's where I grew up before 4. My little playing field was the strand by the sea, and I played with my brother Mark and my sister Miriam. We three were born there because my father had a job down there in Youghal. I arrived back in Limerick when I was four to my grandmother's house in the old part.

My next few years were spent in a lovely old cottage, which had a small farm attached to it. It was like an urban farm, not quite way out in the countryside, but close to the city. Those were my first impressions of Limerick. They're in the poems—those first impressions of growing up near King John's Castle, the scenes of many a battle, and so on. Then we moved to another area in Limerick, more in the countryside. That's where I actually grew up. So, I had these feelings about places from a very early age. That's what really sparked me to start taking note of the places I had been to or had grown up in. That's my early relationship with Limerick.

Tony Huang: Well, I think the last time, about 3 years ago, a couple of months before the pandemic during your visit to Tianjin, you did mention briefly that you were working on Arias of Consolation, and now we know that this is an epic on Limerick. Though I knew even before I started reading that this is a book about Limerick, I was still shocked by the overwhelming presence of Limerick, its history, people, stories, dialects, anecdotes, songs, and other numerous details. I’m still very curious about when did you begin to conceive this idea to write an epic for this city? How do you carry this idea with you all these years?

John Liddy: Well, I’ve always been interested in place. Places are not just physical, either. They can be spiritual. There can be more meditative and contemplative areas in our lives. I’ve been writing that poem, it’s safe to say that I’ve been working towards the finish of that poem all my life. I’ve written many poems and other books related to Limerick, not so much about it but they do relate to it. No matter where I go, I carry a notebook to take notes. On my visits back to Limerick, after I moved to Spain in the early 80s, all my visits back were about note-taking. So, I filled many notebooks with details and observations. While I was in Tianjin, which I absolutely loved, and which made an impression on me, I actually finished a draft of a section in the hotel room in Tianjin. I was still writing the poem, then. Wherever I went, I was able to sustain it and continue to write it. I also wrote other little things. I wrote a poem for you and Nancy, “Two Views from the Banks of the River Haihe.” At the river, there was a fisherman catching fish with the smallest fishing rod I’ve ever seen. It was actually tied onto the railing, braced. I watched him for an age, which reminded me of fishermen on the River Shannon which I mentioned in that poem. But even in that poem, there are images and comparisons related back to Limerick. I’ve always been doing that, in my travels in America—Detroit, California. It’s all about note-taking again, observation and comparison. So, I had these notebooks full of stuff. Eventually, I started to order, to structure the poem. When I did that, it was just before the pandemic hit. I’ve been working on it, but I hadn’t a structure. I couldn’t crack it. I couldn’t break into it until I started reading Derek Walcott’s Omeros again. And Walcott’s Omeros is a fairly long, one-poem book. In the 200 pages, the poems are made up of tercets of terza rima. Inspired by Walcott’s structure for Omeros, I use tercets in Arias of Consolation. I think once you get the structure right, you’re then able to continue.

Tony Huang: You began thinking about writing a poem on Limerick a long time ago and have been keeping all these detailed observations everywhere you go. It is likely that your initial feelings toward Limerick may have evolved over the years. I’m very curious about how you have managed to keep a somewhat consistent general attitude or feeling toward Limerick throughout these years?

John Liddy: There are many facets to any place, and every place has its history and its past. Limerick’s particular past is a very violent one, a war-like past, as many battles with the English were fought. However, the remnants of those battles could still be seen when I was growing up in Limerick. We’re talking about a place that has been occupied, by the Vikings around 922AD, and then the Normans and the English. You have all this mixture of history happening, and we are living among the remnants of those histories. The poem is full of references to those battles and wars, but also to the language. People in Limerick still use Viking words, Norman words, and, obviously, Irish and English words. Then, hybrid words were coined. In fact, you have that same phenomenon in China as well. There is that mixture of accents, different dialects, languages, styles, and so on. On the other hand, the physical aspects of Limerick have of course changed. It’s modernized; it’s not as dark and drab and dreary as it was when I was growing up there. It’s now quite bright and full of new architecture, a bit like Tianjin but much smaller, without the skyscrapers. There are laws in Ireland restricting the heights of buildings, so enormous skyscrapers are scarce. You do have modernization though, modern architecture, and yet the old stand beside it. The old is indeed there as well—the graveyards, the cathedrals, the old churches, and so on. You have this wonderful mixture of the old and the new. Now, I do regret losing some of the old, and there is this question of what is progress. I think we should be more careful about pulling down the more historic structures to make way for the new. With the technology that we now have, it is possible for us to combine the old and the new. I remember once when Pilar and I went back to Limerick for our wedding party, and we had literally the last meal in this old hotel. After that, we went off to an island for a week and the hotel was gone by the time we returned. Now, I have always maintained the view that they should have preserved the façade of the hotel and built a new interior, which is now happening in other places. But they didn’t. They simply knocked the whole thing down, a hotel which is now gone that went back to the 1700s. All that area is now quite modern, built up. It’s a pity to lose things in such a way.

Tony Huang: I think I have read a couple of poems from the collection in which you actually offer a critical viewpoint about this sense of development. I like Eoin Devereux’s comment in the preface of this book that “Arias works like a multilayered mind map of the city and county” and that you are all at once an archeologist, a lyrical stone-mason, and a singer. How did you balance the three roles when you were working on a poem so that you would not leave your readers feeling overburdened by details of history, names of people or places, or, simply, emotions? Many readers like me, we may feel overwhelmed by so many words that are used by the locals there.

John Liddy: Well, I try to balance it. I’m not a professional archaeologist. I'm certainly not a professional singer. And I’m not a professional storyteller as such. But I like all three. When you grow up in a place that is just full of archaeology, to a lesser extent, like a person from Rome growing up with coliseums and so on around him, it’s obviously in you. Your interest in archaeology is there even though you're not a professional archaeologist, but it does come into the poems, landscape, buildings, old forts, and so on. It’s all there. The legends, the folklore. That's the archaeology of the poem as well, a kind of legend, folklore.

Regarding the singing, Limerick is a very musical place. Lots of very good musicians have come out of Limerick: singers from opera to pop to rock. Limerick is quite famous for its music, and I grew up in a musical household, a musical family. My father was a musician. My mother had a beautiful voice. So, I sort of grew up with parties, particularly at Christmas time with my father on the piano, my mother singing, and my uncle reciting. We all had a party piece. We were all expected to stand up there in front of our uncles and aunts and perform. I remember my father came to me one day and he said, “I've been thinking about this piece of music.” One little detail: My father couldn't read music nor write music, but he could play literally anything. If you hummed Handel’s Messiah to him, he could play along. He played Bach and Chopin. He asked me to put some words to a piece of music, which I did. That was an interesting combination of my writing words to his music. And then my mother’s singing of my words. So that was a party piece we did at Christmas time for uncles and aunts and cousins. My father would go to the piano. My mother would sing. It was a part of the three of us. A now very famous composer and musician, Billy Whelan, who composed River Dance, actually wrote the musical score to our piece. Limerick is still a very musically oriented place. I knew quite a lot of the history of the place.

But I have to admit, I did my research as well. I used a lot of material, too numerous to mention. If I have to cite my sources and give explanations, it would take another 40 or so pages which the publisher would not agree to, nor did I want to do that. I just deliberately wanted to leave the aura, to leave things to the reader. If the reader wants to investigate a bit further, they can easily locate references if they wish. So, we didn't put an index or glossary in. I have read a lot of books from the library, materials, plus maps of enormous height, width, and detail. I started looking carefully at one in particular by Eamon O’Flaherty, Irish Historic Towns Atlas No. 21 Limerick. That is how I get the original shape of the place. The run of the river, the meandering aspect of that river making its way to the sea. The whole poem is the river talking, really. My voice comes in, but it’s the river telling the story, along with the characters.

Tony Huang: You have been living in Madrid for several decades. Would this absence from Limerick paradoxically offer you a distance and vantage point to have a clearer view of Limerick, a city that you are all the more connected to? How your journeys around the world and the many cities you visited affect your feeling of home or the cities you consider home?

John Liddy: As I mentioned earlier on, when I travel, I tend to compare. Distance does give one an interesting view of the place where one came from. That is to say, distance allows you a more critical eye to see the place you left behind. We often can't distinguish when we're within the place; but when we're a bit removed from it, we get a different vision. That's what happened to me with Limerick. I was able, I think, to write the poem because I was away from Limerick. I was away from it, missing it, but getting over that morriña or cumha, which means homesickness in Spanish and Gaeilge, I was able to go back and see it with different eyes. I could see things that my friends, for instance, who never left would not see. Memories began to jolt in my head. There's a thing about the local park, which had a metal cup tied to the fountain. I remembered when I was a boy, as a young fella, I drank water from that metal cup. It was the coldest water one could drink. I still have the sensation on my lips, the feel of that metal cup. It's a sensation that didn't leave me. I went back to check if that cup was still there, but with the new hygiene rules, it was removed. Images like that came to me when I was in Detroit. Detroit reminded me of aspects of Limerick, especially the rundown aspects, or the old crumpled aspects. I'm not saying Detroit was a crumpled place. It went through its rough times as well with riots and general neglect. But yet, I got very fond of Detroit and became quite at home in Detroit. Then when I get into the more sophisticated places like the Beckley area of San Francisco, I saw a completely different, immaculate lawn area: beautiful flowers and rose bushes, and so on. All my travels helped me to bring as much as I could into that poem and I do mention some other places. It's not just Limerick, and it is certainly not all positive. Much to say, I love Limerick and its people. I didn't want the poem to be corny, or too sympathetic either. Rather, I wanted it to be truthful and honest.

Tony Huang: I’ve been away from Xiamen for more than two decades. So, I can actually feel so many other things that you’re actually presenting in the book. During the periodic visits I had in the past few years, I often felt uneasy because my nostalgia was not always comfortably accommodated by the robust changes of the city in front of me. I’m very curious how do you balance your sense of nostalgia with other emotions? In Verse IV, you mention “… the wail of betrayal left ragged on the shore,/ its threadbare inheritance used to ascertain/ the view through the gates of ascendancy/ churches, now halls of culture and tourism,/ surnames such as Parker, Marrick, Tinsley/ Joynt and Unthank who made me rethink/ what is gone, now and what is to come/ in the chronicle of your blurred link.” So, I'm very curious, how do you balance your sense of nostalgia and other emotions? Are moments like this turning our nostalgia into something more layered?

John Liddy: That particular reference is about the ascendancy churches. That church was a protestant church that we grew up around and was quite close to my grandmother's house. I remember walking past it with my mother when I was only 5 years of age, we were told not to go into that church. We could only sort of stand on our toes and peer in, and I had this vision of peering into it in between the slits in the gates. It was a very eerie-looking place. Over the years the church was shut down and closed like so many other places and eventually, all over Ireland the Protestant community began to fade away. So you had a gradual taking-over of these places. And lots of them, all over Ireland, have become cultural centers, halls for the elderly, or tourism offices, and they were once thriving 16, 17th century churches. And think about this: the graves that are still there, with all those names. Unthank, a surname, which I discovered when I was walking around taking notes—I mean, what an amazing surname, Unthank! That was a common surname once upon a time and it made me rethink. The launch of one of my books, Madrid and Other Poems, the previous one to this one, we had it in that very church. That was an amazing thing for me to finally be able to go in and was my first time ever in the church to launch a book which was about Madrid. Curiously enough. Inside the graveyard, right by the river, it has the most spectacular views of that river which were covered up for us. We never saw those views growing up. Very few people did. But now you can walk around and visit. It's all open again.

Yes, there's a tendency to become emotional about these issues, but the writing of poetry is to control as well your emotion. Because you've got to think about the reader all the time. You have to keep the reader in mind. The reader is not going to have the same emotion as you have about an old 17th century church. They're not going to have this, particularly today's young readers. They don't feel like this in the same way I felt. So, when you're writing a poem like that—it is personal—you have to be able to control it somehow. I think I managed to control this. I shy away from sentimentality. It's not a sentimental poem. Sentiment is there, but it's not sentimental. It's not my pining for Limerick, crying my eyes out about the place.

There are moments when I wish I was there for a particular event: for a gathering of friends, for family, for a party or even a hurling match, a sporting occasion, or funerals as well. I wish I was there for certain funerals of friends. That's a very Irish thing to get to the funeral. You have to be at the funeral. I’ve always missed that aspect of it. Just to be there to console friends who have lost somebody and be with them. That's all it is. I missed things like that, but I’m lucky as well. I'm only 2 hours away on a plane so it's really not that far. It’s probably not as far as that between Tianjin and Xiamen.

Tony Huang: Yeah, the thing is that the pandemic is actually making travel so difficult. It prevented me from visiting my parents for more than 3 years.

John Liddy: We've all missed people and we couldn't travel. Luckily, it's opening up on this side of the world. And it will for you. There will be another day to see people.

Tony Huang: I think in many places of the book you have semi-autobiographical accounts of your encounters with poetry and music. In Verse V you write “in local parlance with pals you sat beside/ whose fathers’ aprons dripped of gore/ in bars near bacon factories, men beatified/ on Sunday nights with arias of consolation,/ which mother hummed as a girl and father/ learned by ear on his piano of avocation.” And in Verse VII you mention “all so still as I hear mother sing the line/ and father strike the note to what I wrote:/ O Where Are Those Memories Of Mine?” How did moments like these bring you closer to songs and poetry?

John Liddy: They're very personal, private moments, but writing the poem is not only for me. I want to share those moments, because they are very significant moments, or I've decided that they are significant moments in the poems. That's why I'm using them. The music here inside of my family, my father, and my mother, was very important to me, and that's where I got my poetry from a very early age.

Apart from the more teaching aspect of this, when you go to school, when you're growing up, you may be lucky to meet certain teachers who can impart a love for poetry or the written word. That is sheer luck in many ways. Not everybody finds a good teacher, but when you do, you don't forget that teacher. I actually dedicate another long poem to a teacher of mine, Eric Lynch, who showed me how to recognize nature in poetry. This particular teacher was a hunter. He liked to go hunting and yet he had such a love for nature. Lots of hunters do have tremendous respect for the countryside and nature, but that's another day’s work. However, it is this teacher who showed me how to appreciate nature in poetry. The least I could do was to dedicate a previously published long poem to him, “The Lost Scrapbook of ’66.”

So a lot of this poem, Arias, is about paying back something to my parents who are no longer alive; but to my family, my brothers and sisters, who will recognize all those images in a deep, personal way; to the reader who may appreciate them like yourself, and spot the key emotional areas of the poem. That's why they're in there. Again, trying to balance it and move on and not get bogged down in those areas. That's why I keep moving. The poem is a river, as I keep saying, that's flowing. The Chinese or the Greeks, between the two of you, who seem to have invented everything, put it, “you cannot swim in the same water twice.” The river keeps flowing and moving. That's why the opening of the poem, the Prelude, is about the river, the clouds, and cloaks, which refers to the old name of Limerick, Bare Place. This was where two Celtic tribes had their duel, not war but contest. And two warriors of the different tribes met. It was a hot day, so everybody took off their cloaks, and put them down. But a sudden wind came and carried the cloaks out to the river. Then I turn those cloaks into seals moving, and then into clouds passing. So, I was able to move the poem on to metaphor, and a lot of it just moves to metaphor and image, which is why I'm able to get to the end of it.

Tony Huang: Yes, thank you for showing the technique in the writing. The thing is that in the whole book, in the many verses that you call sections, you celebrate anecdotes. You celebrate nostalgia about Limerick. I think we find in section 12, you celebrate the “men and women/ who could read stone like market buyers/ a bargain.” You celebrate a modern and cosmopolitan Limerick, but it is actually at that place that I find that the modernization of the city and the many construction projects there sound a hidden alarm for you. And it seems that you have some ideas about the construction programs and the so-called modern progress there.

John Liddy: I worry about this trend of tearing down the old, in order to put up the new. As I go back to the point I made, we should be more careful about what we tear down in order to put up the new. We could do more in that area. But I think they're learning in Limerick. They realize people go to Limerick for its history. When the English came in, they actually gave Limerick a charter as a city before London, so strictly speaking, Limerick is, officially, an older city than London. People like to be walking on old places, on cobblestones, going and learning something about the history of a place in order to get the feel for it. Otherwise, if we're just looking at the modern or the new all the time, with no real balance, there's no sense of past there. The past is very important to help us appreciate the present and plan for the future. The past gives us vision in order to learn, maybe from mistakes, but also to rectify things and to plan visionary thinking into the future for future generations. I’m very conscious of this. I think the poem has that in it where I accept the new—new singers, new musicians, new poets, new buildings, new ways of looking at things, new ways of doing things. That’s all fine with me. But keep in mind how we get to that place. It's true that all the stuff that went before us, the thinking, the energy, the building, the disasters, the good things and the bad things, all contribute to who we are, what we are now and what we are to become from now, like new singers coming through. I mean the wonderful young singers who are making a name for themselves as I speak. They're all coming into their prime. If I were to meet them, they probably wouldn't talk to me. (laughing). They may wonder who's this old guy here. But those singers should also bear in mind that there were singers before them. Like I bear in mind, there were poets before me, and what has made me a poet were those poets who wrote before me, those teachers, those parents, those grandparents, and those great grandparents. So that's why I blend language, people, music, art and as much of the city as I can comment on is in there. And it's still not enough. I could have gone on. What I edited out of that book would fill another book. The book went through 20 drafts of rewriting, 20 times, 50 sections. It was a lot of work. So, I’ve left out a lot. Maybe I will find some place for it in the future, a different book or something, I don't know. But it's just what it is now. I can't go back on it.

Tony Huang: The title of this book is “Arias of Consolation.” How is this related to your wish “to confirm my [your] life’s search/ for equilibrium between soul and mind,/ the poem my channel of truth, a means/ to observe the best kept secret in Ireland” (XXXVI)?

John Liddy: There are two parts of your question. First, as for the title, “Areas of Consolation,” one of my friends suggested the title. I sent the manuscripts to three friends for their opinion, one to my brother Liam, one to Séan O’Donnell, and another to Derek O’Flaherty. Derek had worked with the Guardian newspaper in Manchester in England as a sub-editor, and he was very good at making suggestions and corrections. At that time, I had it in my mind, but I wasn’t sure what to call this poem. I knew I was not going to call it “Limerick,” which would be too arrogant and too much of a statement. In my opinion, this poem is not an entire history of the place and its people. The poem is not about everything, but about some parts of that place and parts of those people. So, Derek said, “You mentioned ‘arias of consolation’ four times in the poem, so you should call it that.” I took his suggestion. I also took suggestions from my brother and other people, because I am a great believer in readers. Their comments are very valuable to me. Writers should learn to listen to readers and get tremendous feedback from readers. Moreover, the “Arias” part of the title coincides with me as an Arian. I was born in April, so my zodiac sign is Aries. The first book I wrote was called “Boundaries,” published in Limerick when I was twenty. And the ending of “boundaries” is “aries, “bound” and “aries.” And that was the idea of the very first book I wrote. And on the cover of that first book, there is a line between the word “bound” and “aries,” a line straight down. So, I went back almost a full circle, which is another reason why I called it “Arias of Consolation.” A simple swap of e for a. Furthermore, arias is an operatic term. My mother used to sing snatches of arias from different operas, in the kitchen. When I was growing up, I could hear her singing from different operas. And Limerick had this very operatic side to it. A lot of people know operas and they are very good at opera. My mother used to take me to opera in the local theater. All of this seemed to be related to that title. In addition, consolation is a word I like, because it’s sympathetic. The poem offers some consolation for people who are going through a lot and suffering a lot, due to the pandemic, etc. People feel strongly about the place of their birth. We feel about places, we feel an attachment to a certain place. It’s the landscape, but it’s also more than the landscape. It seems we are bound to a certain place, its people, its ethos.

As for the second part of the question, I’ve always been interested in the inner design of things, the inner area. This is the archaeological side, which you can’t see from the outside but you can from the inside. Also, I have always been interested in the idea of the longest journey. It seems the longest journey we make is in our brain. We make journeys to find meaning, harmony, and peace of mind. They are the real journeys, which connect the idea of the soul, the heart, and the inner being with the mind or the intellect. While I fly to Berkley and Tianjin or go down the road to buy butter and bread, the journeys are indeed here (in the mind). They are tremendous journeys that all of us have to make. But some of us can’t brother to do that. I touch on this in a poem from The Secret Heart of Things (2014), when I write “…our search for eudemonia/ between heart and brain, the longest journey/ ever taken by whatever means, fair or foul…” Additionally, contemplation, meditation, and silence are all beneficial journeys. If religion, for instance, helps people, it is another journey. I am all inclined to look for peace of mind. It is the inner harmony that I am interested in. In order to be able to write poems like the Arias, you need inner harmony going on in your life so that you are able to stop and spend innumerable hours to write it out on your own. So, I am always interested in that journey, and I mentioned it a lot in this collection of Arias but not in an obvious way.

John Liddy writes in and translates from Irish, English, and Spanish. He has published many collections, including Madrid and Other Poems (2018/19). His most recent work is Arias of Consolation. All his Spanish-related poems have been collected in a forthcoming book called Spanish Points. He is on the advisory board of The Hong Kong Review.

Tony Huang, Ph.D., is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Hong Kong Review. He is also the founder of Metacircle, Metacircle Fellowship Program, and Metaedcuation. His poems, translations, and scholarly works have appeared in The Hong Kong Review, Tianjin Daily, Binhai Times, Nankai Journal, Large Ocean Poetry Quarterly and other venues. He teaches British and American literature and literary theories at Nankai University.

Transcription: Emma Wang, Nancy Zhao, Kim Zhao, Gary He, Diana Hu, Aria Chen, Carina Zhang, Xiaoqian Xue, Vanessa Chen, Thomas Wang

Copy editing: Nancy He

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