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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