(This interview was conducted by e-mail. The questions were asked by Robert Archambeau, in Chicago, and answered by Randolph Healy in Dublin)
Archambeau: I'd like to begin, somewhat predictably, by asking you how you became a poet, and who your early models were.
Healy: I left school when I was 14 and worked in a number of dead end jobs (which I thoroughly enjoyed) e.g. shop assistant, telex operator. I read a great deal at the time. My father was interested in poetry, so there was a sense in our house that it was part of the game, and it wasn't a big deal to write a poem as such. The first poem I wrote was as part of a homework assignment from my English teacher. He accused me of copying it from a book, which was quite a thrill at the time. And when I left school I continued writing. Short, trippy lyrics. My heroes were Wallace Stephens, Sylvia Plath, William Blake, Ted Hughes, e.e. cummings, Don Marquis, Robert Browning, Peter Larkin, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri. I returned to school after some years and became aware of Eliot and Yeats. In my last year in university I met Maurice Scully. He was one of a group of poets who were reading in a poetry roadshow to which I was attached as a punctuation mark, i.e. I'd play guitar in between poets. I mentioned to him that I was writing poetry and he asked to see some. Later on I posted stuff to him and we met for a pint. He said it was awful and that for him it was particularly disappointing in that I was a man of ideas. The rider caught my interest and I began to experiment with what a poetry of ideas might look like.
A: Your poetry often works with scientific and mathematic metaphors: what is your attraction to these ways of looking at the world, and what is your own scientific/mathematic background?
H: I had been feeling for some time that my line
was running aground on other people's rhythms. On the roadshow I had heard
Scully read the same group of poems eleven times and the effect was
intoxicating. His line was more discursive, at least relative to the incantatory
intensities I had been failing to manage. This was crucial. When I got back to
my workshop I eventually took the subject-predicate sentence, a modified form of
iambic pentameter and logic down off the shelf. Break with habitual rhythm,
extend range. I went for logic for a number of reasons. It addresses the content
question in an interesting way. In axiomatic system, there is this search for a
key set of propositions from which all later results can be derived.
A set of fundamentals. What it all boils down to. This was attractive to me in that, due to a result called Godel's theorem, not to mention Russell's paradox, it is quixotic. The structure of reason refined to breaking point, then it breaks. I liked the idea of working with a faulty machine. Irish poetry was very much centred on its own Irishness at the time, 'a sense of place' being the mantra of the workshop. The wild and drunken poet was still very much the model too. The irony of using Greek mathematical models to write an apparently coldly logical piece on colonialism in Ireland appealed to me, hence "Colonies of Belief". These decisions led to a distancing between me and the Irish poets I knew at the time. Their view was that it wasn't poetry. Which was fine by me, glad to complete freedom from comment at the time. Scully and I corresponded frequently, and he was a major support to me, publishing my work in his magazine, and going on to publish my first "book", 25 Poems. All this happened just as I was leaving college, having finished a degree in Mathematical Sciences. (I didn't do English because I felt I would have much more difficulty with it as a subject, and also as a means of making a living. Math/science has buttered many the slice of bread for me.)
A: Could you comment further on the attraction of logic? So many poets seem to find it arid . . .
H: I think the main excitement of Logic for me is that although it began as a quest for certainty, using rational procedures it uncovered the incompleteness of reason itself. The theorem demonstrating that a logical system is unable to prove its own consistency humanises the discipline for me. If it was a means of arriving at unshakable conclusions it would have no interest. Its epistemological instability is the dynamo.
A: Many poets speak of poetry as a kind of antidote to the information age, as a way of retreating from the world of overwhelming amounts of rapidly transmitted data. You've taken the opposite approach, saying that "the world of information has rarely been so vibrant" and that you "see no good reason why poetry should avoid it". What kind of relationship do you see between poetry and the information age?
H: At the moment I'm thinking of poetry as a means of saying and not saying at once which raises information above the level of mere facts. Logic and mathematics have suggested a great deal of formal structure. The world of information, whether history, science, medicine or whatever provides a referential pool which one can use to sketch. Information carries all sorts of traces. People, their manners and attitudes are faintly present, sometimes even in the syntax. If I write directly about more traditional themes, whatever way I read mainstream poetry, I find myself falling into certain prefabricated emotional configurations. The whole thing gets skewed. I find using information keeps my eye on the ball. I can stay with the nuances of what I'm actually feeling a lot better. Also the way traditional barriers between disciplines is breaking down is of interest. A particular fusion can have all sorts of political and social repercussions. Blah blah. I suppose at bottom, words themselves have a duality. So personal, yet no matter how intimate a thing one may say, the words have all been around before. (Barring neologisms.) The latter type of impersonality is obvious with information, but data have something of the former quality too, which is part of what I am exploring.
A: Your work has been notable for compression and concision, but with your new long poem "Arbor Vitae" you've turned toward a more extended form. What led you to the long poem? Is it something you plan to explore further?
H: I think the extended form was something I was moving towards in "Envelopes" and "Spirals Dance". But when I went to [the 1997 "Assembling Alternatives conference in] New Hampshire and saw the scale of the American and Canadian long poems I was very excited. This was something I wanted to try immediately. I started on Arbor Vitae on the plane home. At the moment, I'm working on another longish piece, and I'm having so much fun with the greater complexity given by scale that I think I'll be sticking with it for a while anyway.