Getting to Know Moira Linehan and her new book Incarnate Grace
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
In retrospect, I see that it was my father who instilled in me a love, and hence a need, for hearing stories read aloud. I was sickly as a child, often in bed, and he would read to me, as he would read to my younger brothers and me each night to put us to sleep. And he read everything to us: fairy tales and fables, the Psalms, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas. If I see a copy of Treasure Island, I hear his voice. So from the start, the printed word was about hearing it aloud and trusting the accompanying cadences and rhythms to carry along wonderful stories. Time and time again.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
Yes, I do have a routine. And that is something that I try to demonstrate to the participants who take part in workshops I offer: most often inspiration comes in the act of writing, not before it. Again, back to my father and also my mother. Both of them were visual artists. They went to their easels and painted. Sometimes they made a painting; sometimes they did not. Sometimes they framed a canvas. Sometimes they turned the canvas over and started another painting. That is my model for work: just do it. I try to get up early and go to my desk for a couple or three hours most mornings. That desk faces the pond on which I live. (More about that in a minute.) Sometimes I give myself an exercise just to be writing. Or I fiddle with a line that is in my head. At the same time, if I am working on a series of poems, I try to keep those pieces in play. For example: in Incarnate Grace I was exploring the many meanings of the word “margin” to write about being diagnosed with breast cancer. One of those meanings: the white space around text. I chose The Book of Kells as my text to do research on and write about. You will see a sequence of poems about it in my collection. You will also see poems set along margins, land adjacent to a body of water.
Where do your poems most often come from?
I am hugely fortunate to live on a small pond, Winter Pond. The majority of all my poems have been written facing it. Almost a quarter of the poems in Incarnate Grace are about it or are triggered by the wildlife that comes there or have it at least as background.
In addition I have, over the last decade or so, been granted several residencies and used the landscapes in those places as triggers (the Whiteley Center, Friday Harbor, WA and two places in Ireland: the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Co. Monaghan and the Cill Rialaig Project in Co. Kerry). You will find poems set in these places in Incarnate Grace.
So, my poems often begin in a specific landscape. But to actually begin writing, I need to hear my first line (back to my father) in order to get going. And lately, I have been paying more attention to sound, writing more sound to sound than merely word to word.
What writers have influenced you the most?
I am convinced I have been influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas. Their lines drive my breathing when I read them aloud. And following them are poets influenced by them, in particular Seamus Heaney and Eamon Grennan. For narrative poems, I have read and re-read Ciaran Carson and B.F. Fairchild. I was fortunate to have Lynda Hull as one of my mentors when I was at Vermont College working on my MFA and long studied how she braided images through a poem. Closer to home, in the long years since earning my MFA, I have worked closely with the poet Mary Pinard (on the faculty at Babson College). She and I have read and re-read drafts of each other’s poems. Her work has taught me much about the lyrical line.
What else can you tell us about your new collection?
Incarnate Grace explores my experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer. I chose to write about it through the imagery of margins. The ordering of the “margin poems” more or less follows the chronological order of residencies I had where I explored and re-explored living as a breast cancer patient and survivor. At the same time that I was writing about this diagnosis, more than ever before I was trying to live more fully in the present moment. Hence, there are meditative poems about the pond behind my home as well as reflections on paintings or on the art of looking. The cover of my book is a detail from an 1890 U.S. geological survey map locating “my pond”—Winter Pond—and me as writer in this world.
Read sample poems from Incarnate Grace here:
This gift. Like binoculars, so I can see
up close with both eyes what’s out there. The weight
of it. I rest my elbows on my desk
to get a steadier look at this moment
at what is
swimming toward me across the pond:
lone brown duck, much smaller than a mallard.
What I see that I could not see without
white ring at the end of its bill.
Isn’t this how I always want to look:
in the moment the distant brought in close
so I can read it in detailed relief?
I’m holding on with both hands so I can
take in what’s here now in front of me:
ring-necked duck migrating who knows where.
What I could not name save for these binoculars,
this new way of looking. This breast cancer.
The day’s last ferry, slipping out for the mainland,
each window on its many decks lit before me,
a Frank Lloyd Wright design, clean-lined stained glass,
upon the nighttime waters. Barely moving—
this ferry, its reflection—and I’m held on shore
at a window. In six days I’ll walk back into
its hungry mouth. In sunlight’s glare that ferry’s mouth,
blacker than the woods tonight behind me.
Beyond the harbor, the ancient boatman’s rowing,
rowing since the world began, coming toward me
in his open dinghy, ferryman for what will be
my passing. The island’s ferry’s passed. Or Charon’s
already claimed me as his passenger, so slowly
do we glide I don’t even know I’m on board.