Plainchant: A conversation with Eamon Grennan

By Audrey Fong

The cover of Plainchant showing a drawing of a gray rabbit beneath black text reading Plainchant
The cover of Plainchant

Eamon Grennan is the author of over 10 poetry collections, including his latest from Red Hen Press — Plainchant. In Plainchant, Eamon shares poems that prompt and deepen our attention to the world. His new collection once again shows his powers of close, patient, plainspoken observation. From poems about a family walk to the song of a lark, this collection presents intensely observed details and the rich, patient exactitudes of Grennan’s language.

Grennan won the PEN Award for poetry in translation for Selected Poems of Giacomo Leopardi (1997), and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets for Still Life with Waterfall (2002). He has also won several Pushcart Prizes and been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was also the Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Professor of English at Vassar College.

The front of Cistercian College Roscrea
Cistercian College Roscrea. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Audrey Fong: In Plainchant, you talk about many natural wonders like a hare, a gannet, and a rain-flecked cow. What draws you to the world around us and to the animals that inhabit it?

Eamon Grennan: I was a city boy, born and brought up in Dublin, but it’s a city by the sea and close to the countryside too. I spent five years in Roscrea, a boarding school in the middle of Ireland and I think I learned to look about me there, at what was both strange and familiar. We also spent summers in the West of Ireland. I just developed a habit of looking at the natural world and all its details. Not in any professional or academic way at all, just ordinary looking that I suppose stayed with me.

The seaside in Connemara
Sky Road, Connemara, Ireland. Photo credit: Kevin Bosc, Unsplash

AF: Many of these poems are set in Connemara, a district in western Ireland, facing the Atlantic. What is it about this space that inspires you?

EG: Connemara is a wonderful mixture of seacoast and rugged countryside and hills. I loved it from the time my father used to bring us for summer holidays there, where he did his work as a school inspector. Sometimes we’d spend two months there. As an adult and living in the States as a teacher at Vassar College, I have gone there regularly, and with my partner, Rachel, bought a small cottage there in a coastal place called Tully, in County Galway. That cemented my connection with it, which still endures, and I go, with or without family, back each year. Getting to know a new place through what is there in all sorts of physical and mental and emotional ways develops a sense of attachment and a kind of observation, and that has always been important to me.

AF: You spent much of your life in Dublin, Ireland and currently reside in the state of New York. What are some of the key differences you’ve noticed between the two when it comes to the literary community?

EG: The sheer size makes a great difference. America’s literary and poetry community is so much bigger, more variously populated. The Irish — for all the differences between poets, men and women both — is much more locally determined. And poets tend to know each other more, to know each other’s work more, to have different attachments. Still, in any literary community you’ll find those differences. But there’s simply so many more writers at work in America, one way or another.

AF: What was the process of writing this collection like for you? What were the research and writing processes like for you? Do you have a routine — specific music, foods, or practices — that help get you in the writing mood?

EG: I wouldn’t say I have any idiosyncratic habits as a writer. I take walks, I take notes sometimes when walking, noticing things. Later some of the notes may bear poetic fruit if I’m lucky. As a teacher, I encouraged my students to keep the notebook and stay attentive to what was going on in the immediate world of the place you were at. Simple stuff. I don’t tend to exploration into any specific kind of “philosophic” depth. Just “paying attention” would be the advice I give myself. Then “How to say it in pleasing language.” Not worrying too much about “Poetic” thoughts or over calculated language.

AF: What do you hope readers will take away from this collection?

EG: Of course, at the bottom of all is your engagement with the language itself. Loving that, loving and being able to admire how words make sense, how they fit into rhythms that give them a different kind of heft: the potential music of language, I suppose, needs to be part of your breathing. At least I’d like it to be that for me. The thinking, the feeling. in whichever order you like, then the saying with a bit of verve and bounce, I suppose. So, I’d like someone to take away from Plainchant a slightly sharpened awareness of what they are or might be seeing — like the rest of us, like the poet — seeing into and of the physical world. I always reminded my students, too, that the phrase “paying attention” is interesting in itself. And if you do pay attention, you come away with something valuable, what you have “paid for.” And that’s worth it. Or at least I find it so.

I should add as a last point that I believe, too, that my time at the boarding school in Roscrea in the middle of Ireland was very important to me. The school was run by Cistercian monks, and I may/must have taken some of the qualities of close attention from their habits of meditation. I was just a kid there (13 to 18), but spending so much lonely time gave opportunities for meditation to the boys too. Certainly, I felt that solitude, that being alone. Also, I liked the ceremonies. And since the kind of monastic music the monks made is called Plainchant, I thought it a good title for a collection, a book of poems not fully “prose poems” but not fully “verse poems” either. Just their own kind of music: both plain and with the musical effect of (a sort of) chant.

Grab a copy of Plainchant and support an independent bookstore while doing so here.

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Red Hen Press

Nonprofit independent literary publisher aiming to amplify unheard and underrepresented voices and improve literacy in schools. www.redhen.org