Moira Linehan’s second collection, INCARNATE GRACE, will be published by Southern Illinois University Press (SIUP) in Spring 2015. It explores various meanings of the word margin in response to her surgeon’s words that the margins around her lumpectomy were “clean but not ideal.” Her debut collection, IF NO MOON—selected by Dorianne Laux—won the 2006 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry open competition and was published in 2007 by SIUP. In 2008 IF NO MOON was named an Honor Book in Poetry in the 8th annual Massachusetts Book Awards. That book chronicles the loss of her husband.
In 2010 Linehan’s poem, “Last Wishes,” received the Foley Poetry Award from America magazine. After careers as a high school English teacher and an administrator in high tech and academic settings, Linehan now writes full-time and occasionally leads poetry writing workshops in the Boston area. She has been awarded numerous residencies, including recent ones at the Cill Rialaig Project in Co. Kerry, Ireland; Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, Spain; the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co. Monaghan, Ireland; the Whiteley Center at Friday Harbor, WA; and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Linehan holds a MFA in Writing from Vermont College. Her website is http://www.moiralinehan.com.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?
Moira Linehan: When I was in graduate school at Simmons College in Boston, getting a Masters in Teaching English, I took a poetry writing workshop. I figured if I was going to be a high school English teacher, I should know something about actually making poems from a writer’s point of view. The professor, Norm Klein, was the first person in my life to tell me I had a gift and should pursue it. After graduation, the high school where I landed a teaching job happened to have five guys who all wrote poetry. We formed our own writing group, and I took off from there. During my summers, I started attending writing workshops. All left me wanting more. Eventually I quit being a high school English teacher so as to have more time and energy for my own writing. And then, wanting still more, I chose to pursue a MFA in Writing at Vermont College. That program allowed me to continue to work full-time (by then I was a college administrator) while earning my degree.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your time as an MFA student.
Moira Linehan: The late Jack Myers was the first poet with whom I worked at Vermont College. I remember one of the first things he said to me: “Your art will change your life and your life
will change your art.” As life would have it, in the middle of my first semester there, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I ended up taking two leaves of absence during my time in the program and so, was in some ways disconnected from the program. My husband battled cancer for four and a half years before dying. As his end approached, while I cared for him at home with the help of hospice, I became determined to make a collection dedicated to him. I returned to my administrative position and began that journey. After two or three years, though, I realized that if I lived carefully and modestly, I could quit my “day job” and use the annuity my husband left me to become a full-time writer.
Geosi Gyasi: And so you created your collection, If No Moon.
Moira Linehan: Yes. If No Moon chronicles those four and a half last years of my husband’s life as well as my journey into and emergence from grief afterwards. The manuscript was a finalist or semi-finalist a number of times before Dorianne Laux selected it as the winner of the 2006 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry open competition and Southern Illinois University Press published it in 2007. I can’t go any further without first acknowledging and again expressing my appreciation both to Jon Tribble, the series editor, for his support and recognition of my work, and to Dorianne Laux for that honor. As almost all writers will tell you, we live with a lot of rejection. And so when Jon called to tell me I had won the competition and If No Moon would be published, I have to say my first reaction was to go numb. It was very hard to take in at first.
Geosi Gyasi: And I saw that If No Moon was named an Honor Book in Poetry in the 2008 Massachusetts Book Awards.
Moira Linehan: Yes, I have a poster with the cover of my book between Henri Cole’s Blackbird and Wolf, which was the Award Winner that year, and Robert Pinsky’s Gulf Music, which was the other Honor Book.
Geosi Gyasi: What were the challenges you faced as you put your collection together?
Moira Linehan: I would say there were two challenges.
The first had to do with the experience of grief. In the beginning I could not even sit at my desk to write. I would just dissolve into tears. So for the first six months I wrote nothing. Then, bit by bit, I began to write again. But still, I was writing for myself, trying to understand what had happened, trying to put my grief into words. As time went by, and I am talking years now, I realized that, for some of us at least, grief robs us even of words. So I began to see that by putting my experience into words, I might help some in the same situation to say, Yes, that is what it was like for me. But I also saw that the clearer I was, I might help others to say, No, that is not what it was like for me. So in the end, I was writing to help those of us in grief find our own words.
The second challenge had to do with what poems to include and where. Early on, I saw the ordering as more or less chronological. If No Moon is divided into four sections. In the first section I have poems where my husband is still alive, but dying. The second section chronicles my early grief. The third section contains poems about the family in which I grew up. The final section is about later grief and starting to come back into the world. I did not have all that much difficulty with ordering the poems in the first three sections. The last section, however, kept changing as I was writing about how grief kept changing. I continued taking poems out of the last section and adding more recent ones. Eventually I had to make myself stop.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there anything else you would like to say about your first collection?
Moira Linehan: Content-wise, I was focused on the experience of grief. During the time I was working on these poems, I happened to be reading the early works of Louise Glück. Through her work I became aware of the potential of line breaks to be a vehicle to express two feelings at the same time, or in my case, to enact the ambiguity of feelings grief brings. So, artistically, I began teaching myself how to use that technique, which I hope readers will notice in some of the poems in If No Moon.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there other poets who have influenced your work?
I got every childhood disease there was along with endless colds and bouts of pneumonia. We had no television when I was very young and during those times when I had to stay in bed, my father would read to me—Aesop’s Fables and Grimms’ Fairy Tales, of course. But he also read to me whatever he was reading. So I remember hearing Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins along with the Psalms and whatever the coming Sunday’s Gospel was. Now I had no idea what any of them meant. But I did learn to hear, as well as feel, their rhythms. And I now have a longing to re-create such rhythms in my work. I love the work of Seamus Heaney and Eamon Grennan for their rhythms and sounds. I have studied the work of Lynda Hull to learn how she braided images throughout a poem. Since I graduated from Vermont College, I have worked closely with another VC graduate, the poet Mary Pinard. We are among each other’s early readers. She has taught me a great deal about paying attention to how sound can mirror content. So I believe those who say “Music is the sister art of poetry.”
Geosi Gyasi: And there are those who say, “Painting is the sister art of poetry.”
Moira Linehan: Yes, the old adage of “show, don’t tell.” My mother and father were both visual artists, my mother doing a lot of portraits and still lifes and my father, more abstract work as well as pen and ink sketches. As children, my brothers and I were taken to many museums, especially the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
There is the tradition of ekphrastic poetry, where a piece of art work is the trigger for a poem. I continue to visit museums and have any number of poems in response to paintings and sculptures I have seen.
Geosi Gyasi: I know you have a second collection coming out in Spring 2015 from Southern Illinois University Press. Can you briefly tell us something about that book?
Moira Linehan: Well, it’s called Incarnate Grace, which is a phrase from one of the poems in the book about the pair of swans which came for many springs to nest on the small pond behind where I live. Again, I am indebted to Jon Tribble for asking to publish these poems and it is Alison Joseph who suggested this title.
At Thanksgiving 2009 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The surgeon who performed my lumpectomy told me afterwards that the margins around what she had excised were “clean but not ideal.” I often find that I need to return to a dictionary to insure I have the exact meaning of a word and when I looked up “margin,” I was reminded of its several meanings. Those several meanings are the basis for many of the poems in Incarnate Grace which explore the margins at Friday Harbor on Washington’s San Juan Island, the margins along the southwest coast of Co. Kerry in Ireland, the margins in The Book of Kells, the experience of feeling marginalized by breast cancer. In addition I include ekphrastic poems as well as poems about the wild life that comes to the pond behind my house. The way I hope If No Moon maps the experience of grief, I hope Incarnate Grace maps the experience of being diagnosed with cancer and being reminded to live “in the temple of the present” as the first poem in Incarnate Grace says.
I need to acknowledge that many of the poems in Incarnate Grace were written while I had residencies at the Cill Rialaig Project in Co. Kerry; at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co. Monaghan; at the Whiteley Center, which is part of the University of Washington, at Friday Harbor, WA; and at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, VA. I remain immensely grateful for the time and space they each gave me.
Geosi Gyasi: Closer to home, what is the poetry scene like in the Boston area?
Moira Linehan: I am very lucky to live where I do. There is a wealth of venues in which to hear new work. And with the number of world class colleges and universities here, world class poets live, visit, and read here. There are actually times when I have had to choose between or among events to attend!
Geosi Gyasi: What are you working on now?
Moira Linehan: I have a manuscript in progress that weaves together the themes of walking, inspiration, and pilgrimage. The grouping has the tentative title of Journey-Work, which comes from a Whitman line in Leaves of Grass.
Geosi Gyasi: And what do you do with your free time?
Moira Linehan: Well, since I stopped working as a college administrator, I have been involved in helping my step-daughter one or two days a week with her three boys. I am a knitter, a reader, a cook. I love to have friends in for small dinner parties. And I have all the cultural opportunities that Boston and Cambridge offer almost next door. I’ve had subscriptions to the Boston Symphony and various local theatres. There are museums galore and the lectures they offer. Lately I am doing a little more travelling. And from time to time I lead writing workshops.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have anything to say to end the interview?
Moira Linehan: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my work. If anyone would like to respond to anything I have said, they can contact me through my web site, www.moiralinehan.com.