Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Moira Linehan
By Yong Shu Hoong
From gyrfalcons to crows, American poet Moira Linehan writes often about birds – not just as metaphors that she uses to derive meanings, but perhaps also as a reminder of how birds, exquisite and fascinating, can be a comforting constant in our lives. In the poem 'Wild Swans at Winter Pond', she observes two swans and their three cygnets: "I watch them paddle. Who will be the first to leave? I remain / transfixed. A pair of swans and their young contain me and a pond."
Readers who have had the good fortune to discover Linehan's poetry will find themselves wandering, welcomed, into her beautiful thoughts, even when the terrains are sometimes paved with adversities and sadness. Her debut collection, If No Moon (2007), is a meditation on love and loss, with many poems in memory of her late husband. The winner of the 2006 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry open competition, it was published by Southern Illinois University (SIU) Press. It was named an Honor Book in Poetry in the Massachusetts Book Awards 2008.
Her second collection, Incarnate Grace (SIU Press, 2015), charts her struggles with breast cancer – with wit and candour, and once again, astute insights. In 2016, it was also named an Honor Book in Poetry in the Massachusetts Book Awards.
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. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and lives in the Boston area.
Her latest collection, TOWARD (2020) – published by the Wipf and Stock Publishers imprint, Slant – touches on another recurring theme: her Irish ancestry. Her publisher's website states that, in her new book, she "makes us believe that landscape is destiny. As the book unfolds, we come to inhabit the land- and sea-scapes of the wild southwest of Ireland, the islands of America's Pacific Northwest, the poet's home in Massachusetts; and then round again, back to the land north of Dublin."
1. What are you reading right now?
By way of poetry specifically, the recent death of Irish poet Eavan Boland had me go back to her prose work, Object Lessons, and her long poem, 'Anna Liffey'. A friend of mine has me reading Gray Jacobik's Eleanor, autobiographical monologues in the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
As for a living author: during my MFA programme (Vermont College), I found Louise Glück. I began to see how she made use of line breaks to express ambiguity. Or to hold more than one possibility. As I put together my first collection, If No Moon, I worked to take advantage of that device. I still do.
I have also been influenced by the work habits of artists. I go to exhibits of the works of Picasso to see the range of his work, its variety, and what influenced him: African masks, the early film industry, other artists such as Whistler. I have studied Monet's series of haystacks and the cathedral doors at Rouen to note the changes in light that he captured. And for the years, when Andy Pettitte was a pitcher for the Yankees and they were playing my team the Red Sox, I watched what he did to focus: how low he pulled his cap down, how he looked in so that he saw only the signs his catcher was giving him, how he ignored the raucous stadium when he was on the mound. From them I learned breadth of subject matter, precision of detail, and concentration.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I also feel that having a routine helps. Mine is rather prosaic. I go to my desk every morning. I like to begin with new work. If that is not "available" to me, I go to recent work, work-in-progress, and work on the next draft. Then I turn to reading and/or journaling. And if/when all those measures come up empty, I re-read my recent journals to figure out what has been on my mind, what I am repeating or going back to, and use that matter as a trigger.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or piece of advice from a writer?
I love the ending of that poem:
I love the way that poem maps the beginning of Yeats's poem, 'The Wild Swans at Coole'. And I love the way Heaney's lines keep flowing on, in contrast to Yeats's many end-stopped ones.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite word?
My least favourite is when someone calls me, a senior citizen, "young lady". Or when I read an article about someone in their late 50s who died in a car accident or fire, and the person is called "elderly". Please!
12. Share any two lines from a recent poem, or a new poem you're currently working on.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
A desk in front of a window.
14. What is the best time of day for you to write?
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
16. How have the landscapes that are ever present in your latest poetry collection, TOWARD (2020), provided a portrait of you as a poet?
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
"This woman loved, and was loved by, Dan Ounjian."QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020