Volume III (Summer 2008)
ISSN 1934-4324

Featured Author

Michael Heffernan

photo: Ann Heffernan

An Interview
by Geraldine Cannon Becker

Michael Heffernan has published seven collections of his poetry, including Love's Answer (Iowa, 1994), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, Another Part of the Island (Salmon, Ireland, 1999) and The Night Breeze Off the Ocean (Eastern Washington, 2005). He has received three NEA fellowships, two Pushcart awards, and the Porter Prize for an Arkansas writer. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Boulevard, Crazyhorse, Gettysburg Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Shenandoah, Southern Review, TriQuarterly and other journals. He is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and is co-director of the International Writer's Course at the National University of Ireland, Galway.


AR:  You’ve been published in various anthologies, including The Legend of Being Irish:  A Collection of Irish-American Poetry (White Pine Press, NY—May 1989) and you’ve had books published in Ireland by Salmon Press Would you tell us about your Irish connections?  Do you have any advice for readers who may have an interest in publishing abroad?


MH: I recently retrieved my copy of The Legend of Being Irish to see what was printed there. I had another sampling of my work in the recent Book of Irish American Poetry, edited by Dan Tobin for Notre Dame University Press (2007). I’m glad of both appearances.

My interest in Ireland started in my early teens, when I got a Heffernan family crest, with a page of family history attached. I had the crest framed, and still have it. Eventually I discovered that “Heffernan” derives from the Gaelic word for “demon,” and probably means “devil’s spawn.” Such knowledge is delightful to me. I surmise that the gist of the name is that the Heffernans were unconverted pagans for a long time. One of these days I am going to have to write about this.

My mother was 100% German and seldom talked about her background, though I have discovered some of it, and am proud of my German ancestry. My father’s great grandfather, Daniel Heffernan, had come from County Tipperary, Ireland, to Tippecanoe County, Indiana, in the 1830s. He and his wife, Catherine Meehan of County Cork, settled and raised their large family in Daviess County, in southern Indiana. The old Irishman’s gravestone in Montgomery, Indiana, tells most of what I know about him: that he was born in Tipperary in 1815. A fairly distant kinswoman did a lot of research, and found out that Daniel had worked on the old canal that was constructed between Lake Erie and the Wabash River. He built bridges over that canal. The canal-workers would advertise for wives on bulletin boards in the stations. A cousin came up with more information about my great great-grandmother, and in 1986 I was able to find her birthplace in County Cork, near Ballyhooly on the Blackwater. She was born in 1827. Her baptismal certificate in the nearby church showed her godfather’s name. Her godfather’s descendant, who bore the same name, John O’Connell, opened his door and welcomed me as a long-lost neighbor, if not a family member. After a century and a half, it made little difference. This was a thrill. To find these things out, I more or less had to keep my eyes and ears open for information.

In 1965, I bought a cheap air ticket and went off for an 8-week hitch-hiking trip to Europe, with an Army surplus pack on my back. This was the summer after my first year of grad school. I walked and hitched around Ireland for two weeks. The rest of the two months, I traveled on the continent and ended up in the Greek Islands. I didn’t get back to Ireland for thirteen years. Since then, I have probably been there a dozen times, beginning in 1978, when I went back and spent some of my first NEA grant. The next year I went back with my family for two months and spent the rest of it.

Ireland had a strong mystique for me for a long time. Bits of it come back now and then, either in memory or while in Ireland. I’m not sure it’s a good thing to have or a bad thing to lose a sense of mystique. Much of the sense of loss I have in regard to this phenomenon has to do with people not place. One’s relationship with people will alter one’s sense of a place. Ireland has some really good people in it, including my publisher there, Jessie Lendennie at Salmon Publishing. And there are some really awful people in Ireland too—like anyplace.

In 1988 I started a study-abroad project at the University College of Galway. Early on I worked and taught there with Gerald Dawe, who is an important poet, critic and scholar from Northern Ireland. He is also one of the really good people. He left Galway in 1993 and moved to Trinity College, Dublin, where at first he ran the summer school. He did that for only a few years. Gerry and I had the same ambitions for a first-rate writing program at Galway, with an Irish-American emphasis. I crafted a component on the importance of Ireland in the work of several American writers. Gerry took care of Yeats and Joyce. He and I worked hard to give the program a strong literary basis, while working to maintain the quality of the creative writing aspect of the workshop. We had high hopes.

Gerry and I were both concerned to keep our program from becoming like every other study-abroad program. Most of them tend to be “gawking tours” with a little bit of academics thrown in for credit. In the beginning, ours had one trip associated with the program, for three days in the Aran Islands. Gerry stayed away. Two of the students were older women, one of them on a walker. The Arans are rugged islands. I came to realize that I wanted nothing to do with any kind of tour, being obliged to take care of people who could potentially get in a lot of trouble and end up in a hospital. I would rather stay in Galway and show people how to find the bus station to go wherever they wanted on their own. Eventually Gerry Dawe got away entirely.

Nevertheless, the gawking tour has become a major part of our Galway program, along with the pub crawl. I want nothing to do with that either.

This has led to what I call creative differences between me and the current management at the university in Galway. I haven’t had a drink since 1984—two dozen years. Gerry Dawe was always respectful of my sobriety. Being a Protestant from Belfast, Gerry belongs to a people who know how to behave in pubs. But the regime that runs the summer scene in Galway likes a lot of bar life. I have heard they even conduct workshops in the bars. I want nothing to do with that. Frankly, it stinks too much—I simply do not have to be around it. It isn’t fun or funny. The local bar life really has nothing to do with any sort of writing project. Besides, I know I would not have been able to instigate that program there if I had still been drinking. I quit two years before I first went to Galway to discuss an overseas study program. In fact, I would not have been able to make my move to Arkansas, that same year, if I had still been drinking.

It might have been naïve of me not to have realized from the outset that I would eventually have to deal with the most notorious thing about Ireland and the Irish. I have been quite happy traveling all over Ireland completely sober, on many occasions. I love seeing the country with clear eyes and brains. I simply don’t have to go there to drink—I am not interested in it at all. Ireland has a lot more going for it than Guinness. And on the face of it, that seems to be what some people want it to be known for. I think that’s pathetic. And there is absolutely nothing as nice to drink as a cup of Irish tea.

I may be one of the few poets for whom alcohol and poetry have nothing in common. For twenty years I thought I couldn’t write poems without a drink on my table. When I quit, in peril of my own life, after a three-day blackout, it took me a few weeks to realize what had happened to me, and then to discover that I could still write. And the poems got longer and better and happier. Just before that happened, I had been writing mostly sonnets. I must have thought I could crawl to the fourteenth line before passing out. Within a month of quitting alcohol, I wrote a 70-line poem in blank verse. The American Poetry Review published it.

But, back to Ireland. My wife and I love the country—I mean the Irish country. Two summers ago we tramped around Sligo and Donegal, in the waste places abounding in sky and bogwater blown by the wind. It was that way in 1965 when I first was there, and it always will be. I can take Ireland as an open space of turf and sky and bogwater any day. Ann and I both like Northern Ireland, especially County Down—where Saint Patrick came to convert the whole country. The North of Ireland is a beautiful place. I say thank God for the Queen’s Ireland!

AR:  Would you tell us about your current projects? What are you working on right now?

MH: Speaking of Ireland, I have a new book of poems due to appear there, from Salmon Publishing. It’s a big book, nearly a hundred pages, called The Odor of Sanctity. Another book is also in progress, and I am constantly limiting it to seventy pages or under, while the collection also constantly tries to expand. It seems that my books of poems always struggle with me to get themselves bigger. Yeats knew how to keep them in line, and Frost did too, at least early on. Later he let his books get filled with mediocre writing. A good book of poems should have no padding. It should be mostly gold, with maybe some white gold or high quality old silver mixed in. But little else.

My other new book, in progress, is called At the Bureau of Divine Music. It takes its title from a site in Beijing, in the Temple of Heaven compound, which my son and I discovered when we were there together in 2002. One of the Imperial structures is a nondescript low building with a moat around it, and a sign indicating “The Bureau of Divine Music.” I couldn’t get rid of that idea, whatever it meant. So I wrote a poem about it (published in Poetry in 2006), and decided it had to be my book’s title.

And to answer your other question, a little more fully, about publishing abroad: I think there is a great advantage to having another readership in a completely different place where you have to present your work to an audience whose values concerning poetry are not at all like those of your own countrymen. It’s not that I have to deal with Ireland in a certain way, so much as that I have to deal with myself as an American from a different perspective. I don’t get to take the same things for granted. The Irish know America from what they see of it, from the angle of Boston or New York. They don’t know much at all about the rest of the country, where I have spent most of my life. So I have to make the middle third of the country real to them as readers of my poems.

AR:  Because reading is such a huge part of my own life, I still find it astonishing that fewer and fewer people read books for pleasure these days.  So, it is always interesting to find out what others are reading.  Would you tell us what you have recently read?  What have you read that you find yourself returning to again and tell us why, if possible?   Would you discuss influences on your writing?

MH: Of course I read a good deal of contemporary poetry—even though much of it seems tedious, unreadable. In so far as that judgment may go for a large portion of the stuff that I myself write on a daily basis, I would have to say “Fair enough.” But then again, I don’t rush my stuff into print at a hectic pace either. The three poems of mine that Poetry published a year or so ago, were the first of mine in that magazine in more than twenty years—and among the first I had sent to them in very nearly that same length of time. I don’t know how most of the crap that’s out there gets written or published. In those same celebrated pages of Poetry, I just yesterday forced myself to read all the way through a poem by one of our most esteemed poets that was printed sidewise on a fold-out page (not quite a centerfold), and I found it to be completely terrible, literally not worth the paper it was printed on—and no telling how much it cost the magazine to print it that way. And I am not talking about saving the trees—I am talking about saving the reader’s sanity, not to mention eyesight. And I read Poetry every month, and have subscribed for many years. Last year I renewed my subscription to The New Yorker entirely because of one poem by Gerald Stern. As to what I have recently read, I am not being facetious when I say that most of the stuff I have recently read is by my students—and I admire a lot of it, including yours. I am continually impressed by how many younger people are devoted to the art of poetry enough to try to practice it very well—with an expenditure of energy and commitment they could use on many other rewarding activities. As to the work I return to again and again (as well as “my influences”), I always list Shakespeare, Montaigne, Whitman, Yeats, Stevens, Frost and Elizabeth Bishop. I also love John Ashbery. And there are poets hardly anybody reads, yet, like James Doyle and Robert Gregory, who have written wonderfully quirky fresh poetry. Either one of those two can write rings around Billy Collins.

AR:  When did you first select to write poems (or would you say that you were called to write poems)?  You’ve written stories, too, haven’t you?  Do you prefer to write poetry in traditional forms?

MH: I think I started writing poetry seriously in high school. I went to one of the best Jesuit secondary schools in the country, in Detroit, where I grew up—the University of Detroit High School—and they taught me my Latin. I produced a translation into iambic pentameter of some lines from Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid. I showed it to my teacher, Leo Klein, S.J., and he liked it and encouraged me. That was the beginning. Sometime around then, I and the rest of the junior class were taken off in a bus for our annual retreat. This one took place on the frozen shores of Lake Erie in December or January, where we lived in cold wooden cottages and walked several times a day over to the cold wooden chapel, that looked as if it had been built for converting the Hurons. The retreat master gave the Hell Sermon there one morning (the same one Joyce records in A Portrait), and I trekked back to my room afterwards and wrote a long poem. I certainly felt “called.” I don’t know what was in the poem—I don’t have a copy—but I know it put poetry firmly in place as a way of dealing with religious confusion.

I do know that this poem was in free verse. I went back to the iambic pentameter later. I still prefer iambic pentameter, and write a great deal of it. I also write what I call “freed verse,” based on the iambic line, but loosened. It’s probably the second of the two kinds of line Robert Frost said all poems in English are written in—strict iambic and loose iambic. I love writing loose iambics. And strict iambic is great. The iamb can write itself.

I met Robert Frost in 1962, by the way, when he came to Detroit and gave one of his last readings. He died two months later. Two friends and I were asked to write poems celebrating Frost on the occasion of his visit. At the time I would have preferred to meet Allen Ginsberg. But Frost was great. My friends and I went out afterwards and plotted how to go over to the house where he was staying and liberate him. He had been very good to us. He beckoned to us to come and sit with him, when he was talking to the academic hotshots and newspaper people. He told us to stay away from politics and to wear ties.

AR:  What are your thoughts on prose poetry? Flash poetry? Contemporary poetry?  One of my students directed me to Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”—presented for audiences today—on YouTube. What are your thoughts on the variety of venues for sharing poetry that are available today?  Our journal is, of course, an online journal, and many people are still skeptical about publishing work online.  What are your thoughts on technological influences on poetry? 

MH: One of my more successful early poems, “Daffodils,” started in an attempt to parody Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” which at the time I thought was completely stupid. Attempting a parody of it taught me a little about the greatness of what Wordsworth had achieved. Many years later, stopping by Dove Cottage at Grasmere and getting invited into it by the caretaker, who spotted me by the gate while he was out getting firewood, brought me a great deal closer to Wordsworth and his actual world. It was winter, and there was no one there at Mr. Wordsworth’s firebox but me and the caretaker, who talked as if Mr. Wordsworth would be home any minute. Wordsworth would probably be on YouTube himself if he were around today. I have no interest in it, myself, simply because I have never taken the trouble to access it—and that’s because it does seem like a lot of trouble. Now it’s all YouTube and MySpace and YourFace, and all this silly MeMeMe stuff, and people walking right into you on the sidewalk while gabbing on their cell-phones about their boyfriends or getting shitface. People become very touchy about this if I ever say anything, so I’m not saying anything. I write with a fountain pen, filled from an inkbottle, or with a pencil I sharpen with a knife. And I am writing this on my laptop.

I am awfully glad to publish online. Any and every form of publication is okay with me. My former chairman a few years ago refused to count my online publications as the equivalent of printed publications. I actually stopped publishing online for a while as a result. But that had nothing to do with whether I published online. My former chair just did not know any better. He is and always has been full of it, in general.

And I do like prose poems, and have tried to write them. I’d rather write just plain prose, though. I have a novel lumbering around in me somewhere, or a memoir. Over twenty years ago I published a piece that I thought was a short story, but it really had no story, so it must be a prose poem—with people in it, and dialog.

AR:  Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?  What about poetry today makes you happy? 

MH: Poetry itself makes me happy, so I am not concerned about all the bad poets running around with their boring, tiresome, awful poems everywhere these days—from all the famous and laughably bad poets hogging the ink and pixels and airtime, to the sad and dreadful slam scene in local bars and coffeeshops—none of this bothers me really. It must be some type of reverse schadenfreud that makes me hope for good poems to come about in the midst of all this awfulness, and that must be because good poems make me happy, so I am inclined to believe that there will be good poems, even today. My students make me happy, because I know they can make good poems. I simply teach them the basics. Iambic pentameter is the key. All I do is show them the da-dum da-dum da-dum, and how to go and find it in the books. I send them to Shakespeare. I tell them, Read Shakespeare—you don’t need this course. Drop it. (Well, I don’t tell them that—I need the money.)

Other than that, being able to make a life as a poet, so I can make poems and books of poems, and do interviews like this every twenty years or so—all that is good, and I love it. I am happy that I chose poetry instead of law school. My son can be the lawyer, and go to Shanghai to do cases on internet companies making deals in Asia. If I’d gone to law school, which wasn’t an option, I’d have ended up doing workman’s comp cases from a walkup office over a drugstore.

AR: We certainly appreciate your time and the following poems. Thank you.

A Bar of Chinese Soap

I wanted to speak of something you could use

when you got to be my age. This is not far

from where you are, as you might think it is.

With adequate cerebral attributes

such as you possess, along with richnesses

of wherewithal, the prospect clarifies,

so someone just a bit long in the tooth

could come to notice how many old fools

as well as old wise men there are around.

Either resist the truth. The truth is hard.

One does grow used to looking on them both

with like disdain. This can be taught and learned.

Whatever goes there, bee and flower will join

the ministries of sense from their two forms.


I lay down in my bed and went to sleep,

but only after worrying that the pain

that came up in my chest, seemingly deep

inside it where my heart was, was a plain

signal that I might not survive the night

and could be lying cold beside my wife

when she got up, as she does, with the light,

to start another day in her own life,

while mine was over, unbeknown to us,

including me. As I was worrying,

I went to sleep and woke up in four hours

to use the bathroom. Birds had begun to sing.

Two dogs were barking. Nothing perilous

had come to find us. What was ours was ours.

The Wind

It was only a cold front blowing in

and not the storm that she and I had feared.

Locust blossoms flurried against our window.

The bedroom light was gray. We made the air

around us sweet until the stillness came.

We slept. I woke before she did. I reached

my hand over her waist. I slept again.

I dreamed about the wind. It shook the trees

outside the broken windows of a house

I used to live in. It was stark and bare.

The light within was ashen. I had come

to call on someone no one there remembered.

Maybe I’d come too late to find him home.

I looked inside. The rooms were dark,

except for the smallest room at the far end.

A lamp shone from a table where a child

bent to a piece of paper he was coloring.

A man with big feet stood by a red house.

The boy looked back at me in the doorway.

I woke again. Her hand had fallen open.

There was no wind. She turned her face to me.

A New House

Whoever the others were and where they were,

it was a long time later that we found out.

We lay together licking each other’s skin.

People better at this would have kept at it,

but we got up and went downstairs for a look,

finding a room that had not been there before.

We realized the whole house was a new house.

Ecstasy could wait. The one door out of the room

led through an areaway to a bridge into parkland.

Who should be following us but the others,

two of them, eager to catch up to say something

or to wait on us hand in foot. The four of us,

two of us and two of them, were experiencing

the rich green of the meadow we had entered

and the sense of the house with its rooms lit

exclusively from without, where the sun shone,

though, as it glanced on ceilings, alcoves, cubbies,

it had to become a source of purple shadows

that kept the two of us, not the two others, anxious,

intemperate, lost, enough to forego if not forget

what we had come inside for and want out.

No one had caught the joke about “hand in foot,”

not even the friend of the one who had cracked it.

We two were in midst of other joy than theirs,

still bent on going back in to resume

what we had left, after linking the fingers of our left

and right hands respectively and making ready

to greet those two on the way, the one in moleskin trowsers and wide-brimmed mocha hat, the other

charging along between ourselves and the first, who had stopped

to glance around him, grinning relentlessly.

The Bloody Border

I have much to do, he said.  I have people to go and places to see.

Off we went, on the immaculate journey

into the crackling radiosphere surrounding Cootehill.

A confident countryman loomed into view, walking his brindled cow

and switching her loins with a wand from a willow-branch.

The willow itself cowered nearby, weeping into the River Finn,

which accepted these tears as recompense for years of neglect.

Why should these willows fill me with tears? it wished to know.

This had little to do with the thoughtful colloquy bubbling forth

between us and the countryman stalled in our path,

who deftly shook his willow-wand toward points beyond the cow,

first in the river’s direction, then in the town’s, then in only the air’s.

At which we both, Mickey and I, decamped for Swan’s Cross.

Don’t make this my cross to bear, Mick cautioned, crossly.

Since that occasion, not one moment has gone by

without the bucolic aroma of that roadside flowing over me,

and young Mick trudging off into luminous vistas.


—Michael Heffernan


Poetry Collections by Michael Heffernan

The Cry of Oliver Hardy (Georgia,1979)
To the Wreakers of Havoc (Georgia, 1984)
The Man at Home (Arkansas, 1988)
Love's Answer (Iowa, 1994)
The Back Road to Arcadia (Salmon, Ireland, 1994)
Another Part of the Island (Salmon, Ireland, 1999)
The Night Breeze Off the Ocean (Eastern Washington, 2005)

Visit Michael Heffernan's Webpage at