Arts & Culture » Lit

Ireland to Idaho

Poet Kevin Kiely on poetry and politics

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The work of poet, novelist, playwright, biographer and scholar Kevin Kiely has been variously described by critics as "therapoetic," "like molten metal" and "almost Gothic." In person, Kiely is a down-to-earth Irishman with the gift of gab who is spending a year as visiting professor at Boise State. BW caught up with him for a chat about writing and teaching.

You've had two books published this year: a biography of a controversial Irish writer (Francis Stuart: Artist and Outcast) and a book of poems (Breakfast with Sylvia).

It's been an interesting year. The whole year has been quite extraordinary.

So how did you end up in Boise?

I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to come over here and do research at Harvard—which I'm going to do in December and January. But when I got through the arduous process of getting a Fulbright, it really was like being sent into a coal mine, digging away out the other end. They're wonderful people—and naturally you call them wonderful people when you get a scholarship from them. They came back to me and said, "We're going to give you a Fulbright scholarship. Why don't you go teach at an assigned university? We'll pick a college for you." Then I had to reapply here. So, all my data had to be sent over here and I had to wait. But there was a real happy ending—a real Wizard of Oz ending.

Here you are, over the rainbow.

On the Yellow Brick Road. When I found out, I was in a supermarket in Ireland and I was checking my messages on the laptop. That's how I discovered the news. So then I Googled "Boise," and I got the Web site which showed me the beautiful hills. I thought someone had been tinkering with the Web site, using Photoshop. I thought, "It couldn't be desert." Then I knew how completely ignorant I was of Boise.

I thought maybe there was some connection to your research on Ezra Pound.

In 2003, I wanted to go to the International Ezra Pound Conference, and I said to myself, "Am I going to have to go the whole way to Hailey, Idaho, his birthplace?" It's just too far, too expensive. And in a way I felt a bit wretched as well, because I went to the conferences when they were in Europe. So I felt a bit of a turncoat since I didn't turn up here. Only this year, I've been over to Hailey and visited the birthplace. In fact, I'm feeling a bit like a kid now—so many dreams came true this year. It hasn't always been like this. I had an agent write to me years ago, saying, "You've had a kind of stop-start, start-stop career in writing." He was right.

You primarily work as a poet. Your new collection references Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, Ovid, Coleridge. Then, in the middle of that, there's this brilliant poem about Kurt Cobain.

I went to see a movie about Kurt Cobain. I felt he was such—I get a bit emotional when I say it—he was such a warm individual, such a wonderful man. I felt that his lyrics showed a person who was so broken down—like the songs where he calls himself ugly and stupid. I read, then, the diary that he wrote before he killed himself, and I think I just kind of fell apart. And the way to get back on the horse was to write about it.

Poetry for me is a dramatic thing, the way it comes along. I'm a bit of an inspiration person. When I came to Idaho, somebody said to me, "There's an extraordinary hill you can climb called Table Rock." So I began climbing Table Rock. One day, I looked down and saw what looked like a sand castle. I discovered it was the Old Idaho Penitentiary. One afternoon, instead of doing the hill climb, I thought (in a kind of whistling-a-merry-tune, chewing-some-chewing-gum way), "Maybe I'll just have a look at the jail." I asked the guy at the desk, "Is there a tour?" But he said, "You can just walk around; it's all open, just ramble." So I rambled for about an hour. And I entered a desperate kind of hell. I felt so bad for a couple of days. I managed to make a poem, which I'm still working on. That's the sort of working bent I have in poetry, that's why I consider poetry the top of what I'm doing. So when I've got the poem sorted out, and I've got it on my desk­—then I read the poem, and I don't feel at all taken over. I could now go down and walk through the penitentiary and see totally different things.

For you, what is the role of the poet in modern society?

I think it's Yeats who said, "the poet has to be prophetic." Bernard Shaw said something like it: "I dream of things that never were and ask—why not?" In the [Irish] Revolution of 1916, the poets all put away their poetry books and manuscripts, dug out their guns and polished them up, went down to the Central Post Office, put their guns out the window and started firing at the British troops. One or two of them were university lecturers—a terrible mixed collection of so-called soldiers. Most of them were rounded up by the British and executed. Yeats came back from London at this time, and Maud Gonne wrote a letter to him, saying, "these people have died for their country, and you do nothing but harass me with invitations to dinner—you're just a useless writer." And in a way it made him; he sat down and began to write "Easter, 1916." He, as an Anglo-Irishman, began to realize that it was the Catholic peasantry who had risen up and attacked the Anglo-Irish establishment. And he suddenly found the great theme of his life—that these two communities would have to someday live together in Ireland.

You're currently teaching in the English and theater departments. How has it been teaching here at Boise State?

This is a secret I have to let out: For me teaching is like talking about something that is the inner side of me, so going in to talk about Yeats or Beckett—I love it. The funny thing about my personality—I can't figure it out—I am shy and introverted, but I'm also a horrible exhibitionist. So I love to go in and talk to a crowd. If you said to me now, "Could you go down and give a lecture at 3 p.m. on Yeats' early poems?" I'd say, "Great. I'd love to."

I'm giving a course in the spring semester here at the Morrison Center, "Classics of 20th Century Irish Drama." In the fall, I taught master's students an intensive course of Yeats, which was very interesting. We took it from the Irish Civil War up, and by talking about Yeats we were able to talk about everything. My teaching is almost like a big discussion. And it's been good for me as well. By trying to explain Yeats to people who are foreign to him, you're actually clarifying your own language.

To me, my real title is just "eternal student," I don't have any claims beyond that. Being a writer is like being a student because you're always correcting your own work; one part of me is the professor, and another part is the student. Campuses are my homeland, though I think you have to go out and live as well.

Kiely will give a series of lectures at the Flicks in April. For information, call 208-342-4222.