Jeffrey Thomson

jeffrey thomsonThe New Faces of Belfast (Anchor & Plume Press, 2015)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

Tony Hoagland, Hard Rain.  Adrian Blevins, Bloodline. Terrance Hayes, Who Are the Tribes.  Kevin Stein, The Figure Our Bodies Make.  And many, many others.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

Well, first off that I read pretty widely. Those are just a few of the ones I like, but the last one is key. Kevin Stein’s chapbook. I read it when I was in college and he was my teacher and it was one of the first books that convinced me that I could do what he did—write poems, seriously.

What’s your chapbook about?

My chapbook is a selection from a longer book of poems about my experience living in Northern Ireland and teaching at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre. The poems trace questions of history and social violence and resilience and memory that I found in the beautiful, wounded city of Belfast, and out into America and the other cities of old Europe.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The catalyzing poem in the book is the one that comes first: “Led Zeppelin Debuts ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ Ulster Hall, March 5, 1971.” I didn’t write much for most of the time I was in Belfast, but towards the end I heard this story about Led Zeppelin performing their iconic song live for the first time ever (can you imagine a time before that song existed) in Belfast, in an old theater that had a deep history—including sheltering US soldiers during the Blitz of Belfast. These two moments came together and the poem really exploded out of me in one long breath—the poem is one long sentence and a sentence is generally a unit of breath. That form—the long and winding road of the complicated sentence—gave me the form for many of the poems of the book. It brought together the way the Irish tell stories with what I was reading and teaching: American poets like Larry Levis and Brigit Pegeen Kelly to my Irish students.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

The best kind of revision comes from hearing my poems read aloud—so I read my work to myself over and over to hear the rhythms and listen for the gaps and problems. Reading also helps me hear the structure of the poems, the way the images work with the language and the way the metaphors define the piece.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

I started the book with the triggering poem I talked about above—the Led Zeppelin piece—and then started to think about other poems that complicated the possible narratives of Ireland—poems about violence and history, poems about the Troubles. I didn’t want the book to read like easy tourism. Then, the poems move then towards a kind of resolution—hopefully — towards silence and stillness. Away from all the loud banging and rage of the opening poems.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

I sent Amanda Mays, at Anchor & Plume, some photos from my time in Belfast as options. But both she and I agreed that one particular photos was best—the picture of a mural of a man’s face as he shushes the viewer.  Several moments of silence, as I said before, define the book’s closing moment, and at the same time murals are incredibly important public art in Northern Ireland. So the combination seemed perfect. But Amanda did all the rest. She’s a terrific designer and editor and it was a great pleasure to work with her.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a historical novel that takes place in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the American colonies.  This book—working title: Self-Portrait in Nine Generations—traces an emigration journey across these landscapes in the 1700s. This is the second major project that has come out of my time in Ireland—so obviously it was an incredibly important experience for me. Right now I am revising the book towards a fully fleshed out second draft.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Read and read and read. Read what other poets are doing and read your own work out loud. Get feedback and take it seriously. Find a venue where you can share poems with other poets as well.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?

Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least, your clothing, to take with you at all times?

Larry Levis, Jack Gilbert, Elizabeth Bishop, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Blevins, Wallace Stevens, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, John Keats, Sappho, and Li-Young Lee.

How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

I write more regularly than I used to, I guess. I used to believe in inspiration and I don’t so much any more. Inspiration is for amateurs. If you are a writer, you write. Sit your butt in the chair and put words on the page. If they are terrible, fix them. Make them better. Repeat. There’s no other way.

What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

The world of New Faces is the world of a traveler—one of my favorite things to be. I love wandering and learning and engaging the world. The sights of it. The smells of it. The history of it. The characters who live in it—human and animal and geographical. The place of it. The book is a searching book, but searching doesn’t mean finding, necessarily. And often the search is more interesting than any thing one might find at the end.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

There’s a poem called “Stroke City” about my visit to Derry where my ancestors Anne and William Thomson lived, and where a lot of the violence of the Troubles blossomed. Bloody Sunday happened there, for instance. These two themes come together as I go looking for the Presbyterian Church where my ancestors would have worshipped and find a group of NI police patrolling the neighborhood like soldiers. The complications of Northern Irish history and the violence of the Troubles are directly relatable to the fact that people like my ancestors were “planted” in the North to control the last of the autonomous Irish 300 years ago. So, seeing the church and the soldiers in that moment, I felt part of the long sweep of history in a way I don’t think I ever did before. I felt like a participant rather than a spectator. For good and for ill.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“The Pyre in Holywood” is the pivot poem in the book—meaning it stands right in the center and the book, I think, balances on it.  But it is stylistically unique.  Fragments and divisions (in the language and literally on the page) define it.  It tells a story, but only barely, of stumbling upon an enormous bonfire being built in anticipation of July 11th—the day Protestants in the North celebrate the Battle of the Boyne and their political ascendancy in Ulster. The day is full of anger and rage—on both sides—and the bonfires seem (to an outsider) like a deliberate provocation and poking of painful wounds. So the poem really rages but in a kind of cryptic way. I really like the poem, but I also know that it may not be the most accessible piece I have ever written.

If you could re-title your chapbook, what would the new title be?

Good question. Pole Dancing for Easter? No. Not really. I just love that phrase. I saw it on a strip club in downtown Belfast. There is a poem in the book called that, but it doesn’t work as a book title at all. Maybe Wounded City. 

What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?

Silence, history, guns, murals, faces, birds, stone fences, pints of Guinness, bombs, and rain.

These themes come from bringing the poems together and they echo off one another like yells tossed down into a deep cave.

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

History, science, and bird guides. Novels and signs above the bar in Irish pubs. Street signs, plaques, and newspapers. Almost anything, really. When I am working I am omnivorous. And a poem can show up anywhere—even in the advertising outside a strip club. I know I need to be attentive and patient and to keep working and things will come.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?

I hope people read this book who think they don’t like poetry and find in it stories and lives and history and music. I hope they find a language that moves them. I hope they see Ireland in a different way, a more complicated way, and see themselves and their own long histories—the narratives of their own lives and their own cultures—in richer ways, as well.


 Jeffrey Thomson is a poet, memoirist, translator, and editor, and is the author of multiple books including the memoir fragile, the poetry collection Birdwatching in Wartime, The Complete Poems of Catullus, and the edited collection From the Fishouse. He has been an NEA Fellow, the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, and the Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow at Brown University. He is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Maine at Farmington.



Watercolor Painting Class

Once a week above the rooftops
of Queen’s Quarter—skylights
and chimneypots providing
the order the eye asks for—inside
an old girls school turned studio
where I was the youngest student
in a class retired long ago from
daily life in Belfast, checkpoints
and rifles, parades and old enemies
in mask and balaclava, pressure
of a city mounting toward the fires
of July, I worked my morning into
gardens of amaryllis and lily,
small pastoral welcome of geese
among outbuildings gray and streaked
as the rain crashed its shrapnel
on the exhaust vents for the kilns,
and, one day, as the sky crawled by
in its uniform of grim and somber,
I painted a close-up of the small star
of a sunflower with the all the colors
of the light I’d missed that winter,
filling the canvas with warm petals
of citron and blonde, champagne
and canary, and, at the heart of it all,
the black of the seedpod ready to explode.


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