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Makings of a poet
Conversations with Brendan Galvin ’60 on the acoustics
of bats, and the virtues of waiting
During the three days of this year’s Arts Festival (April 23–25), the poet Brendan Galvin ’60 read from his work, took questions in a public interview, helped inaugurate a new literary journal on campus (the reborn Post Road), shared intricacies of poetry writing with students and others in the Boston College community, and, at a Saturday night ceremony, became the seventh recipient of the BC Arts Council Alumni Award for Distinguished Achievement.
The author of 16 collections of poems, and a finalist for the National Book Award in 2005, Galvin first came to Boston College in 1956 from Everett, Massachusetts, where his father was a postal carrier. He was an aspiring biology major, with plans to be a dentist. But during his freshman year, he discovered Robert Frost, then a frequent guest speaker in Boston and on the Heights. Poetry became his passion. After receiving a BS in natural sciences, Galvin took a master’s in English at Northeastern University and then an MFA in creative writing and a Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts. He went on to a career as a poet and college English professor, most recently and extensively at Central Connecticut State University.
Galvin’s skill as a teacher—he is now retired—was apparent at the workshop he led in a third-floor Gasson Hall classroom on the Saturday afternoon of the Arts Festival. It was an unseasonably warm day, and the plaza between Gasson and O’Neill Library teemed with people taking in student dance and music performances and art exhibits. Music pulsed through the window, but in the classroom the atmosphere was quietly intent as Galvin deconstructed his poem “The Bats.”
The poem was published by the New Yorker in July 1974 after being rejected by a number of other publications, Galvin told the audience, adding, “Don’t assume that if an editor turns your poem down it isn’t any good. There could be various reasons—such as the editor is stupid!” When the laughter subsided, Galvin recounted how “The Bats” started out as a poem about whales and the songs they use to communicate. “But poems have lives of their own and want to go their own way, which is not necessarily your way,” he said.
The poem is set in the small-town Cape Cod of Galvin’s youth (he spent his summers there), and it captures the rumor, lore, and chance adventures that are monumental in childhood.
Somebody said for killing one
you got a five-dollar reward
from Red Farrell the game warden,
because at night they drank cow blood,
dozens of them plastered on the cow
like leaves after a rain,
until she dropped.
If they bit you, you’d get paralyzed for life,
and they built their nests
in women’s hair, secreting goo
so you couldn’t pull them out
and had to shave it off.
After reading the poem aloud, Galvin called attention to details of the language—the boy’s storytelling enriched by gossip (“That was how Margaret Smith got bald,/though some said it was wine”), the choice of “cow blood” rather than “cow’s blood” to be true to the dialect. He originally wrote of bats “hanging upside down like origami” but took out the phrase “like origami” because the boy wouldn’t have said it.
Galvin encouraged his listeners to use research when writing a poem. “Sometimes people just starting out think it’s illegal to look stuff up,” he said. “But when I’m drawing from all different kinds of research, that’s when I know I’m working well, and that things are coming together.” For “The Bats,” he drew inspiration and ideas from an article on their inaudible pitch by essayist Dr. Lewis Thomas, as well as from a National Geographic account of Central American bats that his son showed him. A student asked: “Did you place the stories in the poem after you saw the images?” “Yes,” Galvin answered. “The National Geographic pictures were so fascinating that I started noodling on them and came up with the poem’s narrative. You have to have stories to make a poem work.” Coming up with the right story takes time, he added. “If the poem is due in class the next day, it’s going to have a different story than if it has floated around for a time in your imagination.”
Kristen Shaw ’10, a student in Professor Suzanne Matson’s Advanced Poetry class during the spring, wanted to know what Galvin found most difficult about writing poetry. “That’s a tough question because I don’t find it difficult,” he said. “I find writing poetry really pleasurable.” Galvin paused, and then allowed that the need to move stanzas around can occasionally stump him. “Sometimes it’s all there but not in the right place yet,” he said.
Shaw found Galvin’s musings instructive. “At previous readings, I never heard poets discuss how their poems were created or the thought processes that went into them,” she said, adding that Galvin’s willingness to rework a poem was helpful to hear. “That’s often the biggest challenge for me when I write a poem—deciding whether to let things go or to go back and organize them differently,” she said. Galvin’s choice was clear: Good poetry is about “waiting.”
Catherine Walsh is a Boston-based writer.