Secret Joys and Griefs: Interview with Cara O'Sullivan
Today, I have the pleasure of posting an interview with my old friend, the writer and poet Cara O'Sullivan. Cara and I first met in college at BYU, where we were English majors, and both of us fighting to defend science fiction in a department that devalued it. The French have a saying that the beginning of a friendship is the beginning of "the long conversation." Cara and I began back then a conversation that continues to this day.
From the first days I met her, Cara's poetry and fiction moved me: it still inspires me to be better than I know how to be. For three years, she wrote a poem for me on my birthday: I treasure those poems. We both loved the Romantic-era poets—Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge. I keep the poems Cara wrote for me in my book of Romantic poets.
Cara is an avid hiker, and she had a love for wild Utah when I didn't think I had time for it—I was a full-time student, working half time, working out, in a bishopric in my student ward, and starting my career as a writer. I didn't have time to sleep! But she convinced me to walk with her one day up Provo Canyon in the fall: and the experience changed my life. I fell in love with the canyon, and, after that, with the wildflowers; with the lost civilizations in Utah—the Anasazi and the Fremont; with the stars; and with winter camps amongst leafless cottonwoods. I can never repay her for that gift.
Once, I dove her and other friends on a trip to the Wedge Overlook in the San Rafael, then down into the canyon to see petroglyph sites I knew—and it began to rain. Waterfalls appeared up and down the canyon, surging over both sides: it was one of the most beautiful things I will ever see—but I knew a flash flood was coming! I got everyone in the car, and we raced down canyon, hoping to reach a part of it that widened out, and where we would be safe. The water rose higher and higher. The road was drowned in deepening water. At one point, I considered abandoning the car, and getting everyone out the side windows and somehow up the canyon walls, but my friends convinced me to drive on. We made it to that safe place. There was water inside on the floor of the car, it had been that high. We stopped to eat our lunch on a bridge, and watched the flood rage below.
Originally from Iowa, Cara lives in Utah, where she has supported her family with her writing.
The interview follows:
Y4M: What is your earliest memory of music?
Cara O'Sullivan: Three memories that come from the same stage of my very early life: my father playing his beloved classical music records on our home stereo; listening to my mother sing as she played the piano; and my grandpa, who always had his banjo or guitar handy. I can't separate these out. They come bundled together.
Y4M: How much time do you spend with music each day?
Cara O'Sullivan: At least an hour, listening as I work as an editor/writer. When working on my fiction, the time spent listening to music increases dramatically.
Y4M: Do you have one piece of music that you turn to again and again?
Cara O'Sullivan: Vaughn Williams' The Lark Ascending.
Y4M: What, in music, currently excites you the most?
Cara O'Sullivan: My taste is pretty eclectic. I will say I love best classical music and Irish folk music. I loathe rap--can't relate to it, just don't like it.
Y4M: Have you ever come to love a genre of music you did not before?
Cara O'Sullivan: Indie Rock and pagan hard metal.
Y4M: If a time traveler came to you and said that he would take you into the past to hear one musical event or moment—what would you pick to hear, and why?
Cara O'Sullivan: There are two occasions I cannot pick between: 1) the first performance of The Messiah in Dublin, Ireland, or the first time "She Moved through the Fair" was heard in County Donegal by the Longford poet Padraic Colum and the musicologist Herbert Hughes. Colum added three verses to the 4th, which is what he heard. No one knows the origin of that song. It just haunts me.
Y4M: If you could change one thing about how you currently interact with music, what would that be?
Cara O'Sullivan: I would like to have a real piano in my home, get a new flute and play that again--but what I really, really want to do is take up the Irish harp--a new challenge, a new source of brain connections. Music, I think, keeps you young.
Y4M: What piece of music have you picked for us to hear today, and why did you pick it?
Cara O'Sullivan: Sinead O'Connor's version of "He Moved through the Fair" (or "She Moved through the Fair). The way she sings it is so haunting. I've listened to many versions of this song, and I feel she captures the mournfulness and soulfulness that is in so much Irish folk music. It's a song of lost love: but I see a metaphor—a country longing for its soul in the face of conquest. On both levels, you are left wondering: what might have been? What was in the beloved's heart before he died? If we had our country back, what might we be? The song, too, questions how well we ever really know the person we come to love. Inside each of us is a core that only we know and God knows, those aching empty places of the soul, its secret joys and griefs.
Y4M: Here is a link to Sinead O'Connor singing the song, from the album Gospel Oak:
How Hearing This Song Affected Me
This song is written in Mixolydian mode—which was invented by Sappho, the seventh century B.C. Greek poet and musician. It spread east to southern India, where it influenced the classical music there; and it spread around the Mediterranean basin. It was brought forward to modern times in the West through the Medieval Christian church. The mode is common today in modern jazz and blues. Western classical composers, including Bach and Grieg, have also used it. Basically, it is a major scale ascending, but with a minor seventh (the seventh note of the scale is in the minor mode). The effect is to give music an Eastern flair.
It certainly gives "He Moved through the Fair" a feeling of grief so deep it has brought the singer almost to madness. I find it haunting.
I want to thank Cara for this interview, and for bringing this song to my attention, and, through it, awareness of another enduring contribution from Sappho: one of my heroines of antiquity.
Cara has given me permission to reprint her poem "Forbidden Glass" (originally printed under "Cara Bullinger" in BYU Studies 26 [Fall 1986]: 96). The poem was inspired by the the exhibit The Treasures of Tutankhamen, which Brigham Young University hosted in 1981, on loan from the Egyptian Museum.
A young woman peers into the glass case
At the wooden coffin lid of Isis.
The exhibit catalog say Isis is
Wife of Kha-bekhnet, son of Sen-nedjem.
There are painted lines for the folds of her gown,
Two round knobs in the lobes of her ear.
Her painted hands clasp a cluster
Of swirled green lines and bell shapes,
Enhanced, of course, by the gown’s whiteness.
The carefully groomed guide requests
That the visitors should please not touch
The glass of the display cases.
The young woman passes on to see the golden geese
Whose backs are set with lapis lazuli.
They turn their necks to gaze behind them.
Carved in the bottom of a blue bowl, a fish swims.
A girl walk lightly among the lilies of the Nile.
Folds in her linen gown round over her breasts and thighs.
She wears two gold pieces in her ears,
And in her hands she carries hollyhocks.
To die so young like a yearling goose
Slaughtered on the temple altars of Ra,
To live as a swan bending its neck among the lilies.
The young woman returns to see Isis.
She leans near, placing a hand on the glass.
I created "Such a Form as Grecian Goldsmiths Make," the image above, in 2006. The title is from "Sailing to Byzantium," by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 - 39):
I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium.