I thought I first met Michael O'Keefe in the late
'70s at the Dubliner pub on Capitol Hill in DC, where for many years my group,
Celtic Thunder, was the house band. In
my version of history, he was in town to do a play and our mutual friend
Michael Lally sent him my way. But
O'Keefe contends he met me when he and the actress Karen Allen, another mutual
friend, came to a Celtic Thunder gig at Folk City in the Village in 1980. In any case, we've been friends a long time.
Michael (O'Keefe) is a man of many parts—actor, songwriter, filmmaker, Buddhist
priest, and now poet. We recently had a brief conversation, via email, that centered
around the publication of his first book.
Q. Your new (and
first ever) book, Swimming from under My
Father, came out recently, and I think most readers want to know: in the
photo on the cover—are you wearing pants?
A. I was wearing pants but was going commando. Probably due to Frank O'Hara's conviction that tight verse, like tight jeans, will induce others to want to sleep with you. [right:Frank O'Hara & John Ashbery]
Q. Your poem "Mission
Impossible" is a take-off on O'Hara's "Lana Turner Has Collapsed" [O'Hara reading "Lana Turner"]. Has O'Hara been a crucial influence? Which
other poets have helped shape your writing?
read an interview with Roberto Bolaño recently where he said, "Reading is
more important than writing." Certainly, that was the admonition I
heard constantly while at Bennington [the Bennington Writing Program, where Michael received an MFA]. O'Hara, Sylvia Plath, Robert
Lowell, William Carlos Williams, are among those I read and revere.
Perhaps Plath more than any other. I was looking to express something
about paternal love, hurt, and disappointment in the poems about my
father. I gleaned many ways into that world from Plath's writing, which
stands the test of time in its ability to articulate a particular kind of
grief [Plath reading "Daddy"]. And, for me, that's one of the things poetry should do.
Poets play their readers like a piano that's been sitting in the corner
unplayed and neglected for years. Suddenly, you read a poem and you're in
tune with poet and yourself.
Q. I'm sorry to hear about your piano, but, speaking of music—you became something of a songwriter while you were married to Bonnie Raitt. Did that experience point you towards poetry? Do you still write songs?
A. I'd always
written lyrics. I had a friend in high
school named Niall Brennan who was a great songwriter. He was always pushing me
to write songs. My music, unlike my
piano, is mediocre but I was pretty good with words. Writing with Bonnie was a good thing, in the
words of Martha Stewart, a favorite prison writer of mine.
[below: Susan Campbell, Bonnie Raitt, Michael O'Keefe, Terence Winch; backstage at the Warner Theatre, Wash.DC, Oct. 1997; photo by Angie Seckinger]
Q. While we're on the subject of your other lives and careers, I must mention your illustrious life as an actor. You've had prominent roles in everything from Caddyshack to Michael Clayton, and I seem to be always seeing you up there on the movie or tv screen, playing scary twins or racist cops, et al. You've also made at least one documentary film that I'm aware of. And I know I've teased you about this—but why poetry? Obviously, there's more fame and money, and even creative expression, available elsewhere. Explain yourself.
A. William Carlos
Williams famously wrote in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower":
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Fame is not the antidote to suffering most people imagine it to be. Acting is cool as far as it goes but I spend ninety percent of the year unemployed. Poetry gives me a chance to waste the rest of the year, to allude to James Wright's last line of "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."
Q. The poems about your father are at the heart of this book. They are vivid, moving, and often funny:
I am swallowing my tongue in an effort
to digest everything I want to say before he dies.
Dragging myself to my feet I am up to my waist
in good-byes. Propelling myself toward the door
they spread and bounce against the walls.
—from "Back at the Motel"
Or your father on Hud:
Even my father recognizes grief when he sees it.
"Paul Newman is an ungrateful prick in this," Pop points out.
"Yeah, that's the role," I offer.
Playing his son seems like it was a tough role, but a great source of material.
A. Yeah, being my father's son was not a cake walk. Someone—was it Joyce?—once said, "You have to dig a deep hole to bury your father in Ireland." If it was Joyce, perhaps that's why he moved to Italy.
Q. And is that why you became a Buddhist priest?
A. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Q. The Lally Dama (AKA Michael Lally) wrote the introduction to the book. But what about the Dalai Lama? Has he read it yet?
A. His Holiness, or HH, as I call him, told me that had I not performed in Caddyshack, he would have been happy to read my poems. But since that film mocks his capacity as a golfer he was still pissed thirty years later. In the words of Arnold Palmer, "Don't give me that Zen shit. This is golf."