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LIDIA VIANU -- BERNARD O'DONOGHUE

 

I am rather against ‘confessional poetry’ 

Interview with BERNARD O’DONOGHUE (born 1945), British academic and poet

Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006

© Lidia Vianu

 

 

 

LIDIA VIANU: One of the features of what I call Desperado poetry is displacement. You were born in Cork, and now teach medieval literature at Oxford. Your poems teem with characters from your childhood space and time. Your poems come not only from another time, but also from another place. You do not complain about the new place that has become your own, but cannot help dreaming. Poetry is a release of dreams, for you. An almost subconscious return to the roots of your imagination. How do you combine this rememoration with the fragile courage of instilling your present emotions into your poems? Do you consider yourself a poet of the present or maybe of the past?

 

BERNARD O’DONOGHUE: Displacement. This is very interesting and astute, I think. As one of your later questions suggests, I think I see myself as a writer of the present. Everyone always is; a well-known and cherished past place (‘rooted in one dear perpetual place’, Yeats says) is only one metaphorical language for talking about the present. Everything we say is received in its present context, isn’t it? Another formula for it is Tom Paulin’s ‘theoretical locations’. Again, I think poems about sensitive or private subjects are just as revealing and embarrassing when set in the past or the present. I don’t feel displaced at all in fact. I think we just are where we are at any given time, and interest in the past is interest in how we got there! I am of course deeply attached to Ireland. It is the place I know best. I think we always understand best the rules of the places we grew up in, like a native language. But of course it may be that those rules have changed there in a way that makes that place more different from what it was than other places are. I am not saying that is the case with my native countryside in North Cork particularly.
            As for teaching medieval literature in Oxford, I think that we are at the same kind of distance from the Middle Ages as we are from distant countries. Edward Said’s ‘orientalism’ applies very well to the Middle Ages, I always think; they are exotic and unclear and we can foist on to them any characteristics we choose. I don’t know whether these things make me a Desperado or not. (That word in English, though not in Spanish maybe – is it Spanish? – has an air of mild reckless violence to it!)

 

LV. The titles of your three volumes of poetry – The Weakness (1991), Gunpowder (1995), Here Nor There (1999) – announce a kind of science fiction exit from reality. You start with the weakness of the mind and transitoriness of the body, go on with the blow up of familiar surroundings, and reach the point where your place is neither Here Nor There. Actually, in your poetry, you fight your own sensibility, summoning it to yield to language, which finally does happen, in the reader’s soul. Your poetic gift very accurately aims at the reader’s response and surreptitiously imprints your own seal on it. Desperadoes reject reality, complain then of displacement, and end in dystopia. Your dystopic realm is the loss of your Irish world. In other words, you are only dystopic insofar as you haunt the reader with the pain of loss, the loss of reality. What is your mood when you write? Do you trust poetry to work as a catharsis for your sadness at a lost world, or, on the contrary, do you use poetry to state your optimistic belief in the recreation of the past?

 

BO.  Dystopia. I am not sure how much this paragraph bears on me, but I think it is very brilliant! I think The Weakness IS about what you say (fragility of life, etc.), but I think Gunpowder – in so far as it has a single meaning – is saying that the unfamiliar things that we reject sweepingly may not be so threatening: just unfamiliar. I remember being very pleased when I came up with the title Here Nor There (from the last line of ‘Westering Home’) because I thought if ‘neither here not there’ means ‘insignificant’ (as it does idiomatically), then removing the negative ‘neither’ from the front should mean it now means ‘significant’. It’s a kind of pleasing sophistry; but the rather clichéd idea was that being between states or moods or places or times is our normal condition. Again, I don’t feel especially displaced myself, except – as you say – by loss, precisely. The idea of a science fiction escape from reality is very intriguing. It’s probably true. It’s probably a gradual withdrawal from the functioning body and personality! Scary...

LV. While reading your poems, I tried to peep at your private life and it did not work in the least. This is another Desperado feature: stay away from confession, hide from the public eye, give the reader only those thoughts that do not give yourself away. When did you start writing poetry, what was the spur into verse (to quote Yeats)? You were born in 1945, and your first volume of verse appeared in 1991. Did you write poetry before that? Is poetry an annex of your teaching, an escape into creation after literary criticism? What books have you written on medieval literature?

 

BO.  You are quite right about this. I am rather against ‘confessional poetry’ as it is called, which seems to me to lack modesty by focusing on the events of one’s own life as if that is what is significant. My first (small) volume of poetry was in 1984, a pamphlet published in Oxford by my friend John Fuller on his Sycamore Press. But I was 38 then. In fact I only started writing poems in any concerted sort of way after the death of my mother in 1979 (which followed very shortly after the birth of my first child). I think those changes of state were consciously very influential on me. My mother died of cancer, very painfully for her and my two sisters and me. But I think also I felt released into a kind of honesty and openness by the death of parents. Maybe I felt it constituted an event of significance that it IS admissible to be confessional about – to talk about it without claiming undue self-importance.
    I think of myself as a teacher before all else. I love the relationship that develops with clever young people, aged 18 to 22. I do think it’s an enormous privilege, especially as you get older, to deal with people in that bracket. I particularly like teaching medieval literature because, I suppose, of its ‘otherness’ or whatever term might be used. Despite what the scholars like to claim, we DON’T know how to interpret literature of other areas and cultures, and that is very stimulating. I suppose my favourite literature is the European love-poetry of the Blutezeit, c.1200: the troubadours and minnesanger particularly (Guiraut de Bornelh, Raimbaut d’Aurenga, Heinrich von Morungen). They are all so formally brilliant and so heartwrung at the same time. I think the book of mine I am most pleased with is my anthology The Courtly Love Tradition which came out in 1982. What I like best about medieval literature is the absolute centrality of ‘love’, amore, amor – whatever it means. Apart from that I have only written reviews and a few short articles on medieval things, which I regret. I am trying to compile an anthology of Middle English Secular Lyrics, to try to match them up with the Europeans. I’d like to write on Chaucer who I don’t think is understood properly.

LV. I find echoes of Yeats and Eliot in your poetry. In Granary you write: ‘shoring such fragments/ Against his ruins.’ It is strongly reminiscent of the Eliotian emotional hell, only, having learnt Eliot’s lesson of quoting mockingly, you could not really be farther from hell in your poems. What is your relationship with Yeats’ modernist poetry, with Eliot’s stream of consciousness poems? You come after Modernism, so you can afford taking it for granted. Do you also deny it? Or do you coexist with it peacefully?

 

BO.  Yeats is the modern poet – predictably – that I spend most time with and know most of by heart. I admire the modernists, especially their note of rather self-indulgent desperation (I see: that’s Desperado, isn’t it?) But you are right: I do see it through an ironic veil, though I do admire their capacity to take things seriously. And you’re right again: there is very little hell in my poems. They are mostly small-scale moral stories.

 

LV. Each of your evocative poems is a small story. It is a stream of consciousness device to mix literary genres (hybridization). You mix poetry, fiction and drama, and I should add to all that literary history and literary criticism, which seem to be always at the back of your mind. You do not narrate openly, but the poem curls around a fictional kernel, and often ends like a fable. Do you also write fiction? Is the narrative important to your meaning? Could you write poems that are mere lyrical rhetoric?

 

BO. That’s a very good question. Ideally I would like to write short stories but I can’t write prose somehow. I come from a part of Ireland (Cork) which has been a great centre of the short story: Frank O’Connor, O Faolain, Corkery, William Trevor. Some of my poems started out as prose short stories and then turned into poems (if that is what they are). And yes, you are right, I am consciously aware of hybridization. In fact I think I am dimly aware that these poems are working against a short story as a form more natural to them. Maybe that goes with a heteroglossic tendency that plays with accent and so on. I think I have written the odd piece of lyrical rhetoric (‘The Sugawn Road’ for instance), but even there the atmospherics are always very rooted in place. I have written (mostly in my early days: i.e. my early 30s!) some horribly overwritten rhetoric; for example the poem called ‘Holy Island’ (which has a wonderful medieval epigraph from the scholar Beryl Smalley). Pity the poem doesn’t live up to the epigraph!
 

LV. Your poems rely heavily upon atmosphere. The State of the Nation is a remarkable rendering of a deserted gipsy camp. You make it sound like a dream, caused by the evening’s reading. The dream comes up in many other poems. Your three volumes all have a halo of dreaminess. A Desperado poet is quite pragmatic, from what I have seen so far. In this respect, you are the total opposite, you are a mist that vanishes when scrutinized, and thrives on unquestioning communion. Is writing a laborious process for you? Do you work hard to fit every word in place, or do you listen to the call of imagination only? Is versification important to you? I have noticed a definite rhythm, but not much interest in tricky rhymes. Your simplicity of line is far more efficient than the fireworks of more technical poets. Do you have a theory of your own on what poetry should be?

 

BO. This may link to the previous question. I think I have got some sense of what poetry should do nowadays. I am very keen on the observation by the great critic F.R. Leavis, that we must give evidence that we have lived in our own time. I think poetry must sound natural to its own age and place. So I think the poetic line (which must have, in some sense, its own rhythm: otherwise it’s not poetry) must have a scansion and shape which loosely but traceably underlies the utterance that appears on the poem’s surface, while at the same time being of its time. This sounds vague, but I find it dictates quite strictly what I do and don’t write – which I find surprising.
        I don’t find writing laborious. My experience of it is that, if it doesn’t take shape fairly quickly and naturally, it isn’t going to do it at all. For the most part I think I go on liking poems in inverse relationship to the amount of time I have spent writing them. Or maybe I mean believing rather than liking them: so I think ‘The Iron Age Boat’ and ‘O’Regan the A.A.’ remain successful but, say, ‘The Potter’s Field’ (which I am fond of) finally doesn’t. (That too has some overblown rhetoric!)

 

LV. In The Must-Beloved (which meaningfully replaces most with must in a post-Joycean impulse, possibly), you talk about ‘the blast from the past’, which seems to me to be a wonderful definition of what you yourself are doing. The Absent Signifier describes the subconscious reasons for taking a photo, the need to prove you ‘have been there.’ All your poems are proofs of existence. They are memories, but relate to the present. I have this – possibly very wrong – certainty that this past you keep conjuring up is your way of expressing the present. You are much more than a dreamy poet, you are a dynamic observer of your contemporary world, which you fit in the wooden sabots of medieval literature. Do you write with your sensibility (this would be my guess) or with your knowledge about the Middle Ages, your sadness about the irretrievable past?

 

BO. Again, you have anticipated me! The proofs of existence are the Leavisite evidence for living in our time I suppose. I used to have a conscious fear of having lived to no purpose. But I don’t feel that any more: three children, books and so on. I suppose I think my achievements, limited as they are, are more than my talents warrant!
        I am delighted you think my pasts are ways of representing the present. That is exactly how I see it. After all, the past is meaningless except from the perspective of the present, isn’t it? There’s that very clever and true opening of Hartley’s The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ He is right to put them in the third person, isn’t he? They are not us. I met last week someone I used to work with 32 years ago whom I hadn’t seen since. He was, without question, a different person. Very often the pasts in the poems are moralities which bear on the present. As I said before I think, the medieval world is foreign in the same way. But Chaucer, for example, is full of moments that bear directly on our times. ‘The Must-Beloved’ is a very medieval idea – courtly love, amor de lonh, and so on. I think the title is a variation on Hardy’s The Well-Beloved; but of course he is alluding to that medieval tradition. I suppose it is about the foolishness and ultimately self-indulgence of falling in love: ‘in love with being in love’ and all that. ‘The Nuthatch’ (which I still like: better indulgent rhetoric there!) is about the same thing.

LV. The Fool in the Graveyard is one among your many poems on death. Death is part of history for you, and therefore a bit unreal, just part of the past. Almost reassuringly, your poems describe the death of one hero or another, seeming to hint at the reader’s being safe from death, since he has survived death. This is a very Desperado treatment of tragedy. You ignore it. You also use irony to belittle it. Are you a tragic sensibility or a strong intellect? Or – my guess again – both? Do you set great store by irony?

 

BO. I think, quite honestly, that I have a weak intellect. I was very good at elementary mathematics but I have little conceptual power and a terrible memory (except for anecdotes and useless moments from the past – useful for small poems of course!). I don’t think my sensibility is tragic either; it is a bit melancholy. Doleful maybe, to use an archaic word! I feel comfortable discussing death. The Irish countryside (maybe all countrysides) are very good at that particular rite de passage. The English are terrible at it: they are terrified of it and retreat into pious sentimentality and rhetorical moaning. They are right of course; death is a very bad thing. But religious societies, or societies in which religion is still an active memory, are much better. ‘The Fool in the Graveyard’ is about the insane thrill that bad news gives, just momentarily, even if it’s your own bad news. At least something is happening. It’s another proof of existence.
 

LV. Have the Good Word is your self-description as a poet: ‘Those modern gods, the concentration/ Camp authorities, when they had stripped/ You of your clothes, would ask if you/ Had some saving skill which might outweigh/ In value the lead fillings in your teeth:/ If you could sew, or type, or translate/ From one useful language to another.// What I could offer them is the  ability/ to tell people what they want to hear:/ That they will win the war, or that/ Their names will go down in history/ With honour; or that, after their deaths,/ Mourners will kneel at their neat suburban graves,/ Leaving bouquets and plastic immortelles.’ It is the second time you mention concentration camps. It is also one of the many times you envisage a graveyard in your mind. Some Desperadoes are tough, aggressive sensibilities, ready to fight and eager to displease. You want to tell people what they want to hear, you say. Your poems are all considerate and very proper (unlike the four-letter word abundance in American poetry, even British, at times). You do shock your readers, like any Desperado, but you do it in an insinuating way: you tell us what we want to hear, and you imply what we might hate, which is this ashy taste of death.  What do you think of your more peevish fellow poets, who want to be different from everybody else at all costs? Do you want to be different, meaning to be your own trend? Or do you think you are related to some of your contemporaries? Who would those be? I think Desperadoes are only similar in their dissimilarity. Would you subscribe to a movement thus described?

 

BO. ‘Have the good word’ is an Irish saying that seems to me to encapsulate a stark difference between Irish and English mores. The rhetorical convention in Ireland is to agree with the interlocutor if possible; in England it’s not. As a consequence the English find the Irish duplicitous and the Irish find the English rude (to overstate it). I think it is true that I aim to shock (as in ‘O’Regan the Amateur Anatomist’) in polite and agreeable language. I think your questions at this point are very astute. As for the contemporaries, in fact I admire people who are able to be more outspoken than I am. I always think that, if I was asked by one of those colour-supplement questionnaires what I don’t like about myself, it would be a kind of lack of courage: cowardice even. One of my dearest friends, and one of the literary figures I most admire, is the poet-critic Tom Paulin (he and I are reading with Seamus Heaney in Oxford this Thursday: very intimidating and outclassing) who has the gift of being loved while being outspoken. That poem is I suppose about what service the weak can offer to the strong. It is pretty political I think: quite outspoken after all!

LV. The poem Carolling, mentions briefly Ceausescu’s death. Do you know more than this about Romania?

 

BO.  No, I don’t know much about Romania (apart from loving its classical music and its women poets, and the painter Grigorescu – oh yes, and its football team! It adds up!) But I was very horrified by the casual international response to the deaths of the Ceausescus. I am sure it was a necessary and important bid for freedom within Romania, but it was greeted by a horrible complacency in the West. ‘Another Eastern dictator falls. Have another brandy.’ That poem is about the West, not Romania. I have got into mild trouble with reviewers about sounding off ignorantly about distant political issues, especially in relation to Srebrenica in ‘Reassurance’, and I think they are right in a way. The problem is I think that I am using distant events as moralities in the same way as I use the Middle Ages or the Past. But I do think we have to express political views – what Heaney calls ‘redressing’ – where we can do it without making things worse. I think one of the most horrifying moments of my life was switching on the television in 1991 and realising that the Americans really were bombing Baghdad.

 

LV. The Youngest in the Class begins with ‘modern Ireland’, and then remembers ‘When I changed nations.’ Do you really feel displaced? Are you at home in Oxford? It seems to me the change of places has been one of your spurs into poetry. It is my belief that a Desperado thrives on displacement. The germs of this rootlessness began with the stream of consciousness (Ezra Pound, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats). The difference between the two is that the Desperado age takes displacement, like other modern revelations, for granted. A Desperado feels he must leave his first space (mental or geographical) and experience borderlessness. There is a need for universality in a Desperado which reminds us of the Renaissance spirit. Do you feel you could belong anywhere? Do you think of your poetry as intensely national and untranslatable (both in language and meaning)?

 

BO.  Whatever about Desperadoes, I think I do thrive on displacement, yes. But for an odd reason that I wrote about in a poem called ‘The Migrant Workers’ a very long time ago. I like feeling: ‘I am happy where I am; but I am glad that I don’t feel entirely identified with it – that my centre of gravity is somewhere else.’ This hasn’t to do with England; to some extent I feel the same in Ireland now (though I love the basic feeling of being there: native ground I suppose). Doesn’t everyone like the rather luxurious feeling that they have something in reserve? It is the definition of happiness I think; the opposite of being ‘at the end of your tether.’ I hadn’t thought about this before you formulated the last part of this question, but I quite like the feeling of being temporarily lost. Though not linguistically: I don’t like being out of touch where I don’t speak the language. That happened to me once briefly in Berlin. I didn’t mind that much; but I once flew to the wrong Scottish airport without any immediate way of retracing my steps, and I was surprised how unpanicked I was.

LV. In your poems, which reenact history, there is a great sense of humour. The characteristic Desperado attitude is irony, but you are gentler and more generous, using this sense of humour. You take everything seriously but nothing is tragic in the end. You are a Desperado because of this combination of enthusiasm and fear. One eye smiles, another sheds a tear. Do your critics appreciate this mixture? Are you satisfied with the way critics have treated you so far? What do you expect from a critic (being one yourself)? Could you draw the profile of the ideal critic as you see him (both with the eyes of the poet and the medievalist)?

 

BO.  Enthusiasm and fear; that is very interesting. You are right about humour; my favourite writers are comic (Chaucer, Flann O’Brien, Waugh). Even writers who are mostly admired for moral seriousness I find most effective when they are funny: Joyce and Beckett, who are pretty well my favourite writers of all (with Chaucer). I suppose I haven’t experienced that much criticism. I am always very pleased when people have read things closely. ‘Dogs, would you live for ever?’ which I find painful of course (and would never read for example) was read with extraordinary insight by Ruth Padel in the Sunday Independent which I was very grateful but a bit unnerved by. A critic I admired, Bill Scammell, died recently. He salvaged all my books, and said about Gunpowder that it was a bit of a waste of time but ‘contained one unquestionable success, ‘The Iron Age Boat at Caumatruish’ which I thought was better than just saying ‘Okay I suppose’ to the whole thing. A lot of my poems came through a poetry society called the Florio Society, run by John Fuller at Magdalen College here where I worked. The best critics I have ever come across were the close readers who analysed seriously there. I think a lot of the best critics do not want to be poets themselves (like Nicholas Jenkins of The Auden Review for example). It is difficult in criticism to find the balance between being open-minded and being dull. The critic needs a point of view; but it shouldn’t make them hostile to their text. It does of course, inevitably. I grew up in an age (the 1960s) when criticism was much more highly regarded among students of literature than ‘creative writing’ which was thought pretentious. I think that was healthy. I still hate people who call themselves poets. They don’t introduce themselves as drivers because they can drive a car, do they?

 

LV. Going without Saying is a remarkable poem, which X-rays your sensibility: ‘It is a great pity we don’t know/ When the dead are going to die/ So that, over a last companionable/ Drink, we could tell them/ How much we liked them.// Happy the man who, dying, can/ Place his hand on his heart and say:/ ‘At least I didn’t neglect to tell/ The thrush how beautifully he sings.’ I have a feeling this sounds like a lesson to literary critics. Do you favour any particular critical approach? What kind of a critic are you? I have often wondered what the Desperado critic should look like, as most Desperado authors are terribly choosy and contemptuous of anyone who approaches their work. Would you agree that, first and last, criticism ought to be literature, too, and that, before any other goals, it should aim at being clear, at showing a way of reading , not dissecting the work with scholarly zest?

 

BO.  ‘Going without Saying’ was a response to the death of a wonderful man who committed suicide at 45. He was an industrial chemist, very successful professionally, with a terrific wife and children. He left his wife (apparently: of course I didn’t see it) a deeply consoling and admiring last letter. So it’s all very private and context-bound. Insofar as that can be applied to criticism, I have always thought it is quite a good maxim to be able to see what is good about something before setting out to say what’s bad about it. I am putting this very inaccurately – but Christopher Ricks said something like ‘There’s no good Eliot and Leavis showing us why Milton is no good because anyone can see that he IS good, so they must be starting from the wrong place.’ I think that is right. Mind you, if writers are self-admiring and self-righteous, it may be difficult to find anything good to say about them! But we should at least try. (There is an academic joke about the referee who is desperately trying to write something nice about a candidate for a job and says in a last paragraph, ‘Finally, his wife is absolutely delightful’. So faint praise may be damnation of course.)

LV. Nechtan says something about ‘being homesick/ For Ireland.’ I come back to the idea of displacement, only to place you in a long tradition of Irish writers (Swift, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, Casey, Heaney...) Does that affect you in any way? Aside from the fact that your poems are very local as well as universal, what do you think might make you belong to that line of writing?

 

BO.  I once had a student (called Helen Mulley) who was a very good folksinger, and she once introduced an Irish song (she was English) by saying ‘You don’t have to be Irish to be homesick for Ireland’. I think that’s right: something about Ireland’s culture and history leads to that emotion. Louis MacNeice is another in that tradition, more surprisingly. I suppose that is universal, but there are sentiments that seem particular to one country or another, aren’t there? Italy is romantic for instance; France has style: that kind of thing. Someone said that nostalgia is not properly an emotion at all; it is a learned response. What MacNeice said was : ‘If only one could live in Ireland or feel oneself in England’. I don’t feel that of course; I am very happy in Ireland. But it is an astute way of putting it. England is a comfortable, supportive place to live, with this great weight of history behind it. You feel in England ‘For good or ill, this is what living means’. It is not marginal.

LV. Your poems are more flashes than real stories. Flashes of your past. Which explains why I cannot easily say you are a narrative poet, but I am not ready to label you as a merely lyrical recorder, because you do use hybridization. Considering your flirtatious approach to displacement, dystopia, hybridization, your desire to be different, conversational tone, apparent need for privacy, precious clarity, gleams of upgraded stream of consciousness, and, at last, considering the fact that your three volumes can be grouped together in a book (I am not naming the literary genre) that reenacts a coherent rendering of another time, another place, another manner than the rest can boast of, I think I have quite a number of arguments in favour of calling you a Desperado. What would your reaction be to this attempt at labelling your work?

 

BO. I think that is a staggeringly attentive summary of the things I go on with. As I have said above I am very grateful for your attentiveness. I am very intrigued by the category because (as I said before) I think the English connotations of Desperado are not at all how I see myself – it implies something more wild and dashing than me! But I do think your deconstructing the three titles ingenious and persuasive (there was a previous book that fits even better, called Poaching Rights: i.e. the idea of poachers having rights as much as fishermen have, as in the phrase ‘fishing rights’; I suppose it is claiming the right to be transgressive in some way, like Judas as the patron of outsiders in ‘The Potter’s Field’). I wonder what the genre might be called? Is it a kind of parody memoir, like ‘My Childhood’? Very interesting.

 

 

March 27, 2001