Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Political poetry in Ireland: A consideration

With the Irish general election looming on Friday, 25th February, there is a bit of an elephant in the room for many of us Irish poets who feel somewhat uneasy that our writing has not been as engagé as it might have been. While there are solid traditions of protest poetry in other parts of the world such as Russia, Persia and Latin America, Irish poetry is often criticised for not being sufficiently engaged with the injustices and inequities of our political system and society. I would like to open a discussion here about poems that are politically engaged, how they work as literary texts and function as ethical documents. My own personal opinion is that poetry is, first and foremost, an art form and poems that aim to critique politics should also display real literary skill and operate on an artistic level that is beyond a mere didactic platform. I also believe that poetry is a vehicle for truth and, as such, it should aim to highlight injustice in society and government where possible. However, while many of us are capable of writing satirical, political rhymes that critique the shibboleths of Irish politicians, the corruption of greedy bankers and planners in the construction industry, etc. it is a significant challenge to do this well. How and when would these texts constitute accomplished poetry and art? Would they help to alter popular opinion among Irish voters and influence policy makers? I am genuinely interested in debating this question. From my own experience I've found that it is somewhat rare to encounter Irish poetry that attempts to be politically engaged which also impresses as quality literature.  However, this is merely my own individual opinion and I am open to debate on this topic. Over the years I have read a number of highly skilled political poems by international writers such as Gioconda Belli, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, etc. and also protest poetry in various collections by Amnesty and other such organisations which have touched me deeply and remained with me. These poems were not propaganda; their power issued from the transformative ability of the imagination to evoke a reality with which the reader could empathise. Closer to home, too, there is evidence of literary dexterity among some of the poems published by the Irish Left Review However, there are also some weaker poems that don't quite work as literature. This brings us neatly back to the age-old vexatious question about 'what constitutes literature' and so I would like throw open the discussion at this point and welcome all your comments. Why have we such a weak culture of political poetry in Ireland? Have you read many (or indeed any) truly memorable poems that spurred you to, for example, vote differently, question prevailing discourses, moved you to effect change or act on something? If so, I'd love to hear about them here and please do share! If not, perhaps it is timely to discuss why this is the case in such a literary country, and how effective poetry is as an agent of change in Ireland. Is our tradition of political poetry so ineffective because we are apathetic to its message? Or is it the case that the currency of such poetry is much stronger in countries where basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to vote for whomever one pleases are under threat? Many of the political poets I admire have been arrested for their writings and perhaps there is a greater respect for the quiet, personal medium of poetry and its ability to articulate injustice in other countries where freedom of expression is curtailed by the state-controlled media. Is Irish political poetry doomed to fall on indifferent ears in our so-called 'democracy' where - typically - we lazily keep on voting in the same tradition as our families have always done and we don't react until the crisis is on our doorstep? Isn't there much more at stake now for the economic future of this island than there has been in many many years and shouldn't we poets be taking a stand? Orwell's words resonate: "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." All thoughts are welcome!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fun & Useful Stuff

Make a word cloud and see the words you use most frequently in your writing by entering your poems/texts into Wordle

Check out the Bronte Sisters Power Dolls!

Gain a Ph.D. in 'Arse-Elbow Differentiation' from the University of Bums on Seats

Change the collective consciousness for the better by actually 'giving a shit' here

Navigate the music of composer Philip Glass with the Glass Engine

Create neat visualisations by uploading your data set to IBM's Many Eyes or just browse other people's cool graphs

Collect, organise, cite and share your research sources with Zotero

Play one of the most uplifting reggae soul tracks of all time: Funky Kingston by Toots and the Maytals

Articles of Interest

Stephen Graham asks where is the underground in contemporary music

A thought-provoking review of Clay Shirky's book on Cyber-Utopianism

Is privacy passé? Are we now the Wikileakers of our own lives? Andrew Keen's piece makes for provocative reading.

H.G. Wells is always a subject of fascination for me. See David Lodge's article on his life here

See Dana Gioia's article on poet Elizabeth Bishop here

Alison Flood's article entitled 'Infant joys: The best poems about babies' can be read here

Guardian Books Podcast on literary criticism in the age of social media here

Adam Haslett questions what constitutes good writing in the present age

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Samples of My Poetry


Wisps of opium:
Boa constrictors
curl into curtains
of late afternoon.
Milky ribbons tantalize
like the soft, deliberate motion
of the belly dancer you admired
in Turkish solitude.
I remember you burning sandalwood
in Illinois to set the mood.
Now smoky arabesques
tease then evanesce
while broken trails of ash,
like fossilized worms announce
seduction as but a crumbling dream:
brittle, grey, ephemeral.

Weaver in Afghanistan

Lines of natural fibre
weave the shu*
your people have worn for centuries.
Dyes of walnut, apricot, onion skins
have not changed,
nor the looms nor spinning wheels
that dwell behind
the ‘hidden paradise’
of the Hindukush valley
where a mountain is not a mountain
til it reaches 15,000 feet.

In that free-running spool,
an elision of memory:
spinning and carding,
layering all sadness,
laughter, sickness, struggle.
Lines on your face work placidly
into the web of the shu,
and you, valued member
of your mountain village,
weave a lifetime,
knowing it's in the teasing out
that we are all the same .

* Shu, meaning spider’s web, is a famous type of felted tweed, produced for hundreds of years in the Chitral valley

Youtube clip of me reading the above poem at the launch of Crannóg 17, Spring 2008 from Wordsonthestreet's Youtube channel

Ms. Bacchanalia

Somehow you manage
to be prosaic
after pungent sangria,
vinegar house red,
blotches of black
at the corner of lips
cheeks blanched the colour of death.
You sparkle, elicit laughs,
recuperate that girlish charm
as the bouncer leads you arm-in-arm
and waiters stack chairs on tables.

Galway Mould

We take the damp for granted here.
Blinds draw back to reveal
colonies of galaxies:
tiny black holes
in our new collective space.
“It’s only condensation,” 
Next Door concedes,
“the weather’s too wintry
to open the windows.”
My wooden bangle by the sill
slips into a mildewed coat of green.

For fun, I bought you mouldy cheese.
Last night, it took revenge on me,
inducing a vivid dream
of a white chandelier of mould
that slowly lowered 
through our kitchen ceiling:
a wondrous lichen lantern,
till its lattices became milky spores,
mouths that started to open and close.
Then I awoke, vowed to spray away 
our wall of condensation,
diffuse for good my fascination 
with Galway mould.

The above poems have appeared in 'Markings', 'The Burning Bush', and two issues of 'Crannóg'. A poem of mine entitled 'Googled' appears on Eamonn Fitzgerald's Rainy Day blog here Continuing on this theme, I am interested in how new technology interacts with our everyday lives and am working on a sequence of poems which addresses this subject. The poems below (published in the current Feb-March 2011 edition of Carty's Poetry Journal) will be part of this series:

Backing Up

Streaming music constantly,

your face firewalls me.

You can barely interact

for loading MP3s.

‘You should be syncing all the time’
you chide, with each new ping.
I’m a child scorned,
dumber than my smartphone. 

Like some kind of ancient prophet,
you let me touch your tablet.
I’ll never be as wired as you,
though I tweet, but you don’t know it.

I do not share your viral buzz,
but dream of going analog again,
and possessing virgin white paper
in rolls of my fountain pen.

When did you rewire our code?
You think I committed the cardinal sin
of not backing up everything,
but all our memory is up in a cloud.

Compilation Tape

‘Thank you for the days’:
the song you proffered, graciously,
as our contact ceased.

A soundtrack mapped by you
prompted a craze in me
for earmarking inner galaxies,

labelling each one lovingly,
cutting out an apposite
graphic for its inlay.

Sometimes yours got
caught from overplay -
I would stick a biro in the spool,

wind our chart back into place,
marshal into a kind of order
soundscapes I could not control.

Time has spliced them apart,
but my impulse to fossilize emotion
into musical impressions –

neat, rectangular artifacts -
has never been replaced
by new audio formats.

I recall the joy they brought:
Those peerless lo-fidelity
musical mappae mundis.

Foilsíodh an dán grá a leanas thíos sa chnuasach: Divas: New Irish Womens Writing (Arlen House) / The following love poem was published in the anthology:  Divas: New Irish Womens Writing (Arlen House)


Is tú mo mhacasamhail:
mac mo shamhlaíochta,
macalla mo shamhailteacha.

A chomhthaistealaí,
cuireann tú ina luí
ar m’intinn
gur féidir mo scíth
a ligint
is beidh réiteach
ar gach scéal,
ó chuile imní.

Cothaíonn muid
tearmann croí
ar scáth a chéile,
faoi anáil an duine eile,
is bláthaím i ndídean
do ghlóir is do ghéaga,

ceann scríbe m’anama.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

From Inspiration to Realisation

In my first post I want to reflect on the creative process and to think about where poetic inspiration comes from and how it is formally shaped into a poem. I would like to ask fellow poets about their own approaches to writing poetry and to open up a discussion on this subject. Without setting up hierarchies in general, I am often struck by the fact, in my own work, poems that spring from what Wordsworth called the 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling' tend to be fuller and rounder than those which are culled from an idea that is then crafted and redrafted into poetry. When the muse strikes powerfully, and I'm grappling for a scrap of paper, I tend to be happy with what appears on the page. It usually needs minimal revision and it is never jettisoned in exasperation. It becomes a realisation of something that felt universal and true in a moment of clarity. Unfortunately, there is no law governing when these periods of intensity occur - you can't really trigger them (though, in Ireland, whiskey seems to have aided many of our best writers!) - and that's what I'm curious about here. What do other writers think about the process from inspiration to shaping the draft? Do you also sometimes feel that the poems you write, which evolve from an idea, wordplay, wit, etc. can feel less substantial than those that come in those flashes of a kind of profound insight? Again, I'm not making a case for the superiority of the so-called 'given' poem, or dissing the work we graft on a daily basis, but would like to open a discussion as inspiration can be a very personal and individual subject. From my own experience I have found that there is little discussion about this - perhaps because it may have implications for the quality of our corpora. While I am all for the democratisation of the 'profession' of poetry, I often wonder if the centuries-old concept of the 'Orphic' poet seer has become redundant in our contemporary society. Is it really such an anachronism? I appreciate that I am getting into metaphysically loaded terrain here which is dangerously analogous to Roland Barthes' arugment about the ‘work’ versus the ‘text’. Maybe I am simply saying that poetry which comes from ideas can indeed be on a par with that which springs from those moments of insight, but it tends to require a bit more hard work. Do other readers and writers agree? Where do you gather the inspiration for your best work from? Perhaps this is not the case for some of you and you would, rather, agree with Oscar Wilde's dictum that 'all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.' I'm posing a genuine question which, hopefully, does not have any perceived air of 'elitism' about it. I'm curious about how other writers feel about these processes, where they find inspiration, etc. I've found that each poet's practice is different and individual so I welcome your thoughts! Theo Dorgan has written an insightful piece on the process of inspiration, based on the work of Robert Graves, where poetry issues from 'otherwhere'. Check it out here   Emily, 3rd Feb 2011

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fáilte go my bhlag / Welcome to my blog

As a writer, musician, arts manager and academic, I hope that 'Things Being Various' will engage with the world of ideas in the realms of poetry, music, the arts and English/History/Irish Studies. The title is extracted from: 'the drunkenness of things being various' - the eighth line from the poem, 'Snow' by one of my favourite poets, Louis MacNiece. (See full poem below). In the true spirit of 'things being various' my aim here is to celebrate heterogeneity. I'm currently working on my second poetry collection - my first, No Vague Utopia, was published by Ainnir in 2003 and is reviewed by 'The Stinging Fly' journal here I'm also working on a number of academic articles on aspects of Irish cultural history and music. For example, I have an article in Visual, Material and Print Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Four Courts Press) - see here  Other interests include digital humanities, contemporary music and club culture, arts and cultural policy, design, the Irish language, fashion, architecture, humour, parenting, food and many other things, so this blog will also be a forum for musings - light-hearted and serious - on a wide range of subjects. 

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Louis MacNiece