Dr Micheál Ó hAodha, University of Limerick, interviews the bilingual poet, Gabriel Rosenstock
Why are you a poet?
Why is a beetroot a beetroot, why is the Pope a Catholic, why is the Dalai Lama a Buddhist, why are you asking these questions? I am a poet because it was decided that I would be a poet - a long, long time ago, before this current incarnation. I had nothing to do with it. The notion of deciding to become a poet strikes me as ridiculous. You recognise you are a poet when you thrill to lines of poetry for the first time – even Mother Goose rhymes! You fly like a poet when you have a transcendent experience as a result of reading poetry:
Can it be the sun descending o’er the level plain of water
Or the Red Swan floating flying, wounded by the Magic Arrow . . .
Quoting from memory. That was one of my first flying lessons, aged 10, my instructor had the wonderful name of Longfellow.
If you were to give advice to an aspiring poet in Irish today, what would it be?
If you were to give advice to an aspiring poet in Irish today, what would it be?
Mastering the grammar and getting inside the 'dúchas' or soul of the language is very important. You don't have to show off with a vocabulary that sends us scurrying to the dictionaries but do acquire a knowledge of those surviving dialects which still have speakers.
Read widely - go outside the Anglosphere and stay outside for as long as is possible. Brush up on your linguistic acumen by translating something everyday, in to or out of Irish. Never forget what Irish poets (and the populace in general) had to experience in the course of history ever since the poet Spenser advocated the crushing of the Gaelic spirit. I was recently reading about the poet Diarmuid na Bolgaí and the satire he wrote on a priest who was more concerned about buying a new pair of boots than tending to his starving parishioners. Diarmuid himself died of of starvation in 1846. Never forget those poets. Keep their memory alive though everyone around you might say 'Forget them!' Understand such texts as Decolonising the Mind:
Recently I watched a documentary series on the flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla (1950 -1992). The feeling, the emotion he was able to express. Incredible! Much of today’s poetry – in English – is emotionless. My advice to an aspiring poet, in any language, is burn, burn, burn, with passion and emotion. Stop being clever and feel, feel language, feel emotion, feel poetry, write poems with feeling.
Many of your poems can be read in a number of different ways or finish with a question? Why is this?
Poetry is not a science which gives us definitive answers ... poetry is really more like a question mark that can look in different directions, rather like a seahorse:
For someone not brought up as a native speaker of Irish one might have thought that poetry would be the most difficult (as opposed to prose, drama/tv, or song say) of all the literary forms to forge your writing career in. What attracted you to the poetic form more than any other?
I have tried many genres but the one that comes closest to the condition of the seahorse is poetry, that floating question mark! - it's the male seahorse that bears the young. Did you know that? Poetry in all its forms, including tanka and haiku, and translation of course, is the way to celebrate that question mark. To expect an answer - such as a full stop or an exclamation mark - that would be blasphemy. I'm glad I'm not writing much in my native language, English. Writing in a second language keeps you alert all the time - at least, that's my experience - and means that people such as Diarmuid na Bolgaí cannot slip from your radar.
Some people who have read your poems say that they are poems in search of some type of enlightenment or a state of “peace”. Would this be true to say?
Maybe the reader is searching for enlightenment. I don't know. My search (in that department) is over. Poetry has a life of its own, whether the poet is ‘enlightened’ or not. Perfecting ‘the life’ or ‘the work’ is an old dilemma; if you are lucky, they can go hand in hand.
Does the poet have a role still in modern society?
A policeman has a role, a baker has a role (even a bread roll), a poet does not have one easily definable role. He has a thousand roles but he doesn't call them that - he calls them poems.
Tell us a bit about the background to the poems in your collection Glengower?
The background is, give or take a decade or two, about five to ten thousand years. Where would you like to begin? Poems are drawn from convoluted strands and to trace each strand back forensically is not something that interests me at all. The Urgrund is for literary critics, philosophers and detectives. I celebrate it – the origin and background of poetry – but I don’t attempt to analyse the mystery.
Both Independence and Nochtadh na Deilbhe are interesting poems. Can you tell us something about how you came to write them?
I have no idea - thank God. I don't even know what you mean by 'interesting'. An article by your favourite newspaper columnist might be interesting, or a guest on George Galloway's TV chat show, Sputnik Orbiting the World, might be interesting, but poetry is not meant to be interesting: the more interesting it tries to be, the more it turns me off.
What inspires you to write poetry?
How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer over the years?
Oh, I'm devolving. Only way to go!
This is probably a ridiculous question in a way but where do you see yourself going next literature-wise?
Devolving, of course. To be serious: a driver can take a left or a right turn, or pause at a crossroads. The poet in me is flying: there are no left and right turns, no pauses at crossroads, no decision as to take this road or the next. Poetry has its own rules, its own dynamic. Poetry – and language itself – will tell you where to go. Of the many strands of spiritual enquiry I have immersed myself in over the years, such as Zen and Advaita, the devotional path of bhakti is the one which helped me to realize that language itself can be considered as a goddess, a living goddess. I have no interest in Ireland – as in the Thomas Davis doggerel, ‘Ireland, my Sireland’. That Ireland doesn’t even exist for me. The name of the tripartite goddess who gave her name to this country, Éire/ Banba/ Fádla, this is the matriarchal entity whom Gaelic poets have adored all throughout history and through the long colonial period. She is in my book Year of the Goddess/ Bliain an Bhandé. She will advise me how best to proceed. (Though I have also read about a so-called patriarchal entity governing Ireland. Poets get what they need from history and tradition …)
You often define yourself as an anarchist. What do you mean by this – what is an anarchist?
I don’t like defining myself as anything but certainly Anarchism has a moral authority which is lacking in Neo-conservatism and the politics of the right in general. The most interesting Anarchists for me are those in the devolving or primitivist mould. John Zerzan says, “I would say Anarchism is the attempt to eradicate all forms of domination.” This resonates with me. Do I want to have a rational argument with you so that we can determine why it resonates with me? No, because rational arguments have nothing to do with poetry. Poetry is inspiration. One of the words for inspiration in Irish is tinfidh. The root of the word is tine, fire. The late Francisco X. Alarcón, a Chicano poet, was a dear friend; I translated two of his books, one of which was Cuerpo en llamas, (Body in Flames). A collection of my haiku in Irish is called Géaga Trí Thine, meaning Limbs Aflame. I believe in the purifying flame of inspiration. Here’s a short poem in which there may be a fusion of Anarchist and Buddhist ideas:
Bratacha BánaTá bratach Mheiriceá
ar an ngealach
tuartha ag an ngrian.
Ní faic anois iad
na réaltaí, na stríoca,
Lá breá gréine
beidh gach brat tréigthe
White FlagsThe American flag
on the moon
has turned white,
bleached by the sun.
The stars and stripes
are nothing now,
All flags will pale
some sunny day
So, I wouldn’t like to be defined as an Anarchist or a Buddhist. I’m defined (if at all) by hundreds of poems, hundreds of tanka and thousands of haiku and photo-haiku and what goes into each of these creations individually contributes to the totality of my identity – but even that’s not enough to define me or anybody else. We cannot be defined, or labelled or successfully explained – we are the Red Swan, floating, flying, wounded by the magic arrow. I cannot put that in my CV if I go job-searching, can I? Which simply means that the world is false: poetry is true.
Is Irish-language poetry a particularly good medium for an outsider or Anarchist such as yourself?
It’s ideal, in many ways. Given that the Anglosphere holds the key to so many forms of cultural and political domination, yes, Irish-language poetry is an ideal vehicle for cultural anarchism, cultural resistance.
Do you think poetry has a purpose? Or to put it another way – “What is good poetry for?”
I totally reject the notion of 'purpose' and the entire vocabulary of 'usefulness'. It is a notion much treasured by WASPS and other abject materialists. I toss them all to the purifying flames, with every thought, with every word, with every poem.
A book of poems should be like a pleasurable meal. Enjoy it - take time to digest it. Leave the chef alone. Stop asking him where he gets his ingredients from. Trust him that they are organic and fresh. This desperate need to break everything down is a disease of the mind – the need to identify this spice or that herb, quantify the amount of condiments used, or the time it took to prepare the meal and so on. Many literary academics peddle irrelevancies and thereby contribute to the widespread notion that poetry is irrelevant. So, you might ask, what should academics be doing? I can't speak for them, of course, but shouldn't they begin to question a bit more, ask hard questions of the institutions for which they work? Is poetry alive on the campus? If not, is it being dissected in their laboratories? Has poetry fled the campus, howling? In University College Cork, many moons ago, I stood in the quadrangle selling our Irish-language poetry journal INNTI. I will never forget the looks I got from some of the staff in their flowing robes as they swanned past me, including a Professor of History who could barely look me in the eye. If poetry is the voice of freedom, as I believe it is, then those who teach it must themselves be imbued with a holy thirst for freedom. I find that this is rarely the case.
But since you are asking these questions, it would be impolite of me to wander off too much. Glengower (meaning 'Glen of Goats') is a pun on where I live, Glenageary (meaning 'Glen of Sheep', a place without a glen and without sheep, by the way). Goats and place names also feature in my English-language novel, My Head is Missing. We have accepted the anglicisation of our place names because as a postcolonial (or neo-colonial) society, we prefer the shame and the meaninglessness of it all to anything else. We are 'evolving', we think, and the last thing we want to do is to 'devolve'. The Glengower section of poems is a satire on aspects of Irish society and the narrow belief systems of certain types of people in our society; it is but one section of the book, of course, but it also gives the book its title. One of the preliminary pages has the name Glengower painted over and all we can clearly read is the Irish name, Gleann na nGabhar. It's a piece of graffiti in a book - and why not? It's a page that I like. I'm glad that the Onslaught Press agreed to include it.
Many people (even people who read Irish-language poetry in translation) say that poetry in Irish became overly-academic in the last few decades which isn’t surprising given that many of its writers were academics and scholars involved in the language movement. Would you agree that this turned some people off poetry in Irish given that this wasn’t always the case as regards the Gaelic poetic tradition?
There's a high tradition and a low tradition, if you like; the bardic tradition, one of baroque ornamentation, and the simple songs of the people, not without their own sophistication, of course. The line between the two styles isn't always very clear. With the collapse of Gaelic society after the Flight of the Earls, poets lost their aristocratic patrons and had to find new champions among big farmers and landlords; thus there was a trickling down of the bardic poetry into the lore and verse of the peasants and the language of poetry and song was enriched in this way. Modern twentieth-century poets such as L S Gógan and Piaras Béaslaí were steeped in the Gaelic tradition and there's a whiff of the archaic about their work. But the true father of modern poetry in Irish was none other than the 1916 martyr P. H. Pearse and he favoured speech rhythms and straightforward language, thankfully. I'm sure that Pearse would be in perfect agreement with the Dos and Donts of Ezra Pound, such as, "Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work . . . "
"Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something "
"Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace.” It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol."
"Go in fear of abstractions." Makes sense to me.
Many people (often privately) argue that much present-day Irish-language poetry is firmly rooted in the English-language or Anglophone poetry tradition and has little in common with Gaelic culture or the tradition from which it has allegedly emerged? Are the younger generation of Irish-language poets that you know "well-versed" (pardon the pun) in the tradition which they are writing in?
Again, I must return to Ezra Pound who said that poets should be widely read, in their own tradition and in other literatures. Pound says,
"Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language [This is for rhythm, his vocabulary must of course be found in his native tongue], so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement; e.g. Saxon charms, Hebridean Folk Songs . . ."
I try as much as possible to read outside of the Anglosphere, though I am grateful to English as a bridge-language which allows me access to so much work in translation. It's none of my business what other poets are up to or what they read or don't read. Amid all the doom and gloom about the future of poetry, a recent survey showed that 12% of the adult population of the USA (28 million) had read poetry in the past year. There may not have been many lovingly thumbed first editions bought by this mass of readers, but that's another matter, and we won't go into the question of social media – the good, the bad and the ugly. I'm a technical dodo: someone else manages my blog (Aonghus Ó hAlmhain), and the ekphrastic tanka and haiku on Pinterest (Derek Ball) and I'm ever so grateful for their assistance in these matters. I wouldn’t have been able to publish the bilingual volume of ekphrastic haiku Stillness of Crows without the technical assistance of Eoin McEvoy.
We know that in Gaelic tradition, similar to many other literary traditions – poetry was meant to be read aloud often as accompanied by music. One always gets the impression that sound and reading your poems aloud is a critical part of your work? Is this a very conscious part of your literary style, would you say?
If the voice is not there, the breath is not there; if the breath is not there, inspiration is not there; if inspiration is not there, the gods (or the Muse) are withholding their influence; if the gods (or the Muse) are withholding their influence, their divine music cannot be heard, so, if you haven’t got it [the voice] try something else, do something useful, become a veterinarian or apply for a job with Wikileaks.
Many of your poems have a subtle but very obvious humour in them that seems to have been ignored for the most part by many literary critics? Where does this come from and would why has it been ignored?
Homo Ludens! Does anybody refer to that book anymore? The author makes a connection between play and poetry:
"Poiesis, in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it. There things have a different physiognomy from the one they wear in ‘ordinary life’, and are bound by ties other than those of logic and causality."
I have recently translated over 80 Mother Goose rhymes into Irish. Such anarchic fun, such an exposition of 'the play-ground of the mind'! I'd like to see some of them as murals, not just in a crèche, but in all those grey car parks bestrewn across the land. Now, if you will excuse me, it’s time for my Laughter Yoga.