Maintenant #74: Ailbhe Darcy
An interview with Ailbhe Darcy by SJ Fowler.
Already considered one of the finest poets of Ireland’s new generation, Ailbhe Darcy has gained international recognition for her vibrant poetry and rapidly growing body of work. Being at the forefront of a tradition as considerable as Ireland’s has required her to maintain the idiosyncracy of her own taste and voice, and though undoubtedly, the lilt of her work, it’s care for being read and for being rhymtical, resounds with the narrative tradition of Irish poetry, it is also true her idiom can be disjunctive, unpretentious and colloquial. More vitally she creates poems that are conceptually often unresolved, an act of humility that sits apart from neat lyricism. Yet it is too far to say she has made a break from the tradition of her nation, and many would say this is the bigger achievement. For the 74th edition of Maintenant, our first Irish poet, Ailbhe Darcy.
3:AM: Could you discuss the process of compiling and developing Imaginary Menagerie for publication with Bloodaxe?
Ailbhe Darcy: I was publishing poems in magazines and journals for about a decade before Imaginary Menagerie went to press, so I had a lot of material to choose from. Working out what order the poems should take was as intense a process as writing a poem in the first place. Joyelle McSweeney gave me some very helpful advice. Then there was one night in particular when I stayed up until nearly dawn with my partner, John Harvey, hashing the thing out — fuelled by a bottle of wine or two.
John is a mathematician, so maybe that’s why remembering the process now makes me think, oddly enough, of algorithms; specifically the algorithm for the memorial at Ground Zero. I read recently that the plans for the memorial were stalled because it was so difficult to figure out how to arrange the names of the dead. The architect didn’t want to arrange them alphabetically or chronologically — that didn’t feel right, and you’d get strange horrible adjacencies, such as one Michael Lynch next to another, unrelated, Michael Lynch. So he sent out a letter to their families, asking them for ‘meaningful adjacencies’, suggestions about which people who should be placed side by side or in groups, usually because they knew each other in life. He got more than twelve hundred responses. Arranging the poems was a bit like that, except I didn’t have the algorithm. There were poems that, placed together, each meant something more by dint of the adjacency. And there were poems that suffered a kind of erasure by being placed next to another poem that was too similar. There were rhythms that emerged, and motifs. To use an example familiar to anyone who grew up in the era of the cassette tape, it was like making a mixtape for someone you want very much to impress.
The book isn’t arranged in chronological order, but there is a development of thought through it. Accordingly, the first poem, ‘Gone Fishing’, is one of the earliest poems I’ve included, and the last poem is one of the most recent. I wrote ‘Gone Fishing’ in Paris in 2003, soon after those enormous protests against the Iraq war took place around the world, when I heard that an Irish woman I knew was planning to travel to Iraq to act as a ‘human shield’ – tying herself to a bridge so that the Western powers would be reluctant to bomb it. And that moment, those protests and the invasion that followed, are among a handful of events that colour the whole collection. The aftermath of the protests was shocking to me: perhaps naively, I genuinely believed at the time that we were making something happen. But of course the invasion still went ahead, we were completely ignored by the powers that be. It was the moment my poetry grew up, because now it was broadly about something, now it was bewildered and frantically trying to work something out.
3:AM: Are you defined by your migrations as a poet, or does the presence of Ireland, your place of birth, anchor what might be called your poetic identity, if, in fact, you conceive of one at all?
AD: I certainly come from somewhere, there’s no escaping that. Ireland dictates, to great extent, the shape of my brain. When I get homesick it’s often the specific configuration of specific Dublin streets I miss, or the lumpen dark shadow of the Dublin mountains.
South Bend, Indiana, where I live at the moment, is a place that I love deeply, but it’s very flat. I think that flatness discomfits my brain. There’s a building near South Bend, out on 23 beyond the mall, that’s big and lumpen, and at a certain distance, in a certain light, if you squint, it looks a little like Three Rock mountain in South Dublin. I like to do that, go there and squint — that anchors me — and I like to go out to a local South Bend supermarket on Portage where a lot of seagulls hang out in the carpark, even though the sea’s a very long way away, and the noise of them makes it easier to believe that the Irish Sea is just over the horizon.
All of that is true, but to answer with maybe more seriousness, it’s a slightly frightening question for me. I set out, pretentiously, arrogantly, wanting to be an Irish poet — a poet who would have something to say to and for the people I grew up among. I set out on my travels partly in search of experiences that would give me the breadth and depth of insight necessary to have that something to say. But then there are those two models for the voyage, Odysseus and Abraham. You might set out thinking that you’re Odysseus, that you’re going to gather the wisdom and carry it triumphantly home. But you might turn out to be Abraham: you never get home, or when you do get home, it’s so changed that you hardly recognise it. Worse, it hardly recognises you. Dublin is getting a bit like that for me, after a few years away. These days Dublin changes fast.
Then what? What knowledge have you acquired if there’s no centre to it? The Boston poet Fanny Howe writes beautifully about moving in spirals, about a kind of knowledge that is endlessly diasporic; but that idea is as frightening as it is beautiful.
3:AM: What are your thoughts on contemporary Irish poetry?
AD: One exciting phenomenon, it seems to me, is the fairly recent proliferation of venues in Ireland in which poetry can happen. In part this has been thanks to the work of a small number of incredibly dedicated people – people like Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar DuMars in Galway, the White House team in Limerick, and Paul Casey in Cork – who run regular open mics, workshops and guest readings, and the equally dedicated editors who run the poetry magazines. And it’s tempting to see this proliferation as the response to a need, one born out of the recession, but when I talked to Paul Casey about it he suggested that the opposite was true – that in the brief period of boom, there were enough grants going around and nice venues coming available that we’re still reaping the benefits of that.
In terms of what’s being published, I think what some people call the ‘Metre’ generation – Justin Quinn, David Wheatley, Caitriona O’Reilly, Vona Groarke and Conor O’Callaghan – is still the one to watch, they’ve been really coming into a kind of maturity in the last few years. This group of poets was so enabling for me when I was first beginning to write seriously, when I was an undergraduate at UCD. Born at the end of the 60’s or in the early 70’s, they represent a generation with a very different relationship to, say, the North of Ireland or Catholicism than Heaney’s generation. For me at that time, they were also important because they came from the Republic of Ireland rather than from the North; and because they didn’t, for the most part, write much about the Northern Irish Troubles; and because they seemed to me (to generalise hopelessly) to take their cues from a more urban tradition than the older poets.
I think it’s also great that more scholarly attention is beginning to be paid these days to Medbh McGuckian and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, who (along with Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill) are arguably the most innovative of the Irish poets of the last half a century or so. And, just to namecheck a couple more individual poets who I think are really exciting: Dave Lordan’s work simply blows me away. Ditto Dorothy Molloy, who sadly died with only two full collections complete – without question a serious, sad loss for Irish poetry.
3:AM: Do you think there is something inherent in you, as there often seems in notions of Irishness, to be transplanted, to seek this out?
AD: I’m not sure I can get wholeheartedly behind any concept of ‘Irishness’, and (if your question is inspired, in part, by Ireland’s vast diaspora) it’s worth recalling that a lot of the transplanting that Irish people did in the past was extremely reluctant, in contrast with most of today’s expats. But I’d imagine that living on any island generally feeds a yen for travel. Dublin smells of salt water; on my walk from home to university each morning there was one road, past Mount Anville school, that led you up a hill and then suddenly presented you with a stunning vista out onto the sea. Being met like that each morning with a dramatic exit option inevitably leads to thoughts of taking the exit.
Then, when you do move abroad, I suppose it helps that notions of Irishness abroad are overwhelmingly positive. People want to like you. And one result of the diaspora is that you can find the familiar almost everywhere. There’s a shelf of Irish brand-named food for the buying in our local supermarket; you can track down an Irish accent in any city on the globe.
3:AM: How much weight does being Irish and being a poet have on your sense of self-consideration as a poet? Of course, the modern tradition of poetry in Ireland is immense, and in many ways, as with the Polish poets I have spoken to, that association of being a poet in a country where poets have been so prevalent, so often defining of national identity, is considerable. Does it seem that way to you?
AD: I’ve been trying to puzzle out what you’re getting at with this question. There seem to be two possibilities: first, that I might be so humbled by the renown and aesthetic achievements of modern Irish poets that it could actually be discouraging – they’re such an impossibly hard act to follow. The other possibility is the opposite: that the importance that’s been accorded poetry in Ireland might incline me to a certain arrogance; that I might place an unearned importance on my own tentative attempts at poetry. (Mind you, I have a suspicion that every writer has to take him or herself ‘too’ seriously in order to be able to put pen to paper at all.)
The answer is probably bound to be both and neither. Since coming to the States, I’ve been struck by the differences between my experience and the experiences of my peers who have grown up in America. Ireland is a small enough place that it’s relatively easy to make a bit of a name for yourself in the writing community if that’s what you set your mind to doing; and when I was coming of age, there were few enough young people serious about writing poetry that it felt lonely, that I was constantly seeking them out. In contrast, I’ve often heard young American poets complain that there are too many poets in America! As a result of that wealth, the American poetry scene necessarily fractures into many, many small camps; whereas, it’s still possible to feel oneself an ‘Irish’ poet and imagine that means something, however amorphous or even illusory.
Having said all that, when you’re actually writing a poem, you can’t be thinking of yourself as part of a national, or any other, tradition, because you don’t exist for yourself in that moment. Writing a poem is like taking on a tough problem of any kind – the problem absorbs your whole attention, you’re too busy trying to solve it to be trying to prove anything to anyone. In other words, any weight being Irish-and-a-poet might have on my self-consideration is probably fairly irrelevant to the poetry itself.
3:AM: Could you outline your work with Moloch and what the journal is aimed at providing?
This isn’t the official party line, and perhaps my co-editor Clodagh Moynan won’t thank me for breaking away from that line, but for me Moloch is above all a conversation between Clodagh and myself.
AD: It grew out of a project we conceived, along with some other friends in University College Dublin’s English Lit Society, when Clodagh and I were studying together in Dublin: an on-paper journal, in which we placed pieces of new writing alongside new pieces of art in what we hoped were surprising and (or) fruitful juxtapositions. We also approached some talented artists and writers we knew and asked them to produce new pieces in response to submissions we’d received. I think these virtual collaborations remain the best part of working on Moloch, for both of us – we love seeing what emerges from them.
We funded that first journal in part through poetry-based events, including an open-mic night upstairs in a great Dublin pub, Cassidy’s (now closed down), which ended with some of us clambering out onto the rooftops and reading aloud from a Spanish dictionary we’d found: “¿Qué he hecho? ¡Hay fuego!”
Since then, Clodagh and I have never lived in the same country for very long – I went on, after that, to London, Cambridge and South Bend, while she studied in Oxford, lived in London at a different time from me, and is now in Dublin. So we simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) co-ordinate the kind of fundraising necessary to print a journal on paper. But we’d enjoyed working together so much that we decided to take it online.
Clodagh does all the design work and keeps the thing up there on the interweb, so my work comes down to arguing with her about which pieces to include in the next issue. It’s been fascinating to see how our taste in poetry, in particular, has evolved separately and in different directions, perhaps largely because of the time I’ve spent in the States, being inculcated into American poetics – we used to agree on almost everything straight away; now it takes a bit more discussion at times.
As for what the journal is aimed at providing, well, simply one more Irish-based venue for all the work that’s being done – there remain few enough of them. Even when neither of us is in Ireland, we think of Moloch as based there, and the majority of the work that goes in has an Irish connection.
3:AM: You have lived in France, and studied French, is the language, and more specifically the poetry of the last century, influential to your own work?
AD: More even than the language itself or French poetry, French cinema let me in on the seriousness of all kinds of play, and French culture was probably where I learned to take everything seriously! The summer after I first started studying French at UCD, I worked as a holiday rep on a campsite in Brittany and became close friends with a young Breton nationalist. This was in spite of the fact that he hadn’t a word of English, on principle, and that my French was pretty useless at that stage. I’m a slow learner. Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain came out that summer, and this friend of mine was a big fan of Yann Tiersen, so he took me to see it. I could hardly follow it, but I vividly remember what it was like to be sitting in that old-fashioned cinema – the smallness of the space, the woman with a snack cart, the usher with a torch, the smell of must, and this guy beside me – while the opening credits played, because those first images from Amélie blew me away so completely. They have this gravity about, and aesthetic pleasure in, oddity and the small ritual.
Amélie was maybe the beginning of a whole generation’s obsession with the quirky – our slightly desperate attempts to become individuals though superficial difference, doomed attempts because we live in a world now where every flaunted difference is immediately rendered kitsch. It’s an obsession which has culminated in our drinking fruit smoothies from bottles with little knitted woollen hats, and when you watch Amélie now, it seems twee. But in that moment, seeing it for the first time, I was riveted. And afterwards, over a Pernod, my French-Breton companion slated the movie – its Frenchness, its whiteness, its conservative Rightness – with an intensity and rigour to which I was not at all accustomed, and I was captivated by that, too, that sense that the cultural products we consume are a matter for our grave attention.
Anyway, after that I discovered the French New Wave – particularly Jules et Jim, Bande à part, Au Bout de Souffle and the mother of them all, Hiroshima mon Amour. And fell in love as well with later films like Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers and La Haine. And these are all very serious works that are also seriously playful. I named one of my poems for Bertolucci’sDreamers – “La rue est rentrée dans la chambre!” is a line from that film, from a moment when the political literally bursts in on the personal, making material a tension typical of these films, and a tension that I hope comes out in my poems. The French cinematic tradition is one that gives weight to these competing claims of the personal (one’s own happiness), the political (others’ suffering) and the formally beautiful (what transcends, and therefore inevitably does an injustice to, the experience of oneself and others) and allows these claims to duke it out onscreen in a way that I find really exciting.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 25th, 2011.