David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by The Kissing Bug by Daisy Hernández, a book Amy Stewart calls, “An absolutely essential perspective on global migration, poverty, and pandemics.” Following her aunt’s death from Chagas, a rare and devastating illness that affects the heart and digestive system, Hernández began crisscrossing the United States to interview patients, doctors, epidemiologists, and even veterinarians with the Department of Defense to learn more about the illness. Says Angie Cruz, “The question The Kissing Bug investigates is timely: Who does the United States take care of, and who does it leave behind? Through the personal story of Hernández’s family and countless interviews that include patients and epidemiologists, the inequity of the healthcare system is exposed. Hernández writes to the heart of the story with immense tenderness, compassion, and intelligence.” The Kissing Bug is out now from Tin House. Today’s transatlantic conversation with Irish Writer and Poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa was also an inter-species conversation between my Pacific Northwest calico cat overlord Ewok and Doireann’s County Cork canine whirlwind Mossy. Both of whom did their best to be part of this conversation. For the most part, with the magic of editing, you won’t notice a thing but there is a moment where I abruptly talk about our animals, just after Mossy licked the microphone before disconnecting it. I did want to shout out to Ewok and Mossy, and dedicate this conversation to transnational interspecies insurrections. Doireann adds the readings of two favorite contemporary poems by others to the bonus audio archive, a reading of the Irish Poet Colette Bryce’s poem A Spider and a reading of a longer poem by the American Poet Deborah Digges called Broom. To learn more about how to subscribe to the bonus audio and about the other potential benefits of transforming yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter of the show, everything from rare collectibles from Ursula K. Le Guin, Nikky Finney, and Forrest Gander to becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of the year months before the general public, or simply to get the resource rich email that accompanies each episode, full of the most exciting things I discovered in my preparation for the conversation, as well as suggestions of what to explore next, to check all of this out, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Doireann Ní Ghríofa.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet and writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Ní Ghríofa is the author of six critically acclaimed books of poetry. She began in the Irish language poetry scene and wrote her first several books in Irish. 2015’s collection Clasp, which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Hartnett Poetry Award, was on the Irish Times Poetry awards shortlist, was Ní Ghríofa’s first poetry collection written in English. Maya Catherine Popa for Poetry Magazine said of Clasp, “The poems excel in their consideration of motherhood, particularly its paradoxical losses and gains, separation and unity. The collection’s section titles, ‘Clasp,’ ‘Cleave,’ ‘Clench,’ suggest the muscularity of attachment to the past, place, and the body that drives the poetic impulse.” Ní Ghríofa followed her English language debut with the bilingual collection Lies, which collects the best of her Irish language poetry. But now with each poem, not only rendered in Irish and a facing English translation but an English translation done by the poet herself, Lies went on to be named an Irish Times Book of the Year and an Irish Independent Book of the Year. Doireann’s work has been commissioned by everyone from the poetry society to Poetry Ireland to the Embassy of Ireland in Britain, has garnered a land in literary fellowship, the Seamus Heaney fellowship, and the Italian Ostana Prize given to literary authors who use a mother tongue, a present-day minority language of territorial belonging in their works. Even with all of the success as a poet, the poet herself was taken aback by the response to her first work of prose, a book that defies categorization, a memoir, a book of historical nonfiction, a fiction, a book about translation, a book that is a translation, a book about poetry, a book that is poetry but perhaps most of all, a detective story, an act of literary archeology, and an exploration that is also an adventure story happening in two times at once. A Ghost in the Throat is the winner of the Irish Book Awards Non-fiction Book of the Year, was shortlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize and the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize, and was picked by The Guardian as a Best Book of 2020. Largely written at the top of a multi-story car park in Cork where she would go just after dropping her kids off at school, A Ghost in the Throat has captured readers’ hearts and imaginations. Irish writer and playwright Emma Donohue says, “A Ghost in the Throat is something strange and very special: a ravishingly immersive telling of the way in which a poet and mother’s obsession with a poet and mother who died centuries ago makes their different lives chime like bells.” Irish Journalist Clodagh Finn adds, “Working from Eibhlín Dubh’s famous poem, ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, and her own research, the author manages to get closer to this historic woman than any other person has ever done before. Her account is so vivid that we are almost there, with the pregnant Eibhlín Dubh on horseback, when she comes upon the body of her murdered husband and is so overcome with grief that she scoops up his blood and drinks it.” Finally, The New York Review of Books adds, “Ní Ghríofa is a poet through and through: in this prose work she writes lyrical sentences that make the physical world come alive … It was around Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s time that a new poetic form was invented: the aisling, a dream vision of Ireland revealing itself to the poet as a beautiful woman in need of saving. Ní Ghríofa certainly gives us a new, feminist vision of a woman saving another woman, righting a historical imbalance that persists in women’s continued sacrifices.” A Ghost in the Throat is out now this June in North America from Biblioasis. If that were not enough, this spring, she has also released a new poetry collection To Star the Dark from Dedalus Press, a book of which Poet Seán Hewitt says, “Looking into the dark sky of history, Doireann Ní Ghríofa calls up an illuminating fire, a night constellated into images of passion and destruction. An astrologer of the body, its endurance and its vulnerability, Ní Ghríofa is a poet of daring skill. Lyrical, searching, and enchanted, To Star the Dark is a blazing, brave collection.”
Welcome to Between The Covers, Doireann Ní Ghríofa.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa: Thank you so much for having me.
DN: My last guest that I had on, the Moroccan Writer Abdellah Taïa, we talked a lot about possession and about jinns that possessed Arab poets. I think you could argue, not only that the idea of haunting and being haunted is central to A Ghost in the Throat but also something that we could find across your body of work. For instance, the epigraphs in your latest poetry collection To Star the Dark one by Mina Loy that says, “The past has come apart / events are vagueing,” and the other by Louise Bourgeois “Has the Day Invaded the Night, or Has the Night Invaded the Day?” they both could easily have been epigraphs for A Ghost in the Throat I think, especially since this question of whether the day is invaded the night or the night the day is very similar to the question of this book of whether you are being haunted by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill or whether you yourself are haunting her, it is unclear who is the ghost and who is the throat. But given that you are now talking, maybe for the first time, to a very different audience than the Irish and English audiences of the last year, an audience in America who likely has never heard of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill nor her poem, I think maybe, we should just start with you orienting us to the place that she has an Irish culture, how well-known she and her poem are in the culture at large but also, your encounters with her poem at various points in your life and how those encounters were different encounters because of who you were.
DG: Well, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is a fascinating character. She was a poet who composed an extraordinary Caoineadh, a lament poem in the 18th century. She was lamenting the murder of her husband by English soldiers. One of the most extraordinary things about this poem as far as I was concerned was the fact that it was a work of oral literature that was spoken and that was then learned by heart every time it was subsequently recited to groups of women very often, who would then learn it by heart and recite it again. That meant that the poem was able to make its way to us eventually through this path of coming through female body after female body over years and years and years until it found its way to us. There was something very moving for me in the fact that it made its way to us as a spoken artifact. Part of what I think fascinated me about that was the fact that it was held within female bodies for so long, memorized. That phrase I love so much to learn something by heart, the fact that it’s held in the heart, that it’s held in the body, spoken, and that it’s a work of literature, that can begin to feel so urgent and so important, that it compels the listener to learn it and to recite it again to a new audience, that would enable its path to us to eventually being transcribed, published, and working its way into the literary canon, one of very, very few works of oral literature composed by women, which did so in Britain and Ireland. It’s a very rare thing and very precious. It feels like a living entity. Now, granted I’m very taken with these poems, of course, I’d say that, but it genuinely does feel like a living entity. It’s a poem, when spoken aloud, still retains all the force, all the rage, the desire, the despair of a woman who was deeply in love with a man whose body she has just found and in finding his body is so deeply struck by that lust that she falls to her knees, scoops up handfuls of his blood, and is compelled to drink that blood, then speaks this poem. It’s extraordinary work and we’re so fortunate to have it. [laughs]
DN: I love how you talk about how this poem intersects with your own life. You imagine that perhaps when you encountered it as a child, you would have found it boring, then as a teenager, the Romeo and Juliet aspects stand out, the tragedy of the romance, the horse, the scooping up and drinking of her husband’s blood. But what was the encounter the third time, what about the poem leapt out that grabbed you to want to make it into a book?
DG: I think there was something about that circling back again and again that led to a deepening, I suppose, that we can all relate to. Whenever we circle back to a work of art, whether it’s a poem, a film, or an album, something that struck us deeply, whether in childhood or when we were teenagers, when you come back to something like that again and again, each time you return to it, it’s changed, it has changed, and we have changed in the act of returning. There was something in that act of return to this poem that startled me. I think that’s it. It startled me because as you say, when I first came to it as a child in what we call primary school here, I was quite bored by it and a little dismissive. Then as a teenager, I was so struck by the high drama of it, this sense of the desire, particularly the image of this woman scooping up handfuls of blood in her grief was really deeply moving to me as a teenager. But there were so many aspects of this poet’s personhood that escaped me at those points in my life and when I returned to it in adulthood, one of the things that first drew me towards it was a sense of recognition. I had never noticed before the fact that the speaker of the poem is herself pregnant and a young mother at the time, perhaps because that maybe just wouldn’t have interested me as a teenager or as a child. At the time that I was reading it, I was in a similar situation myself and I felt that sense of a mirror. I felt that sense of recognition and of seeing this poet in a different light from how she had been revealed to me in previous readings. That fascinated and startled me in equal measure, and it led to me returning to the poem over and over again, and speaking it to myself like an incantation becoming more and more familiar with the cadence of the lines with the places where she paused to draw breath. The fact that not only was this poem a fossil of a real woman’s life, her living breath, and words but that so much of her character was in there embedded in the lines. The more I attended to the poem, the more curious I became about her and really quite nosy. I wanted to know more. I really wanted to see whether I could come to know her and how much I could find out about this woman because although there was some information about her life, there wasn’t enough to satisfy me. I wanted more. I wanted to know everything.
DN: Yeah. One of the more interesting conversations I joined of yours was at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India. I really liked how the cross-cultural interaction was happening with your interviewer Jayanti who recognized the tradition of keening in India and the ways it both overlapped as an oral form of grief often performed by women. But unlike in Ireland, in India, lower class people were hired to keen for upper class funerals there. I was also listening to a conversation with Pádraig Ó Tuama, which wasn’t about keening but keening came up. He was talking about how, for a man, to become a poet traditionally in Ireland, that it was a 17-year education and that keening arrived partially out of the denial of literacy, and this formal education for women in Ireland. That the passing down of a poem from one woman’s body to another across space and through time was an entirely separate poetic lineage, and perhaps or at least, it made me think that the keen is then in and of itself a ghost in the throat from one woman to another, and that the keening is a poetic form of haunting and also of solidarity. In that spirit, I would love it if we could just, early on in this conversation, have you read the opening to the book.
DG: I would love to.
[Doireann Ní Ghríofa reads from A Ghost in the Throat]
DN: We’ve been listening to Doireann Ní Ghríofa read from A Ghost in the Throat. Part of why I wanted you to read this is because the second part of the reading, when you’re describing the details of daily mothering, you don’t describe it as the shared bodily gestures of women across time but as the shared text of women’s lives. Similarly, you don’t declare the book as a female keen but as a female text, which is the refrain that echoes throughout this whole story. We return to that declaration many times. Some people—and I’m guessing mainly men—say, “Keens shouldn’t be considered to have a single author because they are passed down through so many people.” But you’ve pushed back against this and said that texts are no different. I was hoping you could talk about this, the way you’re calling this the shared text but also about the word text in this light.
DG: It’s so interesting to consider that sense in which our lives could be considered texts, isn’t it? Because that implicates us in the act of composition and in our sense of authorship of our own lives, in what ways is the act of living in an ordinary way composing the books of our lives. I became fascinated by, I don’t know if you could call it the literary genre but I will out of brazenness, the literary genre of the to-do list, [laughter] fascinated by that because I have kept notebooks of to-do lists for longer than I can remember. If I happen upon an old notebook, it’s such a glimpse into the self I was at that point of my life and the minuscule ways in which I was committing myself to greater tasks, like something seemingly tiny that would appear on a to-do list over many years adds up to something so much greater. For example, for many years, something that appeared on my to-do list was thinking about this book. Every time it was in a slightly different iteration for many months, it was the act of translation attempting to carry Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, the Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire from the Irish language into the English language. Then it began to transform into something else. It began to become the sense of pilgrimage, of bringing myself to the places that we know that Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, this other poet, had lived and had spent time. Then again, over further time, it became the act of writing where, as you mentioned in your lovely introduction, so much of this book was written on the roof of a multi-story car park in Cork in the South of Ireland where I live. At that point, the to-do list was shifting again but with the same greater urge I suppose where it’s trying to compose a work of literature in response to a work of literature and in doing so, to examine the sense of a life, whether my life or the version of myself that’s articulated within the book was the text I was trying to articulate or whether it was the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. There were these parallel texts and the sense of a text really did feel important to me throughout. I began to see text everywhere I looked. As you mentioned, there is a refrain throughout the book, “This is a female text.” It’s important to me to say that I consider it one type of female text because it was so close to my life and to what I was trying to discover about my life, and about Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s life. That was what I was attempting to articulate but I was by no means trying to speak for anyone else’s sense of what it might be to live a female life or to write a female text. It actually led me to great curiosity in the dialogue that comes after publishing a book to hear about different ways that other people would interpret that phrase within the context of their own lives. I think that’s one element of publishing a book that’s so fascinating to every author because suddenly, you start to see all these different routes that you may not have considered growing from something that you felt, “Okay. You know this inside out, this text. You’ve been writing it for years and suddenly, it begins to grow into new questions and new ways that you can learn from it.” That’s something I’m still considering and the ways that this is one female text, and there are so many, many, many other types of female texts too.
DN: I love what you just said because you answer something about the word text without explicitly saying so but the way you are evoking, the way you’ve inter-braided your life with Eibhlín Dubh’s life and the way you’re open to your own interpretation being woven into these other interpretations of your own book. The spirit of that feels connected to the spirit of the keen, of this story being held in different bodies collectively and changing with each body but also at the same time, being connected to all the bodies. It feels somehow connected to this question of readership and writers. But also, that you bring up this wonderful thing about text, that the word comes originally from weaving, so textile is where the word text comes from, inter-braiding. I’m always curious about why we have such a bias that would say that something passed down through memory and through the body from one body to another couldn’t be an original work, but something in words could be but every single word was given to us by someone else and by many someone else, like it took so many people to infuse every single word we choose. Of course, we add our own something to it but it doesn’t seem fundamentally different than—I mean it is different and it gives us an illusion of a difference—but it doesn’t seem fundamentally different. It still feels like it relies on something about the collective.
DG: It’s so interesting, the way that you articulate that. That was something that I felt I was trying to feel my way towards within the book. The sense of text that comes from texere, that sense of to weave, to braid, to fuse in its previous etymology and the roots that lurk under all the words that we use, the Belfast-born Ciaran Carson is extraordinary on this. The deep consideration he gives to the sources and the ways in which words have changed, you have the sense reading his poems, that every single word has been so deeply considered, not only in our current understanding of its meaning but in terms of the many, many, many other meanings that could be extrapolated from each word. The other thing that struck me as you were speaking, one of the recurrent motifs that came to me as I was considering next in their many iterations, was starlings. We have so many starlings here. Those little speckled birds. I know from my reading that often, in America, they’re considered an invasive species, almost like a pest. We don’t really have that sense of them here. Their population hasn’t exploded in huge numbers as it may have there. But it’s impossible for me to consider a starling without listening closely to their songs because they mimic so beautifully. As you know, over generations, they absorb the sounds that they hear, the environmental sounds, the noises that punctuate their days, and their excellent mimics. They weave those sounds into the text of their songs. Then there’s these just joyous bursts of song where sometimes, if you’re listening to a group of starlings, you’d think, “Did I just recognize a car alarm in what they’re saying?” It’s so interesting. Oftentimes, what I find very moving is in Ireland, you’ll often happen upon a little cluster of ruined houses that may have been abandoned during the famine in the 19th century and there will always be starlings around. I find it intensely moving to listen to the starlings there because over generations, they learn and internalize the sounds that are there. You know when they will be mimicking sounds that were made by people who were long gone from those dwellings. I returned to that comforting, I suppose, image of the starling a lot when I was considering that sense of authorship. When the starling sings, is it composing its own song and does it deserve credit for authorship? [laughter] Or is the fact that it’s drawing on motifs that it has learned over generations– I feel that causes astonishment and I take great joy in that sense of the starling, of the Caoineadh, and of all the forms of literature composed by women that have miraculously made their way to us against all odds.
DN: Yeah, that’s really beautifully said. I’m hoping you’re open to the possibility of telling your origin story as a poet because when I think of keens being very connected to grief and death, and the way your origin story itself is connected, your origin story in a way, it feels connected to this starling story too in the sense that it’s intergenerational and both about new life being composed, and older life passing away at the same time. Would you share with us the circumstances of the first poems that you wrote?
DG: I would love to. Thank you for asking me. I love the way you call it my origin story. It makes me feel like I could be some kind of a superhero. [laughter]
DN: I think you might be. [laughter]
DG: A super poet. I’d love to know what my superpowers might become.
DN: Yes, you were bit by a radioactive starling. [laughter]
DG: Yeah. So much of the process of writing for me feels profoundly mysterious. I don’t understand where poems come from. I don’t understand why they come to me with the urgency that they do. I’m intensely grateful that they do but I don’t know where they come from or why. Sometimes, after I’ve composed them, I forget even the how of it. Sometimes, it feels looking back on certain poems that I’ve composed that they really did come from elsewhere. Alice Notley is extraordinary on this. She’s spoken in interviews about how poetry is spoken to us from elsewhere, that there’s a strong sense of poetry that comes to us from the voices of the dead. This sense of grief and our relationships with the dead is an important part of my work in a way that I still don’t fully understand. I definitely don’t understand if you call my origin story, but it is what it is I guess. I was very close to my grandfather and when he was coming close to death, our extended family were all asked to be near him. I traveled from where I lived to Dublin with my baby who was very young at the time. When we got the call in the middle of the night to be by his bedside, it was felt it wouldn’t really be appropriate to have a baby there, which I completely understand. It was a really important moment. But that meant that I was in my aunt’s house trying to push my son to sleep and feeling really torn off, upset, and distant from everyone. I was lying in a darkened room, just trying to get the baby to sleep and these lines of poetry came to me, which was shocking because I had never tried to write a poem and I would never even have considered attempting any creative writing apart from what you are assigned in school. There was nothing like that, no element like that in my life, whatsoever. But these lines of poetry kept insisting on themselves. I knew by the rhythm of them that it was poetry rather than prose and it was such a strange experience that I did wonder for a while whether it was a poem that I’d learned in school that was returning to me. But the more it repeated, the more clear it was something else. Once the baby fell asleep, I got up and managed to find pen and paper and wrote the poem, which was a poem in the Irish language about Oileán Chliara or Clare Island, which is a place I’ve never been to. What strikes me now is that I’ve told this story before and every time I feel just slightly strange or embarrassed maybe a little—because it’s such a strange story but there’s no escaping the fact that this is simply the truth of how it came to writing—what strikes me now—this image hasn’t really occurred to me any other time—I get such a strong image of pressing pen to paper as I was writing that poem and the sense of all the letters being connected in joint handwriting. That sense of connection, the sense of writing the words, and feeling that connection with my grandfather was just so moving. I felt very close to him at that moment and I continued to sit with pen and paper that evening and came back to it the next day, and the day after that. Every time I’m writing, I still think of him. I feel it as a gift. I feel the mystery of it. I’ll always be intensely grateful for that moment.
DN: It’s one of the things that I love about your work. It’s not just the palimpsest between the past and the present—which is one of the things I really love about your work—but the way you hold birth and death together. I’m thinking of a couple of lines in your collection Clasp, “Under layers of lip lies the fossil of a first kiss,” or when you’re describing pregnancy as “I carry you in my body, little skeleton, little skull.” I was hoping maybe, before we go any further, if you’d read a short poem from Lies in Irish, then in your English translation called Sólás/Solace.
DG: Thank you. I’d love to. I’ll just say to preface this, there’s a note included with this poem to contextualize it in Irish folklore, “The souls of dead infants were believed to return as sedge warblers to comfort their mothers with bird song.”
[Doireann Ní Ghríofa reads a short poem called Sólás/Solace]
DN: I wanted to ask you about the erasure of the Irish language in Ireland. Pádraig Ó Tuama calls it the original wound where everything, at least, from his perspective begins in terms of colonization and the erasure of Irish culture. In reading essays by you, we learn that your great grandparents spoke both Irish and English but that your grandfather, only English, if I remember correctly. But he was so ashamed when he couldn’t understand people who spoke Irish to him that he became an Irish teacher. You’ve also talked about how, in the Irish language poetry scene, there was an expectation that you’d write in Irish and perhaps one day, someone would translate your poetry into English or other languages but that just wasn’t happening for you and that was why you went ahead and translated your own poetry yourself. But there are other Irish poets who take different stances. I’m thinking of Biddy Jenkinson who said in 1991, “I prefer not to be translated into English in Ireland. It is a small rude gesture to those who think that everything can be harvested and stored without loss in an English-speaking Ireland. If I were a corncrake I would feel no obligation to have my skin cured, my tarsi injected with formalin so that I could fill a museum shelf in a world that saw no need for my kind.” Then I know that you, from a young age, had an Irish language education. I guess I wondered how typical or how unusual your relationship to Irish is in Ireland today. Since we are talking about keens and grief, I’d also be curious about your feelings toward English as the language of your poetry and prose now.
DG: Such a fascinating question. Thank you so much. The position of the Irish language in Ireland is vexed to say the least. There is a lot of hostility towards us. Many people of my generation and of previous generations feel and articulate a deep sense of resentment towards the Irish language. The usual argument that’s made against this is—and imagine making an argument against the whole language—the usual argument that’s made against the Irish language and the place of the Irish language is that it was poorly taught in school and that it is useless, that it’s a waste of time. People feel extremely strongly about that. Conversely, there are many, many people who feel really passionately about keeping the Irish language alive. It is a living thing. There are many, many people like me who speak Irish, who love Irish, who speak Irish on a daily basis in lots of different contexts. To us, it’s a living thing. There are also probably a lot of people in between who don’t have strong feelings either way but from my own experience, far more people would tend towards that sense of hostility and suspicion towards us. It is a very deep wound because my sense of that, the fact that people harbor such strong feelings against the language is that it is coming from a place of pain, a place of loss, and a place of having been made to feel that they were in some way lesser because they couldn’t articulate themselves in the language, that due to the ways in which the education system was forming around them, there weren’t opportunities being created for them to learn their own language, then they were being treated badly because they couldn’t speak in the language. It’s really difficult. The whole scenario is really, really difficult from my own perspective, which is really all I can speak about I guess to a certain extent. My parents sent me to a school that was based on a system of immersion education, so from the day that I went in at the age of four speaking only English, all the teachers spoke only Irish to me. Like many children and many other countries around the world that operate schools under these systems, like a sponge, children just pick up language almost unbeknownst to themselves as my experience in a very relaxed way that is blessedly free from a lot of the historical hang-ups because it just feels so ordinary, it just feels like just another thing. I feel extraordinarily fortunate that my parents enrolled me in a school like that. I feel very fortunate to have this sense of being able to articulate myself in both languages. It’s so important to me. The Irish language allows me to use words that were used by my ancestors going back centuries. It’s extraordinary to have that facility. I just wish it was less unusual. I wish it was something that others could share in some way. But it’s difficult and that’s the truth of it. What was the second part of the question again?
DN: You’ve somewhat answered it but your feelings toward English as the language of your writing, at least in your most recent several books.
DG: When we arrive at questions of composition of creative works in both languages, I have so much sympathy with Biddy Jenkinson’s perspective. I love the brazenness with which she articulates it so much. Any time I hear that quote, it just lights me up. The defiance of it is really something special. She does permit her poems to be translated into other languages. It’s just English that she puts her foot down over English. She makes a very strong case. I suppose every poet, coming to their craft in a country like Ireland where there is this vexed attitude towards the language and writing primarily in the Irish language, has to make a call at some point about where they stand. For me, it was intensely important to have a connection with the audiences of people who were coming to literary readings. The literary scene, if you could call it that, in Ireland is really vibrant. I think that in some ways, you could make a case that harks back to that sense of the caoineadh, of the keen and the way that many people would gather, and hear these caoineadh/keen recited, then learn in my heart and recite them again. We have a really strong sense of that still, where poetry readings and readings from novels are not uncommon here and that there’s quite a lot of institutional support for those events through the Arts Council. Whenever I was invited to read from my poems in Irish, it was important to me that I wasn’t closing the door on any of the people who were looking up at me. I could understand that a lot of people who are coming to those readings, where there might be several writers or poets reading at the same time, would invariably experience a lot of feelings if a poet stood up and read only in Irish. Some poets in that situation would say, “Yeah,” and would stand that ground and say, “That’s fine, that’s me, I’m only reading in Irish.” Whereas for me, it was important to open the door to the poem and welcome people in. That was how I came to teach myself to translate my poems into English, which was intensely difficult. [laughter] It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to learn in my life. Literary translation is difficult.
DN: Later, I do want to dwell in that process for you. But before we return to Eibhlín Dubh, I was hoping we could hear two poems in your latest poetry collection To Star the Dark that are about your two languages. One is False Friends and the second that follows it, A Jaw, Ajar.
DG: We’ll begin by reading the poem False Friends. False Friends is the phrase used when a word in a certain language corresponds hourly with the words in your own language. For example, the Irish language word for history is stair, which sounds very like the word star in English. A lot of this poem is finding that ground between Irish and English, where certain words sound almost the same. I suppose it’s considering a sense of stuff and the sense we can make of that, the fact that there’s common ground between the languages.
[Doireann Ní Ghríofa reads a short poem called False Friends]
The poem A Jaw, Ajar includes two Irish language phrases. One of which is cur i gcéill, which may be translated as a pretense or a sham and the other one is corrán géill, which sounds so like us and it means jawbone. So within this poem, there’s a recurrence of two phrases within the Irish language that sounds so similar—corrán géill and cur i gcéill—one meaning jawbone and one meaning the pretense.
[Doireann Ní Ghríofa reads a short poem called A Jaw, Ajar]
DN: We’ve been listening to Doireann Ní Ghríofa read from her latest poetry collection from Dedalus Press, To Star the Dark. I want to return to Eibhlín Dubh, the story of which occurs during the era of the Penal Laws in Ireland, which largely destroyed the Irish social order. You mentioned some of the details of this and I also couldn’t help but look up more of them myself. But the Irish weren’t allowed to vote, bear arms, or to get an education. There was even a law put forth that would castrate any Catholic priests who were unregistered. It was illegal to teach Catholicism. Mixed marriages were forbidden. If a catholic inherited property, he could be ousted by the closest Protestant heir. If a Catholic person died, his estate was divided equally among his sons, but if the eldest son converted to be a Protestant, he could inherit all the land and dispossess all of his siblings. But there’s also a penal law about horses and this law ultimately plays a part in the death of Art Ó Laoghaire, Eibhlín Dubh’s husband, which prompts her to compose the keen that we’re talking about. I was hoping maybe, we could both talk about the Penal Laws in relationship to the death of Art Ó Laoghaire. But also, since your life is a palimpsest on this story, what, if anything, do you know of your own family’s story during this era as well?
DG: Oh, interesting. We don’t know anything of my family’s history during the era of the Penal Laws, which is relatively unusual for us because our family has been rooted in the same small rural place for centuries and there are many, many, many other stories going back a long time that have made their way down, but there’s nothing that I know of anyway that came from this era. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I was so drawn to Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s story. The law that you mentioned that pertains to horses was that an Irish Catholic wasn’t allowed to hold possession of a horse worth more than five pounds and the implication that I held for Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and her husband Art Ó Laoghaire was that he had worked in the employ of the Austro-Hungarian Army, and he was such an extraordinary soldier that a gift was made to him. He was given his horse and he was given permission to bring that horse home. Now, this horse, by all accounts, was really something special. Everybody was in awe of this horse. One of the people who was in awe of this horse was a man who was a local magistrate called Abraham Morris. He wanted Art Ó Laoghaire’s horse and he knew, as a member of the colonizing community, that he could demand this horse and disrespect Art Ó Laoghaire by demanding it for the measly sum of five pounds. When he suggested this to Art Ó Laoghaire, he was quite the character, Art, he refused this offer of five pounds and he was made an outlaw as a result, which meant that Abraham Morris would act with audacity within the law and could set a track.
DN: I want to talk about this experience of the way you go about excavating this story and filling in the gaps that you can fill because this book, A Ghost in the Throat, has a really complex relationship to erasure. As we know, from the first piece you read at the very beginning, there is a joy for you in erasing things off of your list. There’s also the joy, which you mention in various different ways in this book, in disappearing into the needs of others, which you present in a complicated way and I would definitely want to unpack this with you later. But the more common relationship to erasure of this book is you combating erasure. That first reading, you gave hints at the many small details of being a mother that you include throughout the book, things that are usually left out of books, that are edited out as not worthy of story and also, how whole poetic forms might get discounted because they weren’t written down or weren’t passed down in words but from body to body, and the book also is engaging with questions of erasure of Irish culture and Irish language. But one of the most fascinating things for me about this is how we’re very much by your side in the real time of the book with you puzzling out how to excavate Eibhlín Dubh’s story when her story is told largely through the words of men, if it’s told at all. Even the most basic things, like she doesn’t have a grave site, her husband has a grave site. She’s often portrayed in scholarship in the shadow of men as the widow of so and so or the aunt of so and so, rather than our own terms. But what makes this doubly interesting is you decide to confront the erasure of her through using erasure yourself. You take these correspondences of her brothers and erase all the references to men to try to bring forth the lives of the women that would have lived around Eibhlín Dubh. I’m hoping you’ll talk about this and other practices that you used in the face of absence because I love your weaponization of erasure against erasure.
DG: I suppose one of the things I would say in response to that is that I felt the reader so close to me as I was composing this book and as I was going in search of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. With all the sources I was coming to and increasingly coming up against absence, erasure, and the neglect of documenting female lives with the same pattern as the male lives have been documented, I was asking myself, “How can I tell the story of an absence? How can I articulate something that isn’t there?” That was a real challenge but the methods that came to me were slightly marked by mischief and by brazenness, like there’s an audacity to the method you described with that part of the book that feels to me a little close to the quote that you read from Biddy Jenkinson, the small rude gesture, to encounter the letters back and forth between Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s brothers and see so little of her life within those letters. Let alone her own letters. The fact that her life hadn’t been preserved or intended to in the way that we might have hoped, the approach that I decided to take to that, to those gaps and to those absences was to use the same weapons, potential tellings, and to decide to take those documents. For example, the letters of her brothers in which there were scant references to the lives of women and just erase the male elements of it, and leave the female elements, and to see whether something could be made of those female elements that would retain something of the truth of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s life. Not just her life but the lives of the other women who were surrounding her. Her mother, for example, and her twin sister, I was so fascinated to find that she had a twin sister because this was an element of this poet that had never really been acknowledged. As you mentioned, anytime that her poem is reproduced, in the line or two of a bio that goes with it, it just mentions her in the roles of aunt and wife. To me, if you’re going to define someone by their familial roles, the role of being a twin is fascinating. What happens when you remove the roles that define her by the men around her and instead choose to define her by the women around her, and attempt to extrapolate a sense of her life to that kind of a telling? That was, I suppose, the challenge I set myself. The strangeness of that is the fact that it’s disorientating to attempt to glean something of the truth of another person’s base when there’s so little to go by. Yes, the more I persisted with the attempt, the closer I felt Eibhlín Dubh, and the more I wanted to know, I kept going and kept going. Once I came to writing it, it became the story of singing into that absence and attempting to sing the joys, the disappointments, the rages, and the griefs of a woman’s life despite the erasure that replaced her, and that was so heavily involved in the aftermath of her life.
DN: Yeah. Speaking of you describing it as mischief, I’ve heard people call your book autofiction. When I think of autofiction, I think of mischief. I think of an author playing with the readers’ expectations of what is true and intentionally blurring the boundaries between the author outside of the book, and the author portrayed in the book. But at least for me as a reader, it felt like you were trying to portray your “true self” on the page. I imagined that if there were acts of imagination in this book, that they were more in the service of Eibhlín Dubh’s not fully retrievable life rather than imaginative but “untrue portrayals of yourself.” But I didn’t know, maybe I’m wrong here. I wanted to hear, I guess, more generally about the role of the imagined in A Ghost in the Throat. Because there are times when you say, “These are the limits of what I’m willing to imagine,” or clear things, like when you mention the twin, we are in the womb at one point with Eibhlín Dubh and her twin, which of course, we know is you imagining yourself into the womb. But beyond that, tell us about the role of the imaginative and what parameters you placed on it as a writer for yourself of what you were willing to invent.
DG: It’s such an interesting question. It’s the question I’m asked a lot and it’s a question that’s very challenging to answer in the ways that comes across coherently but I will give it my best shot. [laughs] When I was approaching the writing of this book, I felt that there were two very strong characters that I wanted to articulate, a character that is extremely close to my own sense of self and a character that felt as close as I could imagine to Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, a woman who was born and died centuries before me. In terms of the elements of this book that draw most strongly on the imagination, absolutely, there is a heavy amount of that involved with imagining her life in the 18th century. That was labor that I undertook very seriously. I often felt as though I was dreaming my way into her existence. There were moments where that felt almost fully, that sensation of beginning to feel someone as a presence and the attempt to actively imagine oneself in her life, looking to her eyes. and imagining that, there were moments in my telling of her part of the story where I very much took a leap into acts of the imagination and attempted to flag that to the reader every time, and at one point even italicized the large section so it was particularly clear. In terms of the version of myself, the reason that it was described as autofiction is that it’s very different in some ways from a lot of the autofiction that I’ve read but there are elements in which the character that represents me is very close to my sense of self, but it’s an imagined sense of myself sometimes that thinks, feels, and does things differently from how I might. This I think is where I fall into difficulty because when I’m asked, “How close to the truth is the version of yourself in this book?” it’s important for me to be able to say, “There are elements of autofiction here, they’re very true to my sense of self and elements that are imagined.” But also, I recently suffered a catastrophic loss of my sister under very traumatic circumstances where she died very young and I was helping her husband to care for her at the end. It was very, very, very difficult and this was just a couple of months ago, so I’m really in the hurricane of that grief. So anytime these questions come up of how close the truth of the character in A Ghost in the Throat is to myself, I feel very much like it was closer to the version of myself when I was attempting to write the book than it is now. Since the death of my sister, I feel like my own sense of myself has been demolished from the bones of my toes to the bones of my fingers and I now feel very, very far from any previous iteration of myself. I think that won’t be an unfamiliar feeling to a lot of people who have suffered that shock and that grief. But I think that’s what complicates things for me at the moment to tell you the truth is that sense of there are absolutely elements of auto fictional elements and elements that revere much more closely to the truth in both the telling of both the character that represents me and the character that represents Eibhlín Dubh. But at this stage, I feel increasingly distant from the character that represents me. But maybe that happens to every author. The other side of this is that I’m so new to writing prose. That feels strange and surprising to me, that element of it, but maybe, that’s just part of it. Maybe that’s how a lot of people feel, I don’t know.
DN: I would imagine that no matter how true you’re trying to be on the page, that you on the page, no matter what, isn’t you off the page, I mean there’s always going to be that gap between the representation and the represented.
DG: Yeah. But they’re definitely elements of fiction throughout both strands.
DN: Okay, yeah.
DG: And strong elements of truth throughout both strands as well.
DN: I wonder if you feel more free to be more overtly mischievous and playful in your poetry in this regard around the truth because I’m thinking of your poetry book titled Lies, which has the epigraph by Lucie Brock-Broido, “Don’t be afraid to tell the truth, even if it’s a lie.” It’s telling that you’re calling your book of self translations itself lies because we’re, in a way, even though what we just talked about is in the same language, we are talking about self-translation, we’re talking about how are you translating yourself in A Ghost in the Throat from your lived embodied life and what you’re choosing to represent, what you’re choosing to leave out, and how you choose to represent it. But here, you’re translating yourself and you play with the “lies of translation” in the book, most notably with a poem in Irish that mentions the time of day 137, then in your English translation, you mistranslated it as 138. But you also have a translation of an Irish poem of yours called Jigsaw that you later translate again in Clasp and it’s a different translation. You can tell they’re the same poem—I mean they’re not the same poem—you can tell they come from the same source. As you mentioned earlier, I guess I want to hear more about the experience of self-translation for you, which is a tradition you share with your countryman, Samuel Beckett. I’d be curious to hear also about translation dilemmas. For instance, preserving the rhythm or music of Irish in your English over and against the semantic meaning of words or the reverse, like how did you find yourself negotiating coming to loggerheads around your two languages that you both speak? I’m sure that you’ve brought this poem already to an aesthetic—I don’t know if resolution’s the right word—but you’ve brought it to a place where it feels like it coheres and now you are having to take the Jigsaw metaphor, puzzle it back together again.
DG: Yes, it’s a fraught process of literary translation and you’re absolutely right that entitling my book of self translations Lies, that was done with a very mischievous glint in my eye. The reason that I chose that title for the book I think was to draw attention to our desire as readers to consider a translation dependable. Translations, no matter into or out of which language, are notoriously slippery eels. You can’t grasp a translation and say this is exactly as this utterance occurred first of all in its first language. It’s just impossible. As far as I’m concerned, in my own artistic practice and literary translation, when I am translating my own poems, I tend to indulge that sense of mischief and again, the sense of flagging it through the reader or having a wink to the reader because with a book like Lies, more often than not, its readership is going to be people who are based in Ireland and have a certain amount of the Irish language or enough curiosity to pick up a book like that. I know that there, I will roam back and forth between the Irish language version and the English language version and that it will spark questions, and interests within them because they’ll understand some element of both languages, and both poems. Whereas for a reader who is coming to the book Lies from a country or from a background where they hadn’t been exposed to the Irish language, I wanted to be able to have the same wink. I wanted to be able to wink at that reader too. In the poem where the time is written that you referred to, it’s written in digits. The reason I did that was because I really wanted the reader to be alerted to the fact that these are not the same poems. This is a different entity. This is an attempt, a negotiation, and that there are always range, losses, and gains that operate in that process of translating from one language to the next. It’s also really important for me to say that it’s an entirely different matter as far as I’m concerned when I’m translating my own poems versus when I’m translating someone else’s poems. For example, when I was translating Eibhlín Dubh’s poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire at the end of A Ghost in the Throat, I attempted to be as loyal as possible to her original poem. That was my main urge and that was a sense of fidelity.
DN: Let me ask you about what that means though to be loyal to it because we should mention that we get the entire poem at the end and your translation of the poem at the end of A Ghost in the Throat. But unlike your self translation, you say it’s a very different process because of this responsibility to carry it across languages in a way that attends to the original intent in some fashion but you’re also confronted with that this poem has had many translations also. Two things I’m curious, if that was paralyzing, that there are already, I’m guessing, some bad translations—but certainly, there must be some good or good enough translations and maybe, some very good translations—did you go towards ones you like as guideposts or did you willfully decide to ignore the previous translations? Was there anything in specific that you learned about Eibhlín Dubh from attending to our poem in such a granular way, word by word by word by word and bringing it into English?
DG: The process for me, first of all, of coming to Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire was that sense of returning to the poem and seeing something of my own existence within it, of recognizing someone else who was raising small children and that sense of, I suppose, empathy with the person who had composed this poem so many years before. In attending to the poem, one of the things I was first drawn to do was seeking out all the other translations that had been made of the poem over the years. Looking back now, I’m not really sure what was compelling me to do that because I had several copies of the Caoineadh itself in the Irish language but I was compelled to attend to all the English language translations that have been made. As you say, many, many poets have attempted this and as with any cover version of a song, there are certain translations that really appeal to me as a reader, and certain translations that I think fall flat, to put it politely. There was an education in that in very closely developing an ear for the ways in which people had tried to bend the English language to make it sound like her voice. It’s a fool’s errand really but when I decided to attempt to do the same thing myself, I did feel ill-equipped for the task in some ways because many of the people who had attempted translations and published translations before would have been very well thought of, we hold certain positions in universities and in the academy and would be very much that their translations were prior to the literary canon. Who was I to attempt something like that? The only answer I could come up with was that I cared about her and that this was some way that I could see making a gesture towards her, a gesture that I didn’t fully understand myself at that point. What surprised me in that process was in attending to her poem so closely, so carefully, and for so long, that what I became most enamored of within her poem were the gaps and the silences between the verses, the places where there was a full stop, where there was a natural break in the speech, where you’re aware of a poem of over 30 verses, that these are the places where she paused to draw breath and these are the places where we, as readers, reading it aloud, also pause to draw breath, and the fact that this is an orchestration of the body in some way. I suppose, as I’m saying that, another thing that’s important to say is that so often, I was compelled to read this poem aloud, whether whispering it to myself or speaking it at an ordinary volume, that every time I did so, I felt that sense of her voice coming through my body. That was part of what drew me to attempting the translation, which as I say, I don’t rate my translation too highly. I really learned so much from the process. It was what led me towards trying to find out more of her life, so I feel like it was of value to me in that sense. But I don’t think that anyone can fully translate a poem like Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire and retain the particular timbre of her voice in English. I’m not sure that it’s possible, not that it’s possible. Yet we keep trying. I’m far from the first person who’s translated Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire and mark my words, I will not be the last. [laughter] It will continue and continue over generations of poets and writers to come because for some reason, there’s something about this poem that draws us in towards it.
DN: You’re greatly to thank for the way it’s going to echo forward now I think as well. I was going to suggest that you read the seventh and eighth stanza in Irish and English but I didn’t know if it would be strange to leap into the middle and just read two little pieces in the middle.
DG: I think that would be lovely. I’m going to read verses seven and eight of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. I’ll read them in the Irish language first of all, then I’ll follow it with the English language translations. You’ll maybe notice a little of what I mean, that the music of Eibhlín Dubh’s voice, it’s so distinct in the Irish language version.
[Doireann Ní Ghríofa reads from Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh from A Ghost in the Throat]
DN: We’ve been listening to Doireann Ní Ghríofa read from Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh from A Ghost in the Throat. I want to talk about another question of erasure, which I don’t think is central to your book but I feel like haunts your book, and that’s the erasure of land in relationship to colonization and indigeneity. Because beyond the absence of Eibhlín Dubh’s grave and beyond the absence of Eibhlín Dubh’s house—which has been demolished—you also mention, usually in passing, other things, the ancient alluvial forest that has been flooded by a hydroelectric dam built in the 50s, the remnants of the ring forts and stone circles, and other circular prehistoric dwellings that you encounter as you’re going to different towns to find information about Eibhlín Dubh’s life. This prompts me to think of Seamus Heaney’s Bog poems and the way it feels like both the dream life of Ireland seems to be contained in them and the literal history of Ireland preserved in the box. I had a super short visit to Ireland for the Hugo Awards for the book that I did with Ursula Le Guin and the most memorable part of that trip was actually going to the exhibit of the Bog Bodies in the National Museum of Ireland’s basement and learning that the bogs were places where people would hide bodies that had been murdered or hide treasure or store food but that the bog preserved these people in the most incredible ways or they look like they were forged in bronze but with the tiniest details preserved and even hair still sprouting from their toes, the evidence of how they were killed preserved. But the bogs themselves too are largely disappearing in Ireland or over half of the bogs have disappeared due to fuel extraction. I know this isn’t the focus of the book but I wondered if you could speak to geography, geology, prehistory, topography, or resource extraction in relationship to A Ghost in the Throat in Ireland.
DG: The place where I grew up is very close to me in terms of, not physically the place where I live now is quite distant from where I grew up, but it feels like it’s etched so deeply into my identity that I carry it with me, that sense of place. It’s called Cill na Móna, which will be translated as Church of the Bog. Always, as I was growing up, I had such a deep certain sense of identity of, “This is where I’m from. I’m from the bog and very poor lands from which it’s very difficult and challenging to seek living from such lands.” The sense of place is very close to Irish identity to the ways in which we construct them, identity to each other, and of ourselves and the ways in which we echo that sense of identity back and forth is very much rooted in the land, in landscape, and the sense of place. I feel like as a result, that comes across very strongly to our literature, whether in poetry or in prose. The land is off than we are the land and the wounds of the land. Colonization is still carried deeply within us in our bodies and in our sense of identity. I feel like those wounds run very deep. Yes, there’s a strong sense of complication to those feelings for me because there’s a sense in which Irish people suffered, were wounded, and died in great numbers as a result of colonization, lost our language, so much of it, although I feel alive, lost so much of our culture and so many of our people. Yet when Irish people went to make lives in other lands, they would often assume that role of power and inflict similar wounds on other people. That’s something that I feel like for me, personally, is a source of great shame. We have a complicated but very deep sense of relationship I think with the land and natural way of kinship and understanding with other people to feel that strong sense of dispossession, that strong sense of ancestral loss, loss of language and pain, and other peoples who carry those wounds with them as well, yet it is complicated, like so much is complicated. So much of that is complicated by whiteness I think. That’s something that I’m still puzzling my way through and something I’m still learning about. But certainly, land is extremely important to Irish identity and to my own identity.
DN: You talk about your connection to land and this echoing back and forth around a collective sense of dispossession around land but then also, your impulse to complicate that narrative by looking at the Irish diaspora and looking at the ways in which Irish people abroad, including Art Ó Laoghaire for instance, fought in empires as career soldiers or had slaves or various other reasons informed your collaboration with LeAnne Howe, the Choctaw poet who you did a call-in response with because her people, remarkably just 16 years after being forcibly removed from their lands and marched on the Trail of Tears, raised money for the Irish famine. I should note also that more recently, Irish citizens have raised more than a million dollars to send to the Hopi and Navajo nations for COVID relief under the same spirit of indigenous exchange. But you could have very easily made this in exchange simply that way but you complicated that exchange yourself or felt compelled to complicate it, specifically around Andrew Jackson coming from Irish descent among others who were involved in Native-American dispossession. Talk to us a little more about that impulse to do that.
DG: Yeah, among others I feel is key, and there’s a great sense of kinship, and mutual compassion between the Irish people and the Choctaw people that is very much rooted in that act of extraordinary generosity where despite the verbal trauma that they were living through at that time, that when they were told of the famine that was occurring in Ireland and the mass death that was happening there, that they gathered money and sent it across the ocean. It is just awe-inspiring, that act of generosity. In modern times, as that history has been spoken more of, I suppose, within both cultures and there have been different cultures and bonds that have been forged in terms of cultural exchange I suppose between the communities and visits between the communities back and forth across the Atlantic, it’s become a very fruitful exchange. For me, I’m a writer who’s so interested in history, the nuance, complication, and the inevitable shadows of history and of attending the history. Nothing is ever clear. It’s never a clear story that there was this extraordinary act of generosity towards the Irish people and that it’s just as pure as that in the end. It is complicated by the fact that people who were driven from Ireland because of hunger, who survived the journey across the Atlantic then trying to establish themselves within the structures of power in another culture and were complicit and active in acts of dispossession against various native peoples including the Choctaw people, history is always so complex and there’s always so many layers of narrative, of telling, of individual experiences, and of different lenses to which to view the histories that we read of. As I say, it’s something that I’m really still learning about. I’m very interested in the ways in which colonialism tricks the colonized into performing on its behalf into complicity.
DN: It’s so complex and I’m very attracted to the impulse that you have. As I get older, I feel like I’m more drawn to these complicated stories. Just the difference between telling the Trail of Tears while acknowledging that you’re being removed and walking alongside thousands of slaves that a lot of these tribes had, what’s the difference between telling that story while acknowledging the black slaves that are walking with you and telling the story without acknowledging it? But I’m not even thinking of that, which is another level of complication, like thinking mostly this week as a Jewish person and of the Jewish community in relationship to Palestine. But I don’t want to dwell on all of these big issues other than one of the things that’s great about A Ghost in the Throat is your willingness or your impulse to complicate narratives. I want to bring it back to the question from the very beginning around erasure and self erasure as a woman, which you complicate in a really interesting way because you’ve talked about already, you portray the joy of erasing things from your list of chores, the joy in disappearing into the story of another poet and mother, and the joy of disappearing into motherhood, you say, “There is a peculiar contentment to be found in absenting oneself like this, subsumed in the needs of others;” and, “Sometimes a female body serves another by effecting a theft upon itself .” It was interesting again in your Jaipur Festival conversation where Jayanti, your Indian interviewer, loved your portrayal of motherhood, that it wasn’t drowning in what she called, “A shit and string beans narrative”— a phrase that she borrows from Marilyn French—that your portrayal of motherhood wasn’t one of drudgery and despair. It’s true that I think in most cases, the sheer number of things that you are called to do for others with your four children and your husband would be more commonly portrayed as oppressive, and constraining. But in A Ghost in the Throat, it’s you who wants more children and you who grieves when your husband says, “No more after four.” Like Jayanti from Jaipur suggested, your book both combats the erasure of women’s work and celebrates it. But you do also confront the shadow side of this, the reflexive self-sacrifice of women. You watch your daughter playing with a ball that she immediately gives up to a crying boy even though the ball is the source of her joy but also, with regards to breastfeeding, you say in the book, “My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text.” You definitely mean this literally, not metaphorically. You look forward to breast pumping as a time you can stop doing chores and read but that self time or that “self time for reading” you’re also breast pumping, so it’s still an act of giving to others. You only have one cooperative breast, one breast that gives milk, yet you are pumping milk, not only for your own kids but for a milk bank on top of it all. I was hoping maybe you could speak into these two sides of erasure and how they meet in the body of Doireann Ní Ghríofa.
DG: It interests me that I’m giving myself over to my role as a mother, I was drawn towards utterly subsuming myself within that role that I almost let myself disappear in it, [inaudible 1:47:44.3] of what we were talking about there around complexity and around complicity, so much of this book, I was considering the ways in which women have been erased from the historical records and really raging against it in many ways, and attempting to find ways in which to lure these women’s histories back from the historical record. Yet simultaneously, I was very drawn to utterly subsuming myself within motherhood until I felt myself almost invisible, that there was almost a seductive attraction towards self obliteration in some way within those roles. In seeking the story of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s life, in some way, my attention was drawn to these patterns within myself that in order to seek out her life or what remained of her life, I have to leave the patterns in which I was happily existing completely subsumed within motherhood. I had to leave those patterns aside because there was something else that was drawing me towards it. Neatly, the same patterns of behavior recurred within this new drive where it was the same thing, I found myself going from feeling utterly subsumed within motherhood and the various routines I had built around myself like walls into new routines where I was building new walls around myself, completely devoted to Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Yet the path of seeking out more about her led me to the realization that there was something beyond those walls. When I started writing this book, writing the story of what I have found in the story of what I had lived and attempted to find more of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, I found that I was looking beyond those walls to see what was beyond them. I feel like attempting to come to know Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill led me to a deeper understanding of myself and that she lured me away from that passion of letting myself become usually consumed in strange little routines and rituals. Now, I do still keep my to-do list and I do still take great satisfaction from scribbling through each task on it, and every time I do so, it’s a good reminder of the fact that I’m constantly erasing myself in some way from my days as well as writing myself into them.
DN: As we come into our remaining time together, I do want to return to the body and to the body as female text, and the ways you portray the body, your particular interest in the body, and where it comes from. But before we do, I was hoping you’d read another short section from A Ghost in the Throat.
[Doireann Ní Ghríofa reads from A Ghost in the Throat]
DN: I want to invite our animals into this conversation because people aren’t going to probably notice, maybe they’ll notice a little bit, but Mossy your dog and Ewok my cat have been a large part of our talking today. Mossy has licked the microphone at one point, leapt over behind you in the chair. Ewok has yelled at me multiple times and we’ve changed rooms, changed microphones, opened and closed doors. I’m going to try to segue this bringing in of the animals into a question because what you just read is just one of many, many ways you attended the body in the book. But before we talk about that, I want to end with us talking about your interest in the body in general but before we get to that last final section of us talking, if you could talk more specifically about the importance of this being a woman’s body insofar as you even make sure we know that Art Ó Laoghaire’s horse is a female horse speaking of animals. Then there’s this amazing moment when you fall asleep and another mother awakens, a mother bat where you say—and this is I think where we can really, among many places, sense that this is a poet writing a prose work—“Sensing a mouth gripped to her milk, she lifted herself by claw and by clench, stretched, and then opened her wings, sleek as an opera cloak. An infant clung to her fur as she twitched, readying herself for flight from arrangements of stone which were dreamt, drawn, and built by human hands long before. Soon, she was in motion, plunging and soaring, swooping and falling, devouring every aquatic midge she found over The Lough, while her infant gripped tight, still and suckling, eyes closed to her mother’s momentum. To glimpse a bat in flight is to sense a flicker at the periphery of one’s vision, phantom inverted commas tilting through the dark. A complex system of echolocation allows her to navigate the night, guided by the echoes that answer her voice.” That’s just so amazing. But I’m curious about these other creatures being mothers, not Mossy, not your dog, [laughs] but at least I don’t think Mossy is a mother.
DG: No, Mossy is a boy. I’m fascinated by female lives throughout history and in our current moment within the culture in which I find myself, and in other cultures as well. I’m very interested in the commonalities within those existence and in the ways in which those lives veer away from each other. Within this book, I suppose I wanted to attempt to articulate something of what it has felt for me to inhabit a female body in my life and the sense that I have of my life as being like a female text, just one female text, very different from so many other people’s lives. I suppose I felt compelled to explore what that sense of a female life might look like in terms of female animals bodies as well, yet I felt a really strong sense of boundary around exploring what it was to inhabit a female body for people whose experiences might be very different from mine. I’m really drawn towards reading a lot about other people’s experiences of female lives across a whole spectrum of experiences. But within this book, I wanted to confine myself to what I know best in terms of what I have lived and what I imagine Eibhlín Dubh has lived. But it was very revealing to me to consider how an examined female life might appear when one looks towards the animal kingdom. For example, one of the most revealing moments for me in writing the book was looking towards Art Ó Laoghaire’s horse, the horse over which he was murdered and his murder over that horse was what compelled Eibhlín Dubh to compose and to speak the keen over his body. So without that horse, this poem would never have been composed. The horse felt like a really key character to me and the horse really surprised me because when I began to set to imagining what her female life might have been like, in fact, it revealed much more to me about my life, about Eibhlín Dubh’s life, and about what I wanted to communicate to the reader through A Ghost in the Throat. It revealed so much more about me than I could ever have imagined. Sometimes, I think our books can take us by surprise but in taking a moment to imagine, I wonder what the horse’s female life might have been like and in what ways can that become revealing towards other female characters within the book, and that really, really surprised me. In fact, it astonished me, that element of writing about that female horse.
DN: If we were to step back from examining the female body to examining the body and look at your origin story around your interest in bodies because you’re, I suspect, the only person who has rebelled against her family by wanting to become a dentist. In your brief sojourn towards becoming a dentist, in that brief time, you had the opportunity to dissect a cadaver and you’ve described in your essay—it’s something you touch on in A Ghost in the Throat and talk more fully in your essay in the Dublin Review—and you describe it there as one of the most important events of your life is this encounter and engagement with the body. Can you step back from the book we have here back to that moment for us and how that moment echoes forward to A Ghost in the Throat?
DG: I was very young when I went to college and as you say, that was so much the source of my attempt at teenage rebellion to confound and irritate my parents by insisting on a profession like dentistry, which they knew I wasn’t cut out for and they really tried to communicate that to me. They understood me and I refused that, and I worked really hard and managed to get a place on the course to become a dentist. Part of that first year in dentistry was premade, so we, in small groups, dissected human bodies. Within a year, I had understood that life as a dentist wasn’t for me and had changed course. But that experience of dissecting a human body was profoundly instructive and really changed the person I was becoming in such an important way. When I step back from it now and I can see it from my perspective at the moment, I mean what you’re looking at is an encounter with the dead. It’s a return and looking closely at an examination of a dead body of a woman’s body. So much of A Ghost in the Throat and of my attempts to come to know Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is a repetition or an echo of that standing over a woman’s body, and slowly dissecting through those layers in an effort to understand something, in an effort to learn something being confronted with the past, making your way through it and attempting to draw some meaning or learning from that experience. It was such an important part of my life at that age that I have donated my own body to medical science in the same university. I think in an effort in some ways to make that gesture towards the generation that are yet to come—no, that’s wrong, in an effort because not generations, like I’m not going to be there for a century [laughs]—I think in an effort to make a gesture towards people in a similar situation maybe to what I was in, I’ve totally made my peace with the fact that there’ll probably be a lot of joking as there often is with teenage medical students at that moment and I’m so pleased to be able to give myself over to that process in the hopes that someone will draw as much from that interaction as I drew from the same interaction. I do feel it was an interaction. The woman who had donated her body to that experience, I felt like in some way was active within that role. There was an active sense of instruction that I felt and a sense of presence really in a lot of ways. It was such a valuable experience, David, I recommend it to everybody. [laughter]
DN: You’ve described donating your body to science as more for poetic than altruistic reasons and I think the thing that most proves that this is true is that you’ve tattooed messages in white ink on your skin, messages to the future people who will dissect you. You’re literally bringing text into the body in the way that you’re insisting the keen into the text of A Ghost in the Throat. It extends this idea of haunting across time, again, not just that you’re offering your body but there’s this song written in your body now. I want to hear about that if you’re willing to share. I don’t know if you’re willing to share what you’ve chosen or whether that’s too private but I would love to hear if that isn’t something that is too private to share with us.
DG: I feel like there are so many ways in which the works of art and literature that we attend to become inscribed within us at a very deep level, almost in this sense of being inscribed on us and in us as invisible ink. The elements of literature and Earth that we attend to, that generate a profound echo within us of meaning, stay with us in this deep way. It felt really important to honor Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire in that way, that it would be represented not just at a metaphorical level within this character, within the sense of myself that appears in the book but that it will be literally etched within her skin, especially because of white ink and the relevances that has with Cixous writing and the sense of resonances with milk as well. The fact that part of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire that she chooses “Is aisling trí néallaibh,” for me to choose something like that from Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, which I suppose you would translate “Is aisling trí néallaibh,” aisling is important because not only would it be literally translated as dream but it speaks to a genre within our literature, which you actually quoted at the very beginning of our conversation, the aisling, which is an element or the kind of poem where a poet has a reverie in which a beautiful woman comes to him that represents Ireland and communicates something to him. Invariably, these are the gender roles that are in it. “Is aisling trí néallaibh,” and trí néallaibh means like through clouds of slumber, so it can be a dream coming in and the dreaming element of this book was so important to the sense of our times that’s within it, that there’s a sense of dreaming yourself into the past. To have this “Is aisling trí néallaibh” etched in one’s skin just seemed so luminous and so important, and the fact of having a body that’s donated to medical science, having teenage medical students interacting with this, and finding this invisible text, or perhaps not finding it, because the thing with white ink is that it fades like a scar, you’d have to be really attending to it to see it there depending on the embalming process, I guess, but the sense of reading a woman’s body like a text, there’s such a magic in that and it’s a gift. I feel like it really acknowledges the ways that we’re affected at a bone level by the art and literature that we encounter.
DN: There’s this poem in To Star the Dark I was hoping we could end with, A Letter to the Stranger who will Dissect my Brain.
DG: This poem has an Irish language word embedded within it and a word is maybe new too. The word is [inaudible 2:11:44] and it has a double meaning in Irish, it can mean both, in terms of a verb, the act of opening but it also means the occurrence of sheet-lightning.
[Doireann Ní Ghríofa reads a poem A Letter to the Stranger who will Dissect my Brain]
DN: Doireann, it was so wonderful to spend all this time with you today. I’ve been anticipating this for so many months now and it exceeded all of my expectations.
DG: Oh, thank you so much, David. I absolutely love listening to you all the time, so it’s been a treat for me as well. Thank you.
DN: Yeah, it was my pleasure. We’re talking today to Doireann Ní Ghríofa, the author of A Ghost in the Throat out from Biblioasis, and To Star the Dark out from Dedalus Press. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s work, not only written work but audio and video as well, at her website doireannnighriofa.com. Doireann adds two readings to the bonus audio archive, a reading of a poem by Irish Poet Colette Bryce and another by the American Poet Deborah Digges. This joins bonus material from Jorie Graham, Natalie Diaz, Ross Gay, Forrest Gander, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Carmen Maria Machado, Richard Powers, Jenny Offill, Nikky Finney, and many others. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team who help make this show run, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.