David Naimon: This episode of Between The Covers is brought to you in part by Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, a literary mentoring program that pairs emerging and established authors with mentors in their genre. Directed by award-winning writers Elee Kraljii Gardiner and Rachel Rose in Vancouver BC, the program is open to writers around the world who seek sustained mentorship for their works in progress. Writers can join the six-month program that includes interaction with other mentors and students, and participation in a public reading, or they can pursue solo guidance for more directed and short-term support all year long. This year, a fellowship for a writer of exceptional promise, who has faced significant barriers to fulfilling that promise is offered for the second time. The application deadline for the six-month program beginning January 2022 is November 9th. Please visit vancouvermanuscriptintensive.com for more information about pairing with a mentor to hone your project. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Myriam Chancy’s What Storm, What Thunder, a novel Angie Cruz calls, “A gorgeous and compulsively readable page-turner in the most haunting and stunning prose.” Says Edwidge Danticat, “Lending her voice to ten survivors whose lives were indelibly altered by the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Myriam J. A. Chancy’s sublime choral novel not only describes what it was like for her characters before, during, and after that heartrending day, she also powerfully guides us towards further reflection and healing.” What Storm, What Thunder is out on October 5th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I suspect many of you will recognize the name, and if not the name, likely the voice of today’s guest, Pádraig Ó Tuama. Someone who, in our collective brainstorm of Between The Covers listener-supporters, of the people we most would love to see come on the show in the future, is frequently named. Pádraig and I have been talking back and forth for a long time now during the pandemic about when it made most sense for both of us to talk. I’m excited to finally be able to share this with you. In most ways, the sound quality of today’s conversation is significantly better than most other episodes, which is not surprising given that I’m talking to a fellow podcaster who was using his own external microphone in his home in Ireland. But there are three or four times during the conversation where suddenly, and thankfully briefly, Pádraig speech speeds up very fast. That isn’t the result of him suddenly knocking back a triple espresso, rather, it is something to do with the invisible celestial intertubes between Ireland and Oregon. The signal between our respective mossy green lands getting first, a bit stuck, then a bit excited all at once. Before we begin today’s conversation with our third Irish writer of the year on Between The Covers, following Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Anakana Schofield, I did want to mention Pádraig’s contribution to the bonus audio archive. For the bonus audio, he reads some poems that have been generated out of a collaboration he’s doing with some Scottish writers. He reads poems in both English and Irish for us. This joins bonus audio from Doireann Ní Ghríofa who read poems by other contemporary poets that she loves, by Teju Cole reading John Berger, Etel Adnan, and New Work written by him, by Philip Metres, reading some of his translations from Russian, Alice Oswald reading a new ballad for Anne Carson, as well as from the Book of Job, and much more. A little over 3% of listeners to Between The Covers are supporters of Between The Covers. The goal is to get this to between 4% and 5% by the end of the year. These writers contributing to the bonus audio, the donation of rare collectibles from Nikky Finney, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others, and many other things, are only a small sampling of the possible benefits of becoming a listener-supporter and helping shape the future of the show. You can find out more about becoming a listener-supporter and the various things available to entice you to become a listener-supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers.
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, theologian, storyteller, conflict mediator, podcast host, and public speaker, Pádraig Ó Tuama. Ó Tuama has a Bachelor of Arts in Divinity from the The Pontifical College of Maynooth, a masters in theology from Queen’s University Belfast, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in theology through creative practice at the University of Glasgow. Perhaps best known in the United States as the staff poet and theologian at the On Being Project helmed by Krista Tippett, and as host of Poetry Unbound, a podcast produced by On Being studios, that for many people is a twice a week poetry ritual where for a quarter hour, Ó Tuama guides us through an immersive reading of a poem written by some of our greatest poets today from Ocean Vuong to Layli Long Soldier to Ilya Kaminsky. Ó Tuama himself is the author of the poetry collection, Readings from the Book of Exile, which was long listed for the 2013 Polari Prize, awarded annually for a first book, which explores the LGBTQ experience, as well as the poetry collection, Sorry For Your Troubles, both out from Canterbury Press. From 2014 to 2019, Ó Tuama was the leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization, which works with over 10, 000 people a year. Ó Tuama’s worked with many other mediation organizations, including Co-operation Ireland, Mediation Northern Ireland, and Place for Hope. He’s one of the founders of the Spirituality of Conflict project, which reads the gospel texts through the lens of conflict and conflict through the lens of the gospel texts, and is the author of Daily Prayer with Corrymeela Community, a book of daily Bible readings accompanied by prayer poems, written by Ó Tuama himself. He’s also the co-founder of Tenx9, a Belfast storytelling event where nine people have up to 10 minutes each to tell a true story from their lives. An event that has since spread to other cities internationally. Pádraig Ó Tuama is here today to talk about his two latest books both out this year. The first co-authored with Glenn Jordan is Borders and Belonging: The Book of Ruth : a Story for Our Times out from Canterbury Press. A book that has been used by over 6,000 people as part of Corrymeela’s Public Theology initiative, enabling people with opposing views and deep social, and political grievances, and disagreements to come together and be heard. The second is the North American release of his memoir from Broadleaf Books entitled In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World. Mary McAvoy for the Irish Independent says, “The title of Ó Tuama’s latest book In The Shelter suggests that it might be another cosy book about self-improvement and the attainment of happiness. While it definitely embraces those two, it is not a cosy read. It is complicated and confronting. It is challenging, erudite, poetic but it is rewarding and will live long in the mind. A book to be kept at one’s bedside for those dark nights of the soul when sleep evades, for though it may not be cosy, it offers us ways of accepting life as it is, of standing still in the moment, and it offers the courage needed not to run from fear..” Krista Tippett adds, “To say that In The Shelter is one of the most beautiful and quietly necessary books of our young century is a sweeping assertion, but I will make it… what astonishes and teaches most profoundly is the capacity Ó Tuama develops to claim his inheritance, his right to be, his gift to offer in places that have not wanted him. Not to define his country, his neighbors, or his church because of how they have defined and sought to diminish him. He pursues what is life-giving in all of those places and shows us the presence and practice that requires. This is an exquisite work of spiritual autobiography.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Pádraig Ó Tuama.
Pádraig Ó Tuama: Thanks, David. It’s nice to be with you.
DN: When we were corresponding back and forth by email over the last year, you imagined that lots of writers have anxiety about being typecast and that you yourself worry about the idea of being labeled as a “religious writer”. I’d love to start here, both because I would love this conversation to not participate in typecasting you but also because I’m curious about the story behind this, particularly given that, with the notable exception of the Poetry Unbound podcast, which is possibly your most high profile position internationally, everything else from your poetry collections, your daily prayer book, your memoir, your bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees are all one to the next engaged deeply with religion and religious texts. Complicate the picture for us, Pádraig.
PO: [laughs] Thank you very much for that lovely question. I suppose I have anxiety about the idea of a religious artist having an agenda. It is the idea that an artist who is making art for some recruiting purpose or some assertive purpose draws strict delineations between people on one side of a border and people on the other side of a border. That to my mind is part of the hallmark of violence that the church hasn’t begun. I think it’s part of the human condition, but certainly the Christian churches, then more broadly, religions, have been extraordinary at creating those self-delineations. When I hear, and I have heard myself sometimes introduced as a religious poet or as a Christian poet, I find those descriptors really concerning because I have no interest in recruitment. I do have an interest in living a life in conversation with a body of literature. Growing up in Irish Catholicism, having some of the curiosities about the devil that I did, I suppose I have spent many years studying those literatures of religion. I want to pay as much artistic attention to them as I can but it’s literary attention. It is less and less important to me really as to whether there is a god. What is really important to me is the recognition that literature, for thousands of years, has wondered if there is. It’s that wondering, that curiosity that interests me. That is a spiritual enterprise, of course, but it’s also secular. It is secular in the sense of the true meaning of that word, siècle, from French in terms of the be of the century you’re of. I am absolutely of the century I am in terms of the turn in religious sensibility in Ireland, the politics of Ireland, the politics of queer life in Ireland. All those things for me are secular enterprises. I suppose that’s part of the anxiety I have sometimes when it comes to questions to do with being affiliated, especially as an artist, with anything that might be perceived as a religious agenda.
DN: One of the things I enjoy about each time I listen to you talk, similar to when I listen to Natalie Diaz give readings also is that you both will take words that are invested with a lot of history and meaning, and make them surprising to us again. For instance here, you just did that with secular. For instance, when you were on the Messy Jesus Podcast, you’re having this great conversation where all these words that you wouldn’t think you would bring up, then trouble like Christian minister, disciple, and light, you unpacked the reasons why they were problematic or more complicated and not immediately embraced without ambivalence. Here, you’re elevating secular as a counterbalance to that.
PO: I love theology as you noticed. [laughter] Possibly to my own detriment, I have spent years studying theology. Theology for me is a set of questions. I suppose it has propositions but I am so anxious about theology being a recruitment technique or a recruitment tactic. Like a silly story about one of the things that causes me a real, real worry is years ago, I went along to this event and there was a man speaking about it. It was an experimental event in Belfast, in a city that has known so much murder because of these labels about what religion, politics, territory, and colonization mean. There was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism. He was giving a defense around the table. It was called The Last Supper. The kind of pretense was, would we crucify him at the end? Of course, he was never going to be crucified, but it was an artistic and secular engagement with serious religious ideas. I was chatting to him at the start and he heard my accent, and said, “Oh God, you’re from Belfast.” It turned out that he was part of a prayer group that my parents were part of. He asked me what I was doing and I told him a few things. I was doing my undergrad at the time, a Pontifical undergrad, and he heard those few things, and he said, “Oh, you and I will agree on practically everything.” I was almost ill because he was defining a Catholicism that was much more conservative than many of the Catholics I knew. He had the zeal of a convert. I was furious. I hated the assumption of that. Some of my fury came out in questions and at the end, he looked at me, and he said, “Keep on the journey, you might get there.” I thought this is exactly why I am so uninterested in religious belonging and why religious belonging is so toxic because it says sh*t like that. It does that to people. I fully understand why people are nervous about any artist who uses religion as part of their moniker because I think for good reason, for evident reason, people have concern that’s going to be subtly in the ether.
DN: When you’ve talked in other places about how, maybe personality-wise, you’re predisposed to wanting to belong, that you grew up wanting to be part of the community but as a gay theologian, you have a fraught past with the church. You’ve been subjected to multiple public exorcisms, you’ve been sent to reparative therapy where you were supposed to learn to lust after women, and I could easily imagine another person—or perhaps most other people—subjected to what you were subjected to, rejecting the community, the church, and the religion wholesale. I never get the sense that you ever suggest that your path is the right path for anyone but yourself.
PO: I’m not even sure it is the right path for me. [laughter]
DN: That’s fair.
PO: Thanks for your generosity.
DN: But I do want to stay with it a little bit because I think about, again, Natalie Diaz, she gave a talk about religion—herself being a queer and indigenous poet—about still attending church, sitting in the back, and even when the sermons were homophobic, sometimes, even laughing at them. She doesn’t even mention in this talk that also obviously, the principal role the church played aligned with state power and the erasure of indigenous languages, the removal of children from their families, and the families from the land or I think of another recent guest, Abdellah Taïa, who insists despite his faith refusing him, that he’s both Muslim and gay. Even though he was disowned for this and lives in France, not Morocco, his insistence of both sides of what other people consider a contradiction has created a space in Morocco, a growing space for gay Moroccans on their own terms. The language in Morocco in relation to homosexuality is changing in the broader culture. I bring this up because I wonder about the relationship to language for writers who insist upon both irreconcilable aspects of identity, who don’t refuse—as Krista Tippett talks about in the blurb that I read—who don’t refuse what is refused them. Perhaps in the refusal to refuse, maybe in the best cases, change the refusers.
PO: I have a lot to say about that but one of the things that troubles me is the idea of changing people’s minds. So much about what I know of certain forms of the Christianities of the world is a Christianity that is mission driven. Mission driven in the sense of saying, “I met this person. They believed this and now they believe that.” I find that reduction of human encounter to be really diminishing. It’s not reciprocal either. There’s no risk in it. In fact, it’s an exercise in control and perhaps manipulation. One of the things that’s troubling to me as a person who is hoping that Catholicism, for instance, that have been so brutal towards so many LGBTQ people, would change their minds, is what’s my relationship with hoping to change other people’s minds given that I experienced so much pain through that myself. I suppose, within the context of that, I see it as an opportunity for some kind of expression of language that opens up conversations that religion might foreclose ways within which the imagination there plays a role, ways within which there is the possibility of thinking of human dignity, of elevating reason, and of being able to name zero-sum arguments where zero-sum arguments are set up. Much in all, as the Catholic tradition has a deep intellectual tradition when it comes to speaking about women and LGBTQ people, I do think the Catholic church is shorthand about what natural law is. It really does diminish the human experience and really goes against the intellectual tradition as it relies on. I suppose for me, I’m interested in being good enough at language to be able to have surprising conversations. This isn’t just where I hope other people are surprised and they change their mind. I have to be open to surprise in the context of that too. I have to be willing to recognize that if I want to have intimate conversations of deep disagreement with people, I have to believe enough in human dignity to think that the exchange can be mutually beneficial, and that I will come away not seeking further exorcisms or reparative therapy that’s uninteresting, and violent but I will come away realizing, “My God, I’m still part of that addictive understanding of putting people in boxes. I have had to undo a few boxes of my own.” That’s one of the things that keeps me interested in spaces like this because there are spaces where you can have these conversations. People have a text and they’re in profound engagement with that text. You’re having hermeneutical literary arguments in a way where you’re saying “Yes, but the Greek here or the Hebrew here.” You’re talking, you’re understanding, and you’re bringing that into contemporary engagement and you’re looking at how the text critiques the text. That is a profoundly poetic exercise. It motivates me so much. It makes me think that my hypothetical children—I don’t have and I won’t have any—but it makes me think that I would have been disposed to have brought children up in the Catholic church also because I think if only for having a good reason for living, it’s worthwhile having been part of it. It’s the predicament that interests me.
DN: I love that. I want to stay with the risk of encounter and of both people being changed but also this question, which I’m sure you’ve heard over and over again, what does poetry do or what does storytelling do or what doesn’t it do? I’m thinking of like, again, I’m going to bring up Natalie Diaz but she talks about how, when she was out in the world of poetry, that she had a lot of currency. There’s a lot of demand for her and her poetry in the world. But when she goes home to Navajo Nation, and she says she’s a poet, she doesn’t have the same currency. The question there is always, “Well, what do your poems do? What is the effect off of the page?” She’s taken that to heart, questioning how to bring poetry into the world within the body in engagement with the land and the community. One of my last conversations with Kaveh Akbar, we also talked about what a revolutionary poetics would look like and how to know when a poem is doing work and when it is only fooling you that it has, making you feel good for feeling bad for a moment but not really challenging anything. Again, avoiding this risk of potentially having to abandon something you thought was true for yourself. He spoke about poets out in the world, what poems can and can’t do, and brought up poets like June Jordan, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Forugh Farrokhzad and what they did outside of their poetry that probably informed their poetry. When I think of your work in the world and just how much you do in the realm of encounter with the other, the stranger and the opponent, it is clear just how much that work affects your writing and how much your writing feels an extension of that work. I don’t ask myself that question with your writing, and I mean that as a compliment. [laughter] I want to talk about the role of poetry and of story, both in this realm. But I wanted to start with story with you, both the good and the bad of storytelling, particularly, maybe we can start with the book you did with Glenn Jordan, Borders and Belonging, which is interesting because you choose The Book of Ruth as a story through which Irish and English people will engage with each other. That is ingenious to me. It particularly seems like a particularly amazing choice for these two people but part of why it might work for everyone is that it’s about borders, border crossing, refugees, hospitality, and welcoming the stranger and it’s also lesser known, so people don’t come with the same amount of baggage, perhaps with the book, but it’s also shared by both Catholics and Protestants. They’re both of their traditions. It’s woman-centric, which invites people in a different way but also doesn’t have a lot of divine intervention, or doesn’t have divine intervention, or God really as a character coming and changing the narrative. It’s secular in the way that you describe the word secular. Someone could be at the table with a Catholic and a Protestant, a man and a woman, and an Atheist, and all be engaging with this text. This is my long way though of asking about the subtext to this choice. The subtext to this choice of The Book of Ruth, or what seems like the unspoken story, is that there must be something counterproductive to simply coming to the table with the stories we always tell ourselves about ourselves. If we were to sit down and try to figure out British-Irish relations post Brexit and each person is going to be heard about what they know about each other’s pain, there’s something about going obliquely in a way that both people can yet still recognize that seems to be a move that you’re asserting is a more productive way to go.
PO: When you think of rooms of dialogue, often, the imagination is that you’ve got a fairly empty room with chairs in a circle. A group facilitator somewhere and everybody’s talking or being invited to talk and they have some way of making that work. I have facilitated rooms like that from time to time but it’s such an unusual gathering, especially for cultures like many of the world cultures, where hospitality is a value. The idea of sitting in a circle where there isn’t a table between you is physically awkward, as well as perhaps difficult to hide. Any group facilitative encounter has to pay attention to the fact that people need to be able to disclose, then keep covered, then disclose and keep covered with their own consent to themselves. I believe in having a way within which a room can communicate that psychology and that hospitality toward the need to cover, and uncover, cover and uncover. For many years, when I brought people together to discuss their experiences of the troubles, to discuss their experience of sectarianism, to discuss the ways within which Britishness or Irishness had resulted in a bereavement in their family, I brought people around tables, something like a dinner table where there was tea and biscuits or sandwiches, anything. A way within which you feel like your body’s half hidden. You can lean on it. You can play with the cup if you need to because sometimes, you just need something to do with your hands. These are the ways within which kitchen table conversations happen. As far as possible, I’ve always been interested in how it is that group dialogue can mirror something that feels replicable. I suppose a sitting room often doesn’t have a big table in it but a sitting room will have a coffee table or ways within which your posture is different. When I began thinking about, “What the hell are we going to do with whatever the hell Brexit is going to turn out to be?” I mean the last 10 years have been what’s known as the Decade Of Centenaries in Ireland where we mark the signing of the Ulster Covenant, that some people signed a covenant in their own blood to say that they would never be part of a United Ireland, some British identifying people. Then the uprising, then the partition of Ireland, and all of these other features, we knew that these last 10 years were going to be difficult. In the middle of that, the British government proposed Brexit. The British government that does not have a written constitution proposed a referendum, which is usually a technology for amending a written constitution. They proposed a tool that they don’t know how to use for a constitution that they don’t have. They produced a pamphlet that didn’t mention Ireland once and loads of people in England didn’t even think about what that meant. I met so many people in England, they were like, “Oh, I just assumed that Northern Ireland would just go back to Ireland. [laughs]
PO: So many people hadn’t thought about it like that, maybe they don’t need to. I think they should. I think there’s a civic intellectual debt on behalf of colonizers to think about how their present political actions impact on their present or former colonies but maybe they didn’t need to but the British government had a requirement to do something much better. The entire Brexit project was an intellectual failure. I think what’s curious is that Britain has always had a certain amount of Euroscepticism. I actually wish that the British government had come up with something much more interesting to engage with that question of your Euroscepticism because Britain had something to say clearly and that should have been heard. Instead of which, it was brought into a big and pre-failed game that has failed at its inception, and continues to fail now. In 2015, when Brexit was being imagined, it was perfectly clear that this was what was going to happen. Anybody working in community work in the North of Ireland was like, “My God. This already is a failure even before the referendum.” I wanted to think about how we can create rooms of people after Brexit to talk about this, to talk to each other, and not to be caught up in the binary systems that the British government then continues to bring about in terms of pro-EU, against EU, this trade agreement or that trade agreement. Peaceful relations on the island of Ireland are not only governed by whether there’s a good trade agreement, whether across both sides of the British border in Ireland or whether between the island of Ireland and the island of Britain. Trade agreements are only part of it. It is a way within which there can be a civic structure to support trust. Brexit was a failure of trust. Britain had entered into an internationally binding treaty under the Good Friday Agreement that they failed by going about Brexit in the way that they did. Trust was broken, and some would say seriously broken, perhaps even irretrievably broken by the British government’s decision to do this, which is really a crisis happening within the conservative party in Westminster. In the midst of all of this lack of trust, all of these assumptions that whatever the Good Friday Agreement was built on would continue to be buildable upon. Even if you had awful legits in this government or awful ages in that government, you thought, “Well no, at least we’ve got the bedrock of this,” Brexit showed we don’t. What we were keen to do through the work of Corrymeela was to figure out how we can engage with religious groups. The Dublin government, I’m not the biggest fan of the government that we’re doing this, but I thought they did brilliantly. They arranged civic for all across Ireland, bringing sporting groups, bringing civic groups together. It was magnificent. They’d rent a hotel, bring people together for a day, they’d have people speaking, they had all these really accessible grants to say it’ll take you five minutes for your small business to apply for a grant that’ll give you £1500, just to show yourselves up so that over the next period of uncertainty about Brexit, you’ll at least be able to spend a bit of money in investing in an infrastructure, which will mean that your business won’t go under. The ads on Irish radio were saying, “Five minutes of easy application for a grant.” My God, I’ve never heard grants being communicated so clearly. But the Dublin government was not engaging directly with religion. To be simply crude about it, religion is the biggest club in the country. If you look at monthly attendance figures, more people are part of the club of religion in Ireland than any other club. We wrote to them on behalf of Corrymeela and said, “Look, we have this story, which is not a British story or an Irish story, it is a story that suggests the imagination. It’s about a widowed displaced female border crosser who crosses into a community. It isn’t binary. It opens up the possibility about what a new shape of belonging can be and how people are able to change their minds for the purpose of the shared good.” They said to us, “Ask for more money, we’ll give it to you.” They doubled the amount that we were asking for.
PO: I think they asked us to meet with 2000 or 3000 people over the course of the two years of funding and we ended up meeting with 5000. We translated it into Welsh. We went with people all over Ireland, North and South, as well as England, Scotland, and Wales. So much of it was an opportunity to be brought into a room where people really disagreed with each other but were able to disagree with each other with, if you like, the hospitality of a story as the table between them. A text that you could look at. When the political tension in the room got too much, somebody might go, “Well, let’s look back at chapter three for instance and just allow for that covering and uncovering, covering and uncovering.” That is part of the ebb and flow of everyday conversation rather than something that feels like forced group therapy, which unless people are specifically opting in for that, it’s not going to work.
DN: I love the way you’re describing covering and uncovering. Earlier, when you said that the table allows your body to be half hidden, it seems so wise and not something I would immediately have thought of, the ability to move within oneself, within the encounter.
PO: When I was starting off in group work, I saw so many rooms that were set up where it was a big vulnerable space that presumed complete vulnerability where your entire body would be on show and somebody might be telling a story or asking a question or sharing something of their experience and you could see the awkwardness in their body. You could think if there was the possibility of being a little bit more homely in the way that we’ve set this room up, then conversation might flow in a slightly different way and attention might be given towards where it wishes to be given rather than in wondering “How exposed am I?” One time, I’d set up a room like that for some young people who’d been involved in the care system. They were all adults now. We were having a conversation about how to tell stories about the care system. I set the room up to look as far as possible, just safe in terms of the geography of the room, the landscape of the room, and one of them came in, and said, “God, this looks like a home.” I thought, “Perfect, that’s exactly what you want. You can move around. You don’t have to ask questions, ‘Can I do this? Can I do that?’ Just find a way where the room itself communicates, an ease and freedom, as well as privacy.” That I think creates an atmosphere where consent, as well as self-respect, can be in a mutually fruitful conversation.
DN: When Doireann Ní Ghríofa was on the show to talk about A Ghost in the Throat and To Star the Dark, we talked about her collaboration with the Choctaw Poet LeAnne Howe to commemorate when the Choctaw, not long after their dislocation and dispossession on the Trail of Tears, raised and sent money to Ireland during the famine. Doireann felt the impulse to complicate the telling of her own story and her collaboration. To not just look at the Irish and Ireland as one, indigenous people connecting to another in North America, but to also look at the ways the Irish diaspora has participated in white supremacy, among other things, slavery and the dispossession of native peoples. You share this—unsurprisingly, I’m sure people, just having heard you in the beginning of this conversation—you share this dual impulse, this way of complicating one’s own story of self by holding forth these two truths, not trying to erase one with the other. In the spirit of that, I was hoping maybe we could hear your two poems that begin with the Frederick Douglass epigraphs.
PO: For sure, I’d be delighted. It’s 100 years since Ireland was partitioned and there’s this talk about what artistic commemoration should be brought up around Ireland in Dublin or Belfast. Some of the discussion is whether there should be artistic depictions, statues of Frederick Douglass put up because when he visited Ireland as part of his tour of Britain and Ireland to gain support in 1845, he said the following, “I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life. The entire absence of everything that looked like prejudice against me, on account of the color of my skin—contrasted so strongly with my long and bitter experience in the United States, that I look with wonder and amazement on the transition.” He said that in 1845, which is the first year of the famine. An Gorta Mór, we call it in Irish, The Great Famine, the great hunger. We never call it the Potato Famine because there’s plenty of food to feed us. This was a famine that was a choice, a policy choice like, I suppose, most famines. My great-great-grandfather was five when Frederick Douglass said this. When he was seven or so in 1847, he was from an Irish-speaking area near enough to Clonakilty and the family, it was him and a brother, and his two parents decided that they would get some soup from the Protestant soup kitchen in Clonakilty and that meant he had to convert to Protestantism in order to be able to get some soup. They went to Clonakilty to get the soup. He got separated from his parents. He never saw them again. We all assumed they died really. This Frederick Douglass quote, this extraordinary quote from him, this phenomenally generous quote to a people under oppression in terms of colonization and under terrible laws, Ireland was basically the factory for Britain’s food. It was overwhelming. Ireland as a much smaller land mass was providing something like 60% of the corn and 70% of the beef that was being consumed in Britain. During the famine, when the potato crop failed, starving people were loading opulent ships filled with food that were going off to Britain. Often, they were loading those ships, then dying of hunger themselves. Here’s a poem called The Potato Famine but potatoes crossed out.
[Pádraig Ó Tuama reads a poem called The Potato Famine]
DN: I love that poem.
PO: Oh, thanks. Because of this well-known statement, which is actually much longer, it’s only an excerpt of Frederick Douglass’ statement that I read, that he gave in Dublin in 1845 and because that is celebrated, and in a certain sense, it’s seen as a civic reflection on the hospitality of the Irish people, even while circumstances were terrible, there’s all of these thoughts of commemorating Black Lives Matter in Ireland by putting up a statue of Frederick Douglass, which is I think a certain attempt to try to say, “Actually, we’ve always thought that black lives matter here, even in 1845, even at the beginning of a famine.” What I think that these hopes are—and I understand the desire to have these hopes—there’s hope in any country that’s gone through famine, that because you’ve gone through oppression, you will be the friend of other places that have, but they all ignore what Frederick Douglass said eight years later in 1853. This is what he said, at least a million people died and a million people left during the few years of the famine. In 1845, it’s thought that the population was 9 million or maybe 9.5 million. In 1880, the Irish population was 4 million and we’ve never recovered the population that we had in 1845. A lot of those people went to Boston or Philadelphia or New York or Louisiana on these coffin ships as they were called. People arriving, filled with disease, death, and terrible circumstances. Here’s what Frederick Douglass said in 1853, “The Irish, who, at home, readily sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the Negro. They are taught to believe that he eats the bread that belongs to them. Sir, the Irish-American will one day find out his mistake. He will find that in assuming our avocation, he has also assumed our degradation.” Now, if there’s a statue with those words written on it that’s put up, I will be delighted because that is a call to civic attention that pierces through the imagination that just because you’ve suffered, you’re the friends of the suffering. The study of Irishness over the last 200 years is ample evidence to recognize that in the United States, in Canada, Jamaica, Montserrat, New Zealand, Australia, the Irish, plenty of whom might not even have spoken English when they left, founded in themselves, and the British founded them in themselves too, to put away with the kinds of divisions between Britishness and Irishness that were experienced back home in Ireland to find a way to collaborate in horrific projects of annihilation of indigenous people, of continued enslavement, and continued resistance to emancipation. Heroes that stood up against the British. I think of John Michell, a Protestant clergyman from Derry who said, “The Almighty sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” That was a statement that he said that absolutely went like a wildfire around the imaginations because it was so pertinent and clear. It’s twitter before Twitter. When he was sent to Tasmania, he escaped. He was sent as a prisoner to Van Diemen’s Land. He escaped. He made his way to the United States, established a newspaper of which he was one of the co-editors and in his editorials, firmly opposed emancipation. There are so many football grounds around Ireland dedicated to him because we remember what he said in terms of standing up against depression here. But the history of the Irish is a terrible history of complicity that suffering didn’t teach us enough. You realize that suffering people, for good reason, are desperate for at least a certain level of tolerability and comfort. The terrible thing is that comes along with passing on horrific annihilations and abominations to other populations. Here’s a poem called Phytophthora Infestans, which is the Latin name for the potato blood.
[Pádraig Ó Tuama reads a poem called Phytophthora Infestans]
DN: We’ve been listening to Pádraig Ó Tuama read some new, and as of yet, uncollected poems. If you’re okay with it, at some point, I would like to place myself in this dual fashion within the conversation in relationship to your work and I also want to pursue many more questions about story in relationship to borders and conflict. Because much of how I think of story being important to address or adapt to climate change, we are about to also see mass migrations across borders because of climate. I think this question of the stranger, kinship, and hospitality seems paramount to me regardless of where we live, that we’re all going to be facing choices of how to receive or not receive the other, but I also don’t want to give short shifts to poetry. Given that you’ve just read two poems, I thought we’d take a moment to talk about poetry versus story. When Kaveh Akbar was on, we talked extensively about the relationship between poetry and prayer, something that you’ve also talked about. I wanted to read something that you’ve said that I read to Kaveh and also something that you wrote from the Daily Prayer book. The first is, “This is how strange prayer and poetry are: by naming what is not there, we can be wrapped in some sacramental absence that does seem to have some sort of presence at the heart of it, one that doesn’t give final answer that is not interested in certitudes but is interested in some connection point.” Then in the Daily Prayer book, you write, “I have heard it said that ‘Prayer is not an art. It is a cry.’ I liked that thought for a while, especially when I thought that form was a form of constriction, that the breath of prayer needed to be free. But breath has form. In fact, breath is form, the fundamental rhythm by which we live, and breathe and have our being. God’s breath is over the chaotic waters, we read. Our breath is in the chaotic body and, we hope, might have a touch of the holy about it too.” Then later, you say in the same section, “Perhaps we are drawn to rhythm and thus form by extension because the first thing we hear is a heartbeat.” I wonder if hearing your own words now sparks any thoughts in general but also would be interested in hearing about poetry and encounters with the other, and how for you, if it does, how it differs from you, from story in that regard.
PO: I recognize by hearing those words, they’re a few years old now. I suppose I wrote those in 2017, so four years ago. I recognize that I’m trying to find words for nothingness. Faisal Mohyuddin, in his poem Prayer, speaks about God as being a perfect emptiness. I found that so rich and so insightful. When you think of Emily Dickinson saying, “I’m nobody,” the implication of that is that it’s self-derogatory. Actually, what if it’s a revelation? What if the recognition that God is emptiness is of the same quality that we recognize you wouldn’t have poetry on the page without the blank space on the page accompanying the poem? That it is the backdrop, the support, the atmospheric support system within which thriving can happen. The idea that there is something in nothing, that those two things are opposed to each other, and that ultimately, what we want is more of the something and less of the nothing is a limited imagination about what it means to be human. It’s a limited imagination about what cellular reality is also. I don’t know enough about science to take that any further but I know that within cells and within the atom, there’s a lot of nothing, and that’s a lot of necessary nothing. I suppose I think of God as the most intimate emptiness, and perhaps if I’m able to pray enough, my favorite emptiness and emptiness towards which I can turn an emptiness that is not invested in my annihilation but an emptiness that is not afraid of being empty, and invites me into perhaps a kind of living with that wisdom, and allowing that wisdom to go wherever it might in courageous acts of the day. So much of conflict is trying to win because of the fear of death, because of the fear of losing, which feels like death. To nurture and deepen an engagement with the emptiness that God might actually be a way to take away some of the fear we have of emptiness, of nothingness, I can hear that I was beginning to circle around that, around those. But I’m doing a PhD on poetry and prayer as you mentioned. I suppose some of my thoughts on that have continued. I have found new bits of language. I always loved Rilke’s, the second poem from the Book of Hours, “I circle around God, around the primordial tower. I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?”
DN: It’s amazing.
PO: Falcon, storm and great song, three things that rely on air, which you can’t see. [laughter] Perhaps God is not the tower but the air. Circling around God and Rilke’s imagination seems to imply a further and further diameter that you can go out from that circle. That circle is possibly ever expanding and that still is circling around this emptiness. That, I think, whatever it’s called, might be something like poetry and might be something like prayer. Encounter too happens. Glenn Jordan of blessed memory, with whom I wrote that book, Borders and Belonging, used to always say that when it came to questions to do with people who had disagreed violently with each other, coming to some life-changing change in their approach, whether that’s about sectarianism, whether that’s about homophobia or misogyny or racism, he likened all of those experiences to an experience of conversion. He said, “It’s not only one by argument that somehow something happens in a person’s experience of themself that pivots them.” That there is a newness that happens in them where what they saw previously is a threat, they now see as opportunity or they now see as safe or safe enough. He always said, “We’re looking for conversion and what are the circumstances that can support civic conversion?” He didn’t know but he was so curious about it. But he held an airiness about him when he was engaging in difficult conversations with people with whom he disagreed because he was aware he couldn’t control. He was interested in truth being the author of its own conversion to its own spaciousness. I think that too is a certain kind of emptiness, a certain kind of airiness.
DN: I don’t know if this is connected but it makes me think of a drash you did on the story in Genesis, the creation. It might have been in In The Shelter but I’m thinking of how most people view, before the fall, as an ideal scenario when humans lived in harmony with the non-human other and all sorts of other things that have befallen us because of the fall. But you point out that even Adam feels lonely and feels empty. That blew my mind to think of it that way, that maybe there’s something in the fabric of existence that is that.
PO: Yeah. John Paul II is the one who said that. I stole it from him. I clearly didn’t give him credit. [laughter] I mean I didn’t steal it from him. I took a little bit of poetics from him. He was not a great biblicist. He was a moral philosopher really. He decided his imagination about what was right and wrong, then used the Bible to argue towards it. He had two PhDs in philosophy. He had a lot of thought behind him, quite extraordinary in some ways. But he spoke about Adam being made of the Earth and strangely filled with the breath of the sky, that it was a strange and complicated experience to feel torn between two things. You are not the Earth, Adam, anymore, neither is Adam, the God. Somehow, there is an existential loneliness to the experience of being human. I think that’s so interesting as a recognition to go into the poetics of these texts and to recognize that any text that’s fantasizing about the past, whether that’s the Garden of Eden or anything else or any text that’s fantasizing about the theological future, heaven or hell, all they’re doing is using artistic techniques and conceits to speak about what somebody considers to be important now. What’s of particular interest to me in religious literature is that it is filled with thousands of years of the repository of projected imagination about the past and about the future. What each of these narrators are doing is narrating something that’s true and politically expedient, infuriating or violent about the present. I don’t need to believe in heaven, I don’t really, or hell, but what I really do believe is that the function of heaven or hell is to allow us to find a way to speak about the “here” and “now.” That’s why we need apocalypse, that Greek word meaning uncovering or revealing or pulling back the curtain almost. That’s why we need those things is because I think religious literature began to become aware that it was using heaven and hell as a denial really of being engaged in the present. Every now and then, somebody would come along, some artist with an urgency about the present and they would begin speaking about the present in a way that was a tension, and a shock to what was going on. You hear that in Qohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. Clearly, whoever wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes was infuriated by the Book of Proverbs and said, “Look, the good will die hungry and the bad will die happy. Do good anyway.” [laughter] It’s a magnificent intervention into some of the ways that the Book of Proverbs was saying, “Oh look, do good and good will come back to you eventually. The bad, even if just before they die, they’ll die a bit miserable.” The Book of Ecclesiastes is saying, “That is not true.” You see this collection of arguments about the present. They’re using the conceit of heaven and hell but we do that all the time anyway.
DN: Yeah. When you said the really beautiful saying from John Paul II, that Adam was made of Earth and filled with the sky, it makes me think of the Torah not having vowels. I think of the letters maybe being like the Earth because it’s often described that each generation comes to the consonants that are the Torah and they breathe life into them with the meaning of that generation. It’s only through the voicing of those letters, the sky coming into the letters that makes the Torah the Torah.
PO: Somehow, the sky comes into those letters through the human voice in them. My religious imagination changed when I came in contact with Jews. I was on a course on looking at history in London and there was a whole variety of people from Israel, as well as folks from the Jewish community in London on that course. We went out for a meal one night and I was really curious to talk about how the Jews at the table felt about public conversations where Christians of one shape or flavor or another used the Hebrew Bible to make statements without knowing any Hebrew. I was wanting to ask all of these questions about the Bible and there was this guy called Dove who was sitting next to me, and he said to me, “Pádraig, when’s the last time you got laid?” [laughter] Because he was so bored with me talking about the Bible all the time. I told him, then he said, “Oh, honey.” He was filled with pity, then he did seem to think, “Okay, we’ll talk about the Bible because clearly, you’re deserving of pity.” But around that table, there was a woman called Noah. She engaged with the opening letter of the first word of the first sentence of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, “Bereshit Bara Elohim.” She engaged with the fact that it’s the first letter in a way where she said, “This has been an argument for centuries as to why the first letter of the first word, the first sentence of the first chapter, the first book of the Bible is the wrong letter.” She said, “Look, rabbis think one thing or the other thing but I think it looks like a home, so I like to think that the beginning of all things is a home, that the letter B looks like a home in the Hebrew alphabet.” I just found myself thinking, “Are you allowed to do that? Can you engage with text with that level of presence, imagination, and lack of fear and space for speculation, and not feel like you’re engaging in this to keep somebody happy, a pope or a God?” That was a literary conversion for me that opened up the possibility of thinking you can ask this about all text.
DN: I was going to bring this up later but I’m going to put myself into this conversation in relationship to Christianity, the way you were curious about doing so at that table, and the way you, and Doireann both did with your poetry around being Irish. Because myself, as a Jewish reader of Borders and Belonging, it was an experience that really blew me away. I knew you were explicitly dealing with the Irish-British question of belonging but I very much felt like you and Glenn were very aware—even though you had not spoken of it explicitly—of the history of Christian persecution of Jews. I have some questions I want to ask you about empire, power dynamics, and ignorance on one side versus the other, which I think I have a theory about that that I want to ask you but I do feel like it’s really rare for me, at least moving in the world, to see Christian portrayals of Jewish things in a way where I don’t feel diminished or erased. I think one of the times that felt really electric to me was when Phil Metres was on the show, who shares so many interests as a fellow Christian poet, I hope I didn’t typecast you by saying Christian poet, but as someone who’s very into conflict resolution and mediation also. He, I felt like, even though he didn’t say it explicitly, was like that. To stay on the side of the ledger that is Jewish suffering, I don’t think most people know for instance that when Germany said the words “the final solution”, that they were speaking to a pan-European two-millennium attempt to eradicate Jews from the continent. That Germany saw itself as finally having a solution for. That he was not only speaking to the past expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal on the Spanish Inquisition or the 300-year expulsion of Jews from England or the expulsion from Hungary in Switzerland, and Southern Italy and France’s multiple attempts to expel their Jews or the 500 Jewish communities that were completely eradicated when Jews were accused of causing the black death or the pogroms in Poland and the Ukraine, which often were much worse during Easter season when Jews were terrorized and accused of stealing Christian babies for their blood. But the main way I feel the recognition from you, Glenn and Phil, of a history is that perhaps in being the only people accused of killing another people’s God, then portrayed for millennia in art and literature as both subhuman and superhuman, as being powerful and debased at the same time like Satan, and with Christianity, also seeing itself as making Judaism obsolete and illegitimate, and as seeing itself as being more emotionally and spiritually evolved, a kinder and gentler God rather than a jealous and angry one as if Revelations didn’t exist on the one hand and if Psalms, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, and Ruth, or even the phrase from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” reading your book felt like, not only that the Hebrew text was attended to on its own terms, that it wasn’t being looked at as simply as a precursor of the Christian fulfillment of prophecy, but that the Jewish world was treated with dignity, which I can only imagine comes from, as you’ve mentioned, encounters with Jews and a knowledge not only of one’s owns religion’s aspirational view of itself but of what its actual actions were in the world. But I take this further. You don’t describe yourself this way but this is my impression, but I feel like the way you engage with Christianity has a Jewish sensibility. This is how I see it. You de-emphasize the afterlife as a motivation as you’ve mentioned, either as an allure or as a punishment. It feels like you have more of a Jewish sense of repentance. You say in your memoir, “They that talk and do not do are not repentant.” There’s a whole way in which you ask for forgiveness and if you’ve harmed somebody as a Jew, you can’t ask forgiveness from God. You have to ask from the person harmed and there’s a whole methodology of whether that’s legitimate or not. Then also, the foregrounding and imagining oneself into the human imperfections of Jesus, which feels more in line with how religious Jews view the Messiah, which is a human, not as a God, a human king. Lastly, in my super long treatise on my experience of reading this book—which I love, I love Borders and Belongings. I just think it’s so amazing—it’s on the level of language. There was this funny exchange on Twitter, maybe you saw it. There’s this pastor from the Grace Bible Theological Seminary and he said, “There is not a single edit you could make to Scripture to improve it. Anything you would do to amend so much as a biblical comma would drastically demote it.” Then a rabbi responded with a picture of the Hebrew Bible, which of course, not only has no biblical commas but no punctuation at all and no vowels, [laughter] and similarly much of the Greek, not only has no punctuation but there’s often no space between the words because they’re trying to save paper because paper was so precious. But the ways Jews engage with Hebrew where there are four levels of hermeneutics, and the literal is the lowest level, and you do this not just with biblical language but with language I think but most notably with biblical language, that it’s polyvocal, that it’s contradictory, that one book is commenting in a contradictory fashion to another, that there’s plurality. I know I’ve wandered off into a wilderness that isn’t a question but I wondered if this sparks any thoughts for you.
PO: I’m struck with the great irony that you started off by saying you were anxious not to typecast me, and you haven’t, but what you’re doing, and it’s so moving, is like the literature of religion is the deepest curiosity of my life. I think I’ll be circling around that forever. While I have breath in my body, I will be curious about the poetries people have used in scriptures of the world to speak about the thing that they think is most important. I owe so much to Jewish friends and to writers, like Avivah Zornberg, Shimon Bar-Efrat, and Robert Alter who have used overwhelming learning, etymological skill, and deep reading of contemporary poetries to bring levels of text to a readership today that takes the mind and the intellect seriously, and the imagination and the intellect seriously. Often, again, coming back to my anxiety about even being called a Christian, I’m utterly uninterested in whether I am or not. I’m interested in these literatures. Whatever that makes me, that’s what I am. I think that it is the desire to recruit that is actually warlike because so much is sacrificed in the name of recruitment. It doesn’t matter how you get there provided you recruit people to your way of thinking, whether that’s the Methodist next door who you convert to Catholicism or the Jew next door or the Muslim or the Atheist or the backslidden person. All of those sudden categories become avenues of overwhelming manipulation and violence. All of those are a defeat of human enterprise because we aren’t just made to stop fighting with each other. I hope that if we are made for anything, it’s a hope for some flourishing. Flourishing happens in tension and in an argument that doesn’t have a course to threat, and in imagination, curiosity, and the pleasure of uncovering multiple things being possible all at once. I think it’s completely true to say that I’ve learned that through Jewish writers in the Bible. That’s where I’ve learned that possibility, Ignatius of Loyola also but I remember the times when I began to go, “Can you ask that question? Can you think like that? Can you do that with that text?” I’ve never formally studied poetry but I feel like I have been studying poetry all the years that I’ve been studying theology because I’m uninterested in reading bad theology now. I’m only interested in reading people whose work makes me go “Look at what’s possible,” in being in relationship to text. I continue to seek out Jewish writers who were writing about the Hebrew Bible because why else would you listen to anybody else who might have a colonizing imagination about saying, “Here’s that story but actually, here’s how I’m going to extract that story to try to prove a subsequent story”? That is not paying significant enough intellectual attention (A), to the text or (B), to your own violence
DN: There’s this one point in Borders and Belonging, you say, “The Hebrew Bible narratives, while being profoundly moral, do not create a false equivalency between the abstract pure and the embodied complicated. God is the wrestle that is found in the wrestle, not the imagination of the wrestle.” I really like that. It is one of my favorite ways that Jews have of describing themselves as God wrestlers. Not only because Jacob wrestles an angel and is renamed as Israel but because most of the prophets, kings, and everyday people aren’t simply obedient to God. They are arguing and debating, they’re ignoring and refusing, and sometimes, being devotional and obeying. I just love the way that you and Jesus wrestle, both the very moving ways you imagine into Jesus’ humanity. But also the irreverent ways you do it, the ways you imagine Jesus would likely be an exhausting friend or commenting how one of his teachings seems a bit dated today, or perhaps most hilariously, a topic you list on your website among many that you speak on is called “Jesus would have been a Shit Mediator and other stories.” Of course, this is all blasphemy to some but it feels like wrestling to me. [laughter] Does that seem right?
PO: He would have been a terrible mediator. He was such an ideologue, my God. [laughter] A Jewish friend of mine said to me that he’d recently read the gospels and said, “I hear that Jesus is Jewish but these aren’t Jewish texts because he’s being portrayed as so perfect. If you take any attention to any primary character in the Hebrew Bible, there’s no anxiety about trying to prove that they’re perfect. In fact, the opposite. There’s a phenomenal recognition about the complexity of the human experience and that isn’t to demean it. It’s just to say, “Here’s the truth. Recognize yourself in this and live in such a way too that you make space for the complexities of the human enterprise.” I found that a brilliant critique.
DN: Maybe as an example of one of your so-called blasphemous poems, let’s have you read the Jesus Fantasizes.
PO: [laughs] You construct an introduction to it. I will be the blasphemer with great joy. Here’s a poem called Jesus Fantasizes. One of the things I think is so curious and strange about the Christianities that have influenced the world is an obsession with sexual purity that links virginity with purity. As a former virgin, I know I wasn’t very pure when I was a virgin. The implication that there’s much to be said about virginity apart from a simple fact bores me really. Here is a poem called Jesus Fantasizes. It’s partly me fantasizing about how Jesus would speak about his own sexuality, how he would speak about his own desire.
[Pádraig Ó Tuama reads a poem called Jesus Fantasizes]
DN: We’ve been listening to Pádraig Ó Tuama. Let me close the loop around me in a dual fashion. I talked about what I recognized from the place of Jewish suffering but I also wanted to talk about what reading your books brought up for me on the other side and also bring this back to the story, and maybe the ways in which story can prevent encounter, growth, and self-reflection. You do say in In the Shelter, “This is our fullest dignity to be alive and have a story to tell. This is the richness of becoming more and more fully ourselves.” You also say, “Testimony, if told or heard unwisely, can be a colonization of a single experience into a universal requirement.” You’ve also said that telling the story of yourself or your people in the same way can over time become an idol, a form of idolatry. I’m thinking about when I was a kid and every year, at the Passover Seder, which commemorates Jewish freedom from slavery and the establishment of a Jewish home in Israel, and there’s this ritual where you remove 10 drops from your glass of wine before you drink—one for each of the 10 plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. That even as you celebrated, you diminished your joy because of the pain caused to those who caused you pain. I really liked that, and I do still like that ritual, but it seemed really obvious to my child self—without a political analysis—that we should be reducing our joy because of the Palestinians dispossessed from their homes and lands. But bringing that up, which I did, was never a welcome thing at the table. My last guest, the Palestinian Novelist, Adania Shibli, she talks about the smooth articulate language of the victors versus the stuttering, stammering language of the vanquished. It made me think about all the shorthand placeholder stories that are meant to prevent encounters and prevent investigation, or maybe to preserve one’s sense of goodness. I can think of countless ones as a Jewish person related to Israel. I’m just going to name one as an example of that but the Arab nations told the Palestinians to leave their homes in 1948, that they would be able to return when the Arab world won the war but according to the IDF’s own records released in the 80s, showed that while this isn’t technically untrue that did happen, it only accounted for a tiny fraction of the people who were dispossessed, which people who were mostly dispossessed through forced expulsion, through violence or its threat. But that doesn’t change the shorthand story because the shorthand story is meant to prevent people from seeking this out, even though that knowledge has been fully available for a long time. Some say, for instance, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East but they’re not saying that in an encounter with asking what an Arab citizen of Israel thinks. In fact, I think that statement is meant to prevent that encounter. I guess I just wanted to know if that rings true to you, this notion of the way we have these ways to plug like a static view of self that prevents through story the ability to be changed through encountering another person.
PO: Story has become so commodified as a marketing tool in the last while that I think it picks up on a certain tendency where the concept of telling your story does overlap with the concept of fixed ideology, which overlaps with the concept of idol. Nike for instance or Swatch, so many of these brands will say, “Tell your story, tell your Nike story. Tell your Swatch story.” I don’t care but they’re tuning into something where somehow, owning something gives you a participation and a story, which links to a sense of belonging, which links to a certain club that you want to be part of. That is often critically unexamined when it comes to questions to do with how brands establish themselves, how religions market themselves, how other belonging groups market themselves. CrossFit, yoga, whatever diet you’re on, all these things build into this sense of “you’ll be part of a worldwide community or a local community” etc. Somehow, that is seen to be fixed and contains with it threats if you break the brand. Apple, for instance, what kind of a computer do you have? Remember, there were those ads online or on TV showing a trendy Apple user and a slightly less trendy PC user. They’re all tying into some dangerous primal urges that are present in some, maybe many, maybe all where belonging and fixed belonging needs to be preserved, and needs to be preserved by defending yourself against those who you think are attacking you. That I think is a really poor way to imagine the way that human society can be built. It is patriarchal in the sense that it is addicted to warfare and there are so many powerful feminist critiques of the idea that is endemic to the entire human community. They’re saying it’s endemic perhaps to structures that have been influenced by patriarchy, which is all of them or most of them and feminist scholars are saying, “Here are these other ways of belonging that are powerful and important too.” That’s actually counterpoints to the possibility of a certain imagination that our story is fixed. I will defend my story, not only against those people who I think are outside the story but also those people inside who seem to be wandering a little bit too close to the border of the story. That is a worrisome package of belonging. I think you see it in groups of friends, as children where there are five friends and they’re all delighted, they’re thrilled, then somebody moves into the street or somebody has a cousin that comes to visit and they’re thinking, “Will we or won’t we allow that person in because will they wreck what we have?” They might say, “Oh, it was better before or was better afterwards.” So much of this desire to preserve what’s going on. Again, it’s that fantasy of death and that fantasy of erosion and change as if that isn’t the way anyway. We’re all growing up, so things are going to change. Maybe six-year-olds can’t get that but 20-year-olds can, 50-year-olds should. I suppose I see those dynamics being really powerful in groups of belonging, whether that’s the stories that are put across about how to diminish in other people’s story by saying, “Well, let’s take a headline and use that to subjugate them even though we know it’s not true or even though we know it’s only a part of the truth or a fraction of the truth, story has been manipulated for subjugation for a very long time, stories and the concept of belonging has been a concept of violence also for a very long time. Ideas that story and belonging are necessarily benevolent, I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to history.
DN: Yeah. I’m also thinking of the ways in which story doesn’t just diminish other people’s narratives but can diminish other narratives within your own people. I’m thinking about how uncomplicated the relationship of the average Jewish person without a political analysis of too ancient Israel, let’s say, and then reading your Borders and Belonging, I learned about the plurality of opinion after the Babylonian exile when the prophets are asking, “Why were we punished by being taken away and enslaved and how can we not have this happen again?” On the one hand, we have the followers of Jeremiah who are saying, “We should never have centralized prayer in Jerusalem at one temple. We need to go back to a localized regional prayer.” There is a resurgence of diasporism and Judaism in response to what’s going on in Israel also. But then there’s also Ezekiel who says, “The temple was defiled and needs to be cleansed.” There was Isaiah who’s like, “It’s social injustice and we need a new social vision.” Then there is what we have today, I think, which is Ezra, Nehemiah, which is that all “foreigners” need to be kicked out. Foreigners, obviously, that’s an extremely problematic word. But Ruth being within the same Bible, being a counter narrative to Nehemiah, so both of these texts exist in the same tradition. Ruth being from the most hated of peoples becoming the direct matriarch to King David.
PO: Yeah. That’s why I find Hebrew Bible so extraordinary and imaginative that within a historical context where the community had come back from Babylon, we’re in this bedraggled version of Jerusalem that was a fraction of its former self and they had this appointed civil servant Nehemiah who was the epitome of the worst thing you might imagine about a civil servant. He was drawing all these kinds of lines to say, “If you came back with a foreign spouse and your children are half foreign, get rid of them. Marry a pure blood.” That, somehow, somebody during that period of time thought, “You know what we need? We need a fictional story about a widowed displaced foreigner from the place that we hate the most.” To my mind, the Hebrew Bible is demonstrating within the context of that a theology of fiction, a theology of art, and a theology of counter-narrative, as you called it, and a theology of self-critical engagement with the story we’re telling about ourself, wondering who is actually benefiting from this story and at what expense? Who is making money from it? Whose agenda is being furthered? What’s happening behind the scenes? Deep anxieties as to whether the Book of Ruth is historical or not, I don’t care, I hope it’s not because it goes even deeper than to show how human beings have been imagining stories that are actually moral engagement points with the question of who we are and how we’re making ourselves to be, and that fiction, film, books, stories and entertainment actually can be powerful engagers with truth. That, to my mind, opens up the question as to what civic belonging means today. What films are we making as a society that are asking questions like that? How can we elevate those to say, “This is of the quality of the self examination that is always going to be necessary in order to save us from ourselves”?
DN: Keeping in our minds Ruth being a Moabite coming from the most hated people and what could happen by welcoming through loving kindness this person who wants to be part of your community when, in this case, she ends up being, again, the great grandmother or great-great-grandmother of the people’s greatest king ultimately through the acceptance of the otherness. I’m thinking of, there was one podcast you’re on, you’re talking about René Girard’s theories of the negative other and then you were talking about Hélène Cixous’s critique of it, that not all others are this other, a negative other. That particularly, for people who have sex by taking others into their bodies or who give birth with their bodies to other bodies, that it’s important to remember this other form, this non-negative other. I think of it when you mention that the first thing we hear is a heartbeat because that heartbeat is in our heartbeat and contrary to the existentialist motto that we are born alone and die alone, we might die alone but we never are born alone. It’s hard for me to fully adopt that belief. But somehow I wonder if prayer/poetry could be considered a practice of being in the presence of, and relationship to, yes, otherness as the great unknown, but also otherness within ourselves and everyone we encounter and one that maybe we can’t know fully but can still treat with care. Because in another podcast, in the Queerology podcast, you were asked how you identified and you talked about how you weren’t comfortable with the word identity, that it didn’t seem creative enough or generous enough to describe what being human is, and that you yourself were interested in being plural. I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit being plural and then also maybe as a follow-up to that, if we could hear your poems (m)othertongue and Jesus Considers Pronouns.
PO: One of the things I think that belonging to a narrative tradition—and I suppose most religions are a narrative tradition—one of the things that does is to reassert a certain sense of community, a certain sense of practice, a certain sense of rights of passage, and a certain moral examination of self as you go along that way at different levels as you grow up and grow older. I think that when it works, a narrative tradition allows for growth, allows for changing relations to the ideology being proposed by that narrative, but holds it together in a certain form of practice and a certain form of moral examination, as well as celebration through rites of passage. All of these things are attuned to continual levels of change. In my undergrad, there was a fellow who was studying in the same class, and I was amongst the youngest, I was in my late 20s when I started my undergrad, most of the class were in their 50s, 60s, or 70s and there was a part-time theology degree. There was this great guy who just said to me at one point, “You take religion a bit seriously. You should probably make sure to take breaks from it from time to time just so that you can look back in it and then come back in. Coming in and out in that way will probably be a really good thing for you.” Nobody had ever said that to me. He was a lifelong Catholic. There were a whole bunch of converts to Catholicism in our class too. They were aghast that anybody would say that. There was this mix really of what I thought was a really inviting, down-to-earth folk Catholicism that he had which is to say, “You’re still part of the community when you’re stepping outside of it,” and then this idea to say, “Unless you’re signing up to everything the Vatican says, you’re in trouble.” His version was one that I found much more appealing because there was a way within which he had a full imagination about what was necessary in order to form your mind. That was critical, that was not addicted to loyalty at the expense of integrity, and I found it to be so safe. It actually undid many pitfalls that people who are trying to be an adherent to any form of ideology could have in front of them, pitfalls that are usually set up with, “What will it be like when I’m perceived to be a traitor to this group?” Whatever that group is. I’ve heard people say the same thing about yoga or about whatever they’re into, group belonging can be—it doesn’t have to be—but it can be really violent because of the way it establishes its borders. Hélène Cixous, I love her writing even though I’m bewildered by it most of the time because she takes the body phenomenally seriously, she speaks about having a bisexuality. She isn’t speaking about sexual orientation, she’s really speaking about an imagination that understands itself as multiply sexual rather than just dominant. She brings in the question of penetration into the understanding of the relationship to other and safe and consensual and pleasurable penetration and says, “Therefore, if this is something that’s part of your erotic experience, why would you think that everybody hates the other? My God, I love the other.” [laughter] That’s what she’s implying. It’s amazing. Then similarly, she speaks about the same thing for people who’ve given birth. I just found that to be such an interesting, corporeal, intellectual objection to certain ways within which the mind can distance itself from physical realities that we can embody. Therefore, I suppose I think of anything that I want to say that’s fixed about myself—maybe not anything, that’s not true—but ideologies that I want to say, I’m agnostic. I’m this. I’m that. Who’s to say how that’s going to change in time to come? I suppose I’m interested in thinking “I am whatever I am.” I’ll try to find words for the different things that I’m thinking or being or the different groups I’m belonging to at different times in my life in the future. I see it in Twitter profiles sometimes where there’s this assertion to say this, this, this, and this. I totally get it, and most of the time when people are putting that up, I think, “Oh, yeah, me too,” but I wonder sometimes how we can have an imagination of speaking about things that are so important to us in a way that is fruitful. I sometimes haven’t seen those things be fruitful. I see it in the Irish context, somebody puts up a thing about their opinion about Britain and partition and stuff like that—and I have very strong opinions about Britain and partition in Ireland—but most of us in Ireland have relatives who went to Britain, parents who went to Britain. Most of us at some point in our family history have been supported by money that came back from Britain. Loads of Britain has the name Murphy or Sullivan. Sometimes, I think these moniker of markers that we put up don’t allow for the fact that there is an extraordinary space that lurches in between that is plural. That plural space can be really a fruitful place for exploring how we can find a way to survive each other, as well as support each other beyond that in creative endeavors.
DN: I love that. Could we hear (m)othertongue and Jesus Considers Pronouns?
PO: Sure. This poem is (m)othertongue and M is in parentheses or brackets so I’m never entirely sure how to pronounce the title of this. My mother was very sick when I was younger so from the age of two, I was a part of what could loosely be called a kindergarten, although it was nothing as sophisticated as that, run by a woman from The Dingle Peninsula and she only spoke Irish. My father said he heard her once try to say a few sentences in English and she had some vocabulary but she had no concept of speaking. I was speaking that language. I was with her for three or four hours a day for two years so certainly, I owe my love of Irish and a certain intuitive engagement with it. My grammar is terrible in Irish so I would never claim to be fluent but there is an intuitive engagement with her which nurtures me enormously. That’s part of what this poem explores.
[Pádraig Ó Tuama reads a poem called (m)othertongue]
I’m curious in your interest in that one, David.
DN: I’m interested partly in when I was talking to Doireann Ní Ghríofa and her talking about how vexed the Irish language is in Ireland today, and also hearing from you that in other conversations about how it doesn’t quite breathe the way that it could or should and that I know that colonization of Ireland way predates the destruction of the language but you’ve characterized the disappearance of the Irish languages, maybe the original or one of the originating wounds ultimately of this British-Irish colonizing experience.
PO: Yeah. I was in England—I used to be in England a lot, I haven’t been for the last few years—but I was talking with some friends, people who I love, and they were talking about something to do with the monarchy and I said, “Well, as a foreigner, I find it all confusing.” My English friends went, “You’re not a foreigner. Don’t put yourself down.” I was like, “I totally am a foreigner and I’m not putting myself down. It’s just a reality. I am not from this country.” [laughter] One of the ways within which I think our strangeness towards each other can be minimalized negatively is the fact that there’s the assumption that because there’s a shared language, or at least shared dialects or mutually comprehensible dialects of English, that I think minimizes the fact that the Irish experience is profoundly different to the British experience and the English experience especially.
DN: Let me take this as an opportunity to present the theory that I have about ignorance and power and see what you think. Because if it’s true, I think it presents huge challenges for reconciliation and reparation. When I’m thinking about the table that you create for people to dialogue at, I wonder if this is true, how to overcome it. My theory is that almost universally, the powerful group in the dynamic is uniquely ignorant of their own complicity in that power and the details of the harm it has caused. I can’t speak to how much the British know about Irish history or Britain’s actions in Ireland, though you’ve intimated a little bit to that here, but I can speak to the ways it feels like empire—in this case, I’m thinking white American empire—feels remarkably incurious and self-referential. I imagine this is probably true of empire, that it’s some function of empire like when Rome expands the currency and then has the head of the emperor on it. The language that is the currency of the land becomes the language of the invader. But I wonder if this rings true to you, and if it does and you have Irish people coming to the table who I’m imagining are acutely aware of the details and specifics of not only their own history but the history of the British empire at large, and they’re talking to a British person who only has the vaguest notion of that same array of histories, and I’m thinking of the line from your memoir, “We don’t see things as they are but as we are,” how does one begin if there is that disparity of seeing?
PO: It is so complicated. One of the things you’re talking about, because you’re bringing many interesting threads together, is the past and for whom is the past the past. Emily Dickinson has this poem “The Past is such a Curious Creature. To look her in the face. A transport may reward us. Or a disgrace.” Then she says, “Unarmed if any meet her, I charge him, fly! Her rusty ammunition might yet reply!” In the Christian Miller Edition, she’s got some of the marginalia, “And alongside reply is the word destroy,” and I find that such a powerful tension. “Her rusty ammunition (speaking about the past) may yet destroy.” She’s speaking about the way within which the past of a place has the power to speak to the present, or perhaps even destroy something in the present. I think it is the luxury of the powerful (A) to dwell on ignorance, and (B) to imagine that the past is the past. In that famine poem, there’s a line, “On the phone an English woman says the Irish are fixated with our stories of the past in a way that’s quite obscene.” I had been in England and I was talking to somebody after a reading I’d done and I’d said something and she’d said, “Oh, my God, you’re so obsessed with the past,” and only that week I’d gotten a document through the door that I will now always need to carry in my car if I’m going to drive across the border. Where I’m living, the border is a mile away, because of Brexit. I was like, “British partition of Ireland is not the past. What you consider the past is actually the present today.” That’s a small example in comparison to ways within which Irish people would consider our civic public international sins to be things of the past. Therefore, within the context of this, I’m always interested in how we can pay attention to this beast of the past and how the beast of the past is threatening and continues to exude threats, and how the idea of saying, “Let’s put the past behind us,” is a complete luxury and is a complete act of spin doctoring too. Because the idea that that’s possible is only in the remit of those people who are not being daily affected by the past. I think one of the ways, certainly as an Irish person, I experience this is where I can be brought to real annoyance when I hear a British politician speak about the past of British presence in Ireland as if that isn’t continuing right now. There can be a certain self-righteousness and Irish people to think, “Well, therefore we are the wronged.” That can be true but I also want us to continue to exercise the muscle of remembering that we, too, have been part of asserting that the past is the past upon other populations of people. The traveling community in Ireland, black and brown Irish people, Irish women, LGBT Irish people, all those people who suffered internationally because of Irish complicity with the empire. I can’t assert that this is a necessary action for people everywhere but I certainly think that for Irish shortcuts to remembering how our past is not the past but is present pain, that must be accompanied by Irish shortcuts to holding the same lens of examination up to ourselves. Emily Dickinson’s poem is constantly with me when I think about that, the past is such a curious creature.
DN: Let’s stay here one more beat before we hear the other poem. I want to ask you a question that I’m endlessly curious about, and it’s around framing and structural disparities when having dialogues. Because there’s a certain way dialogue and sitting at the table seems to suggest a framing that I wonder if sometimes it needs to be worked against. Again, I’m thinking of Philip Metres who is involved with conflict resolution like you, and we talked about his book Shrapnel Maps, which engages with Israel-Palestine, a question that isn’t abstract for him being a Lebanese Arab-American with a sister living in Palestine and married to a Palestinian. But nevertheless, he’s entering a project where he portrays various Jewish positions juxtaposed alongside various Palestinian ones, and more mundanely on the level of social media, like he posted on Facebook on Israel independence day, a poem by Yehuda Amichai and then the following day up on the Nakba for the Palestinian Catastrophe one by Darwish, and there were Palestinians and others who were anguished by the equalizing framing that occurs through juxtaposition. I feel like it’s something that Phil is really acutely aware of and you see all these choices he’s making in his collection to try to mitigate or complicate this possible conundrum. But my question is about this notion of two people coming to the table, which might suggest parody or equivalency. We could go, “Oh it’s Isaac and Ishmael. They’ve been fighting forever.” When I’m thinking that if we think about people who are actively experiencing harm at the moment, I think of what Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah points out, he says, “Victims anywhere, anytime are capable of becoming killers. And a killer should be called a killer, even if leniency or compassion is extended, though not at the expense of allowing further killings, especially when incessantly directed at the same victim.” But if we move back to Ireland and England, which has had its own long-standing history of victims and killers but where now people are mostly living in its legacy rather than the active eruption of it, how do we enter a discourse even with an oblique or “neutral” book like the Book of Ruth without removing or erasing real harmful structural power dynamics that are disproportionately affecting people day-to-day?
PO: This is a question that causes me constant anxiety within the context of establishing groups of dialogue because it is so rare that you get a group of people where there is parity between them when it comes to the question of threat. I do not believe that groups are incapable of acknowledging disparity of power, so therefore I name it, and sometimes that causes real complication. But that’s okay to me to cause complications in a room because to not do it is to be complicit. Years ago, I was part of bringing together a bunch of LGBT activists with a bunch of people who had been very publicly vocal about resisting civil partnerships, about resisting the presence and safety of LGBT people in society. It had taken months of persuasion to get these 45 people to commit to a two-day residential up with Corrymeela. Months, my God, nothing has ever taken as much careful invitation as that. Within about two minutes of it starting, somebody who came from a more conservative point of view said, “Look, we just need to acknowledge that everybody here has been hurt. You’ve insulted us and we’ve insulted you and we’ve all been hurt.” One of the things that was doing was creating a false equivalency between embarrassment that this person had—and I don’t want to minimize the power of embarrassment, he was in a certain sense confessing something—but doing something violent at the same time by saying, “That’s all that’s happened to you too,” when? The LGBT people in the room were like, “My God, have you been fired? Have you been haunted out of your home? Have you been threatened?” The list was very long, and we were right into it. You see the way I often think that the powerful have the luxury of thinking that by them mentioning the one thing that has been difficult for them, they can establish false, they can establish an equivalency and that equivalency is therefore going to be helpful. Because the imagination of that is if you’re proven to be the victim, well then you’ll win everything and then I’ll lose. That too is a really limited imagination because victims too can be violent. The idea that balance is the only way that neutrality can be established because victims will trump everything, those are really limited imaginations about some of the dynamics that happen in power because victims groups can do terrible things to other people and need to be held accountable for that, and powerful groups can sometimes have subtleties. But if we’re going to pretend that there’s equivalency between both, well then none of those subtleties are going to come out. I keep on looking for metrics and group dynamic techniques and exercises to try to help groups to begin to name some of those things. Sometimes it’s worked with groups that I’ve engaged with to say, “Well what are the measures of safety and the measures of threat that you’re carrying with you by coming into this room? List them out.” Some people might go, “I just had to rearrange my diary.” Somebody else might have said, “I had to tell somebody else that I was going somewhere else. I had to lie about coming here. I’ll have to come up with a good excuse about why I’m not…” Just to get people to talk about that in order perhaps to speak another time with another series of groups, I said, “Tell the story about the first time that you had a crush on someone.” Somebody said, “Oh, I was 16 and all my other friends had had all girlfriends,” this is a man talking, he said, “I was 16 and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m so late before I had a crush and then I met a girl and we went out or we got married or we went out for a summer or whatever,’” and then other people in the room were saying, “Well, I knew that I had a crush when I was 13 and I was 45 before I told anybody that I was gay.” Just finding ways where you can begin to sense those things and locate those things in the context of the story, and that is not to therefore say to all the straight people in the room, “In that context, therefore you have no capacity to speak and none of your opinions will be relevant,” but it is to have a room where the disparities of human experience can be weighed appropriately. I have seen that rooms are capable of doing that. In a dysfunctional family, people will say, “Look, there’s five of us and we all had it tough, but my God, that child, first, second, third, fourth, fifth had it worse than the rest of us. Families are capable of recognizing that and I would hope that people who come into a conflict resolution process are able to address the threat that they have imagined by thinking that if they recognize they haven’t suffered more than others, that they will somehow lose the whole damn thing. They won’t, actually they’ll gain something by acknowledging the truth.
DN: Let’s hear Jesus Considers Pronouns.
[Pádraig Ó Tuama reads a poem called Jesus Considers Pronouns]
DN: We’ve been listening to Pádraig Ó Tuama read some new, and as of yet, uncollected poems. I have questions for you from Phil Metres, multiple questions in one about silence. Don’t feel any obligation to be comprehensive in answering because there is a lot packed into this but I’m hoping it will spark an interesting response. He says, “One of the features of Pádraig’s work is his recourse to the richness of the Irish language. For instance, in his memoir, he notes that ‘sorry’ in Irish translates literally as ‘sadness on me’. There is such poetry in the language. I’m curious about his relationship to the English language as a writer and as an Irish person and whether he has written in Irish at all. Relatedly, Irish culture, particularly the culture of the north but also evident in such classics as Daniel Corkery’s Hidden Ireland, is not entirely visible or audible to English-speaking audiences. It is partly the silence of cultural imperialism but also the silence of a culture unwilling to bow to that empire. If there were a second question related to this one, it would be what silences exist in his writing either related to language or culture or personal life? What is his relationship to those silences? There’s a third silence I should add to my question, the silence of fear of self-protection.”
PO: Thank you very much Phil Metres. First of all, I suppose I don’t know how I’d relate to the English language without Irish. There has been no conscious memory for me where both of those languages weren’t operating at the same time. I don’t know. I have always been curious about what it’s like to grow up in a country where the majority of us speak a language that didn’t come from here and has only been here in terms of a huge majority of the population in the last 150 years or so. That’s a reason to turn in history 170 years maybe. To know the word for something here is, in a certain sense, to speak the language and to hear an echo of centuries that people have called a bone, for instance, cnámh. I love that word. It’s one of my favorite words in Irish. There’s something even in the sonic of that, that I find to be so interesting and I find that it helps. Paul and I were just down in Dingle last week and we took a boat out to the Blasket Islands and you see ways within which a tiny population of people, maximum 200 lived on this island for a long time and you can imagine or not imagine ways within which the famine and ways within which culture and ways in which religion had a specific microcosm which was all so tied up in the language as well as the circumstances. I suppose I don’t know what it would be like for me to speak English without having a recourse to speaking a certain Hiberno English—I think that’s what it’s called in linguistics. I should say just because it’s important to say because there is a fluent Irish language community and a first language Irish language community, I’m not part of either of those. I’m somebody who speaks Irish, and has done all of my life, who has a continual need to improve. The second part of that question in terms of questions to do with resistance, I think there is a certain electricity that you hear in the Irish language community of the North that is different than the Irish language community in the Republic because in the Republic, there’s a bilingual constitution where bilinguality is written into the constitution, whereas in the North, it’s only very recently in the last year that formal protections for the Irish language have been introduced. Even those formal protections are somewhat lackluster and so I do think that the Irish language community in the North, because it is under pressure and needs protection from the people, I actually find the Irish language community in the North really vibrant. One time I was speaking at an event in West Belfast and somebody was speaking about what do you think the Irish language community needs? I said, “We need an Irish language act, like a government act.” People were like, “Yo.” I’m delighted, I was like, “But we need to be aware that here, there are 26 counties bordering us where they have a constitution that’s bilingual. You see that the language is not necessarily flourishing in the way you’d wish for it to be there, so the imagination that legal protection is the thing that will lead to flourishing is also an imagination that needs to be troubled.” That didn’t get a round of applause. [laughter] I do write in Irish from time to time, but I send it to a friend to correct the grammar, and credit the friend too, of course.
DN: You said very early in our conversation that you’ve studied theology but you have no formal education in poetry, but I was blown away in one conversation of you describing education in Ireland with regards to poetry. Tell me if I get this wrong, but starting at the age of five, Irish children students learn two poems a week, one in English, one in Irish. And because lots of Irish poets were also political figures, it was always a blending of poetry and history essentially, and that you needed to know 70 to 80 poems in each language for one’s major exams reciting poems by heart. To an American, I’ll just say, that’s beyond the beyond for a poetry education. Maybe I wouldn’t have welcomed that in school, so there’s that paradox again. But from the outside looking in I’m like, “Wow, what a culture in regards to its elevation of poetry.”
PO: Totally. I am so grateful for that history of poetry in all of our lives. I’m number three of six in the family, number three of six kids, so I’ll be seeing number four next week. She’s a biochemist and her shelves are filled with some of her favorite poets from when she was doing those exams too. She loves Patrick Kavanagh. She said to me recently, “I’ve never gotten Emily Dickinson. You need to buy me a collection.” So I did. There is a way within which a conversation about poetry is not only of interest to people who are formally studying and formally interested in poetry. There’s a way within which there is an engagement, I’m speaking very much about the positive corner of the impact of that educational policy, other people would be able to speak to ways within which it didn’t work for them. But certainly I feel enormously privileged that was the way it was and we have learned all kinds of poems off by heart and then at certain stages in the history curriculum would have heard, “Oh, and that’s when that poet was assassinated as a result of having been involved in the Easter Rising in 1916,” for instance, and so English literature and Irish literature and history have this enormous overlap.
DN: Maybe this will be a weird left turn as we come near our close but I wanted to return to this question of shorthand stories that preserve our goodness as humans, as a species. If we go back to the human question, it happens a lot in America that when something bad happens in America, people say, “That is an American. That isn’t us.” But it begs the question if it keeps happening over and over again, if it would be, at some point, more productive to say, “That exactly is American.” It reminds me of an anecdote you share in In the Shelter where Gandhi is asked, “What do you think of Christian society?” He says, “Well, it’s a good idea,” and it points to the difference between the aspirational way, in this case, Christians would look at their own culture versus actually looking at the behavior of the culture. It’s not something you specifically write about or I haven’t encountered it yet, but I’m sure you have interesting things to say about it, but placeholder stories with regards to seeing ourselves as a species, because I think of words like humane or to be inhuman or where is your humanity or you are an animal. Or in In the Shelter you say, which I like, “To be human is to be in the image of something good,” and I like it as a pushback against original sin and that we’re all inherently debased. But you also say that a practical theology is that which is called good must cause good. But if we look at ourselves within a polyvocal interspecies habitat, we definitely haven’t caused good. It just makes me wonder about whether we need a new story about us in relationship to God, one that isn’t the story that we were made in God’s image because here I’m thinking, there’s this test that humans use—and I think it’s a completely flawed test but for other reasons—but humans use tests on mammals of putting food at the end of a complex labyrinth to see how efficiently they’re able to navigate the maze to get to the food as one way to measure intelligence and problem solving skills. But what we’ve discovered is slime molds, which are unicellular, have no nervous system or brain, they regularly navigate these mazes in the most efficient way possible and often better than most of the so-called higher animals, finding and following the shortest route. They also have this extremely complex form of externalized memory. It just makes me wonder if we go back to thinking of ourselves as plural and thinking about reconciliation and repair but now with regards to the non-human, that perhaps to recognize the intelligence or empathy or capacity for creativity in things that we continue to presume have none, if we need to think of God not made in our image but God made in the image of a slime mold. I think of the poem you have in In the Shelter by David Wagoner called Lost, and it goes, “Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, and you must treat it as a powerful stranger.” I wanted to invite your thoughts on looking at biblical framing of the human within the natural with regards to story and encounter. If we really, as you said at the beginning, don’t want to convert or persuade but want to be changed through the encounter, what stories would allow us as humans to be changed by an encounter with a non-human?
PO: It is so clear when you look at the poetry of the book of Genesis that the authors were, or what we would now call subsistence livers in the sense of the level of data they had about the nearest rivers, about the flora and the fauna, about the categorizations that they found to be necessary, the Book of Genesis viewed through an anthropological lens really overlaps with many other original texts from other original societies where its primary anxiety was establishing a set of life-saving categorizations. Day, light, safe, deathly, edible, non-edible, permissible, non-permissible, and so much of the delineations that are happening within. The two points of creation really that you see in the Book of Genesis are about people discovering that language is beneficial in keeping you alive because language can help you with those most essential questions about categorization. I think verbs came much later and conjugation and all of those things. Language first was a tool of necessity for communicating quickly. I think that’s some of the arguments that some people make. Within the context of that, what you realize is (A) that language is sophisticated but (B) that language is natural. What that leads me to think of is what else is natural, how can you look, for instance, at evolution, to see the natural selection as the way within which nature is veering towards how its population can thrive and what does that look like and what does an ecosystem of that mean and what therefore is an ethic of natural ecosystems where things are in a certain amount of tension, there’s plenty of carnivores alive, but in a tension that means that if they kill too much, they’ll die too. I suppose there’s a brutality of that, that writers like Annie Dillard open up. Annie Dillard is not starry-eyed about nature, she writes about the most brutal kinds of nature but does so in a way where I think it’s a reflection on how is it that humans can reflect also on what an ethic and morality based on an ecosystem imagination and so therefore as a consequence of that, I think that it could be interesting to move away from imaginations of theological propositions of God as person rather perhaps God as ground, God as ecosystem, God as a possibility of flourishing, those kinds of imaginations are only metaphors but they perhaps could be more fruitful than the idea of projecting a being in the sky.
DN: It also connected me back to Irish and British relations. I just want to share what I discovered going down this rabbit hole, and I’m sure you have more to share around it, before we hear a couple of final poems. But somewhat randomly when preparing, I stumbled across the fact that Ireland has the least forest of anywhere in Europe. Following that fact further, I learned that Ireland was deforested partly to build British ships, which of course led to further colonization. But also that at one point, Ireland had 80% forest cover, that early Irish alphabets used tree names for their letters, that the majority of Irish place names were once Gaelic tree names, and when Queen Elizabeth ordered the destruction of Irish woods, partially to deprive Irish fighters of shelter, and by the 17th Century only 2% of the land was forested and today most of that tiny amount of forest which is less than 2% I think is mostly monoculture plantations. In addition, the British were keen on wolf extermination in the 16th and 17th Century and Irish warriors were referred to by the British as human wolves. The last wolf being killed in 1786 along with the disappearance of much of the wild forest. There was, in the British imagination, a twinning of the eradication of Irish culture and the eradication of the tree and the wolf. I don’t know if you know of any modern day engagements with a rewilding or reforesting of the island. If you do, I’d love to hear it. Then I was thinking maybe we could hear “Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living beings” and then The Lifeline.
PO: To bring religion back in when you look at that instruction given to the earth man and earth woman in Genesis, fill the earth and subdue it, there’s a lot of writing written about that verb, the imperative subdue, what does that mean? Some people translate it as dominate, some people take a more eco-theological approach and try to say that the word is perhaps a lot more like flourish alongside. Whatever the word originally means, you have seen ways within which to subdue the earth is a conquering technique both of the environment and the ecosystem but also of the cultures that have flourished within and as part of that, and that if you can somehow render the land unrecognizable, as well as make the language unusable in terms of negotiating for your own safety, you strike a blow to the soul of a place and the soul of a people in as much too as you strike a blow to the practicalities of survival, both for plants and for humans and for all animals in that place. That is an old technology, an old and dangerous technology. The terrible thing is that it is impossible to try to rewild to the way that it would be. Hannah Arendt, when speaking about horror, said that the simple truth is that you cannot undo what has been done. This is not possible. She suggests that the way forward is promise and that promise needs forgiveness because promise will never quite live up to itself, but with enough forgiveness, promise will live up to itself enough. I think that is an optimistic approach to take to the human and currently, human endeavor. I hope we can make it true because it’s certainly more demanding than anything else and it’s certainly rewarding and it’s certainly worthwhile trying. There are some initiatives both to replant forests, and not only replant forests with certain kinds of pine trees that fall over quickly in Ireland, but to replant forests in Ireland in a way that are going to flourish and take a lot longer to grow, but also to re-support bogland which is such an important part of our Irish landscape. Within that too, you see some really important, I think, revivals in the question of Irish language. My parents were involved in our local village Carrigaline in supporting the establishment of a class or two of full immersion Irish language school when my younger siblings were coming into primary school age. Now, there’s a thriving Irish language primary school in our village as well as now, a secondary school that’s going to be full immersion Irish language being built. I’d say you’d be hard-pressed in any town around Ireland not to find a thriving Irish language, full immersion Irish language education, and that is so important because it moves away from the idea of what kind of a job could you get if you spoke Irish more fluently, understanding that actually being immersed in a culture that speaks the language that’s been spoken here for a long time, and that recognizes the ways within which ways of referring and ways of thinking have been supported within that language, that that somehow is simply good for society and people will go on to become nurses, bus drivers, doctors, or whatever, teachers, who cares what? But the fact that they have that level of Irish is going to be good for the soul of a community. Linguistically as well as then topographically, you do see initiatives like that. Ireland is terrible in our consumption of carbon, and so there is a lot more work to be done here.
DN: Yeah. Let’s hear “Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living beings” and The Lifeline as a way to go out today.
PO: I wrote this after having spent two years reading through all the poems of Emily Dickinson. I suppose I had gotten to the end of those 1,775 poems and thought, “Right, what can I say about Emily Dickinson’s work now?” The answer is that I’m lost. I’m drowning and that there’s occasional moments of thinking, “Oh, look at that,” and then it’s gone. The idea that to have immersed myself in her work and not drown was, in any way, an engagement where you could say something full. Even if you did that 10 times, I think it’s the wildness of what poetry was doing through her and in her that is so fascinating. It’s part of, for me, an ethic of not thinking that I own a text and recognizing that text can mean many different things at many different stages of life.
[Pádraig Ó Tuama reads a poem called Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living beings]
DN: So good, thank you.
PO: [laughs] Glad you liked that one. I’m curious why this one, The Lifeline, David?
DN: I don’t know that I have a logical answer, it seemed like it had an open way of ending in some way. It would be a way to end our conversation with an opening somehow.
PO: I had a few friends who died last year, not just Glenn, but Glenn was the most terrible. I had another friend who I loved, Graham. He died last or at the beginning of the last couple of days of 2019. I wrote this for a friend, Dave, because circumstances had landed him in a time of real pressure. I found myself, the way you do, thinking, “How can I help a friend?” and you’re never sure apart from to speak of love and to say “I’ll do what I can” so this was an offering of that.
[Pádraig Ó Tuama reads a poem called The Lifeline]
DN: Thank you, Pádraig.
PO: My pleasure.
DN: I’ve been anticipating our encounter together today for so long and it far exceeded my imagination which was quite great.
PO: Well, David, it’s been such a joy to have been in communication with you and to have prepared a bit and to think of this conversation. I always appreciate the level of time you take to read widely and listen widely and then craft those questions, they’re an art in listening. Your questions in themselves demonstrate a profound form of listening through your reading of people. It’s always a joy. It’s a two-hour drive from me from where I live to Belfast so it’s perfect for one of your conversations. [laughter]
DN: Thank you so much. We’ve been talking today to Pádraig Ó Tuama, the author of In The Shelter and Borders and Belonging. 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. More of Pádraig Ó Tuama’s work can be found at padraigotuama.com and at onbeing.org where you’ll find his show Poetry Unbound under the category Radio and Podcasts. Pádraig adds some new poems written as part of a collaborative project with some Scottish writers in which he reads in both English and Irish to our bonus audio archive. This joins bonus audio from Jorie Graham, Alice Oswald, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Layli Long Soldier, Natalie Diaz, Richard Powers, Kaveh Akbar, 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, everything from prints by Rikki Ducornet, broadsides by Forrest Gander, rare Ursula K. Le Guin chapbooks, and much more 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 Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer 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.