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History Is the Throbbing Pulse: An Interview with Doireann Ní Ghríofa


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Photo: Bríd O’Donovan.

In the work of the Irish writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa, history is amorphous, a living thing that frequently bleeds into or interrupts the lives of those in the present day. “The past has come apart / events are vagueing,” reads the Mina Loy epigraph that begins Ní Ghríofa’s sixth collection of poetry, To Star the Dark, published earlier this year. In A Ghost in the Throat, a hybrid of autofiction and essay first published by Dublin’s Tramp Press and out this week in the U.S. from Biblioasis, she writes, “To spend such long periods facing the texts of the past can be dizzying, and it is not always a voyage of reason; the longer one pursues the past, the more unusual the coincidences one observes.”

A Ghost in the Throat served as my introduction to Ní Ghríofa’s writing, and it is a work I have returned to repeatedly over the months since I initially encountered it, mulling over its questions of history, motherhood, obsession, and the porousness of time, place, and identity. The book twines together Ní Ghríofa’s harrowing experience following the birth and near loss of her fourth child with the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an eighteenth-century Irish noblewoman who, upon discovering her husband’s murdered body, drank handfuls of his blood and composed an extraordinary poem lamenting his loss. “When we first met,” writes Ní Ghríofa, “I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries.” What follows is a tale of love across eras, as Ní Ghríofa painstakingly devotes herself to researching the overlooked pieces of Ní Chonaill’s life and translating her Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. The poem appears in its entirety at the book’s end, translated from the Irish by Ní Ghríofa herself.

The following conversation happened over Zoom in early April from my living room in Brooklyn and Ní Ghríofa’s home in Cork. Even through the screen, Ní Ghríofa is a warm and inviting presence, leaping up frequently to grab books from the stuffed shelves behind her and reading snatches of poetry aloud to illustrate her points. At the time, Ireland was in the midst of month four of another severe lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis while New York was beginning to announce its vaccination process. Since then, both the U.S. and Irish governments have eased restrictions, and as time moves forward, it is strange to think that this moment of global crisis and fear is, for some parts of the world, beginning to vague into history, too.

INTERVIEWER

A Ghost in the Throat is your first book-length work of prose. Why did you choose prose specifically for this work?

NÍ GHRÍOFA

I suppose I feel as though the form chose me. When I reflect on the path I took to writing this book in terms of craft, I’m struck by how often I felt driven by the book itself rather than vice versa. I felt as though the book were showing me the form it needed to be in, and because this is my first work of prose, that was very unfamiliar to me. There were points in the process where I felt as though I should be more in control, but anytime I tried to fight against that sense of a natural unfolding, the process very quickly taught me that resisting was a mistake. The book became itself when I was able to relinquish that sense of control. I know how frustrating it is, as a writer, to read interviews where people articulate their process like that. “This character just wanted to be who they were”—it can be irritating to hear authors speak like that, and yet, this is simply the truth of this book’s becoming. It insisted on itself.

INTERVIEWER

It sounds almost like the book possessed you in a way.

NÍ GHRÍOFA

A little bit. I’m always a little uncertain how open I can be about how strange and disorientating the process was, because it does sound strange when I say it out loud. But it all felt far less strange when I was in the grip of it. This book insisted on itself with a real force, and there were times when I felt almost powerless in the face of it. I have the sense that that’s a rare experience, and I think I’m probably very fortunate that my first book of prose came to me in this way.

INTERVIEWER

How long of a process was it?

NÍ GHRÍOFA

I tend to have a number of works that I’m focused on at any one time, so I was working on A Ghost in the Throat over the same years that I was working on my latest poetry book, To Star the Dark. Because I was working on both books side by side, it’s difficult to say precisely how much time it took me to write A Ghost in the Throat. Whenever I was encountering a difficulty with one book, I would swerve into the other. So they were written in parallel. I find that way of working very satisfying.

INTERVIEWER

In both books, there’s this idea of history, and the boundaries of history blurring into real life—the new poetry collection begins with that Mina Loy quote, and there’s also the poem in which you’re looking at the photograph of the girl in 1888 and you write, “Her hand exists only in pixels now, this girl / who arrives by optic nerve to live a while / in my mind.” What do you feel is the impact of history on your work?

NÍ GHRÍOFA

I feel like it’s only as we progress through a life in art, or a life in literature, that we begin to understand what our core concerns are, and history is the throbbing pulse of my work as an artist. In all of my books, in all of my poems, I return again and again to our sense of the past and what questions the past is asking of us, and the ways in which we attempt to answer those questions, just by being who we are in the environments we’re born to. I think that’s maybe why that line of Mina Loy’s moved me so much—“the past has come apart / events are vagueing”—because I feel that sense of fracture, too, the mosaic of the past and the sharp edges of it, and the sense of vagueing and blurring and the ways that sometimes, history has a real immediacy to it. There’s a moment in A Ghost in the Throat where I write about how Eileen Dubh Ní Chonaill feels real to me—she’s as real as the dog barking outside next door or behind the tall fence, or as real as the human chorus of the internet. These are things we don’t necessarily see. At a superficial level, they’re invisible to us, but we’re aware of their presence and their heft within our reality, and I guess history feels like that to me. It feels that real.

And then to grow up and live on a daily basis in a place like Ireland is to be confronted regularly with the facts of our history, with the ruins, with the brokenness and those sharp edges, with the ways people have tried to tell our history and the coherence they’ve tried to mold from it, and the ways in which we can question that inherited history and make our own sense of it. For better or worse, I never really grew out of that sense of almost-childlike enthusiasm or fascination with the past. I suspect that it’s probably an ordinary part of growing up for a child to become used to the fact that okay, these streets in our city, many people walked these streets over many generations. You grow used to living an ordinary adult life without having those other lives interfere too much with your own mentality. But I was never really able to get used to that. It seems so strange and interesting to me that there were these other true, real lives that were lived in these same places. That, I reckon, is the soil from which my work grows, and it’s difficult to avoid such thoughts here in Ireland because you’re constantly confronted with visual reminders of the past. You walk out your door and you’re tripping over some archaeological ruin.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a lot of living history in Ireland.

NÍ GHRÍOFA

That’s exactly it. Particularly in our generation, there’s a great sense of looking at recent Irish history and the darker elements of it all, the ways in which people were controlled and treated so poorly, the institutions that were created to dominate people’s lives, the ways in which the state and religion behaved hand in hand to control people, and the ways in which that legacy is continuing now, in terms of systems like Direct Provision. These are all concerns that I think people living in contemporary Ireland are thinking about deeply as they attempt to effect real, real change here. It’s a long road.

INTERVIEWER

There’s also such an emphasis on women’s lived experiences in the book, and you’re very much addressing the female reader. You use the phrase “this is a female text” a few times, and you apply it to the book, to the body, to so many things.

NÍ GHRÍOFA

The first time I heard that phrase occurred as it does in the book, as I was driving my daughter away from Kilcrea Abbey, which is a place Eileen Dubh Ní Chonaill had spent time. This phrase, like an earworm, or a pop song you hear on the radio, began to whirl around in my mind. “This is a female text.” And I didn’t initially understand what it meant. When I got home, I was compelled to write it down and begin asking myself, through the book, What is a female text?

As I look back on the book now, what I am most struck by about that refrain is the fact that it says this is a female text. The emphasis within that utterance feels key to me, because it’s a female text—it’s just one female text. There are so many different elements to lived female lives, and so many ways it feels to be female to many, many different people. So I guess all I could attempt to articulate was what it is to perceive a female text from the perspective of a middle-class, cis, white woman living in Ireland. Having written this book, I’m still eager to learn about many, many, many more iterations of how female texts may be seen, felt, lived, and interpreted.

That sense of owning the female experience, though, as it’s described within the book, is quite radical in Ireland, given that there’s such a deep and profound shame, with a capital S, instilled in Irish women going back many, many decades. So the choice I made to begin and end a book with the phrase “this is a female text,” in such an unapologetic way, was kind of dangerous. I don’t regret it at all, but I hope to take it as an opportunity to spring into other understandings of what it can be to live a female life.

INTERVIEWER

That multiplicity is so present in the text, too. I’m excited to hear that you were also thinking of that multiplicity of what womanhood even is to begin with.

NÍ GHRÍOFA

You know, I think it’s interesting to carry that curiosity about multiplicity, about what it is to live a life as a woman, into the process of writing a book—to come to the end of the process and still be able to say, I don’t fully understand this.

INTERVIEWER

And in the book, you have these dichotomies—mother’s milk and blood, say, or between languages—but you’re always blurring them. There’s this translation across centuries. Could you talk about the process of translating Eileen Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem? I know you’ve translated some of your own work from the Irish to English. Do you approach translation differently when it’s someone else’s writing versus your own?

NÍ GHRÍOFA

I do. They’ve proven very different, the processes that are involved in translating my own poems versus someone else’s poetry. I suppose I’m kind of in my infancy as a literary translator, as well. So far, I’ve embarked on translating only my own poems, the long Eileen Dubh Ní Chonaill poem that appears at the end of A Ghost in the Throat, and all the poetry of an Irish poet called Caitlín Maude. The process fascinates me, and I find the gulf between my approaches to translating my own work and translating another poet’s work quite surprising. Sometimes astonishing, to be honest, because when I’m translating my own poems, I almost take it as an opportunity to revisit a previous iteration of myself, listening really closely to what I was trying to say four years ago and then trying to say it again in the self I am now, in a different language.

I sometimes wonder whether a previous version of myself, if she could be there to witness my translation, would argue against it. In other words, I tend to be quite adventurous in the ways I try to put English on my poems in Irish. Even that phrase itself, “to put English on,” is a really Irish way of describing translation. In Irish, it would be phrased as “Béarla a chur ar,” so I’m translating directly from Irish to English as I say that—like putting the cloak of one language on another. But when I turn to translating poems by other poets, I tend to feel a very deep sense of connection, and a tension, and really profound bone-level respect. I veer much more toward fidelity. What is fidelity, though, in literary translation?

INTERVIEWER

It’s a great question.

NÍ GHRÍOFA

We’re just getting questions upon questions here.

 

INTERVIEWER

Multiplicities!

NÍ GHRÍOFA

There you go. I proceed with great trepidation when I’m translating other poets’ work, and with great seriousness. Whereas when I’m translating my own poetry to English, I take chances and I leap sideways and I do a cartwheel here and there. I feel like I can allow myself those flourishes because it’s my work and I can give myself permission.

My book Lies was a dual-language publication, and there was a lot of mischief involved in my translations from Irish to English. I put in little clues for readers. There’s one poem where a time appears on a digital clock, so in one language, I make it 01:37, and in the translation on the facing page, it becomes 01:38, so those digits reveal each other in some way, and if the reader doesn’t speak both languages, there’s a hint, or a little spark, acknowledging the strange twist a poem takes as it moves from one language to another.

I tend to hide clues like that all over the place. I suppose the brief answer to your question is that when I’m translating poems by other poets, I approach them very carefully, with great seriousness, but when I’m translating my own work, I take it as an opportunity to get up to some mischief. It feels almost like a remix, sometimes, when I’m translating one of my poems. The process allows me to approach the poem all over again. And that feels quite exhilarating.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything you’re reading now that you’re enjoying?

NÍ GHRÍOFA

I love American poetry. I came to writing when I was in my late twenties, and I learned my craft through reading, a process I recommend to anybody who can’t embark on an M.F.A. You can teach yourself to write from home, and it will be fine. I’ve done it. It’s really fine, and it’s actually an awful lot of fun, because you become attuned to voices on the page that begin to feel like they hold little fireworks for you.

Once you start to find the books you’re drawn to, you can go back to them again and again, and every time, they will hold further surprises. One book I keep on my bedside locker is Lorine Niedecker’s Collected Works. I know she’s a treasured voice on your side of the Atlantic, but hardly anyone speaks about her work over here, so it has just been like diving into a cool pool. If you could see my copy, every second page is dogeared.

So I have been reading, rereading, and re-rereading Lorine Niedecker, and the other book I love is Stay, Illusion, by Lucie Brock-Broido. It’s a really beautiful book, and funnily enough, I came across it—let me see if I wrote the date on it when I found it … yes. I found this book in August 2019, in a secondhand bookshop on Valentia Island, off the coast of Kerry, in the south of Ireland. How amazing that Lucie happened to be there, waiting for me, on the shelves.

INTERVIEWER

It was fate!

NÍ GHRÍOFA

I had come across a few of her poems online, and I loved them, so the second I saw this book I fell for it. If you were here now and we were in the same room, I would inflict several readings of her poems on you, but I’ll spare you. [laughs] There’s something about the way both of these poets use language that feels like an actual spell is being cast, and I just get so swept up in their poems that I return to them again and again. Deborah Digges as well. I love her. And I love Rita Dove and Laura Kasischke and Layli Long Soldier and Ruth Stone. There’s something really moving for me in a lot of American poetry, that I’ve learned so much from, and that I return to again and again.

 

Rhian Sasseen is the engagement editor of The Paris Review. Her work has appeared in 3:AM MagazineLiterary HubThe Point, and more.

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