'What daffodils were to Wordsworth, drains and backstreet pubs are to me'
ESSAY:Ireland now has a large poetic diaspora. As St Patrick’s Day approaches, ROSITA BOLANDasks some of its members about the implications of living abroad
ONE OF THE oldest and most argued-over maxims in literature is to write only about what you know. It raises the question of what happens when writers – in this instance poets – move to other countries and so encounter different places, cultures and sets of experiences? Do these new points of reference, both emotional and physical, influence their work? Or is the journey that really matters to poets the one they conduct in their heads, regardless of location or environment?
In his review of The View from Here, the most recent collection of Sara Berkeley, who lives and works in rural California, the critic Philip Coleman referred to a “contemporary Irish poetic diaspora”. And it is striking how many Irish poets now live off the island.
Some, such as Eamon Grennan and Bernard O’Donoghue, have lived outside Ireland for more than 40 years. Berkeley, Paul Muldoon, Justin Quinn, Colette Bryce and Greg Delanty have been away for an average of 20 years each. Since 1996 Eavan Boland has been based for much of the year in California, at Stanford. David Wheatley, Conor O’Callaghan, Vona Groarke and John McAuliffe have all left within the past decade. And there are others. Most left to take up teaching posts, a lot of them in creative writing.
For seven years Conor O’Callaghan has lived away. Three of those years were spent in Philadelphia and North Carolina, and since 2007 he has been in Manchester, all because of teaching jobs. “But, apart from the practicality of that, I found being in Ireland increasingly claustrophobic,” he says. “There was a bigger world of poetry happening out there, and I wanted to get nearer it. I found the Irish poetry scene very incestuous and introverted.
“I suppose where ‘home’ was an unspoken given in earlier work, now I do write about feeling marooned between cultures. You leave and never fully reach the other side, and there is really no way back.”
O’Callaghan says his style has changed since leaving Ireland. “It has made my poems much freer and my line much longer. I honestly believe it’s a question of geography. In Ireland, where space is at a premium, we write tight little lines. In the US, where you can drive six hours due west and still be in the same bloody state, they write lines so long that you feel as if you’d have to build an extension on your house to accommodate them. I think the experience of living abroad has made my poems a fraction more experimental.”
Bernard O’Donoghue, who has lived in Oxford since 1965, says, “I write about Co Cork all the time – more, I think, than I would if I still lived there . . . I think I see Ireland in clearer relief by living outside it. Also, I miss it, and writing about it palliates that. I see my poems as a tribute to Ireland for the most part, then and now.”
Justin Quinn, who has been based in Prague since 1992, says his work has “absolutely” been influenced by where he now lives. “I’ve started to write about central Europe, and it’s also given me a way to think about my upbringing in Ireland. One fundamental aspect has been the acquisition of another language, Czech, to the degree of fluency on all registers. Living bilingually on a daily basis has changed my feeling about my mother tongue and also got me interested in the Irish language.” He also says: “After a while the inflection of one’s own thoughts and emotions begins to be changed by the language you spend so much time in.”
Sara Berkeley has lived in the US since 1989, spending most of that time in the San Francisco Bay area. “The sense of dislocation, of having ‘two homes’ and of going through the experience of enculturation into a new culture had a definite effect on my writing over the past 20 years. Leaving everything familiar, especially people, has had a profound effect on me as I have come to understand what it means to be rooted in a place, to have a sense of history in your bones. I can only ever have that sense about Ireland.
“The natural beauty of where I live has had a big impact on my work: for example, the Point Reyes National Seashore, just minutes from my home, has given new ideas to my work: the Miwok Indians, whales, coyotes.”
For the past three years Vona Groarke has lived in Manchester; she spent the previous two years in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Work. Always work. I’d have stayed if I could have, workwise.” Groarke says she writes about the impulse to burrow into a home wherever you find yourself. “I write about making a home of a place more than I write about any given place. I write myself into that place, and it’s a calculated act, a way of staking some kind of small claim through the act of words.
“When I first moved to Winston-Salem, which is a long way from any place I thought of at the time as home, I wrote a poem [ Sleepless]in three sections about, I suppose, homesickness: ‘The humdrum of cicadas / is like white noise on a radio / I last tuned to Mo Cheol Thú.’ I can’t imagine I would be considered, ever, as an English poet, but I’m not sure such distinctions matter much to anyone but me, and barely even to me. If the poet has to make a living, the poem couldn’t give two hoots.”
Eamon Grennan has lived in the US since 1965, and in upstate New York since 1974. “I tend to write out of where I am, attending on landscape and what’s in it: birds, trees, streams, the feel of the place in its physical details, the weather.” He cites his poem Incident,about the vivid red leaves of autumn, as an example: “Mid-October, Massachusetts. We drive / through the livid innards of a beast – dragon / or salamander – whose home is on fire.”
“Having lived here so long, I imagine my cultural sensibility is marked in lots of ways I’d no longer notice, but others, in Ireland, might.” Grennan says his poems have become “rangier” as a result of living in the US. “But, in truth, the phrase ‘living outside Ireland’ doesn’t have too much emotional resonance for me. While literally true, it’s not mostly the way I think or feel about it. Wherever the ‘there’ is, I try, I guess, to be in it as much as I can – both in my life and in my work.”
Paul Muldoon has been based in the US for 24 years, the past 20 in Princeton, New Jersey. “I like to think that one may write about several places, perhaps even be at home in several places. There’s sometimes a little linguistic confusion about whether one is functioning in Hiberno- or American-English. For example, I have a poem about the imminent birth of my first child in which I describe her as a Channel swimmer wrapped in Saran Wrap, which is a brand of cling film that hasn’t quite made it to Ireland.
“I heard recently I was to be included in a forthcoming Penguin Book of American Poetry. I’ve been in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetryand, of course, the Penguin Book of Irish Poetry.None of that has to do with anything other than geographical and historical happenstance. I’m never too sure if that counts for almost nothing or almost everything.”
Hull, in England, has been David Wheatley’s home since 2000. “What daffodils were to Wordsworth, drains, industrial estates and backstreet pubs are to me. Writing to me is all about seeing things differently, and an outsider’s perspective on a place that’s not home is a good combination, I find, for the imagination to work on. The other side of this is writing about Ireland from a distance. There is a temptation, which not a few poets living abroad have succumbed to, of becoming born-again Irish and experiencing your nationality as a source of enormous fascination, for foreign consumption. I do still write about Ireland, but not, I hope, in an artificially heightened way.
“Apparently the phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ was once mistranslated into Japanese as ‘invisible insane’, and for an Irish writer living abroad it’s easy to see why. We’re very fond in Ireland of the idea of the diaspora but less good at remembering the writers who actually have to live in it.”
Greg Delanty has lived in the US, in Vermont, since 1986, returning to Ireland every summer. “Another poet recently classed me as a commuter poet. I have come to understand some of the experiences of an emigrant. The world of the emigrant is the fifth province,” he says, citing his poem of the same name, in which “the fifth province is / not Meath or the Hy Brasil of the mind. / It is this island where all exiles naturally land”.
Colette Bryce left Derry for good for England when she was 18, and she now lives in Newcastle. “I see myself as a citizen of ‘the UK and Ireland’ but very much as an Irish poet within that. It’s strange: I’ve been ‘away’ now for longer than I lived in Derry, yet when my work wasn’t represented in a recent anthology of my Northern Irish peers I was surprised at how hurt I felt. It was as though I was being edited out of the story.”
John McAuliffe has lived in Manchester since 2004. “I think any writer’s sense of being on the outside would be sharpened by living away from their home country. For me it probably intensified existing instincts rather than changing them.
“Readers have expectations about Irish poetry; they’re still interested in the news from Ireland, as Irish poets convey it. And part of that interest is due to the fact that there is an idea abroad that Ireland values poetry more than other English-language countries.”
Eavan Boland, whose life is divided between Ireland and California, says it’s very hard to say how much you’re influenced in your writing by where you are at any time. “Place is not the same as location. Even when I’m located in the US the place in my mind is Ireland. In our day and age, of travel and instant presence, the line and boundary between poetries can be crossed more easily. So I recognise the differences but not the tribalisms,” she says.
“I would say there are many readers, worldwide, who read Yeats with love and intensity and have a fairly tenuous understanding of the Ireland he came from. The place enables the poem and the poet. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, confine them.”