DIT Graduate Exhibition 2018
A voyage of discovery


In conversation with Clare Bell and Brenda Dermody

Visual Communication
Published May 28 2018

A voyage of discovery

Every year, third and fourth Visual Communication students stage an exhibition of poetry as part of the Imram Irish language literature festival. Here we talk to the festival director Liam Carson, and poet Gabriel Rosenstock about this annual celebration of the Irish language, and their work as writers.

Liam Carson

Q. What prompted you to establish the IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival, and how would you like to see it develop?

I founded IMRAM in 2004 following my own re-awakened interest in Irish, but particularly literature in Irish. I’d been brought up speaking Irish, and although my father had many classic works such as Seosamh Mac Grianna’s Mo Bhealach Féin and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s Fiche Bliain ag Fás, as a teenager I was under the thrall of the Beats and science fiction writers such as J G Ballard and Ursula le Guin. By my twenties,’ I’d drifted away from the language. Years later, though, I reconnected to Irish through the medium of its literature. First of all, there was Belfast poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, whose work is deeply embedded in the Irish language tradition, but also influenced by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, reggae, punk and hip-hop music. MacLochlainn writes about my home—west Belfast—and learnt much of his Irish from my father. I recognised the city I grew up in his poems. Here was 1970’s and 1980’s Belfast—the soldiers, the helicopters, the sirens, the half-bricks, the plastic bullets and the Molotov cocktails. Here were people listening to Linton Kwesi Johnson and swimming between Irish and English. I then went on to read wonderful fiction by writers such as Micheál Ó Conghaile, Alan Titley and Daithí Ó Muirí, all of whom deal in the magical, the fantastic, using surrealism to probe the strange nature of our world.

The more I read literature in Irish, the more I wanted to hear and see the writers reading their work. And I couldn’t help noticing that Irish language writers were at the margins of Irish life. I'd had considerable experience working as a literary publicist and event programmer, so I’d decided to put that experience to use in promoting Irish language writing. It is not enough for a literature to exist. A literature needs readers. Writers need readers, listeners, they need a platform on which to sing their songs. In 2004, with the assistance of Poetry Ireland, I set out to create the IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival. It was co-founder poet Gabriel Rosenstock who named the festival IMRAM—a ‘voyage of discovery’. It means constantly finding new ways in which to frame Irish language literature - through eclectic and imaginative event programming that fuses poetry, prose and music. IMRAM’s core mission is to bring writers and readers—and particularly new readers—together.

IMRAM’s message is positive—and places the Irish language and its literature at the heart of public life within a modern, energetic and multicultural framework. We believe that it is crucial to place Irish language literature in an international context. Irish language writers do not exist in some strange Gaelic ghetto cut off from the rest of the world. It is impossible to imagine Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry without the influence of John Berryman or of Marina Tsvetaeva.

Q. What do the students bring to the IMRAM Festival with the Cló Draíochta Project and how does their work contribute to a reading of the poetry?

For a number of years now, IMRAM has been working in close association with the visual communication students, creating the annual Cló Draíochta Project. Poems and short prose texts are selected and given to students, who create imaginative new typographic interpretations of the poems and stories. In 2012, we took the project to the streets of Dublin, producing 30 large billboard poems. This meant that Irish language poetry had a significant visible presence, seen by thousands on their way to work. We have since worked on creating poem postcards, which again work on the principle of giving poetry a physical presence, and awakening the public to its existence. It’s important for IMRAM to engage with students, and to show them what exists in Irish language literature. I’d hope that the project might encourage everyone to further investigate the possibilities of the Irish language and its literature.

Q. What are you focusing on at the moment in your own writing?

My first book, call mother a lonely field, was a memoir exploring Belfast in the 1970s, the Irish language, punk music and comics, and was in large part about my parents. I’m currently writing a second memoir, tentatively called I shall walk into the night and fear no evil touch in the city of light. Its themes are city life, emigration, friendship, ageing and loss. The book will evoke pre-Celtic Tiger Dublin, the squatting subculture of 1980s London, and the Northern Troubles. It will include encounters with writers such as Padraic Fiacc and singers such as Shane McGowan and Johnny Brown of The Band of Holy Joy—and show how urban environments, popular culture and the wider zeitgeist shape an individual. It will deal with the elusive nature of memory and the shifting nature of personal identity. I do not write in a linear manner, but rather in a montage fashion, assembling a collage from disparate paragraphs, with narratives cross-referencing and illuminating each other. I’m also writing a children’s novel, Luna Benidorm and the Golden Salamander, at the specific behest of my daughter, Eithne. It includes mermaids, teenage spies, time travel and alternative dimensions or time-lines. It's one hell of a challenge, and the one thing a children’s novel needs more than anything is a fast-paced gripping yarn.

A voyage of discovery

Gabriel Rosenstock

Q. What drew you to the tanka, and the haiku forms—which are a regular feature in the Cló Draíochta project?

In my student days in Cork, I came across the writings of R H Blyth. What he had to say about haiku and Zen had a profound influence on me. He says:

“The sun shines, snow falls, mountains rise and valleys sink, night deepens and pales into day, but it is only very seldom that we attend to such things... When we are grasping the inexpressible meaning of these things, this is life, this is living. To do this twenty-four hours a day is the Way of Haiku. It is having life more abundantly.”

To this day it strikes me as beautiful, mysterious and inspirational. I have spent the past two years deeply immersed in tanka, a genre which is two lines longer than haiku. Tanka poems are the oldest form of poetry still in use, stretching back about 1,300 years. I am currently working on new versions of a wonderful tanka master, Saigyō, in English and Irish. The English versions are cobbled together from existing translations: my Irish and English transcreations differ from others as I retain the original configuration of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, a total of 31 syllables. I also chant them, in Irish, as a form of meditation. It is easier to chant in Japanese and Irish as there are plenty of long vowels. English closes down the breath with its army of consonants, which is why it’s not a great language for opera. The following is an extract—exclusive to your publication—from my ongoing work on Saigyō. I hope you find it interesting!

Extract from Work in Progress

In these new transcreations in English and Irish of tanka master and travelling acetic Saigyō (1118–1190), we retain the original configuration of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables associated with waka or tanka. As a spiritual exercise, one’s favourite tanka from this collection may be read aloud, chanted or quietly internalised, mantra-like, on a regular basis.

In A History of Japanese Literature (D. Appleton and Co., New York, 1903) W. G. Aston says of the tanka; “It is wonderful what felicity of phrase, melody of versification, and true sentiment can be compressed within these narrow limits.” Haiku master Bashō advised his followers and disciples not to imitate him, or follow his path, but to seek out the ancient pathless path of those luminaries of old, such as Saigyō, a twelfth-century monk and tanka master of subtle power and genius, a prolific poet who composed two thousand or so tanka, a Buddhist of samurai background whose beliefs brought him great solace in a troubled era. All this at a time when Buddhism itself was suffering a decline in Japan. As William R. La Fleur points out, Saigyō was near the end of his life when he wrote this flashback poem:

shino tamete
suzume yumi haru
o no warawa
hitai eboshi no
hoshige naru kana

little bamboo bow
in his hands and now the youth
aims at a sparrow:
he already longs to wear
armour of a samurai

bogha de bhambú
i lámha an bhuachalla—
díríonn ar ghealbhan:
cheana féin santaíonn sé
culaith chatha an tsamúraí

How vividly and yet how mysteriously he describes his farewell to the secular world and all its pleasures:

sora ninaru
kokoro wa haru no
kasumi nite
yo ni araji tomo
omoitatsu kana

a man whose mind is
one with emptiness of sky
steps into spring mist
and says to himself he has
actually stepped from this world

duine is a mheon
ar aon dul leis an bhfolús
ceo earraigh roimhe
cá bhfuil a shiúl, arsa sé
ar fhág sé an domhan ‘na dhiaidh?

Some take to the life of a mendicant as others seem to be to the manor born! But it must have been particularly hard on Saigyō as he was known to have many friends and, possibly, at least one lover. However, he didn’t sever all connections with the world he left behind or abandon those beliefs which then as now, influenced his class—native and imported beliefs such as Shinto, Daoism and Confucianism.

In this next tanka, the introspective Saigyō gives us a taste of his indecision – but we feel we already know his mind, his inner determination and keen insight into his own destiny:

oshimu tote
kono yo kawa
mi o sutete koso
mi o mo tasukeme
loath to leave behind
what is loathsome anyhow –
one’s place in this life
for the way to save the self
may be leaving it behind

leasc liom é ’fhágáil
gach a fhágáil i mo dhiaidh
agus m’áit sa saol
chun an féin a shábháil ámh
caith an féin i dtraipisí

This new life of a monk... will he be able to shake himself—like one might shake a temple bell—into a new life, a life of serenity and nirvana? Not at first, it seems:

yama fukami
kejikaki tori no
oto wa sede
mono osoroshiki
fukurō no koe

deep in the mountains
the songs of the birds is not
what we knew at home—
nothing but hair-raising hoots
from owls in the dead of night

croílár na sléibhte
cantain na n-éan níl mar a bhí
sa bhaile againn
scréach a chuirfeadh sceimhle ort
ón ulchabhán gach oíche

He wrote many tanka which commence with ‘yama fukami’ meaning ‘so remote the mountain’ or ‘deep in the mountains’. In many cultures, mountains have strong religious significance, are the home of the gods or gods themselves.
The pen-name Saigyō means ‘Westward Journey’: in Pure Land Buddhism (practised by among others the great haiku master Issa), recitation of the Buddha’s name was enough to guarantee rebirth in the Western Pure Land of Sukhāvatī.

Love Poems

Let’s look at and enjoy some of his love poems now. Were they based on actual love affairs or is he just following the conventions of Japanese poetry, much in the spirit of the dánta grá of Ireland or Amour Courtois, namely a chivalrous tradition with its ‘aubade’ and other tropes of courtly love? In this first tanka we have a dawn poem and a broken tryst is the theme of the second.

moon at break of day
memories come flooding back
the times I stayed on
like those dark and heavy clouds
as they trail away at dawn

gealach bhreacadh an lae
tagann cuimhní chugam ar ais
nuair a mhoillíos tráth
mé ar nós na scamall dubh
iad á dtabhairt leis ag an lá

hito wa kode
kaze no keshiki mo
fukenuru ni
aware ni kari no
otozurete yuku

my lover is late –
the night is wasting away
the wind confirms it
mournful the cry of wild geese
in their approach and passing

níor tháinig mo ghrá
is gearr uainn breacadh an lae
sin a deir an ghaoth
éamh na ngéanna is uaigneach
ag teacht is ag imeacht uaim

In conversation with Clare Bell and Brenda Dermody
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Published May 28 2018
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