Moya Cannon is an Irish poet with six published collections, the most recent being Donegal Tarantella (Carcanet Press).
Moya has been invited to read in Ireland, Europe, in the Americas, North and South, in China, Japan and India. Bilingual selections of her work have been published in Spanish, Portuguese and German. She has been honoured with the Brendan Behan Award and the O’Shaughnessy Award and she was Heimbold Professor of Irish Studies at Villanova University in 2011.
She has been editor of Poetry Ireland Review and is a member of Aosdána.
Q: The writer and art critic John Berger once suggested that “Hope is not a form of guarantee; it’s a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.” I wonder whether you consider your poetry (as I do) to be hopeful in the sense that Berger outlines here –in other words, that whatever flicker of warmth, illumination, contact your poems intuit grows more vivid as the history around them seems to become more perilous. Can you help me with this?
A: I heard the late Denis O’Driscoll ask, at a Q&A after a reading which he gave in Galway some years ago, "What do we want from poetry?" and go on to answer his own question "We want heartbreak." I think that he was right. We want other things from poetry too but when we really engage or get hooked on poetry as adolescents, teenagers or young adults we do want to see our own heartbreak mirrored out there, to be assured of kinship, to have tangible evidence that heartbreak is part of the human condition, that we are neither failures or freaks, that we will come through dark times and be able to tell the tale, maybe even to transmute our sorrow into something beautiful as so many great artists have done. So how to square this with hope? I remember listening to a great traditional singer and thinking that one of the things a singer does for us is explore the whole range of human emotions, from despair to total joy, like a pianist using the whole keyboard on the piano, as opposed to just a few octaves in the middle. In doing so the singer charts the emotional territory for us, assures us that in our ups and downs we are not venturing into emotional Terra Incognita, that we won’t fall off the edge of the world. For some reason an old English folk song popular in the 70’s comes to mind: "Come all you broken hearted lovers/ Who still can feel the pain/ The grass that once was trampled underfoot/ Give it time it will rise again."
And that is a very interesting quote from John Berger – hope as a form of energy. Maybe art – song, music, poetry, visual art is a particularly focused channel for that energy. After visiting Jack B Yeats in Portobello nursing home in the 1950’s Berger wrote "Jack Yeats teaches us to hope." If there is one quality that characterises Yeats’s painting more than any other it is energy, energy allied with light, what he himself called "the living ginger of life." He celebrates and embraces life in all its diversity, colour and chaos. As regards the times now being dark, this is true. Democracy itself seems under threat, as does the life of our planet. Yet I think that despair is a luxury which we can’t afford. If hope is an energy, despair is a sump which drains us of energy and blinds us to what is fine in life, what is tender in life, what is worthy of celebration and what can be salvaged. Jack Yeats and Beckett admired each others’ work greatly. At its most austere and minimal, hope is articulated in Beckett’s famous – "I can’t go on, I’ll go on." I am a great admirer of David Attenborough’s films. In recent years, while acknowledging and emphasising the terrible damage which we have done to the earth and the species with whom we share it, he continues to emphasise the absolute beauty and wonder of it.
Q: Perhaps I’m wide of the mark, but it strikes me that, very often, the immediate subjects of your work are palpably vulnerable to change (and in that sense, may already be lost to us), and yet by their very presence express a kind of resilience through time, offering (sometimes fragile) testament to the part of life that continues. I’m thinking of pieces like ‘Crannóg’, in which a resurfaced “remnant of a wattle Atlantis [...] catches us all by the throat”, or your description elsewhere of a seabird’s “bones” that “hold in their emptiness / the genesis of the first blown note”, or even a more recent poem such as ‘Burial, Ardèche 20,000 BC’. Are you drawn to contradictions of this kind (if that’s what they are)?
A: I have always been very drawn to archaeology, ever since coming across P.W.Joyce’s wonderful A Social History of Ancient Ireland on my parents bookshelves when I was a child. A question which interests me greatly is, "When and how did we become fully human and what does that mean?" I was absolutely bowled over some years ago when I came across a tiny mammoth ivory sculpture of a horse from Vogelherd in Germany, dated at 30,000 B.C. It was beautifully made and the fineness of the work was totally at odds with our clichéd vision of palaeolithic humans as grunting, club-wielding ogres. As it happens, I had come across an article by John Berger, published in The Guardian a few years earlier, where he gave his awed response to the paintings in the Chauvet caves in France. The paintings were more or less contemporaneous with the Vogelherd Horse. He made the astounding assertion, “We don’t draw any better now than we did then.” The impulse to make something beautiful is very old, may even be central to our evolution as humans. In the poem which you mention, ‘Crannóg’, I have a line "We don’t know what beads or blades are held in the bog lake’s wet amber." I find it interesting that in very early burials you will find weapons but also jewellery, personal adornment. Beauty has always mattered, lifted us out of drudgery for a moment, maybe, like Yeats’s paintings, taught us to hope. I don’t altogether believe Keats’s "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." So much that is beautiful is not true and so much of what is true is far from beautiful yet beauty has always mattered, whether it is the dramatic beauty of a landscape like that of the Ardèche where the Chauvet caves and the Pont d’Arc are or the beauty of a song or a dance or a person.
I find these mysterious links to our very ancient ancestors very touching. I have a poem in my most recent collection called ‘Mal’ta Boy’, about the ritual burial of a four year old boy near Lake Baikal in Siberia in 22,000 BC. At the time, 2016, when I came across the little boy’s bones and grave goods in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, his was the oldest human genome to have been charted and portions of it matched DNA from modern Europeans and DNA from a significant proportion of modern Native Americans. This discovery, incidentally, caused archaeologists to revise their ideas of how and when humans had first arrived on the American continent. Again, I wondered to what degree did Mal’ta Boy share our humanity, wondered how did he differ from small children born in the 21st century. We will never know, of course. The inner lives of our ancestors before the discovery of literacy four or five thousand years ago will probably remain a mystery to us.
As regards the bird’s bone I am fascinated by the grace of the line of birds’ bones and also by their combination of lightness and strength. The line which you quote comes from a poem, ‘Scríob,’ written after a wonderful week spent in Orkney many years ago. The little bones came from a fledgling or possibly an almost hatched egg, eaten by a large seabird, then regurgitated. I found them in a dried out pellet on a long day’s walk around the north of Hoy. The poem is a meditation on the old theme of nature red in tooth and claw, but the line you quote relates to the small redress of elegy. I wanted to write an elegy for the tiny birds, who might even have been killed before they were hatched, just as little children are killed in wars before they have a had a chance at life. Birds' bones, with reeds, were some of our earliest musical instruments. And with reference to contradiction, that is one of the strengths of poetry, that it entertains contradiction. Every day, we live contradiction, we know that we should do one thing yet for reasons, good or bad, we do the opposite. Poetry understands this. The contradiction on which you touch here is that fragile things sometimes survive over vast tracts of historical and prehistorical time and even speak to us.
Q: Whenever I hear Anglophone authors professing their love of language in the abstract, I’m reminded of a line from one of your poems, that “victories won in blood are fastened in grammar / and in grammar’s dream of order”, as well as Michael Hartnett’s obdurate insistence on English as “the perfect language to sell pigs in.” Is this a tension that preoccupies you, in your life or in your writing? And on a related point: do you consider yourself a political poet? I suppose I’m curious to know whether, for you, there are certain impulses, or commitments to the world, that you feel poetry in general should acknowledge.
A: My first language was Irish and I speak it when I get the opportunity, which is less frequently than I like. I have a handful of friends with whom I will almost always speak Irish. However, the language of my adolescence and adulthood is English – or Hiberno-English if you like. Language is power. It is, perhaps, the first thing which a coloniser brings to the colonised country and it is what remains when he leaves. I loved learning grammar when I was a child because I was well taught. But, even then, I was aware that in the schoolyard in Dunfanaghy we did not speak in perfectly parsable sentences. The English we spoke, with its elements of Irish, of archaic English and of Scots reflected the history of an area which had been colonised in the late seventeenth century. Later I came to appreciate this dialect as a wonderful palimpsest, a layering of languages which reflected our history.
With regard to foreign languages I greatly enjoyed French while at school and try to keep it up and I have been learning Spanish for several years. When I travel abroad I like at least to have the basic greetings in the language of the country. Language is part of the taste of a country. I also love etymology, the layers of history and human usage packaged up in a word. Sometimes you find that you have been using a word for decades and one day, unexpectedly, it opens up like a lotus flower and reveals its layers of history and its mutations of meaning, its journey, often, through several languages. Do I love language? I certainly love meaning, significance and communication. And do I consider myself a political poet? Not primarily, perhaps, but I grew up in Donegal during the sixties and seventies and was, and remain, acutely aware of the events in the north of Ireland during the last fifty years. I have written several poems which relate to the tensions and pressures with which people have had to contend there. I studied history and politics as an undergraduate and am also acutely aware that Ireland is still a very inegalitarian society and becoming more inegalitarian as it becomes more prosperous. For eleven years I taught in a school for adolescent travellers in Galway. Almost all of the children’s parents were illiterate but very keen that their children should have an education. I gained a sense of how powerless and frustrating educational deprivation can be, particularly in a technological age. Our very enlightened school principal put things in perspective when she remarked that our own ancestors were probably quite similar a century or a century and a half ago.
And as for contemporary politics, issues relating to ecology and climate change are paramount. I had a great friend, John Moriarty, now dead, who used to claim thirty years ago, that in our technological arrogance, our civilisation is like the Titanic heading straight for the iceberg. As individuals we can do a certain amount but political leadership and courage are required too and in Ireland we are slow off the mark. Ex-President, Mary Robinson, with her Foundation for Climate Justice, is the exception. Too little guidance, for instance, has been given to west of Ireland farmers who are already stressed and living just above subsistence level as to how they can adapt their farming methods to be more eco-friendly and still make a living. We are still going along with the growth illusion, the fiction that more productivity is necessarily better. We forget that productivity has always been only half the story. Much, perhaps most, of human work since our emergence as human beings has been about care.
Q: The piece I’ve quoted above, ‘Murdering the Language’, seems almost to pivot on the recognition that “[o]ur language was tidal; / it lipped the shale cliffs, / a long and tedious campaign, / and ran up the beaches, over sand, seaweed, stones.” I’m tempted to say that the sea moves through your work as a whole – its rhythm, sound, and many journeys (past and present). Is this an at all accurate interpretation of your poetry?
A: The sea does certainly move through my work, as it has moved through my life. I was born and spent my childhood in a house whose garden reached to within a stone’s throw of the sea. This was in a village, Dunfanaghy, in north west Co. Donegal. Summer meant swimming, or, as we called it, going for a bathe in the sea every day and throwing the togs and towel on the hedge to dry when we came home, ready for the next day’s bathe. I spent a lot of time as a child and adolescent beach-combing. Almost thirty years of my adult life was spent in Galway city, within a few minutes walk of Galway bay. I used often take a walk in the morning down Nimmo’s pier and on to an area called The Swamp. Seals come in by the side of the pier and they pen shoals of mullet into a corner. Sometimes it is as if a little corner by the side of the pier is boiling as the fins of the mullet cut the surface of the water and they circle around in panic. I once saw an otter there, frolicking in the water off the end of the pier. In my twenties and thirties I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time on Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands and I had wonderful times there. And for the last four years I have been living in Shankill, Co Dublin, where I am, again, happily, within walking distance of the sea.
Shankill has a shingle beach, not the beautiful long white and golden sandy beaches of Donegal with their variety of seashells. A major compensation, however, is the sight of the sun rising over the sea on a winter morning. Another compensation is the polished geology which washes up in such plenitude and variety, flints from Antrim, blue-speckled granite from Ailsa Craig, porphry from Lambay Island etc. I don’t know a great deal about geology, anymore than I do about archaeology, but I am absolutely fascinated by it. On a darker note, even in four years, there has been a huge, and I am told, unprecedented, amount of coastal erosion here. That is the literal sea – and then there is the metaphorical sea. It is one of our oldest and most powerful metaphors. The Buddhists say “Everything changes” and the sea reminds us of that second by second. The poem which you mention ‘Murdering the Language’, was written sometime about the time of an IRA ceasefire in the north in the 1990’s. It was intended as a plea or even a prayer for the recognition of the complexity of any people, that we are all wonderfully mongrel, our DNA the product of many invasions, as is our language, that there is no pure language anymore than there is any pure race.
Q: Finally, congratulations on the publication of your most recent book, Donegal Tarantella! It must be a good feeling to know that it’s alive-in-the-world and making its way. Thinking of the title poem, and also of your other work (including Carrying the Songs) I’m interested to know: is there a connection between poetry and music for you? Or, perhaps more broadly, between poetry and folk traditions?
A: Thank you, Ciaran. I love music and greatly enjoy a range of music, from classical to folk and traditional. I think it might have been Pasternak who said that "Every poet is a failed musician." I did take up the concertina in my early twenties, at the same time that I began to write poetry. The world of traditional Irish music really drew me and I had great fun in that ambience, particularly during the years I spent in Galway. Through my friend and sister-in-law, the harpist, Kathleen Loughnane, and the accordion player, Sharon Shannon, who shared my little house in Galway for a number of years after she arrived in that city, I met so many great musicians and singers and heard wonderful music. There was also a very vibrant singers’ club in Galway at that time. However, I have no real musical talent myself. Twenty years of trying to play an instrument turns you into a good listener, though. And of course there is a strong link between poetry and music. I think it might have been Octavio Paz who said that "Poetry always remembers that it was sung before it was spoken."