Peter Sirr’s most recent collection of poems is Sway, versions of poems from the troubadour tradition, published by Gallery Press in 2016. The Rooms was published by Gallery in 2014 and shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award and the Pigott Poetry Prize. The Thing Is (2009), was awarded the Michael Hartnett Prize in 2011. The Gallery Press has also published Marginal Zones; Talk, Talk; Ways of Falling; The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange; Bring Everything; Selected Poems and Nonetheless. A novel for children, Black Wreath, was published in 2014, and RTÉ has broadcast three of his radio plays, most recently ‘Interview with a General’, which reimagines Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and transposes the original setting of the Agamemnon to the slaughter-house of modern Syria.
Q: I sometimes think of your poems as being part of a single, continuing story: one in which the speaker tunes in to a day-to-day world, but encounters it this time in the light of his own absence from it, the way a ghost might inhabit a photograph album – longingly, but aware of his own seemingly incurable belatedness …
A: That’s a slightly disturbing observation – encountering the world in terms of your own absence from it doesn’t sound like a particularly healthy habit. But to take the first part first: I’d agree that the poems are part of a “single, continuing story” because I think that’s how poetry works – that it’s fed from one source, comes out of your own continuing inner life, your own set of obsessions. The same concerns keep surfacing, the same compulsive images drawn from the same memory bank, emotion bank, dream bank and sensory language bank, because they’re what drove you to write poetry in the first place. I think what you say about presence and absence is very true. I’m hyper-conscious of the everyday, immediate world maybe precisely because I’m also registering our own inevitable disappearance from it. I like your image of the ghost inhabiting the photograph album – maybe I’ll use that! – as well as the notion of “incurable belatedness” because I see that as a central part of our condition.
Q: One effect of this, I think, is that the desire (also the title of your 2000 collection) to Bring Everything evolves into what feels like a creative necessity, while also remaining – at least in literal terms – impossible to fulfil. I’m thinking of pieces like ‘The Beautiful Engines’, ‘Hunting the Bricks and Mortar’, the elegy for your father ‘Peter Street’, and also of your sequence-poem ‘The Rooms’, in which “it’s all / exile and interlude”, and “wherever we turn / is on its umpteenth rerun” so that “when it comes to earth or air or water // the miracle is the walking as if you’d never entered, / as if you’d never been there” – a “miracle” the poem itself seems uniquely modulated to perform, a kind of inverse vanishing act. Can you comment on this interpretation of your work? Is there a particular animating impulse behind your poetry, do you think? And would you like to comment on the poems above – how they arrived , for example, and (for the older ones) what you feel about them now?
A: That’s a question and a half! The idea of bringing everything comes from a sequence called ‘Gospels’. Less a sequence, really, than a set of related impulses, which is how most of the ‘sequences’ I’ve done tend to work. ‘Gospels’ pits two opposing needs against each other, a world-abandoning aestheticism against a need to include everything, register everything, embrace everything; knowledge against emptiness or a kind of self-erasure. The poem tries to dramatise the pull between the two.
‘The Beautiful Engines’ comes straight from real life experience, when I was director of the Irish Writers Centre and for a period every day received emails meant for another IWC, the Irish Wildlife Conservancy, telling me about wagtails on the Wexford slobs, sandpipers in Ballycotton, rosefinches on Rockabill. The poem is full of other information, a whole drench of it, and the poem becomes a kind of comic attempt to negotiate all of it and see into the heart of thing.
‘Hunting the Bricks…’ and ‘Peter Street’ are poems I’ve always felt close to, in the sense that they caught, I hope, something that was important to me and they enact their own obsessive journeys of memory and the beach for completeness or fulfillment. They’re poems of the city, too, and the city tends to recur with all its multilayered histories and continuous life.
It can be hard to think abstractly or even concretely about poems you’ve written or about the impulses that gave rise to them. In ‘The Rooms’ all kinds of things come together: memory, desire, landscape, childhood, pastoral. The poems were written quickly, bouncing off each other, talking to each other, one poem often spawning another. The places are real, remembered, imagined; the speaker is both placed and displaced, insider and outsider. The poems’ world is a place continually visited in the mind as well as physically. And it’s also ‘about’ the way we inhabit our worlds, or the slight grasp we have on the world. I say ‘about’ because I don’t have a plan when I write and poems of their nature are self-determined. They run away from whatever notions you might have for them, which of course is a good thing. Otherwise they’d bore us with their piety. Poems, for me, arrive mostly unexpectedly even if they might be cooking away under the surface for a long time before. Not writing is a very important part of writing, it seems to me. It’s true I sometimes wish I could regulate the process better, but it’s completely unpredictable. I might write several poems in a week and then nothing for months on end. You’re waiting for some kind of excitement or pleasure to get you going, to surprise yourself, to shock yourself outside of your normal plodding self. And then it will be something instinctive – the sound or shape of a line, the pull of an image and the struggle to find out what it’s trying to say – that gets you going. At the same time it’s true that anyone who writes will have a certain circle of concern that’s constantly returned to: to an extent we keep on writing the same poem again, deep on responding to the same triggers. I have an inkling of what my own triggers are, but have no desire to probe them or try to figure out what prompts me to write. After all, if you figure all that stuff out, what’s left to write? But there is a continuous subterranean life going on, which the poems feed on and which you have to feed and nourish too. Reading and attending to other poets, contemporary and ancient, is part of that, trying to be part of the age-old conversation.
Q: You’ve also written drama: plays for radio like ‘Oblivion’, ‘Radio Carla’, and the stage play ‘Krakow’, each of which in its own way navigates similar themes of personal and literary slippage, erasure, want, and what it may mean to imagine and give voice to such experiences – including in the curiously disembodied forms of the poem, the play itself, or (as in ‘Radio Carla’) the obsolete cassette. ‘Oblivion’, for example, features a chorus of almost forgotten Greek poets; riffed into garrulous life from the few fragments that remain of their work, they are intimate with but also salvaged from the blankness (which, again, is both literary and existential) that the play’s title implies. Can you comment on these themes in your work – the “almost forgotten”, the obsolescent, the stuff of life that seems twinned, for you, with the semi-silences that a voice can fill? Specifically, I’m wondering whether drama (and the radio play) is a different kind of medium to poetry for teasing out these ideas and emotions – at the level of craft, but also in the kind of communication and performance it allows?
A: Drama is poetry by other means. It’s relatively recent for me, though I’ve often tinkered away at it over the years, and the poems have a certain share of it. The attraction to writing for radio is partly to do with how close it is to poetry: words in the air, voices vying for attention, everything imagined. It’s stripped down, elemental, in the same way a poem has to be, yet at the same time you have a huge canvas. You can conjure anything, anywhere, anyone. The other great attraction is that you get to work with other people: a producer, actors. You realise that what you write has implications outside yourself, that your words have to fit in actors’ mouths, that you need to be quick and various. In the old days plays went out live and then often disappeared; now they are available on the drama site or on podcast and that afterlife is an important part of the attraction too. They can go on speaking, anywhere in the world, to whoever wants to listen. ‘Oblivion’ is a slightly crazy play with a large cast of dead and forgotten poets attempting to come back to some kind of life, and it’s also about the discovery of a lost Sappho poem. It’s full of ghosts and echoes, intimations of mortality, though it’s also supposed to be a comedy. The desperate urge to be remembered is a comic kind of hubris. But there’s also the simple human predicament that everything we are, everything we think or feel, is doomed to vanish, we’re on our way to the great silence, so that gets into the plays too. ‘Radio Carla’ is an exchange of sound letters between a dead lover and a living one. In the play the use of the cassette has the effect of blurring the boundaries so that the posthumous voice is hauntingly alive, thanks in large part to Olwen Fouere. The power of memory, the power of love – sounds like a bad pop song – the conjuring of the dead but in the context of a drama that isn’t too po-faced, that’s the challenge, and the fun of it. It’s a really exciting form, one that’s died out in most countries, so we’re lucky to have it. And oddly enough, the internet might inject new life into the form ....
Q: Your most recent play, ‘Interview with a General’, also returns to ancient Greece – but again transposes the drama per se to a contemporary setting. A reworking of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon set in modern-day (and war-ravaged) Syria, ‘Interview’ also feels like an extended antiphon to the poem, ‘Harm’, which envisions the carnage in Houla, Syria, in 2012, from the viewpoint of a “guardian”-like figure watching “as the eyes forget their shock”, who “because the deaths are endless, / must see it happen over and over / the place rent with cries”. Can you tell us anything about how you came to write these two pieces – and why the Syrian conflict, in particular, holds the resonance it seems to for you? It seems to me that both pieces add an ethical – or dare I say, political – current to some of the abiding concerns of your work: if your poems investigate the extent to which place (and poetry) may serve as a palimpsest for lost experiences, in these pieces the urgency of that investigation seems heightened, the loss itself more vivid, and of course the “harm” of such a process is made brutal and pointless in the wartime context. Can you offer any comments here?
A: ‘Interview with a General’ imagines a Syria-like conflict, with a version of Aleppo as Troy. Agamemnon is mapped onto the returned, victorious General with big political ambitions and Iphigenia is reinvented as his war-protestor daughter Anna, whom he is ultimately prepared to sacrifice. And there’s the wholly invented character of Ellen, the interviewer, Anna’s lover. So there are a few things at play. In truth it owes as much to Euripides’ ‘Iphigenia at Aulis’ as to Aeschylus’ ‘Agamemnon’: I was trying to understand how a man would be prepared to sacrifice his own daughter for the sake of military success. At the same time I was following the daily outrages in Aleppo and reading Assad’s justifications of the terrible violence perpetrated against his own people. The Houla poem, ‘Harm’ was written much earlier. I’m always wary about writing in any direct way about conflict and war from the safe distance of a TV or computer screen. I always keep Michael Davitt’s lines in mind: “O mo bheirt Phailistíneach ag lobhadh sa teas lárnach” (O my two Palestinians rotting in the central heat.) On the one hand there’s sense of an ethical obligation to the oppressed or slaughtered; on the other the keen awareness of the zone of bourgeois comfort that the troubled conscience inhabits. The long conversation with Brecht that closes The Rooms is part of the same preoccupation – that sense of an imagination where ethical concern or indignation is the only real fuse:
I look with delight
at apple blossoms
and the tyrant’s ravings
fill my mind.
do I march to my desk.
Q: I’d also like to relate some of the questions above to your extensive work as a translator. The poet Anne Carson, for one – whose translations of Sappho are achingly sensitive to the fragmentary nature of their material, and of their own creative act – has suggested that “Silence is as important as words in the practice and study of translation.” Do you agree? And if so, why so?(!)
A: I do agree, and not just in the context of translation. Silence is an important component of writing, particularly of poetry: the silence between poems, the silence at the edge of the lines, the silence of the unsaid. The point about Sappho is that she’s as much a rumour as a real poet. The silence of the lost poems, of the forever irrecoverable lines, haunts us. Some of the more ludicrous translations of Sappho try to conceal the gaps and elisions by imposing an artificial order or completeness. Carson goes the other way, pointing up how little we have – two complete poems extant! – and relishing the loss. You can go far with this, of course. Our age loves the fragmentary, it appeals to our disjointed sensibilities, but Sappho wasn’t fragmentary: all those broken lines and elisions are an accident.
There’s another sense in which silence is important in translation: the silence of self-suppression, of lending language and lines to a sensibility different from your own, even if never quite possible to suppress the self. But I’m not a proper mimetic translator, in Michael Hamburger’s term. Some class of a transporter, transcapturist, translucinator, sinking my teeth where they don’t belong. With Catullus, say, the game was to insert Rome into contemporary Dublin; the Brecht versions are as much an attempt to have a conversation with Brecht as to translate him, an impulse if anything encouraged by the refusal of the estate to allow the translations in their original form to be published. In other cases the concern is to use the resources of the language as well as I can in order to represent a poet half decently.
Q: Finally, I’m curious to know how your work as a translator may affect your self-conception as an “Irish” poet (if you have one!). It occurred to me, for example, that your description of your sequence ‘Edge Songs’ as “‘skeleton’ translations of poems in Old Irish, Middle Irish, and Latin, as they might be remembered or misremembered by an imagined Irish poet” may in fact have a Joyceian tinge to it: the idea, in brief, that the wilder the translator’s swerve from his source text, the closer he gets to the voice of the original, every seeming error offering, as Joyce suggested, a portal to discovery. Robert Lowell, of course, seems to follow a similar literary principle in his book of verse adaptations, Imitations. With this in mind, and as someone who has worked across a range of languages and traditions – from the Latin of Catullus (in your collection, The Thing Is) to the Occitan of the French Troubadours (Sway) – “Irish” may seem like an inaccurate or overly narrow designation for your work. What are your thoughts on this? And can you give us more of an indication here of your concerns and process as a translator?
A: I don’t really have a big sense of myself as an Irish poet. I mean, obviously, I’m Irish. I drink tea and eat black pudding, but it’s not an issue, it’s not in doubt, it’s not something I need to think about. I’m also a bit suspicious of what happens when the adjective Irish gets attached to nouns like writer or poet. A strangle collective is suddenly posited, with all kinds of daft rules and prejudices. A vista of approved styles opens up; fences are erected around the prescribed subject matter. The poets who have meant most to me come from other countries and sometimes other languages, which isn’t to say I’m some sort of jumped up foreignophile who’s too grand to eat his own potatoes and turnips. It’s just that poetry is a big, wide world with currents of influence washing in and out of different cultures and languages, and that’s one of the glories. Novelists, I think, are a different kettle of bananas: they seem to get stuck in the Irish thing a lot more, maybe because people actually buy their stuff and they have to be sensitive to market prejudices.
To go back to translation, some of it is a kind of extended or turbo-charged reading – an attempt to understand other poems. ‘Edge Songs’ is as much about the translation process as it is about early Irish poetry, since after all we tend to apprehend that world through the mediation of translation. And that tradition too is gapped and fragmentary, a bit like Sappho. We have notes in a margin, monks on their lunch-breaks, scholars moonlighting. And huge play, excitement, fun. So I wanted to capture a slice of all that while somehow staying true to how I imagined the tradition. With the Occitan it was similar. I just fell in love with the stuff and couldn’t get it out of my head and started to try to learn something of the language and find a way of getting at the core of the poems. An obsessive, Poundian project, maybe. Again, I didn’t have a plan to begin with. I had a poem, then a couple of poems, and eventually a book length pile. Which is how it always works. I don’t make a big distinction between translating or making versions or responses and writing proper poems. They’re all deployments of language and sensibility. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. But always the starting point is the same: an excited sense of what might be possible.