By Peter Graarup Westergaard and Mary-Jane Holmes

Irish Poetry is developing pretty much everywhere, yet translation seems an important theme and feature in the poetic form of new Irish poetry. If there is something that Irish poetry does utilize, that defines it as different from other countries poets in some regard, is its bilingualism and the use of translation. According to the chief-editor at Fish Publishing, Mary-Jane Holmes, the flux between English and Irish seems a rich seam to mine in terms of investigating identity, language and the ‘other’.

Mary-Jane Holmes is a poet herself along with being an editor. Her poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass was published by Pindrop Press in 2018. Being both Irish and British, Mary-Jane Holmes can explain Irish poetry from both within and as an outsider. She grew up both in Northern Ireland and in the south of England.

– My childhood was split between the Antrim Hills of NI and the Sussex Downs of England. My mother was from a Catholic family and my father from a Protestant one, so that was always a little difficult to negotiate. I think like many, it gave me the impetus to voyage, perhaps in order to find a place where my background wasn’t an issue. Seamus Heaney talks about ‘the country of the mind’ when referring to writing and place and I do think that even though I have lived all over the globe, my poetry in some ways remains in the cadence and soundscape of NI.

– I was hugely affected by the work of those poets that were once called Ulster Poets including Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, but also the later generation such as Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian. I consider the work of Sinéad Morrissey, Colette Bryce and Nick Laird to be some of the best around today. As a teenager though, Irish female poets such as Eavan Boland and Vona Groarke really had an influence on me – it was so exciting to hear these female voices – strong, ardent and unremitting – they took my mind by storm and I wanted to do what they were doing and share their voice with others. That is probably the impetus to teach and write poetry – I can never tire at saying to people – look, look what poetry can do!

PGW: What are the general currents in contemporary Irish poetry?

– There is a divide between the poetry of the Republic and the North, and to an extent, given the complexity of the historical political divisions, this will have surely asserted pressure on the poetics and voices from the differing areas in the past. However, since the Good Friday Agreement and the disappearance of the physical border, there has been a great cross-boundary and cross-cultural rapprochement on the island of Ireland. However, this is said with irony as the Brexit debate on reinstating a ‘hard border’ between the Republic and Northern Ireland makes it feel as if we are going back in time.

– Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Irish-Gaelic works were for example translated by the Northern poets Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, and publishers such as Gallery Press list poets from all areas of the island. In fact, today it would seem that where you are born in Ireland is not as important as investigating larger cultural issues such as multiculturalism, feminism, and gender. As Seamus Heaney once said of his work – the poetry scene in Ireland has become ‘scattered and diverse’ with positive outcomes. Irish poetry cannot be subsumed under one banner or defined as a particular poetic school, says Mary-Jane Holmes.

PGW: Could you tell me a little bit more about “the flux between English and Irish”? How do you “translate” between the different “language cultures”? How do you, for example, “translate” an original Irish setting/feeling into English and vise versa? And if you mix the two languages/cultures what does that add to poetry?

– Translation seems to be something that Irish poets are drawn to – perhaps because the culture straddles two languages. Heaney said when translating Beowulf, that the language gave him an opportunity of moving ‘into some on partitioned linguistic country, a region where one’s language would not be simply a badge of ethnicity or a matter of cultural preference or an official imposition but an entry into further language’. There seems, perhaps because of the historical divisions, a natural pull in Irish poetry towards questioning identity, authorship and originality, all things that translation serves well at being an effective conduit in terms of such an investigation.

– Of course, there is a vibrant exchange between Irish and English as shown by Muldoon’s translation of The Aistriúchán Cloak by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, but there is also a sense of looking out towards other countries as well. The Road to Inver is a testament to Tom Paulin’s engagement with a myriad of diverse cultural voices. The collection collates translations of over thirty European poets produced over almost a thirty-year period. The motivation for such a sustained enquiry of the ‘other’ is hinted at in the collection’s epilogue poem ‘Rue Solitaire’:

“You find the poem’s title
but not the poem
– maybe it does exist so you can try till
the what’s-it? of dawn – till dayclean –
– try write it out in your own form
of this language”

In this, the only free-standing poem in the collection, Paulin seems to be agreeing with the translator Clive Scott when he asserts that the source text of a translation is ‘an instrument by which the translator explores his own voice, says Mary-Jane Holmes.

PGW: Translation in poetry is a very important feature, for sure. But I’ve also read Irish poems that mix Irish and English language and in that sense add something to the artistic expression. Why do they do that? (Because doesn’t it make the poetry more difficult to understand?!)

– Translation is ultimately about the encounter with another language and how that opens new possibilities of experimenting, of stretching one’s own language to unexpected significations. Purely from an aural point of view, the mix of language can bring a great richness to how a work sounds and a mix of two languages can express the complexity of emotions in a way that one language can’t do. As Clíona Ní Ríordáin says in her review of ‘Calling Cards’, an anthology of young Irish poets who write in both English and Irish: the Irish ‘can be felt in the smack of the consonants, the lovely throaty “ch” sound that you roll at the back of your throat, the span of rhymes available, which are far broader than those available in English.’

– Of course, it may obscure the meaning on one level to a monolingual reader/listener but on other levels – tone, rhythm and rhyme, the sense will no doubt emerge from under the surface. I listen to a lot of poetry in languages I don’t understand and still can derive a lot of enjoyment from them in the same way, we listen to songs or opera in foreign languages, says Mary-Jane Holmes.

PGW: Could you tell me a little bit more about the translation-process in writing poetry when you wrote your poems on the Argentine poet, Alfonsina Storni?

– Riffing off Storni’s poems gave me access to themes and subject matter I wouldn’t have come to naturally. We tend if not pushed, to end up writing about the same things in the same way so dialoguing with a poet from a different culture is one way to get out of that rut. The creative journey of engaging with a foreign text gives the poet an opportunity to increase the range of expression and modes of investigation available to her. This can have a positivizing effect on the poet’s work particularly in terms of voice. By opening up the space between texts and creating a field of tension between voices, the poet finds a stronger timbre within her own voice. That was certainly my experience.

PGW: When I visit Dublin, it seems to me that the performance of poetry is a very important aspect of Irish poetry. It is a bit like folk music, poetry has to be performed?

– Looking back over time, oral poetics were the foundation on which poetry as we know it was built. The poetry of Homer, the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, the Epic of Gilgamesh were all composed to be performed with rhyme, alliteration and kenning, helping the performer remember where they were in these long narratives. In some ways all poetry has this aspect of performance given that the soundscape is a driving animator and to read poetry aloud whether privately or publicly, allows that dimension to come to the fore. I am not sure if the performance aspect of the craft is particularly Irish but as in most cultures the proximity of poetry to song has always been close and tied by community bonds.

– However, performance poetry has taken the island by storm recently with the rise of poets such as Stephen James Smith. A recent article talked about how it gave voice to the voiceless. Emmet Kirwan, performance poet says “Poetry is the new medium that gives voice to the voiceless. Poetry is our version of the Paris riots. Young people here don’t burn cars, they write poems, they bring a rhythm and an energy to political ferment,” says Mary-Jane Holmes.

Mary-Jane Holmes has been published in such places as Modern Poetry in Translation, Myslexia, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Prole, The Tishman Review, The Lonely Crowd and The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2016 and 2018. She is the winner of the 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize, the Martin Starkie Poetry Prize, the Bedford International Poetry Prize and the Dromineer Fiction Prize.

Her poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass was published by Pindrop Press in 2018. She is chief editor at Fish Publishing Ireland, consulting editor at The Well Review and Guest Editor at V Press. She holds an Mst. in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford and is starting a Phd in poetry and translation at Newcastle University in September.


(Written by Peter Graarup Westergaard/Mary-Jane Holmes. Published in Anglo Files, 194,4,2019)