How to Speak Poetry: Doireann Ní Ghríofa

DNiG photo - poem

You can listen to Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s poem ‘Skype’ here.


What is poetry and what brought you to it?

In addition to asking What is poetry and what brought you to it?, I would turn that question upside down and ask What is poetry and where is it bringing you? The answer to that is a mystery, of course. I am fascinated by the peculiar process whereby life gives the subconscious material to chew on, to process, and eventually, to turn into art. Often, we can only make sense of what we have created many years later. Poetry, like any kind of art, is a lens by which we examine ourselves and make sense of our own lives. I admire how Doris Lessing describes using “the processes of writing to find out what you think, and even who you are”. I feel so lucky to have happened upon poetry as a means to making sense of life.

What is poetry? I think if you asked me this question every day, I would answer differently every time. Today, I’d say that Poetry to me is like an pair of enchanted spectacles, magic glasses. Every book of poems that I read is like putting on a set of these weird glasses, being allowed the opportunity to peer at the world through someone else’s eyes. That can be both a privilege and a moving and powerful experience. It is exciting to me that I can also communicate my own view of the world through poetry, that I can craft my own individual pair of spectacles and offer them to readers. This is part of the reason why I am so enthusiastic about collaborating with artists and musicians, it is always thrilling to see their interpretation of my work. To labour the metaphor, it’s like adding a second pair of spectacles. Invariably, it’s sweetly thrilling.

In terms of what brought me to poetry, I always enjoyed writing and had some pieces published while I was in school, but my writing fell by the wayside when I hit college. I have always been an enthusiastic reader though and I read continued to read poetry even when I wasn’t writing, something I think gives an awareness of language and form, a sensitivity to the music of poetry. Reading is deeply important, it’s the foundation on which writing rests.

I came to writing my own poems in a strange half-light. A member of my family was dying in hospital and the family had gathered. The medical team rang at night to tell us that there wasn’t much time left. I didn’t have a babysitter for my baby and as a result I couldn’t go to the bedside. I was very distressed, lying in a silent, darkened room nursing my son back to sleep. My thoughts were roaming between sleep and wake, and although I was upset, there was also a peacefulness, an acceptance there. A poem came to me then, as Gaeilge, and I ran over each line again and again in my head so as not to forget them. Once the baby was asleep, I darted from the bed and tore the place apart searching for pen and paper. I spent the next hour writing furiously.

That experience was so surreal and absolutely unexpected, it was one of those curious things that happens in life, and a definite turning point for me. It felt like a gift. I took it seriously at the time and made time to write every day of the following months to see what might happen, to see where my pen might take me. I am so glad that I followed that first impulse to write. I am still following it.

Interestingly, this has been an elemental part of my process since, that half-light, liminal time between sleep and wake. That first night, I had unwittingly recreated the conditions of poetry composition from the old Bardic schools, lying in a darkened room with a weight on the stomach, composing poetry mentally. I am frequently woken up by a new line or an idea for a poem and wake up to write in the dark. I no longer have to race around searching for pen and paper though, I find my phone very useful to jot down ideas during the night. When I was using paper to write in the dark, I would often wake to find all the lines overlapping, so that the words were completely unintelligible, which was wildly frustrating. For the first few years, I was always grabbing time here and there to write, often during the children’s naptimes or bedtime. This would not be unusual for mother-writers, but it takes a lot of tenacity and stubbornness to keep writing under such circumstances. I am hugely grateful to the Arts Council, their financial support has allowed me broader spaces of time to focus on my writing, which has been hugely beneficial to my work.

What was your first engagement with poetry – page or stage? If it was page, how did it feel bringing your poetry to the stage? If stage, how did it feel taking your poetry to the page?

My first personal experiences with poetry were page-based; when I started to write poetry seriously, I was quite constrained by the circumstance of having small children to care for. We had three children in four years. It is logistically difficult to attend poetry events when one has to organise the care of a family; it’s do-able but difficult. So it made sense that I initially expressed myself on the page as I didn’t have access to a stage environment. I honestly don’t think that I would have had the confidence in my early days to stand on a stage and present my work orally to an audience. I felt that I needed to work a lot out with pen and paper before I was ready to stand up in public. Readings came later for me. I love the thrill of stage performance now, it brings a different quality, a different energy to a piece that has until that point only lived on the page. From my very first performance of my work, I loved the buzz and the feedback from the audience. It can be magical. I absolutely love listening to other poets present their work on stage. I always go home creatively fired up, inspired and ready to work.

I am aware of the tensions between page/stage cliques and frankly, I find it difficult to understand why anyone would waste their energies on feeling outraged on one side or the other. I feel that the internet has been a positive force in general for contemporary poetry, but the negative side of continues these sorts of nonsense them-vs-us ‘debates’. As an outsider to both cliques, as far as I’m concerned, both page and stage poetry have vibrancy and heart and there is no benefit whatsoever to denigrating or belittling one or the other. Both techniques have much to learn from each other, yet these discussions inevitably descend into idle point-scoring rather than anything constructive. That’s a shame.

Below are a few quotations from “How to Speak Poetry”. Choose the one which most resonates with you. Explain why – and whether or not there is merit in his position (both as it relates to the page and/or the stage).

“This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them”.

This part of ‘How to Speak Poetry’ resonated deeply with me. I am often struck by the real intimacy of poetry, in that someone has written or spoken these most profound truths, verbalised an aspect of their inner imagination, that most private place, that they sat and wrote this work in silence, spent many hours crafting it, and then chose to share it with an audience. That is an act that requires both courage and trust. There is a deep respect in the exchange between poet and audience in that moment of sharing, a dynamic that is both magical and profound.

Some would contend that whether writing for the page, or reciting on a stage, poetry is all about performance. How one presents poems on a page is a performance: the line breaks, the punctuation, the visual impact of the poem in its physical form laid out on the page all amount to a kind of performance for the reader. And, by the same token, how one presents a poem on a stage is a performance: how the voice shakes or does not shake over the words, where and how the body moves, where the eyes look, the impact of language (both of the body, and in the speaking of the words) – all contribute to performance. In light of this, is the distinction between the page and the stage a valid/necessary one? Or is it better to conceive of the page and the stage as being two mediums among many in the spectrum of performance and how one can and does present poetry?

Interesting question. I would see it as two mediums among many in the spectrum of performance, I think. Both have their merits, and both deserve respect and acknowledgement for the differences between them. I have found (both as a performer and as an audience member) that many page poems are difficult to portray in a spoken performance, as the nuance of language can sometimes be lost in the immediacy of a performance, which by its nature is fleeting and fast. Equally, it’s a rare slam piece that carries all of its vibrancy, its heat, when translated to words on a page, in my opinion. It often has to be seen and heard to be appreciated. Spoken word often needs the rhythm of speech to lift it, in a similar way that lyrics can seem bare on the page but when lifted by voice, they can transform and become transcendent. In my own work, I am always aware of ‘fireworks’ poems that will be more suited to stage performance than others, quieter poems that perhaps need more space on the page to be read and re-read, to linger, to open themselves slowly to a reader.

What advantages come with being able to think/engage/interact in more than one language? What disadvantages are tied to having access only to your mother tongue? If you don’t consider the first to be an advantage or the second to be a disadvantage, why not?

I will only speak from my own experience, as the language issue is one that remains fraught in Ireland and I wouldn’t like to disrespect others’ opinions by making generalisations as to which situation might be the more ‘advantageous’.

I learned Irish through the Gaelscoil system of total immersion beginning from the age of four, so although I am bilingual, Irish isn’t my native tongue. I don’t have it ón gcliabhán as we’d say (-from the cradle). As a result of the immersive manner in which I was taught Irish, I am also mercifully free of all the negative baggage that a lot of Irish people seem to have around the language; it was presented to me in a very natural, relaxed manner — there is no coercive or punitive element to learning Irish in Gaelscoileanna. I regularly encounter an animosity and viciousness towards the language that I find most startling and difficult to comprehend. To echo Auden— who are we, as poets, if not people in love with words? To me, this love os all-encompassing, regardless of which language words arise from. I also spent years learning French and Spanish, and I feel that the understanding of the way feelings or words move in different languages can be constructive when one comes to writing poetry, as it can add layers of nuance to the linguistic elements of a poem.

I find personally that it is an advantage to have multiple linguistic capabilities, as it adds depth and texture to my understanding of the world. On a local level, so much of the fabric and history of life in Ireland is accessible to me through the Irish language— place-names, the movement of our speech, etc. The fingerprints of Irish are all over Hiberno-English. Irish informs my work in a deep and ongoing fashion, even when I am writing in English. Without this second language, my understanding of my world would be fragmentary, incomplete, different. Any Irish-speaker in Cork will tell you of the discrepancy in names of the avenue in the city referred to in English as Lover’s Walk. It has completely different connotations to the original Irish ‘Siúl na Lobhar’ or ‘The Walk of the Lepers’ (lobhadh— rottenness, festering, putrefaction, lobhar—leper). The Irish version hints at the fact that historically there was a leprosarium in Glanmire, not far from ‘Siúl na Lobhar’. A sense of place is fundamental both to my writing in Irish and in English, and this understanding would be very different without the layers of understanding that Irish gives me.

The practise of learning a language, of feeling like a perpetual scholar uncovering strata of connotation and meaning has been useful to me in my adventures in poetry. Although I am fluent in several languages, I always consider myself a learner, I am constantly open to learning new things, and that serves me well in poetry. Johann Georg Hamann said Poetry is the mother-tongue of the human race. This idea really resonated with me, as I find that poetry itself is a language that I strive to learn and understand anew every day. As a writer, I am always striving to learn more, to listen, to absorb new accents. It is refreshing to approach poetry as a student of language approaches a new tongue, with curiosity and openness.

How do you speak poetry? (In other words, take the word butterfly and do whatever you want with it).

I’m not entirely sure how to address this question/butterfly! I hear poetry in other people’s speech and in the way that the world speaks to me, and I suppose my own work is in essence a form of translation of the poetry I see in the world around me, into the poetry of my own voice. So, I hear poetry speak in the world and I report back in my own words. I can never fully catch the beauty of the poetry of the world around me and I suppose that is the challenge of poetry: the constant learning, the building of a craft, striving to capture the uncapturable and voice the unvoiceable. We poets continuously strive to communicate the wonder of a butterfly. In poetry, we are trying to catch butterflies without the use of nets.


2014 bio photo colourDoireann Ní Ghríofa’s poems have appeared in literary journals in Ireland and internationally. The Arts Council has twice awarded her bursaries in literature. Her Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair are both published by Coiscéim, and her bilingual chapbook A Hummingbird, Your Heart is available from Smithereens Press. Doireann was the winner of a Wigtown award (Scotland) in 2012. In 2013 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize (USA) and her pamphlet of poems in English Ouroboros was longlisted for The Venture Award (UK).

This entry was published on January 8, 2014 at 12:27 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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