Mary O’Donnell is one of Ireland’s best-known poets and fiction-writers. Her four novels include Where They Lie (2014) and The Elysium Testament (1999). Her best-selling debut novel The Light Makers was recently reissued by 451 Editions. Poetry includes Reading the Sunflowers in September, Spiderwoman’s Third Avenue Rhapsody, Unlegendary Heroes (Salmon), The Place of Miracles (New Island) and Those April Fevers (Ark Publications). A full critical volume of essays on her work, Giving Shape to the Moment: the Art of Mary O’Donnell, Poet, Short-story writer, Novelist, will be published by Peter Lang in 2018. She teaches Creative Writing at Galway University and is a doctoral student at UCC. In 2001 she was elected to Aosdana. www.maryodonnell.com
Getting fired up about FIRED! Irish Women Poets and the Canon, an all-Ireland literary protest and education group.
In November 2017 the publication of The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, ed. Gerald Dawe (CUP, 2017), is noted by many women poets, together with a sense of dismay and disappointment based on the volume’s failure to acknowledge the enormous contribution of women to Irish poetry from the 17th to 21st centuries. Not alone that, but there is a serious gender imbalance in the critical contributors to it, with a mere four women in a cast of twenty-six men.
And so the idea of FIRED! Irish Women Poets and the Canon is born last autumn when several of us realise that an Irish selection of essays purporting to be representative of our nation’s poetry, is blindly disregarding literary historical facts: that women of talent, achievement, and in some cases genius, have yet again been wiped clean off the roll-call of those who have shaped our literary culture for some centuries¹.
Initially after posting an image of the Cambridge Companion on Facebook and asking for comments, Christine Murray – poet, sculptor, (and editor of one of the world’s best literary blogs, PoetHead), myself, and others begin to weigh in and email one another. What’s happening? How do we resist the obliteration of published acts of record?
Gradually, our thinking moves in the direction of forming a movement, to disinter the multiple voices of published and talented female poets from the past. We are quite a large and disparate group actually, and our primary members are: Christine Murray, Kathy D’Arcy, Ailbhe D’Arcy, Maria McManus, myself, Moyra Donaldson, Doireann Ní Gríofa, Kimberly Campanello, Jaclyn Allen, Elaine Feeney, Victoria Kennefick, Melony Bethala, Anne Mulhall, Anne Tannam, Barbara Smith, Elaine Cosgrove, Fiona Bolger, Chris Allen, Gillian Hamill, Kate Dempsey, Laura Loftus and Karen O’Shea.
What we are asking is that people will sign this Pledge, in the knowledge that by doing so they are opening the way to a wider, totally inclusive canon that can only enhance Irish literature for everyone. Furthermore, we invite festival organisers, editors and publishers to sign the pledge. As we move forward, it is vital that the people who organise, curate, invite and publicise literary events try to make the best ‘good faith’ attempts to bring gender balance into the picture. Signatories should, ideally, make it public that they have signed, to encourage others to add their names too. Your actions can be shared on our Twitter account (@FiredIrishPoets), and naturally, on Facebook and it’s worth having a look at the Maria McManus inspired hashtag #HedgeSchool as well.
It’s a careful and reflective process, taking weeks of teasing out what will evolve into a Preamble to the Pledge. The Preamble, which can be read at https://awomanpoetspledge.com serves to highlight the absence of, for example, mid-century women poets in the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, as well as more historical absences such as avant-garde and experimental Irish poets, poets of the Irish Revival, and poets from today who are surely part of the ‘companionship’ any curious reader, scholar, or overseas student requires – if only they can find it!
It’s not a good or remotely adequate response today – one hundred years on from female franchise for women over the age of 30 – for a male academic editor to assemble a selection of essays on poetry, unconcerned about gender representation. As Christine Murray writes in the Preamble, ‘The absence of women from our critical volumes, literary surveys and anthologies alters literary history and distorts the way we read contemporary women’s poetry, raising the question for readers as to what message we want to send to younger scholars?’
In Northern Ireland, Maria McManus emphasises how FIRED! readings are intended for us to educate ourselves ‘about historically significant women poets and their work. They are also intended to support the development of the movement, by creating contemporary links between poets . . . We have essentially created a modern ‘Hedge School’ – and realised that we needed to find a way to reprise the work of these marginalised women poets’ work.’
In my own Irish Times article (January 8th, ‘Prosaic lack of women in Irish poetry ‘companion’) I am concerned about the level of omission on an academic level and remark that ‘Our universities brim with knowledge-seeking female students. The Irish Arts Council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland support literary organisations the length and breadth of the country, and exist for the advocacy and promotion of writing by both genders.’ The Guardian online also published a response to FIRED! in an article entitled ‘A tipping point: women writers pledge to boycott gender biased books after very male anthology.’
And poet Kathy D’Arcy, writing in The Cork Echo, notes the following: ‘Over the decades, anthology after anthology had been published, each claiming to represent a telling snapshot of ‘Irish poetry.’ A glance into any one of them will tell you the same story that the Cambridge Companion is trying to tell. Women rarely make up more than thirty percent of the poets selected . . . My favourite example is The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse: the original (published in 1958) featured eighteen women, which was not close to thirty percent but a good number for the time. But the ‘new’ New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, edited by Thomas Kinsella and published in 1986, featured ONE: Eibhlín Dubh. In translation. By Kinsella. Anthologies and scholarly collections like these dictate what makes up the ‘canon’ of Irish poetry, and a great many women writers have been erased from the list.’
The apparently casual disregard of the past and the present by male editors, anthologists and organisers must end. The women poets of Ireland have a message: once and for all let’s end gender-bias in literary endeavour, and speak out. We have mouths. We must use them.
Please join us and sign the pledge by going to: https://awomanpoetspledge.com where the full Preamble, which reveals the full extent of omissions, can be read. Events have already begun to mark our ongoing action, the first moment of literary retrieval having taken place in Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre last November, thanks to Maria McManus. Other plans include readings in Cork’s Long Valley pub as part of the ÓBheal reading series, and will feature readings by Christine Murray, Nicola Moffat, Raina Leon and Kathy D’Arch. More information is available at http://www.obheal.ie/blog/guest-poets#22ndJanuary Ireland’s Poetry Day is on April 26th, and will also feature readings by members of FIRED! at University College Dublin, while a group of poets in Barcelona have also invited members of the group to bring the message of FIRED! to Catalunya next September.
Finally, and quoting Maria McManus again: ‘Seriously, we stand or fall on looking out for each other. Hold space.’ So join us. Be with us. If you care about literature in its entirety, if you care about not having historical record casually, arrogantly obliterated, in our country or yours, come and sign the Pledge:
once more, with feeling, https://awomanpoetspledge.com
¹There’s been form for this kind of activity among editors on the Irish poetry scene, dating back some decades, the most controversial episode revolving around the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, which presented a myopic view of Irish writing. Interesting too, that such a male collaboration should appear at, arguably, the height of Second Wave Feminism, and on the cusp of Third Wave Feminism. Recently collated statistics of literary anthologies from Ireland (thanks to poet Colin Dardis), demonstrate categorically that percentage inclusion of women ranges from 13.3% (The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets); 15.6% (A Treasury of Irish Literature, Barnes & Noble, 2017); while in Northern Irish Poetry: The American Connection (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) there are no essays exclusively on women poets, but 5 out of 7 exclusively on male poets. The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry admits 10 female contributors out of 40, bringing us to 25%; and in The New North: Contemporary Poetry from Northern Ireland, ed. Chris Agee (Salt Publishing 2011) 5 women are represented out of 20 poets.