‘Eavan gave me the letters of Lowell and Bishop so that I would see one relationship between a man and a woman who were literary equals, and see that he regarded her as such. That’s how to teach.’ Irish woman of letters, Mary O’Malley speaks to Tracy Gaughan about her life in literature, education and music, the rich culture that shaped her imagination and why place is not always tethered to location.
Welcome to The Blue Nib, Mary. To start with, would you reveal some of the facts of your life, such as: when and where you were born, what you’ve studied, where you’ve travelled and how you came to be a poet?
I was born in Aillebrack, which is a village near Slyne Head in Errismore, Connemara. I went to St Cáilín’s national school. The headmaster, Páud, liked literature and it showed. He read us a story every wet Friday, far beyond what was on the curriculum.
Then I went to the nuns in Clifden, which was a bit of a culture shock, not so much because of the nuns, but because of the town. I had a wonderful headmistress, who made sure I had all the necessary forms to get a grant and go to University. I went to UCG, at a time of fun and experimentation when music was taking off in Galway. I misspent those years directing plays, discovering that feminism was basically common sense, and generally agitating for this, that and the other. Then off I went to London to find work, in Selfridges food hall, among other places. Mrs Thatcher was coming into power, the skinheads and racists were beating immigrants, setting fire to their doors and generally terrorising people of colour. I had friends who had petrol poured through their letterbox, while their three young children were inside. Luckily, the fire didn’t take. I can still see that little boy’s eyes, terrified. I got married in April and in July, we shipped out to Lisbon.
I started writing ballads very young, then translations of Irish poems – versions of a sort – then poems, which I had the good sense to keep to myself.
Everyone else around me grew up with much the same life as I had. I don’t know why I needed to write poems. Language and music was all I had and it was enough. If you’re a poet, you write because you have no choice. At least that was my experience.
What literature shaped your early imagination growing up in Connemara? Who were your early literary touchstones? Who are you discovering or perhaps rediscovering now?
Songs. The poems in Irish that spoke of the life we were living, Rock and roll. My uncle loved the songs of Woody Guthrie. So did I. But it was also the stories I was told, and then my uncles played and my mother sang very well, though a different type of song. People said poems by heart then, if you couldn’t sing. There wasn’t the division in the oral culture between poetry and song. It was more like the Greek tradition in that respect. There was fun in rhyme, the long poems known affectionately as ‘recimitations’. Robert Service and the like. I think I learned a lot from the ballads but it was from the likes of ‘The Rocks of Bawn’ I learned about containment. Perhaps that had something to do with trying to write poems.
We had the same books as I suppose most houses had then – a few religious tracts, Ernie O’Malley’s books, some Reader’s Digest Dickens’ tales, which I devoured. Fairy stories and cowboy novels. And then, the mobile library started coming to Clifden. It was like learning to swim, the sense of liberation. I have a memory also of my first book in Irish, one of those sharp, defined revelations that the letters – I started in the lovely old script – could make sense. It was that moment when a camera adjusts and goes from a jumble into sharp focus. We had to do lines to practice our writing. I think I gradually saw the beauty of the shapes and patterns, but at some point I wanted to go outside the lines.
There were stories, quietly told for the most part, with the embellishments necessary for entertainment. None of this makes anyone a poet, but it provides a rich stock of images if you do. Then, of course, you have to let the images become pervious to the imagination, at some point. I was never one for the closed narrative or the happy ending. I was probably the only child in the village that believed I came down the river on a cupóg and was distraught when I found out it wasn’t true. Grimm’s Tales and Aesop’s Fables made a big impression. People went in for riddles and language play then. I think that helped.
Then I discovered the Romantics, but it was the metaphysical poets that started the fire and broke down the barriers thrown up by Romanticism. Milton and Donne taught me to love English. Hopkins made me forgive it.
As a young poet you were fortunate to have some inspirational writing mentors and guides: you mentioned Richard Murphy and James Liddy. As an educator, what do you find you teach most in the classroom: language or courage? Can style be taught? What kind of mentor are you and how has teaching affected your life and writing?
James Liddy’s was the first workshop I attended, and he really tried to get me to take myself seriously as a writer but I was afraid and only went to a few sessions. Years later, he picked me up from the airport to take me to my reading and I was able to thank him and explain why I left the workshop. I was afraid of praise, I think. He bought me eggs benedict for breakfast.
Richard Murphy wasn’t a teacher, but I got to know him fairly well. There was a certain connection – my father had come across him. I was a great admirer of his Cleggan poems especially, and all his boat poems. Jessie Lendennie, my first publisher, was a very good teacher – I went to the workshops above Mick Taylor’s pub, which Jessie ran as part of the Galway Writer’s Workshop. She was incredibly generous and deserves our continuing thanks.The poet who really helped and guided me was Eavan Boland. She sent me books, and told me to read the Americans. She warned me very early on not to let myself be pigeonholed as a ‘West of Ireland’ poet. She knew too well that all labels are diminishing, ultimately. She and Carol Anne Duffy introduced Michael Schmidt to my work. Her clarity and forensic critical explorations really impressed me. I think I introduced her to her Stanford predecessor at a dinner during Cuirt. She really encouraged me to write a prose book on that period. She was immensely helpful to me regarding Cuirt, not least because she was on the Arts Council at that time, and she introduced me to good American poets, to Adrienne Rich whom I met with her, to the work of Louise Glück and Brigit Pegeen Kelly and several others.
Education was, and is, a basic human right. Every citizen of every country should have access to decent schooling, at all levels. It is the area in which I try to put something back. When I met Frank McCourt and he asked me if I liked teaching. I said ‘I love it.’ and he was delighted because not everyone who teaches feels that way. I have done some lecturing all through my life, starting in Lisbon.
I try to teach language and reading, critical as well as poetry. My reading lists are not overly long but they are concentrated. I can try to help a student towards discernment. Eavan gave me the letters of Lowell and Bishop so that I would see one relationship between a man and a woman who were literary equals, and see that he regarded her as such. That’s how to teach.
You can help with craft, of course, and discovery and joy in language. The mechanics of style can be taught. Prosody can be taught. I find myself putting a lot of emphasis on tone – and all the basic stuff we learned in Latin and English and Irish grammar and scansion. You can’t teach courage but you can encourage. I’d like to think I do that.
You’d have to ask my students what kind of teacher I am, but I’d say I ask quite a bit of them and they always work hard.
Having held various residencies in America, including the Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University, you have a close association with the US, a country whose formative poets began in a literate culture distinctively different to how poems were absorbed into national memory in Ireland. Do American students approach literature differently to Irish ones? How does an oral tradition affect a poet’s identity and sensibility?
Every culture approaches literature differently. Latins, for example, with their rich and vast canon, have a very different approach to the British. Americans are no exception. I have always really enjoyed teaching in America. I find it refreshing, and the students work very hard, at least in my experience. The attitudes are different, more daring and less trammelled, and they have great enthusiasm, which sometimes has to be tempered, but that’s better than indifference. America is huge and diverse. I always hope for, and often get, some kids from black and Latino backgrounds, from other cultures and we look at what their oral culture is and was. One bi-lingual student can open up a world for a poetry class.
I go on the basis that everyone has a culture, and get them to explore that, mostly through place. I find Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems a marvellous teaching aid, as well as fabulous and often fun. I remember teaching The Táin in Philadelphia, and it instantly became a cartoon. Cuchulainn was the incredible hulk with his spasms. They were spot on. Once when I was teaching The Dead and a student said Gabriel was lacking in ‘emotional intelligence’. Fair enough! I find American students’ confidence liberating. Native Americans have a rich oral and song culture, and it’s my job to point that out and ask students would they begin to familiarise themselves with that and teach me about it.
An oral tradition gives you a feel for language, and an acceptance of its importance. It has carried much of the world’s traditions, history and poetry in its arms for most of history, after all. The epics were carried from mouth to mouth for a long time before they were written down and made static. Much of our history is carried in song and music, even in the names of tunes.
You’ve spoken about the hurt surrounding your inarticulacy in Irish, the language of our grandmothers. And your collection Where the Rocks Float (Salmon, 1993), about linguistic colonization was in some way a tribute to them. Can you speak a little about this linguistic ‘in betweenness’, the shape of words and how you navigated through an inherited tradition?
That was the book of my ancestors and I let the boats speak in their voices. Boats are female. She. Linguistic colonisation does incalculable psychological damage. It is not the same as the enrichment of adding a language. It is taking your own away, which in my case, took my voice away, or the voice of my people and place. Naturally, people gradually made English fit their purposes, but a lot was lost. Tone is the biggest loss, I think, and emotional precision.
I was born in between. We were visited by cousins whose first language was Irish, and a lot of the names for plants and rocks and places were in Irish. I became aware gradually of the difference in blás, in flavour, what Kavanagh called ‘hint and tint’ of words in Irish from those in English. I also felt that we were looked on by visitors as people who were uneducated and didn’t speak English properly. I think that sense came very early. Kids notice the small condescensions. This might not have mattered if I wanted to do engineering, or science but that’s not how it was.
The boats got me through, I think. And ‘Where the Rocks Float’ gets its title from a miracle attributed to St Cáilín. My Uncle Mark told me the story so vividly that almost thirty years later, I had a sudden clear glimpse of the rocks floating in a line behind the boat, and the eerie feeling on the back of that fisherman’s neck.
I’m still negotiating and in between, one way or another. I don’t see land as fixed, for example. I find that place is not always tethered to location. Now that comes directly from the Irish lore. Hy Brasil was all over the place on the old maps.
At the moment I’m working out of a story from one of the annals.
Your work reverberates in the sea – The Man of Aran, Antikythera, The Maighdean Mhara are among the most outstanding and memorable of sea poems – not least Valparaiso (2012, Carcanet) a collection that arose out of a residency aboard the Irish marine research vessel: The Celtic Explorer. Can you talk a little about this monastic and visionary voyage, about your relationship with the sea, and also about the feminine and how the female voice finds expression in the Metaphor?
I had a great time on the Explorer. Very monastic and good for work. I hope to do another voyage, if they’ll have me. I was Writer-At-Sea, and it was the perfect writing place for me. There was a crew of scientists from France and Spain and the UK as well as Ireland, and I hung out with them in the evenings. I was very proud of myself, because I had to ‘pass muster’. I was able to observe the tiny marine creatures from the pellagic, under the microscope and I incorporated a phrase from one of the Spanish women in the long poem. “He is bad. And rrred.’ She said with a little grin of approval.
There were conversations about ethics, philosophy, and I learned a good deal by asking questions. I had worked with marine scientists for many years on educational workshops and Schools programmes, which was why I was invited. I also had a background in PR, and some of the issues around fish farming, and the science around it, still interested me.
The Master and crew were quietly welcoming, and left me to get on with my notes at a little table on the bridge. Heaven. I felt minded, and completely at peace and sketched the centre of the book on board. Then I went to Paris to finish the book.
I don’t find Ireland easy. I am not good at negotiating things, but at sea, or at a distance, my focus is cleaner, and the distractions are easier to avoid. A ship is the perfect place for me to write. A ship with scientists even better.
There was no decision about metaphor involved in writing about the sea. Boats are female so I borrowed the voices of boats I knew or had been in. The sea is the element that makes sense to me. Maybe it gives me the necessary distance.
As to the female voice, my own voice is female, the women I knew worked hard, were much stronger than I am, and I wrote out of what I knew. They had brought up children in great hardship and poverty, many had gone to America and they seemed to take on whatever life threw at them without complaint.
The metaphor I found appropriate was one of metamorphosis, in The Seal Woman and The Otter Woman, in fact in much of ‘The Knife In The Wave’. This is about Galway, and about learning to live in an alien element. It deals with the difference in how men and women deal with, and view, the world emotionally. I was exploring those differences in that book, using those legends.
On a more personal level, I had been very sick with a collapsed lung and was terrified when I couldn’t read a whole line aloud, so I became acutely and physically aware of the connection of poetry with the breath. I started with Walcott’s ‘Omeros’ in the hospital.
…’ and O was the conch shell’s invocation, mer was
both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,
os, a grey bone…’
Although a powerful bardic tradition was established in the absence of women, your broad choice of subject matter radicalized the Irish poetic past and challenged traditional stereotypes of women. Are there contradictions and negotiations yet to be made as a female poet writing in Ireland today? Are you still expected to write about feminism? Does poetry have a gender?
I think poetry has as many genders as there might be, and none. After all, the Greeks changed gender at will, and often fairly bizarrely. A run through Hesiod’s Theogony will put paid to a lot of gender stereotyping.
I have no idea of whether I’m expected to write about feminism and I can’t imagine such a stipulation. I fought against male critics deciding what the subject matter for poetry should be, deriding poems that were ‘domestic’, while at the same time suggesting that women were not up to the more masculine domain of the Classics and the nation. What a heap of absolute nonsense that was. There are no prescribed subjects in poetry. Poets know this.
If you mean are women treated by the same critical standards as male poets, I’m not sure they are. Eavan Boland has written about this, and she has written about it very well.
What concerns me is the poets’ freedom to write what they want, about what they want, regardless of style or subject matter.
Women are taken far more seriously now than when I started writing, but I think the standards of criticism are not as developed as they might be.
Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I worked as a clerk for the National Coal Board. I was so useless that they tried to kick me upstairs to study for the Kings Inns but I went to Lisbon instead.
Richard Hugo in his book of poetics, The Triggering Town, talks of music begetting its own truth and of how a poet’s willingness to abandon truth and follow the music maximises his/her chances of writing a good poem. Your poems are the music of Ireland, America and Southern Europe. Can you talk a little about the importance of music in your life, the Orphic impulse and how it manifests in your work?
I don’t know that book, but he sounds interesting. Follow the music is right. Rilke says :
‘/the daring first notes of song pierced through the barren numbness;/’
Music is another language and I cannot imagine life without it.
From Bach to Sinead O’Connor, from Callas to Gal Costa, it cleanses the palate, and makes time speed up or slow down. In the occasional brilliant moment, it makes time stop. I’ve been lucky to work a lot with musicians of all genres, from the National Chamber Choir to Sharon Shannon. The one area I haven’t done anything in is opera, and I’d like to do something there.
I first went to the opera in Lisbon’s Sao Carlos Theatre, and I used to listen to the music and chat during the gaps in rehearsals. I listened in snatches, because I was let in to rehearsals before I ever went to a full opera. It was magical – a fusion of music and fabulous over the top theatre. If I hadn’t become a writer, I’d have tried to be a singer, nothing too ambitious, just good enough for a decent choir.
As a writer, you say that you exist somewhere on a continuum between Derek Mahon’s dazzling dark and Sylvia Plath’s light of the mind, cold and planetary. Could you explain what you mean by that?
God, did I? But yes, the mind and the imagination. The wonderful Orphic voice of Mahon, his absolute integrity and the play of a brilliant if unforgiving mind of Plath. I think a poet has to be careful to let the odd song sneak in past the mind’s cold eye. Wallace Stevens’ got the balance right, I think. I’m a lyric poet. I had no choice. So perhaps I’ve had to be careful not to let that carry me away. Sometimes though, especially since the plague, I think what the hell. Go for it.
Your work seems to come (as Charles Bukowski said all writing should) unasked, out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut. I know you’ve spoken about poems in terms of boatbuilding but what inspires you, where do your poems come from and can you talk a little about how they develop? What makes them float?
Well, I think whatever floats your boat, it’ll sink without decent crafting. They come from all sorts of things and places and music. Then from silence. The trouble is to be there to grab their tails as they fly by… that’s where the desk comes in, or at least the notebook.
I write in books. There’s always something I’m exploring, whether I know it or not. Then there’s the odd gift. We all need those from time to time. Or something happens, like when Notre Dame went on fire. I wrote the sonnet for Paris very fast, it came almost whole, except for some trimming. Or a poem for my grandson, which came from making marmalade, the poem’s title, and missing his shining face. That took more work, but essentially it merged with a memory – real or imagined – of a painting of a man juggling planets made of oranges and his face was in the form of the sun. But normally, I wait for the obsession du jour to make itself felt, lines here and there, poems drafted in between, but always a development of a central work which may or may not come to anything. Then it’s nerve and fate until something catches and I dive in, days and days of work, often with little to show for it, then a race to the finish. I wouldn’t recommend it but you do what you can.
I had a terrifying silence during the first lockdown, since before it in fact, and I thought, for the first time, what if I never write again? I had never experienced this before. I was sustained by something Michael Longley said to me twenty years ago, about silences being very important. I wrote one poem I’ll publish, and a few I’ll let sit. Anyway, I seem to be on the way out of it, and realise a lot has been turning over during this time.
You’re the author of eight poetry collections including the transitional A Consideration of Silk (Salmon Poetry, 1990), the linguistic New & Selected The Boning Hall (Carcanet, 2002) and the mythological Playing the Octopus (Carcanet, 2016). How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer over the years? How, for example, are the poems of your recent book, Gaudent Angeli (Carcanet, 2019) in continuity with your previous work? How are they different?
I see a continuum but maybe the readers don’t. Of course the point of view, and to an extent, the temperature of the language changes through life. You hope there’s an evolution. The central section of the last book goes back to the Greeks, to Persephone and Demeter. I have a Persephone poem in about my fourth book, but it is at a different stage in my life, and in the life of the myth, so my understanding is different.This happens with all poets, of course.
I don’t read my books much once they are written, apart from readings, so I haven’t thought about this.
I think some themes are followed through almost all the books. The female voice, the house motif, the sea, music. But the tunes played are different, and the order of play changes. I’m writing more in animal voices now, which is a delight. And I will probably continue with Sweeney poems. And translations/versions.
I read widely enough outside English, and that probably influences me more than anything, the attempt to liberate myself from the isolation of being a poet in Ireland.
Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Ciaran Carson gave this advice : ‘Write a line. One line. Then write another.’
And a line, from Auden:
‘About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters…’
Eudora Welty once said that ‘No art ever came out of not risking your neck’. What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken as a writer?
The biggest risk? Coming back to Ireland in the late eighties when everyone that could leave was getting out.
As an essential poet in the English language, your work has been described as precise and masterful, rhythmic, exhilarating and alive to the redemptive possibilities of language. Are you happy with the way poetry criticism has perceived you? Has the status and canonicity of your work affected your writing in any way?
As to critics, you occasionally get a good critic, who reads the book with attention and that’s always a great relief. If the review is also favourable, that’s really a huge boost. But there are rarely that many of those. Too often, criticism tells more about the critic than the work and that sort of notice is fairly harmless, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative.
I don’t think I’ve been canonised. Far from it.
You are in constant dialogue with your predecessors by drawing in and on a wide frame of intellectual and cultural references. Rilke, Picasso, Bunyan, Brodsky, Rich and Healy to name a few. In terms of tradition, how important is it to break bread with the dead or to have ‘historical sense’ as Eliot would frame it?
It’s basic and essential. It has never mattered to me whether a writer is dead or alive, if the work is alive. I’m re-reading Stevens at the moment and am astonished at the freshness of the work. But then, look at Milton. I dived into our own literature in the early days, but had to read the contemporary American poets, as well as a few of my own contemporaries here, to get the courage to write in my own voice. As with all writers, there is a constant dialogue with other poets through their work. Some constantly reference one or two, some more.
Your reference to Borges’ Vaiven (the back-and-forth flash and swing of a knife) – in Once (Gaudent Angeli, 2019) is as fitting an image for him as for the broadminded and communicative nature of your poetry. In the ultimate Vaiven, if the to and fro is kept up long enough, the movements become indistinguishable and boundaries dissolve, as they do in your personal life and poetry: between countries, worlds, languages, between self and other, between life and death, the mutability of the sea, etc. I wonder if you might say something about your antipathy to binaries and the importance of engagement and interconnection in your life and work?
Thank you for spotting the Vaiven. I’m interested in the time /space conundrum. The sea teaches you early that borders are precarious affairs, and very mutable, not to mention pervious. A great hero of mine was John De Courcy Ireland. I had the honour of reading for him, and often hearing him talk. This was when I was involved in a conference de-nuclearisation of the ocean with the Irish branch of the North Atlantic Network. One of the things he was passionate about was how the sea recognised no borders and if you pollute one part, the pollution spreads on the current. This is also the case with the earth but of course, political powers have been slow to accept that. Now, they have to. Binary thinking is designed to simplify, stupify and control. It has been the perfect marketing language, which helped propel certain politicians into power. Unless we learn this language, teach it to our kids and interrogate the algorithms, it will be the end of what democracy we have.
We can make it work for us, but we need to get cracking. Covid has been a perfect testing ground for the unfettered power of certain conglomerates. Every language is a democratic project. When one dies, the loss is incalculable. The more languages we have, the greater the memory and memory is precious to the human race. Books and memory have a rich, if complex synthesis.
I have always distrusted anyone that says ‘ they’, meaning ‘not one of us’. That’s what binary thinking does. Divides – this or that, for or against, yes or no. It is the enemy of nuance and of art. Instead of being a very useful tool, the machine could become an oppressive one. We can work it out.
Finally, what can we expect to see next from Mary O’Malley? Any exciting projects in the pipeline?
There are a few things. I want to get a prose book finished and ready to go to market by the end of Spring. I am continuing with the essays, which will become a book when I’ve got them collected. Then there’s always another book of poems tentatively in the making.
I’m to guest edit an issue of ‘Reading Ireland’ for 2021 so I have to get moving on that after Christmas. I have a few unfinished plays that I might go back and have a look at but what I really want is to write a little opera.
Mary O’Malley is published by Salmon and Carcanet and you can read some of her new work in issue 44 of The Blue Nib.