Theo Dorgan speaks to Tracy Gaughan

Theo Dorgan speaks to Tracy Gaughan

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‘I hope I have been true to what was given to me to say, and that I have dealt honestly with the language.’ The Blue Nib welcomes Irish man of letters, Theo Dorgan who took time out to speak to Tracy Gaughan about his life in literature, the new flourishing in Irish language poetry and spending time with Doris Lessing.

Can you talk about your early interactions with books?  What sorts of books did you read and which voices structured the experience of childhood for you?  What writers continue to inspire you?  

I was reading by age four, everything and anything that came my way. Comics and newspapers mostly, of course, but books before long. The usual books of the time  — Treasure Island, Coral Island (which I thought the better book), and then a raft of Biggles and Just William. My father had a subscription to a library, The Companion Book Club, so I was reading all kinds of unsuitable things, unsuitable for my age I mean, such as The Ascent of Everest, The Phantom Major (about the founding of the SAS!), Seven Little Sisters (about the crossing of the Pacific on a raft), that sort of thing.  One book that shaped my childhood was a rather strange little English pastoral, The Wind in The Willows, that taught me how to evoke a landscape.

Charles Simic said he began writing poems to impress girls. How and when did your life in poetry begin?  Can you recall any of those first encounters or regrets over any early publications – ‘a word once sent abroad, can never return’ and all that.  

I began writing poems when I went to UCC, hesitantly it has to be said. I was friends with Thomas McCarthy and the late Seán Dunne. We were close, also, to Maurice Riordan and Gregory O’Donoghue, a year ahead of us. We benefited greatly from a strong friendship with John Montague, who had come to teach there, and from the support of the Professor of English, Sean Lucy.  Of course I was writing very bad poems then, technically awkward and probably quite sentimental. I published a pamphlet called SLOW AIR before graduating …very hard to come by now, which may be a mercy.  Mostly love poems, of a sort, so I have a certain fellow feeling for Simic here,  but with perhaps this difference: I was writing poems to and about young women who impressed me.

In your short memoir in The Vibrant House (Four Courts Press, 2017) you recall an image of your ten-year-old self reading a book thinking ‘remember this’ as a point when you ‘began to be twice in the world’ and I was struck by this extraordinary awareness at that age of what Eliot calls the point of intersection between time and the timeless. You speak about always knowing you would become a writer, was this that moment, that recognition of the ‘me’ that would experience life and the ‘I’ that would write of it?  What kind of writer do you think you’ve become?

Oh I think that, quite unreflectingly, I decided I was a writer almost from the point when I learned to read. I never questioned it, to be honest, I simply took it as a given. I thought I would write novels, you see, I was quite surprised when poetry found me to be honest, but there was, then, the same kind of unquestioning acceptance. As to the imperative to remember, that, too, was there from the start. I had that sense of being doubled with myself as far back as I remember. You ask, what kind of writer I think I have become — I don’t think that’s for me to say. All judgements of that order are contingent, shaped by the prejudices of the moment. I hope I have been true to what was given to me to say, and that I have dealt honestly with the language.

Child development specialists often talk about the value of meandering: of giving children  the opportunity to pause, reflect and work things out slowly, to spend hours just firing stones, and in that same essay you recall your boy-self wandering away into the garden or slowly through the house, just tracing the texture of things or laying a cheek against a wall.  Poetry too, insists on allowing the imagination to wander and I wonder how, in an increasingly frenetic world, do you ‘subtract yourself from the known world’ and make time to fire stones or lay your cheek against a wall?

That’s the most difficult art of all, isn’t it? Teaching yourself, allowing yourself, to just walk away into the silence? It doesn’t seem to be needed for poems in the same way as for prose: poems either happen or they don’t (I’m discounting the rewriting process here, that can take days, weeks or years), a poem can strike anywhere, at any time, I’ve always known that the poems write us, all you need is the brutal discipline to stop and listen when one nudges into view. For prose I need to get away for a spell of time, preferably somewhere warm and foreign and by the sea. For the deeper stocktaking, I like long voyages under sail; that strips away a lot of noise and busy-ness. But, in truth, I was always capable of a willed absent-mindedness.

William Stafford likens art’s power to that of religions’ in that it involves exploration and discovery of the essential self.  Does writing have a sacramental aspect for you?

Yes, it does, but I don’t like to speak of it. That’s the job of the poems.

Talk to me a little about the ‘Loco por Lorca’ project and your collaboration with musician Cormac Breatnach and also about the duende as Gaeilge in Bailéid Giofógacha, (Coiscéim, 2019), your Irish language translations of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Romancero Gitano. What is it about the Spanish poet that so fascinates you?   

Precisely what you refer to, that quality of duende, the charge of inexplicable energy that makes the heart contract, the blood run more freely and the hair stand on the back of the neck. Lorca’s preoccupations are not mine, I feel no particular affinity with him as a person, his themes are not my themes, but I respond strongly to the charge of feeling in his work, in the poems and in the plays. I include here the very feeling of the words in your mouth as you speak them. I translated the Romancero because, prompted by Cormac, I had translated a few poems of Lorca’s into Irish and the reception given those translations in Madrid was extraordinary; so many people, who had no Irish of course, were shocked at how close to the music of Lorca the poems sounded as Gaeilge, more than in any other language into which he had been translated. Home again, thinking about this, it occurred to me that I should take things a bit further, to see what might happen, and before I quite knew what was happening I was neck-deep in the Romancero. I did much of my schooling in Irish, so there was the dimension also of finding my way back into a language that was the language of my childhood and adolescence — perhaps there was something of a reconnection to unmediated emotions and feelings, a kind of liberation backwards into play, into unencumbered imagination?

And in terms of translation more broadly – you’ve translated from the Slovene of Barbara Korun and from the French of Maram al-Masri (a selection of which will feature in Issue 44 of The Blue Nib) – how do you ‘think’ yourself into another language and into the mindset of the person who wrote the text?

I’m not sure that what happens corresponds to what we call thinking. Of course there is the sober drudge-work of cross-checking meanings through the dictionaries, but it’s more important, I think, to surrender yourself to the personality of the author, by which I mean the personality as expressed in the work. It’s a process that is measured and considered and at the same time dependent on being able to make that empathetic leap. Difference matters, too, and distance. In a strange way, the gender-gap was a help, not a hindrance, as was the marked contrast in cultures — there was a distinct void to be crossed, which made a certain clarity of purpose possible.  I made versions of Barbara Korun’s poems with the aid of an intermediate line-by-line translation, and over 400 e-mails back and forth with Barbara, who has good English. With Maram, it was more a case of improving what French I had and simply giving myself over to the register of what was being translated — again, it comes down to feeling, if you get the tone right, the emotional and linguistic tone I mean, and if you get the words right, the thing is done. It’s probably important to say that there is no such thing as a definitive or unsurpassable translation; the translator will always leave his or her own mark in the translations, the trick is to make it as faint as a watermark, as unobtrusive as possible. As with Lorca, both Maram and Barbara have strong signatures as poets, very different to my own, and in some way that makes it easier to translate them.

Greek mythology is a solid presence in your work and Orpheus (Dedalus, 2018), composed in Sapphics (four-line stanzas) offers a modern take on a foundational mythic figure.  In terms of tradition, what does it mean to use an ancient form in a contemporary world?  Did you find it somehow liberating to write in such a formulaic structure?

Myths endure when the architecture, the bones of the story, are strong enough to bear successive layers of interpretation through time. The figure of Orpheus as the proto-lyric poet has always attracted me, I feel and think that something absolutely necessary hovers in and around, is grounded by, his figure. ORPHEUS came about because I was in Greece, thinking idly about metre, wondering if the Sapphic metre, appropriate to the language in its time, could bear up in a very different language in a very different time. I was wondering, too, if something intrinsic to the metre might prove suitable for a poem about Orpheus. I sat down one morning to try it out, purely as an exercise, and the book just took off like a rocket. And yes, you’re right, it was pure liberation to be working in such a defined and constraining metre, liberation of a particular kind: having to pay attention to the metre, and especially having to be two steps ahead of myself all the time, testing out rhymes and cadence in some near future while writing a line out in the present moment, all that stopped me getting in the way of myself, stopped me thinking in a linear way about exposition, about narrative trajectory, that sort of thing. At any given moment I was wondering what the hell he might do or say next, you see; I was writing to see what would happen next. And it was often, almost always, a surprise.

I love how you described writing your first novel, Making Way (New Island, 2013) a story of friendship, love, and life on the Mediterranean sea.  You say the story came to you on the cusp of sleep and you wrote obsessively for twenty-two days.   Similarly, you wrote the character Orpheus ‘as he spoke himself’ to you.  There’s something of the perfect Romantic wish in writing unfiltered and unmediated and you often speak about poems writing you, arriving from a different region of the mind below consciousness.  Can you talk briefly about the subconscious and the psychic processes involved in your writing?

Look, there’s no point in pretending that I can explain this. What happened with MAKING WAY happened also with SAPPHO’S DAUGHTER and it happened with ORPHEUS. I can describe the process simply by saying it was like taking dictation, but that’s an over-simplification, though there is truth in it. It’s possible that all three books were simply accumulating slowly in the dim recesses of heart and mind until some trigger moment prompted them to appear more or less fully-formed. But to say that is to say much the same thing as to say those works were simply given to me, nothing changes except that the description of the process is articulated inside a different frame of reference. A dear friend of mine, one of the finest poets now writing, was asked once if she would ‘explain’ certain of her poems ‘in her own words’. Only her natural courtesy and kindness stopped her replying bluntly, ‘those are my own words.’ I am content that those books speak for themselves, and while it is a matter of sober fact that their first versions were written extremely quickly, and that in each case the usual rewriting process happened very quickly also, I see no value in speculating about how this happened, I am simply profoundly grateful that it did.

What does it mean to be a member of Aosdána?

I consider it a great honour to be proposed for and elected into such company. Prosaically, as I can access a Cnuas if I need it, membership gives me a kind of safety-net, it allows me, after a long life as an arts administrator, to concentrate on my writing work — but it is the honour that matters, that and the fact that, as a member, I can propose that the honour be conferred on artists whose work I admire and value. At the General Assembly every year, when people stand up to speak with passion and conviction about the work of whoever it is they are proposing for membership, I am always moved by the seriousness of the process, the large-heartedness of it, by the collective wish to honour artists whose work, and whose devotion to the work, merits the recognition of their peers.

You’ve enjoyed a successful career in arts administration, working with the Arts Council, the Irish Writers Centre, as co-director of the Cork Film Festival, and as director of Poetry Ireland in the late 1980s.  How do you think the idiom of poetry has changed in the decades since your tenure there?  What are your feelings about the kind and quality of contemporary poetry you’re seeing today in Ireland?  Who are you reading at the moment and what emerging poets are on your radar?

What mattered most to me in that part of my life given over to arts administration was breaking down walls to give access, to give encouragement, to make space for what might grow. That, and creating a climate of appreciation for what is good, a climate of acceptance and open-minded, rigorous, questioning. I have had the great good fortune of working in concert with good people all my life, to have shared those perspectives in a common endeavour — and look at what has been achieved: so many poets and artists now, musicians, sculptors, filmmakers, such a rich and varied community of makers, a society that values artists more than ever before. Such a rich and welcome concert of voices in poetry now, in all media; I read and listen to the emerging voices with delight — the good, the bad, the indifferent and the as yet undetermined — there’s a fortifying sense of being challenged and uplifted by all this richness, this busy and confident conversation. Equally, I look about me at poets of my own generation and am heartened by their continuing devotion to, and achievements in, the craft. There is in the rising generation a cohort of poets who come from immigrant backgrounds, my sense is that the weaving of these voices into our poetry will be a considerable enrichment and a challenge, a charm against stagnation. There are signs, too, of a new flourishing of poetry in the Irish language, of a rising generation of poets who write in the language without self-imposed or historically-mandated inhibition — wouldn’t that be glorious!

You’re an outspoken critic of the mismanagement, I suppose, of the country by successive governments whose inimical fixation on GDP rather than quality of life amount to what you might consider offenses against the dignity of the person.  The demise of democracy recorded in The Angel of History for example, left you ‘afraid for my country’.  How do these worries affect what and how you write? Do you see anything happening presently in society to give you hope or to assuage those fears, in terms of say social change movements and more politically engaged and informed citizens?  Are alternatives to the political status quo possible?  

Such large questions! My concerns about the Republic and social justice affect me as a citizen, and I do what I can in this arena to contribute to the essential conversation about who we want to be as an evolving people. I have never written a polemic masquerading as a poem, and I hope I never will, but if a political issue surfaces in a poem that I find myself writing, I would never shy away from it. Then, I belong to a generation where “the personal is the political” had a more generous resonance of solidarity than perhaps it has for many now. I see a rising generation that is very much animated by the theory and practice of solidarity, and I applaud them for it; I place great faith in them, just as I am made cautiously hopeful by those young people who have taken up environmental activism as an urgent necessity. That many of these young people seem blithely unaware of the foundational work done by my generation is a source of gentle, sometimes rueful, amusement.  It amuses me also to note that causes and perspectives that would have seen us batoned off the streets or condemned from the altars of Church and State are now unremarkably mainstream. Alternatives are always possible, but whether or not we have time to make deep structural changes in politics, in the face of the coming planetary crisis, is problematic; we are running out of time, that’s for sure.

What’s the best money you ever spent as a writer?

I could give you a hundred answers, but I’ll settle for buying a round of drinks for my impoverished fellow-students with the first small cheque I received for a published poem.

As presenter of the literature review programme, Imprint, and its sister show Imprint: Writer in Profile screened on RTÉ1, you had the pleasure of interviewing an eclectic mix of national and international writers. Is there any one interview you recall as being personally memorable or enjoyable?

Two stand out: that with Edward Said in London, where he made his publicist book him on a later flight to Paris because “this conversation is important, it’s for Ireland”, and the interview in the same series with Doris Lessing. I had admired her enormously since I was 18 or so, and when she opened her front door to us she just stood there and  looked at me, we just stood there, beaming at each other, nothing said. Just that, but this went on so long that I had to be reminded by the producer to introduce the crew. It was a wonderful interview, of course, she was so wise and witty, but every now and then we’d stop talking and just beam at each other again until she’d give a little shake and a mock frown and say, “this is supposed to be an interview, you know, we had better be serious and literary” — which of course just set us all to laughing our heads off again. She was, she continues to be, a luminous presence in my life.

Together with your beloved, the poet, playwright, and professor of poetry, Paula Meehan, you make up the ‘rock and roll’ couple of Irish literature who’ve avoided the pitfalls of competitiveness, instead deepening and deriving great pleasure from one another’s work.  Are your writing practices interwoven?  Are all your poems really love poems?  What does a day in the Meehan/Dorgan household look like?  

I have no idea what you mean by ‘ the rock and roll couple of Irish literature’ but the phrase made me laugh, made us both laugh.  Each is the other’s first and most merciless reader, which is an extraordinary blessing when you come to think of it — what could be better than having someone you trust who lets you away with nothing! It’s no great secret that I adore the ground she stands on, in her life and in her poems. And yes, I hope all my poems are love poems, of one kind or another.

‘In reading, I become a thousand men’ C.S. Lewis says, ‘and yet remain myself …’.  When I read that line I thought of what you once said about poetry: ‘because it has a certain cultural cachet, it permits you to be overwhelmed gracefully with no loss of sense of self.’ Art and music do the same.  What particular poems, artworks, or pieces of music arouse catharsis or Stendhal syndrome in you?  

Far too many to single out one, or even a few. I’m sorry this is not a very helpful answer.

Offering advice on the art of writing, Dorothy Parker suggested that the second greatest favour you can do for aspiring writers is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now while they’re happy.  Any words of wisdom for writers?  What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Advice? Read, and read again, and read more. Write, write and stick at it; what’s for you will find you.

What’s difficult about the process? Holding your nerve while you’re waiting.

Where is Theo Dorgan bound for next?

God alone knows, and mercifully she’s not saying. We’ll have to wait and see.

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You can read poems from The Abduction (Southword Editions, 2020), Dorgan’s third book of translations from the French of the Syrian poet Maram al-Masri, in issue 44 of The Blue Nib.

Theo Dorgan
Theo Dorgan is a poet, and also a non-fiction prose writer, novelist, editor, documentary screenwriter, essayist and translator. Among his recent publications are LIBERTY WALKS NAKED (2017) and BAREFOOT SOULS (2015), translations from the French of the Syrian poet Maram al-Masri. His most recent collections of poems are NINE BRIGHT SHINERS — awarded the Irish Times/Poetry Now Prize for best collection in 2015 — and ORPHEUS, published in 2018, both from Dedalus Press. BAILÉID GIOFÓGACHA, his translations of Lorca's Romancero Gitano into Irish, appeared in 2019. He is a member of Aosdána.

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