"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Launch of the Prairie Schooner Irish Issue!

This last week, Prairie Schooner, the venerable literary journal on which I am happy to serve as the Senior Nonfiction Reader, celebrated the launch of its special Irish issue. Over two days (Thursday and Friday), we welcomed four visiting writers, Aidan Rooney, Nuala Ní Chonchuír, Deanie Rowan Blank, and Sandra Bunting. (Click here to read Nuala's write-up on her trip.) There were interviews, readings, and it was a great time. I was a part of the panel on contemporary Irish writing, moderated by Dr. Stephen Behrendt, and it contained Aidan Rooney, Nuala Ní Chonchuír, my friend Bret Shepard, and myself. Our broad topic was the role of place and landscape in contemporary Irish writing, something very near and dear to my own heart, but the discussion went off in many interesting directions, too many to report here. But I would like to summarize and think about a couple of the ideas we did talk about--and feel free to weigh in on any of these things. We didn't come to any conclusions, but I'm not sure we wanted to.

For me, being interested in place studies as I am, it's really interesting to see my own definitions of place being expanded. It's one thing to think of environment as encompassing both the natural and built environments, and as Aidan Rooney pointed out, "Joyce [in Ulysses] made the urban very important." And we considered the way that Ireland is viewed as homogeneous, but it's actually very regionally diverse. Accents differ, language differs, perspectives and values differ. So considering all those factors that influence our idea of place need to be expanded. We considered the traditional "sense of place" in Irish writing, how it is tied to the rural, and how the Irish are continuing to reclaim their right to name their places. The place is tied very much to the land. But there's also the issue of immigration, which sets up a sense of placelessness as well.

But I also started to think of place studies in terms of domestic space, of houses and such (especially as they play out in the big house genre)--and what happens when we expand the domestic space to also encompass the body as place. The fiction of Nuala Ní Chonchuír is very intensely situated in the body as place (which makes boiling down what her stories are about to sex and relationships dangerously simplistic). When one of our panel members mentioned that (I forget who), someone else quipped, "Let's not go there"--which is an interesting choice of phrasing, one that means there is a there there to go, i.e., a physical place as well as an intellectual one. This week in my Women's Rhetoric class, we're reading bell hooks and her discussion of the homeplace as a place of political situation--and such is also true in other spheres. Women's bodies are intensely political spaces, but I'm only beginning to think of that kind of rhetoric and that kind of performance in terms of place studies. This is a new idea for me, so I'm very much looking forward to spending some quality time on Jstor.

But other considerations and expansions in the ways we think about place moved in our discussion from the page as space to thinking about digital space, in terms of writing and literature. Nuala Ní Chonchuír made a comment about the performance poets working in Ireland right now, how anti-page they are, and Stephen Behrendt observed how many of his students come to class reading on their Kindles. There has been a shift, whether writers are on board with digital forms of literacy or not, a shift has happened. But the page is still an important space. One of my fiction students who was attending the panel wondered about "literary Darwinism" and the internet, wondering if good work will always be good work, no matter how much crap is posted on the internet (I'm paraphrasing). There will always be a tension between the benefit of access readers have to works they would never have been exposed to before, simply because of this digital space, and more traditional venues of publishing that prize the page. Nuala Ní Chonchuír also brought up the changing editors of Poetry Ireland Review and the recent death of the Irish Times poetry critic. She said that poetry is losing the visibility it once had on the page. Interestingly enough, Behrendt commented on Ted Kooser's poetry project, the goal of which is to increase the visibility of poetry in newspapers.

And the third major item I'd like to report on came towards the end of our session, a piece I wish we could have explored further. The question came: "how do you define Irish poetry?" And the immediate response was that poetry is poetry, that the first thing a writer must do is be human. Fiction must be real life. But then the conversation shifted, Aidan Rooney commented that there is a tendency for Irish writers to do what is expected of them, that they are Irish first. The result is a kind of quaintness. But he hesitates to feel Irish all the time, that he wants to be known as a good poet, not a good Irish poet. Our editor, Kwame Dawes, piped up with a reference to Langston Hughes and his discussion over the difference between being a good poet and a good black poet--and that what's happening is not as universal as we like to think it is. Such a desire is actually very specific and it is white, coming from a position of power. The question we were not able to answer was how would we know if a writer is writing an Irish poem or not? What makes a poem--or a poet--Irish? Someone brought up that in the Dublin Writer's Museum, it is all men, except for one woman. We discussed writing from a perspective that is not our own, but we acknowledged the great responsibility in doing so, especially when there has been exploitation in that relationship.

As our panel ended, Stephen Behrendt said, "We write to find our own reality, our own definition of self. We write to find who I am at this moment." And quite succinctly, Nuala Ní Chonchuír said, "At the end of the day, we don't go to the desk thinking 'I'm a woman writer.' We just go to the desk."


  1. What makes a poem or poet Irish pretty much equals the main question in my Irish Lit class that I teach

  2. I think it's an important question, especially in the larger context of teaching literature and writing. When my fiction class--who were all required to attend something during the launch--talked about what they heard, what they saw, what connections they were making, I was surprised how many of them were surprised that they enjoyed themselves. One student said he doesn't know anything about Irish literature, so he didn't expect to get anything out of the panel he went to, and he was surprised how much of what we were talking about sounded familiar. Another student chimed in, agreeing that she heard the writers talking a lot about things we'd been talking about in class. I replied that fiction is fiction and there's no real difference in what we're talking about in our class and what's happening in what they're writing or fiction of any other place (poetry too). I think that's what surprised them most.

  3. Hey Karen, God bless your memory, girl. Yes, we did discuss all of that and it was interesting and enjoyable. Thanks for your part in it, you had great things to say, and it was lovely to meet you, however briefly. Hope to meet again!
    Nuala x