- Your collection Strange Countryand some of your past academic work are concerned with the sheela-na-gig stone carvings that can be found across Ireland. What drew you to these carvings as a subject for poetry and study? What is to be taken from a consideration of them in your view?
I was drawn to the sheela-na-gigs because, for me, they vibrate at the threshold of the body, particularly the female body, and the sacred. This is a current in my first collection of poetry, Consent (2013), though that book is very American in its setting. When I happened upon the sheela-na-gigs after moving to Ireland, I could not stop searching for them and ended up seeking out over sixty across Ireland. I read everything I could find, from contemporary academic perspectives, to 19th century antiquarian accounts, to work by other poets who have written on them as well (Susan Connolly, Robin Robertson, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longely, among others). I read in order to write because that’s what I felt compelled to do when I saw them. I didn’t read to figure out what they ‘really are’. Rather, I’m attracted to the idea that we can’t really know, though there are various fascinating and well-supported theories.
Unsurprisingly, I found that what we see in the sheela-na-gigs—whether we seem them as icons of female power, symbols of the Church’s misogyny, pre-Christian goddesses, or earthy sex objects—says so much about the viewer. When what you’re looking at is a stone figure with striated ribs, pointed breasts, bared teeth, and a bald head holding open her vulva, what more do you want? My own consideration of them attempts to dwell in their ambivalence.
- You were born in America but have an Irish citizenship. Does this give rise to a sense of duality in your identity? Do you ever feel like an outsider in either country? Also – how does writing about either country compare to writing about places such as India that have also appeared in your work?
I’ve lived and travelled in a good few states, cities, countries, and regions. To a great extent I am able to do this so easily because of my American passport and white privilege, which means I am not immediately ‘suspect’, regardless of where I go. So I am cautious about claiming an outsider pose or considering my national statuses as conferring symbolic value or artistic caché. However, as someone who has moved around quite a lot, I try to cultivate a level of awareness of my own positionality in various contexts. I am particularly attuned to differences of access to abortion and contraception. How would certain scenarios play out differently in the USA, Ireland, the diverse states in India where I’ve travelled quite a lot, and the UK (where I live now)? There are stark differences in legislation, access, and attitudes. I felt a heightened sense of time and space in relation to this issue specifically following the 2012 death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar after she was denied a termination of her pregnancy in Ireland, the ‘Catholic country’ she was in at the time of her miscarriage. The saying ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ doesn’t cover it.
- A recent project of yours is the MOTHERBABYHOMEcollection. Central to the collection is the use of found texts, including not only historical documents but also comments posted on the internet. How was the process of gathering and arranging these texts? Why did you feel that this was the way to formulate a poetic response to the awful discoveries that were made in Tuam?
The gathering of these documents was and continues to be rather haphazard. (I am still working on this project, and hope to finish it this summer. Who knew that doing 796 visual poems would take so long?) I have a Google alerts set up to my email for each time ‘Tuam’ appears in the news. If it appears now, it is nearly always about the Mother and Baby Home there. I then cull that material, including the ever-expanding comments sections. People are now not Tweeting or posting about it as much, but I also regularly search social media. It’s not a happy place to be, social media, and initially there were terrible attacks on Catherine Corless, the local historian who did all the research on the fact that there were no recorded burials of these children in order to confirm their location an create a memorial. She showed through her systematic research what the local people already knew–they were in septic tanks beneath a grassy green field behind a present-day housing estate. However, when the story broke, the suggestion was that she was wrong about the location and manner of burial, and also that she was ‘anti-Catholic’ and that the whole thing was a kind of ‘Catholic bashing’. That is absurd.
With this project and this approach, I feel that I am making something monumental and ephemeral, reminiscent of the many reports that record atrocities around the world, including the one being written on the Mother and Baby Homes. These kinds of reports are massive, they sit in the foreground of our consciousness when given a space in news reports, and then they seemingly disappear.
I wanted to bring all this language, including truly problematic phrasings and formulations, together. There is something essential in the process of splicing first-hand reports on the state of children and women in the Home–horrific descriptions and accounts by doctors and other witnesses, many of whom ‘signed off’ on the activities in the Home–with the language that won’t look at this, that wants to dismiss it as ‘of its times’. I think there is a kind of witnessing going on at the level of the minutest fragments of language as I break it down and co-mingle it on the page. Despite the horrors of what I am working with textually, I see it as an act of love and a re-interment.