Getting fired up about FIRED! Irish Women Poets and the Canon, an all0Ireland 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.

*Note: This article first appeared in the online literary magazine, THE BLUE NIB. With thanks to Flish McCarthy.

 

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AMERICAN FICTION CARRIES NO KNOWN CONTAMINATING DISEASES

 

A few months ago, there was uproar in the Anglophone world on this side of the Atlantic ocean. Booker had decided to fling its net so wide it is now to include US books for the world’s most prestigious book prize. The Guardian was in a right state, the Irish Times wittered anxiously about it, the Sunday Times had mixed feelings, and for some days it seemed to matter.

But does it matter? In a reversal of the traditional American resistance to anything that threatens Americanism, we now had the spectacle of normally reasonable newspapers and commentators letting a shriek of dismay at the thoughts of the American novel contaminating the pure pool of Booker Prize eligibility with its Baked Beans, Cowboys and Modern Gothic Frontier novels. 

But I wonder if, behind the tut-tutting, there lay a bristling idea that European and Commonwealth cultural offerings = good, while American cultural offerings = questionable, tacky, lurid, and just-what-you’d-expect from the land where Coke and capitalism are the number one value. 

If so, then we are about to have our eyes opened, because the continent of North America remains simultaneously the continent of brave experiment, and robust attention to the ‘values’ of novel-writing. De Lillo, Forde, Auster, Tartt, Easton Ellis, Joyce Carol Oates, Franzen – all familiar names to European readers – are the big fish who have risen to the surface of the book fishpond. But think of what has not yet been discovered from the rich diversity that is America, and why on earth should it too not be eligible for a book prize like the Booker? 

I know those who were dismayed by the decision will say that if the shoe were on the other foot, there would be no question of non-American English speaking writers being included in a Pulitzer line-up, that it’s an all-American prize. There is a distinct sense of ‘they’re going to take ‘our’ prize’ in the air, especially among writers. But in a world where the English language has evolved from early Saxon, moving inexorably throughout England and beyond (by dint of coercive methods some would rather not remember), and in fact been further refined by Americans themselves in an attempt to purify its spelling habits, that’s not really the point. 

The Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Prize) was presented for the first time just before the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2005. Part of its remit is to draw attention to books beyond national borders, and publishers in Austria and Switzerland are eligible to submit books. Admittedly, in the case of the Booker Prize, it has already transcended national borders and for a long time now, its history is one that was inclusive of all the former British colonies, including Ireland. 

That was problematic for some. Kingsley Amis’s attitude to the Booker was one of stinging disregard for what he referred to as the entries of ‘ethnic’ writers, from Jamaica, India, and wherever the world map was once coloured in red. 

But the days of a purely national prize for the citizen-writers of specific countries may be  numbered. The Camões Prize is awarded annually by the Portuguese National Library Foundation for the best work in Portuguese, but includes entries from Brazil. The Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren is awarded every three years to an author from the Netherlands or Belgium, or more recently, Surinam. In Ireland, the Impac Prize for Literature (financially the richest prize in the world at 100,000 Euro, or in the case of a translated work 75,000 to the author and 25,000 to the translator) includes literature in English from all over the world. It would be disingenuous to say that Impac had not unearthed several literary gems we might not otherwise have discovered since its founding in 1994. Yes, it has had three Irish winners (Colum McCann, Kevin Barry and Colm Toibín, with the prospect of another one fairly soon seeing as we have three of our own in the shortlist line-up) but it has also thrown up the likes of Herta Müller, Orhan Pamuk, and brought attention and sales to unsuccessful nominees, including several from Scandinavia.

The important thing about literary prizes is that they must be seen to be generous in their conception and vision. They must be prizes that include rather than exclude, prizes for work by authors who speak the same lingua franca, and for writers who are citizens of this shifting global state we call planet earth. It does not diminish a prize if it expands its territorial remit – rather, it illuminates core artistic values and belief in literary achievement, by widening the field  to show just what great fiction is capable of. 

Why not allow the Americans to throw their vitality into the mix? It doesn’t mean the end of the Traditional Novel as we think we know it, but it may stir up the slightly complacent European stranglehold on all things seen as ‘cultural’, and open our eyes to the fact that Americans also write good fiction that carries no known contaminating diseases.

 

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