Interview with Ciaran Carson


The interview was conducted as part of Jenny’s Ph.D. which was completed in 2013.

JM
In your essay “’Whose Woods These Are… ’: Some Aspects of Poetry and Translation” in the second issue of The Yellow Nib (2006), you recount how as a child you would lie awake at night saying the English word horse over and over to yourself, ‘savouring its strangeness.’ You write that the English horse was ‘a horse of another colour,’ different from the Irish capall. Having grown up with, or in, two languages, how has that influenced you as a writer, considering that language is your instrument? How do you relate something in one language that you have experienced in another?

CC
For a start, it’s made me sceptical about the authority of any one language, or any one take on the world. There are as many alternative universes as there are languages. I’ve realised more and more over the years that my name is an emblem of some kind of fruitful linguistic ambivalence, Ciaran being ultra-Catholic and Carson ultra-Protestant.
Ciaran is from Old Irish, ‘little dark-headed one,’ and Lord Edward Carson is perceived by many unionists and loyalists as the instigator of the state of Northern Ireland. I’m a great fan of the work of Italo Calvino, and I was pleased to learn that he saw his name – Italo, the Italian, and Calvino, the Calvinist Protestant – in the same way. And his work is a series of alternative universes. I think being bilingual also alerts one to the grammar and stylistic procedures of both languages. One language illuminates the other, because one is led to ponder the comparative strangeness of the other. Finally, I’m reminded of the pronouncement of the American baseball player Yogi Berra (famous for his malapropisms): ‘If you come to a fork in the road, take it.’

JM
Could you describe your writing process?

CC
I suppose it depends if it’s poetry or prose. With regard to poetry, a poem might have its beginning in a phrase that drifts into my mind: something overheard in a pub conversation, a sign on the street, an advertising jingle, a cry in the street at night, or a sequence of words appearing seemingly from nowhere. I would have no idea at that stage as to what its consequences might be. I carry a notebook with me and jot down phrases of this kind. Many of them don’t get any further, and I don’t know by what mysterious process a poem might evolve from them. When I get down to the business of writing a poem, I sometimes write in longhand first, and then type it on the computer; sometimes, especially for prose, I deal directly with the computer. Since becoming at least semi-computer-literate, I’ve tended to explore the internet for ideas or phrases that might relate to the work in hand. For instance, I might take a phrase I’ve just dreamed up, Google it, and see what usages, if any, might appear in the wider web of language. I’m often surprised to see that a phrase I thought original has been used before, albeit sometimes in a very different context to the one I had in mind; and this has an effect on what I write. I could say that whatever applies to poetry also applies to prose, except prose takes longer.

JM
In your work, words trigger other words and narratives are sometimes driven by linguistic association. In the sequence ‘Letters from the Alphabet’ (Opera Et Cetera, 1996), each poem is sparked off by the sound or shape of a letter of the alphabet and, as implied in the title, the poems themselves may be seen as letters, messages, from the alphabet. To what extent do you see language as co-author of your writings?

CC
Very much so. The Googling example I’ve just given is an illustration of that. I think of myself as an explorer of the language, which is so much more vast than its speakers and writers. I want to learn from language how I might see the world. I’m in love with the peculiar syntactical or grammatical twists and turns any language takes.

JM
What draws you to a particular form, such as the haiku or the sonnet?

CC
Constraints, arbitrary as they are, are always useful because in my experience the first form of words that occur to me to say what I have in mind are rarely the best form of words. In labouring to make the expression fit the constraint, be it syllable-count or rhyme, one invariably comes up with a more accurate construction. One usually learns that the original idea was clumsy and ill-framed. Constraints lead one to strain for better definitions. To cleanse the doors of perception.

JM
You combine different genres – one reviewer called Fishing for Amber (1999) a ‘genre-defying’ book – you take liberties with poetic conventions, and you challenge the reader’s expectations on, for example, a sonnet. This play with form becomes part of meaning. Do you see form as being semiotic?

CC
It’s bound to be, isn’t it? Not only the words, but their music. When I came to translating Dante, it seemed to me that the ‘meaning’ of what he wrote was inextricably bound up with the terza rima form and its music, whether mellifluous or harsh. It seemed to me that most, if not all, of the many English translations of the Inferno lacked that music. So I wanted to get music into my translation, if sometimes at the expense of what we might think of as the ‘literal’ meaning of the lines. On the other hand, the constraint of the form often led me to consider the original in ways I never would have done, just as the constraints of a sonnet forces the writer to reconsider what he first had in mind to say. Constraint leads to exploration, adventure, and surprise. I don’t want to keep writing what I think I know. I want to find out.

JM
Do you think of your poems in terms of sequence, in terms of collections? How does the writing of one poem influence another poem?

CC
My latest collection of poems, For All We Know, was very much conceived as a book, though I didn’t realise it until I had written three or four poems in the same voice. And I think that tendency to think in terms of books or sequences of poems has been increasing over the years. As for how the writing of one poem influences another, it’s often very much a case of taking a line for a walk and seeing where it takes you. It’s as much an unconscious process as it is deliberate, even though one has some notion of an overall structure. The alphabet sequences are an example of that. The sequence is given, but each poem is a play with the potential of the individual letters.

JM
Your work presents me with the image of the palimpsest, in the sense of something written and written again, creating layers in which narratives overlap, each narrative bearing the trace of another. For example, stories and phrases recur from one collection to another, you write poems ‘after Baudelaire,’ and your work is rich in literary allusions and etymological excavations.

CC
Any time I’m asked, ‘If there were one word of advice you would give to an aspiring writer?’ I always say, ‘Read.’ If I were allowed another word, I’d say, ‘Listen.’ I love to read and listen, and to learn from what I read and hear. Behind anything we write is a world of other writings, and behind everything we say is a world of other sayings. A couple of years ago I was commissioned by Penguin Classics to translate the Old Irish epic, The Táin, which was published in October 2007. When I came to the original text, I discovered that it was not so much a text as several texts, layers of successive narratives and episodes modified by the particular agendas of the writers for their particular historical times: palimpsests, in other words, or linguistic archaeological layers. I learned something from translating those sometimes contradictory points of view, and from the several different styles embodied in the Táin. My Introduction to the Penguin book enlarges on that.

JM
I recently came across an interesting book on Borges, Invisible Work. Borges and Translation (2002), by Efraín Kristal. Kristal says that Borges believed that, in our age, all a writer can do is to rewrite what has already been written. For Borges, the author is ‘a recreator or an editor’ of other works. Your work suggests that literary texts are made from recycled earlier texts. What are your thoughts on literature, literary creation and the author?

CC
As it happens, I’ve just ordered Walter Benjamin’s The Archive, a selection from his personal manuscripts and documents – texts, commentaries, scraps, photographs, postcards, fragments. I’ve been fascinated by Benjamin ever since, some twenty years ago, I came across a quotation from him which I used as an epigraph for Belfast Confetti: ‘Not to find one’s way about in a city is of little interest… But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires practice… I learned this art late in life: it fulfilled the dreams whose first traces were the labyrinths on the blotters on my exercise books.’ It occurs to me that perhaps I could glean something from Benjamin’s fragments to create a text of my own – a textile using his scraps and threads. But it’s very early days yet, and I have to see what happens. As you know, I’ve done this kind of thing in the past, especially in Breaking News, which embedded quotations or paraphrases from William Howard Russell’s account of the Crimean War. Even though I sometimes used extensive verbatim quotation, I always felt the words were my own, since they were necessarily modified by my own experience of conflict, and by the current wars in the Middle East, which bear eerie parallels to the mess and chaos of the Crimea. I don’t think that any writer has anything new to say, but then again any utterance, no matter how often it has been uttered by others or by oneself, is necessarily new, because the circumstances, and the times that are in it, are new. You’ll recall Borges’ story of Pierre Menard, who rewrites Don Quixote verbatim, yet changes its meaning because the words mean different things now than what they did in Cervantes’ time, or have acquired different connotations. It’s a kind of translation in the literal etymological sense of moving stuff from one place to another, whether through space or time.

JM
Translations, of various kinds, occupy a central place in your work. The Alexandrine Plan (1998) reveals a playfulness in your translations. ‘Parfum Exotique’ is translated as ‘Blue Grass,’ a brand which figures in your own poems, ‘La Géante’ is turned into ‘The Maid of Brobdingnag,’ transferring Baudelaire’s female giant into a citizen of Swift’s fictional world, and the setting for Rimbaud’s ‘Au Cabaret-Vert,’ Charleroi, is wittily transplanted to Kingstown in your version of that poem. At the same time, there is more than verbal play going on in The Alexandrine Plan – translating and ‘Irishing’ seem to become complementary concepts.

CC
You might say that all writing is translation: the attempt to arrive at a suitable frame of words for one has in mind, or what one thought one had in mind. And translation is a form of reading, whether of the original text, or one’s understanding of it. The music of the poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé had been hovering at the back of my mind ever since I encountered them in a school anthology in 1965, when I was seventeen. The Alexandrine Plan was an attempt to pay homage to that memory. I’m sure the original poems were not far from my mind in 1968, the year of the Paris événements and their counterpart in Belfast, the Civil Rights’ marches and the violence which ensued from them. It seemed to me that, for all their differences, these three poets were engaged in some kind of revolutionary re-writing of our normal perceptions of the world. Transplanting that project to Ireland seemed appropriate. At the same time I wanted to see how far one could accommodate a very French metre, the alexandrine, in English; and its rhythms didn’t seem so far away from that of some eighteenth-century Irish ballads, which were themselves derived from Gaelic forms. The internal assonances in my translations come largely from Gaelic song. So there’s a lot of interlingual play going on. My concern with these translations was to keep as close as possible to the form of the French sonnet. The form is as much part of the meaning as the words, so I felt I could sometimes deviate somewhat from the ‘literal’ meaning. I was translating what the poems meant to me; if that included echoes of my experience of Ireland, so be it.

JM
Translation may be a source of formal experimentation and innovation. It was for example used as such by Ezra Pound and several modernist writers. Do you see translation as a way to push the boundaries of your own style, to try out new forms and ideas? The Twelfth of Never (1998), modelled on the alexandrine, and published simultaneously with The Alexandrine Plan, suggests something along those lines.

CC
I’ve already mentioned the Irish ballad influence on the translations; and The Twelfth of Never contains a good many allusions to Irish ballad. The two books were part of the same project, to take a given form and see what can be made of it. The constraint is always useful. I’m a great admirer of the French OULIPO writer Georges Perec, who famously wrote a detective novel without using the letter ‘e.’ In one way my play with the formal aspects of translation is hardly experiment, since the forms have been around for donkey’s years, as have the Irish sean-nós songs which lie at the back of a great deal that I write. As for ideas, the search for metre and rhyme seem to generate the ideas. Typically I would begin a sonnet in The Twelfth of Never without having a clue as to what I would ‘say’ in the poem. The saying, the message, the meaning, came with the rhyme, line by rhyme. Rhyme was the fuel, the motor, the engine, the drive. The sonnet was the vehicle, and often I felt like a passenger, being driven into some other world by a ghostly driver. Do you know Cocteau’s film Orphée? In it there are several routes to the Underworld: through mirrors, for example, or being chauffered in a funereal limousine by the angel Heurtebise. The Twelfth of Never was that kind of journey. I never quite knew where I was going until I got there. Which should be the way with all writing. If you know what you are going to say, there’s no fun in it. Why write what you already know?

 


Jenny Malmqvist

About

Jenny Malmqvist is a lecturer in English at the School of Education and Communication at Jönköping University, Sweden.