Thursday, September 17, 2015

Gabriel Rosenstock: In Conversation with Saima Afreen

From pastoral poetry to Celtic revival and the brilliant exactitude of W B Yeats, Irish poetry has travelled on a mountainous topography of changes that has only enriched its lyrical landscape. After the era of symbolism, poets like Gabriel Rosenstock have amalgamated Irish tradition of poetry with influences from other cultures and languages tucked faraway on the mental map. In an interview with Saima Afreen, Gabriel Rosenstock talks about his new book 'The Flea Market in Valparaiso', and the aftertaste that British imperialism left on the tongue of Ireland. 

The Indian connection

It is not just a search of another 'I' that brings Gabriel from Ireland to India so many times. He finds a myriad of things that are common between the two countries though they are miles apart. He finds the contrasts amazing in India, "Life in India is so different. There are so many colours and scents around, the flowers and dresses - a delightful shock to the senses. This reflects in the great diversity of Indian linguistic and cultural scene. And, ostensibly, we share a common past in colonialism. It was not for nothing that Edwin Thumboo described Ireland as the first colony of the British. They practised imperialism here and Ireland's forests were robbed to build the British Navy.".

On English language

With a deep sigh Gabriel quotes Hugh MacDiarmid, "The Scottish poet said, 'English is not a language, it is a disease.' Poetry has its roots in songs, chants and metres and I don't believe that the English language is a suitable vehicle for poetic art in former British colonies in Asia and Africa. The language in which you name your rivers, sing your lullabies and laments; the language you speak after waking up from a sweet dream - this language has a direct route to the heart, the heart that sings and sees. Why should English master my mind if it is not the language of the heart? It is the language of weather reports and the broken English of international so-called communication."

Great Art is always channelled; it draws on the stream of the language of ancestry. Gabriel ponders, "Looking back a thousand years, this language can be equipped with numerous secrets and blessings. Writing poetry in the language of the colonizer is something forced. I do not know how one can fully recover from the shocks which the colonizer inflicts upon a sensitive heart. There are Indian masters of English language, surely, and Irish masters; but English is not a pass, in itself, to greatness or distinction. I see advertisements in India which couple English classes with improved personality. The opposite is true. Followers of Macaulay have no true personality of their own!

Linguistic landscapes

"We in Ireland have a Language Commissioner who resigned recently because he thought the present government was not accommodating Irish speakers and the State was neglecting its recruitment policies. Less than 2% of the employees of the Department of Education are able to communicate in Irish. This would have astounded the Gaelic enthusiasts who fought and died during the 1916 Rising, hoping for an Ireland that would be a true Republic and one that would show respect for the ancestral tongue"

He calls for an awakening of consciousness on language survival, something that does not engage the opinion makers of the world's media. He fears that in fifty years time only three or four Indian languages will survive, as literary media. We need to wake up!

On Irish poetry

The poetry of Ireland, in the Irish language (Gaelic) dates back to the pre-Christian era. Latin and Greek aside, Irish is the oldest written literature in Europe. "We come from a country that enjoys talking and conviviality. Our literature - our superb short stories in English and Irish - derive from this storytelling tradition. Much of the originality and humour comes from an anarchic streak. If you have seven hundred years of colonial imperialism, it nurtures a suspicion of authority. Your intelligence demands a rebellious questioning of symbols and clichés. These instincts are highly developed in many artists. Ireland, an island, is less than a metropolis in size; everybody knows everybody. We familiarize ourselves with our poetry."

On his works

Gabriel writes both in Irish and English. Other than writing in free verse, he writes haiku and has translated widely. His famous work 'Portrait of the artist as an Abominable Snowman' won him accolades. His new book 'The Flea Market in Valparaiso' bears Indian imprints in lines such as:

at the foot of the cross
a snail trailing blood
becomes a Buddha

A bilingual book called Bliain an Bhandé/ Year of the Goddess is an attempt towards incorporating the spirit of bhakti into Western poetry. He elaborates, "I write out of the unknown, to make known the unknown, or if not to make it known, at least shimmering and musical, somehow. What I know I don't write about. What I know is not poetry. The poet is always on a voyage on an unknown vast sea inside him/her. When we begin to open our eyes we see that we, too, are being watched unconsciously. The more our consciousness expands the more we see things clearer. There are some in the Kalahari Desert, who have experienced the expanse of the stars and other events unfolding, naming stars visible only to the telescope. Explosion and implosion is required for Art can't remain idle for long. Art is an essential awakening to the mystery of Life." He signs off, "If pundits, professors and priests miss the vital role of mystery in poetry, they will miss it too in their lives! Living the mystery is all we need to do."


Published in Museindia. I met Gabriel at Hyderabad LitFest, 2014.

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