Introduction to the anthology Word of Mouth

© By Ruth Hooley (Carr)

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This anthology is a celebration of women’s voices. While the poems are the work of Word of Mouth Poetry Collective, they are not collective poems; they are the distinctive work of each individual writer. This is our contribution to the blossoming of poetry from women in the north of Ireland and throughout the world.

Word of Mouth Poetry Collective, like so many writing groups, was born out of a need for contact with other writers. We wanted to create an environment in which out poetry would thrive, uninhibited and uncensored (at least by others if not entirely by self), where it would be taken seriously. Primarily our concern is with poetics – in both a pure and a practical sense. Our preoccupation is with the business of word-craft in ferrying ideas and feelings across the water of silence. Unlike the tiger in Kate Newmann’s poem, who chose to drown rather than swim after a life lived in “Such a small space/That every ugly inch was intimate”, we want our poems to swim across the stagnating moat. As Mary Twomey indicates in ‘Eoin’s haiku’, poetry, like every meaningful communication, is a two-way process:

If you smile I shall
Part the bright wave for you, be
A lamp to your feet.

Drawing on our previous experience of creative writing groups, we were clear from the start what this group was about and how it would operate. Each of us is writer, reader and facilitator in turn at our sessions, each with an equal say in, and responsibility for, all that the group does. Some travel distances – from Ballycastle, Omagh, Downpatrick, Newcastle – others only a mile or two to meet once a month in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. We have been doing this for several years now, expressly to appraise and encourage one another’s work. You could not pay for the quality of critical attention gained in this process. Essentially we are listening to one another as poets and being heard in a society which has not been known for its receptivity to the work of women in any sphere. We live in a place of passionate history, where women’s history goes largely unsung and unrecognised. We cannot afford to forget that our heritage has been a divisive one, in terms of gender as well as religion, politics, class, dis/ability, sexuality and race. It is crucial that voices from all quarters are articulated and heard. And while it has not always been possible or safe for that to be so, poetry in the North – as in many divided and war-torn societies throughout the world – has the imaginative scope to counter silences of very different kinds. For instance, Gráinne Tobin’s witty and moving poem, ‘Ladies’ Night’, in which

A dozen women settling round a table,
In the community centre proudly
Muralled in red-white-and-blue …

make a ‘rag-rug’ poem of their experiences as “army wives always on duty”, trusting and risking the poet, in order to do so:

We bind with secrecy,
Names, ranks, addresses to be left behind,
Remnants of these salvaged lives,
When I return to mine, the other, side.

A different silence is broached in Eilish Martin’s poem, ‘A Death in Autumn’, in which she gives voice to a woman condemned to death by hanging according to the laws of the ancient society in which she lived.

Of course, there are constraints which our meetings cannot dispel, such as lack of time, of opportunity, of publishing and performance outlets, and so on. Rather than complain about this state of affairs, we agreed to become more visible: to run readings and workshops with other writing groups. We even put on a festival in Ballycastle in 1993 – one of a series initiated by poet Noelle Vial in Killybegs, County Donegal, and taken up by a number of other groups, including Belfast and Newtownards writers’ groups.

In retrospect, our efforts can be seen as part of a growing movement challenging the traditional, confining categories into which the arts (and writing in particular) have been boxed. The hierarchical distinction between community and academia, amateur and professional, popular and @elite, is of dubious value. Serious artists tend not to be taken seriously if they are too closely associated with community writing; part-time writers (often the halfway house which women stop at – for historical, social and personal reasons) do not take themselves seriously, alienated by these distinctions. You cannot help questioning the thinking behind such a dual value system, particularly when you look at how a piece of work may be judged according to which ‘side’ it is deemed to be coming from rather than by its content. It is only by engaging with the work itself that we can come to trust and develop our own judgement instead of relying on a readymade yardstick which has so often proved to be at best a crude and inaccurate approximation, at worst completely missing the mark. You only have to think of Emily Dickinson for the classic example of someone who was so rebuffed by blinkered criticism that “in her lifetime she saw her name in print only once – when she won second prize for Rye and Indian bread at the Amherst Show” (Donna Dickinson, Emily Dickinson, 1985).

Many of the poems in this anthology question given perspectives. Running through Joan Newmann’s deceptively pastoral vignettes of Greek women, there is an undercurrent against the tide of orthodoxy. This surfaces in ‘Kiria Maria’ to challenge religious teaching by effectively overshadowing the Church’s pronouncement on disability, “That child is a judgement of God” – “That child should not have been born”, with the silent, supremely Marian image of Mother and Child. A shared concern with the impact of given perspectives results in very different poems. Ann McKay deftly poeticises the childhood game of ‘The farmer wants a wife’ to mirror complex social dynamics while simultaneously subverting them. In ‘Of earth and air’, Eilish Martin reclaims the experience of birth in a deeply symbolic poem which creates its own myth by disowning a standard one:

Though you laboured in a shortened bed between
Narrow sheets biting on your tongue
Till it bled I was born elsewhere.

My birthing pool can be found in the meltwater of a
Dream where you
Briefly stood your ground …

The concept of an anthology of our work seemed like a logical step to extend our readership. Despite the upsurge of women poets in Ireland, comparatively few have been published from the North – and those only in very recent years. The highest ration of women poets to men to appear in an anthology of Irish poetry since 1960s is four to seventeen (The New Younger Irish Poets, ed Gerald Dawe, Blackstaff Press, 1991). However, while there is a very generous representation of northerners in this collection, none of them are women. In several anthologies of modern Irish and Northern Irish poetry there are no women at all or, at best, one or two. One of the main reasons for this discrepancy is to do with selection procedures. Editors of anthologies usually select work only from those poets who have already been published in book form. This automatically rules out most women poets in the North. However, things are changing. At least four women living in Northern Ireland – plus two from Donegal – brought out debut collections in 1995, once of them a member of Word of Mouth, Joan Newmann. There is a growing awareness that women do write poetry and that both men and women read poetry regardless of gender. We hope that this anthology will go some way towards closing the gap, that it will indicate to readers that there are many women out there writing poetry worth reading, and that it will encourage others to close the gap still further. The poets in this anthology come from both sides of the divide and neither side. All have lived for at least fifteen years in the North, most of them all their lives. Some bring the experience of growing up in another place to their poetry, creating poems out of that experience but also poems which look into cultural aspects of Northern Ireland from the outside. Ann Zell offers poems about her Idaho upbringing and poems about living in Ireland – such as her restrained encounter with a German tourist in ‘Interlude’ and her witty comments in ‘Nature programme’ on the particular significance of overhead noise in this part of the world:

Before there were helicopters
There were dragonflies.
And will be, after.

‘Family values’ is a term that has been exploited to the hilt by politicians and moralisers over the last decade, when of course the family can be a force for good or bad – and is usually a mixture of both. This theme is explored by several poets with subtlety. A child’s perspective is the focus in Margaret Curran’s ‘Heartburn’ and Elaine Gaston’s ‘Punishment’, wheras a retrospective viewpoint is expresased in Ann Zell’s ‘Fossil fuel’ and Ruth Carr’s ‘We Share The Same Skin’. Frequently a fusion of both coincides, as in Kate Newmann’s ‘My mother and I painting Galway Bay’ and Pia Gore’s ‘Tractor to Glenaan’.

Some of us have come late to writing, some have written all our lives. For some reason it is only deemed appropriate to describe writers as ‘emerging’ if they are youngish. This seems ageist and certainly ignorant of how women (such as northern novelists Janet McNeill and Frances Molloy) come to writing in fits and starts with many interruptions along the way. As Tillie Olsen has pointed out in her collection of essays, Silences (1965):

“Compared to men writers of like distinction and years of life, few women writers have had lives of unbroken productivity, or leave behind a body of work. Early beginnings, then silence … clogged late ones … long periods between books … characterise most of us.”

Regardless of our individual ages, we could all be described as emerging poets – emerging from the silence and invisibility of women who have been writing poetry for years, yet only now are getting around to challenging our own and others’ tunnel vision about what can claim a place on the bookshelf. We hope you enjoy these poems.

Published in: Word of Mouth (Blackstaff 1996), edited by Ruth Carr, Gráinne Tobin, Sally Wheeler and Ann Zell.

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