|Photo by Emilia Krysztofiak
The Juno Charm by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (Ireland, 1970) is a wonderfully beautiful collection of short poems about good and bad marriages, art, giving birth, sexual passion, Ireland and much more. We travel from Dublin, to New York City to Japan to the banks of the Seine in Paris. We ponder the fate of Esmeralda from Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and contemplate the serene power of the statue of the Madonna of Akita. Like many an Irish writer, Chonchúir is very rooted in her country. I could feel the love of Ireland in her poems, no matter where she went she never really seems to leave it far behind.
Her poems range from cerebral texts that require a serious knowledge of the history of the visual arts to really understand to shocking poems about sexual passion.
I liked this poem a lot and I think it is very interesting.
"The Japanese Madonna"
As Madonna of Akita
I was carved
by a Buddhist from
a weeping katsura.
I forsook kimono and zori
for an unpainted robe,
a European chin,
and an aristocrat’s gaze.
The statue of the Madonna of Akita is located in a Catholic Church in Akita Japan. The statue is famous for weeping over the prayers of the faithful. As was typical throughout the world, the Catholic Church used local icons reshaped as European images to communicate with their converts. Is this poem about colonial domination and does it echo the history of Ireland?
I first became acquainted with the work of Nuala Ní Chonchúir when I read her marvelous collection of short stories, Nude.
Today I feel very honored that my blog is one of the stops on her virtual tour. I submitted some questions to her on matters I was curious about. I might also have tried to provoke her a bit!. I asked her questions on matters that interest me. My reading of poetry in recent decades has been limited to large doses of W. B. Yeats and Walt Whitman, along with a few odds and ends. I claim no real qualification to take apart poems and have no interest in doing so. I read poetry to benefit from the extreme compression of human experience in a few words. I found a lot to be learned from the poems in Juno Charm. Here are my questions to Nuala Ní Chonchúir and her very interesting answers. I thank her for her patience with my lack of technical knowledge of poetry.
Virtual Interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Author of Juno Charm
Mel u-As I read your work I was reminded of a conclusion I tentatively came to after reading a number of Irish Short Stories and the posts of others on them in conjunction with Irish Short Story Week as well as after completing your collection of short stories, Nude. I came to the conclusion that the Irish writer of poetry and Short Stories assumes a very high level of literacy and cultural awareness in his readers. I decided to name this the "Joyce effect". My theory is that Irish readers and writers have almost all read either for pleasure or in University the works of the great Irish writers like James Joyce, W. B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett. All these writers are "difficult" and assume a very learned readership. I sense the same thing in your work. Your poems and short stories assume a good knowledge, for example, of European painting and French history. My question then is do you think there is a "Joyce" effect in your work? Does the heritage of Joyce, Yeats, and Beckett drive the standards of acceptable writing among Irish writers to higher levels than one might find elsewhere?
Nuala Ní Chonchúir- Well, I think there is definitely a sense of our literary heritage hovering over our heads. We all learn the greats at school (Yeats, Kavanagh, Boland et al) and so we are steeped in them from a young age. Then, as an enthusiastic reader I picked up Joyce and also tried Beckett. Many Irish writers reference Irish greats in their work and I’ve done that too. It’s good to know where you come from while pressing ahead in the voice of your own time.
As for presuming the reader has a high level of cultural awareness, I can’t speak for other writers, but I don’t think of the reader when I write. I write to entertain myself and afterwards I hope that a reader might enjoy it too.
Like all countries, Ireland has commercial as well as literary writing so I don’t think everyone is striving to be W.B. Yeats! Most Irish writers just want to tell a good story – storytelling is an important part of the Irish day. People love to talk.
Question-I read this year for the first time Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I see a strong influence of Victor Hugo in your past. One my favorites of your poems is "Like Esméralda, but Luckier". In your great short story, "Madonna Irlanda" set in Paris, the central male character is named "Victor". My question what is the influence of Hugo, unless I am wrong on this, on your work and ethos.
Answer-I am interested in all writers and in their lives. I also love Paris, so Parisian writers (born or resident) are fascinating to me. You are quite right about the Hugo influence; he had an interesting life of tragedy and love. His story is interesting to me.
I visited his house in Paris and was struck by its relative opulence – the Hugos were wealthy – and by his desk where, like Dickens and Hemingway, he stood to write.
I’m a magpie – when something hoves into view, I will pluck at it. So a new interest in Hugo gave me the poem, the name for a character and a setting in a story (‘In Seed Time, Learn’).
Question-You make a significant usage of references to paintings in your prose and poems. Why do you think you do this? Ford Madox Ford in his amazing book, The March of Literature, says that literature is the primary art form, taking priority over the visual arts and music. The question is do you agree with the idea of Ford Madox Ford, as I do, that literature is the superior art form and actually renders the other forms superfluous?
Answer-My artist friends would lynch me if I said yes!
I’m influenced by art for many reasons: I’m a very visual person and I was brought up in a house packed with art. My sisters are talented artists. I loved art class at school, including art history. I’m a keen photographer. So art is one of my big obsessions and, naturally, that ends up in the work.
And, no, I am not inclined to think that writing trumps visual art or music. All the forms need each other; they feed off each other and bring joy. I can’t see how one can be considered superior.
Question-This next question is meant to provoke you. Many of my readers are from Asia. What perhaps seems very different almost exotic to you is common place to them. The question then is are you in fact engaging in what is now called, after Edward Said's work, Orientalising. Are you recasting Asian culture in a way that can be seen as something to be used or consumed by very educated western people to bring a sense of arcane knowledge to their self notions. What is your intent in making references to Japanese culture and Buddhist images?
Answer-And the same can be said of any culture looking at another culture: what seems exotic in an Irish sense to outsiders is very ordinary here: turf, Irish music, thatched cottages. But the commonplace can be very interesting to both natives and outsiders.
As a citizen of the world, I don’t see why anything should be off limits as artistic fodder, including Asia, especially if it’s celebratory. The poem you refer to, ‘The Japanese Madonna’, compares the statue at Akita to a statue in Ballinspittle in Ireland. There is nothing untoward or snooty about it; in fact, the poem comments at how surprisingly European the statue looks.
As for the Buddhas, the littlest room in our house has a merry band of Buddhas who sit happily alongside my collection of Catholic statues: Mary, Joan of Arc, Jesus etc. I like icons, no matter what culture ‘owns’ them.
Question-Frank O'Connor - I have to ask if you have read his study of the short story, The Lonely Voice. Many of your poems do seem to be about outsiders with no voice for themselves. Do you see yourself sometimes as speaking for the voiceless and those with little mainstream power?
Answer-I have read The Lonely Voice and, yes, I do love writing about mavericks and lonely people. Literary work is rarely about conventional people doing ordinary things and that is why I love it as both reader and writer. The loner, the person on the margins, is a very interesting type. And I do love writing with the loner’s voice – maybe shining a light on someone who does not ordinarily get noticed, like van Gogh’s girlfriend Sien Hoornik, for example.
Question-Who are your favorite famous dead poets? Does Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo do a better job of bringing a big city life? Who are your picks for world's three best short story writers?-Mine are Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and Katherine Mansfield.
Dead poets: Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Patrick Kavanagh.
Dickens vs Hugo: I love England and France, and love to read about both, but...at a push, Dickens.
World’s best three short story writers: This is very hard to answer as I have so many favourite writers. For today, I will go with: Valerie Trueblood, Flannery O’Connor, David Means (all Americans!)
Question-Frida Kahlo (I loved your piece on her) and Esméralda made very bad romantic picks as you write. Your poems are very much about love and sex and men and women. I have three daughters 13, 16, and 18. What would you say the one best thing I could do for them or say to them that might help them not one day make an error similar to that of many of them women in your short stories and poems?
It depends what you mean by ‘error’ – we can all learn hugely from mistakes, so it’s good to make a few along the way. I have three kids too, one girl. My best advice to young people about love would be: ‘Choose a partner who will be kind to you.’ The rest should follow on from that.
Thanks so much, Mel, for having me at your super blog. The last stop on my virtual tour takes me to The Parrish Lantern in the UK next Thursday the 22nd December. http://www.parrishlantern.blogspot.com/ Perhaps some of your readers will join me there.
Here is the official biography of Nuala Ní Chonchúir
BIO: Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway county. Her début novel You(New Island, 2010) was called ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times and ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner. Her third short story collection Nude (Salt, 2009)) was shortlisted for the UK’s Edge Hill Prize. Her second short story collection To The World of Men, Welcome has just been re-issued by Arlen House in an expanded paperback edition. The Juno Charm, her third full poetry collection, was launched in November.
The Publisher's webpage contains additional information on the work of the author and the book can also be purchased there.
It is also listed on Amazon.
You can follow Nuala Ní Chonchúir's very interesting blog, Irish Rule Writer.
You can follow Nuala Ní Chonchúir's very interesting blog, Irish Rule Writer.