Today I am very honored to present a Q and A Session with Cherry Smyth. I have posted on some of her wonderful short stories and have published two of her works.
Official Author Bio
Cherry Smyth is an Irish poet, born in Ballymoney, County Antrim and raised
well as a book, essays and reviews on contemporary visual arts. She has also
published short fiction. Her debut poetry collection, 'When the Lights Go Up'
was published by Lagan Press, 2001. Her anthology of women prisoners'
writing, 'A Strong Voice in a Small Space', Cherry Picking Press, 2002, won
the Raymond Williams Community Publishing Award in 2003. A poetry
pamphlet, 'The Future of Something Delicate' was published by
Smith/Doorstop, 2005. A second collection called 'One Wanted Thing' (Lagan
Press) appeared in 2006.
Her poems have been published in 'Breaking the Skin', an anthology of Irish
poets, Black Mountain Press, 2002, the Apples and Snakes Anthology,
'Velocity', 2003, 'Magnetic North', The Verbal Arts Centre, 2006. New poems
have been published in various magazines including 'The North', '
1.Who are some of the contemporary short story writers you admire? If you had to say, who do you regard as the three best ever short story writers?
Katherine Mansfield - oh, but she's not contemporary….nor is Frank O'Connor…Ali Smith is wonderfully fresh, witty and subversive. Alice Munro is outstanding. I enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri, Jayne Ann Phillips and Yiyun Li. Mary Gaitskill for darkness. Raymond Carver for truth. (His 'Cathedral' is a masterpiece.) Lorrie Moore for sad laughs. Lydia Davis for experimentation. Grace Paley for wow. 'Summer Night' by Elizabeth Bowen is one of my favourite all time stories. Mary Lavin is often forgotten and quite subtly amazing. I also go back to Eugene McCabe often. Rebecca Brown's story 'Bread' has stayed with me for nearly 20 years!
2. I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish and alcohol plays a much bigger part in the Irish stories. How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish culture.
I imagine you're right, sadly. It eats into our culture and social life quite significantly. We were raised to believe that drinking everyone under the table (i.e. when everyone else had collapsed from inebriation already and you were still going) was an admirable feat. 'The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction' edited by Colm Toibin has an interesting analysis of this in his introduction and also comments on the pervasiveness of fires and funerals in Irish fiction.
3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work.
In "Watches, Walkmen, and Chains" and older man takes a paternal-like attitude toward a young girl and then abuses her terribly, do you see this as part of this theme-one of my responders to this question said the dominant theme might be the father as monster?
Yes, I think I would be more drawn to the father-as-monster theme than the missing father. The men in my family often showed extreme violence or extreme sentimentality when drunk and these heightened emotions feed fiction and poetry. They allowed a kind of excess, while the women often held quiet and disapproved. Although in my new forthcoming novel, Hold Still, the father is much more supportive of the artistic ambitions of his daughter, my protagonist, than her mother. For women who want to explore the world beyond the domestic, the father often provides a positive conduit for that.
4. Do you see Lesbian writers as somehow having more in common with other women or with gay men?
Feminism and queer politics inform my world and my writing but I have learnt my craft from straight, fishing-loving macho male writers too. Other women, like Alice Walker, and Dorothy Allison gave me permission to speak
from the body and later gay men encouraged me to explore deeper taboos in my work. I can't really speak for 'Lesbian writers' but I do know that Women's Press, Virago and Sheba Press in the UK made it possible for a new kind of writing to emerge and that needed to focus entirely on women. Many of us then went on to publish more broadly.
5. I went to graduate school back in the stone ages before the internet. We did our research in the library. Is almost all research now internet based? (Cherry, this is just to get you to say a bit about how the internet has taken over research in the humanities)
Having just finished a novel set in 1860s London and Paris, I was thrilled to be able to read letters by James Whistler via the internet in a house in the deepest Australian bush! I have always been a little intimidated by forms and libraries love forms. However, I love the atmosphere in libraries and having access to the British Library is an extraordinary privilege - you order a book and it can be delivered to your desk within 90 minutes. But many people haven't got that access and I think the research sources on the internet are excellent, if used well. It's the democratisation of information that appeals to me. However, I also researched some 17th century documents in the John Rylands University of Manchester Library last year. It required being presented with white gloves, a sort of wide cloth-lined tray and a beaded bookmark which made it all very precious, like hatching eggs. Quite a wonder.
6. Most homophobic big city?-Dublin, London,
Paris, New York City-
I have heard scary stories in every city. I was recently in Amsterdam which used to be tolerance- typified and apparently these days young Muslim gays come in from the suburbs simply to queer-bash. London seems less queer-friendly than it used to be. We used to see many more gay and lesbian couples holding hands. The specifically LGBT cafes and bookshops are having on by a thread now.
7. Tell us a bit about your non-academic non literary work experience please
Does that include working as a writer in residence in a women's prison? It wasn't academic but it was literary. I introduced them to John Donne and was amazed by the response. Together we published their poems in a book called A Strong Voice in a Small Space. It made me connect fully and painfully with the reality that writing can save your life and mental equilibrium. I also used to programme the LGBT film festival at the National Film Theatre in London which was a great experience at a time when drag kings were being invented and queer film coming into its own.
8. Please explain the concept of "essentialist dyke reading"? is all reading either shaped by one's sexuality? going with this or answer as you like, is there such a thing as the "true way to read a work" or is it all relative to the culture and nature of the reader?
I think it’s a mistake to read something as promoting an essentialist, fixed identity. I can enjoy Bukowski as much as the next dyke. But would Bukowski have enjoyed me?
9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate number of great writers to their population?
The rain and more rain! I’ve noticed that there remains a great respect for writers and reading there. I gave a poetry reading recently in Greece and some of the audience approached me with tears in their eyes and a kind of awe that I rarely encounter in England. It reminded me of Irish audiences. Is it something to do with being the underdog and having once had a richly mythic oral tradition?
10. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:
" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."
I agree with the latter. The belief in fairies – good
and bad – has kept some of our Neolithic monuments safe from harm. No one dared rob or destroy a tomb in case of invoking the wrath of the giants or the fairies. There are less of both these days. I remember reading an oral account from an old woman in Beara and she said life had changed with new road construction to her village: ‘Strange things used to happen on the old road, but nothing happens on the new road.’
11. Quick Pic Questions
a. Cats or Dogs'"/
b. RTE or BBC
c. best restaurant city-Dublin, London, Paris?
d. Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights
e.. if you have seen them-the old Greta Garbo version of Anna Karenina or the new one?
Please expand on this a bit ? Queer Poetry-your term
the word ‘queer’ was grasped as a proud thistle in the nineteen eighties largely in response
to the homophobia and indifference to the HIV/ AIDS emergency; and as a rallying cry
against Clause 28, a British law that made it illegal to discuss (ie ‘promote’) homosexuality
in schools or publicly-funded groups. It eschewed the positive imagery campaigns that attempted
to make gay and lesbian ‘lifestyles’ more acceptable to the hetero mainstream, and developed a
strategy that was unapologetic, sexual and raging.Its sexually bold aesthetic welcomed anyone who
renounced the privileges of heteronormativity and was willing to call themselves queer regardless
of their sexual object choice. It created a cultural and activist explosion: a giant, liberating wave of
energised belonging led by artists and writers such as Karen Finley, Essex Hemphill, Derek Jarman
and Eileen Myles.
Queer poetry strived to define itself differently from lesbian and gay poetry in its politics,
linguistics, address and audience. As Amy King explains in ‘The What Else of Queer Poetry’: “A
queer poetry is the province to surpass identity... to open to the other scary self I think I am not
and find another way to be.” Queer promised a way to inhabit shame as well as ‘gay pride’ and reeroticise the lesbian and gay body. In her scintillating essay, ‘Hanging Out Beneath Orlando’s Oak
Tree, or Towards a Queer British Poetry’, Sophie Mayer puts it: “To be queer is to look with
newfangled eyes at the body”and indeed proclaim it as a site of politicised experience.
More than twenty years later, the definition between gay and lesbian, and queer, has blurred
and the category of queer gained a different kind of fluidity. By the nineteen nineties when queer
had become assimilated to market white gay male culture and commodities, the term LGBT
(lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) became a common shorthand, one that I suspect makes it
easier for heterosexuals to avoid uttering the word ‘lesbian’, but a term that tries for more
inclusivity. Mayer suggests that queer remains a radical tool in the US. W
Cherry, if comfortable with it please talk a bit about the differences between gay and lesbian poetry and what you and others refer to as "queer" poetry-why do you wish to use the term "queer" still used many places as word of hate?
Oh my dear I wrote a book about this and can’t answer it in a paragraph!! See Queer Notions, Scarlet Press, 1996.
Do you feel Aosdana is the best use of the Irish governments limited funds to promote the arts or do you think the money could be better spent in another
Keep it. Enlarge it. What an amazing thing to give artists an annual salary. More please.
14. Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels?
Yes. See Kevin Barry’s fiction.
15. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature?
I can only quote Sam Beckett:
"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
16. Oscar Wilde said he did not really feel Irish until he moved to London, how does that relate to your experience?
Oh completely, and the history and gay identity would have been quite different if Oscar Wilde had been known by his second name Flaherty! He always sounded like an invented persona and I remember being shocked and overjoyed when I realized he was Irish!
17. " what is queer poetry? "-your expression of course-
See the above quoted essay.
18. "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646).
It was my experience that both the English and the Americans nursed stereotypes about the Irish. To the English we were drunken, violent and stupid. To the Americans, we were poetic, articulate and scholarly. I preferred the latter.
19. In my "bible" in Irish literature, Declan Kiberd says part of the reason Oscar Wilde and other gay writers were so creative was that they had no role models as to how to be a man, how to live in the world, so they had to invent themselves-this is in
line with what Edmund White says in Art in Literature when he talks about Gay Writers-the suggestion is that to be gay is some how already intrinsically creative. how do you feel on this?
It seems to hold more true for gay men though, doesn’t it? I think lesbians are just as creative but are more punished for being out in a phallocracy.
20. You teach creative writing at The University of Greenwich-what do you find the biggest challenges your students face and you face as a teacher
Not becoming uncreative.
21. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
Tibet. I could learn so much from those Buddhist minds and masks.
22 When you are outside of Ireland, besides friends and family, what do you miss the most? What are you glad to be away from?
I offer my great thanks to Cherry Smyth for these very interesting responses. I look forward to reading her new novel soon