Wake: Up to Poetry
“Better for the Mess”: Samuel K. Fisher on the Making of Bone and Marrow
After years of planning and production, Wake Forest University Press has published one of its most ambitious titles yet: Bone and Marrow/Cnámh agus Smior: An Anthology of Irish Poetry from Medieval to Modern. Fully bilingual, this anthology presents 15 centuries of Irish-language poetry across its 900+ pages, including many new translations, contextual notes, and introductory material. It also brings together a team of 24 international scholars, each working in their own chronological and thematic areas of expertise, lead by Samuel K. Fisher (Catholic University) and Brian Ó Conchubhair (Notre Dame University). To celebrate the book’s release, WFU Press sat down with Sam Fisher to reflect on the book’s production and editorial decisions, the goals of translation, and the lasting legacy of the poems included in the anthology.
WFU Press: An anthology that covers fifteen centuries is quite an undertaking. Tell us a bit about how this anthology came about. How long has it been in the making? Was there much debate on the scope of the book, or was that always essential to this anthology?
Sam Fisher: Well, I think there’s maybe a couple origin stories there. Brian [Ó Conchubhair] and [WFU Press Director] Jeff Holdridge had the idea of an anthology that would run the whole gamut—I think Brian mentions in the acknowledgments that they hatched the plot at the Irish Seminar in Paris in 2013. (I was there, actually, though as a humble graduate student perhaps not privy to the conversations of the people above…) Around the same time Brian and I were convening a group to read Breandán Ó Buachalla’s Aisling Ghéar, which is a massive (and massively important) book that really set the table for historians to take early modern Irish poetry seriously as a source. Ó Buachalla quotes extensively, and since the whole thing is in Irish there’s no translation. It’s easy to imagine readers who had good enough Irish to read Ó Buachalla’s own words but who might struggle with the poetry quotations. So at some point Brian and I talked about an anthology of the poems Ó Buachalla had worked with. And ultimately those ideas came together in Bone and Marrow/Cnámh agus Smior, which is an anthology that covers a much wider scope but is also meant to offer the kind of helpful translations and commentary we would have imagined for the Aisling Ghéar project. So we didn’t necessarily have a big debate about the overall scope; we were pretty matter-of-fact about that. What we had to talk over was how to divide all that chronological ground without doing something that would be too superficial—we wanted breadth AND depth. As we learned to our joy, you can do both. As we learned to our chagrin, the secret to doing so is a lot of hard work!
WFUP: You introduce the book with a quote from Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, in which he asserts that poetry is the true “authority” on history. How do poems contextualize history in a different way than other types of literature or other primary sources? Does this assertion hold up today?
SF: I certainly think it does hold up, though it’s more controversial in some contexts than others. A lot of our readers will be poets (and other writers), literature scholars, and people who just love literature—people for whom the idea isn’t controversial at all. But coming at it from a historian’s perspective, historians of Ireland are pretty divided about how useful Irish-language poetry is as a historical source. Some say you get the voice of the otherwise silent Irish-speaking majority in the poetry; others say it’s not politically realistic and reflects the despair of the formerly privileged elites more than “regular” Irish-speakers. So in that context Keating’s claim is a bit more pointed, and tells you a bit about where I’d fall in that debate.
The other thing to bear in mind, too, is that Keating was writing at (and about) a time when poetry and poets had a different role in the culture than they do now. When we think of poetry now, we tend to think of it as a highly artistic and subjective thing, whereas for many of the centuries covered in this anthology poets had official social roles to play—their poetry legitimated the social order and set the boundaries of acceptable conduct for society’s leaders. They were artists but also functionaries, and their poetry prized the ability to play around with conventions rather than create something totally original or explore the poet’s subjectivity. They were like woodworkers—they were talented, skilled, and artistic. But ultimately the beautiful things they made had jobs to do. No matter how beautiful a piece of woodwork is, if you ordered a desk and got a lovely statue, the project would be a failure! And similarly with this poetry. It could be very clever and interesting, but ultimately it had to express how great the commissioning patron was in a way that reflected an accepted cultural understanding of what greatness was.
That said, one of the coolest things about seeing the anthology come together was seeing the ways that later poets held on to that spokesman (and spokeswoman!) role, and in turn seeing the work of the earlier “official” poets—which is often easy to write off as kind of boring and formulaic—as artful and personal like the later work. And I think that kind of combination makes poetry a fascinating source for any era—you are getting views on really big and important questions, but they are also, and emphatically, views—what one person thinks about it. Doing good history requires a lot of empathy and compassion—to really enter into the worldview of people who lived a long time ago is hard, and more typical sources don’t necessarily make that easier (government paperwork, anyone?). Poetry, though, is something we usually have in common, and the barrier to empathy is just much easier to surmount as a result. You’re always confronting a real, flesh and blood human when you’re reading a poem. There were a surprising number of times when I’d be trying to edit different sections of the book and just plain got distracted by reading a poem and getting lost in the world of that poet for a while: what must it have been like to live through THAT? Not good for meeting deadlines, but good for the soul, and good for historical understanding too.
WFUP: Tell us about the timing of the publication of Bone & Marrow in the context of Irish-language studies and other anthologies aimed at Irish-language poetry. Why now?
SF: One tongue-in-cheek answer, of course, is that this is just how long it took us to get the thing done! Brian and I started in 2016 or so. And we’ve all done a lot of living since then, of course, so we’d probably give different reasons now than we had then. But, anyway, we thought it had been a long time since the last similar project—An Duanaire [Poems of the Dispossessed]—and that since then a lot of work had been done on these poems, that there were new audiences for them (especially among historians and students), and that those audiences needed more help than An Duanaire gives them. (Which is not to say anything bad about An Duanaire—it’s terrific. The more I’ve worked on this anthology, the more respect I have for Sean Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella. To do all that with two people! We barely managed with the massive team of contributors we had!) The other answer, of course, is that we’re saying poetry is both utterly timeless and utterly topical. It’s never an inopportune time to reflect on its influence.
WFUP: For this book, you and your co-editor worked with twenty-four scholars. What was it like to facilitate collaboration amongst all of them? And how was it collaborating with another editor yourself? How important was it to you to include so many voices in the making of it?
SF: I started working on this book around the same time I started my first tenure-track job and I remember being told—on multiple occasions and by multiple people—not to get involved in any edited volumes, because it was way more work than you might think and you could get a lot more done just working on your own steam. And…those people were right, about the work at least—trying to keep track of everything, standardize the chapters, and keep everyone on deadline was a real bear. But—and I mean this—I don’t think we’d do it any other way. I’m not sure we could! Being able to draw on the expertise and generosity of so many people was a delight. It was such a pleasure to constantly be learning new things and seeing the way different contributors picked out poems and introduced them. If we’d been doing it ourselves, the selections would have been much less interesting, and so would the commentary. And I think it would have undermined our idea of what the book should do—to show this tradition of poetry that was, at one and the same time, something that had some essential unity and continuity in it but that had this huge variety and vitality to it, as well. Having so many different contributors with different priorities, interests, and approaches certainly made the book messier, but I think it’s much better for the mess. As you work through it you sometimes hear this singular voice of the tradition, but you also hear what traditions really are, which is people gabbing away with (and sometimes shouting over) each other. What connects them all is their commitment to the conversation—agree or disagree, they are talking to each other.
So while, yes, it’s certainly logistically difficult to work with so many people at once—obligatory herding cats joke here—it was also one of the best decisions we made. Because of that decision there was this real feeling that the process of putting the book together mirrored the way we understood the tradition to work, that we were practicing what we preached, if you will. And it was particularly satisfying for Brian and me as the editors to be watching as these chapters rolled in and we were seeing all these continuities and this wonderful, beautiful coherence the whole thing obviously had, which felt miraculous given the huge variety of people involved.
As for my co-editor, well, that was the easy part, actually. I think we both felt very grateful through the entire process to have each other to bounce ideas off of and be excited with. I’ve known Brian for a long time—since I was an undergrad in his class—and it’s been a ton of fun to work with him on this. We have a good time together, even if we don’t always give off that impression. And frankly this book couldn’t have happened without Brian’s enthusiasm and vision. I did my bit, but there is a (happy) sense I have that it’s his baby—something he’s wanted to do for a long time and just needed someone confident/stupid enough to look at him and say, “Sure, why not? How hard could it be?” (Cue knowing laughter here.) Watching him get increasingly excited as it all came together and turned out so well was worth the price of admission, without a doubt. Making it happen for him was something that I could count on to motivate me to double-check how everybody had spelled “deibhí” for the hundredth time. Believe me, that takes a lot of motivation.
WFUP: Bone & Marrow is fully bilingual, except you and your co-editor chose to write the Introduction half in English and half in Irish. Tell us about that choice. Were there things you specifically wanted to address in Irish as opposed to English?
SF: It’s funny you ask, because it wasn’t something we talked about very much—we knew we’d need to do an introduction and it would need to be bilingual in some sense, but that’s about it. It just sort of happened this way. One reason was that both Brian and I got to introduce the volume—he handled the Irish and I did the English, rather than somebody writing it and then translating into the other language. So we both got to have our concluding statement (front of the book for the reader, end of the process for us!) about what we’d done and why it mattered, which we both wanted to do. I also like the fact that because of this choice there is some little part of the book that is open only to those with Irish—everything else, we enable readers not to have the language, but the Introduction is a richer reading experience if you have both languages. It’s a little thing, but as the note on text and translation makes clear, we had to think a lot about the repercussions of presenting everything in translation, given the history and present-day realities of Irish. So this was one little way of saying, “whatever the rest of the book tells you, it’s not all translatable, you know!”
WFUP: The “Note on Text and Translation” could almost be used as a handbook for translators and editors of translation. Was that an intentional part of this project, or a happy byproduct?
SF: It was one of those situations where you write what you yourself need to hear and be told. It came out of a lot of my own experience of feeling a bit like an interloper in the process of making the anthology. I was an historian, an American with good reading Irish but whose spoken Irish was pretty rusty, in charge of creating this anthology that featured so many brilliant people in the Irish-language community—it was hard not to feel a bit presumptuous or out of my element, like an American historical bull in an Irish-language china shop. (Not that anybody at all went out of their way to make me feel that way—it was just something I worried about.)
I was particularly conscious about this in the realm of translation. I decided early on that I wanted to offer fresh translations for all the poems in my sections, though there was no obvious reason why I would be good at it. Creating them turned out to be one of the most fun parts of the process for me—coming up with a voice for someone like Dáibhí Ó Bruadair. And I decided early on too that I wanted to do translations that had some kind of form to them, something that suggested craft. In English, especially for an audience of college students, that meant rhyme, which to a modern ear I think usually sounds a little bit constrained or forced or old-fashioned, even when it’s well done. And I thought that impression would suit my poets, who were very proud of their ability to cleverly work within those kinds of constraints and wrote poems that were self-consciously stylized. They weren’t afraid to show their work.
So I did rhyming translations of these complex poems, and I really liked them, but I was also anxious about them. Would they sound trite and silly? Did I have any business, really, doing what I’d done? As an historian, shouldn’t I, more than anyone, have been creating very literal translations rather than taking a free hand in rearranging things to suit the translation? And those anxieties became very real when one of our early readers expressed some serious skepticism about the approach I’d taken, and who also pointed out that in general the anthology’s approach to translation was not uniform, and maybe readers should have fair warning when a translation was not literal.
That deflated me (hello, Impostor Syndrome!) and made me angry at the same time. But it turned out to be a good thing because it forced me to think through why I believed it was so important to translate the way I had and why we’d assembled the book the way we had. I ultimately just couldn’t believe that any translation of Ó Bruadair or Haicéad that made them seem boring was faithful, however literal it was, and that such a translation involved departing from the original in important ways. The idea that there was a “literal” or “faithful” translation available, and deviations from that standard represented either lousy Irish or culpable deception, just didn’t seem right to me. And I thought too that the availability of “literal,” supposedly interpretation-free translations actually enabled historians to ignore these sources. Somebody else had already read them and extracted “the meaning” out of them, so no need to learn Irish in order to do it yourself! To be clear, I don’t think that’s what the translators who made and make these translations intend. There’s a cruel irony here, because a literal translation is actually more helpful for someone primarily trying to read the original, whereas an “interesting” translation meets the needs of an audience that never intends to read the original. So you’re pulled between different audiences—are you translating for language-learners? Scholars? Monoglot English-speaking undergraduates? I thought a translation that was very obviously a translation and very obviously a product of one person’s interpretation of the poem would both give a reader an idea of why the poem was interesting, some (but only some, not word for word) sense of the literal meanings of the words, and also give them a reason to read the original—even if only to prove I’d gotten everything wrong. But other contributors took different approaches, too.
So Brian, Brendan Kane, and I talked this over and came up with the idea of the note on translations, and together we hashed out why it was actually a good thing that we had so many approaches to translation to offer. And I was sort of hopping mad at that point to defend the choices I’d made, and the shape of the anthology as a whole, so I took on the job of writing that note. Unsurprisingly, it sort of became an effort to simultaneously explain why the anthology looked like it did and why I had every right to be part of it! So it was an interesting experience for me to write it, given that I think many of the people involved in the anthology have probably thought a lot more about translation than I have and know more of what goes on in scholarly conversations about that. Ultimately I think it was a strength, because I just had to say what I thought with no jargon or anything to hide behind. And it reaffirmed for me that my outsider-ish status in the world of Irish-language literature could be an asset; it gave me the freedom to say, do, and try things that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. And those things were some of the most fun and meaningful things I did in working on Bone and Marrow/Cnámh agus Smior.