What is the connection between your writing and your activism?
Before I came to Ireland, I was involved in a great deal of actual activism – demonstrations, marches, protests, lobbying, campaigns–for a range of issues, mainly LGBT and feminist. I say ‘actual’ activism because I believe that art can be a form of activism. Though it might not contribute directly to a change in a law or social redress of an issue, it can affect human consciousness more broadly. I’d like to think that art can have positive results in terms of our socio-political landscape, or at the very least our sitting-next- to-someone-on-the-bus experience. (This does not mean that art must be directly political in subject or inherently ‘accessible’ in form.)
My coming to Ireland coincided with my decision to fully commit myself to writing, which led me to relinquish any involvement in activist organising. Though I have shown up to protests, rallies, etc., I have not been involved in organising them as I had before. My energy has been re-directed into writing, but my overall mission remains the same – there is the 1960’s feminist term ‘consciousness-raising’ – there is also ‘consciousness’ in the Vedic sense.
Why this subject?
Frankly, the issue of abortion rights and access around the word is appalling, frightening – insert a list of superlatives here. In Ireland, it is particularly so, and this case demonstrated that to the extreme. I felt that based on my own artistic and political orientation, there was no way I could not write about this. Immediately following the death of Savita Halapannavar, I was traveling frequently between Dublin and London, say once a week. In London, people either hadn’t heard about the case, or couldn’t really grasp how this could happen. When I would get back to Dublin, I would feel this weight and shame and horror and fear. I was teaching at the Irish Writers’ Centre at the time, and we spent a lot of time talking about the responsibility of (Irish) writers to deal with this issue and with the ongoing problem of what is thought to be a legacy of problematic and life-threatening attitudes towards sexuality, but which in fact has been shown by this case to be the status quo. (That status quo continues despite the Act because so much is left out of it.)
This case affected me physically and emotionally, as it did a lot of people. No activist or politically minded person wants to say, ‘I told you so’ when something like this happens. Instead, it’s a sickening feeling as we wonder what could have/can be done. I think of the activists for women’s suffrage standing outside the White House (even during the outbreak of WWI when it was incredibly unpopular, just as the Easter Rising was looked down upon in Ireland by some) – standing in all weathers, being arrested, force-fed, etc. Ireland has a population of only 6.9 million all-in. Couldn’t we get some more people to the Daíl, to Stormont, on an ongoing basis even after 26 counties have been thrown the small bone of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act? As an organiser who has worked in a much larger country with many more people, I think, why not?
How did you approach formal aspects of the poem, especially with such a weighty subject?
Firstly, I was committed to writing a formally innovative poem that doesn’t spoon-feed the subject or the angle on that subject to the reader. I see art’s function as the ‘enhancement [...] of the processes of everyday life’ as John Dewey describes in Art and Experience. Dewey says that:
The hostility to the association of fine art with normal processes of living is a pathetic, even
tragic, commentary on life as it is ordinarily lived. Only because that life is usually so stunted,
aborted, slack, or heavy laden, is the idea entertained that there is some inherent antagonism
between the process of normal living and creation and the enjoyment of works of esthetic art.
For me, Dewey’s argument is vital. The impoverishment of our lives, mainly through the instrumentalisation of our bodies and minds in the service of profit, distances audiences from art. This distancing is not caused by the supposedly inaccessible or esoteric genre, content, or style of that art, as some might argue. Dewey supports what I see as the need for poets to persist in the making of poems despite the fact that poetry does not currently function in a consistent and significant manner in the lives of many people. And it further supports the making of innovative/experimental poems regardless of whether they are deemed ‘accessible’.
I had worked with found text before and gotten somewhere with it, so I began amassing text from The Irish Times from the day the story broke onward. I was also meditating on the notion of women’s power to ‘give life’ and the idea that this fact had led to Savita’s death. I had been writing a collection on the sheela-na-gigs and had also heard about the birthing stone on Innismurray, which Leland Bardwell has written a poem about. So all of this was in my head.
I am a poet who is drawn to ritual, to myth, and yet essentialism and its socio-political constraints scare the shit out of me because we know what happens when a society puts these ideas into practice – suddenly women aren’t allowed to drive, die because they can’t have abortions, aren’t allowed to go to school because it’s not their role, or are simply understood as needing to be controlled whether through advertising or legislation. I hope that ‘Birthing Stone’ suggests that even though women cannot entirely escape the dangers of childbirth and pregnancy (which is why the image of the birthing stone and sheela- na-gigs remain symbolically powerful), everything possible should be done to sustain women’s lives and their choices about their own lives. If women are, mythically and mystically speaking, to be entrusted with the power to give life, we should also be entrusted with handling that power on an actual level.
When I was writing the poem, manipulating the found text, the sound of the words ‘Ordinary Time’ kept popping into my head, probably because Savita’s husband Praveen was quoted as saying ‘the country we were in at the time’, and this was reprinted in article after article. Having grown up Catholic, I realised that ‘Ordinary Time’ refers to the church calendar and had a horrible sinking feeling that Savita had died on a Sunday in ‘Ordinary Time’ and that people in Catholic churches worldwide would have been hearing the same readings...again, the ritual aspect, again, the utter ordinariness of the grave circumstances in which women are placed.
Savita had, in fact, died on 28 October 2012, the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. When I read the first reading on the day she died, Jeremiah 31: 7-9 – ‘…I will gather them from the ends of the world, / with the blind and the lame in their midst, / the mothers and those with child…’ – the rest of the writing came very quickly.
Even more strangely, I realised while you and I were recording the poem on 27 October 2013 that it was also the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. I didn’t mention this then, but that’s part of why I had a hard time recording the poem in one take. I had the horrible feeling that it was the same Sunday, and it was.