Poetic formats like tanka and haiku evolved as a part of Japanese culture, religion, and language. Transplanting them in other languages – though can work well experimentally, will the endeavour stand the test of time?
Who knows what will stand the test of time. My work is fused with syncretic elements that owe something to Irish and Celtic roots, to world literature, Sufi poetry, bhakti poetry, Zen, Advaita, Judeo-Christian elements and so on and so forth. The tanka of Saigyō have something of the spirit of amour courtois, or courtly love, which the Anglo-Normans brought to Ireland and which had an enduring influence on the course of Gaelic poetry. I don’t like the use of the word ‘transplanting’ in your question. To suggest that Japanese art forms cannot influence world culture is to deny the very obvious and lasting influence of Japonisme on the visual arts of the West, for instance. I’m thinking of Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bonnard, Degas and most of the modern greats, in fact. Indeed, how much of Japanese art and literature is not a refinement of Chinese art in the first place? I don’t believe there is any element of ‘pastiche’ in writing haiku or tanka. To me, they sound and look natural now, in Irish and English. They do not look like they have been transplanted. Do we think of the exotic origins of the various fruits we eat today from around the world? Does not the native apple sit comfortably in an Irish supermarket, next to the non-native banana or persimmon? And is the fruit stand not all the more colourful, tasty, and nutritious because of that?
What Irish person is transported to India, China, or Sri Lanka when sipping tea? It is a national beverage here and has been naturalised. In parts of rural Ireland it is pronounced ‘tay’, which is how early English settlers pronounced it.
Do you think the poetic output will be influenced by the poet’s religious orientation? In other words, is “literary creativity” subject to external influences?
My own religious orientation has always been open to the whole gamut of religious experience, from A-Z, from Animism to Zen, and everything in between, and when absorbed are not ‘external’ at all but ‘internal’. Collections such as Speaking of Shiva, a bhakti anthology translated by A.K. Ramanujan toppled my world when I read it, at school-leaving age. Ireland being a heavily colonised country was a consumer of English literature and a contributor to it. Speaking of Shiva opened up another world, another sensibility, another cosmos and there was nothing in English literature to match it. There are incomparable treasures in Irish-language literature as well, such as The Lament for Art O’Leary which are outside of the normal experience and range of the Anglophone mind. There are about 10 different translations of the Lament that I know of.
What are the current projects that you are working on?
I always have about 20 different projects on the go, work in prose, poetry (including tanka and haiku), translation work, work for children, radio plays, etc. I also translate singable versions of songs.
How has been the response to your Irish poetry amongst the Irish speaking population?
I haven’t asked them. I wouldn’t say I’m flavour of the month! (except in the realm of children’s poetry where I’ve carved out a niche).
Could you please explain the relevance of tanka (and haiku, etc.,) from a postmodern literary perspective?
Relevance is completely and utterly irrelevant as I’ve been at pains to point out. If you are chasing relevance, you will become irrelevant very quickly. Furthermore, it is a tyranny – the intellectual equivalent of the ‘label’ which Naomi Klein and others have rightfully exposed. Too many literary agents and publishers seem to be looking for the same thing, the ‘fast buck’.. Why would you want to wear what everybody else is wearing, read what everybody else is reading, think what everyone else is thinking? This is madness and is related to consumer-capitalism, monolingualism and other threats to our sanity. Am I relevant? I hope not! I repeat – relevant to what, to whom? Relevant to Siva? Relevant to a post-modern literary perspective? What is that? Something which people study in a university? Well, good luck to them! Forget about the post-modern literary perspective. Have your own perspective. Treasure it, as your life’s breath. If it becomes stale, change it. Shift your perspective. Stay fresh. Stay new. Stay ahead of the posse. Stay close to the vast pool of creativity which is the imperishable Self. The new tanka project with Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain, Boatman! take these songs from me is beautifully irrelevant, I believe, as is a project with the Kolkata-based photographer Debiprasad Mukherjee, The Stars Are His Bones. I’m looking for a publisher who is deeply and passionately committed to the irrelevant for these and other ongoing individual and collaborative projects!