ONE OF the most popular events at this year’s Cúirt International Literature Festival was the appearance by Galway poet Rita Ann Higgins, at which she read from her terrific new collection, Tongulish, which has just been published by Bloodaxe.
A packed Town Hall Theatre audience delighted in poems that were by turns puckish, funny, and trenchant - and sometimes all three together - and Rita Ann’s wry commentary also drew frequent gales of laughter. It was no surprise the book-signing session following the reading saw a long queue form up at Rita Ann’s table to get copies of the new book inscribed.
A couple of days after that reading Rita Ann met with me over lunch at the House Hotel to talk about the new book, and she reflected on her Cúirt reading; “I always feel welcome reading in Galway and I certainly felt it at Cúirt – though you can’t see anyone from the stage! My grandson was there and I couldn’t see him, you’re looking out but because of the stage lights you can’t see anyone.”
Interestingly, both Cúirt and the hotel where we are sitting feature in one of the poems, ‘The Search’ which describes a meeting with the late Russian poet Elena Shvarts during the 2010 festival. ‘We talked over whiskey one /over whiskey two/over writers, over mothers/……/She was mostly Winter/but the gentlest winter that ever fell."
“She was wonderful,” Rita Ann says. “I think I actually recommended her to Cúirt at the time. Elena was extraordinary and we had a few drinks here, I remember she smoked a lot. She was a fantastic poet.”
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick pops up in the poems ‘Shades of Truth’ and ‘At Sea’, with the former suggesting a homoerotic link between Ishmael and harpooner Queequeg (‘locked in a loving embrace/all the pitch-long night’ ).
“It was the late Anne Kennedy who gave me a copy of Moby Dick,” Rita Ann recalls. “She inscribed it to me and she told me that I must read it. At the time I really struggled with it because I felt it was so hard but I got through it and said ‘I’ve read that now’ but it meant absolutely nothing to me. Then after Ann died, in her memory, I re-read it slowly and this time I thought it was amazing. There is such a lot of loss in the novel which people don’t realise, everyone in it is at a loss. With Queequeg and Ishmael, I wondered was there a homoerotic element, it’s not something I’ve heard discussed but when Ishmael wakes up in the inn where they’ve shared a bed Queequeg is wrapped around him. Melville wouldn’t be putting that in for nothing! But I think if I ever meet Anne again I’d be able to discuss it with her.”
One sequence of poems evokes the notorious Roman emperors Caligula, Nero, and Claudius, and their scandalous ways (‘this one is filthy’ she had remarked to great laughter at Cúirt, reading the Nero poem ‘An Octave Higher’ ). “I wrote those poems after visiting Rome with my daughter Jennifer,” Rita Ann tells me. “Caligula was probably the worst of those emperors. Claudius probably wasn’t as bad as the others. He had a lame step, he dragged his leg, and that gave him a bit of a sympathy vote with some people, though he was a notorious womaniser - but he wasn’t as brutal. The title poem ‘Tongulish’ was originally meant to be the start of that sequence, it’s as much in filth as the others.”
'Tongulish' is a fusion of tongue and ghoulish and the poem proudly welcomes all registers of language and expression; "Salute tongue in all its guises/let Tongulish hop on the bandwagon/Abbreviate, too, our playful words/not yet invented/in gibberish, cant or slang."
“The ghoulish element would be in the language, that language can be bad, it’s about language that it can be more than one thing, it’s more than just an alphabet or words colliding,” Rita Ann says.
The theme of tongue as in voice runs through the book, from the spiky encounter described in opening poem ‘Easy On The Ankle’, to the taciturn bar dialogue of ‘The Middle Man’ to the coldly officious tones of the Ryanair baggage checker in 'Cryanair' (Some Cryanair soldier/is striking fear into the hearts/of the passengers in Liverpool airport ) and the assertive voices of ‘Women of 1916’ who "did not sit back/and wait in the wings of history".
“That is a thread through the collection,” Rita Ann agrees. “It’s the coming together of that, the different voices. It’s a book of voices actually and hopefully giving voices as well.”
The book ranges over many themes and subjects, taking in the rivalry of Granuaile and her bitter enemy the Governor of Connacht, Bingham – “I first came across him when I read a history of Galway because I was working as a tour guide at the time. He hated Grainnuaile. I read Anne Chambers' book on her as well,” Rita Ann reveals.
A painful bout of shingles inspires another of the book’s sequences (‘They prod me/like Lucifer’s fork’ ); “Jesus, I got such a bad dose of shingles and it was the worst medical thing ever!” Rita Ann declares emphatically. “It’s a horrible ailment. That was an important sequence for me to write because that really disrupted my life for a few years, the nerve pain was horrible. You don’t know where the pain is, it’s ‘In there somewhere’, it’s like being crucified from the inside, it’s tortuous. I didn’t get the antiviral remedy within 72 hours at the time, if you get it straightaway your shingles will be very mild.”
Rita Ann compliments the input of Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley. “He listens to me, he gave great attention to this collection and I think he produces beautiful books. I love the cover as well, it’s by Hannah Hoch. It was Neil’s wife, Pamela, who suggested it. We were looking at possible covers and she spotted that one and I absolutely loved it.”
At her Cúirt reading, Rita Ann had joked about being embarrassed that her daughters might read the ‘filthy’ Roman emperor poems. I ask if they usually read her work. “They read the funny ones,” she replies. “They have a great interest in me as a friend, they go places with me but I don’t know if they’d be spending their time reading my poems. Jennifer is a barrister and Heather is in media. They give me unconditional support, they’d never say ‘What did you say that for’ though Jennifer sometimes says ‘That doesn’t sound like you’, she might be joking but I’d always listen to that.”
Reflecting on Tongulish as a whole, Rita Ann detects that the book represents a development in her work: “There is something happening, maybe I am reaching further. Literature and books I’ve read feature more as an inspiration. The social poems are still there though there isn’t any plan to do that when you’re putting a book together you’re just happy to get a poem and then another poem, there is no grand plan - I’m not an organised person! There are a few light poems in the book but, more than any other, I think it has more gravitas. With the book, even though I don’t move away from social poems, I move out into a wider world somehow, allowing myself to use literature as a muse, that’s a different step for me.”