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Interview: Polaris

LANGUAGE | We talk to poet and musician Marcas Mac an Tuairneir about his collection Polaris, an ambitious and exciting poetic project, and dive deeply into the importance of keeping minority languages visible and widely supported.

Can you tell readers a bit more about Polaris?

Polaris was very much a passion project – a collection that I had written in my mind years ago, but one which I had never had the chance to get to grips with. Through the successive lockdowns, when life for freelancers in the creative industries became so challenging, I needed something that would get me through and so I set myself the task of researching a historical subject every week and writing a poem in response to it.

Polaris, in this way, is very much a poetic retelling of the history of these islands – the Atlantic Archipelago – right up to the present day. The language I use to refer to the island chain is specific and is beginning to be used more and more within the field of postcolonial studies. Because of my own political standpoints and my position as a Gaelic speaker, born in England, resident in Scotland and with Irish heritage on both sides of my family, the term “British Isles” doesn’t fit for me – it immediately conjures images of Empire and the dominance of the English language across the home nations. It also doesn’t present Ireland as independent or our equal and it entirely erases the presence of the Isle of Man as an independent nation. Some commentators include the Channel Islands in the Atlantic Archipelago, others don’t, but culturally and linguistically they are very much part of the story.

Most people – and successive Westminster Governments, in particular – would probably not realise how many languages are native to these islands. These are the Celtic Languages: Gaelic, Manx and Irish and Cornish and Welsh; GRT languages Shelta and Angloromani; The languages of the Channel Islands, Jèrriais, Guernèsiais and Sercquiais, Signed languages BSL, ISL and NISL and the Anglo-Saxon languages, Scots – with its various dialects – and English. The latter has, in fact, only de facto official status. Only Welsh has official status in Wales, Gaelic has co-national status in Scotland – a precarious position to be in as it gives certain powers to Bòrd na Gàidhlig (the Gaelic Language Board) but falls short in ensuring that Gaelic can be used across public life. The Cornish people are recognised as a protected minority, which conveys certain rights and protections, regarding their language.

Language is key to this collection. For a start, I play with my own bilingualism a lot – some poems started life in Gaelic, others in English. Some are directly translated back and forth, but in other ways I play around with this relationship. I also translated certain works into Irish with support of one of the editors and others into Polari – the LGBTQ cryptolect which was spoken on the gay scene through the 20th Century. In this way the title is a play on words – Polaris means ‘languages’ in Polari itself – and we also opened the doors to a number of poets who work in many of these other minoritised languages. So, a number of the poems feature in their languages too and it has been a joy to include translations from the likes of Stuart A. Paterson, Ifor ap Glyn (former National Poet of Wales), Sam O Fearraigh and Scott De Buitléir, who write in different dialects of Irish, and David Bleiman who contributed a translation is his own re-invented Scots Yiddish.

What are some of the key themes in your collection? Why did you feel drawn to explore these?

The premise of the book is to uncover and celebrate lesser heard voices and the stories they have to tell. So much of our history is told by the great events which happened to men, to straight people, to white people, to English-speaking people and to the rich and highly-educated. I wanted to widen things out a little, to eschew the homogeneity of Britishness, which is the colonial framework that oppresses all of the communities under focus. Women’s stories feature here, as well as those of LGBTQ people, people of colour, the working class and people of the ‘regions’ – many of whom speak the languages that feature.

In the end what we created – because this has very much been a collaborative process – has been completely unique and never really seen before, or at least not on this scale, in Irish and British literature. So, you will get some Kings and Queens and some political comment on the events of the contemporary era, but there are are a lot of other stories which feature the people whose names we’ll never know, who the history we receive doesn’t care to remember.

Part of this book’s job is remembering them.

“Translation, to me, is just a process of transformation.”

Photo: Simon Crawford (Crawford Visual) 

The collection includes reimaginings and reworkings of many of your works in many minoritised languages – how did you find the process of seeing your work evolve in these different languages?

It’s always a joy to work with collaborators to see how your idea will end up in their hands. Translation is often a case of finding the essence of the piece somewhere between the original and target languages. Most of the poet-translators I had worked with before, either through co-editing The Poets’ Republic, or other projects, such as Òran na Cille – a poetry, translation and song commission we received last year.

Translation, to me, is just a process of transformation. The transformation here specifically linguistic and often cultural, but in this it doesn’t feel vastly different from when a poem is set to music, by someone else, or if it is illustrated. With each collaboration, the other artist latches onto what resonates and reframes the work on their terms. This is what makes the process exciting for me as it either expands or opens outwards the work further, or breaks it down and rebuilds it anew. Writing can often be quite an isolated – or isolating! – experience. It’s a relationship between the writer and themselves, mitigated by the page. I often find myself wanted to expand on this relationship with myself and use the work as a causeway. This is why I quite often reinterpret the same piece in multiple ways myself – through translation, through music, through spoken word performance or through film.

More so, why do you think it’s important that we continue to publish and spotlight minority languages?

The marginalia of the Book of Deer (a 10th Century religious manuscript, with its origins in Aberdeenshire) are not only the genesis of literature in Scottish Gaelic, but the genesis of Scottish literature itself. Gaelic predates Scots by centuries in Scotland, just as Scots predates English. If anyone tries to present a picture of Scottish literature being a literature of the English language alone, they should be due a rude awakening, but I’m concerned that that is what is being promoted nowadays.

Critics here used to refer to Scottish literature being a three-tongued literature, but this has given way – rightly or wrongly – to ideas of cosmopolitanism being given precedence. I admire the positive steps to include women’s, LGBTQ and BAME writing more than ever before. This better represents Scotland’s diversity, but when diversity is delivered solely through the English language, then this isn’t Scotland. We can include everyone whilst maintaining our trilingual foundations.

The upshot is that across the country literary events and festivals are programmed, and anthologies published, with only minor reference to contemporary Scots literature and – much of the time – Gaelic doesn’t feature at all. Scottish literature is poorer for this, as we fail to show of linguistic diversity which makes us entirely unique. Nowhere in the world has Scottish Gaelic, Scots and English as its native languages. This standpoint is pretty ignorant really, if not foolish – most writers, and especially the poets, translate their own work for non-Gaelic audiences, because we know that people from outwith the culture are interested. We know this because, when we’re actually invited to take part, audiences tell us this.

Those working within English-language literary milieux don’t seem to realise that if, as a community, we cease to generate new literature, Gaelic literature could cease to be a contemporary literature. It could, like the Book of Deer, become a thing of antiquity. The situation is quite precarious and exacerbated by fact that Gaelic writers have an extremely limited number of periodicals and publishers to work with. We are locked out of literary agencies and the big name publishers will not work with writers without agency representation, so that is a xenophobic system designed to preference English literature and to lock out Gaelic.

If readers are to engage solely with the original Gaelic text, then we have a maximum Gaelic-literature readership of c.80,000, here, with additional readership in Gaelic Canada and where Gaelic is taught abroad. This is why Gaelic literature needs support in ways that writers of English will never need – theirs isn’t a minoritised literature, whatever protected characteristics individual writers might have. In a globalised world, English literature is not under threat.

The absence of designated Gaelic expertise across the sector makes it easy for organisations to engage with Gaelic literature as ‘other’, or in a minority of cases, as if the language and its literature doesn’t exist. We need a re-evaluation and for organisations to recognise that they all have a role in supporting Gaelic literature – this is why it’s great to see a Gaelic-speaking Head of Programme at SBT and successive Gaelic Development Officers at SPL. For too long the responsibility has been handed over to The Gaelic Books Council, and they have done such a good job in supporting Gaelic writers and readers, that a lot of other literary organisations think they’re off the hook. I personally believe that all arts and books organisations should be required to create a Gaelic Language plan and that everyone funded by Creative Scotland should be expected to embrace the ethos of Gaelic inclusivity which they claim to uphold. Time will tell – organisations are welcome to write a Gaelic Language plan voluntarily with the support of Bòrd na Gàidhlig. We’ll see what happens with the new Scottish Languages Act which is currently under consultation.

“That’s what inspires my poetry – a question. Any given poem may or may not be the answer. It may indeed be a subsequent question for someone else to answer.”

You’re also a musician – how do you find the interplay between music and language? Do you find there to be an overlap in how you approach your various projects?

When I started writing again, after not being very creative at all through my late teens and early twenties, I did so as a means to keep up the momentum with my Gaelic learning. I’d loved studying contemporary poetry at University and felt that there was space within the Gaelic Canon for another queer voice. Whilst I was familiar with the Gaelic song tradition within a wider traditional poetry corpus, I did not feel, as a learner belonging outwith the culture, that it was my role or right to work with those forms.

It’s mainly through being a member of successive Gaelic choirs and singing as a soloist at Mòds that I have come to engage with those forms and have a role in developing contemporary song forms. The first piece of my poetry that was set music was ‘Speactram’, from my second collection, with a tune by Gillie Mackenzie. Over the years I’ve worked with a number of fantastic musicians like Mary Ann Kennedy, Rachel Walker, Pàdruig Morrison and Adam Holmes. Many of them have been firmly rooted in the Gaelic tradition, whilst being innovators themselves. Others haven’t. This has been a really rich experience and it has given me cause to rethink those traditional songs that I’ve sung as lyrics and to explore their form and metre in more depth. There is an incredible skill required to make writing of that style work. This is what led to my debut album – also called Speactram – which I released this year. Whilst other musicians have sought to bring the contemporary into the Gaelic tradition, the modus operandi of this album was the bring the language into the Pop Music landscape. It’s been a very enjoyable process and the commissions keep coming.

Finding this cohesion between poetry, song and performance has been an enriching experience and I think this sense of lyricism can be seen across my work in other areas now.

What inspires your writing?

I used to write from a very visceral place. Every poem had to connect deeply to a personal experience for it to feel authentic to me. That worked well for a time and it was a cathartic experience. Perhaps even a form of therapy. In the end, though, I got a bit worn out with it. The danger is that you have to push yourself into the back darkest parts of yourself, as each successive poem ups the ante. We’ve seen a lot, particularly in performance poetry, how form is being abandoned for a very prosaic form of spoken trauma memoir. I definitely feel that poetry can be a place to explore emotions and lived experience, but writing solely for your own self now, to me at least, feels a little narcissistic. I much prefer to see literature – published, performed or both – as a conversation between the writer and the reader. As a writer what I aim to bring now is clarity of perspective, and hopefully a unique perspective. What I enjoy from readerships is their response, shaped by their own perspective. It is in that echo of interpretation that we find the essence of the work, together.

It’s for that reason that I’ve enjoyed working on Polaris. By definition, there is a degree of detachment from the subject matter, because it is not – at first glance – autobiographical. The more personal poems relate to my own family history and have been included to demonstrate that genealogy and social history has a place within the great historiography of the world. It has also been a way to reckon with themes of diaspora and my own patchwork identity.

However, a poet can never be truly detached from any subject they engage with. We always write ourselves into the poem, because the poem is in and of itself a poet’s reaction to the world around them. In that way Polaris is shaped by me experiences as a male, as a queer person, as a first language English speaker, as a second language Gaelic speaker, as a Yorkshireman, as a northerner who went further north, as an economic migrant, as a new Scot, as a UK citizen (however long that may last) and as a person with roots across the Atlantic Archipelago. It’s been a means to question all those things and more.

I guess that’s what inspires my poetry – a question. Any given poem may or may not be the answer. It may indeed be a subsequent question for someone else to answer.

What do you hope readers take from your book?

For the most part I hope that the book challenges readers to challenge the narratives we’re presented with via the books we read and the media we consume. To see the unseen and remember the forgotten. To not be content with a singular telling of the story.

Polaris by Marcas Mac an Tuairneir is published by Leamington Books.