Northern Poetry Review: Archived

Interview: Colin Carberry (2008)

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Colin Carberry is a poet and Colin Carberry.jpegliterary translator, who was born in Toronto and raised in Longford, Ireland. He is the author of Ceasefire in Purgatory (Luna Publications); a chapbook, The Crossing, (Bearing Press); and he has translated two volumes of poetry, Weekly Diary and Poems in Prose & Adam and Eve (Exile Editions), by Mexico’s Jaime Sabines. Colin has read from his work at literary festivals, colleges and universities in Canada, Europe, and the United States. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Exile, Poetry Ireland Review, Line by Line: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry and Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, and has been translated into Spanish and Serbo-Croat. Visit

Alex Boyd interviewed Colin Carberry in July 2008.

You were born in Toronto, but raised in Ireland. As a writer, do you feel conscious of having a foot in each world? Do you see yourself as having a unique perspective, and do you see strong distinctions between Canadian writing and Irish work?

I do have a foot in both Canada and Ireland, but in that I am hardly unique: millions of dual-citizen Canadians daily experience what James Joyce called “having two thinks at a time”, and are the better for it. I am well schooled in the literatures of both countries, so maybe I do enjoy something of a unique perspective on Canadian literature, but while some sharp distinctions exist between Canadian and Irish work, there are also many similarities. Firstly, there is a long history of Irish immigration to Canada, with the Canadian-Irish — just shy of 4.5 million Canadians claim full or partial Irish ancestry — forming the fourth largest ethnic group in Canada. There is a also a sizable Quebecois-Irish population, and in parts of Newfoundland and Cape Breton Irish (and Scots) Gaelic is still spoken as a living language and studied by scholars and linguists from Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere. This unique cultural fusion has produced numerous Canadian-Irish writers of note, among them, Isabella Valancy Crawford, Barry Callaghan, Nicholas Flood Davin, Kildare Dobbs, Oliver Goldsmith (nephew of the Oliver Goldsmith), Richard Greene, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Alden Nowlan and Rosemary Sullivan and. I contend Nowlan is the finest poet Canada has produced and believe Irish critics and poets familiar with his work would share my view. Secondly, with over 112 languages now spoken there — a far cry from the traditional two, Irish and English — Ireland is no longer the insular, pseudo-theocratic society of old, but, like Canada, a modern economic powerhouse experiencing a massive influx of immigration and foreign investment. This in turn has had a knock-on effect on the literature being produced there: if her writers remain steeped in Irish historical and literary themes, they no longer look automatically to Britain, America, and Europe for outside inspiration, but increasingly to places like Canada. The fact that Alistair McLeod and Rawi Hage have both received the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award indicates the Irish hold Canadian writing in high esteem.

You’ve lived in Mexico as well and translated Mexican work. Do you think it’s important for poets to have a nationality or to be free-floaters, so to speak? Is there an Irish Perspective on Canada?

No. I don’t think it matters whether poets have a strong sense of nationality, or nationalities, or whether they are magpie types like me, drawing inspiration from a diversity of cultures. I tend to be wary of poets whose work is too strongly imbued with nationalistic overtones. Tolstoy called patriotism ‘a gross fraud,’ Samuel Johnson thought of it as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel,’ while Bob Marley in one of his songs wryly observed that isms tend to produce schisms. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with feeling a healthy pride in one’s country — poets tend to write out of what they know in their bones — so long it doesn’t derive from some us-versus-them mentality: that would constitute bigotry, not poetry. I’m a dedicated cosmopolitan, interested in every culture and literature on earth, and the more I travel the more it registers: there is no ‘other’, and that to study ‘other’ cultures is really to study oneself.

I noticed a few colloquial expressions in your latest book, Ceasefire in Purgatory. An early poem has “Love many, but trust few, and paddle your own canoe,” and a later poem has “You’ll be a long time dead.” I think it’s quite effective to have these peppered throughout the poems as little anchors, or little real-world connections. Was it a conscious decision?

It was a conscious decision, yes; colloquial English constitutes the natural speech of hundreds of millions of people, and if poetry is to be honest — and Louis MacNeice has said that ‘poetry before it can be beautiful must be honest’ — then it follows that a poet should reap inspiration from the rich and earthy rhythms of this daily speech. In his dream encounters with dead friends, relatives, and historical personages in The Divine Comedy, Dante puts in their mouths the words and idiomatic phrasing they would have used in their day, much of which is quite colourful. Seamus Heaney similarly blends the high-brow and the quotidian throughout the body of his work, as did Shakespeare, Chaucer, Robert Frost, Rumi and practically any other writer worthy of mention. I have a deep respect for tradition and write mainly in the poetic forms of the sonnet and terza rima canto, but I am a regular ordinary person and the colloquial speech in my poetry reflects that.

Your poems describe “the natural harbour of your most sacred heart,” as well as water that “eases from the earth like children’s laughter.” You have a poem called “God,” followed immediately by “Man,” who is sometimes peering “into prayer’s inky stillness.” Do poets need to be spiritual, and do they have anything in common, do you think?

Poetry is an act of self-transcendence –‘In the beginning was the Word’, etc. — and can therefore be viewed as a form of prayer, but I certainly don’t believe poets need to be spiritual to write. Poets can write about anything that takes their fancy, but they do need to express themselves honestly as well as adequately, and that should take them all their time and effort. Seamus Heaney is an early essay observed that his impulse to write derived from his necessity ‘to get his feelings into words.’ I like the depth and simplicity of that statement — it sums up my reasons for writing poems. But getting back to the relationship between spirituality and poetry for a moment, I also find it intriguing that much of the world’s spiritual literature—the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad Gita, whole books of the Bible, as well as much of the work of Rumi, Bhauji, John of the Cross and other mystics—were written in poetry as opposed to any other literary medium. Islam’s holiest book opens with the magic word: ‘Recite.’

Your poem “In Lanesboro Graveyard” reads in full: “What can priest or soldier, dole-kept drinker say / when hemmed in on all sides by the cold wet clay.” I admire a poet who isn’t afraid to be so concise, but wonder what instinct or feeling tells you to stop there?

This couplet was an ambitious attempt to pack a big idea into the tightest of poetic forms, and is merely a brief sardonic comment on the fact that all verbal discourse occurs between the profound silences of before-birth and after-death. But whether or not the poem achieves its stated aim is another question. I have since written a poem based on and in the same graveyard, so I must have more to say! Death and love will always be of interest to poets.

Your poem “Clandestino,” appears inspired by a translation of a song by the same title earlier in the book. How is translation-work valuable, and is it inspirational?

Translation work is essential. It amounts to a literary genre in and of itself and it presents a unique challenge to a poet. Where would we be without translators? How else to access Borges, Cervantes, Dante, Rimbaud, Tolstoy, or such indispensible texts as the Bible, the Koran, or the works of the ancient Romans and Greeks? I doubt many of us would take the trouble to learn five or six or more languages in order to enjoy these works in their original tongues. The process of translation is equal parts mysterious, complex, inspirational, and (dare I use the word) fun. I have selectively translated work by Borges (Argentina), Mario Benedetti (Uruguay), Roque Dalton (El Salvador), and I am currently working on a Selected of my favorite Spanish-language writer, the great Mexican poet Jaime Sabines, in the process of which I have discovered that I devote about as much time to translation work as I do to my own poetry.


Author: Alex Boyd

Alex Boyd is the author of two books of poems: Making Bones Walk and The Least Important Man. He also writes essays, reviews and fiction.

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