About Afric McGlinchey

I’m the author of a collection of poetry called Ghost of the Fisher Cat (Salmon Poetry, 2016), and another called The lucky star of hidden things (2012), which was also translated into Italian by Lorenzo Mari and published by L’Arcolaio in 2015. Currently, I’m writing an auto-fictional prose poetry memoir about a peripatetic upbringing and how this impacts on the sense of self, with immense gratitude to the Arts Council of Ireland for their support. I also tutor poetry and sometimes write essays and reviews when asked. Apples and wine and potatoes I earn mainly by working as a freelance editor of contemporary fiction and poetry. I was born in Galway and lived in Galway and Westport and Mullingar, and then moved to Zambia, where my family lived in Lusaka and Kabwe and Ndola, and then Limerick, which was drenched and as green as I was. My go-to place for an anchor has always been Donegal, where my father’s people come from. And now there’s West Cork, my home for the last nineteen years. I was educated in all those places and also in Zimbabwe and South Africa. I never thought anyone would ever read a word I’ve written. Then people noticed. Never give up. I read and write a lot, about the past, and about the present and future too; always circling back to an obsession about migration / dislocation / identity and place, and more recently about the ‘place’ of nature being disrupted or brutalized by us, and how it resists and how this might relate to our bodies and invasion. My work has been translated into five languages and widely anthologized. It has also won several prizes, including the Hennessy poetry award, two Arts bursaries, a Faber Fellowship and selection for an Italo-Irish Literature Exchange, as well as Pushcart and Forward nominations. I was commissioned to write a poem for the Breast Check Clinic in Cork and also for the Irish Composers' Collective. My work has been broadcast on Lyric FM’s Poetry File, on RTE’s Poetry Programme, Arena, Live FM, Radio Coventry, and on The Poetry Jukebox in Belfast. I have read at the Poetry Africa Festival, and the Harare International Festival of the Arts, as well as numerous other festivals and venues in Italy, France, England and Ireland. In terms of poetry, I am most inspired by Oswald and Ashbery and HD (that’s Eva), McGuckian, and Mahon and Darcy, Thomas and Morrissey and Hughes, Ramsell and Sexton and Groarke, Wright and Stevens and Hopkins. Next week, the list might be different. I have an addiction to buying books and half of those in my possession are still unread. There must be a word for that! The individual I most learn from is my (invisible) companion, a cat (I think). My twitter handle is @itosha.

What Ngomokurira taught me

Since we arrived in Harare, I’ve been strongly affected by olfactory impressions – eucalyptus trees, yesterday today and tomorrow bushes, jasmine, cut grass, strong whiffs of homemade roll ups, the smell of water from sprinklers onto dry red earth, the sadza sweat of labourers working in the new organic vegetable and herb plot. The changes, particularly the light here, mean that I’m getting up at 6am and diving into the pool, so appreciative that I have this luxury. Going to bed earlier. Getting back into the African rhythm of life.

As well as a trip home to see my family, this is a research visit, courtesy of a literature bursary from the Arts Council. I was hoping to have conversations with my father to stimulate ideas for my project, but his health has deteriorated dramatically since my last trip. He’s very frail, permanently bed-ridden now and too weak to speak. Instead, I’m facing thoughts of his approaching death, at a time when I’m writing about my childhood, and memories of a very different man. How to reconcile my impressions of my father then, with the man I see in front of me now? How is the current situation going to impact on the outcome of my story?

And now that my planned research with my father will not take place, how best to use my time here, from a research point of view?

Michael and I drove out to Ngomokurira one afternoon, somewhere I have never been, as we usually went to Domboshawa, a far smaller, but similar place, half an hour closer to the city.

Ngomokurira is much more dramatic.

Ngomokurira – the word ngomo is Shona for rocky outcrop – is a colossal, sheer rock-face, the curves softened by millennia, so it has an almost feminine look, in spite of its monumental presence. We drove along potholed tar roads, until even the tar ran out, and the bustling traffic, commuter kombis, handcarts, roadside stalls selling electronics, tomatoes, mobile phone cards and car parts gave way to wandering horned cows, children running, propelling a solitary bicycle wheel, women cultivating vegetable plots and beautiful rondavels:

Roof art

And all the time, Ngomokurira towered in front of us, its granite presence accepted as part of the landscape by everyone else, but astonishing for us.

At a dilapidated thatched building, we paid our entrance fee – $5. Just follow the track, we were told, and the white arrows. One path will take you to the rock paintings. The other one will take you to the cave. And off we went.

The crackling heat of the afternoon, the cicadas, occasional birds, trees rustling, were all the sounds we heard. Up and up we climbed, and every now and then – so unfit! – I clutched on to a thorn tree to get my breath. Sometimes, as I scrabbled up the dusty track, I’d skid and gasp, fearful of tumbling onto stones and thorns. Michael was soon far ahead of me. Looking up at the looming rock, I started thinking of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and hurried after him.

At one fairly level point, I looked away down towards a stream, and there was a half-stripped boy, about to take a dip. He looked up sharply – had he sensed me? – and we made eye contact. Embarrassed, I continued on. Michael had by now disappeared. I glanced back, and saw that the boy was still staring at me. Would he alert others to my solitary presence, a white woman? I felt incensed at Michael for leaving me on my own. Where was he?

I came to a beacon: a column of rocks, about chest high. The arrows pointed two ways now, and I didn’t know which way Michael had gone. I opted for the rock paintings. The trees became more lush and around a bend, I came upon the stream again, widening into a pool, surrounded by vegetation. For some reason, the enchanting scene made me think of Keats, or Wordsworth. After the scorching heat, it was an oasis, and I sank to the ground, and wondered whether to ignore the probable presence of bilharzia and dive in. First, I lay back on the warm rock and stared up at the blue blue sky, a passing falcon. I heard a click behind me. Michael, taking a photo of the the sheer rock-face and the trees reflected in the water:

Nogmokurira - photo by Michael Ray

We approached the ngomo together. The colours were amazing: rose-pink, grey, white and black, in waves. The rock paintings, of cattle, horses, various antelope, and humans, were obviously done at different times or by different artists, some more sophisticated than others. We could go right up and touch them. No one around, nothing to protect them from the blazing heat. There was an incredible atmosphere. I had a feeling that it was probably a sacred site, a burial site.

We spent a little while there, but as the afternoon was drawing on, and we knew darkness would be sudden when it came, we carried on to the cave. For the second time, I became aware of the presence of others, away in the distance. A young couple.

Again, Michael took off ahead of me, like a goat. Eventually, he was a silhouette on the horizon, standing at the pinnacle of the rock, looking down at me. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and kept stopping to sit, to take in the atmosphere. No one else around. Well, except for many scurrying lizards, startlingly coloured: iridescent blues and oranges.

I thought about snakes, and made a lot of noise as I moved, to give them advance warning of my approach. Eventually, I caught up to him, as he was on the way back.

–Can’t get to the cave, he said. It’s down a sheer cliff. And we’re running out of time.

I was greatly relieved. We set off at a pace. After a while, I heard footsteps behind us, and looked around. The couple were catching up to us. We paused to let them pass, but they paused too, and exchanged comments about the heat. Then he – Australian by his accent – asked if we could give them a lift back to Harare. They’d come here by commuter bus.
–Sure.

We headed back to the hut together, chatting. He had been to Peru and Bolivia and Mozambique. She was Shona, and had met him a few years ago, through NGO work. At the base of the rock, two young children approached us with yellow enamel dishes filled with mujanges, and sugar fruit. We bought some, and on the way home, ate them.

No falls. No attacks. No snakes. No police roadblocks on the way home. No hitchhiker horrors. They were lovely.

Ngomokurira is magnificent.

Why oh why do I always anticipate the worst?

The trip has reinforced something I had suspected about myself.

That will have to be incorporated into my story.

Meanwhile, there is my father. I head to his room, heart in mouth, and breathe a sigh when I see his chest lifting. The window is open, the white gauze inner curtain drifting slightly in the breeze. Beside his bed, a bowl of scented roses. His eyes are closed, but he opens them slowly, turns to the door and slightly lifts his thin, quavering hand. I’m glad I have an adventure to share with him.

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Settling back into the magic and mayhem of Zimbabwe

The rains are here. Wet earth and drenched grasses. Bird notes, and cicadas and frogs, and cars and dogs. The contrasting silence of 4am. Utter. No immersion, no pump, no mosquito.

So much has happened already, but I’ve had no internet access at home, and I’m having to write this quickly at another location, but will try and post properly soon. In the meantime, here are a few photos:

Charity:

Charity smiling

Vimbai, with Hugo:

Vimbai and Hugo

Moses admiring the sculpture of a horse made from spare car parts: Moses and the horse

Taurai:

Taurai

Still craziness and mishaps, but no more road blocks, and there’s definitely a different energy this time. So much to tell you, but later, when internet is restored!

Next up: an African road trip

Zimbabwe strip road

Thrilled and excited to have been awarded an Arts Council bursary, which will enable me to travel to Zimbabwe and South Africa to research and write my next book. I leave next week! I plan to keep a reading record and a weekly journal, describing my two-month trip. I had been feeling some trepidation about returning to a country in a state of economic crisis, but now that there’s an atmosphere of jubilation and hope about future prospects, I can’t wait. As Aristotle said, ‘There is always something new coming out of Africa.’ Let’s see.

Insights from the Don Share masterclass at the Molly Keane Writers’ Retreat

Don Share 2

I was lucky enough to be one of fourteen poets to get a place on the three-day Masterclass with Don Share at the magical Molly Keane Writers’ Retreat in Ardmore. I have dozens of pages of notes, but this is a glimpse into some of the insights he offered. Yes, we know many of these things already, but it’s good to be reminded. And this is Don Share – if we pay attention, we might just get into Poetry Magazine one day.

The first thing Don looks at is the shape of the poem on a page. If it has sections, do the sections help? He likes names rather than pronouns. Names are striking things, he says. They can do a lot in a poem. Look at the etymology of words. What does Inchigeela mean? A place name becomes imbued with the qualities of its history. Be curious. Don’t just say ‘tree’ – what kind of tree? What kind of bog? A name becomes irrefutable.

Workshop at the Molly Keane Writers' Retreat

He advocates paying as much attention to titles as to the poems themselves. We can encode meaning in images, he says, so it’s important to choose images that are genuinely resonant for you. He referenced Wallace Stevens’ Anecdote of the Jar:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

A good poem has concision, but discursiveness has its place too. He encouraged us to push poems to their logical extreme – they might be really long poems by the end. Although don’t, he said, add to the mystification of the world without purpose.

He says poets should recycle everything. Write the poem on the left side and copious notes on the right – some of these might transfer over into the poem. Some of the poem might be cut. What isn’t used in the poem can be used elsewhere.

A turf fire and a bunch of writers

Eliminate ambiguity, but don’t spell out what the poem is about either. If your tendency is to write long lines, write longer ones. The way CK Williams does:

Butchers

Thank goodness we were able to wipe the Neanderthals out, beastly things,
from our mountains, our tundra—that way we had all the meat we might need.

Thus the butcher can display under our very eyes his hands on the block,
and never refer to the rooms hidden behind where dissections are effected,

where flesh is reduced to its shivering atoms and remade for our delectation
as cubes, cylinders, barely material puddles of admixtured horror and blood.

Rembrandt knew of all this—isn’t his flayed beef carcass really a caveman?
It’s Christ also, of course, but much more a troglodyte such as we no longer are.

Vanished those species—begone!—those tribes, those peoples, those nations—
Myrmidon, Ottoman, Olmec, Huron, and Kush: gone, gone, and goodbye.

2

But back to the chamber of torture, to Rembrandt, who was telling us surely
that hoisted with such cables and hung from such hooks we too would reveal

within us intricate layerings of color and pain: alive the brush is with pain,
aglow with the cruelties of crimson, the cooled, oblivious ivory of our innards.

Fling out the hooves of your hands! Open your breast, pluck out like an Aztec
your heart howling its Cro-Magnon cries that compel to battles of riddance!

Our own planet at last, where purged of wilderness, homesickness, prowling,
we’re no longer compelled to devour our enemies’ brains, thanks to our butcher,

who inhabits this palace, this senate, this sentried, barbed-wire enclosure
where dare enter none but subservient breeze; bent, broken blossom; dry rain.

Move stanzas around; the second stanza might end up as the final stanza. Use your intuition.

Let your landscape write you. Yeats becomes self-mythologizing by writing himself into place. He appropriates names, puts them in poems, and creates a resonance across cultures and time periods. ‘What’s Yeats without Fergus and Maud?’

Your aim should be to become un-ignorable. John Ashbery is un-ignorable, even though you might not like his work: here’s a link to his eleven-page poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a poem Don Share says he can’t ‘unsee’: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=32944

Conceive of your work as having a high value, he said. Don’t weaken your poem by apologising for it.

Poetry Magazine publishes three hundred poems a year. Don Share and his fellow reader, Christina Pugh, read 150 000 poems to find those three hundred. He reads every poem. Imagine. What he looks for is a fact he doesn’t know. Some striking detail. An odd, or stubborn poem, something ‘recondite, almost alienating, even, as long as it’s un-ignorable’. He doesn’t always like the poems he publishes, he says, so there’s no point in trying to decipher his taste.

me at the Molly Keane writers' retreat

Resistance to a poem is important, he says. If it still follows you about and settles in, it’s time to pay attention. ‘I don’t know what Wallace Stevens’ poems are saying, and I don’t want to know,’ he says. ‘But he is opposing his imagination against the violence of reality. It’s a work of resistance.’

Look for the things that can power a poem. He doesn’t like false modesty, people saying ‘it’s only a poem.’ This indicates that they’re not willing to be serious. It lets them off the hook.

Also, the poems we see in an anthology are the result of a long journey of failed poems. ‘Yeats wrote some terrible poems!’ he said. But you can’t get to the great poems without the bad poems. You must have confidence that something is worth working on.

When ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (what a name! What a title!) was published, people said, ‘this is not a poem.’ But it is intractable, as are The Four Quartets and The Wasteland.

We heard loads of anecdotes about various poets. While Yeats was ‘a lunatic’, Eliot suffered from perceiving there was something missing in him, including passion. Pound devoted decades to writing his cantos but in the end felt that his life’s work was a failure. He gave up writing, and even stopped speaking.

Don talked about the fact that we don’t write – or read – in a vacuum. Everything is connected. Poems and poets exist alongside each other. This creates a context. Our poems address something found in another writer’s work. Show all your influences in your poems, he said.

Look for the structural principle in your poem – it may be plain-spoken and straightforward, or it could have a clear soundscape. A long poem or series of sequences could be connected, for example, by rivers, as John Ashbery’s Into the Dusk-Charged Air is: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/into-the-dusk-charged-air/

‘When I look at a poem, I try to imagine its opposite,’ said Don. If it’s long, how would it work as a short poem, and vice versa. Richard Ford says write something as though it’s 100% true – and then say the opposite.

He talked about style, how a person’s style is unmistakable: Virginia Woolf’s style was a profusion of words and a disruption of syntax. Auden ‘throws in the kitchen sink; he’s coarse, jokey, a smarty-pants.’ But it’s good to encounter another writer’s style, ‘and let it in – then put yourself in. Say things only you can account for.’ Jorie Graham’s style is to write ‘fast’ and her work is very personal; she writes about her father’s illness / dying/ terrible secrets about her family’s history. Masks are an idea she got from Yeats. What we inherit as poets is something related to the wearing of masks. Truths otherwise obscured can be conveyed in the process. Don reminded us of the power of masks in many cultures.

Jorie Graham has renounced a lot of what she’s written, and says that she doesn’t want to be ‘gratuitously exploitative and condemning.’ But readers always want to see her latest work. Louise Glück has a restless intelligence, feeds on things, and moves on.

If you’re in the habit of doing things one way, switch gears.

Virginia Brownlow, Molly Keane's daughter

We should write about what is specific to us, our place and time. Prose writers take on the big questions. This is something more poets need to do. Not just the immediate things, but the larger perspective. There is a tendency these days to be too narcissistic: ‘This happened to me. That’s all.’ What is the point? And our attention span is too short. He is interested in seeing more long poems – a commitment.

He talked about Ocean Vuong’s début collection. The writing is powerful. At every reading, Don says, people cry.

There has to be an honesty of approach.

Don Share doesn’t go for reticence. Go for more detail, he says. ‘A poem is a room, and it has to be furnished.’

Do the hardest thing it’s in your power to do, he says. Lack of courage and ambition are the greatest let-down. ‘I think people don’t work hard enough,’ he said. Competent poems are the worst thing. ‘I have to wrestle with that,’ he said. Remember, you are stuck with the things that have your name on them. It’s better not to write often.

The most interesting poets are those who do inexplicable things.

He said the most important book to come out of the States in the last thirty years is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. It addresses the question of race, and how language can wound. She coins the term: ‘micro-aggressions’ and lists innocent black people who have been killed by the police, leaving space for the reader to add more names. Because there will be more names. The cumulative effect on people is ‘to wreck them’, he said.

But everything is up for negotiation, he says. ‘I’m happy to be wrong about everything.’

Oread By H. D.

Hdpoet

Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.

H.D.(1886–1961) was an American poet, novelist, and memoirist. She was part of the early 20th century avant-garde Imagist group of poets that also included Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington. A prolific writer of prose and poetry, her most notable work was Helen in Egypt (written between 1952–54), an examination from a feminist point of view of a male-centred epic poetry. Her writings have served as a model for poets working in the modernist tradition, including Barbara Guest, Denise Levertov, Hilda Morley, Susan Howe, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. ‘Oread’ is one of her earliest and best-known poems.

Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest

kate tempest.jpg

Street poet, rapper, playwright and impossible-to-pigeonhole polymath Kate Tempest has achieved an unprecedented double.

Her hip-hop album Everybody Down has been shortlisted for the Mercury prize. Tempest has also been selected by the Poetry Book Society as one of 20 next generation poets, a prestigious list picked just once per decade. The 27-year-old is the youngest of the crop and described herself as “humbled, terrified and proud”, adding: “Bit bonkers, isn’t it?”

This all comes the year after Tempest scooped the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry (the first person under 40 to win it), the Off-West End Theatre award (aka “the Offies”) and a Herald Angel award at the Edinburgh fringe. A visionary. South Africa had Mandela. England has Kate Tempest.

Philosophy of Life by John Ashbery

john-ashbery_400x400

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea—
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something
William James
wrote in some book of his you never read—it was fine, it had the
fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
his alone.

It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought—
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise—I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him—
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one.

John Lawrence Ashbery was an American poet. He published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Renowned for its postmodern complexity and opacity, Ashbery’s work still proves controversial. But this one’s a gem, I think. And I always go to him for a challenge! R.I.P. dear man.