Experimental Literature Part 2 – Maighread Medbh


I am taking part as a workshop leader and moderator in the Circa Bloomsday weekend event in the Irish Writers Centre (scroll down at link for details) , where I also regularly teach workshops in Experimental Fiction. Circa is a celebration and a showcase of contemporary experimental literature in Ireland, in honor of the legacy of Joyce. If you’re involved in any way with experimental literature, or just curious, please come along. It will be great gathering, I’m sure of that. I have also been commissioned to write a poem in response to modernist manifestos for the Blast 100 modernist symposium in Trinity College in early July. As part of the build up to both these events I’m asking various writing and arts professionals to answer – briefly – the four questions below. I am aware that some people are unsure of the term experimental, by which I mean, to put it briefly, a (very) playful approach to form and representation, especially but not exclusively in the light of contemporary technological developments.  I have included a definition option as question, because I know that everyone thinks of it in their own way, and I love hearing about that. I will be blogging the replies over the next month. First, last week, was debut novelist Rob Doyle. Today I am delighted to have poet, performer, prose experimenter and all round pioneer and innovator Maighread Medbh. Maighread has a far greater claim to be Ireland’s leading poetry performer than many who might more loudly make that claim for themselves and she has been in the front rank of performance literature here for two decades. But, that’s not all she’s great at. Her book of experimental prose Savage Solitude was one of the books of the year last year, in my opinion, a  genre-busting work that I keep being drawn back to and provoked by again and and again. I’m looking forward to whatever she does next.



In relation to writing, how would you define the term experimental?


While I’m thinking about this question I come across an aphorism by Balthasar Gracian, the seventeenth-century Spanish writer. Its encapsulation is ‘Never lose self-respect’, and its expansion proposes that one should leave off anything ‘unseemly’ more from regard for your own self-respect than from fear of external authority. Self-respect, yes, I say to myself, in the sense of self-celebration, is where experimentation of the artistic sort begins. Other things begin before it—self-saturation, self-abandonment, self-doubt, self-immolation, desire. Always desire of some sort, if only for death. To experiment in writing is to take risks, imagined or real. It’s to try something that might arouse disapproval, disdain, or any other response damaging to one’s sense of safety. Experimentation often seems to have little respect for anything, internal or external, but lift the skirt of any original piece of writing and you’ll find respect for language, if only in opposition. It has been said that original writers write as if their native language were foreign to them. Experimental writers approach narrative and subject matter as if their humanity were foreign to them. And then again, experimental writers often respect, and have absorbed, elements of their culture so much that they become obsessive eclectic spiders, weaving voices, themes and philosophies into brash or elegant webs unified only by their particular brand of focus.


Are you ever experimental in your own approach? If so, how?


Mostly I experiment. I suppose dramatic poetry was an experiment when I began. I tried it because it seemed the thing to do. Which means nothing, but it’s how I work. Before the ‘performing’, I tried to produce organic poetry, from the pulse and body-feel. Because it seemed most true. Good? Bad? I don’t know. I’ve become bogged in these terms recently, but I still test most of my work by how close it gets to some sort of flight. It might need embodiment to get off the ground, but I try to put some aerodynamic properties in the design, however simple. If something seems stagnant, I try to stir it up, put in some new ingredient. I don’t think I’m radically experimental, because a core of meaning is important to me, but I certainly follow the visions I get and the sounds I hear, even if they’re nothing like the material that wins prizes.


Can you recommended some essential past and present experimental reads?


Essential, no. To each their own. But here are some of the works that have stirred and satisfied me. Samuel Beckett’s work in general, but I’ve lately discovered his aerodynamic poems in Echoes Bones and Other Precipitates (1935); Kathy Acker’s book of essays, Bodies of Work (1997); Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (Le Cosmicomiche, 1965) and Invisible Cities (Las Ciudades Invisibles, 1972); Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr. (1964); Adrienne Rich’s poem An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), for its odd sprawl and utterly embracing last stanza; A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980); almost all of e. e. cummings’ poems. More recently, Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised (Les Particules élémentaires, 1998), and The Possibility of an Island (La Possibilité d’une île, 1995); and because Dave Lordan is in present company and mind, his own recent book, The First Book of Frags. 


What do you predict will be the most important changes in the construction and distribution of literary works over the course of the 21st Century?


I’m not sure. Texts still have to be composed by painstaking concentration, mostly in isolation. The isolation may lessen, has lessened already. Collaborations are a thing of the present, writers working in tandem with other writers and artists. But for the longer works of literature, and for the intense personal narrative, the solitary labour will continue, I think. It’s hard to write anything these days without being aware of how it might translate into another medium, such as film, graphic novel, theatre, or even dance. We’ve been experiencing the breakdown of demarcation lines for some time now. What exactly is it that distinguishes poetry from prose these days, when novelists are poetic and poets prosaic? We have so many sounds and images in our heads that our productions are reverberating webs. Let’s say that literature in the 21st Century will see the proliferation of exploratory texts combining the methods and approaches of various previous literary genres. We will see the continued rise of the learned practitioner, informative, scintillating productions by scientists and philosophers, non-fiction as absorbing and entertaining as the imaginary. As for the delivery of literary works—digital vehicles of course, ebooks being the obvious way to read and read without inducing a hernia. Plus the translation I’ve referred to above. The ‘successful’ literary work will quickly be offered to other mediums and re-constituted. In a word, flow. “Is it really so sad and dangerous to be fed up with seeing with your eyes, breathing with your lungs, swallowing with your mouth, talking with your tongue, thinking with your brain, having an anus and larynx, head and legs? Why not walk on your head, sing with your sinuses, see through your skin; breathe with your belly; the simple Thing, the Entity, the full Body, the stationary voyage.” – Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, London & N. Y.: Continuum, p. 167. Biographical Note Máighréad Medbh is an Irish poet with six published collections and a work of non-fiction, Savage Solitude: Reflections of a Reluctant Loner, published in 2013 by Dedalus Press, Dublin. Máighréad was one of the pioneers of performance poetry in Ireland in the 1990s, and continues to deliver her work dramatically at poetry events. She has three novels online as ebooks, and two more poetry collections lined up for publication. One of the latter is a narrative in the fantasy-allegory mode, using the paintings of Pauline Bewick as a visual and conceptual springboard. The next project is another book like Savage Solitude, exploring a problematic issue through a mix of genres—prose, poetry and reference to research. Máighréad writes a monthly piece on her website which, for the sake of common currency, she calls a blog. http://www.maighreadmedbh.ie