Thursday, October 23, 2008

Notes on Iona Hostel Poems

The Iona blogeen started out as a small memory fragment and then I was overwhelmed with all the history I wanted to include. Hence, the "Under Construction" sign. Will I ever got back to it?

As I researched Iona, I later found out that St Columba is the Patron Saint of poets, the reason why all those laminated poems were stapled to the undersides of our bunks at the hostel. Now, how did I miss that crucial bit of information?

The 12 posted poets/poems (there were more) I managed to record with my camera were:

The Bloody Orkneys, Anon (penned by a bored naval officer, Hamish Blair stationed there during the War)
Whitby-sur-Moyola, Seamus Heaney
The Eemis Stane, and The Bonnie Broukit Bairn, Hugh MacDiarmid
Can I fly Too?, Philip Hobsbaum
Evening, H. D.
Intrusion of the Human; An Ordinary Day; and Wild Oats, Norman MacCaig
The Bride, Tom Scott
The Tree, Maureen Sangster
The Voyeur, Tom Leonard
The Moment, Kathleen Raine

There were many more poems...and so little time. I was in hog heaven, at the hostel at the end of the island. Poems, twilight, and the white sand shore.

Outside the front door of the hostel, on the hill was a stone carved with a verse about being still that I forgot to take a photo of. I wish I had it now.

I looked up the poets on the internet and most seem to be either from the West of Scotland (writing in Scots dialects, primarily of the beauty of untrammeled nature), or they lived in the West of Scotland.

I found that many of these early to mid- 20th c. poets were associated with Philip Hobsbaum's literary school, "The Group," including Seamus Heaney. I do remember Seamus mentioning Hobsbaum and "The Group" as being central to his writing style.

And some of the selected poets were friends of Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) or Louis MacNeice. Some are associated with the Universities of Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Anti-Scottish Romanticism seems to be a core element, as is Scottish Modernist/ Nationalism. Of course, Heaney and H.D. aren't Scottish... H.D. and Norman MacCaig write in an imagist free verse style, closest to my own work.

I couldn't find "The Tree", or Maureen Sangster anywhere on the internet. If anyone has information, it's be much appreciated.

My low-light photos of the poems are very poor, I was able to find several poems online. Maybe I will write a blog on them later. Meanwhile, this entry will serve to identify the poems. If anyone else has any info on the poems or other poems hot listed, please drop me a line.

Remembering Jim Duran, (Séamas Ó Direáin)

I first met musicologist and linguist Jim Duran (Séamas Ó Direáin) with harpist Sharon Devlin of the traditional Irish group, Sheila na Gig at the Treasures of Early Irish Art exhibit at the San Francisco De Young Museum in the mid-'70s. We were listening to the group singing Irish tunes my granny knew. I was shocked when he came over afterwards and spoke to my grandmother in Irish and she answered him right back.

My grannie was the only one there who could actually READ the Book of Kells, so we drew quite an audience! Someone came up and asked if she could read it...she snorted, "Of course I can. It's in Latin!" As if everybody could read Latin. 

My grannie, Jane Walsh Reilly probably hadn't spoken to anyone in Irish since the 1930s as there were few Irish speakers in San Francisco, but she kept up her Irish studies her entire life. Daily she was nose deep in Dineen's Irish Dictionary looking up words. 

My grandfather was instrumental in founding the KRB club in SF: Knights of the Red Branch. Among other things, they organized Irish cultural events, Irish language classes (and ran guns too, but that's another story. The photo of Liam Mellows in our lower field is proof enough of those IRA connections).

Despite holding a PhD. in linguistics from Stanford, Jim Duran was the most pragmatically practical from the Of course you can gung-ho just do it school. He was the one who encouraged me to study Irish Gaelic. He was one of the few people I knew who was fluent in Irish but then, he was fluent in many languages. How many languages does the man speak anyway? Eleven?

At first I thought he was putting me on. But then he slew my ears with polyglot tongues, in languages I didn't even know existed.... Why on earth would he learn Angolan, I thought. But then I remember him telling me he was at the Fort Ord Language Institute and spoke several African languages as well. Angolan. Oh the government... But that was the days of the Black Panther Movement, Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis, Symbionese Liberation Front, Patty Hearst, etc. Angola was in the headlines a lot.

One of the last times I saw Jim was at LAX. We were heading out to Guatemala and El Salvador. Or was it Cabo? We ran into him at the luggage carousel. Weirdly, my boyfriend John Oliver Simon also knew him—as Jaime! At the same instant we both shouted out to him: Seamus! Jim! Jaime! and did a quadruple take and laughed. So it was a double meeting of the minds.

Jim organized a poetry reading and book party, Falling to Sea Level, (Aldebaran) for us at Angel's Gate Poetry Reading Series in San Pedro. I remember standing by the side of the Pacific Coast Highway with Jim along the cliffs just north of San Pedro Harbor mouthing a few words in Irish, when he began to unfold snippits of his life, it was pretty fantastical. I thought he was jiving me, but I later found out it was all true...

Last I heard he was teaching at the University of Cork. Someone else said, No, he was in Galway. I recently found a paper of his online—in Irish—on dialects of the Aran Islands, so I couldn't make heads or tale out of it—well maybe donkey's tails—in that I could make out a few words here and there, follow the gist, conjugate a preposition or two, but that was about it....

Because of Jim, I redoubled my efforts and I got my grannie to teach me what she could of the old Hibernian Club Gaelic League Irish from her Grammars, but speaking it was another matter.

I want to do a shout out: Hey Jim,wherever you are, I finally learned some Gaelic. I thought it was impossible. I studied Celtic languages at UC Berkekey with Joe Nugent, Breen O Conchubhair, with professors Kathryn Klar and Linguistics Chair, Dr. Gary Holland...Old, Middle and Modern. Irish, some medieval Welsh too. 

It was impossible, but we translated the Tain Bo Cuailaigne, the Tain Bo Fraoch, and the Mabinogi... But after ten years lying fallow in the back fields of the mind, and with no one to speak it, I now know enough to know that it's truly impossible and that I don't know enough in order to read your papers on Irish linguistics. (chun: in order to)

Last summer, however, I was surprised to find that I could slog my way through a Manx story (only if I read it out loud), I was able to translate place names while in the Hebrides and I'm slowly building my repertoire of Irish and Scots Gaelic music...that's where I came into this crazy circle, wanting to learn Irish and Hebridean mouth music...such a long, long time ago.

Go raibh mhaith agat a Shéamas, wherever you are!

Laguna Poets reading

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Remembering Danny Cassidy

Daniel Cassidy, author of "How the Irish Invented Slang" Photo: Cassidy Family 

I was saddened to hear that after waging a fierce battle with pancreatic cancer, co-founder of New College Irish Studies, Daniel Cassidy, and author of “How the Irish Invented Slang,” is gone from us.

Brooklyn-born Cassidy was a man of many hats, he was both a tough street-wise dude, and a raging intellectual. He was a professor, a poet, a talented jazz reed musician, singer, composer, newshound, union organizer, merchant marine, scriptwriter, and author.

Daniel Cassidy founded, and co-directed the Irish Studies program at New College of California in 1995. He also was director of the college's Media and Film Studies program, teaching courses in storytelling, the American newspaper and broadcast history. I sat in on a few of his entertaining lectures and events.

Danny (he was always "Danny" to his friends, never Daniel—and he'd correct you too if you lapsed into the formal) developed his screenwriting chops while working for television producer David Susskind, actor Danny Glover, and director, Francis Ford Coppola. Danny's 1996 documentary "Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs" about the atrocities in Northern Ireland, was nominated for an Emmy. His other film, "Uncensored Voices," was broadcast on PBS in Canada Europe, and Japan.

Danny didn't forget his larger Irish-American community either—he was a co-founder of San Francisco's annual Crossroads Irish-American Festival, that showcases Irish and Irish-American playwrights, artists and authors every March.

Danny's controversial book of essays, "How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads" was a surprise sleeper hit that won the 2007 Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for nonfiction.

“The whole project started with a hunch — hunch, from the Irish word ‘aithint,’ meaning recognition or perception,” said Cassidy in a New York Times interview.

Danny took some heat for his intuitive poetic, and phonetic approach to the etymological roots of Irish words in English (see links below). And he may have done more harm, than good, but he certainly opened up dialogue.

Some pedagogues groused that Danny was an amateur etymologist, and ever-so-eloquently stated that his linguistic claims were "a big heaping load of hooey"; that maybe the award should have been given for fiction instead. I'm sure that was the response Danny was expecting from that crowd. He was a great one to challenge the halls of academe.

But Danny never got a chance to refute his claims and prove some of his slang hunches, for a year after his book was published, he was dead. But he had a good track record for those 65 years on this earth.

I didn't always agree with Danny's interpretations of Irish and the development of street slang, as he sometimes played it a little too fast and loose with linguistics.

Danny didn't speak Irish and didn't know the grammatical rules of Irish, an ancient highly inflected Indo-European language. His family arrived during the Irish Potato Famine, and, like many Irish immigrants, their knowledge of the Irish was lost—save for those ubiquitous slang words, in places like Hell's Kitchen. I can hear Danny saying: Don't call it the famine. There was no famine in Ireland. It was The Great Hunger. An Gorta Mór. There was plenty of food in Ireland.

I rarely saw Danny without his well-thumbed Irish pocket dictionary in hand. (I had a Spanish one just like it—my mother's, when she was honeymooning in Acapulco). He was always hunting down possible slang equivalencies.

When Danny pronounced Irish words in tough Brooklynese, sometimes it was hard to get back to the word in question. But as co-director of Irish Studies at New College, he knew who to ask for help with spelling and pronunciation of Irish. 

I admired Danny's evangelical approach to this slang work and I think some of his connections have credence—as my grandmother, a self-taught Irish scholar, was forever translating English words into Irish. Sometimes she was in left field, sometimes she was in the ballpark. Same with Danny's work.

What I didn't know at the time was that Irish, one of the oldest, and therefore, highly inflected, Indo-European languages, shared many word origins with Sanskrit via Proto-Indo-European, for example. The continuum, and all that.

I was also glad Danny finally proved H.L. Mencken wrong that the Irish contributed so little to the English language. American writer and linguist, H.L. Mencken once observed that the Irish contributed few words to American English. "Perhaps speakeasy, shillelah and smithereens exhaust the list." He forgot hoolighan, and lynch.

I wanted to throw back to Mencken a variation of one of his own quotes: There is a solution to every definition—neat, plausible, and wrong.

In an interview, Danny said: "The English language does not often absorb other languages, especially the Celtic languages. Irish has the longest association with English of any language on the planet, yet in England all we've got are a handful of words such as whiskey."

Note the spelling, with an "e" from uisce, or huisce. That's because the Irish monks invented it long before the Scots took up the habit.

For example, Danny said the word buckaroo came from the Irish bocaí rua, "wild playboys" or "bloody bucks." But bó is cow, buachaill is a cowherder (or cowboy, if you will), and ruadh, is, well, red (or red-haired)—so the meaning is close enough. Even if he came at it all wrong.

When Danny began to point out words "of uncertain origin" is often code for Irish, it struck a chord with me. I knew there were many more Irish words buried within the English language, despite what the Oxford English Dictionary claimed—aside from the usual suspects: smithereens, hoolighan (a surname), and shanty. 

There's also shebeen, shebang, shindig, Sheila, slew, slogan, lollapalooza, colleen, clan, keen, kabosh, banshee, brogue, brogan, bar, ben, glamour, gombeen, leprechaun, whiskey, etc., to name a few.

And it is certainly clear to the Irish speaker, both the Oxford English Dictionary (consider the source) and its American cousin, the Webster's, were rabidly anti-Irish biased ca. the inception of the OED in 1857-84, and there was a general ascribing of Gaelic words as Scottish in origin, or "of uncertain origin" rather than giving the Irish their linguistic due (this was post-famine Ireland). Where did the British think Scots Gaelic came from? Donegal Irish in another lexicon.

The gobshytes and amadáns who compiled dictionaries didn't know that slogan, gob, moniker, and Boycott were also Irish words. Danny claimed glom as Irish, as well. To glom onto something, wasn't even in the dictionary. Danny took it on with panache. And then some.

Danny was from the two Irishmen-three opinions school of conversation—unbridled wild horses of thought running rampant through the halls of academe. It was always a joy ride to have a conversation with the man, himself—even if you didn't agree. Especially if you didn't agree. There was always a hug at the end of it all. 

Danny tried on several occasions to get me to join his program at New College, but it came down to tuition, I just couldn't afford New College. He kept insisting I could make it so, but I didn't have that much faith in raising the tuition and going to school at the same time.

As it was, in 1999, I was straddling San Francisco State and UC Berkeley campuses at the same time, I was carrying 21 units a semester. And that wasn't even counting the Old Irish class with Dr. Gary Holland I was auditing. That's where I unraveled slogan from Old Irish—sluaghan, an army, multitudes.

Danny Cassidy's tenacity and wit will be missed—and though I never went to New College, it was Danny who initially got me back into school, at San Francisco State, while also attending Celtic Studies classes at UC Berkeley. His passion and enthusiasm kept me in the game when I thought I couldn't hack it during bouts of translating manuscripts from Old Irish. Stay the distance, he said.

But we kept in touch. And at the 2006 Crossroads Irish American Festival, Danny remembered me, and invited me to read with Jack Foley and Chad Sweeney at Bird & Beckett Books. It was a grand night. Ah, but the craic was good.

This blogeen is in honor to the man himself, not the (de)merits of his book. Material for another bloggybit. The world is a better place for having Danny riding crazily at the helm, for a while. I'll stop my blatherin' now.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Garbo's denizens

The Russian River was an interesting place to be in the late 1970s and 1980s. I met so many people in those days, (daze). So many roads intersected and overlapped that after a while it all became a blur.

I met all manner of folks famous and formerly famous...including the lead singer from It's a Beautiful Day, a gorgeous blond guy with the voice of an angel who was reduced to pumping gas into my VW bug at the Guerneville Flying A station...fallen from grace.

As a Russian River Writers' Guild poetry coordinator of Garbo's Bar along with Marianne Ware, Lee Perron, Donna Champion and Jim Montrose, we met parades of writers and musicians. Among the notable:

Madame Blavatsky's very occult and Russian and old with her dyed coiffed hair, heavy mascara and shawls!

John Prine's brother sitting at the bar with Sam the Bartender. I learned John's songs from him...The Jungles of East Saint Paul.

Utah Phillips came through once a year or so, often with Rosalee Sorrells or Bobbie Louise Hawkins in tow. He and Ed Balchowski, a Spanish Civil War survivor, would dust of the war songs.

May Sarton's sister came to the series for a while...I could go on....

Living in the moment, we never thought it would end, then AIDS struck the gay community and it foundered.

Peter Pender, chess champ, Leonard Matlovitch who made the cover of Times: Military comes out of the closet...that's how I found out Hoover was gay. Something Thorman???...the guy who founded Gold's Gym, a real pendejo...

Bill, the first Marlborough Man lived in the cabin across from me....whod'a thunk that handsome cowboy hunk on horseback we saw on all the billboards and back of magazine covers, was gay. The KS ravaged his face...