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The Watchful Heart - A New Generation of Irish Poets - Poems and Essays
May 2009


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Winter in the Eye: New & Selected Poems
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The White Page / An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets (2007 Edition)

Compiled by Joan McBreen

ISBN: 1 897648 57 X

Page Count: 280

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 30, -0001

Cover Artwork: Gwen O'Dowd


About this Book

The White Page/An Bhileog Bhán is a comprehensive study of Irish women's poetry published in book form in the twentieth century. It takes the form of an extended annotated directory, including biographical and bibliographical detail on each poet. Poems and photographs, generously donated by the poets themselves, are also included.  Poets born in the Republic of Ireland & Northern Ireland, as well as poets of Irish ancestry and non-nationals who have been resident and writing in Ireland for long periods are included. A reference book for students of Irish literature it is also a poetry anthology representing poets who have published at least one collection.


Author Biography

Joan McBreen is from Sligo. She divides her time between Tuam and Renvyle, County Galway. Her other poetry collections are: The Wind Beyond the Wall (Story Line Press, 1990), A Walled Garden in Moylough (Story Line Press and Salmon Poetry, 1995) and Winter in the Eye - New and Selected Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2003). She was awarded an MA from University College, Dublin in 1997. Her anthology The White Page / An Bhileog Bhán - Twentieth-Century Irish Women Poets was published by Salmon in 1999 and is in its third reprint. Her poetry is published widely in Ireland and abroad and has been broadcast, anthologised and translated into many languages. Her CD The Long Light on the Land - Selected Poems, read to a background of traditional Irish airs and classical music, was produced by Ernest Lyons Productions, Castlebar, County Mayo in 2004. She has given readings and talks in many universities in the USA including Emory, Villanova, De Paul (Chicago), Cleveland, Lenoir Rhynne, N.C. and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Joan McBreen's 2009 publications include a collection, Heather Island and the anthology The Watchful Heart - A New Generation of Irish Poets - Poems and Essays. Together with her ongoing involvement with Irish literary festivals such as the Yeats Summer School, Clifden Arts Week, Listowel Writers' Week and The Cúirt International Festival of Literature, since 2007 she has been Literary Advisor and co-ordinator of the Oliver St. John Gogarty Literary Festival at Renvyle House Hotel, Connemara, Co. Galway.


Reviews

"An excellent anthology and critical, bibliographical and biographical directory. Salmon, who have contributed enormously to making poetry a popular and regular shopping commodity, have excelled themselves.  For every shelf."

Books Ireland
 

"Unlike most poetry anthologies which claim to set standards by their process of selection, The White Page is a perfect exercise in inclusiveness.  Poets born in Ireland, North and South, poets of Irish ancestry and non-nationals who have lived and worked at their art in Ireland for long periods of time are all represented.  Some of the names are familiar while others are known only to a small readership. The inclusion of their work lowers no standards; on the contrary, it is a particular joy to discover within these pages samples of the poetry of the lesser known but the no less gifted.  Joan McBreen, in compiling this collection, has provided an invaluable work of reference for students of literature and lovers of poetry. This is a book to treasure."

Alexis Guilbride, Gay Community News
 

"The White Page/An Bhileog Bhán is beautifully produced, and testifies to McBreen's dedication to and enthusiasm for Irish women writers. Every fan of poetry and women's writing will find their own surprises and pleasures in this collection, which marks a particular historic moment in Irish literature. This anthology offers a wealth of information about the publishing history of women poets since the 1970s, when only 13 of the contributors were in print... Of the 113 poets McBreen catalogues, more than half published their first collections in the 1990s. Salmon, which publishes this volume, has published more first collections by women than any single publisher during that decade."

Kathy Cremin, The Irish Times, February 14th 2000
 

"This must-have for thorough poetry collections offers samples of more than a hundred Irish women poets who have published at least one volume of poetry. It's comprehensiveness alone would make it an invaluable introduction to an enormously creative community of poets, writing predominantly in English. (The Irish-language poets here are, for the most part, translated into English, though one cannot help hearing the political statement behind Biddy Jenkinson's having her Irish poem re-presented in French instead.) The first lady of Irish letters, Eavan Boland, joins Mary Dorcey, Medbh McGuckian, Iris Murdoch, and scores of others better known in their homeland than in America. Just one poem by each poet appears, which leaves the reader wanting more, but extensive biographic and bibliographic annotation compensate somewhat. A candy sampler of a book for poetry lovers."

Patricia Monaghan, "Booklist", June 1st/15th, 2000
 


Julie Smith in Irish Studies Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2000

     "My first impulse was to begin this review with unqualified superlatives. The White Page certainly deserves them. But it is impossible to overlook the historical and critical context of this publication. It is the starting point for the book and therefore the starting point for this review.
     In the Introduction, Joan McBreen refers to the virtual exclusion of female poets from anthologies of Irish Poetry, most recently, "The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature" (1991), under the general editorship of Seamus Deane. McBreen asks the question: Who gets in to the canon and why? Although in the Introduction to "The Field Day Anthology" Deane wrote that part of the purpose of that publication was not to create a canon but to look at how canons are made, 'we do not consider ourselves to be engaged in an act of definition but in a definitive action', the anthology, and others like it, by virtually or completely excluding women poets, helped define a false canon because it was and still is incomplete.
     Eavan Boland, who features in "The Field Day Anthology" and "The White Page", has written extensively about the particular lack of a critical context for this discussion. It is a context which has, in the main, ignored the equal part of the canon that derives from women writers, "The White Page" is a significant attempt to redress this imbalance. It makes clear the quality and range of poetry being produced by female poets, and places a question mark against a male-dominated critical establishment.
     "The White Page" is an overview of Irish women's poetry published in book form in the twentieth century. It is an annotated directory with detailed biographical notes and generous bibliographical references. The book's layout and references are faultless. It contains allusions to general biographical sources, anthologies, journals, and critical studies consulted. There are three indices: first, of the poets; second, of the poems; and finally of the first line of each poem. Photographs of the poets are included. The book is an excellent research tool and will assist students of Irish literature greatly. At £11.99, (compared with Field Day's £107), it is economically priced; an affordable text for lecturers to recommend to their classes. Certain publishers appear time and again, for example Salmon Poetry, showing where there has been consistent support for women's poetry in Ireland.
     "The White Page" features over one hundred women poets, including poets born in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as poets of Irish ancestry and non-nationals living and writing in Ireland. By defining Irish in this inclusive way, "The White Page" becomes an international as well as an Irish project. The volume implies questions about Irish identity for poets living, for example, in the North. Or, what does Irishness mean if you have never lived in Ireland but are of Irish extraction, part of that greater Ireland beyond the sea? As a Scot with Irish ancestry, the inclusion of poets outwith Ireland validates for myself and others like me a sense of connection and disconnection. In this way the book draws me in at a very personal level to the poems and the tradition they represent.
      "The White Page" is also a poetry anthology; the poems selected by the poets themselves. Each poet has her own section between one and three pages. The individual sections contain the sources referred to above, making the poems like gems at the centre of a rich, authoritative tradition. Well-known poets are featured: Eavan Boland, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, and Medbh McGuckian. Some of the poems appear in Irish, alongside English translations: Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's "Tusa" ("You Are"), Caitlin Maude's "Liobar" ("Tatter"). Biddy Jenkinson -- a pen name -- writes only in Irish and does not permit her poetry to be translated into English. Her poem appears with a French translation.
     Subject matter is wide, varied and contemporary: for example, ageing (Eithne Strong's "Hello" and Angela Greene's "Letting Go"); child sexual abuse (Aine Ni Ghlinn's "Tu Fein is Me Fein" ("Yourself and Myself"); grief (Noelle Vial's "Chief  Mourner") and memory of relationship (Anne Kennedy's "With One Continuous Breath"). The contexts for the poems are both modern and historical: Paula Meehan's "The Trapped Woman of the Internet" and Sheila O'Hagan's "The Return of Odysseus to Ithaca".  There is also variation in the way each poet treats her subject, including the whole range of poetic form from free verse to sonnets and villanelles. There is a consistent quality about the poems which makes the book an excellent anthology and a great read. The overriding impression throughout is not that this treasure-trove of women's poetry is aimed at women, but that it enriches the cultural understanding of all. Guest Introductions precede the poetry section, including a message of support from Sile de Valera T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands.
     "The White Page" is a remarkable achievement both in terms of the qualities referred to above and in terms of what it signifies for women's poetry in Ireland and poetry in general. It is a tribute to a long-established, if not always recognised, artistic history, which is female and Irish. Any future publication that purports to be an anthology of Irish poetry should be measured against this volume and the extent to which it recognises the poetic achievements of Ireland's women poets. If there ever were any excuse, for failing to recognise that achievement, such as lack of information, which I doubt, then it simply does not exist now. "The White Page" has done its work.
 


Niall MacMonagle in Poetry Ireland Review 67, 2000
A Generous Book

Some rushed headlong, others stepped cautiously into this new century, but, whichever way forward, the twentieth century, that great contradictory and complex time, will serve as backdrop and source of reference for twenty-first century dwellers. Newspapers, history books, film, television, music have charted that century and, when we look back, serve as grim reminders or inspirational forces. Literature, of course, is an even more immediate and interesting record of an age. Written in private, it becomes a public record; through literature and individual absorbs and responds to a public record; through literature an individual absorbs and responds to the Zeitgeist and writers, Seamus Heaney reminds us, 'live precisely at the intersection of the public and the private'. In The White Page Joan McBreen has gathered together two hundred and thirteen Irish women poets, Irish in this instance meaning 'by birth, descent or adoption', whose life and work are the jigsaw pieces in a larger picture.

In her Introduction, McBreen wisely avoids the easy and dangerous. There is no ranting against the exclusion or under-representation of women in so many anthologies; instead she offers a measured, factual overview of the Irish woman poet in the second half of the twentieth century. She notes that, in the 1958 edition of The Oxford Book of Irish Verse, seventeen women poets were included; in the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, published twenty-eight years later in 1986, the contemporary women poets were omitted. Such a statement prompts many questions, raises many issues and sends one in search of answers.

'Omissions are not accidents.' In McBreen's book there are no omissions; what she offers here is a comprehensive and thorough account of twentieth-century Irish women poets. The poems are not all of the same high standard, but Blake's dictum comes to mind when reading and re-reading The White Page: 'there is no competition among poets.'

The White Page is a generous book and a splendid millennium project. Once invited, the women poets sent McBreen a poem, a photograph and biographical details. Her contributors serve McBreen well and she in turn serves them, offering succinct, perceptive comments on the work. It is also a handsome production: stitched binding ? essential in a work of this importance and one which will be used frequently; an attractive typeface; photographs of the poets; a representative poem (some are published here for the first time); biographical and bibliographical details; excellent indices; an authoritative Introduction and Afterword and Notes contextualising the project; a Bibliography; a magnificent Gwen O'Dowd painting on its cover.

McBreen knows that, of the one hundred and thirteen poets writing in English and Irish collected here, 'only a handful are known to the world at large'. I would have liked more than one poem per poet but it is peevish of me to complain and this book will nonetheless alert the interested reader to the range, quality, energy and determination of Irish women poets today.

I have been interested in McBreen's project from its beginnings and, now that is between covers, I find myself returning to it again and again. Not surprisingly, the book's first print run sold out within months of publication and it should enjoy a very long shelf-life. As a reference book, it is invaluable and will allow readers in Ireland and beyond immediate access to a body of work. Such a source-book for this past century in every country would be an excellent thing. And why not begin here at home? The book is a reminder. Once there was a lack of information on Irish Women Poets. That lack has been made good with The White Page.
 


Who Comes to the Dinner Party?
Patricia Doyle Haberstroh, Irish Literary Supplement
Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall 2000

Joan McBreen's anthology, The White Page/An Bhileog Bhán, takes its name from the title of a poem by the Irish language poet Caitlin Maude.  Intending to be as comprehensive as possible, McBreen presents more than a hundred contemporary Irish women poets (defined as born after 1920) with a biographical headnote and one poem for each, citing the fact that "only a handful are known to  the world at large".  McBreen also expands the boundaries: this anthology includes numerous, often neglected, women writers from the north of Ireland and Irish writers living in Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia, as well non-native born who have adopted Ireland as their home. The biographical notes illustrate how many of these women develop their poetry in writers' groups and workshops, and how many have careers in other areas, like law, music and art. Also important is the large representation of women writing in Irish, like Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Caitlín Maude, and Áine Ní Ghlinn, poets very rarely acknowledged beyond Irish language audiences. The material in this book could keep readers occupied for years, not only with the poems in the anthology, but also with discovering the numerous volumes in which these poems are published.
      As the "Afterword" states, McBreen submitted the original material for this anthology as a dissertation for the MA degree in Women's Studies at University College Dublin, a testament to the value of research encouraged by Women's Studies programs. McBreen solicited one poem from each poet, asking families or publishers for a poem if the poet was deceased. The poets targeted had at least one published collection, including any which appeared as pamphlets.
     This decision is an important one, given that many women poets appear first in chapbook format, like the many produced by Lapwing in Belfast. Along with numerous work from Salmon, which has published more women poets than any other press, McBreen also gathered work from collections published by Carcanet in Manchester, Blackstaff in Belfast and some of the smaller and new presses like Summer Palace in Donegal, Ha'Penny in County Down and iTaLiCs in Dublin. The anthology is arranged alphabetically with biographical and bibliographical information included with the poem and the poet's photograph.
     This highly democratic editorial policy influences the final product in that McBreen, herself a poet, is basically a compiler, leaving choices of poems to the poets themselves and trying to include every poet she can track down. Accurately defining this as a "reference book for students of Irish literature," McBreen has done a valuable job in introducing us to a vast array of contemporary Irish women poets and in providing access not only to individual poems, but also to information on poets and volumes we have not yet discovered.
     Such an anthology has its advantages and disadvantages: the quality of the poetry varies; the editor might have selected a better poem than the poet; in some cases, the best work of these women has been published in another genre, like fiction; we might want more than one poem to get a sense of the poet's work. But all of these issues are determined by the nature of the text, which is as much a dictionary as an anthology. On the other hand, there are definite advantages to knowing which work a poet herself chooses, and to discovering the high quality of work from many lesser-known poets, like Moyra Donaldson, Barbara Parkinson or Enda Wyley, to name a few. A poem like Mary Dorcey's "Each Day Our First Night," spoken by a woman trying to deal with her aging mother, demonstrates the value of a stand-alone anthology piece.  Its final lines dramatise the mother/daughter birth-death connection:

 She stands patiently to wave me off
 remembering the stage directions, of lifted hand
 and longing gaze. In this
 experimental piece --
 each day our first night --
 she plays her part
 with such command,
 watching her
 take a last bow
 from the curtain --
 she had been
 born for it!

     There are many poems like this in An Bhileog Bhán and what is sacrificed in publishing only one poem by each poet is frequently offset by th high quality of many of the oems and the introduction to poets uncovered here that we know little or nothing about. Aside from all the new voices this anthology introduces, I am glad to see poets like Julie O'Callaghan, Evangeline Patterson and Jo Slade getting the recognition they deserve.
     In her "Afterword" McBreen tells us that she did not attempt to provide a literary or historical context or analysis; however, her introduction gives us some valuable insights she has gained working as a woman poet in Ireland. Her Notes and bibliography of anthologies and critical studies is a valuable asset to her text.
 So who do we invite to the dinner party? Obviously some of the female Individual Talents are already standing in the doorway, but, with the arrival of these two anthologies, the potential pool has been enlarged for the reading public, primarily because we have access to the work of many women either left out of previous anthologies or just arriving for consideration. One of the poems in rebukes Plato for his advice that the flute girl should play just for herself and for other women:

 Let me tell you Big Sandals
 The Flute Girl's had it.
 When I get the sisters in here
 We are going to sit on the lot of you,
 Come out when gushing platonic.

Her final warning, "When you played I listened, When I play, prick up your ears," could be the contemporary Irish woman poet's anthem and this anthology, her ammunition.

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