Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Gabriel Rosenstock

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Gabriel Rosenstock,

according to Wikipedia,

 (born 1949) is an Irish writer who works chiefly in the Irish language. A member of Aosdána, he is poet, playwright, haikuist, tankaist, essayist, and author/translator of over 180 books, mostly in Irish. Born in Kilfinane, County Limerick, he currently resides in Dublin.      

Rosenstock’s father George was a doctor and writer from Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, who served as a German army doctor in World War II. His mother was a nurse from County Galway. Gabriel was the third of six children and the first born in Ireland. He was educated locally in Kilfinane, then in Mount Sackville, Co Dublin; exhibiting an early interest in anarchism he was expelled from Gormanston College, Co. Meath and exiled to Rockwell College, Co. Tipperary; then on to University College Cork.

His son Tristan Rosenstock is a member of the traditional Irish quintet Téada, and impressionist/actor Mario Rosenstock is his nephew.

Rosenstock worked for some time on the television series Anois is Arís on RTÉ, then on the weekly newspaper Anois. Until his retirement he worked with An Gúm, the publications branch of Foras na Gaeilge, the North-South body which promotes the Irish language.

Although he has worked in prose, drama and translation, Rosenstock is primarily known as a poet. He has written or translated over 180 books.

He has edited and contributed to books of haiku in Irish, English, Scots and Japanese. He is a prolific translator into Irish of international poetry (among others Ko Un, Seamus Heaney, K. Satchidanandan, Rabindranath Tagore, Muhammad Iqbal, Hilde Domin, Peter Huchel), plays (Beckett, Frisch, Yeats) and songs (Bob Dylan, Kate Bush, The Pogues, Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell). He also has singable Irish translations of Lieder and other art songs.[1]

He appears in the anthology Best European Fiction 2012, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, with a preface by Nicole Krauss (Dalkey Archive Press).[2] He gave the keynote address to Haiku Canada in 2015.

His being named as Lineage Holder of Celtic Buddhism inspired the latest title in a rich output of haiku collections: Antlered Stag of Dawn (Onslaught Press, Oxford, 2015), haiku in Irish and English with translations into Japanese and Scots Lallans.

He also writes for children, in prose and verse. Haiku Más É Do Thoil É! (An Gúm) won the Children’s Books Judges’ Special Prize in 2015.





The Interview

Q. 1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I think the Muse came a-courting a long, long time ago, in an age before Gutenberg, an age before papyrus, when the poet was what he always is – though the role is suppressed today – a shaman.

She keeps coming – trying to possess me fully – but she knows I’m elusive, elusive as she is. We are both Spirit, pretending to be flesh, to be real. It’s a divine play, a sport, a leela as they say in India. I also write and translate for children – mainly in Irish, or Gaelic, and this is also leelai, pure and simple!

Ireland and India have so much in common. The writings of Myles Dillon and Michael Dames are good starting points for anyone interested in exploring that connection.

Ireland herself takes her name from a tripartite goddess and I dedicated a year to her in a bilingual book inspired by the devotional poetry of India, bhakti:


I mentioned the poet-shaman. There are very few courses in Creative Writing today that teach you how to be a shaman: it can’t be taught! So they teach form iinstead, how to write a sonnet or a villanelle – five tercets and a quatrain, is it? Enjambment anybody? Poets daringly continue a phrase after a line break and expect applause.

Irish poets learn your trade, sing whatever is well made. Yeats (whom I love) has a lot to answer for. Learn your trade! Poets today are tradeswomen and tradesmen for the most part. All form, no spirit, no melody that breaks the heart.

No heart. So, the great challenge today, in my book, is to reconnect with Spirit. Otherwise, forget it.

The only way to write is to write – and read, of course. Trust the inner ear – not what the manuals tell you – trust the heart, trust language. It’s not a lifeless tool in your hands, you silly tradesman. It’s alive, it’s divine. May your poetry be a sacrifice to her!

Having said all that, I occasionally teach haiku. The way I teach haiku is simply to present the works of the grandmasters of haiku, hoping that their spirit will ”catch’ and inflame the acolyte. Many believe that Basho was the grandmaster of haibun – prose speckled with haiku – and that the greatest of the haiku masters was Buson. I cobbled together new versions of Buson, in Irish and English, a volume which also contains versions in Scots by John McDonald:


We need more multilingual books of poetry, tanka and haiku. We need to free ourselves from the dying clutches of the Anglosphere and listen to real poetry in languages which still cherish the divine music of the spheres: one can hear that sacred music in the voice of Scots-Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, even when he reads his masterpiece Hallaig in English translation:


***            ***

Haiku Enlightenment and Haiku, the Gentle Art of Disappearing are two introductions to haiku and I hope that their titles reflect the spiritual basis of haiku, something which many haikuists ignore at their peril, I regret to say;  for young readers (say, 8-12 years) there’s a book called Fluttering their Way into My Head:


True haiku – Zen-haiku – is egoless and spontaneous and allows for ambiguity – the reader must make sense of it by drawing on her own experiences, dreams, memories and so on –  and yet it’s happening in the  Now (if there’s such a thing as the Now).. I’m fully aware of promoting a book such as Fluttering their Way into My Head and speaking at the same time about ego-lessness! But, you see, I don’t identify with ‘my’ books as ‘mine’. They are about as ‘mine’ as is the moon over Tagoto.

Q. 2.Ted Hughes would be glad you extol the shamanic. Who introduced you to the shamanic in poetry?

Does one need an introduction? I hold shamanism to be a vital part of my literary and cultural heritage.


I can identify with the world of Carmina Gadelica whilst the world of Philp Larkin is alien to me.

Interesting that you should mention Hughes. I advise aspiring poets to wean themselves from the dominance of English-language literature, especially when it expresses itself in WASPish terms. I know many American poets, some of whom I’ve met at literary festivals, others  with whom I have a friendly e-mail acquaintance. Many of them seem straitjacketed by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant way of walking, talking, eating, drinking, dressing – and writing! I translated a volume of poems, Cuerpo en llamas, by the late Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcon into Irish and invited him to Ireland for the launch. He turned  out to be a shaman-poet. The genuine article. We recorded the book on a cassette (built-in obsolescence?) and the opening invocation was in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the language of his grandmother. I had come across Aztec poetry before, via anthologies by the likes of Jerome Rothenberg, but didn’t realize until then that Nahuatl was a living language.

During his brief stay in Ireland, Francisco gave me an Aztec name, Xolotl. I wrote a long poem of that title –  in a kind of shamanic frenzy – and put it away, out of sight. Years later I looked at it again and it’s the longest poem in my selected poems translated from the Irish, The Flea Market in Valparaiso.  Here’s a link to the book and a review:


I’ll let the review speak for itself. Expounding further on the role of the shaman poet is best left to others. But, I’ll say this much, Paul: artificial intelligence or AI has ‘advanced’ to such an extent that robots are now writing poetry – it would almost make you join the Luddites or inspire you to form your local branch of Anarcho-Primitivists!. I think we should be reading more of John Zerzan and Paul Cudenec to fully realize what kind of world we are creating for our grandchildren. Everybody says we can’t go back, we can’t stop the march of progress. Rubbish! Of course we can go back; I don’t like military metaphors but surely a wise general knows when to retreat?

Do we want poetry written by robots? Maybe it’s just science imitating life – so much poetry, especially in English, is artificial anyway. Futurologists talk of various possible disasters down the line – caused by our relentless ‘advancement’ such as shortage of energy supplies, of food and water, melting icecaps and so on and so forth. Overfishing will result in a shortage of fish. Nobody speaks of a shortage of poetry – it wouldn’t be disastrous enough, seemingly, nor would it bother mankind very much if we speeded up the death of languages, currently estimated at one language disappearing every fortnight. It’s the survival of the fittest, isn’t it?! Is it? Is that who we are, what we are?

So what if Irish dies, if Scottish Gaelic or Nahuatl dies, if Welsh dies, if Manx dies – again! If Beauty dies, so what? Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream? Well, some of us are not willing to accept such a fatalistic scenario. The World Poetry Movement, for one, has sounded the alarm. Poets are not ‘joiners’ by nature but when the future of civilization is at stake, perhaps it’s time for all poets to become focused. Jack Hirschman, poet and social activist, describes the vision of the World Poetry Movement thus:


‘an end to war world-wide, and the creation of a world government that shares and distributes the  wealth of the world generously and sensitively in the process of creating an equality that is nothing but the word Love in the eyes of everyone because it also recognizes E V E RY human being as a brother or sister. With no need of any wall separating an ‘I’ from a ‘You’, a ‘He’ from a ‘She’ …

This is a wise vision. Quixotic? Utopian? So what. We need to rekindle hope, we as citizens, we as poets.

I was fortunate enough in this my 69th year on earth, fortunate indeed to have a near-death  experience. After recovering from multi-organ failure, I became conscious of the love that poured in streams at my bedside from my wife Eithne, my daughters Heilean, Saffron and Eabha, my son Tristan and conscious, as well, of the wave of reciprocated love that streamed from me to them. I was conscious, too, of the love and concern that came from friends, relations and fellow scribes.

Hirschman, above, is speaking of Love, the ultimate reality. Left-wing theorists should speak more often to us of love; it would help their cause. The author of The Wretched of the Earth tells us that his criticism of the colonizer is inspired by love, not hate.

For a long while I could not read or write. Then I asked one of my daughters would she kindly order me a copy of Palgrave’s Treasury: you see, English-language poetry was my first love, before I ‘discovered’ Irish and its potential,just as the author of Decolonising the Mind decided that African literature need not be in the language of the colonizer, French, English or Portuguese. His own  outlawed language, Gikuyu, was best suited to express what he wanted to reveal. I also asked my daughter to bring me anything by my favourite author, Isaac Bashevis Singer? So, Mr Rosenstock, are you Jewish then? I used to think that my empathy for Singer’s work meant exactly that, but no, I’m not Jewish. It is the ancient art of storytelling, brought to perfection in his short stories, that makes me alive not to Jewishness as such but to humanity, in all its guises. And what of my attraction to Irish culture and to Indian philosophies, particularly Advaita and bhakti? Well, I once heard Ganesh playing Napoleon Crossing the Rhine on the uilleann pipes:


I jest. But I did have an out-of-body experience listening to piper Eoin Duignan in a pub in Dingle. Look, I don’t feel particularly Indian, German, Irish or Jewish – live Irish music and the ancient sounds of the Irish language can lift one and link one deeply to the universal spirit, the rich complexity that is the world of the senses, too; a deepening of a sense of place; a feeling for history. English carries imperial baggage with it. The scales fell from my eyes once I understood that through Irish, the literary medium of my choice, I could see and experience the world differently. Lucky Poet is a memoir by Scottish poet Hugh Mac Diarmid. It touches on some of these issues.

A year or so ago I came across an editorial in Poetry Ireland Review that mentioned at least half a dozen English poets.(I couldn’t figure out why. Was this a special edition of the review dedicated to new voices in English poetry? No.) We are still ‘looking across the pond’, i.e. to England. There is ample evidence, if you look for it, that many Anglophone Irish writers are suffering from a kind of literary Stockholm syndrome, that phenomenon described in 1973 as an extraordinary love and regard of the captured for the captor.

As an Anarchist, as an Advaitist and as an Irish-language poet, I value freedom and independence. It is the life blood of art. It may set you on a collision course against the Establishment but unless you are a Daoist poet content with herb-picking on a mountain, such a collision seems inevitable.

Q. 3. What is your daily writing routine?

I write or translate from about 10.a.m until 8pm. I suppose, ‘poet-shaman-translator’ is an accurate enough label to describe my activity. I don’t distinguish between so-called original writing, such as poetry, and translation (which I prefer to call ‘transcreation’). I see the practice of these arts as coming from the same pool of universal creative intelligence. John Minford, Emeritus Professor of Chinese, Australian National University, said something that caught my attention in Words Without Borders (Dec 7, 2018):
‘Hermits of ancient days practiced Taoist yodeling, a form of music that emulated the music of the spheres. Translation itself, the transformation of ideas and words, whereby self and the other merge into one, can be a form of Taoist practice . . .’
So, others may have ‘a daily writing routine’ as you call it I have something resembling a Taoist or Zen-Buddhist practice… maybe ‘practice’ is enough; it’s a more honest description than defining it as Taoist or Zen. It would be slightly ridiculous to call me a Taoist or anything else. I’ve admitted to being both an Anarchist and an Advaitist but really, all labels are rubbish. To paraphrase the essence of the Tao in The Taoist Way, a beautiful lecture by Alan Watts, ‘The Tao that can be labelled is not the Tao.

I translate a vast array of material for a multicultural blog:
I’m something of a technical dodo and must thank Aonghus O hAlmhain, blogmeister, for his work and patience. In recent years, my ‘practice’ has focused quite a lot on ekphrastic tanka and photo-haiku. The Culturium is a blog which is devoted to the arts as ‘practice’ in the meditative sense of the word:
I have unsubscribed to various sites recently but two that remain are The Culturium and Poetry Chaikhana.
A poet-friend, Cathal O Searcaigh, who writes mainly in Irish, gave me a volume of poems by a shaman-Taoist poet of the late Tan’g Dynasty, Li He.
I began to write Taoist-flavoured poems in Irish and English, Conversations with Li He. When I get out of hospital (I’ve been hospitalized since September 2018) I’d love to continue with this project. I see a fellow-shaman in O Searcaigh and have translated him into English quite often over the years, most recently in a book called Out of the Wilderness:
It is not easy – in fact it is impossible – to convey the shamanic power of MacLean and O Searcaigh in English:

He is a lovely, lively conversationalist, as you can hear above.
He and MacLean recite their poetry as though conscious of the fact that poetry was originally chant, the ecstatic chant – the trance – of the shaman.
Alan Titley, in a discussion following the interview, joined by Frank Sewell and Art Hughes, speaks of Cathal’s work as an ‘act of reclamation’. Poetry lost its heart when it ditched chant, when the poet could no longer perform the role of shaman. Can we reclaim poetry?
In the discussion, academic Art Hughes also talks about the disaster of the ‘printed page.’ Frank Sewell finds ‘strange echoes of home’ in Cathal’s references to the East. And Hughes talks about synthesis and the vision of Unity known to mystic of all traditions. It’s what Jack Hirschman alluded to previously when we touched on the World Poetry Movement. Is Jack a mystic?! We’re all closeted mystics if you ask me . . .

Q. 4. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

What’s young?! I was in my late teens when I read Speaking of Shiva, an anthology of bhakti verse edited by AK Ramanujan. I haven’t properly revisited the  titles that ravished my youth. That bhakti anthology opened my heart to the Universe.

I longed to write something in the bhakti or neo-bhakti style and when the conditions were right, it turned out to be a volume in English, Uttering Her Name, addressed to a Muse-Goddess directly: my first faltering attempts at using e-mail. English was the only language we had in common. She was a poet from Venezuela whom I met at a Kurt Schwitters festival in Germany. She was on her way to have darshan of Mother Meera. I didn’t formerly ask her, ‘Excuse me, I wonder would you kindly play the role of Muse-Goddess as I have some urgent bhakti poems to compose.’ I just went ahead and wrote them, 200 in all, eventually whittled down to half that size. It took a long time to find a publisher:


I don’t think Uttering Her Name would have come about without the influence of the Ramanujan anthology.

Was it he who said that he inhabited that no-man’s-land which is the hyphen in ‘Anglo-Indian!’? He wrote a very poignant poem about revisiting his home and calling out ‘Mother’ but, of course, she wasn’t there. I would have liked to have known him. Very much. He was a distinguished folklorist, among other things  and  also wrote in Kannada, one of India’s important literary languages.

I was fortunate to hear songs in Irish as a child – not at home, mind you – and the best of them are unforgettable. One could call the best of our songs folk poetry of the highest order, superior in texture and melody to much of the poetry of our time:

https://www.youtube.com/watch? behv=8JjiLoD0ldc

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice in the opening track is very expressive, very tender and yet there’s a glorious defiance as an undercurrent to the song that says, ‘Try out your ethnic cleansing on us, again and again, your genocidal madness; we are a people of poetry and song, imperishable song.’

The second track is in Scottish Gaelic. The songs of Gaeldom are a link to a people’s struggle, songs of love (‘profane’ and divine), exile, loneliness, companionship, laments and lullabies, songs that sing the thirst for freedom. The words are music in themselves – when sung, they wrench the heart.

Q. 5. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

The most intimate form of reading is that which one does as a poet-translator. I have translated or transcreated many poets from India and all of them speak very highly of K. Satchidanandan from Kerala. He is closely involved in many festivals and last year, in Calicut, the theme was ‘No Democracy without Dissent’


The poet-shaman-translator in me experienced various degrees of ecstasy when transcreating the poems of the Korean genius Ko Un:


My love for Cathal O Searcaigh and his poetry is well known. All three are outside of the Anglosphere, if such a thing is possible. Apart from those three, the site Words without Borders can be interesting. I’m grateful to English as a global language which introduces literature in translation to us all. I like ‘aboriginal’ poetry – the more aboriginal the better.The late Michael Davitt, with whom I co-founded the journal INNTI, has a line which says, ‘Ma bheireann carbhat orm, tachtfaidh se me’ – ‘if a cravat (or tie) catches hold of me, it will choke me.’ This is Irish aboriginalism alive and kicking! It says NO to the WASP and again NO. No thanks.

Q. 6. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”


Q. 7. Tell me about any writing projects you’re involved in at the moment.

Current writing projects: some writers are superstitious about current projects, as though they can only breathe a sigh of relief when the book is actually printed and published. Others like to trumpet their work in progress or publish extracts here and there.

Insanely prolific as I am, I usually have a number of irons in the fire. Do you know the origin of the phrase? It alludes to a blacksmith working on several pieces of iron at the same time. I remember being in a blacksmith’s forge as a child. A magical place. Lots of superstitions associated with iron, nails, horseshoes and so on. In Tibet they speak of ‘sky iron’ and I wrote a poem once inspired by that lore when I discovered that certain Tibetan singing bowls contain material from this ‘sky iron’:


I posted the poem on a few YouTube sites that featured singing bowls. Scroll down a bit and you’ll find it, in Irish and English. That’s a rather roundabout way of saying I’m not going to reveal current projects. To be frank, I have a number of completed projects and I’d much prefer to see them published before embarking on fresh material, such as a volume of bilingual poems, in Irish and English, already mentioned, poems addressed to the Daoist poet-shaman Li He.


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