by Jason Bayani
Sarah Maria Griffin (or as many of the poets around here like to call her, GRIFF!) came to San Francisco from Ireland in 2012. She immediately made a huge impact in the Bay Area literary scene and has recently released a new book dealing with her experience as an Irish emigre in San Francisco through New Island. She also released a book of poetry in 2011, Follies, through Lapwing Press.
Catch her Wednesday, February 12th at The Berkeley Slam’s F$&* Yeah Valentine’s Day Show at the Starry Plough!
follow her on twitter: @griffsk and tumblr: wordfury.tumblr.com
You mention in one of your pieces that “Being an empath doesn’t mean you do the right thing all the time.” Your work, to me, accesses a great amount of empathy and awareness of feeling. So, in your writing, when does empathy not do the right thing?
I work really hard to avoid dealing with stories that don’t belong to me – so while I connect, often, really deeply with the work that I read or hear, the work I make is in most cases no reflection of that. Does that make sense? Just because I ‘feel a lot of things’ (I know how that sounds but it’s the best way I have to put it) doesn’t mean I want to create imprints of other peoples’ experiences in my work. I can only write about what I know and what I see and the world I inhabit. My present attitude towards absorbing the feelings of other people is ‘Not my bears, not my circus’, which is a bastardized version of a Polish proverb that came up in discussion with some friends of mine recently.
I jock Irish writers pretty hard. This is one of the regions in the world (another, for me, is the Middle East) where I feel the rhythms of speech and language create a music in literature that is immediately pleasurable to take in. It has all the elegance and smooth consistency of the English writers, yet manages to scuff it up enough without losing any of that melodic integrity. Yeats can take a mouthful like, “what rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem waiting to be born…” and it still sounds elegant. Are there specific things you look for when approaching rhythm and musicality of language when you write or do you work completely from what is inherent? If so, what is it in your culture that you think creates this?
So, as for the Irish ‘style’ of communication and presentation of the English language – it’s colonial. The English we speak is a result of our history, and a lot of the euphemisms and music of our language come from the Irish language (it’s not called Gaelic) (Gaelic is a sport akin to rugby). We are a nation of storytellers compelled to speak the language of the oppressors greater than the oppressors themselves, because the Irish language was forced violently out of the people who spoke it. So that’s handed down – Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, masters of English, but born and raised in Ireland. I feel it could be ongoing rebellion. As for where I stand in this, I just think about how I talk and think about how my family talk. It’s muscle memory and I try not to filter the nuances of Hiberno-English I grew up with out of how I write.
On the point of it being an ongoing rebellion, I definitely feel that. Personally, I am the line of delineation on my family tree where it breaks from Tagolog to English being the primary language. It creates a complicated relationship. And it’s hard to not feel like every word of English you speak or write isn’t some kind of fight.
Yeah man, i could write for years about how i feel about language and oppression and what the english tongue really means. It effects people as a colonial force all over the world – it’s sort of a common ground.
Your book, “Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home” is a story of your own migration to the United States. Emigration from Ireland seems to be an issue that is impacting the country. What effect do you think this is having on the younger generation of Irish people and in what ways have you had to reconcile this new life in another country.
It’s something that has always been an issue for us, again, dating back to the famine, during which droves of Irish left the nation for sanctuary in America – it was leave or starve. It’s not quite like that today – though there are very few opportunities for young people. You can have a masters degree and be working an unpaid ‘internship’ as a sandwich artist at Subway in Dublin. Like, that’s a real thing that exists. We aren’t raised in the culture that America has, the ‘You Can Be Whatever You Want To Be’ attitude – I honestly don’t even feel that we have Millennials the same way America does. Emigration has effected every single Irish person I know. Most of my friends are all over the globe now. As for how I reconcile my own emigration, I feel it’s important to say that just because I wrote a book about it doesn’t mean I’m done figuring it out. I’m constantly learning about what living here as an Irish immigrant means. The new life is a weird thing. Not Lost barely skims the surface, in a way – I am still feeling my way through this place. There are a lot of people who could just do it, you know, come here and get on with things. I feel like I’m going through the whole thing with a fine-toothed comb.
So how the hell did you get mixed up with all these slam poets anyway? Was this scene something you were a part of back in Ireland, and in what way do you feel the poets you met here have influenced you?
Hah, bless these slam poets! My heroes! Yeah, I did a fair bit of spoken word back in Ireland, gigged all the time and worked really hard at it. It was my gateway into longer form work, it gave me a lot of opportunities. I also met some of the greatest people I ever knew in Ireland through the spoken word and poetry world, at one thing or another, and figured leaping in to the SF scene might be the best way to meet good people again. The folks I have met are unreal and have truly taught me so much about language and emotion and where the two are bridged. Some of the best poems I’ve ever heard have come from this city. The way I write is completely changed – I feel like I was handed a whole new set of colours to paint with or something.
If we are “Not Lost”, then where are we?
We are finding. Constantly finding.
Sarah at Literary Death Match
and some light reading