KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE
This month I’m delighted to catch up with a fellow writer with Hedgehog Poetry Press, Raine Geoghan. Raine is a fascinating writer from a rich tradition of storytellers and makars. She is very conscious of her Romani heritage and in the current climate it feels more important than ever to keep all the roots which nourish us alive and voiced.
Raine, I notice that poems from both your collections, Apple Water: Povel Panni and They Lit Fires: Lenti Hatch O Yog, are going to be featured in an exhibition at the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum in rural Norfolk (UK). I always think of you as a poet who is very concerned with tradition and the countryside. Could you tell us a little about the background of your collections and how your Romani background informs your work?
Thank you Sue, for inviting me to talk about my work. I am thrilled that three of my poems will be hung in an exhibition at the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum. It really is satisfying to know that people will see and read them, that the poems will reach a wider audience. Let’s go back to 2017, after I finished the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. It was then that I began working with a mentor, the poet and tutor James Simpson. I mentioned one day that I was of Romany heritage and he asked me why I wasn’t writing about it. I told him that I had written a radio play many years ago but pushed it aside with the intention of returning to it one day. Well that didn’t happen, but I suddenly found that the time was right to set to work on writing about my Romany family.
I was born in South Wales, in the valleys, but my father died when I was nineteen months old and my mother, who was pregnant at the time, moved back to Hanworth in Middlesex. We lived with my Romany Grandparents in their council house. I remember it vividly, the colour, the music, the stories, the Romani jib (language), the wildness, all of it. The poems, prose and songs in my first pamphlet ‘Apple Water: Povel Panni’ are all based on my family who among other things picked fruit, vegetables and hops in both Herefordshire and Kent. I used “found” words which I remembered hearing from family members and most of the work was inspired by actual events. I use what’s called ‘poggadi jib’ which means ‘broken language’ so the Romani words are used alongside English words. My mentor loved the work I was producing and that gave me the confidence to keep writing. Of course many of my loved ones have passed on and so I turned to cousins and friends for my research. I went on to write a second pamphlet ‘they lit fires: lenti hatch o yog.’ This was slightly different in that it included songs, haibun and monologues. I wanted to bring the characters alive both on the page and in live performance. The Romany life demands this. It should be celebrated.
I am keenly interested in tradition and in the countryside. I have listened to many stories about my family travelling to Kent or Herefordshire picking hops, potatoes, strawberries and apples. During the process of writing I found that the poetry was actually living inside me, that all I had to do was focus and connect with my ancestors but also I visited the places that my family went to and the landscape spoke to me. It reminded me of the wonderful poet John Clare who said, ‘I found the poems in the field and only wrote them down.’ I so identify with that. Poetry is all around us, we just have to notice it.
I’m really interested in poets who use different languages in their work and you do this quite extensively. How important is this to you and what flavour do you feel it gives your work?
As I said earlier I use ‘poggadi jib’ a mix of Romani and English words. I am passionate about the Romani language. It is beautiful, rich, and expressive and has a musicality which many people have remarked on. The language originally derived from India, a mix of Sanskrit and Hindi. The Indian Gypsies left India in the middle of the 9th Century and they made their way across the world, some travelling to the Americas, Australia and others to Europe.
My family are English Gypsies, Romanichals, the language they speak is different from Welsh and Scottish Gypsies but many of the words are similar. I have enjoyed experimenting with the language and using it as a means to add light and shade to my work. As well as various layers of meaning. There are some words which actually have two or three meanings so it’s rather fun to experiment. There are many languages that have been lost over the years and I find this incredibly sad. The Romani language is in danger of dying out so I make it my mission to use it wherever I can. Just recently I saw a post on Facebook on one of the Roma pages which said. ‘Decolonize language. Our language is the beauty of our survival and our treasure.’ I think this says it all.
What poets are you particularly drawn to? Are there other poets with Romani backgrounds who you feel an affinity to? You have such an interesting heritage, with Celtic roots too. I kept thinking about John Clare and his love of the countryside and horror at its desecration in relation to your work so was very interested when you mentioned him earlier.
I particularly love John Clare, especially his poems which relate to Wisdom Smith, a true Gypsy man who became his friend. David Morley has written about him quite extensively, he is of Romany heritage as is Frances Roberts Reilly. I had the honour of writing an endorsement for her latest book ‘Paramisha’. Papusza, a Romany poet, has also inspired me but her work isn’t always easy to get hold of. Jo Clement’s collection ‘Moveable Type’ explores the Romany world in quite subtle ways, yet the overall result is so powerful. US-based poet Cecilia Woloch is also an influence. Her work goes right to the heart of the Romany Gypsy. Her collection ‘Tsigan the Gypsy Poem’ eulogizes and celebrates the lives of Gypsies. I was totally absorbed when reading it.
I should also mention a few non Roma poets I’m fond of and who inspire my work. Vasko Popa, for me, is one of the finest. His work is mainly imagistic and it literally comes alive on the page. Dylan Thomas, connects me with my Welsh roots; then there’s Seamus Heaney, Sappho, Ann Michaels, Sujata Bhat, Louise Gluck, Ruth Padel, Chase Twichell, Mimi Khalvati plus some of the Salmon poets, a publisher I love. Just to mention a few: Susan Millar Du Mars, Knute Skinner, Rita Ann Higgins and more.
‘Stories from the Hop Yards’ sounds like a wonderful project, could you tell us more about this?
Just after I began writing about my Romany heritage I had a poem published in ‘Romany Routes’ the journal of the Romany and Traveller Family History Society. The editor had passed on my details to a researcher who was working on a film called ‘Stories from the Hop Yards.’ It was part of the ‘Herefordshire Life Through a Lens’ project and it explored the work of photographer Derek Evans who had taken photos of rural life in Herefordshire and in particular hop picking. The filmmaker at Catcher Media wanted to film people who had experiences of either being involved directly, or who had family members, in the hop fields in the 1940s and 1950s. I was filmed in the village hall in Bishops Frome in 2017 and it was a particularly emotional day as this is the area where my family picked hops. I talked about my family and read some of my poems. I even sang a couple of songs. Some of this was actually used in the film and it was such a delight to watch the premiere some month’s later in Hereford and to hear my voice reading my poems. I had also given permission for the researcher to use some of my photos.
You can watch the film here:
Raine, as well as being a poet you are a storyteller. How is this oral tradition reflected in your work? I was really interested in your use of the haibun form in They Lit Fires as, of course, the received images of Romani people are as nomads and the haibun form is often used as a kind of travel journal.
Storytelling is something that all members of my family used to do and still do now. My Grandfather would sit near the fire, his arms resting on his knees and tell a simple tale about his younger days. My Granny often told me about events in her life, such as when she got married and her and my Grandfather bought a wagon and a horse. I found that once I began writing the stories I would find a form that helped to illuminate them on the page. I used haibun after another poet suggested it to me. It’s interesting that you see the haibun as a kind of travel journal as I hadn’t thought of it in this way but you’re right Sue. In the haibun I can write the story in prose then lift it to another level by writing the haiku or tanka. Here is the haiku that features in one of my pieces called ‘Up Early’ when my granny is at Nine Elms market buying flowers. ‘Spanish dancers/ blood orange dahlias/ soaking in water. When I give live readings I love to read the haibun and monologues as performance pieces, accentuating voice and the dramatic nuances.
Previously, you were a dancer. Do you find this comes into your written work? I’m totally unmusical and have to work really hard at creating rhythm and musicality in my poetry – do you think your dance training helps you to do this more easily?
I have always danced, not so much now but throughout my whole life. As a child I would dance even if there was no music to dance to. When I was very ill and my work as a dancer and actress ceased I spent most of the days lying in bed. I began writing in a journal and this inspired me to write poetry. I felt that my creativity was finding a new way of expressing itself. I guess that both rhythm and musicality are an integral part of my work and because my body instinctively knows how to move then that aspect has been translated into the written word. In fact much of my work has a sense of the theatrical, there is drama in the monologues, there are songs which reflect the tight knit community of the Romany people and my poetry is song-like, especially the rhyming triolets which For example this triolet:
Koring Chiriclo I’ve loved to hear the cuckoo sing. I’m Romany, always travelling from Huntingdon to King’s Lyn. I’ve loved to hear the cuckoo sing since I was a chavi in a sling. I’ve loved to hear the cuckoo sing. I’m a Romany. Always travelling.
What’s next for you and what advice would you give aspiring writers and storytellers?
Well, firstly I have a full length collection coming out next March with the fabulous Salmon Poetry Press. It’s called ‘The Talking Stick: O Pookering Kosh’ and I will travel to Ireland for the launch. I also have another pamphlet coming out later this year with Hedgehog Poetry Press which is entirely different from my previous publications.
I was recently commissioned by Hodder & Stoughton to write a creative article on the season of autumn for an anthology called ‘Gifts of Gravity and Light’ a very exciting project. I have written about my relationship to Nature and my Romany upbringing but also share my frustration at not being able to walk very far due to disability. It has been an amazing opportunity for me and I am looking forward to the launch in July of this year. There’s also going to be an audiobook so I will have the opportunity to record my essay.
I’ve been commissioned by writer and musical director Spencer Williams to collaborate on his script based on a Welsh Gypsy family. I’m rewriting parts of the script to enhance the Gypsy vibe and give advice on the Romani language. It’s really exciting and I’m enjoying it very much. I did some work for the producer, Blair Russell, based in New York, last year and now it’s rather thrilling to be working with the actual writer.
So, to all you aspiring writers, I would say, read, read, read, write, write, write. Join a writing group where you can workshop. Be open to constructive feedback, it’s the only way to learn and develop your craft. Be kind to yourself and remember if you receive a rejection of any sorts that it’s just one person’s viewpoint. Keep going back to the work and keep editing and strengthening. I’m still learning myself, there’s a lot to do. I love it.
Raine Geoghegan, M.A. is a poet, prose writer and playwright of Romany, Welsh and Irish descent. Nominated for the Forward Prize, Best of the Net & the Pushcart Prize, her work has been published online and in print with Poetry Ireland Review; Travellers’ Times; Under the Radar; SkyLight47; Poethead and more. ‘Apple Water: Povel Panni’, was launched in 2018 and listed as a Poetry Book Society Spring 2019 Selection. ‘They Lit Fires: Lenti Hatch O Yog’ was published in 2019, Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her ‘Creative Essay’ will be published in the anthology, ‘Gifts of Gravity and Light’ with Hodder and Stoughton in July 2021. Her Full Collection, ‘The Talking Stick: O Pookering Kosh’ will be published with Salmon Poetry Press in 2022.
Sue Burge, Contributing Editor of Literary News and Writing Advice
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut pamphlet, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest pamphlet, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press. More information at www.sueburge.uk