Monday, October 26, 2015

Anatomy of a Genius - some gothic flash fiction to get you into Halloween mood

      I’ve been tuning up my gothic sensibility as Halloween rapidly approaches, and to help get into the mood, I’ve written a short piece of flash fiction which has just been published by The Galway Review. ‘Anatomy of a Genius’ is inspired by real events that took place in 1768 after the death of author, Laurence Sterne. 
Portrait of Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1760

      Body snatching by 'resurrectionists' or 'resurrection-men' was not outlawed until the Anatomy Act of 1832. 'Truth is certainly stranger than fiction' in this curious case of life imitating art. By way of a gloss, ‘Yorick’ is the name of the dead court jester whose skull is exhumed by the gravedigger in Act 5, Scene 1, of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The same name was used by Laurence Sterne in his novels Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey as the surname of one of the characters, a parson who is a humorous portrait of the author. Indeed, Parson Yorick is supposed to be descended from Shakespeare's Yorick. 

I hope you enjoy the piece which you can read here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The couplet as platform for resistance for Afghan women

Imagine risking severe punishment or even your life for just two lines of poetry… Now visualise doing this, not just once, but on a weekly basis. Poetry has become a powerful vehicle of expression for the silenced women of Afghanistan and I was fascinated, recently, to learn about a tight form known as the landay. I confess that the only other poetic type I knew about from Central Asia was the ghazal (a relatively short form of no more than a dozen couplets, which originated in 10th century Iran and often addresses themes of love) so I was intrigued to learn that the landay is a brief two-line poem, traditionally only performed orally. Each poem has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second and it ends with the sound “ma” or “na.” Sometimes landays rhyme, but more often not. Quite different to the equally compact but even tighter haiku form (which originated in Japan, is typically made up of three lines of 5/7/5 syllables and often draws its power from contrasting the micro and macro on the theme of nature), the landay is driven by vital emotions of anger, heartache or love. Though this couplet dates back thousands of years, it has become a particularly potent lifeline and secretive form of rebellion for Afghan women within the climate of fundamentalist conservatism fostered by the Taliban. Female poetic self-expression, within this culture, implies dishonour and free will.

A Kabul-based female writers group, known as the Mirman Baheer literary society, is empowering women to share these couplets with each other and to resist the culture of muteness imposed by their male-dominated society. The pioneering Mirman Baheer group was founded by MP, Sahira Sharif, to enable Afghan women to communicate with each other and to express their deepest thoughts about their every day realities such as war, the Taliban, American soldiers, sexual oppression, drone strikes and military weapons, social media, love and sex. The groups members range from professional urban women to young girls in remote rural villages, many of whom are forced to participate in secret by phoning into group meetings. Speaking last month at London’s Southbank Poetry International weekend Sharif stated: “If women are writing poetry, it means they are risking their lives. In our community, if a woman writes some words, it is seen as stigmatising family honour. And that’s why she always tries to hide her name and her identity when writing poetry. But this poetry is much more powerful than the sword. It could be our best medium to fight what is going on.”

I was particularly struck by the poignant concision of the following poem:

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.

When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.

Other examples included below were published in an article by Hannah Ellis-Petersen which appeared in The Guardian on 6 June 2015 and also in a feature by Lyse Doucet on the BBC news website, dated 21 October 2013. 

Some Contemporary Womens’ Landays:

You won’t let me go to school. I won’t become a doctor. 
Remember this. One day, you will be sick.

May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.

They’ve made Afghan women into widows and whores.

Oh my God, all the warlords testing their weapons again
And earning a lot of money out of war - Dr. Masouda

Making love to an old man

Is like fucking a shrivelled cornstalk black with mould

My love gave his life for our homeland.
I'll sew his shroud with one strand of my hair.

You sold me to an old man, father

May god destroy your home; I was your daughter

When we read these landays we can appreciate that they are so much more than just two lines of text - they constitute crucial lifelines, acts of resistance, tools of coping, learning and surviving within a war-torn society. These micro-poems allow us to unpack so much about the every day lives of women in Afghanistan. They remind us, not only of all we take for granted, in our industrialised West, in relation to education, freedom of speech and poetry itself, but also of the unbroken, transformative power of this medium to condense and transmit vital truths that need to be articulated. 

You can read further about the history of the landay and many more fine examples of this art form in I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, a collection translated into English by Eliza Griswold (who has helped to bring global attention to this poetry) and with photography by Seamus Murphy. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

32 Statements About Poetry by Marvin Bell

      1. Every poet is an experimentalist.

2. Learning to write is a simple process: read something, then write something; read something else, then write something else. And show in your writing what you have read.

3. There is no one way to write and no right way to write.

4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff.

5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.

6. You do not learn from work like yours as much as you learn from work unlike yours.

7. Originality is a new amalgam of influences.

8. Try to write poems at least one person in the room will hate.

9. The I in the poem is not you but someone who knows a lot about you.

10. Autobiography rots.

11. A poem listens to itself as it goes.

12. It’s not what one begins with that matters; it’s the quality of attention paid to it thereafter.

13. Language is subjective and relative, but it also overlaps; get on with it.

14. Every free verse writer must reinvent free verse.

15. Prose is prose because of what it includes; poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

16. A short poem need not be small.

17. Rhyme and meter, too, can be experimental.

18. Poetry has content but is not strictly about its contents. A poem containing a tree may not be about a tree.

19. You need nothing more to write poems than bits of string and thread and some dust from under the bed.

20. At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and exhausts them.

21. The penalty for education is self-consciousness. But it is too late for ignorance.

22. What they say “there are no words for”–that’s what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

23. One does not learn by having a teacher do the work.

24. The dictionary is beautiful; for some poets, it’s enough.

25. Writing poetry is its own reward and needs no certification. Poetry, like water, seeks its own level.

26. A finished poem is also the draft of a later poem.

27. A poet sees the differences between his or her poems but a reader sees the similarities.

28. Poetry is a manifestation of more important things. On the one hand, it’s poetry! On the other, it’s just poetry.

29. Viewed in perspective, Parnassus is a very short mountain.

30. A good workshop continually signals that we are all in this together, teacher too.

31. This Depression Era jingle could be about writing poetry: Use it up / wear it out / make it do / or do without.

32. Art is a way of life, not a career.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Simple and tasty light veggie meal - Tomato, pesto and chive tart

The Blogosphere probably doesn’t need yet another foodie and I make no claim to be a culinary expert, but as a meat lover who regularly prepares veggie meals for my family (my husband is a ‘fussy vegetarian’ by his own admission) I have tweaked and fine-tuned my trove of vegetarian recipes and discovered a few ridiculously easy, nutritious and tasty meals along the way. This is one light meal I want to share which takes about 30 mins in total: (about 10 minutes to prepare and 20 mins in the oven). I may post a few more such recipes over the coming months if people find them useful. Enjoy!

Tomato, Pesto and Chive Tart

Serves 6


340g shortcrust pastry – use one of the 2 sheets in a ‘Jus Roll’ pack (puff pastry can also be used)
200ml tub of crème fraiche (full or half fat)
2 eggs
2 generous tbsp. green pesto
4-6 ripe tomatoes, sliced
cherry tomatoes, halved (optional)
quarter pack of feta cheese (optional)
snipped fresh chives
green salad to serve

1.     Preheat the oven to 220 C/fan 200 C. Roll out the pastry and use to line the base and sides of your oven tray/Swiss roll tin (about 9 x 13 inches).
2.     Mix the crème fraiche, eggs and pesto together then season. Pour this creamy mixture over the pastry. Scatter the tomatoes on top. My little boy loves to do this! You can also lay your cherry tomatoes in between - they look good mixed in with the regular tomatoes and always give a juicy kick. You don’t need to include feta if you’re not a fan but my family are cheese-lovers so I tend to  crumble feta into our meals a fair bit!
3.     Season and bake for 20 minutes until set.

4.     Toss on some chives and serve cut into big squares, warm or cold, with a green salad.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

For International Women's Day 2015

I wrote the following feature article for the May 2012 issue of Galway Now magazine, where it was first published

Would you call yourself a feminist? 

The popular press image of suffragettes, Miller and Lang, circa 1909

Emily Cullen asks why the ‘F word’ is such a loaded term

On the 8th March this year, five separate friends wished me a ‘happy International Women’s Day’. Apart from the pleasant exchange of greetings, I wasn’t quite sure how I should be marking the occasion. Never one to pass up a chance to celebrate, I wondered if I should have expected flowers or choccies? Had I missed an excuse for my husband to take me out for dinner? My greedy curiosity about this international day got me thinking about the struggles of women worldwide, but more specifically, in Ireland. I wondered how many of my peers would call themselves feminists.
‘Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.’ Mary Wollstonecraft made such powerful statements as this in her pioneering work of 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. A remarkable woman for her time, she is often seen as the founder of the Western feminist movement. Though her language may be archaic now, her goal of seeking equity for women still resonates. Or so one might imagine. In recent years, whenever I taught female undergraduate students about her work, I wondered why they were so indifferent to feminism. Each time I asked if they identified with feminism, their answer was a resounding ‘no’. I wondered why they would choose not to align themselves with the movement which helped to win their liberties? After all, it wasn’t until the late-nineteenth century that women were even allowed to enroll in Irish Universities. In Wollstonecraft’s era, women were forbidden to attend because it was believed that it would distract them from their primary purpose: motherhood. Many medical experts at the time claimed that too much education might cause the womb to shrivel up! I wondered whether my students were even aware of this history, or of the feminist movement that fought for their basic rights? How exactly do Irish women feel about feminism in the 21st century?
Undoubtedly, many women feel the same way as journalist Colette Fitzpatrick, who bemoaned in her Evening Herald column recently that: ‘juggling everything’ is ‘where feminism has led us’. The dreaded ‘superwoman complex’ – where society expects women to excel at all things in addition to being the perfect mother - is not something we should blame entirely on the feminist’s campaign for equality. A quick survey among my peers indicated that many would choose not to identify themselves as a feminist. The main reason lay in an understandable dilemma: uncertainty about what the term means. Like most social movements, there are multiple different approaches to feminism as well as different phases in its evolution. Repelling many women from embracing the ‘F word’ are the negative assumptions that feminists are: 1) man-haters, 2) bra-burners (bras are expensive – who would do that?!); 3) anti-make-up, angry hippies; and 4) even, heaven forbid, women-loving lesbians! Then there is that perpetual question: how do feminists reconcile clear biological and gender differences between men and women in the fight for equality? It is only natural that some women enjoy it when men open doors for them, and don’t want chivalry to be slayed by the double-bladed axe of feminism. My research revealed that feminism has certainly evolved and changed since its earliest days in the late eighteenth century. When the Suffragettes helped to secure the vote for women in 1918, their goal was not only access to the ballot box, but also the right to speak out against issues of social injustice, such as colonial exploitation, human trafficking, and sweatshops. It is difficult to believe that the 1918 ‘Representation of the People Act’ only gave ‘women of property’ over the age of thirty the right to vote. It was a step towards progress, though, and this was the beginning of feminism in its first wave.
The 1960s-1990s produced the second-wave feminist movement called ‘Women's Liberation’. It broadened debates and focused on raising women’s consciousness of their oppression in a male-dominated society. While the language of ‘liberation’ and ‘domination’ might seem outdated today, the feminist movements of the 1960s also concentrated on achieving goals such as affordable childcare, contraception, greater attention to women’s health and economic equality. The establishment of rape crisis centres and women's shelters were also important demands. In Ireland, in 1971, feminists travelled from Dublin to Belfast on the famous ‘Contraceptive Train’ to buy condoms, highlighting the fact that they were illegal in the Republic. Among Irish feminist debates through the decades, about matters such as the role of women as enshrined in the Irish constitution, the marriage bar in effect in the civil service, the forgotten women of the Magdalen laundries, and the controversy surrounding Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme, the tragic 1984 case of 15-year old Anne Lovett still resonates powerfully in our collective memory. While it opened up an important national conversation about the support for women giving birth outside marriage, the Ireland of the early ‘80s now seems like a distant, faraway place. ‘Women’s issues’ are not as exotic to the general public as they once were. Does this mean that feminism is no longer relevant, or simply changing with the times?
Since the 1990s, we are living through feminism in its third wave, and this is trickier to define. Third-wave initially grew out of a response to racial issues, as second-wave was perceived as being too focused on the needs of white, middle-class women. In its favour, internationalizing the issue has offered a much broader understanding of feminism. Critics, however, believe third-wave lacks the directed vision of first and second-waves as it does not have a clear goal, such as the vote. What exactly does contemporary feminism want then? In her humorous memoir, How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran argues that, in our current, hypersexualised culture, we need feminism ‘more than ever’. She is one of the first to highlight that certain fashion mores and pressures on young women originate, not in the couture fashion houses, but in the pornography industry. The pressure for women to look like porn stars, and to be completely hairless, is everywhere. By infusing personal comedy into a very readable discussion of feminism, Moran has managed to make her readers sit up and take notice.
Pornography itself has long been a thorny issue for feminists. In the 1970s Hugh Hefner regularly donated large amounts of money to support women’s organisations and feminists debated whether or not they should take accept such funds from an industry that they believed exploited women. But that was then. Today people wear t-shirts proudly proclaiming ‘Porn Star’ in glittery script, and glamour celebrities such as Jordan, have become role models for little girls – something Moran and other feminists, like Natasha Walter and Kat Banyard, urge us to reconsider. These are not easy questions for women to sort out. A new blog with a feminist angle, The Vagenda ( is worth checking out for its critique of the often anti-feminist language of certain womens’ publications and the pressures they bring to bear on young women in relation to an ideal body image.
While the media has tended to highlight the more extreme antics of militant feminists, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of tarring all feminists with the same brush. Feminism is not anti-men - feminism needs men… to speak out on issues such as domestic violence and say “not in my name!”. Neither should we underestimate what sustained lobbying by feminists has managed to achieve through the decades. While the international debates have certainly broadened, one thing every feminist has in common is the goal of equity for women. Concerns about parity of pay in the workplace and the glass ceiling for women are still hot topics and should help us to dispel any remaining doubts we may have about whether we are feminists or not. In fact, since contemporary feminism is much more inclusive of different issues, I imagine that, at some point in our lives, everyone will be a feminist. How come? Well, women or men may easily find themselves arguing against inequality, whether questioning the discriminatory rules that make it difficult for their daughter to progress in the practices of engineering, or whether they are blowing the whistle if their sister is sexually harassed in the workplace. In fact, instead of worrying about the intricacies of its full meaning, every time you see the word 'feminism', why not, instead, think 'anti-sexism', or better yet, 'pro-equality'? 
        Love it or hate it, one day a year is set aside for women - while all the rest of the days are potentially wide open for an endless list of things to celebrate: International Good Hair Day and International Mullet Day, International Bin Man-Appreciation Day, International Plasma Screen TV Day... In the meantime, I’m telling my husband that it’s ‘International Women’s Year’ and will let him know that roses and choccies are expected each week.

Suffragettes - colour cartoon published by Millar & Lang, circa 1909