Monday, April 14, 2008

Poetry Now - The Strong Award

The Rupert and Eithne Strong Award is presented annually to recognise first collections published in Irish or English by Irish presses or poets. The presentation, and accompanying reading by shortlisted poets, has become a fixture of the Poetry Now festival and provides a valuable opportunity for emerging poets to give voice to their work in a supportive and knowledgable environment. Many speak of the affirmation this offers along with the opportunity to reach a new audience, as well as mingle with audience, peers and influences during the festival itself. Nerves were undoubtedly fluttering backstage as this year’s judge Louis de Paor took to the stage to begin proceedings.

As one of Ireland’s leading Irish language poets and Director of Irish Studies at NUI Galway, it was little surprise that de Paor announced himself ‘dismayed’ at the fact that only one Irish language collection featured on this year’s list. Another concern was the rigour, or lack thereof, of editorial input by the publishers of this year’s crop of emerging writers – whether referring to the quality and choice of content or the fundamentals of proofing wasn’t made clear. His final concern was with the nature of poetry predominently featured, with a perceived emphasis on the shorter, mostly lyric form to the exclusion of other approaches, including that type of poem which ‘brings you for a walk in the woods’ before revealing its intent. It was refreshing to hear constructive criticism where one might have expected platitudes. Then it was time for the first reader.

Nell Regan’s collection ‘Preparing for Spring’ has previously been shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh and Glen Dimplex New Writing awards. Her work has been praised for its precision, sophistication and tact. On the basis of this reading, that praise seems at least partially correct, with a definite sense of precision and craft on display. However, treatment of certain subjects, such as the Blaschkas (a family of skilled zoological glass model makers) and the muslim call to prayer, seemed a little lacking in that other area of tact. The subjects at times felt observed, rather than identified with – that old colonial sense of the exotic ‘other’ shadowing proceedings just a little. Work with its basis in personal history, seemed more considered. No doubt the obligation of reading first, in this context, was testing and it is possible that nerves played a part in leaving me a little cold on some of the poems. However, there’s no doubting the skill of construction in these pieces and I’m sure to warm to her work on further reading.

Next up was Nuala Ní Chonchúir, reading from ‘Tattoo ; Tatú’, her bilingual collection from the same publisher (Arlen House) as Regan. Here too was craft and precision aplenty - but this work, I felt, was backed up with a deeper investigation of self, with the investment of that self in the crevices of skillfully constructed poems. This poet has been praised as having a ‘Chekhovian eye for detail’ by Cathal Ó Searcaigh - an assessment I’d be inclined to agree with (even if the source has been dogged by controversy of late). Stand-out works for me were ‘Our Lady of Dublin’, a somewhat gothic rumination, with nice prior context given for its striking line ‘even this crown is not my own,’ as well as the title poem, with its imaging of the body as a palimpsest of prior lovers. So far, so graceful.

Our next poet’s collection won the Patrick Kavanagh Award 2005 in manuscript. Reading from ‘The Boy in the Ring’, (Salmon Poetry) Dave Lordan displayed feisty, vernacular language and gave it socks, wellys and Doc Martins in his delivery. Lordan’s obviously no shrinking violet. Small town tales were vented with foam, fleck and fecklessness by “fuckin’ fearless” protagonists. Yet again there was doubt on my part in the rendering down of those mucksmeared characterizations of life in small rural towns to something approaching caricature. Invoking staples of rebellious adolescence - haircuts, hash and happy hooliganism - combined to deliver… nothing really startling, actually. The subjects of his poems are chewed out with a vigour which sometimes felt a bit like barrelfish-shooting to me – e.g. the pillorying of the flatbed concelebrants of "Entente Florale" – perhaps at the expense of the poems’ own insights?

Next, Billy Ramsell gave a reading which exhibited certain of the same characteristics as Lordan’s despite very different voicing and the fact that here, much work seemed recited from memory. Presenting work from ‘Complicated Pleasures’, (Dedalus) Ramsell too seemed in danger of subverting the impact of his texts with a performance style which drew freely on audience interaction, asides, anecdotes and the like, going somewhat beyond the usual realm of establishing intimacy, calming nerves and setting contexts. (I’d estimate the ratio of poet to raconteur in the region of 1:2?). Indeed he revealed that, when faced with a microphone, his first tendency is to sing – at one point proposing a rendition of The Lakes of Pontchartrain! (…which clearly would have been well received by the Festival Curator, who proclaimed it her favourite song in wrapping up this event). Perhaps thats no bad thing in itself – we’ve all been at those readings of slumber-inducing, buttock-numbing monotonal bardery. But, while fresh voices need fresh approaches, I can’t help but feel there’s sometimes a cost to the work.

So then, on to the denouement. Reiterating his earlier comments about the high calibre of these four collections, de Paor announced, with the minimum of fuss, that this year’s winner of the Strong Award was the collection which had ‘made me me forget I was reading a book of poetry.’ Dave Lordan returned to stage to accept his award. Rightly pleased, he proceeded to invoke the I Ching, allowing the audience to choose the page number for a final poem. ‘64’ it was - then off to the wings (of glory) for him and the chill streets of Dun Laoghaire for the rest of us.

A final tangent - from which I can draw no specific conclusion - relates to poetry and publishing undergoing dramatic (!) transformations in this era of rapidly changing information technology. Of the collections featured in this year’s Strong Reading, the one I will soon buy (my festival book budget was blown on US poets) is, coincidentally, the title from the poet who maintains the most comprehensive online presence - Nuala Ní Chonchúir. ‘Tatoo : Tatú’ is my own Strong choice this year - purely my personal taste, of course, but with the added incentive of finally daring to consider the possibility of writing in my native tongue. After all, if I can coach Henri Cole in the pronunciation of ‘a dhaoine uisle’, perhaps there’s still hope for my inner gaeiligóir. Slán!