Thursday, July 17, 2008

Merrion Square Suntrap?

I made it over to the National Gallery of Ireland yesterday for the third in their series of lunchtime poetry readings during July, in association with Poetry Ireland. I was disappointed to miss the first two due to being abroad - featuring Vona Groarke and Eavan Boland, whose reading kicked off the series.

Yesterday's event featured Catherine Phil MacCarthy, a steadfast presence on the Irish scene; poet, novelist, editor and teacher of creative writing. True to form, her reading, like her work overall, was confident, understated and elegant - occasionally breaching consistently high levels of quality to achieve some remarkably moving passages, as in the chilling poem 'Ultrasound'. Personal highlights were a poem called 'The Deluge', which paired the whimsy of a barrage of Beanie Babies (neighbouring children breaching garden defences) against more biblical considerations. MacCarthy finished up with another fine piece, The Opal, available to read on the poet's website, along with other works from her recent collection 'Suntrap'.

Next up in the series is Gerald Smyth, reading on Weds 23rd July and Harry Clifton brings the series to a close on Weds 30th July. The readings are advertised as being in Room 21 (The Portrait Gallery) but yesterday's took place in the lecture theatre (in the basement). I'd guess they'll remain there. Also some mention of a poetry evening at the NGI this autumn - sounds interesting! Meanwhile, this series is a pleasant lunchtime interlude for anybody in the Dublin 2 area during July.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Summer Reading 1: Costa De Stopia

As mentioned earlier, I’m just back from a couple of weeks in Spain. Usually not big fans of the sun holiday scenario, this year the offspring deemed sunshine and a pool to be mandatory elements, so off we flew. And guess what? It was fuppin’ great! Lucky timing too - as borne out by our alarm monitor phoning to say the house alarm was going off back home but not to worry - we weren’t alone - it was probably set off by the torrential rain and hailstones!!!

Between narrowing down the iPod options for best poolside basking music (Air … by a drowsy mile!), glugging ice-cold rosado and experiencing 135kmph rollercoasters, I had plenty of languid reading time. I’d brought a selection of journals, one poetry collection and one novel, but pride of place HAS to go to JG Ballard : The Complete Stories: Volume 1.

Reading Ballard’s dystopian gems under the hot Spanish sun brought on unexpected and eerie synchronicities between his stories and the surreal and artificial landscape of the mass tourist experience. All that packaged recreation, intensive leisure, modular accommodation, shifting sands, glaring skies and polished dereliction. The contrast between the well-watered, palm-shaded apartment enclaves and the dusty, halfshod streets outside seemed spookily similar to some of the environments from the Vermillion Sands stories. The ever-present swimming pools, whether fully functioning or leering from the gaptooth building sites of the stalled Spanish economy, were an obvious Ballard trope. The heaving, oily beaches emphasised references to the Gadarene swine in The Reptile Enclosure. While our apartment may not have had the Thousand Dreams of Stella Vista, humidity-broken sleep produced its own myriad shattered tableaux. The psychotropic correlation of environmental guilt and the slight drainy whiff as the aircon kicked in wasn’t lost on me either!

Considering most of these stories dated from the late 50’s and early 60’s, I was struck once again by Ballard’s uncanny prescience. Admittedly the clunky poetry-tape-producing Verse-Transcriber machines of Studio 5, The Stars seem quaint in the context of today’s digital environment, but - as Ballard states in his introduction – these stories aren’t set in any future, but a ‘visionary present’. The cumulative effect of reading these stories in relative succession led to a vaguely ominous, but not altogether unpleasant, disorientation – peaking in Barcelona. After Ballardian immersion, both the Zoo and the Metro felt bizarrely virtual. But the icing on the cake had to be an offhand mention in a phone conversation that “the Radar had died in Dublin airport”, a few days before we were due to return. Yikes!

All ended well though - an excellent break, to which these stories added a spice of head-swimming, delerious pleasure!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wolff Enright (not a law firm!)

I only made it to one event during this year's Dublin Writers Festival. The festival coincided with a pretty hectic pre-holiday period for me plus I was a bit word-weary for a while there. However, I did manage to make it along to this event. Couldn't have missed it really, as I admire and enjoy Wolff's writing in a big way. To have him double-heading with the bould Enright was just too good a ticket to pass on.

It was a pretty full house on the night (and very muggy inside - what's the story Project?). First up with the introductions was Niall McMonagle, who then welcomed both writers to the stand. Enright read her story Honey from her recent collection Taking Pictures. This story was originally the worthwhile winner of the inaugural Davy Byrnes Award (for which Wolff had been one of the judges). It's a typical Enright story - as much as such a thing exists? A crackling, vernacular and bleakly humourous narrative of a protaganist whorled up in guilt, grief and gumption, spitting and fidgeting towards some kind of release. Enright is adept at traversing her characters across passages of brittle, iced language compacted into suspended, breathless near-hysteria, only to skid on a word or two into pools of warmth and emotion. So it was here. As Wolff followed her to the podium, he exclaimed that he'd be pleased to hand over the award cheque again - so good was this story. It was a wonderful reading of a classic modern story, IMHO. The good news is that Honey is available to read online over on the Irish Times website. The bad news is that only available by subscription! Here's the link.

Wolff followed up with two of his own classics: Say Yes (which you'll find here) and Bullet in the Brain, (read by T. Coraghessan Boyle in a podcast here). Both are cracking stories - not neccessarily what I would consider his most representative work, so an interesting choice.

After that, we needed a pause to breathe and let the words settle. Then we were off into a somewhat fractured discussion on the short story which, in truth, contained cliche as well as insight. But there were tasty moments too. Considering the merits of the story versus the novel, Wolff opined that Randall Jarrell's (?) somewhat glib definition of the novel as "a work in prose of a certain length that has something wrong with it" could equally be applied to the short story. I also seem to recollect that he commented on the story form having more in common with poetry than with the novel, but my memory might just be channelling Wolff's close friend, Ray Carver on this recollection - I know I've heard him say this.

Discussing the start of a story, Enright said she 'doesn't do' beginnings. Also, she doesn't have much time for those writers who claim not to know whether a piece will become a story or a novel. For her it's one or the other, from the off. She also said something interesting on endings. For her, it's not so much about the endline as the silence that follows it - and how that differs from the silence before the story began. A bit precious maybe, but a compelling consideration.

Also discussing endlines, Wolff commented on Carver's skill in this area, turning the most open and inconclusive lines into a kind of revery. He referenced the endline of Carver's story 'Gazebo' for this. I don't have this to hand just now. Crack a book :-) (I'll add it here later). One area that wasn't discussed was the role of the editor. With so much referencing of Carver, I'd hoped to maybe raise the contentious issue of Gordon Lish's role in paring back Carver's original drafts. But time was limited and I didn't make the cut.

Enright mentioned some significant influences on her as a younger writer, citing Alice Munro in particular as well as a seventies anthology of experimental work, "The Naked I", which brought subjective narrative to the fore. She also spoke of those many, many stories still to be told from the point of view of women, particulary Irish women. A curious moment occured when a female audience member asked both writers for their thoughts on the differences in the short stories of male and female writers. Wolff demurred to Enright, as she had lead the timbre of the discussion in this direction, but the Booker winner was somewhat gobsmacked and flustered by the question. Strangely unsure, I thought, considering how much of her writing drags a raggedy fingernail along the frayed seams of gender politics. For his part, Wolff suggested that there seemed to be more violence in men's writing. To his chagrin, he's had it pointed out that the mortality rate of dogs in his stories is quite high.

Finally, appropriately enough, an anecdote that Wolff shared with us;

The discussion came round to those questions which writers face at events like this, one in particular being "When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?" Where many writers might refer to vague, intuitive urges, Wolff remembered an exact moment from his schooldays, when he would often write exercises on behalf of his classmates (for reward, no doubt). On one such occasion, the recipient of said 'hokey homework' told him 'you know you're good at this.... you should be a writer'. This specific incident planted the idea. On subsequent occasions, having entirely lost contact with this guy, he would refer to the incident in public readings and offer his thanks to the individual. At one such event, a lady stayed behind, quietly made her way over to him and explained that she was the individual's daughter. She explained how her father, like Wolff, had served in Vietnam. Unlike Wolff, however, he returned a scarred and deeply troubled man who moved his family to remotest Alaska, where he sought a precise kind of solitude. If any other settler moved to within four miles of their home, he would up stakes and move even further into the wilderness. Eventually (of course) his wife had had more than enough privation, took the kids and left him to it! Recounting all this to Wolff, the daughter finished with the meek observation, "I guess somebody must've told him he should be a hermit."

Knowing the young Wolff's propensity for 'creative truth', I'd be inclined to take this with a pinch of salt - but a fitting yarn nonetheless, from a master storyteller on a wonderfully interesting and entertaining night.

Hi. Again. At last. (For a while?)

Well now. In spite of many weeks of my non-posting (and the noticeable amount of quality long-term bloggers who are calling it quits) the blogosphere hasn't yet ground to a halt. A good thing? I think so. It's true that maintaining (any sort of quality in) a blog can be aright old chore - but what a great way to make and feed some of those synaptic contacts that internet technology always promised. And waffle freely.

I can't plead any kind of strategic decision behind my own recent lapse in posting. It just came down to being on holidays for the last two weeks and a bunch more weeks of random hectivity (hection?) before I went away (of which, more anon). Anyway, I'm back now - energised, tanned and typing again. Please do let me know if there's anybody left out there. I feel bad for disappearing just as a few people other than myself were starting to drop by. To be fair, I've always referred to my own wee cul-de-sac of the information superhighway as an 'intermittent' blog (Suffering the Intermit, anyone?) and so it has proven to be.

So, please allow me to re-kickstart proceedings by linking to a couple of (still-relevant) reviews which I penned for the Evening Herald before chucking a few more euros into Ryanair's coffers, and which appeared in my absence;

Chekhov via Friel : Three Sisters at The Abbey

Space Drama : Ulla Van Brandenburg at IMMA