Tuesday, March 31, 2009

DLR Poetry Now : A Beautiful Broadside

Poetry Now since it's inception fourteen years ago, the organisers wanted to do something a bit special to mark the poet's upcoming birthday. They delivered - big time! Entitled At the Centre of The Circle, the event saw all seventeen of the festival poets gather onstage to read their personal choice of Heaney poem. I thought it a pity the four poets shortlisted for the Strong Award weren't involved too, but learned afterwards they had the pleasure of tea and sticky buns at the Heaney household earlier - a treat in itself! 

Introduced by John Kelly, some of the guest poets elaborated on the reason for their choice of poem - others simply kept to Heaney's words. The (almost) complete listing of who read what is as follows;

Chris AgeePostscript
Paul BatchelorDocker
Sujata BhattPunishment
Frank BidartA Dog was Crying Tonight In Wicklow Also
Eva BourkeThe Blackbird of Glanmore
Colette BryceA Sofa in the Forties
Paddy BusheRemembering Malibu
Harry CliftonIn Iowa
Ian DuhigSúgán
Adam FouldsMossbawn ; Sunlight
Ellen Hinsey(didn't read)
Valzhyna MortPoem for Marie
Eiléan Ní ChuilleanáinThe Scribes
Robert PinskyThe Little Canticles of Asturias
Tomaž ŠalamunThe Railway Children
Tomas VenclovaMid-Term Break (in translation!)
Carol Ann DuffyPersonal Helicon
The Seed Cutters
The Guttural Muse
Seamus HeaneyAt The Wellhead
At Banagher
In the Attic

All the readings were special in their own way. Paul Batchelor recounted how his choice of poem brought about a teenage realisation that the gruffer details of a working class life were valid material for poetry. Robert Pinsky recalled how his choice was enthusiastically supplied in response to his request to Heaney for the first issue of The Slate - one of, if not THE first online magazines, of which he remains Poetry Editor. Tomas Venclova read expressively in Lithuanian. Carol Ann Duffy's reading was augmented by musical accompaniment (O'Carolan, I think?) from John Sampson and her young daughter Ella - who had the honour of exclaiming a chirpy ' Happy Birthday!' to Heaney as the guest readings concluded.

A birthday present was then unveiled, a texturally rich and atmospheric painting by Hughie O'Donoghue, incorporating a found photo image - ethereal, richly hazed and timeworn in character.

Heaney came to the stage, visibly deeply moved to a rare wordlessness. After a moment or two, composure still faltering, he began to speak and gradually that familiar voice and humour was restored. He spoke of his gratitude, humility and joy before proceeding to read, finishing with In The Attic, a recent poem, of which a commemorative broadsheet was printed for the occasion.

I had the great pleasure of designing this limited edition print - everybody in attendance received a copy, signed by the man himself. It was a personal delight to hear Heaney pronounce himself 'indebted for the beautiful broadside'. The entire theatre; audience, festival poets, staff, family, friends, peers and admirers rose together in a warm, resounding yet intimate ovation. A beautiful broadside indeed.

You can catch a fine flavour of the event in an audio slideshow over at the Irish Times - (coincidentally celebrating a birthday of it's own at the moment) which features the music, Heaney's reading of In The Attic and the photography of Bryan O'Brien & Matt Kavanagh.

Friday, March 27, 2009

DLR Poetry Now : Robert Pinsky, "Born for Death"

The keynote address at Poetry Now was delivered impeccably by Robert Pinsky. The former US poet laureate chose as his starting point Keats' Ode To A Nightingale - or, more specifically, the line;

"Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!"

It was the phrase "born for death" said the poet, that struck him with a surprising sense of exhilaration at a certain stage of life.

He then recounted a conversation with a South African friend, while en route to visiting with a local Sangoma, or spirit diviner. He was told "We Zulus don't worship our ancestors - we consult them". This statement also caused a certain elation - becoming a key consideration while writing his latest collection 'Gulf Music'.

For Pinsky, the resonating and consistent factor in these two references is the placing and perception of a duality - conscious or otherwise - in how we deal with life, death, memory and ancestry in defining ourselves in our own terms; the current, the modern. This is where he sees Modernist writing, from the early 20th century onwards, getting to grips with the human condition. He has written elsewhere that;

“Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are.”

This theme was a touchstone throughout his address, along with the observation that neither remembering nor forgetting can ever be a complete act. He noted that the name of the river Lethe, which flows through Hades in Greek mythology, means forgetfulness - and how, via Latin, the word 'Lethal' shares the same root.

He spoke about the particularity of Joyce choosing Ulysses as the classical matter for his dealings with the modern - a choice that allowed the writer full reign in embracing those contrary aspects of the modern condition within the framework of myth.

The address culminated in reading the first poem from Gulf Music. “Poem of Disconnected Parts” draws together, in closed couplets, many of the concerns discussed in his address. You can read it here.

Finally, Pinsky provided a Coda of sorts, reading several lines from his own translation of Dante's Paradise.

It all went a little deep for this non-academic at times - yet it was a thoroughly engaging talk. Pinsky's smooth, warm voice had a tactile quality which called to mind expertly crafted woodwork - smooth, warm and running with the grain. Speaking with the aid of notes, occasionally using repetition to stress key points, the flow and control of ideas was remarkable.

The over-arching expression seemed to be a recognition of the freeing potential in embracing the fact that we are all 'born for death'. That in 'tramping down' our ghosts, we allow our ancestors to find their place among our words - not haunt us as ghosts - to our own better, vital understanding of our (inevitably) modern condition.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Coasting : Vineyards from Curses

It's all been a bit dark round here this last week - the bright colours and cheery sounds of Paddy's Day suddenly scythed by one G Reaper Esq. In the shadow of column inches and airwaves bulging with Massareene, Goody, Richardson, Hughes et al, we were shredded far closer to home / heart / gut by an unexpected family bereavement - followed within the same 24 hours by the sad news of a close friend's mother passing away. All far too young. RIP.

It's been difficult to work, difficult to write, just bloody difficult. Now, a week later, we're somewhat less blank, less dumb, but very, very tired. Still here, closer - perhaps a little more alive, or conscious of that state - but very much saddened. Still.

Last Saturday's Grand Slam victory was a heightened and poignant moment - T would have loved it. In his absence - and memory - we celebrated, cried, hugged; a vital release - the stone of grief transmuting into almost-joy. When that last Welsh kick drooped short of the posts, one family member assured us of supernatural intervention from beyond the grave. It's a nice thought - our T, doing his Morph the Cat bit over the Millennium Stadium.

So, life carries on, the blur thins out and I find myself on the doorstep of the Poetry Now Festival again. I made it to Belinda McKeon's opening lecture at lunchtime today. Entitled 'Broken News', she spoke about Phenomenology, in the context of the well-known Auden quote "poetry makes nothing happen' - but also bringing that statement into context, by reminding us of those lesser known lines that come later in his tribute to Yeats..."With the farming of a verse / Make a vineyard of the curse."

With that in mind, I look forward to a few days immersion in the restorative power of poetry. So much quality and variety on offer - AND I managed to get into Frank Bidarts' workshop! I had intended to check out local WiFi options, with a view to some live-blogging throughout the festival. I think that might be a little over-ambitious now, but I'll try to post regularly over the next few days. In honour of the location, the image above is another of my paintings, entitled 'Coast'.

Off now to hear Robert Pinsky's keynote address. Ciao. Hug your loved ones.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Babbling Bookfest : Words of Thanks

Attended Medbh McGuckian’s poetry workshop at the Dublin Book Festival yesterday. A very interesting and useful experience it was too, despite the fact we had to grab our belongings and move en masse to the coffee shop downstairs in the hope of actually hearing one another.

Whoever had the notion that an open-plan workshop in the Rotunda of City Hall would add to the ‘voice chorus’ ambience of the venue, has either no notion of what a poetry workshop entails or doesn’t actually care. So, while thanks are due to the festival organisers - for the opportunity to workshop with one of Ireland’s premier poets – no thanks for plonking us right next to the children’s reading, replete with mandatory high-energy call-and-response. They had the numbers – and amplification – we hadn’t a chance. Even the coffee shop was a stop-gap measure – with plenty of visitor traffic, loud conversation and assorted clatterings – but the commitment of the group was high and things worked out OK.

Unqualified thanks to Medbh, for her steady hand on the tiller, steering us back into our work, pointing out curiousities, resemblances, weaknesses, strengths, resonances and considerations. Superfluous conjunctions and descriptors seemed to be a recurring issue. Also the voicing within the poems – clarity of perspective for the reader wasn’t being pointed up in several cases, including my own - with the attendant danger of confusion, rather than the intended opening of interpretative possibilities.

Thanks to the other participants too, for a stimulating mix of high quality drafts. Inishcrone, Carrantuohill, Kabul, an extinct chapel on D’Olier Street and the dusky tomb of a Mughal emperor were among the places we visited. Along the way we met Corncrakes, snow women, victims of the Taliban, a disillusioned fairytale heroine and a hot nun!

Nice to meet Andrew (currently writing his PhD on Thomas Kinsella), Kate (from round these environs), Chris (hope to see you at Poetry Now) and all the others, including one very quiet, very young woman who said little but blew us away with her elegant and sophisticated love poem, in which ‘white pillars of light’ spotlit silent lovers under ‘bloodied beaks’ of timeless parakeets and a New Delhi dusk.

That reverie was soon dismissed, however, as we spilled onto cool, freshly rain-slicked streets to join the lunchtime crowds returning to work. Having exercised excellent fiscal restraint at the tempting tables of the festival bookshop, I fell at the final hurdle; Books Upstairs on College Green. Their SALE sign tempted me in, some extremely good discounts serving to lighten my whimpering wallet.

Today I’m feeling a bit guilty. Firstly, for criticising the organisers of that rare treat - a free workshop - and then for not even making my impulse buys at their venue! I’ll make a deal - a quiet room for next year’s workshop, please. Then, even if I’m not a participant, I promise to spend my allowance at City Hall.

The festival continues today and tomorrow. Poet and namesake Helena Nolan is reading later today, which I’ll be sorry to miss – but Daddytaxi services are required elsewhere. Full festival listings here.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Clubbing Time : Life beyond Books

If you're in town for the Dublin Book Festival, you might like to make a little detour towards Fitzwilliam Street over the weekend. An exhibition of work from the Thursday night life drawing group is being launched by Irish author Fiona O'Brien at the United Arts Club tonight. This exhibition will run until 29th March, with viewing daily from 5.30pm - this quirkily shabby building only wakes up around then; septuagenarian baggotonians rubbing shoulders with the great, the good, upstart artists, poets, models, rakes, knaves, all sorts really. If you've attended any of Irish Pen's regular events there, you'll know the venue. Founded in 1907, by Countess Constance Markievicz among others, the club celebrated its centenary in 2007 (obviously enough).

Among the artists exhibiting in the show are Brian Gallagher, PJ Lynch, Oisin Roche and Comhghall Casey, winner of the Hennessy Craig Award 2008. The image above is one of two drawings I'm showing in the exhibition.

On a related note, I've an interview with PJ Lynch (in my illustration alter-ego, Scalder) about his most recent book over on the Illustrators Guild of Ireland blog, Scamp.

I'm looking forward to tonight's launch - but will be taking it easy on the hooch, as I've been lucky enough to score one of the places in Mebdh McGuckian's poetry workshop at the Book Festival. So, I need to be bright-eyed and bushytailed for Friday morning! I'm looking forward to this, coming after disappointment at missing the cut for this year's Poetry Ireland Introductions series. Again. Doesn't look like my submission to South was successful either. Ah well, onwards, upwards, wordwards.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

An inner émigré : Stepping Stones review

My review of Stepping Stones : Interviews with Seamus Heaney is now online over at Todd Swift's wonderful blog, Eyewear. It's a smashing book for dipping into, full of personal insight and recollection, coaxed into daylight by O'Driscoll.

Just got myself a ticket for the special 70th birthday tribute for Heaney, planned for this year's Poetry Now festival - yay! My understanding is that the festival poets will read a favoured Heaney poem, or perhaps something else that they deem appropriate. I'm sure its a fairly open brief - should make for an interesting event. The tribute is scheduled for Saturday 28th March, though the poet's birthday is a little later, in April.

Interesting, or at least coincidental, to note that he was born in the same year WB Yeats. Yeats died on 28th January 1939 - Heaney was born a few months later on 13th April. No occultist conspiracy theories please!

I'd guess Heaney is in for a fair few celebrations this year to mark the beginning of his seventh decade. I believe RTE has even pushed the boat out and - gasp - commissioned a symphony!