Tuesday, March 31, 2009

DLR Poetry Now : A Beautiful Broadside













One of the festival highlights was Saturday afternoon's 70th Birthday Tribute to Seamus Heaney. Having been something of a guiding spirit for 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;


POETPOEM
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
Nesting-Ground
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 express himself - in a rare mis-speaking - to be 'indebted for the beautiful broadside'. How appropriate that, even in a barely registered slip of the tongue, the Ollamh summed up a remarkable and memorable occasion. 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.