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IAC PoetryFest 2013:
An Overview

Gabriel Byrne at the Irish Arts Center's PoetryFest event in tribute to Seamus Heaney at St. Anns Warehouse. Photo by NIall McKay.
Gabriel Byrne at the Irish Arts Center's PoetryFest event in tribute to Seamus Heaney at St. Anns Warehouse. Photo by NIall McKay.

By Adam Farley, Editorial Assistant
December 4, 2013

Several months ago at the book launch for Volume III of the Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry, I was engaged in conversation with some other students and a few of the poets included in the collection when the subject of collective nouns came up. What, someone asked, should we call a group of poets? After much deliberation we still couldn’t think of a satisfactory noun and, as parties go, the group disbanded, was reorganized, and the matter dissipated into the crowd.

Hours later, after the students and the poets rejoined their respective cohorts and had gone separately into the public night, chance brought us back together on a sidewalk. It was clear to me then, as our half dozen walked towards their half dozen and recognition dawned that they were “the poets,” there was only one word that captured the alliterative force and purposeful over-dramatization of the best collective nouns: pillage.

So it was November 15th – 17th at the Irish Arts Center in Hells Kitchen, where a pillage of poets converged for the fifth annual PoetryFest, curated by husband and wife team Belinda McKeon and Aengus Woods. Maybe it had to do with the  full moon, but the readers seemed to possess the audience and fill the whole space of the IAC’s Michael Donaghy Theater. And the audience, so possessed, laughed, gasped, gave un-spell-able utterances of agreement. They were also dead silent at all the right moments. Once specifically, towards the end of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s reading, the air conditioner turned off. Suddenly, the only sound in the room was her voice—not even the sound of someone uncrossing and re-crossing their legs—until the poem was done. Now I won’t go so far at to say that something supernatural or unearthly occurred in that moment, but in that instant, sitting there in seat F2, I recognized that something extraordinary had been going on all weekend.

Of course, this level of audience engagement and attention was true for all the poets reading: Colette Bryce, Conor O’Callaghan, Bernard O’Donoghue, Mark Doty, Marie Howe, Meghan O’Rourke, Charles Simic, Matthew Sweeney, and Craig Morgan Teicher. So it’s not unsurprising that Matthew Sweeney, at his reading on Sunday, began by telling us all that this was the best time he’d had at a festival in longer than he could remember.

Officially, the festival began Friday night, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn with a variation on “Favorite Poems,” the traditional kick-off of poets reading their favorite poems. This year, in tribute to Seamus Heaney, 18 poets and artists read their favorite Heaney pieces to an audience that had a waitlist for the waitlist in the cavernous DUMBO landmark. In addition to the poets reading at IAC on Saturday and Sunday, actor Gabriel Byrne, playwright Enda Walsh, writers Alice McDermott and Colum McCann and Kevin Holohan, and poets Henri Cole, Paul Muldoon, Nick Laird, and Elise Paschen all participated in the tribute. It was a decidedly un-dour occasion.

Even though I never met Seamus Heaney, it is easy to imagine that I did, because in the last few months since his death at 74, countless minute aspects of his personality have become ubiquitous knowledge. It is so easy to build up a myth around a public figure like Heaney. And even more so after his death. But the stories about Seamus Heaney that are being told seem to resist such a construction project. Put another way, it is the personal anecdote (one might even say gossip) that is flourishing, allowing individuals’ stories to become common possessions. So that we, as an audience, feel almost as if we were Gabriel Byrne, sitting with Seamus Heaney and Bill Clinton, trying to distract a garrulous Clinton long enough for Heaney to get a bite of his spaghetti. (In fact, there were several Bill Clinton stories that evening we might have been a part of.) Or that we were the one who walked into Heaney’s living room to see him facing the fire with a drink in hand, and his grandchildren swinging on him and tugging at his trousers. Or that instead of Paul Muldoon, it was us who were cut off by Heaney in a cab on W. 23rd St. That, somehow, we have a specific memory of him sitting in a chair tapping his fingers and realizing he was counting out the feet for a new poem. That he texted us “noli temere.”

There is, I’d argue, a natural human desire to want to know what is behind a curtain. But the curtain can also be a distraction in addition to a barrier that prevents an imaginative public from exercising their imagination of what is beyond it. This happens not only with death, the divide between this existence and the next, but between the layman and the artist, which was itself a theme of so many of Heaney’s poems. So the danger of these bits of anecdotes not emerging is to heighten these divides and thicken that curtain. Alternatively, the benefit of these anecdotal offerings is to keep the imagination fresh and empower the curtain to stay unmade, as it always seemed to be when it came to Seamus Heaney.

Still, as Derry-born poet Colette Bryce pointed out on Friday night before her reading of “The Bog Queen,” it’s inevitable that we will read his poems differently now that his work is finite. And she asked the as-yet unanswerable question: “How will we?”

Paul Muldoon closed the evening with “Keeping Going,” Heaney’s brilliant tribute for his brother Hugh. But before he did, he looked around the audience and up at the rafters, and told us that he felt Seamus had been invoked as a presence that night; it wouldn’t be the last time that sentiment was expressed with absolute seriousness. And despite my liberal, secular, reasonably scientific childhood, I wouldn’t disagree.

The most frequently read poem from the evening was “Clearances,” Heaney’s eight-sonnet elegy for his mother (Enda Walsh read the third, Conor O’Callaghan read the fourth, and Marie Howe read the seventh). I’m sure I am not alone in admitting that the first poem I turned to after hearing of his death was “Clearances,” and fittingly, lines from the seventh sonnet have been oft quoted in the months since that Friday morning:

               The space we stood around had been emptied

               Into us to keep, it penetrated

               Clearances that suddenly stood open.

The readings at St. Ann’s seemed to be a version of this. As the clearance on my bookshelf between Hass and Hecht was slowly filled in again, so too did the gossip, the readings, the personal stories fill a knowledge void about Seamus Heaney as a man. And happily so, because it turns out he actually appears as more kind, more loving, and more excitable than all of us who didn’t know him maybe thought.

So Friday really was the best possible beginning to the poetry readings of the next two days because it, through such a sharing, seemed to put the audience on a similar level of familiarity as the poets on stage. This atmosphere of access and congeniality persisted over the weekend and influenced, I think, the quality of the introductions to each duo of readings.

The introductions, it must be said, were well beyond the standard “name, books, awards”—that information was readily available in the program—but moved into the distinct genre of criticism. So the tone the festival took from the first words out of the first introducer’s mouth was that of commentary and cultural engagement. The audience,then, was expected to participate, and throughout the readings, one could look over the nodding heads and understand in real time the tactile and affective impact of the poets on stage.

There were certain themes that developed over the course of the readings too that compelled conversations in the in-between hours spent in the lobby mingling. The role of comedy in poetry, engagement with history, New York City (of course, since half the poets were locals), and folk stories and parables. The latter was actually the first to be brought up, in the form of Craig Morgan Teicher’s book of fables, Cradle Book, which he read from before turning to what he calls “sad poems,” and rounded out, in a surprise bookend, with Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s “The Mermaid in the Hospital.”

 

In between, the urban layers of history were explored from WWII Belgrade (Charles Simic) to a salt-stained and passing New York City (also Charles Simic, and Mark Doty, and Marie Howe) to Vienna and Berlin (Matthew Sweeney), and the pastoral past was offered as a counterpoint in the readings of Meghan O’Rourke, Colette Bryce, and Bernard O’Donoghue, whose Farmer’s Cross sold out before I could get my money out. Slightly outside of this rural/urban binary, was Conor O’Callaghan, whose poems from The Sun King draw on his time at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina’s so-called “Research Triangle,” where “Connecticut Yankees” may be able to trick themselves into thinking they actually are within commuting distance of Grand Central.

Colette Bryce, Marie Howe, and Meghan O’Rourke also all read from new, yet-unpublished work, always an intimate proposal from readers who have multiple slim volumes out. But it shows a trust in the audience as much as an active poet working through their unfinished poems. And, I have no trouble saying this: all three of their new works promise big.

A decided highlight of the festival was Sunday’s mid-afternoon conversation between co-readers Charles Simic and Matthew Sweeney, who began by reminiscing about the last time they got together and talked about poetry over a few fine bottles of Italian reds and well-prepared gastronomic delights. It was obvious the two poets go together like a malbec and ribs, as they moved from a mutual appreciation of Chinese opera and personal histories (Simic, who was born and raised in Belgrade, almost died in 1941 when a bomb was dropped on a building across the street from his childhood home) to ignored commands of former poetry instructors (Sweeney was once told not to use so much color because poetry’s not painting) and especially took to task the idea that poetry should be austere and serious without room for humor. It is, I must say, difficult to see how anyone in 2013 can still hold such an archaic view of “traditional” poetry, and the more interesting question to me is the one Sweeney asked Simic: How can levity be employed in poetry to buffet its severity? Simic pointed the audience towards James Tate, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara, but warned of the latter that he “is maybe too light.”

At the end of the audience’s questions, the two poets were asked for their “desert island” book of poetry—the single volume they would take with them if they were to be stranded for solitary eternity on an isolated island. Matthew Sweeney, who studied German in college and has spent extensive time in the Germanic parts of Europe, said an Austrian poet who I think I’d not be alone in failing to recall. Charles Simic said Emily Dickinson.

If there is one theme or granule of enlightenment to be ground and made edible from this festival, I think it can be found in these two answers most evidently—in the Serbian who picks an American poet; in the Irish man who wants an Austrian. Contemporary poetry is derived from international influence and aspires to more than a singular nationalist endeavor. This is a broad statement, I am aware, but the compression of forces in this small mid-block building the weekend of IAC’s PoetryFest seemed to me to be constantly outward looking. The discussions between sessions, as far as I eavesdropped,  were not directed inwardly at specific poems, but rather of the poems and poets relations to other poems and poets (in fact, at least half of these poets have had their work translated into other languages). And it was this broader contextualization which gave the weekend so much force as a festival. Rather than appearing on the stage as American or Irish poets, the writers appeared to me, and I’d think to many of the attendees, as merely contemporary poets. And exceedingly approachable ones at that. As they in their work and references appear to be moving towards a loosening of national barriers, the festival as a whole attenuated the circumstances by which we as readers may feel separate from the author.

So, it’s not so much that a scourge of writers overtook Hell’s Kitchen and compelled us to engage with them, but that for slightly more than 48 hours last weekend, we ineffectual non-poets were adopted into the pillage itself.

***

The Fifth Annual Irish Art Center PoetryFest was presented in association with Poetry Society of America, Poetry Ireland, and NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House.

The Irish Arts Center is located at 553 West 51st Street, New York, NY. For more information on their past or future events and other offerings, visit www.irishartscenter.org.

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