MA Week Four - poetry reading and workshop

I bet you're getting sick of me this week, right?  A post a day!  Well, rest assured it's not likely to happen again - it's all on account of letting crap accumulate until I had to blurt it all out in one messy, info-dump of a week.

So - on Monday evening, after our fiction workshop session, we had tickets to the first of the University's Literature Live events of the 2009/10 season - a poetry reading by Tom French and Michael Longley.  I have to hold up my hand at this point and confess that, though I'd happily read from dawn to dusk with ne'er a break for meals or washing, and though my flat is one big chaotic pile of books (with some help from him indoors who's got a set of teetering piles of his own, all art theory and philosophy, over in the intellectual end of the living room), my poetry knowledge is abominable.  I mean, seriously pathetic.  I've got a BA in English, three million tonnes of reading material, and barely a stanza in sight.  So of course I'd never heard of these guys, and I was a bit wary of sitting (in the front row, and that'll teach me for being tardy) for two hours in front of two people reading material I knew nothing about, surrounded by ardent fans.  (Plus I always worry I'll fall asleep at readings, plays, talks, lectures - anything public.  Church services is a big one, it's just not the done thing to start snoring  at a funeral.)  I'd normally resort to the internet to do some quite fact-checking, but the time ran away with me and it never happened; I walked in cold, a total impostor.

But of course, it was riveting.  It turns out Michael Longely is ridiculously famous; he's won everything, is mates with Seamus Heaney (I have heard of him - I once went to a classics lecture he gave, when I was an undergraduate, didn't understand a word, but felt very smart all the same) - and French is very well-known and respected. He's just got a new collection out.  They each read for about half an hour, chatted a little between poems, gave us the backstories and the contexts.  I didn't nod off at all.  At the end there were a few questions from the audience, and one stood out (there's always one, and never for a good reason).  A lady wanted to know (serious question as far as I could tell) whether they thought they had an unfair advantage, as poets, what with their lovely Irish accents.  (Longley's from Belfast, French from Meath, I think - very dissimilar accents!)  They both looked a little nonplussed; Longley talked about voices and words, and French shrugged and said that if he did have an unfair advantage, he was happy to have it, and wouldn't we all?  Damn straight.  Maybe I should turn to poetry; make use of the accidents of birth and pronunciation.

The following morning, Tuesday morning, I didn't have a scheduled class, but Longley was gong to be doing a poetry workshop with the poetry strand of my M.A., and our course coordinator had said that if any of the rest of us would like to attend, we were more than welcome.  I wasn't going to turn down the offer of free learning,, so I joined them.  I keep ending up at seminars where I'm not officially on the list, and then when they do a run-around introduction thing, I have to preface with, 'well, I really shouldn't be here, but...' Longley did ask everybody who their favourite poets were, and I floundered, going in the end with Allen Ginsberg, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, and thankfully he didn't ask me to elaborate. Win!

The first half of the session was Tom French reading Michael Longely's work with us, talking about Longley's move towards single sentence and then single line poems, the integrity of the stanza, the power of a couplet, his fondness for elegies, and found poems.  He passed out a handout so at least I had a vague idea what we were talking about. (Ha! I say 'we' - I didn't say a word.)  Somebody (a poetry PhD student) asked about the anxiety of influence that must affect Irish writers - the weight of history, the particular responsibility that nationality much bring.  Now, that got my goat, to use a rather unpoetical phrase.  I'm very edgy about essentialism, the bracketing of people according to birthplace, skin-colour, language - the idea that this ought to be your main concern as a writer.  I'm not going into a rant about it here, but surely, if you want to talk about the weight of history, there isn't a single writer or artist from any place on Earth who can say that they're free of that? And surely we're all free to ignore it or concentrate on it, or write about whatever the hell we chose? Even us Irish writers?  Tom French was very polite; I might have been a little more scathing.

After a break, we switched rooms and Longley himself took over; he chatted for an hour or so about his work, his grandchildren, his influences, his own thoughts on the issues that had been raised earlier.  He talked about compression and precision, saying that the importance of a poem doesn't depend upon its length.  He dislikes garrulity or long-windedness in poetry, and said the line ought to be an 'intricate machine', referring especially to Whitman as an example of that admirable intricacy, long though he may be.  He did a really good impression of Wallace Stevens doing a reading that had us all in stitches, like the nerds that we are.  And he finished by talking about the 'railroad excitement' of breaking the rules, of establishing an expectation and then thwarting it - but warned that you really need to know the rules first.  He insisted that every poet needs to spend special time on syntax and grammar, on the mechanics of sentences.  Every fiction writer too, I think.

There was another reading this week - M.J. Hyland and Nick Laird on Thursday, preceded by a fiction workshop from Nick Laird, but I couldn't attend either as I had to work.  Well, you can't win 'em all.  

My workshop's Monday. This is a scheduled post; I may have died from worry by now, so keep an eye on the news.


JayTee said...

Great post! I love poetry readings because of the backstory and the talking between poems. I also 100% agree with you on the essentialism thing. Well said. You seem to be taking full advantage of your program!

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Thanks JayTee! I'm bloody tired though! :-)

kim mcgowan said...

Man! You know a lot of shit already... Did you do English as a first degree too?
(verification word today is reentre, I'm sure there's something sinister and knowing about those things).

Valerie O'Riordan said...

I did - English lit with a minor in philosophy. It helps! Though all the 'just graduated yesterday' guys in my class have the edge on me in the memory stakes; I'm used to the work mentality of 'forget it all once you walk out the door'. Copious note-taking is my technique...

Word verification is the internet making garbled jokes about us.