PoetryFest at the Irish Arts Center

PoetryFest: Irish Arts Center
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New York’s Irish Arts Center hosts a wide variety of literary events, with writers like Eimear McBride, Mary Gordon, Paul Muldoon, Kevin Barry, Mary Higgins Clark, Pete Hamill, and Meghan O’Rourke (among many others); they’ve also been known to give away thousands of books by Irish and Irish-American writers across the city to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The IAC recently celebrated its sixth annual PoetryFest, and Louise Crawford, the curator of the Brooklyn Reading Works series at The Old Stone House in Park Slope, was on hand for the opening night festivities. She sent this report, along with several photos by Amanda Gentile.

Perhaps the best way to get to know a poet, aside from reading their poetry, is to hear them recite their favorite poem. That is precisely what happened on the opening night of PoetryFest, Irish Arts Center’s 6th annual 3-day celebration of poetry from both sides of the Atlantic, on a recent Friday night in November in Manhattan. The evening was a veritable lesson in classic and contemporary Irish poetry.

Tara Bergin, this year’s winner of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize, opened the reading with “Donal Og” (Young Donald), an Irish ballad possibly from the 8th century and translated by Lady Augusta Gregory. Miriam Gamble, the winner of the Eric Gregory award and a 2011 Somerset Maugham Award, read “Dancers at the Moy” by Paul Muldoon, expressing amazement that the poet was only 23 when he wrote this brilliant and sophisticated poem.

Adam Fitzgerald, author of the debut collection The Late Parade, explained that the copy of The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats he held in his hand was the first book of poetry he’d ever read cover to cover. “Attempting to read ‘Adam’s Curse’ by Yeats is like doing a cover of a Beatles songs at a rock concert,” he told the crowd. Comedian Maeve Higgins lit the stage with her radiant smile and sly wit. She apologized for selecting an example of Gaelic spirituality by best selling author John O’Donohue but proceeded to read “Beannacht / Blessing” with great power.

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26 November 2014 | events |

Eliza Robertson: A Voice Beyond Words

Eliza Robertson
photo: via Bloomsbury

As I’m reading through Eliza Robertson’s debut collection, Wallflowers, the stories that stand out in my memory are often those where the characters find themselves grappling with profound emotional losses, like the young narrator of “Ship’s Log,” whose attempts to dig a hole to China from his grandparents’ yard in Ontario barely overly his grief and fear at his grandfather’s death, or the narrator of “My Sister Sang,” listening to the black boxes from crashed airplanes, or Natalie, the protagonist of “Where have you fallen, have you fallen?” whose story is told in reverse chronological order.

These stories, and others in the collection, show Robertson’s formal playfulness to strong effect. In this essay, she discusses how Jonathan Safran Foer pushes language even further—beyond the written word, even—to arrive at the right way of hitting his story’s emotional register.

My PhD subject is prose rhythm. I’ll spare readers the gory details, but rhythm has led me to think about voice—how we use that word so often we have forgotten it’s a metaphor. “Voice of a generation.” “New voice.” “A voice piece.” (Which often translates to: the characters talk funny.) From here, if you will follow me down the wormhole, I started to think about how the term “voice” is premised on utterance. Don’t get me wrong: I talk about voice in fiction too. I will continue to talk about voice. But I wanted another word that included silence, whitespace and punctuation. Enter rhythm. Enter also “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The title summarizes the story very well. It is a primer for the silences and emphases (read: punctuation) organic to the narrator’s family communication on love, the holocaust, and yes, heart disease. The sentiment emoted by these symbols is so much more urgent—even vital—than what could be relayed by words. That is: the symbols undercut, footnote and italicize what is spoken.

For example, in the following passage, the silence mark, □, represents an absence of language, and ■, the “willed silence mark,” represents an intentional silence— often employed in response to questions you don’t want to answer. As seen here:

The “insistent question mark” denotes one family member’s refusal to yield to a willed silence, as in this conversation with my mother.
“Are you dating at all?”
“□”
“But you’re seeing people, I’m sure. Right?”
“□”
“I don’t get it. Are you ashamed of the girl? Are you ashamed of me?”
“■”
“??”

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12 October 2014 | selling shorts |

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