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.

Dave Lordan, the first person to win all three of Ireland’s national prizes for young poets, moved to the very edge of the stage to recite “On the Death of Heroin by Sid Vicious” by Paul Durcan from memory, his eyes squeezed shut and with a bracing punkness. Rosie Schaap, the Drink columnist for the New York Times, read “Hippcrene” by Ciaran Carson, a poem that uses the ingredients of a Bloody Mary as subject and metaphor.

Vona Groarke, current poetry editor at the Ireland Review, read the lonely and wistful, “In Her Other Ireland” by Eilean Ni Chuillenain. Her reading was followed by, arguably, the evening’s high point, as Lisa Dwan, whose recent performance in three one-woman plays by Samuel Beckett at BAM was heralded as “astonishing” by Times theater critic Ben Brantley, read Beckett’s incantatory love poem “Cascando.”

“All I can say is dang,” said Kevin Young, winner of the 2003 Paterson Poetry Prize, and a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, who was tasked with reading after Dwan, a tough act to follow. He chose “Casualty,” a political poem by Seamus Heaney. Then Rita Ann Higgins, author of nine collections of poetry and winner of the Peadar O’Donnell award, read, quietly and devastatingly, Eva Bourke’s “Fashions.”

“It’s nice to be among real writers,” announced novelist Joseph O’Neill, who went on to read a powerful anti-violence poem by Heaney called “Two Lorries.” Robert Pinsky, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, explained that he’d planned to read “The Late Parade,” but Fitzgerald had already done that earlier in the evening, so he recited Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” from memory, another highpoint of the evening.

Gerald Stern, the author of twenty collections of poetry and a former Poet Laureate of New Jersey, now walks with a cane and is funny and brilliant as ever; he read “Ecce Puer” by James Joyce. Finally, Peter Fallon, an O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award winner, translator, editor and founder of the Gallery Press, concluded the evening with “Atlantic” by Derke Mahon.

The event was a fascinating way for the audience to connect with the poets. It was also a great way for the poets to connect with the audiences and with each other. “The rest of the PoetryFest really flows from there,” writes Belinda McKeon, the festival’s co-curator. “By the time poets’ individual readings come around, the audiences (and we have many attendees who stay with us for the whole weekend) feel as though they already have a rich familiarity with that poet’s voice and with what matters to, and preoccupies, that poet. It’s like we all get to know each other really well on the first night, and the rest of the festival, as a result, has a really personal feel.”

photos (l-r): Adam Fitzgerald, Tara Bergin, Kevin Young, Belinda McKeon, Dave Lordan

26 November 2014 | events |