One evening last June, I found myself in a café in Brooklyn, sketching the names of poets on the back of a napkin. I still have the napkin. The handwriting is so excitable I can hardly make it out, but there are some names on there which have since become a a part of my daily correspondence: C.D. Wright, Kei Miller, Meghan O’Rourke, Alan Gillis, Jamie McKendrick. That evening, I’d been offered the curatorship of DLR Poetry Now, Ireland’s biggest and best-loved festival of poetry, and of course I’d accepted. And of course I had, immediately, to get down to work. Because there were some very roomy pairs of shoes to fill.
DLR Poetry Now was a festival I’d long loved to attend and, later, to write about (for the Irish Times). Generously sponsored by Dun Laoghaire/ Rathdown County Council, it was a festival of global names and neighbourhood faces, with the reach of an academy but the atmosphere of a local. It was a festival always marked by stunning debuts—of young Irish poets to whom it gave well-timed first festival appearances, but also of international voices whom it brought, for the first time, to Irish audiences. Nobody had thought to bring W.S. Merwin to Ireland until Poetry Now invited him. Ditto Jorie Graham, August Kleinzahler, Michael Hofmann. Ditto Valerio Magrelli. Previous festivals had boasted Hans Enzensberger, Adam Zagajewski, Bei Dao, and C.K. Williams. My predecessors—first Patrick Galvin, then Conor O’Callaghan, and from 2003 to 2007, John McAuliffe—had known precisely which emerging and mid-career poets to bring to the festival, and who best to pair them with. Their programming of Irish poets had been inspired—Heaney with Jorie Graham, Muldoon with Enzenzberger, Longley with Sharon Olds. And in the festival just past, John McAuliffe had managed to swing a real rarity, a reading by Derek Mahon (with the former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass).
And aside from their superb programming, my predecessors had also done a great deal to develop Irish audiences for poetry, establishing (with the Irish Times and the Strong family) two major awards for poetry, and choreographing a whole range of masterclasses, schools and outreach events. No pressure, then.
I knew, already in that café in Brooklyn, certain things about what I wanted for the 2008 festival. I knew I wanted it to be a festival about poetry as much as a festival of poetry, a meeting of minds sharp with passion for craft and for form, a weekend about writing and about reading, and about poets and poems which came to those acts in adventurous, intelligent, original ways. And poets who wrote, of course, startling, haunting, beautiful poems. As the year progressed, and as the programme took shape, I tried to place right at the heart of it the stroke of the pen, the stretch of the line, the whirr of the poet’s mind. Indeed, of the mind of the poem.
And of the poem’s mind, even. This year’s keynote speaker, Ruth Padel, has delved in her essays and books (most recently in The Poem and the Journey), and also in her own poetry, into the tensions and the dynamics at play in the stuff and the structure of the poem; into the energies which drive both the writing and the reading of a poem. Particularly when it came to inviting younger poets to this year’s Poetry Now, I wanted to channel such energies, to clear a path for the chemistry that might come of putting such energies together.
Meghan O’Rourke, the young New York poet who is an editor at The Paris Review and at Slate.com, had published one of the year’s most striking collections, a series of x-ray pulses through urban consciousness, through the complications of memory, of language, and of knowledge. She appealed immediately, as did Kei Miller, the young Jamaican poet whose reading at the Carcanet birthday celebration had made the audience sit bolt upright, stirred by the now-booming, now-singing vivacity of his island narratives. Thankfully, they both accepted immediately, and in my mind’s eye I had already matched them with their readers; O’Rourke with another, very different, young poet of urban energy, Belfast-born Alan Gillis, and Miller with Sinéad Morrissey, whose poems meditate, too, on the challenges of speech and of symbol, on the intricacies of language, both native and strange.
In time of war, even the most familiar of words become strange, hostile, intractable, and the Iraq veteran Brian Turner is the most modern of war poets; the poems in his debut collection Here, Bullet skate the perilous territory of the senseless, the surreal, and he has been described by American critics as the first war poet since Yusef Komunyaaka—who, speaking of veterans, is another veteran of Poetry Now. This is not Turner’s first reading in Ireland, but with every passing month of the war in Iraq, his poems seem to grow in their intensity and their importance, and his billing with Morrissey and Miller will, I hope, make for a Sunday evening to remember, about all that must be remembered.
But I’m getting ahead of myself—right from the keynote to the closer in a matter of lines. In between, there will come several more brilliant and diverse poetic voices: the frank, unshirking voice of Bernard O’Donoghue, the probing, measuring voice of Jamie McKendrick, the tender, knowing voice of the Italian poet Antonella Anedda. And the mischevious yet marvellously nuanced voice of Daljit Nagra, whose poems, laced with Punjabi slang, unlace the limits of language, shake off received notions of syntax, of the very act of saying. Another poet determined to push the boundaries of those styles and those structures handed down has been C.D. Wright, a poet esteemed in the US but little-known in Ireland, who will take the stage with Seamus Heaney on the festival’s first night of readings; determined, too, is Wright’s countryman Henri Cole, whose poems wrestle with the unadorned realities of the self, and who will read with the Iranian-born poet Mimi Khalvati and the Hungarian-born George Szirtes.
Certainly, there’s a big US presence in this year’s programme, and another event over the weekend will mark the centenary of the American giant Theodore Roethke. But, then, this is a year when all eyes will be on America, where the way words fall, or the way words fail, where the way utterance is crafted, the way lines are spun, may make a real difference to what happens in the world. And, as ever, the festival will draw in voices from around the world: among the participating poets, Punjabi and Jamaican accents will mix with childhood memories of Iran and too-fresh memories of Iraq, with Italian, Hungarian, Japanese and South African influences thrown into the mix. An event on the last day of the festival, meanwhile, will sound still more international voices, with the weekend’s poets coming together to read the work of poets who face oppression and censorship in their own countries, who do not write with a free hand.
Early in the design process for the festival brochure, I envisaged pages shadowed by the images of poets’ own words in their own handwriting. As that idea becomes a reality, pages torn from poets’ notebooks and manuscripts are dropping through the postbox every day. It’s a pleasure to see and to trace them, those idiosyncratic loops and swirls. Each page gives off the buzz of creation, of consideration, of capture. The buzz of the poem, and of how it comes to be.