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I have a lot of HoCoPoLitSo memories. They start from way back when I was in high school and I had no idea the organization existed or what it did. All I remember was that I was on a field trip that left me wanting to be Derek Walcott once I grew up. Though a favorite HoCoPoLitSo memory, that is another story. Today I want to share a few moments of writers coming to see writers and what an honor it is to be in the midst of such occasion.
Many stories start with Irish Evening for HoCoPoLitSo. It is a landmark event. I think my awareness of other writers coming to HoCoPoLitSo events to see our headliner started one such evening. Maybe it was the Guinness, but more probably it was Colm Tóibín that brought Colum McCann down to our neck of the woods from his Manhattan apartment for the 21st annual Irish Evening. At that point in the now world famous career of Tóibín, it was a rare thing to him to this side of the Atlantic. McCann took advantage and a train to visit Columbia a year after he himself had read for Irish Evening.
I remember little of the reading that night. I seldom remember Irish Evenings and that is not for the drinking that often followed. They are labor intensive occasions to produce and I tend to be tending to that aspect. Tóibín’s voice is still in my head and bits of The Heather Blazing from that reading; I did catch some of it. What I do remember is that there were a handful of folks, me lucky enough to be among them, that headed off into the night with a number of bottles to listen to Colm and Colum talk about writing once the event was done and packed away. What an honor.
Quite recently, Colum McCann, now many books into his fame, came to another Irish Evening to read from Transatlantic, just about to be published. It was his first reading of the work to an audience and a fascinating occasion as he caught a sentence he hadn’t right and promised us he would go back to the galleys to correct it. An honest moment in the creative process.
I spotted a number of Howard County writers in attendance that evening. They were joined by none other than Alice McDermott and, I am told, George Pelicanos. The two had come from Baltimore and Washington, respectively, to take in one of the masters of prose in suburban Columbia. If we are dropping names here, I’ll add that the Governor came from Annapolis and even joined in to play with the band. After the evening at the green room party, McCann himself joined in the singing of songs.
Perhaps my favorite coming together of writers to see a particularly treasured writer was for the poet Stanley Kunitz in 1993. We all knew Mr. Kunitz was old old, 88, and that this would be the last opportunity we would have to see him. In a space that no longer exists as a venue for readings – the lower Nursing Lounge on the campus of Howard Community College – Kunitz read to a standing room only crowd that adored each and every syllable. The audience well knew his work and you could tell that he could tell: he put on a commanding performance.
I remember crowded in that room with us were Carolyn Forché and Gregory Orr who had come up from the University of Virginia for the occasion. Afterwards at a reception, all whispered to each other in awe and confirmed how lucky we were to have shared this intimate occasion with the great Stanley Kunitz. I went on to hear him read a number of times since that occasion: our collective luck grew as he lived to be 100.
Why do writers come to see other writers? For the occasion of Kunitz, it was likely reverence and the notion of ‘this might be the last time’ and one not to miss. On other occasions, it is probably more outright a taking in of craft, an opportunity to learn and admire. I know I go see other writers to learn and affirm what common language can do in the hands of masters. Thank you for that, HoCoPoLitSo.
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board
Have a favorite HoCoPoLitSo memory? HoCoPoLitSo is currently celebrating its 4oth season and would love to hear from you. Visit the Share Your Memory page and share a favorite story or two with us. As we collect favorite memories, we’ll share them in a future blog posts.
HoCoPoLitSo’s 35th Irish Evening started the night before, on Feb. 28, when National Book Award-winning novelist Colum McCann drove down from New York to hang out late with Gov. Martin O’Malley and the musical Winch brothers.
It just got better from there — prose that edged us to the rims of our seats, Irish sing-a-longs with O’Malley as song-leader, midnight evocations of Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins, a lot of Guinness, and perhaps a trace of miracle.
When McCann and Terence Winch sat down around 3:30 in the afternoon – after a little nip to get them in the mood – to record an edition of the writer-to-writer talk show, The Writing Life, McCann rubbed his hands together and said, “Let’s have some fun here today.”
Winch and McCann spoke for half an hour about McCann’s books, especially Let the Great World Spin, a 2005 National Book Award-winning novel about New York City in the 1970s, with a prostitute, a monk, a mother who loses her son to Vietnam’s destruction and a man who walks on a wire between the Twin Towers. At Winch’s request, McCann read a section from that book that he had never read aloud before, a section about a group of mothers from across the city who have lost their sons in the war:
Writing, he said, is a form of adventure, for both the writer and the reader. Fiction is an exploration of the world from inside another’s skin, a constant discovery that keeps us alive, he explained.
“Without the stories,” McCann said, “we’re just dead meat.”
That evening, after Irish Ambassador Michael Collins called McCann’s writing “undeniably and indisputably Irish,” McCann took the stage and thanked the audience, and especially O’Malley, for coming.
“I have great hope for this country because we have somebody like Gov. O’Malley,” McCann said, citing his stance on gun control. “And he can sing too. I can’t. I do, but I can’t.”
McCann read stories from his books, ranging from Newfoundland to Ireland, to Park Avenue and the Bronx and back again. McCann read from Let the Great World Spin, about the prostitute Tillie and her tricks and the Park Avenue matron bidding farewell to her doomed son in his too-short Army trousers.
Then, for the first time in public, McCann read from his new novel, TransAtlantic, set to be published in June by Random House. A multi-layered novel with three main plots, TransAtlantic follows co-pilots on the first flight across the Atlantic, in an open-cockpit modified bomber, landing in Ireland in 1919, as well as travels along on the 1845 trip to Ireland that Frederick Douglass took as a slave, hoping to convince the Irish to fight slavery, and about the efforts of Sen. George Mitchell to forge a peace in Ireland in the 1990s.
What emerged from McCann’s reading was a yearning for the sort of grace and hope that I haven’t felt in an auditorium in years. McCann spoke about finding “the miracle of the actual” in the world, and writing it. During some readings, there are moments when an audience waits, their collective breath held, all focused on the words. The author speaks those words and a tiny miracle of harmony bubbles up.
“I try to write toward grace,” McCann said, and talked about the ideas of redemption and recovery in a world of pain.
McCann revealed that the high school seniors of Newtown, Connecticut, have read Let the Great World Spin this winter, as a way to cope with the grief of the mass shootings at their town’s elementary school last year. This spring, he’ll be speaking with them about his book, about “grace and recovery and beauty in the face of enormous tragedy. It’s one of the best moments of my writing life.”
After the reading, the Narrowbacks, with Jesse and Terence Winch, as well as Eileen Korn Estes, Linda Hickman and Brendan Mulvihill, played and talked, until Terence called O’Malley up on stage. Dominick Murray, who played at Irish Evening for decades, but has recently become the state’s Business and Economic Development secretary, joined in on his guitar.
O’Malley grabbed a guitar and sat down to explain that he tried to protest the Winch brothers’ entreaties.
“Terry, no one wants to listen to a guy in a tie,” O’Malley told him.
“So take off your tie,” Winch replied.
He did. Then O’Malley played and sang, and lead the crowd in a sing-along to the classic Irish tune, “Jug of Punch.”
The party kept going in the gallery next door (as painter Trudy Babchak’s flamboyant women stared us down from their frames) with past HoCoPoLitSo guest and novelist Alice McDermott, along with HoCoPoLitSo’s managing director, Pam Simonson, board members and guests, band members and Estes’ blissfully sleeping baby. McCann and O’Malley invoked Michael Collins’ brave sacrifice for peace as they sipped their beers around midnight.
“Jay-sus,” McCann could occasionally be heard to mutter, as Estes’ voice drifted over the crowd and the Jameson’s whiskey flowed. What a night.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary and consultant
It’s time for Irish Evening! We’re told that writers in Ireland know when HoCoPoLitSo calls, you go. And they come from wherever they are to share with Howard County their work. Our Irish Evening is that special. This Friday it’s happening again and you, yourself, will want to be there.
Let The Great World Spin author Colum McCann is returning as our guest for the 35th Annual Irish Evening at 7:30 pm, March 1, 2013 at the Smith Theater, Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College. It will be his third Irish Evening, though the second in which he has been featured. You see, one year he came to the evening just because he wanted to take in the occasion for himself and see Colm Toibin.
McCann, a winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the most lucrative literary award in the world, has published 5 novels and numerous short stories and articles. In 2003 McCann was named Esquire Magazine’s “Best and Brightest” young novelist. He has also been awarded a Pushcart Prize, the Rooney Prize, the Irish Novel of the Year Award and the 2002 Ireland Fund of Monaco Princess Grace Memorial Literary Award. He was recently inducted into the Hennessy Hall of Fame.
McCann’s reading will be followed by the Narrowbacks, Eileen Korn, Jesse Winch, Terence Winch, Linda Hickman, and Brendan Mulvihill on fiddle in a concert of traditional Irish music with stepdancers from the Culkin School.
If the writers themselves are so motivated, how about you? Tickets — there are still a number available at the time of this posting — can be purchased online here. Yes, there will be Guinness.
Curious but not convinced? Here are a few resources on Colum McCann to whet your appetite further:
- “What’s a Dublin lad trying to do writing a New York novel like this?” Theo Dorgan asks.
- Lifting a pint with Colum McCann:
- In conversation with Roddy Doyle. The conversation starts about nine and a half minutes in, after Doyle reads.
On a tight budget? You have no idea.
Here’s how Frank McCourt’s family’s budget – funded by the Irish dole — is tallied by his mother.
“Nineteen shillings for the six of us? That’s less than four dollars in American money and how are we supposed to live on that? What are we to do when we have to pay rent in a fortnight? If the rent for this room is five shillings a week we’ll have fourteen shillings for food and clothes and coal to boil the water for tea.”
That’s from McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his amazing memoir of a miserable Irish Catholic childhood, from which he read at HoCoPoLitSo’s 2009 Irish Evening of Music and Poetry.
Which is all to say that the Irish have a history of thrifty.
My great-grandmother, who grew up in the Irish and African-American section of Georgetown when it was more the country than the city, could put a meal on the kitchen table for her five children and hungry husband for an amazingly small amount of money. That meal, of course, required hours of her bent-back labor in a small patch of garden, sweating over Ball jars of stewed tomatoes in August and kneading bread until her forearms were as cut as Jillian Michaels’ (almost).
Those around here who want to hear a good Irish story don’t need to sweat or scrape to save a little bit. On Feb. 1, the price of an Irish Evening of Music and Poetry ticket goes from $30 to $35. A small rise, grant you, but a rise nonetheless that my great-grandmother would cluck over, and one that could feed all those little McCourts for a week.
Buy a ticket today and make Frank proud. Save five bucks and here’s what you receive on March 1: Colum McCann, that swashbuckling former reporter who spins yarns that win National Book Awards and lift readers high over Manhattan (Let the Great World Spin) and lower them deep into the tunnels under New York (This Side of Brightness). At the Irish Evening, McCann will read from his work, Narrowbacks will play their sprite Irish tunes, stepdancers from the Culkin School will fling their feet higher than their heads. Bartenders are cooking up a signature Irish drink to go with the Irish coffee and Guinness. Win raffle baskets of Irish books and music and food. Bid on signed Seamus Heaney broadsides and custom-made jewelery. Go on, have a scone.
For tickets, go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/287811 or call 443-518-4568.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Poet, publisher, and HoCoPoLitSo board member Truth Thomas takes a look at the year ahead for the organization and sees the promise of fertile ground.
Fertile ground is a wondrous thing. That is one of the first lessons I remember learning as a child growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, along with the fact that my late grandmother could cook anything and make it taste good. Indeed, in the right hands, even a small stretch of land can yield a multitude of edible miracles. In the context of literary activist organizations, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) represents a similar patch of fertile ground.
The first grand HoCoPoLitSo New Year harvest is the poetry of Derrick Weston Brown, our 2012-2013 writer-in-residence. Brown holds an MFA in creative writing from American University and is brilliance personified. He is a highly published poet, Cave Canem Fellow, Tony Medina workshop alumnus, and the author of an inspiring collection of coming-of-age poems entitled Wisdom Teeth. It gives me great joy to announce that he will be visiting every high school in Howard County to captivate our young people with the sunshine of his work.
In addition to the poetry of Derrick Weston Brown, the New Year brings the literary bounty of our 35th Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry. This year, the award-winning, internationally acclaimed author Colum McCann will be featured. McCann has published five novels, numerous short stories and a storehouse of articles. His book, Let the Great World Spin, won the National Book Award in 2009. I have always loved Irish Evening, because by virtue of it, I have been blessed to see the profound similarities between African Americans and Irish people. Both groups of folks have come through suffering with unbent backs of beauty. The event will be held at 7:30 p.m., March 1, 2013, at the Smith Theatre, Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College.
The literary crop of events that will spring forth from the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in 2013 is one of great volume, quality and diversity. On March 19, HoCoPoLitSo partners with the Howard County Library—the fairest of them all—to welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones into our midst.
On April 23, HoCoPoLitSo connects with HCC to host the Blackbird Poetry Festival. This year, the festival highlights the sterling poetry and photography of author Rachel Eliza Griffiths—a Cave Canem Fellow, as well as the poetry of author Kendra Kopelke, director of the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. There are many more events planned that I will refrain from mentioning, at this time, because a little suspense makes life worth living. Suffice it to say that one of those events has something to do with the Columbia Festival of the Arts in June, and that the writers invited will stir ovations in every heart. Yes, I think that is enough to say, for now.
Poet and board member
Speak Water, the latest collection of poems by Truth Thomas, is available online from Cherry Castle Publishing. A kindle e-version is available through Amazon.
The international award winning author Colum McCann is HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its 35th Annual Irish Evening at 7:30 pm, March 1, 2013 at the Smith Theater, Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College.
General Admission Tickets are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/287811 or by sending a check payable and mailed to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, DH 239, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets purchased before Feb. 1, 2013 are $30 each, $35 if purchased after Feb. 2.
So Many Stories to Be Told: An Evening with Colum McCann will highlight this major voice in today’s literary landscape’s with a discussion of his National Book Award winning novel Let the Great World Spin and his upcoming novel, Transatlantic, due out in late 2013.
McCann’s reading will be followed by Narrowbacks, Eileen Korn, Jesse Winch, Terence Winch, Linda Hickman, and Brendan Mulvihill on fiddle in a concert of traditional Irish music with stepdancers from the Culkin School.
McCann, a two-time winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the most lucrative literary award in the world, has published 5 novels and numerous short stories and articles. In 2003 McCann was named Esquire Magazine’s “Best and Brightest” young novelist. He has also been awarded a Pushcart Prize, the Rooney Prize, the Irish Novel of the Year Award and the 2002 Ireland Fund of Monaco Princess Grace Memorial Literary Award. He was recently inducted into the Hennessy Hall of Fame.
McCann follows other great Irish authors who have come to Howard County including Frank McCourt, Eavan Boland, Hugo Hamilton, Colm Tóibín, Paul Durcan and Paula Meehan to name a few. For years, HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening has recognized and celebrated the enormous impact of Irish-born writers on the world of contemporary literature.
In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s “The Writing Life,” poet and musician Terence Winch talks with Irish novelist Colum McCann (winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin) after his second novel debuted to great acclaim. McCann, who grew up middle class in Dublin, talks about his two-year bicycle trek around America, gathering stories as a journalist, that helped turn him into a novelist. And while he counts Irish writers as influences, he mostly read Kerouac and Burroughs as a teen.
McCann reads from his first novel, Songdogs, and from This Side of Brightness, about the New York subway tunnels and the homeless who make their homes there, as well as the sand hogs who built the tunnels. McCann spent a year in the tunnels, and counts listening as the best way to research. “I don’t want to write about my family, about me. I think it’s much more liberating to be in the imagination. People always tell to write what you know about, but I say no, write about what you don’t know about.”
Visit www.youtube.com/user/hocopolitso to view all the episodes currently available online. Enjoy and give us feedback, please, so we can improve this award-winning series.