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Seamus Heaney was a force of nature who visited Howard County an unbelievable three times.
Heaney, who won a Nobel Prize and was called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died in 2013. HoCoPoLitSo, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, was lucky enough to host Heaney for three readings — in 1982, in 1988, and in 1994. His 1994 visit many HoCoPoLitSo veterans remember as the ice storm visit, when everything else was cancelled because the city was encased in a good half-inch of ice, but stalwarts trudged through the storm to see Heaney read.
On the last two of his readings, HoCoPoLitSo’s founder, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, wisely taped interviews with Heaney, first with a noted scholar George O’Brien, and then with a fellow poet, Roland Flint, posing questions.
During his long and amiable correspondence with Kennedy, Heaney decided that he did not want the taped interviews to be sold as part of HoCoPoLitSo’s television talk show series, The Writing Life. In one letter from the 1990s, he writes: “As I have said often before, there are already too many interviews by me, going over the same ground. There is nothing new in the material on your transcript.” In the margin, in his long, looping handwriting, Heaney wrote: “(tho’ I do like the Yeats riff at the end)!” Since that time, the world has changed immensely. Heaney is no longer around to conduct interviews, and HoCoPoLitSo no longer sells DVDs or taped versions of the interviews.
But the society does have a YouTube channel where these formerly hidden gems – featuring writers such as Donald Hall, Frank McCourt, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton — are now available for free to students, writers, and scholars.
For ten years, HoCoPoLitSo sought permission from the estate to upload the interviews to our channel on YouTube. Finally, Faber & Faber Ltd. granted permission, HoCoPoLitSo received a donation to cover the rights fee, and the video is finally seeing the light of day on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube channel.
All sixty minutes of the video are available, as well as a transcript, upon request, for scholars and readers and fans of Heaney’s work. In the video, Heaney sits on a stage, with his arm slung around the back of his chair, and takes questions from Georgetown professor O’Brien, and from the audience. He speaks about his life as a boy on his family’s small farm, his time in boarding school, the parallel between the rise of his life as a writer and the rise of the rebellion and unrest in Northern Ireland.
He says in the interview, “Politics in Northern Ireland, and politics in El Salvador and politics in Iran and politics in Israel, it’s all spectator sport for most people. Of course, it’s necessary for us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. Writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than the second or third circle where the big part is writing, is publicity.”
He recites “Digging,” at Ellen Kennedy’s request, and reads, “Alphabets”, and “From the Republic of Conscience”, as well as sonnets dedicated to his mother, “Clearances”. The program ends with the story about writing a poem to celebrate his niece’s birth because he hadn’t any present for the family, then the triumphant reading of the charming poem, “A Peacock’s Feather for Daisy Garrett.”
HoCoPoLitSo has a forty-five year history of providing epiphany-inducing programs with literary greats. But those programs are ephemeral, seared in many people’s memories, but gone when the event is over.
The Writing Life series captures those unbelievable literary moments; seeing, after all, is believing.
Donations to support The Writing Life are welcomed and tax-deductible.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary and The Writing Life producer