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Back in April, HoCoPoLitSo conceived of its Poetry Moment series as a dose of soothing literature during the pandemic shut-in. When George Floyd was murdered in May, renewing the Black Lives Matter movement, we changed our focus. In support of the racial justice, HoCoPoLitSo wanted to amplify the voices of the Black poets who have read for our audiences here in Howard County. Now it’s September and we’re inviting other voices to join our verse party to continue these conversations about what divides and unites us.
Poetry Moment will now include poets of other backgrounds, including Irish, Chinese, Muscogee (Creek), Latinx, and Baltimorean, including Lucille Clifton and Josephine Jacobsen.
We’re starting with Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winner and force of nature who read for our audiences three times. Called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney died in 2013. But the hour-long interview from 1988, excerpted here, remained in our archives until we could negotiate and pay for rights to air it. We finally secured those rights last year, and we’re grateful to Padraic Kennedy for his donation that covered those costs.
This week’s Poetry Moment also includes a face many in Howard County knew and loved, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, who co-founded HoCoPoLitSo in 1974, and died this past February. Padraic and Ellen, married for nearly 65 years, are the foundation that HoCoPoLitSo is built upon.
At the beginning of this week’s video, Ellen can be heard, and then seen, requesting Heaney’s poem “Digging.” “Recited,” she adds. Heaney smiles. He knew Ellen well, and like most in the poetry world, could not refuse her.
He then recites his iconic poem. When I was teaching students this poem, they didn’t understand how the rhymes fit together until they heard it in his voice. Then they understood the connection between “ground” and “down” and “sods” and “bog.” They didn’t know that when Heaney pronounced “gravelly ground,” it sounded just like the scrape of a shovel into soil.
Any time we can offer poems in the voice of the author, we’re doing the world a service. And this voice seems timely to hear now because of the increasing fracturing of our country over racial justice, and political divisions in general.
Heaney’s voice was well known in Ireland during the troubles, the sectarian divisions and violence that pitted citizens of different religions against each other from the 1960s to 1998.
“Ireland has been characterized by a tradition of sectarian violence,” Duke University’s President Richard Brodhead said during a Trinity College of Arts and Sciences tribute to Heaney after his death. “Not armies against armies, but between people who live together by day and (had) the violence suddenly intrude on their domestic lives. His poems are an uncanny evocation of this intimate violence.”
While he was never overtly political, Heaney talks in this hour-long episode of The Writing Life about an intimately violent poem he wrote in the seventh section of Station Island, the shooting of a young man he knew in Ulster after police arrived at his door.
“Because, see, in Ulster, as in shall we say, you could have imagined a situation some years or decades ago in the Southern states of the United States, where someone could be a virulent bigoted Klan member, but also be wearing the uniform of impersonal justice, in other words a policeman, so that they hygiene of the uniform is no guarantee. You actually have the festering stuff underneath it,” Heaney tells the audience in 1988. He explains that he isn’t pinning blame in his poem, he doesn’t accuse the police, he’s talking in universal terms about the killing of a man he knew. And he finishes with explaining, “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 those of us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. I think that writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than with the second or third circle, where the big parties are watching and you’re getting publicity. Poetry isn’t concerned with publicity.”
Poetry not publicity. Sounds like a great motto. Now more than ever, poetry’s witness and wisdom provide a window of understanding into other’s lives. Listen to this voice, so specifically Irish, and hear the universal, as when Gwendolyn Brooks spoke of her seven at the Golden Shovel in “We Real Cool,” or Tyehimba Jess read about Blind Tom the musical savant, or Patricia Smith channeling the voice of a hurricane. HoCoPoLitSo’s mission is to amplify literature’s voices, to allow words to change the world.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
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
HoCoPoLitSo’s 42 Annual Evening of Irish Writing and Music is on Friday, February 21, 2020, featuring Alice McDermott, music by O’Malley’s March, and traditional Irish dancing with the Teelin Dance Company. Click here to learn more.
HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening of Music and Poetry was even more of a family affair than usual this year. Normally an occasion that parents and adult children (and occasionally a third generation) attend in their Irish wool and finest green, this year’s Irish Evening featured two poets who themselves are family.
Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan have been poetry and life partners for decades. And from the stage on March 14, they talked about kindred, a word they used for Seamus Heaney, a huge presence of a poet who died August 2013 and who is being mourned throughout the literary world.
“Everyone feels like they’ve lost a member of their own family,” Meehan told Dorgan during that afternoon’s taping of The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer interview show.
From Heaney to sassy Irish grandmothers to uprising revolutionaries, family was called up throughout the evening reading.
Dorgan started off reading “Speaking to My Father,” about his hard-working patriarch and what he must have thought about Dorgan’s labors as a poet: “I move the words as you moved the heavy tires./ I make the poems like you and Rose made children,/ Blindly, because I must.” (more…)
The many who heard Seamus Heaney during his three HoCoPoLitSo visits to Columbia (1982,1988 and 1994), the last not long before his being named Nobel Laureate for Literature, are saddened to learn of his recent death at age 74.
We treasure the memories of hearing him read his poems no less than the acquaintance we made with his warm and generous person. From his 1982 visit to our 4th Evening of Irish Music and Poetry, we recall the place, our companions, his voice and afterwards the many books he signed and annotated for long lines of admirers.
From 1988 we prize our “Afternoon with Seamus Heaney” video. He read from his poems, talked with his friend George O’Brien, and responded to questions from a Smith Theater audience. Edited down to one hour, this TV program aired locally in Maryland in January 1989.
The circumstances of Heaney’s third visit in 1994 were dramatic. Close to 700 advance tickets sold for his evening appearance at the Interfaith Center in Columbia, but a winter blizzard had closed even the Kennedy Center in Washington. Traffic in the region was paralyzed, and only a few highways were passable. Nonetheless, about 230 people, some hiking through the snow, arrived to hear him. Earlier in the day a skeleton crew opened the Howard Community College TV studio, this time to record a half hour interview with Heaney reading several new poems – hosted by Roland Flint. The one hour 1988 program aired again in 1995 to celebrate our favorite Irish poet’s Nobel Prize.
Ellen Conroy Kennedy
Founder, Director Emeritus
A few Seamus Heaney links:
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