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POETRY AND POETRY NOW 2003-2007: A SHORT RETROSPECTIVE by John McAuliffe

(Poetry Ireland News, May/ June 2007)

When I lived in Galway, it was hard for any reader not to notice the regular poetry events at the Arts Centre and at the city’s many festivals: I began there to follow up, at readings, odd poems from anthologies (Robert Creeley, Czeslaw Milosz), and I soonJohn McAuliffe trusted the event organisers when they scheduled a reading by a poet whose work I didn’t know (Anne Kennedy, Micky Gorman, Michael Donaghy, CK Williams). At these inspiring readings, I learned much about contemporary poetry, about the way a poem can jam its phrasing against easily and audibly recognisable forms. Then, as now, poetry readings seemed like starter kits or survey maps for the books I’d borrow or buy, books which I still pick up before I leave the house to catch a bus or train, remembering hearing some line or phrase. 

I had, therefore, an instinctive interest in following up my own enthusiasms as a reader when I accepted the post of programme director for the Poetry Now festival in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. It seemed like easy work. So I started off by inviting , among others, Derek Mahon, Derek Walcott, WS Merwin, Carol Ann Duffy and Valerio Magrelli, a poet I’d just started reading after seeing some of his poems on the Poetry International website. Not one poet could make it. Derek Mahon was not doing readings at the time, Derek Walcott eventually pulled out of his reading after his passport was stolen, Valerio Magrelli was teaching at the time and could not come, but maybe the following year? WS Merwin’s agent said he wasn’t travelling to Europe at that time. Which all took about three months, as e-mail had not yet quite replaced the letter. 

By mid-December I’d spent far too many pointless halfhours re-drawing the readings timetable: in the scribble box of the freesheet’s crossword page on my way to work, or on scraps torn from the bibliography pages of students’ essays. Then I got a letter from WS Merwin, posted a month earlier from Maui, Hawaii, saying he’d like to come. Things slowly fell into place: Poetry Now’s audience turned out and we developed on our already-existing neighbourly relations with the media: Merwin’s appearance on Pat Kenny’s radio show helped to ensure a full house for the Friday reading, while Seamus Heaney graciously stepped in for the absent Derek Walcott for a memorable reading with Ciaran Carson

The festival seemed, then and now, a mixture of patience and wild, impromptu, administrative juggling. Or like night-driving with faulty headlights. And thirty people crammed into the back seat. There would, at the end, be a terrifically enjoyable, manically sociable and mostly sleepless weekend, interleaved with strolls in the sunshine on Dún Laoghaire pier, or walks to Joyce's Martello Tower and the Forty Foot. So enjoyable would the weekend seem that it would block out entirely the memory of anxious afternoons of programme drafting and phone calls about the budget. Until, that is, the next year’s first withdrawal note arrived and the scraps of paper started filling up again with the half-full and then half-empty grids.

And when the programme was (mostly) in place, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Co Council’s Arts Office, unique and model supporters of the art of poetry and its audience, provided consistently brilliant festival teams which allowed the festival to expand as a platform for discussions of poetry and as a place where good poems find an audience. Its administrative support for The Rupert and Eithne Strong Award for a first collection, and for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award has also helped to draw wider attention to excellent new work by both new and established Irish poets. It hardly needs saying that the audience for poetry (and not just the poets) needs the oxygen provided by their hard work. 

For this festival’s still-growing audience, under the successive direction of Patrick Galvin, Conor O’Callaghan and myself, Poetry Now has been defined by its pairing of non-Irish poets with these new and established ‘home’ poets. For me, each year, the festival also provided an opportunity to meet the younger poets who travelled to Dún Laoghaire for the weekend’s readings, or who were themselves participating in the Strong Reading (the competitive first book award , won in each of the past four years by a Northern Irish or Northern-based poet): it’s given me a clearer sense of the emerging generation of Irish poets. 

At the other end of the scale, I’ve seen the great, evolving legacy of the generation of Irish poets who started publishing in the 1960s. Although the festival programming meant that I focussed more on the non-Irish poets (whose arrangements are usually more difficult and whose presence involves travelling long distances when they might, more profitably, have been writing or teaching elsewhere), these visiting poets soon set me straight. They’d like to meet, please, the Irish poets with whom they would be reading, or whose events they would be attending. If, initially, I was most delighted that iconic American or British or New Zealand or German or Polish or Italian poets were coming to Ireland, (many for the first time), I’d wake up the next morning with a line from some recent Paul Durcan or Derek Mahon poem in my head. Or, at this year’s Louis MacNeice event, his old lines discovered memorable and unexpected Cork and Meath accents as well as morphing into Christopher Reid’s taximan Cockney:

As for the fourth taxi, he was alone 
Tra-la when he hailed it but the cabby looked 
Through him and said: ‘I can’t tra-la well take 
So many people, not to speak of the dog.’ 
– ‘The Taxis’, Louis MacNeice

John McAuliffe directed the Poetry Now Festival, 2003–2007. His second book, Next Door, will be published by Gallery Press in July. He lives in Manchester where he co-directs the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.

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