Monday, February 23, 2009

Gregory Orr, Palm Beach Poetry Festival and Restoration Topiary

Apologies to the one or two people who started to care about this blog. I'm afraid the pressures of readying several books for the printers (including my own next offering) and the organisational demands of a poetry festival just finished, led me to neglect this particular responsibility. But here we go again.....
I found the Palm Beach Poetry Festival by chance. Last year I had Ilya Kaminski as a guest in Cork and he recommended a festival in the Florida Keys as a good place to do a gig. “Just Google ‘Florida’ and ‘Poetry Festival’,” he said. That’s how I found the Palm Beach Poetry Festival’s website. Straight away what intrigued me about it was how it was structured around a large number of week-long workshops – about ten or twelve running simultaneously. I had been to festivals across Europe and had never come across this set-up. It was like it was a festival of workshops with readings tacked on. The punters’ fees were in the order of over $700. I made a mental note that I would follow it up one of these years.

When I read late last year that Gregory Orr was one of the workshop leaders this year I knew 2009 was when I had to go. I had picked up a copy of Orr’s The Red House in the late 80s and it had had a tremendous effect on me. Here was a poetry which was structurally, linguistically and formally so simple but which yet had huge resonance. In many ways it was antithetical to much of my own very wordy work of that period, but in other ways it had much in common with the 20th Century German poets who had staked out huge territory in my own personal, private anthology of great poets and poems – poets such as Gottfried Benn, Georg Trakl and of course Paul Celan. Orr’s The Red House whispered the qualities of poetry into every fibre of my being, yet I had to acknowledge at the same time that this was writing which most poetry editors in these islands would fail to recognise as poetry.

Even big, established names such as Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes were, in the mid to late 80’s receiving reviews in the British press accusing their latest European and American influenced work of being technically sloppy. While the work of Zbigniew Herbert, Marin Sorescu and Miroslav Holub was much admired in these islands any British or Irish poet who published work similar in structure was dismissed as technically incompetent. Poetry was deemed to be not achieved unless there was a noticeable rhythmical character with stanzas neat and uniform as Restoration topiary.

So in 1989, greatly invigorated by my reading of Gregory Orr, I found myself writing the first poems in what would become a nine poem sequence “The Garden”. I believed at the time it was some of the best work I had ever done. A few of the poems appeared in Poetry Ireland Review but generally the sequence was met with a “What the fuck are you up to, Pat?” response, even from people I knew were generally sympathetic to me.
I had to wait another nineteen years before the sequence was published in its entirety. An anthologist selected work of mine in the early 90s but rejected these poems in utter incomprehension. I started to believe I had made a huge misstep and for many complex reasons stopped writing completely for about six years. How I started to write again is a subject for another blog.

Nineteen years later when I had finally found a publisher willing to risk more than a chapbook with me I had practically forgotten I had written “The Garden”. It tumbled out of an old computer file almost at the last minute, in time for me to stick it into the manuscript with a “What the fuck?” shrug of my shoulders. When the book was published, its different parts had many admirers, reflecting their different tastes but one reviewer did single out “The Garden” as the best achievement in the book and the sequence was translated and published in its entirety in Estonia’s leading poetry journal, (in a slot which had been filled by Billy Collins the previous quarter). All this belated attention for “the Garden” led to very mixed feelings for me. On the one hand I felt happy and vindicated for the young poet who had produced it twenty years previously - on the other hand I felt sadness and deep regret that the young poet who created those poems had stopped working for six years, almost for life, because he lived in a community of poetry which led him to believe what he was writing was worthless.

The chance to meet Gregory Orr, to take a week of workshops with the poet whose work had inspired a walk down “The Garden” path and to combine it with my other reasons for going to the Palm Beach Poetry Festival was too much to resist.

My other main reason for going was to study the business model of the festival, how in hell did they succeed in bringing almost 100 people thousands of miles across America to one place, each spending thousands of dollars in the process? Was it a model worth replicating in Ireland? Who were these people? How did they hear about it? What would it take to attract them to Ireland for something similar?

Armed with funds from my day job and a generous Arts Council travel grant I went off to find out. I knew there were personal risks in going to meet Greg Orr. I had met poetry heroes before and had sometimes been disappointed to discover the person in the flesh, I’m thinking now in particular of a famous Irish poet who had a drinking problem and was completely obnoxious with it. Glad to say he has been on the dry for over a decade now and is perfectly charming and convivial as a result. But I knew that liking Gregory Orr’s poetry was no guarantee that I was going to like Gregory Orr in person.

To be continued……
Read more on Orr here