Friday, October 5, 2012

Cork Spring Poetry Festival 2013

I am very excited to have sent to the printers the brochure for the 2013 Cork Spring Poetry Festival. You can be the first to view a web version by clicking here (2.2mb).
The line up includes readings by 34 poets.  Among the headliners are Carolyn Forché from the USA, Gwyneth Lewis from Wales, Karen Solie from Canada, Håken Sandell from Sweden. Nine countries are represented. There will be discussions with the poets after many of the readings. There will be workshops including masterclasses with Forche and Lewis, a craft talk with Karen Solie and a video showing thirty poets each reading a poem from festivals past.

You have two chances of being on this line-up.

First chance:  win the Gregory O'Donoghue International Poetry Prize.

Second chance: If you are a poet with a track record of publication in periodicals but have not yet published a first, full-length collection, you can apply for one of up to five "Prebooked" reading slots. You will have the opportunity to read three poems of 40 lines or under.

You must have at least two magazine publishing credits. Submit three poems with a biographical note. Submissions will be accepted by email before January 8th to

Submissions must have the subject heading "Prebooked Poetry Reading 2013".
The list of chosen poets will be posted on by January 20th and later on

Friday, June 8, 2012

John Minihan

Speech I made to open the John Minihan exhibition at Alliance Francaise, Cork

The great French photographer Robert Doisneau once wrote:

“If you make pictures, don’t talk about it, don’t write about it, don’t analyse yourself, don’t answer any questions. “

Unfortunately it seems that in the visual arts world today you can’t get anywhere without analysing yourself, without devising an ideology, without having an overarching conceptual framework to which you stretch your art to fit. John Minihan does none of these things and I believe suffers because of it.  I believe in his work you will find much that suggests he is the closest the Irish get to having an Andre Kertesz  or a Cartier Bresson. Particularly in his photographs of his home town of Athy. They have an elegiac quality that all of the finest photographs have. It’s no coincidence that Roland Barthes decided to combine an elegy for his mother with a study of photography in his book Camera Lucida. There is something about a photograph that tricks the brain, even a black & white photograph, into believing that you are the primary observer of its subject. To look at a painting is to know that we are observing at a remove the primary observation of the artist, but in viewing a photograph we can believe we are the primary observer – often ignoring the fact that the photograph is not merely taken but made, composed with a sensitivity for framing, angle, light, contrast, grain.

But because it is the recording of a passing moment a photograph is an elegy and as time passes all the more, a photograph becomes not just an elegy for a lost past moment but for a past epoch or age. It is more obviously an elegy when the photograph is of a person who has died but it can also be an elegy for a person still living. Nabokov said that beauty is always tragic because beauty must always die. One only has to look at Minihan’s portrait of Mickey Rourke here to understand that philosophy. Like Kertesz Minihan has not only elegised the little people – the children of another age in Athy who have yet to come into any power and the impoverished old there  who could never have any power– but he has also devoted a great deal of his work to celebrity–  not just to obvious celebrities such as Hollywood actors, soon-to-be royal princesses and Parisian couturiers but especially writers, writers both of iconic majesty such as Beckett and Auden but writers of little fame and great poverty also such as Padraic Fiacc and Michael Hartnett. Many of these images have the status of legend such as the portraits of Beckett here walking away from the viewer and another of him revealing every hard won facial crevice sitting outside a Paris Cafe. His portraits o f the poet Michael Hartnett and Robert O’Donoghue are, in particular, masterly.  

This exhibition is a mere taster of Minihan and I would urge anyone in this country who cares for art photography to get to view two of Minihan’s books, Shadows from the Pale which is his portrait of Athy and An Unweaving of Rainbows – his portraits of Irish writers, both are out of print if you can’t get them through your library you can pick up a copy of the former on Amazon for about €300  I got mine for £22 from Waterstones when it forst came out. The latter book can still be picked up at a steal for under a tenner.

Five years ago I became John’s part-time patron when I began an annual commission to have him record each year the world’s greatest novelists as they pass through Cork for the Cork International Short Story Festival. It sounds grand to describe oneself as a great photographer’s patron and I won’t pretend it doesn’t give me any pride, but it’s a measure of John’s love of writers and personal modesty that I can afford to do so for fees that do not exceed what you would pay an agency photographer for desultory work. A further exhibition of John’s ouevre involving some photographs from that project will be held in September in City Hall. I hope this exhibition will seed an appetite in all of you to get better acquainted with his work. And to seize the opportunities that owning one of his books or attending more exhibitions presents to become acquainted with our own Cartier-Bresson.    `

Friday, May 4, 2012

Pigeons I Have Known

Often when people attend a poetry workshop at a festival they bring their best, well-made, well-honed, unpublished piece, just to show off and establish their credentials. Me – I always bring a piece giving me trouble, not quite working, hoping for an objective eye to point out where it could be improved or how it might be made to work. Once at a workshop in Florida I presented a poem about a suicidal pigeon in San Francisco on the edge of China Town. Of course, it being a poem it was about more than just the pigeon but it described how she hopped out into the middle of the road as she tried to cross the street on foot, as if she had forgotten she had wings (like Samsa’s beetle) and reached half way across the asphalt before a Cadillac ran her over and there was an explosion of pigeon feathers like grey confetti. and – greater surprise - when the traffic had cleared the sight of the pigeon, stll waddling, still alive, reaching for the opposite sidewalk with dishevelled tail feathers and a Loony Toons aura to her.
Everyone on the street stared. When she reached the other side she walked the short walk to the next intersection where she prepared to throw herself into the traffic on foot all over again. I talked in the poem about how I had never known another pigeon quite like it, of all the pigeons I had known in my home city in Ireland none had behaved like that.
It wasn’t a great poem, but when the celebrity performance poet from Manhattan, a fellow attendee, chose to comment on it he didn’t pick out any of its structural weaknesses or its clunky music. He decided to deride the idea that anyone could have a relationship with or cognizance of an individual pigeon. For him a pigeon was one of a mass of characterless rats with wings and because it was beyond his own experience to know a pigeon individually he wouldn’t (not merely couldn’t) imagine anyone else being able to do so.  I could have told him about my next door neighbour who had pigeons hop all over her hands as if she were some latter day Francis of Assisi whenever she fed them, or the pigeons snared and caged by classmates when I was a boy. I could have described the love one boy had for a pigeon the colour of chocolate or I could have told the Manhatten Celebrity of the astonishment of a friend from Shanghai upon encountering pigeons in Cork by saying “If they were in Shanghai they would be eaten”.  Everyone’s experience is different and the most fatal mistake any writer can make is generalising everyone else’s reality from his own narrow perspective. In fact a great deal of pain exerted by non-writers on fellow humans stems from the same fatal mistake.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Introducing Gregory Orr

Spoken at the Cork Spring Poetry Festival, February 2012

I’m completely baffled that Gregory Orr is not better known outside the United States. I’m baffled that his name never appears in those New York Times lists of names in contention for the position of US poet laureate. So in introducing Orr to an international audience in Cork, Ireland I feel compelled to recount in detail my history as a reader of Gregory Orr’s work and give you the foreground which prepared me to receive him.

I’m fervently of the belief that Poetry is what is NOT lost in translation. Vladimir Nabakov asserted, not entirely sincerely I believe, that literary works are essentially little more than elaborate toys for the entertainment of sophisticated adults. Certainly we can take pleasure in the virtuosity of Larkin’s syntax or Muldoon’s innovative rhymes. We can luxuriate in the comic timing of Pope or Dyrden, but at the end of the day if a poet doesn’t convince us with their poetic sensibility we do not take them to that part of our brain which we refer to symbolically as our heart. A poet’s sensibility, sometimes conflated with Voice, is the product of a person who has successfully expressed the uniqueness of their experience, the uniqueness of their making sense of the world, time and time again, consistently.

Nabokov was right when he said mediocre writers are versatile, genius has only itself to imitate. And while a poet often deploys incantation, symbols, story skilfully to convey sensibility, at the same time sensibility is oddly physically independent of those structural things in the same way that if you hold a computer disc in your hand, turn it this way and that you can’t see the code imprinted upon it and if you wipe the code from the disc the disc appears, physically, to our eye completely unaltered. This is why the technically perfect poems often composed by authors of manuals on poetic form as examples, are completely indigestible, emotionally and intellectually, outside the manual, because like the computer disc devoid of code – they are poetic forms devoid of sensibility.

The main responsibility in translating poetry from one language to another is to preserve the sensibility while transferring it to a completely different medium of sound, of readerly expectation – English is a such a rhyme poor language for instance, that often it’s better to translate a rhyming poem in a foreign language into an unrhymed English version, the better
to preserve its sensibility.

These considerations came into play for me in encountering the work of Gregory Orr for the first time towards the end of the Cold War. And I deliberately say the Cold War rather than the end of the 80s because the political situation pertaining then was crucial to how poetry was received and valued in these islands at that time.

When I began to seriously read poetry for myself as a teenager I was most attracted to work in translation. Penguin had produced a wonderful series of modern poetry in translation at the end of the 60’s and in the 1980s most of those volumes proliferated in second hand book stores because they were mostly by poets writing under Soviet occupation, promoted in the West as victims of a brutal regime, which they were, but often valued more for that fact than for reasons
of their poetic sensibility. So these books were snapped up by people spurred on by the sensationalism of Cold War propaganda and quickly disposed of later, because their readers had no appreciation for poetic sensibility.

The 1980s was a time when Anthony Thwaite, alleged English poet and critic, could declare (Poetry Today : A Critical Guide to British Poetry 1960-1984) that the work of Thom Gunn coming out of America was technically incompetent and that Ted Hughes was sloppy. He was part
of an establishment which professed to admire the work of Paul Celan, Zbigniew Herbert, Mioslav Holub, Vasko Popa, Marin Sorescu, Georg Trakl but was prepared to censure anyone in or of these islands, ready to write in the forms exemplary of these poets , where the length of a line was more often determined by breath length rather than metre or syllabics. Where symbol was more important than rhyme, where organic, unevenly shaped stanzas were preferred to what I refer to
as the typographical topiary of arbitrarily shaped quatrains, tercets, sextets, etc.

This was unfortunate for me because my poetic precursors as I began to write as a teenager were Gottfried Benn and not Philip Larkin, Paul Celan and not ThomasKinsella, Zbigniew Herbert and not Seamus Heaney. Aesthetically, I was left out in the Cold in this Cold War. And I wasn’t the only one. Most women, in Ireland, beginning to write poetry at this time were also unattracted to the traditionalist forms then in ascendancy.

Then one day around 1988-89 I discovered The Red House by Gregory Orr in Connolly’s bookstore in Paul Street. I had never heard of the poet, but a cursory glance through the pages pleased me and it was selling for £2.50.

I brought it home and began to read what appeared to be these very, very simple poems. Apparently so simple in structure and form as to constitute a writing which would barely be recognized as poetry in these islands. I couldn’t imagine Peter Fallon publishing it if he had a thousand lifetimes to consider it and yet I was blown away by their poetic force. They had an undoubted poetic power without, seemingly, any means of visible support. But what they did have was a unifying sensibility whose power was cumulative as you moved from poem to poem, a sensibility bound together by a symbology which was of Orr’s own making - as distinct from the symbology often found in a poet like Yeats which was more tradition in origin.

Orr has also written the virtuoso poem, the poem which could stand out from the crowd in a competition or earn a place for itself in an anthology, but here was a book primarily of poems which did not depend on showy virtuosity, whose power derived from a quietness, a stillness at their core. As a reader and a writer I was inspired. I wrote a sequence of poems which was published in part piece by piece in periodicals but mainly just baffled people here, even poet friends who were favourably disposed towards me.

Twenty years later, assembling a new book, as a last minute caprice I brushed off this ancient sequence and added it. When the reviews came in the part of the book most praised was that sequence. So I returned to Orr as a reader.

Gregory Orr would passionately disagree with the notion that poems are mere elaborate toys for entertainment. Orr believes that poetry is an essential tool for reconciling personal trauma. The tragedies that Orr has had to live through and with, in his life are sensational. And just like sensation drove many Cold War readers to the books of Eastern European poets, many readers seeking sensationalism have flocked to Orr, but just as many readers who find sensationalism disgusting have stayed away, - not realising that stillness and quietness is at the core of his poetry and not the quick, brash emotional fix the sensationalists seek. And because much of Orr’s power as a poet gathers cumulatively from poem to poem, anyone who seeks out the quick virtuoso fix is also often disappointed.

As a human being, approaching, Gregory Orr, I am filled with empathy and sympathy for the man who has suffered such personal tragedies. But as a reader approaching his poems I don’t give a damn, because although his tragedies certainly shaped the kind of poet Orr has turned out to be and occasionally crop up as subject matter in the oeuvre, the tragedies alone do not imbue the work with its worth. Orr’s worth is in the consistent empathy he shows for the human condition, often channelled through showing sympathy for a leaf or a carcass of beef, but always in language which affirms truth in a way that the politician and ostentatious public saint cannot.

By sensibility, Orr is the consistent, un-versatile genius Nabokov described, but over a lifetime, structurally, like Rilke, he has been several different poets. For a period he wrote villanelle after villanelle and more recently his symbol-laden poems addressed to the Beloved evoke The Sonnets to Orpheus or the Duino Elegies. They do this by all originating from the same pod, they resemble each other like multiple embryos split from the same egg, they exude a sacredness like the Opheus Sonnets and in the same way that Rilke’s Elegies and Orpheus Sonnets are semantically more challenging than his Book of Hours or New Poems, Orr’s poems to the Beloved are less accessible than his earlier work and require a different mode of reading.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize Results 2011

There were over 1700 poems entered this year and judging the competition was a very educational experience. One thing which quickly occurred to me is that not every good poem is a good “competition poem”. I thought of many books of poems I enjoy – collections by Charles Simic, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds etc. where the fineness of many individual poems is brought out by the close proximity of its siblings; by the way it fits with a poet’s overall oeuvre and is consistent with the poet’s voice. But such fine poems often are not outstanding, they are not the type of poem which qualifies for anthology selection or will impress the casual or non-reader of poetry on the page of a general newspaper. No, the winning “competition poem” is altogether a different beast, a stand-alone achievement which punches above its weight, a corvette which bristles with the armament of a battleship.

Reading poem after poem in a batch of 1700, many otherwise worthy poems failed to impress. A certain de rigueur musical rhythm was monotonous in poem after poem. Many restrained treatments on well-worn themes (Irish landscape being one which springs to mind) failed to distinguish themselves in a field which included so many such treatments.

Many other poems fumbled the ball close to the goal, starting well and progressing well until reaching an unintentional bathetic declaration or sounding a discordant musical note.

In the end, the top thirteen poems distinguished themselves in different ways. Of the 1700 poems the winning poem really stood out for me, while there was some difficulty in deciding which poems to include in the “highly commended” list and which bubbled just below the surface. I decided to publish a list of 70 commended poems, wishing to reassure many entrants of their achievement while risking angering many others who did not make it through to the top 80. To those people all I can say is that the poems were judged anonymously, read by me with no author’s name attached and no personal slight was intended.

The winning poem, Suji Kwock Kim’s (USA) ‘Sonogram Song’, won me over by being highly imagistic and argumentative at the same time. There are very few poems which can sustain philosophical speculation amid such effective evocation of sensory perception without going awry. Another marvellous technical achievement in this poem is its use of diction, very few Latinate words except for a couple of medical terms – all of the unusual words here are Germanic in origin and their rough music, syllable by syllable, magically contributes to a euphony which would have been cacophonous in the hands of a less deft poet. And that’s all before we absorb the subject matter – an account of love whose subject is fragile and potentially vulnerable to horrific loss. I’ve read a few sonogram or ultrasound poems in my day but none push the envelope as far as this one has done.

The poem which I placed second was Alinda Wasner’s (USA) ‘Ode to the Night and in the Morning Following an All-Day Day of Arguing’ . It’s a list poem with a refrain of “Rejoice for”. It was in part reminiscent of Adam Zagajewski’s ‘In Praise of the Mutilated World’ and that reminiscence initially worked against it. But overall, structurally and diction-wise it is quite a different poem; also tonally different from Zagajewski but just as life affirming, just as likely to ring in the mind’s ear after the page is turned, the eye has closed.

Third place went to Tom Moore’s (Ireland) ‘Meteorites’. This is a far more structurally conventional poem than the preceding two but manages to pack substantial detail in imagery and subject matter into four tight quatrains. Ostensibly it is about observing a cosmological phenomenon in a domestic setting but it is also about the process of human thought, about the productive distractions of an inquiring mind and its capacity to draw comparisons between disparate entities – the very process involved in the composition of a good poem.

Now, on to the highly-commended poems in alphabetical order of the poets’ names.

Erica Fabri’s (USA) ‘Fish’ appeals to the Surrealist fan in me – it’s a very simple effective poem with a well-worked for, well-earned punchline – which means the poem’s merits do not depend on the punchline alone.

‘Mitterand’s Last Meal’ by Judith Krause (Canada) is another successful list poem with wonderful rhythm and diction. It also appeals to the political animal in me.

Judith Neale’s (Canada) ‘Blue Bowl’ is an affecting love poem without bathos or discordant music, without any of the time-worn clichés of love-speak.

Tanya Olson’s (USA) “Slave to the Virgin” is a poem with overt Irish subject matter – a biographical treatment of Matt Talbot which deftly balances the voice of an omniscient narrator with the fictional personal voice of Talbot speaking himself.

Lynn Robert’s (UK) ‘Le Douannier Rousseau: Surprised! National Gallery London’ isn’t, as the title might suggest, an example of ekphrasis but a narrative, recounting the painting’s composition, in language which flows very effectively and affectingly.

Mark Ryan’s (Ireland) ‘Breakfast with Yeat’s’ is a very funny parody of Yeat’s quite serious “He Wishes for the Clothes of Heaven” which would bring a happy smile to my face any morning.

Padraig Rooney’s (Ireland) “The Names of the Winds” celebrates love and lore together. It treats the importance of legends in our culture and how they can, with all their socially weighted value, impinge for better or worse on our thoughts during an intimate moment. The way Rooney moves sand in this poem is like the way Joyce moves snow in “The Dead” and the poem also shares an elegiac tone with that totemic example of Irish literature.

John Whitworth’s (UK) “First Sight” is another wonderfully humorous poem. It relates a man’s admiration for a woman he views through a video blog (a vlog to those less of an old fogie than I am) somehow without managing to be sleazy or exploitative.

Amber West’s (USA) ‘Daughter Eraser’ once again appealed to my Surrealist tastes and successfully illustrates the opinion that the truth is often better conveyed through aspects of myth rather than factual reportage.

Alexandra Zempiloglou’s (Greece) “I lost me child” is naive in the painterly meaning of the term, illustrating core human emotions in apparently guileless, simple language which sings with its refrain.

I was genuinely surprised to discover how weighted the results were in favour of women. In the top thirteen there are nine women and five men. Five Americans, Three Irish, Two Canadians, Two English and one Greek.

The 1700 poems were submitted by 567 poets. The countries which supplied the most entrants were Ireland (204) the USA (170) the UK (96) Canada (20) Australia (15) France (13) India (9). The remainder were made up by a motley selection of non-Anglophone countries. Mysteriously, there were no entries from New Zealand or South Africa.