Thursday, 5 May 2011

Breathing Pure Oxygen

I've just come back from the Strokestown Poetry Festival in Ireland. If you've never been, let me tell you, it's a heady mix of poetry in Irish, Scottish Gaelic and English. There were some terrific readings and plenty of books on sale. As usual, I came away a dozen or so volumes heavier. Don't worry. I chose Irish Ferries over Ryan Air this time round, so there were no extra charges for the excess baggage!

The festival is unique in that it celebrates the best of a wide spectrum of work. Friday's opening events included readings from shortlisted young poets from schools around Co. Roscommon and performances from an international shortlist of witty and satirical verse writers. It's not unusual for this final event to spill over into one of the local pubs and carry on into the wee hours. I'm pretty sure there were one or two hangovers for the start of the next day. The last event on the Sunday is a lively inter-pub competition. Never have I heard drinkers go so quiet when a poem is being read out. You'd be hard pressed to find an English pub crowd that showed such respect. Let me say this, loudly and very clearly, Ireland is a civilized country.

Saturday's and Sunday's cornucopia was a dazzling showcase of poets from the Gaeltacht and other parts of Ireland, the Scottish islands and English speaking poets from Britain, the US, South Africa and Germany. Believe me, this was first rate poetry. It was a joy to hear. It was also wonderful to meet and talk to the poets. We were all up for prizes, but so many of us said that just being there was prize enough. How many international competitions pay you for coming to do a reading and then feed you such nourishing fare all weekend?

If I single out the highlights for me, it doesn't mean I didn't rate those who are not on my list. It's just that the poets I'm going to mention somehow sharpened my ears and made me aware of particularly strong resonances.

Suzanne Erhart has left me with some extraordinarily memorable images and sounds. She's just won the Straid and will be launching her first collection at the Derwent Poetry Festival in England later this year. Her poetry has a wonderful economy. You get the sense that every word is carefully weighed and turned over before it's selected. She doesn't dodge 'difficult' subjects. She holds them up to scrutiny. She's scrupulous and her work has tremendous humanity. Integrity is a word that comes to mind. Terrific integrity.

Áine Uí Fhoghlú is another poet who had an impact on many of us. She has four books to her name and if ever a poet made me want to learn Irish, this is one. Having said that, she provided some more than adequate translations. It really can't be underestimated how challenging this is.  I've tried translating poems myself and it's impossible. At best, all one can do is write a new poem. You're not just struggling to find words that do the same job, you're attempting to translate concepts that have a specific cultural currency. Bread to a Russian who's had to queue up for hours only to find the price has risen fourfold is not the same as bread to someone  walking into Walmart for a cheap packaged loaf that tastes of sugar and God knows how many chemicals. So, good on Áine for such strong work in English, as well. She's a powerful performer of her poetry. She has great presence.

It's always deeply pleasurable to hear Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin. She's a very generous poet and editor of the highly esteemed Cyphers (read it!). She introduced Ndrek Gjini to us, an Albanian poet who had no English ten years ago. There's something very interesting about writing in a language that's not your own. It demands a simplicity of expression which can sometimes be at odds with the depth and complexity of your subject matter. But this is also rather exiting. It creates a strange dynamic. It puts pressure on the language. I imagine this must also have been true for Heather Clyne who is in her third year of a degree in Gaelic Language and Culture. Yes, that's right, she's only been speaking Gaelic for three years. Total immersion is the secret.

If I ever get shortlisted again, I have no excuse not to learn Irish so I can at least be able to say thank you to people.

Yes, I shall enter again. Why wouldn't I? As I've said, the prize is just being there.

Finally, to everyone I met and to the organizers who worked tirelessly to make the festival so successful -

Go raibh míle maith agaibh! 
Gun robh math agaibh! 
Baie Dankie! 
Vielen Dank! 

Here are some links now, bloggers. Go forth and explore:

And because four of the English speaking shortlist were Templar poets, here's your link to Templar Poetry

PS. Sorry, I should have mentioned that I came 2nd in the International Poetry Prize. People keep asking. You can see all the shortlisted and winning poems on the Strokestown website.


  1. Excellent, Pat. Congrats on your short-listing

  2. I forgot to mention, I came second, which was very nice for me. A bonus. The poem's on the Strokestown website.

  3. Even better! I shall take a look

  4. Hi Pat, terrific to meet you again at the festival. It really was a heady mix, wasn't it? Loved your poem and have no doubt we'll see you there again in the not-too-didtant future.
    ps did you attend the final of the pub poetry competition? The stuff of legend!