Sunday, April 22, 2007

Meeting the Irish, or, it turns I own this bitch too

When Paul Muldoon published his book, Meeting the British, critics were dizzily anticipating another great book by a Northern Irish poet who would outline for the rest of us what it was like to live through “The Troubles.” They might have been, at first, disappointed to see that Muldoon was writing the book from the point of view of an indigenous woman meeting the British as they arrived on the shores of the future U.S.A., Muldoon’s adopted home. Not for nothing was the title deceptive, as even slight analysis and speculation might see a parallel between Muldoon’s subject and critic’s expectations. And not for nothing am I biting that title for the title of this post.

My odyssey began Tuesday as I left work, duffle bag in tow, and headed to Midway Airport to catch a 5:30 flight to the nation’s capitol via Dulles. Nothing unusual about the flight—too many people, a few rude ones, and apparently I was one of them. A woman sought to remind me where the end of the boarding line was when she became convinced that I was cutting. Actually, I was standing next to the line waiting for the end to reach me, as I had no intention of doing as she and her flock of ugly children had done, queuing up forty minutes before boarding just to be assured a seat near the front. I thanked her for her unsolicited directions and made sure to sit nowhere near her.

Less than two hours later, I was at Dulles, stunned by the uncluttered airport and anxiously searching for a shuttle. I managed to secure a “Super Shuttle” and waited in the cold night for take off. Of the four riders, I was the last to be dropped off, which meant that I did not arrive in the fashionable Woodley Park area of D.C. until after 10:00. Thankfully my accommodations, secured via Craig’s List, were in no danger of being lost.

The house I stayed in was quite nice: white, unassuming frontage, 2 flat with a garage—apparently standard issue for that stretch of Cleveland Avenue. The interior was even nicer. The residents maintain an impressive library and a clean house with not a TV in sight (niña, you’d be proud). I was given my own room with a toilet, a key to a separate entrance and hazy directions on how to get around town. Otherwise, I barely spoke to the host who seemed nice enough (tall, thin, well-mannered, British accent, mentioned something about a political job, was listening to a piano sonata when I arrived) but he seemed content to be left alone. I can relate.

The room was clean and quiet but there was nothing in the way of back support so I found myself laying bed, holding aloft Ciaran Carson’s novel Shamrock Tea. An incredible book, by the way—go read it. Fans of Winterson, Calvino, Borges, and, of course, Carson ought to investigate this delightful, labyrinthine, incredibly inventive book. I left myself get drawn into Shamrock Tea pretty deeply, so much so that I read later into the night than I should have considering the early morning I had planned. Eventually I slept.

Wednesday morning at 6:28 the alarm went off. I took a shower under the massage setting of the spigot, which made my hair look even stranger than usual. A quick trip to CVS for toothpaste and I was off to get breakfast. It occurred to me as I was sipping the morning’s green tea that I had not eaten since lunch the day prior. Once that idea comes to you it becomes impossible not to feel famished. The egg and cheese sandwich I ordered took its time arriving and I sat bleary-eyed and antsy gazing out at the passersby of Connecticut and Calvert. One of them enters and I ask him how to get to Georgetown. He points to the subway station, visible from our position, says something about a “foggy bottom.” I decide to take a cab.

Many cabs come through Woodley Park but they all seem occupied. After twenty minutes of failure, I throw in the towel and brave the underground.

D.C. trains resemble Taipei's in a lot of ways. They’re clean (Taipei was cleaner, but not by much) and they run with surprising regularity. And there are maps aplenty to help the ignorant rider. I study one of them, see the “Foggy Bottom” stop and decide to go for it. Reaching Foggy Bottom meant riding the Red Line (just like being back in Chicago!) a few stops and transferring to a deeper tunnel, catching either the Blue or the Orange train and riding three stops. Before long I emerge at George Washington University. My first thought: Damn, that bastard misheard me! My second: Damn, that bastard intentionally screwed me! But before long I found a sign with Georgetown’s name and an arrow pointing toward a hill.

I walk the many blocks from the train to the school, examining the Borders, Starbucks and other stores not to be found in The Exorcist. It’s a steep walk up 37th to O, the crossroads of Georgetown U, and I arrive feeling good about the cardio.

The campus? Nice, but you know… I go to Northwestern.

Seriously, it’s a nice campus, very impressive, nice buildings, pretty, leaves blowing about, students standing around shouting idealistic slogans… actually, not unlike The Exorcist.

It takes some searching to find the Intercultural Center Assembly Hall, as Universities are often disorganized places. I’m the first to take a seat (as always, I’m early) and I find the appropriate third row center spot. Before long, people file in. Before long, Paul Muldoon—unmistakable with his wild hair and rectangular glasses—walks past me looking confused. (Wild hair, rectangular glasses… am I imitating his look or is he imitating mine?) Ciaran Carson walks past me shortly after. I get nervous and giddy, like a fucking groupie.

The standard academic introduction begins the event. It’s overlong and yet somehow fails to capture the breadth of the poet’s accomplishments. Typical. First up is a video interview with Seamus Heaney. Famous Seamus could not be there for the Rediscover Northern Ireland festival due to having suffered a stroke earlier in the year. But, since you can’t talk about Northern Irish poetry without mentioning the guy’s name, they thought it best to tape an interview for the occasion. Heaney is old, very old, and funny. He spoke of translating Antigone and how a certain passage from the Greek Chorus mirrored current political events regarding pre-emptive wars and hubristic endeavors— a good example of the way in which art can travel through time and geography and remain relevant.

Poor old Seamus was finished before long and the live-in-person guests took the stage. Conspicuously absent was Medbh McGuckian. I was a little upset. I flew all the way from Chicago to D.C. hoping to see three of my heroes and only two showed? Damn. Was it worth it? The question flooded my mind as the lights went down and the poets began to lecture.

First up was Ciaran Carson. I have to say that of them all, Carson is my favorite. His collection Belfast Confetti remains my favorite book of not only the Northern Irish poetry scene but maybe of all contemporary poetry. Of course, that may change, but regardless, I love the man’s work and was especially excited to see him read and meet him. I had emailed Carson a few weeks prior and asked if he would grant an interview, time permitting. He responded with a very nice email, addressed me as Vincent “if I may presume” and told me that I was correct in thinking that the day would be hectic for him but I should introduce myself and we’d see. As he spoke, after first playing a bit on the tin whistle, I realized that I had no questions for him save for slobbering fan boy praises or something akin to that Chris Farley sketch with Paul McCartney. Worse, Carson, a marvelous poet, is maybe the most nervous speaker I have ever seen. He twitched and stuttered a bit when in the spotlight, though he was apparently very comfortable joking with the others. When discussing his translation of Dante’s Inferno, he recited a passage in Italian in a very serious, bombastic voice. Then he recited the same passage to the tune of an Irish ashling, which is how he sought to translate the masterwork. He said, “You could read all of the Inferno as an ashling.” Muldoon countered, “If you have the time,” which was greeted with laughter. Carson, in the manner in which old friends at the pub best each other, shot back: “There’s plenty of places in the inferno, Muldoon, where you’ll have the time!”

Michael Longley, of whom, I am embarrassed to admit, I know very little, spoke next. Older the other two, he represented the pioneering generation of Northern Irish poets such as Heaney who sought (or so the critics say) to give a native voice to Ulster. Still, Longley was refreshingly of a different opinion than one might think. He proclaimed the idea of a poet or writer speaking for the dead and suffering as obnoxious. He purposely shied away from writing about The Troubles, though he admits it was inevitable that the political climate (as I suspect is true no matter where you are) seeped through. A poem he mentioned, “Wounds” was a direct comment on the violence of Northern Ireland, but Longley did differ from the others in that sense.

Or did he? Heaney wrote one poem, “Casualty”, directly addressing Bloody Sunday. And a fantastic poem it is—one of my favorites. But what is more interesting in that work is the question it raises regarding personal freedom. I’ll save that for a future post, but it occurred to me as Longley was speaking that what draws readers to these writers is that they communicate the everyday experience of life, which just happens at times to be set in places of political violence, rather than make grand pedantic statements. Considering that, it is no wonder no there were few responses from the guests whenever anyone prodded them to discuss the IRA. In fact, when the Q & A began to swing that way, Carson answer with a simple “I don’t know.” He went on to explain that he could only report on his life and the lives of his friends and family and that making a general statement as to The Troubles is not the purpose of his work. Leave that sort of thing to Bono.

The lecture ended and I ran to the bathroom. Returning to the auditorium, I saw a slew of students getting books signed. Well, this is one of the reasons I came here, I thought. First I approached Carson. He was happy enough to sign my copy of Shamrock Tea, the very book I was half way through, but when I reminded him of our brief email correspondence, and the possibility of an interview, he was quick to decline the offer.

“Sorry, it’s just too much going on today.”

I quickly let him know that this was not a problem, sensing that he was beginning to feel nervous and put upon. I’ll admit that I felt a tad dejected. I had brought a mirco-cassette recorded, more batteries than necessary and two tapes, courtesy of mi niña. Alas, I would have to be content with a signed book and some pleasant memories.

Muldoon was far more approachable, clearly more comfortable in literal and figurative spotlight. He joked with the students, who, for some reason, were asking him to sign the selected works of Heaney. He signed my book jovially, with great flourish. Looking at the two signatures, their owners’ personalities becomes evident—Carson’s is small and exacting, Muldoon’s is grandiose. Their poetry follows suit. Carson manages to string along images and words that seem to neatly feed off each other while Muldoon is known for packing in all but the kitchen sink into his erudite, punning, often baffling verse.

Stopping by the display table, I saw many books I had to have (two recent collections by McGuckian, Carson’s translation of Dante). I debated about sticking around to see the younger poets of Queen’s University, one of which, Sinead Morrisey, I am quite interested in. Of course, I had to walk back to the train and figure out where the hell I was heading that evening, not to mention fill the grumbling hole in my stomach. So I walked.

There are no affordable restaurants in Georgetown. Well, there seemed like there might be a few cheap cafés, but I was tiring of bagels, toast, scones and the like. I would only have time for one more meal, so I decided to be picky. Before a viable option presented itself, I found a bookstore, dangerous for yours truly especially when in a strange town carrying lots of cash. Half an hour later, I left the store with a copy of Life, A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, not a book that pops up often. (A rationalization, I admit.)

Back in Wodley Park, I found an Indian restaurant that looked appealing. It has come to be a tradition to eat Indian food while traveling—starting in Springfield, Illinois, carried out in Seattle, Washington and, recently, in Taipei, Taiwan. And there were three Indian eateries on the same block. It was like being back on Devon and Western. I chose the one with the vegetarian lunch special. Fantastic! While polishing off the chana and sipping tea, I studied a map and realized that the National Geographic Society Auditorium was a mere two train stops away from where I was sitting. So I had some time. I wanted to hit Dupont Circle (I had seen a bookstore there that looked good, and Christopher Hitchens hangs out around there so I thought I might run into him and tell him to fuck off), but I was tired after eating so I returned to the room for a nap.

Riding the train on the way to the reading, I saw a homeless man wearing a Cubs jacket and a Bears cap, icons of a city I cannot escape.

After evening tea, I make my way to the auditorium a little early to check out the scene. I am told that a reception is being held before the reading. Sadly I am unsuccessful in my attempt to crash that party and have to wait outside. While there, I spy a duck wetting itself in the fake pond. Twenty minutes later, I am still following the duck and trying to figure out to get the little guy back to Chicago. Feeling a wee bit silly, I go back into the National Geographic Society building and look at pictures of Japanese gardens. A woman approaches me wearing recording equipment. She’s from BBC Ulster and wants to ask a few questions. Why am I at the reading? What do I like about the Northern Irish poets? Where do I live? It reminds me of Carson’s “Belfast Confetti” poem.

Carson reads that very poem. He’s the first reader, after another standard academic intro. As before, Carson is nervous with a slight stutter and twitches. But when he reads, he falls so deep into the work that the reaction is amazing. He reads the first part of “The War Correspondent” accelerating his speech as the poem unwinds, listing horror after horror. I can’t imagine anything else like it. It alone made the trip worthwhile.

Longley is next. He reads “Wounds” which apparently does not happen often. He speaks about World War One and reads poems on the very subject, all of which hint at the terror of war, all of which make me think I ought to investigate his work further. When not on stage, Longley’s heavy eyelids make him appear to be sleeping, but it is a deceptive mask, much the way his poems, subtle at times, hide a deeper, larger truth.

Muldoon’s the last to read. His selection is perfect: humorous, strange, baffling. I am reminded of reading from his collected works and trying to figure out if the guy is a genius or a loon. “The More a Man Has The More a Man Wants” remains one of my favorite poems but damn if I can tell you what it means. He does not read that, but finishes off with two poems about his daughter’s birth. “A Footling” especially knocks the crowd on their literary asses, mostly because he prefaces it by saying that he thinks it is important, after so much emphasis has been paid to The Troubles, to read a few life affirming works.

And the goddamn Q & A commences. This is always murder. No one has much to say aside from inane questions about anything other than the writer’s work. Usually it has to do with how they write poems, which is not a very interesting question. I would assume that they write poems with a pen or a computer or a typewriter or with sticks in sand. How do you answer that? What’s worse is that a woman in the front row blurts out: “What do you think about Virginia Tech?” After an eerie silence, Muldoon says the only thing anyone can, that it’s horrible. A tragedy. That maybe gun laws should be tougher. Carson interjects with a statement as to how it’s very difficult to get a gun in Belfast. There’s applause, of course, and I must say that the gentleman handled it well, but it reminded my why I dislike these things. Due to the geographic location of the poets' birth, everyone expects them to have some informed wisdom about violence, tragedy, suffering. In the end they have nothing more to offer than any of us, which is sort of the point.

The best moment from the Q & A came when someone referred to the group as “poets.” Carson said that he didn’t think of himself as a poet, and that whenever someone refers to themselves as a “poet” then you ought to turn and run. Muldoon backed him up. I remembered that he constantly refers to what he does as “attempts at poetry.” I like that. Humility from these men, two gods to me and many others. Muldoon especially is one of the most respected and revered poets working today— certainly the most prolific— and he shies away from the title. I can understand that. Being at Northwestern, surrounded by “poets” and "writers" I often feel like I ought to run screaming back to the southside and get a job at Argo Corn Products. Most people, Muldoon says, attempt to write a poem at one point in their lives. They are just the ones who lacked the good sense to quit.

I go and stand in line and wait to get more books signed. Muldoon signs my hardback of Horse Latitudes, his latest collection. He is standing while the other sit. Carson looks like he'd sooner be anywhere else. Longley looks tired. Muldoon signs the book and says, “Thanks for buying that.”

“Eh,” I say, “It seemed a fitting occasion.”