Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Belfast, devout and profane and hard

[Queens University/Botanic Gardens/Belfast at dusk]

The title of this posting is, very appropriately, taken from a poem by Louis MacNeice, a major influence on poets of Northern Ireland. From Sunday July 19th to Saturday July 25th I was in Belfast to attend the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry's 2009 Summer School.
During the week w
e had lectures and workshops from poets and writers including Ciaran Carson, Sinéad Morrissey, Medbh Mc Guickian, and Gerald Dawe among others. The experience was everything I had hoped for, though new experiences are full of surprises. A characteristic of Ireland - North and South - that I love is that there is no cult of celebrity like we see here in the US. Famous people, whether poets, musicians, actors, etc. still mingle with the public, and are not elevated way above the "common people". In turn, they are given their space, and folks interact with them normally. About 5 years ago a friend of mine saw Bono, The Edge, and their families eating at an outdoor cafe in a seaside town near Dublin. While the restaurant staff was attentive, they were able to enjoy their meal like anyone else. The poets and writers at the summer school were humble, and interacted with us extensively through the week. One of my classmates, Stephanie, and I even ran into Medbh Mc Guickian one day on the street. She recognized us, before we realized it was her. Americans are still a little sparse on the ground, so we stood out:).

Highlights of the week included writing haiku with Cieran Carson, and Sineed Morrissey's talk which explored her favorite poets including someone new to me, the Australian poet Les Murray. I loved Medbh Mc Guickian's exploration of Seamus Heaney's poems, which made his poetry so
accessible. Probably my favorite session was Gerald Dawe's discussion of his book My Mother-City in which he describes life in Belfast in the 1960's before "The Troubles". I was thrilled because he discussed Van Morrison's album Astral Weeks (which I have mentioned in past posts is my favorite album of all time). He analyzed the song Madame George - the best on the album in his opinion - in depth, and then played it. An insight I gained this week was that poetry, song, and music are not separate - at least for these poets. Astral Weeks is sheer poetry, and captures Belfast in so many of the references " on the train from Dublin to Sandy Row", "throwing pennies at the bridges down below" and places like Cyprus Avenue.

Some things to know about Belfast - it is peaceful, and thriving. There is plenty of shopping (I bought shoes - Echos on sale, went mad at the Lush store, and lots of books). It isn't easy to find food after 7 pm when pubs stop serving food. A pint of Guinness is only 3 pounds 10p (under $5 for 20 ounces) while a pint costs 6 euros or more in Dublin ( almost $8). People make a point of being post-sectarian though we had a 70 plus year old cabbie who acknowledged being a proud Prod, and to being a poet (he had a book of poetry in his glovebox). Cabs are plentiful and pretty cheap and won't turn their noses up at short runs. Often it is cheaper to catch a cab if there's 2 of you, than to take the bus (which costs a minimum of 1 pound 60 p). Our digs were a mile or so from campus and the walk home was uphill. The morning walk was no problem, but at the end of the day it seemed much longer.

It was great to spend a week in Belfast, and I came home with a load of new poetry-loving friends :)


[Kelli and Ritchie, Ciaran Carson at evening concert, some of the group out for dinner, party after the concert, Peter, Margaret and Stephanie; Peter, Colm and Em]

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