Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Meeting Brendan Kennelly

Yesterday, I bumped into the poet, Brendan Kennelly, who was also one of my old college teachers; a little bit of synchronicity since only the day before I was remembering (ably assisted by google. Is there a hybrid word for that kind of remembering?) one of his poems, I See You Dancing Father.

Over latter years I've passed him often in my to-ings and fro-ings through Trinity College and he never fails to greet me with his famous smile, even though I am one of thousands of his past students. I was lucky enough to participate in one of his creative writing classes - rare as hen's teeth in those days - but, alas, they were completely wasted on me. As much as I wanted it, whatever 'it' was, the penny hadn't yet dropped. I had nothing to say, or I was trying to write poetry when I should have been trying to write prose, or... something.

But all was not lost because, unbeknownst to me at the time, it was in his Irish Poetry lectures that I learned to tune my ear to the music of language. Through the recitations which I remember as making up a good part of the lectures, I began to understand the importance of sound, the rhythm and balance of sentences. What I did know then was that I could have listened to Brendan reading his poems with his Kerry accent forever. Have a listen and hear for yourself.

I'm not sure why I didn't tell him any of this when we met. Maybe I only figured it out after we parted. Instead we talked about my novel. Now, as anyone out there who writes knows, though folks may ask about your work-in-progress, may believe themselves to be genuinely interested, as soon as you begin to explain their minds begin to drift. You can see it in their eyes, a sort of deadening. Not so Brendan Kennelly. His listening was as lively as his talk, and he made spot on observations and comments.

He had plenty to say himself too. We talked about operations and childbirth and surgeons made of rain, missing letters and reviews, 'Seamus' (Heaney), early collections, early rising. A recitation especially for me, an audience of one. When I asked what he was working on he said he was 'scribbling away'.

It was an honour and a privilege to sit and chat with him, and it made my day.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Launch of The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce

I was in my home town of Athy, Co. Kildare on Tuesday night, and spent a very enjoyable hour or so at the launch of Niamh Boyce's The Herbalist, which happens to take place in a fictional town very like Athy. Set in the 'thirties, it tells the story of a stranger to the town who sets out his market stall, trading in herbs and creams, and darker arts. The novel is based on a newspaper clipping Niamh came across about a man who was charged in court with 'an offence against a girl.'

The library was packed, the wine flowing, and the woman of the moment, well... busy, trying to keep up with the long queue of folks wanting their book signed, the lucky ones who managed to buy their book before it sold out. Patricia Deevy, of Penguin Ireland, and writer, John McKenna, gave rave introductions to both author and book. Deservedly. I started reading the next day, and neglected home and children (and writing...) until I finished it this morning. It's a wonderful read; there's a beautifully light touch to the prose, a steadily growing darkness in the plot, and characters who I suspect will remain with me long after reading.

Before we left, the evening took on a slightly surreal quality when a local grocer and publican, now I believe in his nineties, leaned over and told my mother and me (of the herbalist) 'I remember him well.'

Monday, 10 June 2013

Making Time For Proust

This is my summer of Proust. Long overdue, 100 years to be precise, In Search of Lost Time has been on my 'must read' list forever. I have not approached a book with such apprehension since Ulysses when I was 18. And now that I've started the first volume, By The Way of Swann's, it's still taking me forever. Not in a bad way. It's just that every few pages, sometimes every few lines, something in Proust's meandering reverie triggers one of my own and I find myself staring off into space, my mind gone somewhere else, which of course means having to reread in order to find my place when I come back to the book again. A part of me, the one-time lit crit student, perhaps, is telling me I should be making steady, diligent progress; there are seven volumes, after all... But I've decided to listen to the other part, the writer-part, and it's telling me to follow Proust's lead, to take the slower, more scenic route in order to better savour the language and images, and to allow for diversions along the way. The summer of Proust has become the summer of making time for Proust.

So, I've reached the end of part one. Anyone who writes will recognise the moment the desire to write and the inspiration come together in the form of words for the first time, but few have expressed it as eloquently as Proust does here. The young Proust is sure that he wants to be a writer one day, but worried that he may not find a philosophical subject on which to write. Then, while taking a lift in Doctor Percepied's carriage something shifts:

'At the bend of a road I suddenly experienced that special pleasure which was unlike any other, when I saw the two steeples of Martinville, shining in the setting sun and appearing to change position with the motion of our carriage and the windings of the road...
As I observed, as I noted the shape of their spires, the shifting of their lines, the sunlight on their surfaces, I felt that I was not reaching the full depth of my impression, that something was behind that motion, that brightness, something which they seemed at once to contain and conceal.'

The carriage sets off again after a short stop and:

'I was fall back on my own and try to recall my steeples. Soon their lines and their sunlit surfaces split apart, as if they were a sort of bark, a little of what was hidden from me inside them appeared to me, I had a thought which had not existed a moment before, which took shape in words in my head, and the pleasure I had just recently experienced at the sight of them was so increased by this that, seized by a sort of drunkenness, I could no longer think of anything else.'

He writes the words down on a scrap of paper.
'...I was so happy, I felt it had so perfectly relieved me of those steeples and what they had been hiding behind them...'

I think this is what many of us mean when we say it's not that we like writing, rather, we like having written.

As it turns out, I'm not alone in coming late to Proust. Someone suggested thinking about the seven volumes as just another Harry Potter; that gives me about 10 years then, so no rush! My apprehension has been steadily lessening since I started reading, and it's been interesting and a help to read the thoughts of others embarking on the same project:
Surrender to Proust
Amateur Proust