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Monday, October 31, 2011

Irish Poets at City of Asylum

Posted By on Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 5:36 PM

A group of four Irish poets made City Of Asylum/Pittsburgh's big white tent on Sampsonia Way one of three stops on their U.S. tour. 

Rita Ann Higgins, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Caitríona O'Reilly and Leontia Flynn were all included in the new anthology The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women's Poetry. The other two stops were at Chicago's prestigious Poetry Foundation and New York's famed 92nd Street Y.

About 120 people attended the free reading here this past Friday. 

Higgins was a hit with her droll, sometimes salty work. One darkly comic poem consisted of remembered lines of conversation spoken by a family friend from her childhood, a woman who criticized even her newly deceased husband: "That's the type of person he was. He'd rather die than please you."

Chuilleanáin's wonderfully lyrical work included selections from her 2010 book The Sun-fish, about the basking sharks that live off Ireland's west coast. She memorably described the big animals "feeding through their fixed yawn."

O'Reilly offered work including a poem written from the perspective of a geisha, with evocative imagery like "the new moon's incised smile."

And Flynn featured poems about classic authors, adroitly suggesting their personas. The F. Scott Fitzgerald piece had a nicely elegaic tone: "What we were straining for, it was already lost."

Given the anthology they were touring behind, an implicit theme of the reading was "women poets." But as the poets themselves agreed, that theme is a bit dated. The eldest, Chuilleanáin (b. 1942), said that when she was starting her career, in the early '60s, women poets were all but unheard of. (She said that at readings, she was sometimes taken for "a male impersonator.") But O'Reilly and Flynn, both under 40, hadn't experienced any such prejudice.

There was also some discussion about the use of Gaelic -- or, as the Irish call it, "Irish." While the language is still taught in schools, it's not widely spoken. Some poets just enjoy its sound, though. Higgins read one complete short poem in Irish, then its English translation.

An hour later, during the Q&A, a man in back asked Higgins why she'd bothered to write the poem in Irish if she were only going to have to translate it anyway. Well, Higgins replied with tart good humor, if she hadn't done so, "There'd be a guy at the back of the room asking, ‘Why didn't you fooking translate it into English?'"

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