This is not the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, finding chairs and eating porridge. It is about poetry, sustenance of a different kind, at this year’s Mountains to Sea Poetry Now Festival in Dún Laoghaire. We were treated to readings from three former Ireland Chairs of Poetry – Paula Meehan, Michael Longley and Harry Clifton. They read from their new and recently published collections, at three separate events on three different days.
As a writer this was for me a Dionysian feast, as each of them had played a significant part in my writing life from emergence to publication. It goes beyond reading and hearing the poets read their work. It is the importance of mentoring, the sharing of expertise and paving the way for new writers. They have been honoured by being chosen to be Ireland Chair of Poetry Professors. However it is how I’ve been encouraged and supported on an individual basis that means the most to me. Their willingness to support emerging and developing writers with generosity of spirit has made all the difference.
I began my apprenticeship with Paula Meehan at her course, Making Poems, held in The Irish Writers’ Centre in spring 2010. Many of the participants went on to become both published and award winning poets, Jane Clarke, the late Shirley Mc Clure and Daragh Bradish. Paula kindly endorsed my first poetry collection, Salamander Crossing, Lapwing Belfast 2011.
I call it an apprenticeship because I learnt not only techniques but how to use specific tools of the craft. I still find them invaluable, a constant reminder that I can assist my own creative process when nothing seems to be happening at all. I have her words like a mantra going around in my head –
Create first – Craft later – Critique last
The practice was to Throw Ten Lines A Day – just to relax in the breath, write ten lines, allowing them emerge unchallenged, stopping any overriding thoughts that might send the critical mind into a spin , reminding yourself that you can shape the piece and edit it later. When I practice this on a daily basis I can see the loosening up of language. It becomes more fluid given the freedom to flow. It reminds me of a Wimbledon warm up before a match, loosening the writing muscle, allowing you get into your stride, a kinaesthetic experience. The mind can be engaged later.
When I think of Michael Longley I am reminded of his gentle reassurance. I was lucky to get a cancellation place on an Arvon Writing Course at The Hurst, Shropshire, in autumn 2014. The week long residential poetry course was called Form and Spontaneity, with Sinéad Morrissey and Michael Longley as tutors, a powerful duo of talent and expertise. It had booked up immediately and I was second on the waiting list. Friends told me I hadn’t a hope but I had been to The Hurst before and always knew I would return someday and how right I was.
At the start of the course Michael Longley reminded us of the importance of enjoying writing. I never forgot what he said :
“Let us not take ourselves too seriously. We take our work seriously but not ourselves.”
When I met with him for our one to one tutorial, the first thing he said was:
“I like your poems.”
This was a relief to me because I was close to abandoning the poems I had submitted. They had already been over work-shopped and I wasn’t happy with them. I knew the problem was small but I couldn’t put my finger on the solution, until they came into the hands of a master craftsman.
By the time we looked at my poems we had already done a couple of days of group workshop, so I knew his way of looking at the work and how glitches could be teased out.
He focused on the line and its soundscape. He drew my attention to over density, the line too heavy with consonants, the need to give it yeast, make it airborne. I felt I understood this for the first time, his use of image to explain the problem. With ease I was able to sort the line that had bothered me. The poem took off and soon after it was published in Poetry Salzburg Review.
He was teaching me how to craft. Changing the form of another one of my poems to quatrains, of which he says he is fond, especially the six by four, made the lyric sing and it too was published.
Harry Clifton’s contribution to my development as a writer is very different. It is in the area of critique, literary criticism, and the understanding of the relationship between poetry and time, the influence of history and the tides of change.
He shared his boundless knowledge and invited us to enter conversation with poetry and start a discussion. This happened at a series of talks that spanned two years, hosted yet again by The Irish Writers’ Centre. It provided me with the opportunity of close reading work I had not read before, developing my critical skills and a curiosity about poetry today and where it has come from.
This curiosity, not unlike what led Goldilocks to the house of the bears in the first place, has been my porridge, sustaining me as I continue my writing adventure. Even when the taste is wrong and chairs become broken, I am encouraged to dance the dance and find my own comfort in the choices I make.
Meeting the three former Chairs of Poetry at Mountains to Sea, would not be happy ever after but just a reminder to have the courage to enter that house of poetry.
No need to ask for permission. Like Goldilocks, take a risk and follow your senses.
(c) Úna Ní Cheallaigh
Author photograph (c) Stephanie Joy