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VERSeFest Day: Day 4: Higgins and Sweeney

The advantage of a festival is going to everything because you don’t know what you don’t know. Some poets have no digital footprint or are in a different literary ecosystem that isn’t liable to cross paths with your usual path.

Rita Ann Higgins
Rita Ann Higgins began to write poetry in the 70s after being hospitalized with tuberculosis and the bout with words far outlasted her bedsit, luckily for her and the rest of us. The book table brought her Ireland Is Changing Mother (2011).

Unfortunately the sweet lady couldn’t stick around for the whole festival as she had a prior engagement to read for the President of Ireland on Sunday.

She did get to meet and greet for a bit with the poets from near and far, including a pub where she met a sign with the cultural impasse that she could win a Moosehead fridge. Whatever could that be? She started her reading with a poem centred around a different fridge.

Some of the poems had a sense of being inside a shallow depth of field, a kitchen diorama where you are face-to-face with a close-knit village community who gossip and urge you to wash your face and watch your language, hold pride in the altar boys, or fret on the boys who drag race cars. “He pities me for writing poems in coffee shops that no one reads […] but I pitied him first.”

There’s a sort of local history and neighbourly comedy running through, an offering and a twist in timing on what you expect from the anecdotes, such as one where she described what an indulgence it is to have a good neighbour who (and perhaps I paraphrase) knows every detail about you, and likes you anyway. they like me more than I like myself…and I don’t like me at all. Snippets from her New & Selected give a critical social eye here has God-of-the-Hatch-man, about the social workers who promise to give migraine, his grain…and was the subject of her play 20 years ago.

She uses a lot of conversational tone, although bridges to what’s past that. You can hear her here read The Immortals about the boy racers as they convert from the boys you know to transcend their everyday to becoming gods, in temporary or permanent leave of mortality.

Matthew Sweeney
Matthew Sweeney also popped over from Ireland for the festival, and a couple other stops, including Concordia.

He started out introducing his curmudgeonity, with a sonnet after prefacing it by saying it a Rubik’s cube from hell and how he tried to redirect people to do sestina’s instead.

I’m afraid I then got lost in his vowels as his diphtongs and flow, his a and o took me through a portal to the 80s minister of my church.

His poems have some themes running thru, dogs, crows, cats and rats, ghosts, magic and ancestors and those abandoned decaying places in history.

In my scratch of notes, what had he said? “You have to lie your way to the truth”. [But so plausibly it could have been You have to live your way to the truth, or love your way.] As Ayelet Tsabari said, “the process of writing nonfiction is an act of fictionalizing”. Sweeney elaborated, if you try to go a straight autobiographical path, you’ll never get there, so here is a story like my father would have told, although he never told this one. I believe that was the preface to In the Garden about a cow rescue, my favourite of his poems of the night. (At that link you can hear him read, and see the text.)

He pronounced that poetry is a battlefield and we fight for what will remain. He indicted an overblown book review that said the book in question contained the best poem the reviewer had read in 20 years that Sweeney declared exciting as dishwater. He read a poem that is rebuttal to it, which is soon to come out in The Irish Times.

He has travelled around, lived for extended stays in various countries. He read poems from his sojourn in Romania. An image in time lapse that struck him from there was an abandoned car: Every time I went past the car, there was less there. It was like how ants got rid of a mouse.

A lovely economy of words and comparison.

Irish poets
The Irish poets in the break before an earlier event.

conversational circle
Evan Thornton in a conversational circle.

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