John Hewitt International Summer School
Watch video and read our review of the week
Monday, July 25
The 'loaded word', remember, is the central theme to the 24th John Hewitt International Summer School at The Market Place Theatre, Armagh.
To open the week’s events, Dr Fran Brearton gives the festival enthusiasts an opening lecture on ‘Poetry and Forgetting’. Brearton describes how the Hewitt poem ‘Neither an Elegy nor a Manifesto’ embodies the paradox of remembering and forgetting, which are at the heart of political history in the 20th century.
Dermot Healy delivers the first of the lunch-time readings, reciting from his novel, Long Time No See, as well as his prize-winning collection of poetry, A Fools Errand.
In the Q&A session that follows, Healy gives some thoughtful insights into his own use of memory, confessing that when faced with his own past, he can come up with memories that sometimes aren’t his own, and 'that sometimes it’s hard to actually remember the 1, 2, 3, 4 of your own life at all'.
Author and Professor of History at Queen's University, Keith Jeffery’s talk on the complex relationship Ireland has with commemorating both the First and Second World War through the use of national monuments and cenotaphs, although interesting and well researched, feels a little flat.
Given that Jeffrey’s has just published a book on the history of M16, it seems this talk was, in many ways, a wasted opportunity.
It’s rare that Armagh gets to see two Pulitzer Prize winning poets read in the one festival, let alone on the one night, and so Monday night’s poetry reading from both Jori Graham and Paul Muldoon is the highlight of the week for many.
Tuesday, July 26
In interview with author Anne-Marie Fyfe, Jori Graham gives the audience a lesson in how to use tone and margin in poetry; discusses the rising insanity of the Tea Party and the evangelical right in American politics; her education in both Paris in 1968, and at NYU Film School under Martin Scorsese; and why feminism is not important to her as a female poet.
The lunch-time reading with Eva Hoffman seems a little subdued in comparison to the outspoken and charismatic Graham. Reading from her novel Appassionata, Hoffman explores how her musician protagonist becomes deeply involved with the complexities of her art. Her reading is full of 'loaded words', as one might expect.
The afternoon discussion, entitled ‘Remembering 20th Century Europe’, is opened up with Jane Kirwan and Ales Machacek reading from Second Exile, an unusual prose-and-poetry documentary set in Communist and post-Communist Czechoslovakia.
This is followed by a panel discussion exploring how Jewish history was both forgotten and remembered in central Europe after the Second World War. Eva Hoffman says that: 'In this passing on of memories, especially memories of Holocaust survivors, all of this very fascinating history gets incredibly reduced.'
Poet and physicist, Norbert Hirschhorn, traces the trajectory of the eerie silence in Europe and the US after the Holocaust, to the muscular Judaism of the State of Israel, and how distressing this ideology is for him as a member of the Jewish community.
Love and Fury, The Passion of Jonathan Swift, a one man play by David Heap, gives the tired faithful a few giggles at the end of a long and engaging day at the Market Theatre.
Wednesday, July 27
The polarity between the poetry of Mimi Khalvati and Medbh McGuckian couldn’t be further apart, but the contrast in styles seems to work for this morning's reading. Khalvati’s verse is sensual, and full of memories of her native Iran, schooldays on the Isle of White. She beautifully describes her younger self attempting to make sense of identity and place. 'As far back as I remember, home had an empty ring.'
And while Medbh McGuckian’s poetry may not be everybody’s idea of fun after a morning coffee, the harsh subject of her own mental illness takes a tremendous amount of bravery to discuss openly at a public reading. Her poem, 'Notes from Bed', lays this out in a very poignant way.
If Kevin Barry has a distinctive talent for writing, so too is his skill in acting out his own prose. Barry reads from both City of Bohane, his latest novel, and a snippet from his collection of short stories, There are Little Kingdoms, and has the audience falling off their seats for the hour he commands the room.
The hot topic of the afternoon, and indeed the week, is the debate chaired by Will Glendinning concerning the role of marching bands in Northern Ireland. While the thought-provoking subject was an insightful idea by the programme organisers, it seems that the panel are ill prepared for the level of anger that many members in the crowd fire back at them. Although, as somebody remarks afterward, even ten years ago having such a debate would have been unimaginable in Northern Ireland.
Thursday, July 28
Going through the back catalogue of Brian Friel’s various plays, Professor Nicholas Grene gives a lecture on how Friel not only uses what is the fallibility of memory to dramatise, but how that fallibility somehow becomes a truth for Friel as he is writing.
The hypotonic voice of Jamaican poet and prose author Kei Miller fills the room and leaves everyone feeling a little giddy, as his magical realist prose can often do. Miller's gift for storytelling, as he reads from his latest collection A Light Song of Light, charms the morning congregation.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and her vast experience on the Irish poetry circuit enables her to read some of her finest poems, including 'Un-lacking the Killer Instinct' and ‘Michael and the Angel’, a humorous lament to the great Irish poet, Michael Hartnett.
The only live musical performance of the week is a rare treat when Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, who take to the stage for an evening of reels, jigs and storytelling. A fitting celebration on the penultimate night of this year's festival.
Friday, July 29
The final poetry reading of the week is perhaps the finest. Harry Clifton opens up with a quote from Wallace Stevens, arguing that poetry is best heard or read in the morning, when the reader or the listener is halfway between the conscious and the unconscious world.
Clifton’s great skill is in his ability to place his poems in a grand historical and political context, connecting the personal to the universal as the poems unravel. Theo Dorgan’s reading is backed up also with an array of storytelling and charming tales, often derived from his life as an aspiring hippy. He also dwells on coming to terms with the process of ageing.
Molly McCloskey ends the last of the week’s readings with an excerpt from her poignant memoir, Circles around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother. She recalls the grief her brother’s schizophrenia brought upon her family, growing up in the US in the 1970s, and trying to learn about such a complicated illness.
Friday afternoon gives those participating in the workshops, who have been listening to the memories of other authors all week, the opportunity to share their own memories through poems, scripts and short stories for a two hour public reading. There are some surprises, and all should be applauded for reading such personal accounts in public.
Next year sees the 25th anniversary of the John Hewitt International Summer School, and according to the programme director, Tony Kennedy, it’s shaping up to be quite a line up. For more details throughout the year log on to www.johnhewittsociety.org/.