Three readings and a CD release

The consumption of poetry and music in this town proceeds at a pace so rapid that the upcoming Fleadh Cheoil, the world’s biggest trad music festival, seems an impossibility – surely, there can’t be any more to do.  But residents of Sligo expect the population to double from 10-17 August, with fiddles and pipes on every corner, bridge, and balcony.

The Gallery Press Reading

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Ciaran Carson delivers his lines like a Puritan preacher at the puplit. Just, you know, a likeable version.

On Wednesday I attended one in a series of Tread Softly Festival readings at the Methodist Church on Wine Street.  This one featured Andrew Jamison, Ciaran Barry, and Ciaran Carson, three of the most widely read poets from Ireland’s premiere poetry publisher, The Gallery Press.  There to kick things off was poet, editor, translator, and Gallery Press founder Peter Fallon who first brought up Jamison.

The specificity of Jamison’s images was what first struck me – his poems at times approached lists (albeit beautiful lists).  “Let’s face the music, go back to the ballroom,” he says in a poem about Chekhov’s Olga Mikhailovna, trading in the cliche for an original image; “everyone will wonder where we’ve been.”  The poem is as much about his enchantment with Chekhov’s character as it is with Chekhov’s short stories themselves.  (A story, Jamison said in an aside, is like a dram of whiskey; a novel, like a pint of Guinness.  And poetry?  He left that metaphor for us to spin.)

In “Amen,” composed of memories of his grandmother, he says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us.”  The omission haunts us; we can’t help but hear the ghosts of the words he left out.  The meaning of the rote phrase is thrown open: deliver us from evil, deliver us from good, deliver us from knowledge and remembering and not remembering and responsibility.  Deliver us.

After a week in a seminar with Professor Herbet Tucker (of the University of Virginia) my ears were attuned to Jamison’s prosody.  His careful consciousness here, his subtle rhymes, refreshed my senses dulled from a life lived in the land of the free verse.

Ciaran Barry then performed, a contemporary of Jamison’s though with three volumes already published; he spoke with a slight tremulance in the back of his throat, like a priest incanting a prayer the power of which fears him, or a potter holding a bowl delicate from the fire.

His poems were more surreal and less concrete than Jamison’s, suited to his style of recitation (which, I suppose, might hearken to W. B. Yeats’ famous BBC readings).  His themes were predominantly historical, and he explored them with understated humor, muted pathos, and sensitivity.  “Electrocuting An Elephant,” the true surreal story of Thomas Edison testing his new electrocution device and camera, ended unforgettably: with “One eye open that I wish I could close.”

Finally the eldest poet, Ciaran Carson, closed the night.  Rather, though, it was an opening and a closing: he began and ended his reading with tunes on his tin pipe, strange old melodies that took the audience, for a time, into a new dimension of aural and emotional understanding.  Carson read original poems and a series of poems he had translated from French.

“Do we not wander the byways of language?  I don’t know what it means but it sounds great,” he said, and sent us off into the night, down other byways of language and thought and – most essentially – sound.

Joan McBreen’s The Mountain Ash of Connemara CD release and reception

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Joan McBreen holds up the eponymous Mountain Ash for her audience at the Sligo Wine Street Methodist Church.

I’ve been lucky enough to call Joan McBreen – esteemed Irish poet, daughter of Sligo, and veteran of the Yeats school for some thirty years – my seminar classmate for the past week.  On Thursday she released The Mountain Ash of Connemara, a CD of selected work set to new arrangements by Glen Austin, and performed by the RTE ConTempo Quartet, and the launch was one of the most moving of the moments that have arrested me since I landed in Ireland.  The string quartet’s masterful interpretation of Austin’s scores had what the Irish call “the true drop,” something distilled from the natural elements on which Joan draws in her poetry into a elixir.  We hung on every unexpected pluck of the strings – we soared on new melodies suddenly familiar.

One thing was obvious at the 6pm reception in the Glasshouse Hotel: Joan McBreen has many, many friends.  Two tenors sang a cappella lays of soldiers and lost love; one of the tenors recited a bawdy poem; Yeats Society President Damien Brennan and Summer School Assistant Director Matthew Campbell gave speeches – and all the while Joan went around passing out sprigs of Mountain Ash.  I wore one like a green and orange pocket square.  There were reels and jigs; there was abundant wine; and spontaneous recitations of Yeats and Heaney and McBreen’s own poetry popped and crackled in different pockets and booths throughout the evening.

When the party was winding down, Joan approached the booth with all the youngest Yeatsians.  “You’re all students, you don’t have any money,” she said as she passed out copies of her new CD.

Sinéad Morrissey

Stiff-arming a creeping cold and stifling a cough, Sinéad Morrissey opened a copy of Parallax, her fifth collection of poetry, which won her the T.S. Eliot Prize this past January – but she didn’t look down.  Instead she recited a poem from memory, reciting in her measured, mousey, forward-moving voice.

“If the rain could be translated into words, Little You, and Little Me, Little You, and Little Me, would be the closest thing to meaning you could catch,” she said, her eyes never breaking from her audience.

Sinéad told bizarre and engrossing tales of her childhood in Belfast, and of moments in time beyond her own life appropriated for her artistic “thesis” of parallax: the first jigsaw puzzle, made in 1766; David Nivens riding an elevator to heaven.  She brought us to the Belfast Communist party’s annual Christmas Bazaar, and gave us nail-shaped pencils for Maggie Thatcher’s coffin.

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A Quick Guide to Sligo, Ireland

I haven’t been in Sligo long, but I waste no time in getting to know a new city.  (At two in the morning after my first night in town, I took a wrong turn walking home and found myself a mile up the road to Ben Bulben, next to an unlit Esso gas station and very little else.  This is about my only qualification to write this piece.)

So, here it is, a guide for culture vultures, beer snobs, Yeatsians, jazz cats, and trad lovers.

  1. The Cafe Scene
    • Anyone accustomed to late night coffee joints in the U.S. or the streetside cafes of Europe – clean, well lighted places anywhere in the world – might panic in Sligo: most cafes close at six.  I don’t have some miraculous exception, unfortunately – local culture dictates that the cafe crowd shifts to the pubs, and if you need to do a bit or work or a little reading, or just want to enjoy a drink in relative quiet, Sligo’s rowdy pubs are no place for you.  One glaring, glowing exception is A Casa Mia in Sligo’s Italian Quarter, open late and serving light plates, wine, and coffee drinks at tiny work booths and one massive communal table.  The constant soundtrack of operas broken by the occasional (soft) bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace is a definite plus, though the food, the hours, and the atmosphere should be more than enough reason to visit.
    • Honorable mentions include Osta Cafe & Wine Bar, however, which is open until 7 Monday-Friday and 8 Thursday-Saturday – although their hours are flexible and patrons often push them well past their schedule.  Aside from offering a decent wine selection, good coffee, and excellent, fresh, local food, the cafe also hosts Irish- and French-speaking discussion groups on Fridays and Mondays – anyone is welcome to join.  The best part, though, has to be the view: the Georgian Yeats Memorial Building on the left offering a noble counterpoint to the postmodern Glass House Hotel on the right, all above the Garavogue River bright with swans.  Meanwhile, just off Wine Street diagonally from the tourist office, the Cafe Fleur offers quite good espresso drinks and a salad bar with an array of imported meats and cheeses.  The salient con of the Cafe Fleur is its popularity, as it’ll be crowded at lunch time.  And through the wifi is good, there are no electrical outlets in sight.  I encourage you to visit Oscars Cafe on Wine Street just before the entrance to the Quayside pedestrian street and shopping center, which has the best croissant in Ireland. Sean, the proprietor of this 20th-century film-themed cafe, moved from his old Cafe de Paris this year.  In his new location he peddles standard coffee, a variety of cakes, and the best damn croissants you can have outside of Gay Paree.  The recipe is a closely guarded secret, but as one of those poets would say, gather ye pastries while ye may.
    • osta sandwich
  2. The Trad Scene
    • Traditional Irish music is alive and well in Sligo, Ireland: walking past the pubs on Teeling, Quay, or Wine Street, you’ll sometimes hear it as early as five o’clock.  Some of the best players have come out of Sligo; and in turn the city brings the highest class of performers to its coziest venues.  The Harp Tavern on Quay St. offers trad every Monday night, buoyed up on free-flowing Guinness (as well as the other standard beers of Ireland – Carlsberg, Heineken, and, inexplicably, Coors Light).  The Snag, just a quick walk down from Osta Cafe, also offers trad and folk bands in Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and Shoot The Crow off O’Connell St. hosts good bands most nights of the week.
    • Trad fans should book their tickets for Sligo now: the Fleadh Cheoil (the world’s largest Irish folk festival) is coming to Sligo 10-17 Aug., and will likely double the town’s population.  There must be half a dozen excellent folk sessions going on seven days a week already – once the festival starts you won’t be able to escape it.  Prepare to be humming and jigging in your sleep – and (so I’m told) say goodbye to sobriety.
  3. Jazz, Punk, and All the Rest
    • While trad’s all well and good, Sligo is home to so many young jazz cats with heads full of syncopation and seventh chords that the fiddle-and-concertina set have to share space with a modern and decidedly global jazz scene strong enough to support the annual Sligo Jazz Festival and a permanent school of bebop acolytes and generally hip cats.  People come to Sligo just for the jazz: case in point, America’s Christian Scott, the Congo’s Tropicana Musica, and a host of students from continental Europe and the Americas in for last week’s festival.  5th on Teeling is the first club I’d head to for jazz and blues, but my favorite music pub has to be The Swagman.  This bar explodes backward from the front door, with plenty of high secluded booths and a parallel beer garden lit in jolly yellows and perfect for taking a bit of air or nicotine or a girl.  The bar also has the city’s widest selection of craft brews on tap – one of my favorites was the Galway Hooker IPA (that’s I for “Irish”), but visitors should grab at least one pint of the Swagman’s homebrew, Shtuff.  But I’m drifting off course: the Swagman’s best feature is its music.  On a Tuesday night, I found The Crack Heads, a bass, fiddle, electric guitar, and cajon/bodhrán band self billed as “Irish folk wi’ a bit of the funk.”  Actually, they played jazz-funk filtered through Irish trad and even incorporating Hungarian motifs.  The bar has music every night: on a Wednesday, I found a DJ mixing W.A.R., A Tribe Called Quest, and Led Zeppelin.  (And Parliament-Funkadelic, when I asked.)
    • Fureys is worth mentioning, if only for their Sunday night band, the Out of Towners.  This bar is packed on Sunday nights, such that moving, sitting, drinking, standing, and sometimes talking prove difficult.  But the music is worth it – the Out of Towners are a funky, bluesy, deeply original band, with new material as well as a host of covers that will surprise and delight.  (I’m talking Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” here.)
    • The Swagman Pub

      The talented Crack Heads on a Tuesday night at The Swagman’s Pub.

  4. The Arts
    • There’s too much going on in Sligo’s art and theatre scene to mention in a single post.  Suffice it to say that the Hawk’s Well Theatre‘s schedule is the first place any visitor to Sligo should turn to (or perhaps the second, after grabbing a pint and a local to fill you in).  The theatre offers a diverse mix of events, including lectures, plays, and trad concerts from acts too big for the local pubs.  The plays presented here won’t be as stylistically avant-gardeas the fare in Galway – but this is one of the only places in the world you’ll get to see Yeats’ plays, which are often too minimalist and stylistically challenging for art directors and dramaturgs elsewhere in the world.  Last week the theatre hosted jazz trumpet stylist Christian Scott; this week they present lectures from world-class Yeats scholars, a sold-out performance of The Man in the Woman’s Shoes, and a tribute to the late poet Seamus Heaney, led by his friend and contemporary legend Michael Longley (who’ll also have a book launch in the Hawk’s Well Monday at 7).  For visitors coming to Sligo in the next few weeks, the theatre will put on Yeats’ The Dreaming of the Bones followed by an octet of concerts from top artists across the entire spectrum of the trad scene, from Michael Rooney’s harp suite to the trad “supergroup” Máirtín O’Connor Band, much of this part of the Tread Softly Festival running through 8 Aug.  Poetry fans shouldn’t be dismayed that they missed Wednesday night’s Ciaran Carson, Ciaran Berry, and Andrew Jamison reading at the Wine Street Methodist Church: there isn’t a dull day in the festival, and the schedule is here.

[Click here for my Flickr album from Sligo.]