Bringing words from page to stage


Some of our brightest literary luminaries talk to Catherine Foleyabout their experiences of touring the length and breadth of the country to read their work at festivals and cultural events

WRITERS SUCH AS Seamus Heaney, Anne Enright, John Banville and Colm Tóibín are in constant demand during the summer as it's a particularly busy time for poets and writers who must criss-cross the country to read their work at literary festivals and arts events.

Some have travelled from Listowel to Sligo, from Carlow to Chapelizod, or Galway to Glenties, not to mention further afield to equally prestigious events in New Delhi, Paris, Toronto, to stand naked, metaphorically speaking, in front of their public.

The race to secure the hottest writer for a gig at say, the West Cork Literary Festival in July, or the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in late April or, indeed, the Electric Picnic next week, begins early in the year. With a new book or a new collection, a writer's popularity can soar and they must allow themselves to be lured out of their garrets by festival programmers and directors to meet the great unwashed.

Harry Clifton, the most sought-after poet this year, according to Poetry Ireland, says: "I'm not normally on the readings circuit but, because of the critical success of Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004, I've done Strokestown, the Dublin Writers' Festival, and a University of Maine summer school at Dingle already."

He also read at the Poetry Now Festival in Dún Laoghaire earlier this year also, winning the Irish TimesPoetry Now Award at the event. He gave a reading at National Gallery of Ireland on July 30th and another at the Kilkenny Arts Festival on August 15th. Next, it's off to Paris in early October, followed by a trip to North Carolina and then on to Toronto for the Harbour Front Festival later that month.

"So it's a live issue," says Clifton, who adds that although "the level of attention necessary for true poetic transference is rarely achievable at poetry festivals, poetry festivals are where the poet rejoins the human family for a moment."

But, he cautions, "a cough in the audience, a pneumatic drill next door, a car passing outside, are enough to kill it off". Prose, he believes, "where the attention can wander without losing the thread, fares better in this situation".

GOING TO "A SMALL, out-of-the-way place and finding there's two men and a dog is part and parcel of the business", says a philosophical Dermot Bolger, novelist, poet and the current writer-in-residence at Farmleigh House. "You never know whether it's going to be 10 people or 100 people." But often, he adds, "it's not that important that it's a massive crowd."

By reading at an event, the bonus often is that "you could meet one or two people who have a connection with your work". And, he adds: "It's nice to meet people who read your work. It's an interesting experience. I find it similar to actors who can pick up a friendship after six months. The same way with writers, I have a lot of friends who are writers and I wouldn't see them except when we are on the road." Generally, he says, "I would do a certain number of festivals every summer".

Carlo Gébler, another busy writer with two new books out who took part in a number of literary festivals this year, says he loves reading at public events because "what you get is reconnection with the reason why you do what you do . . . when you tell a story in public you see, if you are lucky, that it does what the story is meant to do, it induces what narrative is supposed to induce, it induces a mild sense of other-worldliness, of trance . . . being entranced, that is at the heart of it.

"That is the reason for going to those things. You entrance your audience. That's a lovely, pleasurable feeling." In the past "you could be a writer and have no contact with your public at all. That was completely accepted," he says.

"Now reading is a branch of stand-up. You have to put out. You have to be able to read and deliver. It's very difficult for those who are not that way inclined . . . If you want to write, you have to read."

Gébler says travelling country roads to read "is absolutely a wonderful thing to do". You get to hear other writers and "you also get to visit places you mightn't normally go to".

The performance poet Máighréad Medbh, who will read her work at this year's Electric Picnic in Co Laois at the end of this month, is equally positive about the experience.

"It is always a pleasure because I get a lot of energy from the performance. I tend to use less page and more body when I am presenting my work to an audience. It's always a high. There's nothing to lose."

She recalls reading at the Force 12 Festival in Belmullet, Co Mayo, in June this year as being "stimulating" and "everything ran smoothly. They fed us very well and the hospitality was very good. You feel buoyed by that. That makes a huge difference."

Reading on a cliff top looking across at Achill Island on a beautiful Sunday morning "was a pure pleasure", she says. Reading in her home place of Newcastle West, Co Limerick, at the inaugural Éigse Michael Hartnett festival was another great occasion where there was "great energy" and "because it was localised it just seemed to concentrate the feeling".

BOLGER SAYS THAT, for a change, he took part in a family affair earlier this year where he read, and his sons, Donnacha and Diarmuid, performed, at the Glen Centre in Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, in a show called A Fistful of Bolgers. "United by talent, divided by hair," he quips.

"I was the roadie as well. I carried the equipment and bought the chips," he adds, laughing. He says "the actual business of making a living is complex" for writers and touring to different festivals is part of it.

"You need to be doing a number of things and although festivals don't generate much income, at the end of the day, they are part of the jigsaw that allows a writer to make a living," he says.

But, he points out, the explosion of book clubs has meant that a writer can now go to any town and there's a chance that there will be a core group of people who have read the book in advance.

After a busy summer, Bolger will also attend a festival in Rathlin Island in September. He read in New Delhi three months ago. He lists Brazil, Paris, Sarajevo and Toronto as destinations he has been invited to attend to read. He has performed at literary festivals in Longford and Liverpool. Both places "were equally attractive. The only difference between them is you get to play golf in Longford."

Pat Boran, poet and publisher at Dedalus Press, says that, since being presented with the Lawrence O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry in the US in April, he's done more readings than in the previous three or four years combined.

"I have readings coming up in Bangor , Donegal and then a last fling to Forli and Faenza in northern Italy in October. Along the way there will be the launch readings of no less than four new Dedalus Press titles. And after that, he says, it will be a case of "the ticking clock on the mantelpiece, the goldfish orbiting in silence, and dreams of readings and festivals in summer 2009".