Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Genius of Poets

In Colin Will's blog, Sunny Dunny, I read that Seanus Heaney suffered a small stroke two years back. I was shocked to hear the news from afar but relieved to know that he's on the mend. I'd heard something about it via the grapevine, but it was all the more shocking to see it so formal in print.

Seamus comes to SF/Berkeley every few years and we catch up. Come to think of it, it's been quiet on the Seamus front for some time, now. UC Berkeley hosts a Celtic Colloquium around St. Patrick's Day on the odd years (UCLA on even years) so we usually see Seamus in the madness of March.

Long before he became affectionately known in the Irish poetry community as "Famous Seamus," I first met him back in the 1981. One sunny afternoon on "A Terrible Beauty," KPFA FM, radio host Padraigin McGillicuddy was broadcasting the poems (Field Work) of this marvelous Northern Irish poet, a visiting professor at Harvard, who was scheduled to read later that evening at UC Berkeley.

It must've been around St Patrick's Day as I was hungry for some good Irish music, and of course, Padraigin's acerbic wit. She was reading about feminism & St Patrick, so it was an incendiary show.

Other than Padraigin's show, I rarely listened to the radio as it was difficult getting reception so far out in the country, unless the planets were aligned and the wind blew just right. We were ringed by coastal mountains and tall redwoods. But Padraigin was a force of nature to be reckoned with. If she said, "You simply MUST go and hear this poet read," then so we did. Seamus's disembodied voice rang out like the bell of St Patrick and disturbed the air around it.

I jumped into my old blue VW bug and drove 75 miles to Highway 101 and crossed the Richmond Bridge over to Berkeley just to hear him read (I lived in a remote part of Sonoma County, near the Russian River). It was a life-changing event that solidified my dedication to poetry. I was fairly new to writing but then I'd jumped feet first into the deep waters and learned to swim in the process. Well, maybe flounder....

I was terrified my '69 VW bug wouldn't make it the distance, as it was already old and on its last legs. It had a delicate carburetor and intermittent electrical coil issues so driving at night was a risky affair. I spent far too many hours by the side of the road fiddling with wires and fuel line to get it going. It wasn't cheap to drive to Berkekey either, plus I had an unreasonable fear of cities, having grown up in the rural backwaters of the country with cows and sheep....

Back then, I had a sort of agoraphobia (a real fear of the crowded marketplace) in the truest sense of the word. I rarely, if ever, left the wilds of West Sonoma County to visit the metropoli of San Francisco or Berkeley (despite the catchy milk ad" cows in Berkeley?), unless there was a compelling reason. Seamus's poetry was reason enough for me to crawl out of the hills.

It was an amazing evening. As luck would have it, I sat next to his wife Mairi (in the only seat left in the auditorium—I later realized it was Seamus's seat—talk about being in the hot seat!) and Mairi and I hit it off like a house afire as she was a teacher, I'd given her a book of my students' poetry and art (I was a California Arts Council artist in residence at a Santa Rosa school).

And so began my long distance poetic friendship with Seamus. Somewhere in cold storage, I have a letter he wrote to me while he was at Harvard, in praise of my long(winded) lines and sense of place in my poems—I will have to dig it out one day. Gawd only knows what drivel I sent him, one can only blush from afar, across time and distance.

* * *
We were at Poetry International in 1996, stuck in a sluggish elevator between floors with a crazy gaggle of giggling African poets, so Seamus pulled out a bottle and we were all drinking uisce beatha from a tiny bottle cap making all manner of toasts to the Summer Solstice and whatnot.

Keeping the whiskey flowing, Seamus discovered that his flask had, in fact, "developed a terrible leak" and that it was a at least a cardinal sin to to be ever putting the cap back on such a wee flask such as his until it was empty when we were in such good company.

So we lubricated our minds and invented toasts to many odd things. Geert van Istendael was soon proclaiming that ALL poets were Celts and so the African poets proclaimed themselves as being Black Irish and raised the bottle cap to the dim elevator light in giddy agreement.The best round was to toast a noun as we were all pretty much pure verb at that point and needed a good solid earthy noun to steady us down.

We coined a collective noun for a group of poets as a "Genius of Poets." Seamus and I shouted out in unison.

The elevator doors finally crept open and we stepped into the lobby, forever changed. A genius of poets blinded by the light.

Heal well, my friend. Heal well, the poet's spade isn't done excavating yet. Neil says, "Read the hand!"

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