Painting the beauty of Ireland with their words, award-winning Irish poets Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan charmed the audience in Craig Chapel Friday evening. Sponsored by the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies’ Master of Fine Arts in Poetry and Poetry Translation program, the event featured readings by the two poets, a book signing and a reception with the program’s faculty.
About 85 attendees, composed of Drewids and members of the Madison and neighboring communities, filled the chairs and chatted in the chapel before administrators from the Caspersen School opened the event.
Associate Dean William Rogers briefly spoke of the MFA program’s success and cultural events hosted by the graduate school, like this one. He said the program is “establishing itself as a premiere program in the country. Of our students, 72 percent have been published or formally presented.”
Director of the MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation program Sean Nevin jokingly spoke to the audience about his being both a poet and an administrator. He introduced the two accomplished Irish poets to the audience citing their recent awards and publications.
In September President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins named Meehan as the Ireland Professor of Poetry. Nevin said, “This is the highest post in Ireland for poetry.” This reading was her first public U.S. reading since her appointment, according to Nevin.
Described by Nevin as “a native Corkonian and Dublin-based poet,” Dorgan, a man with thick, dark eyebrows, walked to the microphone on the stage. In a rough and cadenced voice, he said, “It is a great joy to be here in this beautiful place and feel the campus’s spirit of generosity.” The poet, novelist, translator, editor, documentary screenwriter, 2010 recipient of the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry and author of five collections of poetry captivated the audience with a selection of 12 poems.
His third poem, “Kilmainham Gaol Dublin, Easter 1991” entranced the audience from first to final words. Dorgan quieted his voice for the poem’s final words, “I do not know that I will ever be the same again./ That soft-footed gathering of the dead into their peace/ was like something out of a book. In Kilmainham Gaol/ I saw this. I felt this. I say this as calmly and as lovingly as I can.” The audience leaned in and sighed.
Between readings, Dorgan removed his glasses and spoke to the audience of his family, love, mistranslations, sailors and how he couldn’t resist the temptation to write about paintings.
Meehan stepped up to the stage next and spoke of the MFA program. She said, “This program’s dedication to poetry creates a welcoming community. Being on your campus, I’ve experienced this beautiful atmosphere.”
The poet with shoulder-length white hair and wearing a black dress spoke in a soft voice and with a pleasing lilt. Meehan read poems about her grandparents, her childhood, nature and the beauty of Irish music and culture.
Before reading her fifth poem, she explained the poem’s speaker is a blind woman finding her way home by music. Meehan wrote “Home” to honor the music tradition of Ireland. In the poem, the woman hears a familiar song wherever she travels, but never sung exactly how she remembers from home. Meehan’s completed the blind woman’s journey and said, “Where the song that is in me/ is the song I hear from the world, I’ll set down my burdens/ and sleep. The spot that I lie on at last the place I’ll call home.”
Meehan also spoke of her own experience in an MFA in Poetry program at Eastern Washington University. She said, “If I hadn’t had those two years of companionship and critical support, I’d still be in a bar somewhere talking about the books I’m going to write.
After Meehan closed her reading, the two poets sat down to sign books at a table just outside the Seminary Hall Atrium. A line formed and the poets greeted each attendee with a warm smile.
For Drewids aspiring to become poets, both Dorgan and Meehan advised young writers to read a lot and stay confident. Dorgan said, “Read everything you can, learn the craft and don’t inhibit yourself.” Meehan said, “We writers often start out as readers. Follow your instinct, self-validate and don’t be put down.” She strongly added, “Say to yourself, I have a right to be a creative person.”