Every year it’s the same: the Hay Festival programme for Kells is released and I spend hours, hours, I tell you! agonising over what events I absolutely have to attend.
Then, I remake the list because another event catches my eye and it overlaps with something on my first selection.
I’ve taken to creating a spreadsheet — regular readers of this blog will roll their eyes and this juncture and say, ‘there she goes again’ — but it’s the only way I can be sure of capturing all the must-sees and as many of the would-like-to-sees as possible.
Of course, once the festival actually begins, I end up slipping in just one more thing that wasn’t on either list because, well, why not? It’s like being a child with a limited pocket money, and too many goodies in the sweet shop. (Or, if you’re me, too many fabulous books in the bookshop.)
This year, I got lucky. I went to see Sean Rocks recording the RTE radio show Arena in St Nicholas’s Church, and got to see Brian Eno, Ben Okri and Matt Spangler talking about music, poetry, and playwriting, respectively. Seeing all of them at once solved a lot of my event-conflict problems. Not to mention, it’s fascinating watching a radio programme being recorded. We were also treated to a performance by that Celtic Woman, Deirdre Shannon.
The next day, Saturday, I went to see Sara Baume talking about her new book. I followed that event by seeing Anne Enright being, well, Anne Enright, and Paul Durcan being his astonishing self. On top of that, I squeezed in two readings as part of the Kells’ Writers’ Group. I had planned see The Medal in the Drawer, but starvation and exhaustion intervened and I missed it. This being human business doesn’t half interfere with my fun sometimes.
If you made other selections, ran out of steam, or otherwise didn’t get to any of these events, here, in a legume-sized shell, is what you missed:
Arena with Sean Rocks
Sean Rocks lives up to his name. He really does, you know. Rock. In the space of an hour, he covered a great many of the high points that his guests would be speaking about in their own individual interviews later in the festival.
Brian Eno, musician, producer, visual artist, political activist, writer and, it turns out, raconteur, was a fascinating guest. Asked about his experience producing the U2 album The Unforgettable Fire he replied like a man who’s lived through the sixties, ‘I don’t remember it.’
He remembered other things, though. When he first met with U2 and discussed working with them he said, “I want to change a lot.” Their unexpected reply, “That’s great!”
The role of the producer, he says, is to create an atmosphere. You have to anticipate anything that might happen and react accordingly. He’s not a fan of recording live music. It takes too much out of the producer’s hands.
He began as a student of fine arts. Like many others — members of Queen, for instance — he was drawn to music, seeing it as just another art form. This interest led him to experimental music, which remains one of his great passions.
The conversation covered his collection of broken tape machines which he used to create some of his experimental sounds, his interest in the Videre Est Credere (seeing is believing) charity, and concluded with his appearance in Father Ted.
Eno was followed by Nigerian poet-philosopher Ben Okri.
Like Eno, Okri sees the job of the artist to challenge the status quo. He doesn’t like it when a poem comes together too easily. In order to break up that smoothness, he’ll switch writing hands, forcing the other side of his brain to work, or he’ll change positions. “Sometimes serenity is dangerous,” he says.
He spoke about mysticism and the role of superstition in his own background. These images and tales inform his work and his philosophy.
Okri refuses to repeat himself in his work. If he finds a theme recurring he will scrap the poem. His ideal is to let a piece grow over a long period of time, sometimes over a period of years.
Next up was Deirdre Shannon who performed a haunting version of John Lennon’s Imagine. The theme for the Hay Festival is ‘Imagine the World’, so the song was well-chosen, and Ms Shannon’s rendition exquisite.
Sean Rocks’ final guest was playwright Matt Spangler. Matt is American but did his Masters Degree in Trinity and fell in love with James Joyce. Given that he hales from Wyoming and Hawaii, Ireland makes perfect sense. Doesn’t it? In addition to adapting The Kite Runner into a screenplay, he has adapted Joyce’s Dubliners and Finnegan’s Wake into dramatic form.
He talked about the challenges of adapting Joyce for the stage, saying of the two works, Dubliners is the more difficult. People know Dubliners and since it’s a collection of short stories he’s faced with the choice of adapting just one story and focusing on it, or on several and weaving them together. Not many people know Finnegan’s Wake, he adds, grinning.
Spangler’s most recent adaptation was Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This was a one-man show with an actor playing all the parts, doing all the voices.
Spangler’s advice to would-be writers: Write what you don’t know and you’ll learn it in the process.
Novelist Sara Baume read from her first novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither. She said she likes to make the reader feel clever, by which she means giving the reader just enough information for them to piece the narrative together.
Asked why she wrote her main character as an old man she replied, “I tried not to, but it seemed the right choice.” She went on to point out that human beings aren’t merely the product of their sex or their age, but are composites of their interests.
Like Brian Eno, Baume comes from an art school background. She worked in sculpture. Now she sculpts in words, she says. The process is the same, but writing is much harder. It requires concentration on every word, whereas in sculpture the artist can let her mind drift. In writing, every sentence by itself must mean something.
Her novel is dark, she says, and adds, “Community is only good when you’re part of it.”
After the Kells’ Writers’ Group did our presentation, I hurried off to my the next big event, Anne Enright reading from her most recent novel The Green Road, and speaking about her work.
When I arrived at the Eirgid Stage, I noticed Ms Enright sitting quietly, unnoticed, in the corner. She was still in that mode of gathering all her inner resources in preparation for her talk, so I didn’t bother her.
The room was packed and the atmosphere was distinctly rock-concert-esque. Minus the naughty illegal substances, that is.
Ms Enright is funny, engaging and fearless. She could have a career as an actress if the writing thing doesn’t work out for her. As she reads, she becomes the characters. She has Rosaleen’s pinched features down to a tee. It’s not so much a reading as a dramatic presentation. The scene in which she describes Claudine shopping for the Christmas dinner had the crowd in hysterics.
In between reading segments, she commented on the passage she just read, telling secrets — sometimes, sometimes keeping what she knows about her characters’ secrets to herself — and offering insights into how that scene or that character came to be. “It’s hard to know what success is, when you’re in the arts,” she said at one point. Then, “The only way to be a writer is to sit down and write.”
I finished my 24-plus hours of festivaling in the joyous, talented company of one of our great poets, Paul Durcan.
As I enter the Headfort Arms Hotel, John Lennon’s Imagine is playing. Is this serendipity or has the hotel had the song on a loop for the duration of the festival? Maybe I just got lucky.
There was no Q and A from Mr Durcan, just the man and his words. When the words are his, that’s treasure enough. Sixteen poems, he read. Jewels, every one. He began with Il Bambino Dormiente, then went on to share The Poet and the Judge, The WB Yeats Shopping Centre, Earthquake off Mayo, and Breaking News, this last being about hearing of Seamus Heaney’s death.
His subject matter includes the allure of the weather girls on television, a visit to the second daughter of Mary Lavin, and retail therapy. Nothing is too mundane for his notice, or his considerable wit.
It is the first poem that lingers with me. There is a poignancy in its conclusion: I got a Ryanair early flight back to Dublin, / To settle my affairs and get ready for my own little sleep, / Meeting my mother in the big deep.
Not for a long time yet, I hope, sir.
This is the last day of the Hay Festival in Kells. There are many more goodies yet to come and the sun is shining. Why would you want to be anywhere else?