Barbara Crooker on The Book of Kells (+ a giveaway!)


Recently, I shared two food poems from Barbara Crooker’s new poetry collection, The Book of Kells (Cascade Books, 2018). As promised, she’s here to tell us more about working on the book while on retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland.

The first 21 poems in the book (Section One) are a meditation on the The Book of Kells itself, with ruminations on the lettering, ornamentation, inks, vellum and various subjects depicted in the world’s most famous Medieval illuminated manuscript. The remaining three sections include poems about Ireland (flora, fauna, countryside) as well as Barbara’s observations about her spring and fall residencies.

You will note that Barbara considered food an important part of her residency experience (my kind of writer!). We thank her for detailing a few of her meals, and for sharing so many lovely personal photos of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre building and grounds.



Tyrone Guthrie House


Had you visited Ireland before your Tyrone Guthrie Centre residencies?  Please describe what a typical day was like for you there.

Yes, my husband and I went there twice as tourists, staying in farmhouse B&Bs. The first time, we landed in Shannon, drove across to near Dublin, and did a half circle, including the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, and The Burren. The second time, we stayed Beyond the Pale, the area right around Dublin, including Glendalough, Newgrange, and Douth.

Our typical day included a big Irish breakfast (porridge with Bailey’s Irish Cream, stewed rhubarb, eggs, bacon (which is more like our ham), sausage, white and black puddings (another type of sausage, very rich), brown bread, Irish butter and marmalade, and fried eggs. I took to asking for the children’s portion (one of each), as I couldn’t manage a regular plateful.

Then we’d head off to some historic site or attraction, like Powerscourt Gardens or Castletown House, perhaps having a light lunch at a tea room. And then off to a pub for dinner, although we had trouble finding traditional Irish food, finding that most folks, when they went out, wanted something different, like Spaghetti Bolognese or enchiladas. So we kept searching for fish stew, fish and chips, bangers and mash, and the like.


Barbara’s bedroom and writing room at the TGC


Why did you want to write about The Book of Kells?

When you apply for a residency, you have to have a project in mind, so I thought this might be something different to write about. I bought a book on Amazon with good color plates, and then I used the online version–the entire manuscript is online at the Trinity College website. As I worked on those poems, other themes evolved, such as the flora and fauna of Ireland, my experiences there, and the form called the glosa, which called to me. After writing the first one, I decided to use Irish writers for the quatrains that are embedded within the poems, which is also part of how the writing evolved.


The view from her window.


TGC Living Room


Though I haven’t seen The Book of Kells in person, I have seen other illuminated manuscripts and have been swept up in awe and reverence. What was your research at the Trinity College Old Library, like? Were you granted up close and personal access to Ireland’s finest national treasure?

Alas, I would have had to be a visiting scholar with major university support for that to have happened. Instead, I was in residence at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co. Monaghan, right near the northern border, without a car, so I didn’t think I would get to see it. But then one of the other fellows at the TGC had to go down to Dublin for the day for a funeral, and so I asked her if I could tag along and go to Trinity College.

We had a lovely day; she drove me all around the city, and was a terrific tour guide. And I got to see the one “page of the day” of the Book of Kells that was on display. The other parts of the exhibit, short videos on how the vellum was produced, how the inks were made, how the scribes did the writing and the illuminations were also fascinating, as was the library itself, stunningly beautiful. There’s a photo of it going around Facebook as a meme with this caption, “Marie Kondo, this brings me joy.” (She’s the tidying up expert who thinks we only need thirty books. Hah!)


Lake Annaghmakerrig


What aspects of Irish culture nourished your creative spirit the most?

The deep spirituality, connected to the Celtic past and brought forward through the ages. The deep sense of time.




I love how you mention food in some of the poems in your new book. What’s the most memorable meal you had in Ireland? What about Irish foods/dishes that you tried for the first time and liked?

I’d have to say every single thing I ate at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, where they have their own cook and use locally sourced foods, was memorable. Sometimes, it was the simplest thing, like the thick, rich Irish cream, which must come from the happiest cows in the greenest meadows. Whether poured on porridge (oatmeal), or on top of something simple, like stewed plums, this cream elevated whatever it was paired with to something ethereal.


Easter dinner at the TGC


A splendid trifle at the TGC


Did you enjoy the pub culture there?

Alas, no. There used to be a pub near the TGC, the Black Kesh, but it’s been abandoned for about ten years. Ireland is very strict re: its drunk driving laws, and the next nearest pub was too far to walk at night over dark country roads. I did have a lovely pub afternoon when I went into Cootehill with a painter and another writer on a wine run, and we spent a happy hour or so in front of the peat fire with a Guinness (and a fish stew that we’d taken out from a nearby deli). But we did have ceilis (parties with poetry, music, and wine) in the dining room some nights. One night, Ireland’s leading practitioner of the Uilleann pipes organized an event where I read some poems in between musical numbers. It was magical!

Please discuss a favorite poem from Section One of the book that has an especially interesting or unusual backstory.

I’m not sure any of the poems have much of a backstory, in that I hope clarity and transparency are two of my main characteristics. Having said that, let me comment on this one:


Zoom of 253v showing letter “N”



October 19, 2013: folio 253v-254r

The text of the day is open to Luke, chapter sixteen,
verse ten. The initial N, made up of blond men

facing off, grappling and tugging at each other’s beards,
becomes the first word in the section that warns us

that no servant can serve two masters. Irony intended.
Later, in beautiful insular majuscule, the open letters filled

in red and blue, we read You cannot serve both God and money.
I wish that these words would rise off the page, a swarm of bees,

become honey to spread on our daily bread. When the scribes
made an error, in a world before white-out, the correct word

was inserted in a box of red dots. Aren’t there words today
we’d like to amend like that? In this dimly lit room, circling

glass cases, I return to view the same vellum over again,
twelve hundred years later, clear as the day it was written.

I think of Henri Nouwen: The word is born in silence,
and silence is the deepest response to the word.


Full page view, 253v



I began my journey as a writer in my undergraduate years, when our tools were pen, pencil, and the manual typewriter. My college did not allow erasable bond, as it smeared, so if there were errors, you had to rip up the page and start all over again (white-out, either liquid or tape, wasn’t invented yet). Wanted to move a paragraph around? Cut and paste wasn’t invented, neither was its precursor, where you physically cut the paper and pasted it elsewhere, then Xeroxed it (nope, wasn’t invented yet) to make it look like the paragraph was where it was supposed to be. When I describe this to today’s students, it’s almost as quaint as writing with a quill on vellum. . . .


TGC Poetry Library


In addition to free verse and ekphrastic poems, you’ve included a number of glosas. Can you tell us a bit more about this poetic form? Was it more constricting or freeing for you as a writer, and what were a few of the specific challenges you faced with the glosas?

The glosa is a received form, which includes a tribute paid to another poet with an opening quatrain, called a cabeza. Each line of this quatrain becomes imbedded as the last line of a ten line stanza, with the final word of the borrowed tenth line rhyming with the 6th and 9th lines. Are you with me?

It’s a tricky form, and it took years off my life doing them! The first one was the one on Skellig Michael, and how those Irish monks saved what was left of Western Civilization during the Dark Ages. But after I wrote that one, I decided that the other glosas should use stanzas from Irish poets, so that took my work off in different directions, using quatrains from Yeats, Heaney, and O’Driscoll.

During these two residencies, which are, of course, self-directed, I started each day with a different meditation on the Book of Kells (or continued working on something I’d started the day before), then moved to working on a glosa. This discipline kept me focused, but also opened me up to other poems that started coming, based on my experiences living and working in Ireland. I’m not sure they would have come if I’d just been staring at a blank page. Since I had something challenging to work on (the glosas), when I turned back to free verse, I think it made my work deeper and richer. Also, just listening to conversation at the dinner table, with the lilt and musical accents, altered my rhythms in some mysterious and inexplicable way.


TGC Big Library


Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your new book?

One of the things I’ve learned to do on these residencies is to be open to serendipity. And also to play. So when some of the other Fellows wanted to take off and tour a Georgian Manor, I joined them instead of chaining myself to my desk. It was Easter, which also coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Easter Uprising, and there were interesting articles in the paper (which was bought for the Fellows and left out in the breakfast corner for us to read). I didn’t intend to write about any of this, but whoops, then I did:


Florence Court (via The Savvy Traveler)



On the centenary of the Uprising, we tour
a Georgian house, Florence Court, home
of the Earls of Enniskillen, part of the Protestant
Ascendancy. We’re Americans, don’t understand
the significance of this date. Instead, we take it all in:
Palladian windows, baroque plasterwork, ornate
silver service, hand-painted porcelain.

Downstairs in the servants’ quarters:
the wine cellar housing hundreds of bottles, the room
set aside for polishing, another room just for china.
A staff of twenty-four for this small family.
Servants were invisible, had to scuffle down cold
corridors with coal scuttles, heavy trays of food,
enter the dining room from behind an Oriental screen.
In the hall, the omnipresent bells, still waiting
to be rung.

Later, we read the Irish Times, see snapshots of Dublin,
parents bringing children to the General Post Office,
where you can still feel the bullet holes. This is not the Fourth
of July: no fireworks, barbecues, marching bands,
just a nation sobered by the civil war that followed,
the streets of blood, where, Yeats wrote,
a terrible beauty is born.

We leave in a downpour, and then the sun comes out.
An unironic rainbow, translucent and fragile,
follows us on a road that had been cratered
and bombed during The Troubles, but is now
paved over, smooth macadam all the way home.


The “unironic rainbow” mentioned in the poem.




written by Barbara Crooker
published by Cascade Books, December 2018
Poeima Poetry Series, 88 pp.




Mr Cornelius is giving away a brand new copy of THE BOOK OF KELLS to one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EDT), Wednesday, April 10, 2019. You may also enter by sending an email with KELLS in the subject line to:  readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!




The lovely (and always clever) Karen Edmisten is hosting the Roundup today. Be sure to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. Hope you’re enjoying National Poetry Month so far. Have a nice weekend!

*Unless otherwise noted, all photos copyright © 2019 Barbara Crooker.

** Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

53 thoughts on “Barbara Crooker on The Book of Kells (+ a giveaway!)

  1. Oh, my goodness! Barbara is MY KIND of WRITER too! What a full and nutritious post for this reader who was taught early on to revere her Irish roots. I am absolutely going to tried writing a glosas….I’m wondering if Kwame Alexander’s book, ‘Out of Wonder’ is a collection of these? I’ll need to investigate. Beautiful post today. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  2. On my first trip to Dublin, I planned a visit without the help of a travel agent, back in 2005. This was my first trip to Europe! My daughter Jodi was on spring break from a semester abroad at St. Andrews, the same time that Prince William and Kate Middleton were completing their last year at the university. I booked a short stay in St. Andrews, and my husband and I got a brief chance to sightsee. Jodi wanted to explore Dublin, so I found a delightful bed and breakfast, which was our home base for a few days before I had to return to my teaching job in Pennsylvania. We took a city tour on a bus that let us get on and off at our leisure. Jodi was studying writing and literature at Bryn Mawr College, so we spent a lot of time at the Dublin Writers Museum. We stopped at Trinity College, and I wanted to see The Book of Kells. I had done calligraphy as a hobby for many years, even writing names in a dictionary awarded to students who were on the principal’s list. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time for a tour. This is something I have always regretted. I would love to experience the beautiful book of poetry, The Book of Kell, by Barbara Crooker.

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    1. Barbara was very generous with her photos and answers. I’ve featured more of her poetry than that by any other contemporary female poet on this blog.


  3. Oh, my! Jama and Barbara, thank you so much for this little visit to Ireland! I was there decades ago, and it remains one of my favorite places to visit. I, too, saw the “page of the day” of the Book of Kells, and I admire your work in bringing new views and poetic forms to honor this work of art, Barbara.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How lucky you were to see the page of the day, Jane. So many people have fond memories of their visits to Ireland, wanting to go back.


  4. I do so love Barbara Crooker’s work! And I was especially intrigued by her comment that working on the very restrictive glosas helped make her free verse richer and deeper.
    I, too, saw the bullet holes at the General Post Office, and since my father shared the same name – Thomas McDonough -as one of the men martyred for the cause, I felt a deep connection.
    Thanks, Jama, for this marvelous post.

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  5. I’m so grateful you introduced me to Barbara Crooker’s work years ago, and so glad to know about this one. What a treat to read about her experience, and see the pictures — I didn’t think I could like anything more than those sheep, but then there was that dinner table, and then there was the poetry library! I’m also intrigued by the way the glosa pays homage, as Linda mentions is done in Out of Wonder (but not glosas) or the Golden Shovel Nikki Grimes and others use. Thank you. And bring on the porridge with Baileys!

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    1. I was also impressed by the poetry library! One could get lost in there for months. B’s landscape photos were beautiful; she was nice to provide foodie ones too, to satisfy my appetite. That trifle!


  6. What a gem! Looking forward to reading this! Thanks for introducing me to all these great titles. I hope to make it to Ireland some day! Despite my Italian surname, I have a great grandmother who was from Galway! 🙂

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  7. Well, I recently finished “Les Fauves”, so love knowing more about Barbara’s new “Book of Kells”, just in time for spring celebration in Ireland. Hearing what it’s like to be in Ireland writing is wonderful, the silent mornings, the time spent visiting, the food at the table. I was with students once where those who cooked for us served porridge with their own rich cream. Perhaps it wasn’t quite the same, but Barbara’s words took me there to my memory. I enjoyed the explanation of the glosas, perhaps someday? Thanks for our ‘breakfast’ post, Jama.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see I’m missing a lot by not having had porridge with fresh cream. It *does* sound rich and delicious. I could probably turn into a cat and lap it up day after day . . . 🙂


  8. Oh, my WORD, this is beautiful – both the poetry and her writings on staying at that lovely place. I need more Barbara C. in my life – and more Ireland, clearly.

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    1. Barbara never disappoints. I have most of her books and go back to them frequently. It was such a treat to ask her these questions and hear about her time in Ireland.


  9. What a fabulous read! And I’d like to point out that I have a US address. 🙂 Ruth,

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  10. This is so good, Jama! I read your post early this morning but didn’t have time to comment, so I’m coming back. Your interview is lovely and so informative. I looked up “glosa” and am intrigued by the form. I want to try; ideas are brewing. Beautiful old manuscript. I was much taken by old manuscripts in the British Library in London when we were there–they were under glass. My husband studied ancient biblical languages in seminary, so of course, we viewed many of the biblical manuscripts, including the Codex Sinaiticus. I was much intrigued by Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript Alice’s Adventures Underground and Handel’s draft score of “Messiah.” That was in the late 90s before they were all digitized. Now you can view them on the internet… but not quite the same. They have life in them even under glass that digitized does not capture. Now I need a copy of Barbara Crooker’s “The Book of Kells.” I LOVE all the pictures.. especially the tree and the sheep in the pasture beside the water. {sigh}

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your memories of the British Library, Alice. I visited the British Museum Manuscript Room a couple of times and totally agree that even under glass, those original writings hold so much power and wonder — just magical and amazing. I agree that seeing them digitized online just isn’t the same. Seeing those manuscripts was one of the BEST parts of visiting London.

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  11. I love everything about this post. I’m a fan of Barbara’s poetry, and the photos are gorgeous. What a lovely place to write!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s nice to see where some of the “magic” took place in writing the poems for this collection, isn’t it? 🙂


  12. Thank you, Jama and Barbara, for this rich and enlightening interview! Barbara’s photos are so inviting, and the poems are full of lines I want to savor. Yes to “I wish that these words would rise off the page, a swarm of bees,/become honey to spread on our daily bread.” And this: “…be open to serendipity. And also to play.” Wise words, indeed!

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    1. She’s amazing, isn’t she? I have to read her books slowly — there’s so much swooning involved along the way. 🙂


  13. Fascinating interview! I feel like you could do a whole post on Irish breakfasts, Jama. Also, that trifle looks delish.
    “I wish that these words would rise off the page, a swarm of bees,/become honey to spread on our daily bread. ” — same.
    I look forward to the next Barbara Crooker post, whenever that may be!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would be fun — Irish breakfasts — especially since I’m Irish. 🙂 Had a friend who’d send me St. Paddy’s Day cards addressed to Jama O’Kim. So it’s official.


    1. I’ve always been fascinated by illuminated manuscripts too. How did they DO it? And some are so well preserved. Wonder if they ever imagined we’d be looking at, admiring, and studying their work 1000 years later?

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  14. Wow! That was just full! I loved hearing how the process started and evolved in the project, and I hate to sound like “wow, the pictures were cool”, but they were. That tree with the daffodils was beautiful. Then the glosa – I need to study this one more – diagram it or something. Intriguing form.
    Thanks for a very informative post. My brain grew. Lol!

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  15. Thanks Jama for sharing Barbara with us and this virtual visit to her residency at Tyrone Guthrie Centre–loved seeing all the grounds and interiors. Especially enjoyed the closeup view of the table and all the delectable food they were having. And what fun to see how they made their clever corrections in dotted boxes.

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  16. Barbara is one of my very very favorite poets, and Jama, your blog is also one of my favorites—love you both! Am going to try a glosa now…eeek…

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  17. Jama, as I read your in-depth interview, I couldn’t help but be swept up in the Irish countryside and thinking what an experience, sojourning with nature would be like. Everything about this post is fascinating-the intro to the Book of Kells, the photographs, the food, and Barbara Cook’s remarks. Many thanks for such a rich post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Carol. It was so good of Barbara to give us a peek at what it was like to be in residence at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. We can see that there was no shortage of inspiration for writers or artists there — such a beautiful place. I’m always hoping to read more Irish poets too — such a rich cultural and literary heritage.


  18. Thanks for introducing Barbara Crooker’s Book of Kells–it looks fascinating. Back in the day I used to do a fair bit of calligraphy, and was fascinated by illuminated manuscripts. (Plus flora, fauna, and poetry–definitely my kind of book!) I can see how trying to write a glosa would make your head spin!

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  19. The richness of time and depth of thought that went into this project surely resulted in a magical book. Thank you to you and Barbara for sharing the backstory of this experience with all of us. I also love the advice to be open to serendipity and play!


    1. I agree that is great advice — we must always remain open to serendipity and play. It’s good to shake up established patterns of thought, old habits once in awhile. It’s important to be flexible and go with the flow sometimes . . . (I’m working on it). 🙂

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  20. I enjoyed reading this post. I’ve had the privilege of seeing the Book of Kells, and will look into Barbara’s book. Thank you for sharing!

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  21. Oh, my goodness — Barbara Crooker, Ireland, the Book of Kells, poetry, gorgeousness … this entire post is magic. Thank you, Jama.

    Liked by 1 person

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