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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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:
BOOK OF KELLS
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.
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. . . .
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.
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:
EASTER SUNDAY, 2016
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 BOOK OF KELLS
written by Barbara Crooker
published by Cascade Books, December 2018
Poeima Poetry Series, 88 pp.
🍀 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 🥔
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.