January 2009 Reflection

Michael O’Loughlin’s office looks like God’s waiting room. It’s on the top floor—the fifth—of the Oscar Wilde Center, off a tiny landing, behind a white door. At the far end of the room are two tables and two chairs. On the table to the left is a computer, and on the other table are nine books. That’s it. The walls are white, and there are no windows except for one in the ceiling.

I came here yesterday to do something I normally avoid. I wanted him to read my poetry. Michael is a poet and is the Irish Writer Fellow this term at Trinity. Finding people who write or have written poems is a bit like finding stars on a clear night in the country. They’re everywhere. But finding actual poets—people who make a living from their work and are identified by others as poets—well, that’s more like finding stars on a cloudy night in the city. It’s possible but rare. And here was one before me.

I showed Michael six poems. Two are pretty much completely done, which means they could change a little tomorrow or next month but that they’re mostly done. Four are poems that are nearing being pretty much completely done. (No scientific terms here!) With a cursory reading, barring a few minor details, he liked them. “They’re quite good, really,” he said. I walked back to my building and up to my room. When I reached my floor, I was out of breath and only then realized I’d run up the four flights of stairs.

Earlier yesterday, Tony Curtis was a guest lecturer for one of my creative writing classes. He’s a prolific Irish poet who won the National Poetry Prize in 1993. In other words, he’s one of the best living poets in Ireland. He told us that he normally only reads his poetry aloud in October, November, and December and that the rest of the year is devoted to writing. “It’s January, but I was asked to do this, so,” he paused and spread out his arms, “well, why not?”

Tony stood in front of us and recited his poetry from memory, smiling and staring at each student while he spoke. He was awkward in his body, jerking one way and turning his head the other. His poetry wondered at the world around us. In the wind, a woman clamps her hand over her hat, holding in the birds. Poets run a motionless Olympic race. A person abroad sings three songs of home. I could see it.

He said he often writes poems in his head, and he recited two that he’d not yet written down. He told us the stories behind his poems: how on vacations growing up, he and his family went to a monastery where other family members were monks. He talked about how he was approached by a man in Australia and asked to write a poem for the man’s boat. He described how his mother asked him to write a poem for his father’s funeral. At some points during his poems, the entire class laughed, and at the hour’s end our applause echoed against the walls of the small room.

He bent to hug and thank our course coordinator Deirdre Madden and then walked out of the Oscar Wilde Center through the door students aren’t allowed to use, for safety reasons, onto the streets of everyday people. His long black coat flapped up behind him. He looked like any passerby. We’re a week and a half into our second term, and it’s gone by fast. After spending Christmas in Maine, it’s both strange and freeing to be back in Ireland. This term is busy, with writing deadlines, poetry submissions, an anthology to compile and edit, essays to finish, writers to meet, and work to do as the new Dublin editorial assistant for Irish Pages, a well-known literary journal in Ireland. Each day brings me more into the world of writing, and it’s both thrilling and daunting.

I had wanted Michael to read my poems, but I’d also wanted to get at something else. I’d wanted to ask him: is it worth it to be a writer? It’s not as if I don’t enjoy writing. I do—as much as it’s possible to enjoy hard work. And it’s not like I have a choice: I’m a writer and will always be one. Rather I wanted to know if everything I was working for was worth it in the end. It’s something many people ask themselves, I think, particularly writers since it’s their duty to question everything. That’s what writing is: a series of mysteries, questionings, and attempts to depict what is often indefinable. Maybe my question about worth was a silly one; maybe it was relative and unanswerable. But I wanted to see what he’d say. I was curious.

As any professional would, he said he didn’t know why I was worrying so much and that of course I should continue to write. Suddenly I didn’t know why I was worrying either. The key, I realized, is the attempt to understand. The important thing is to question. And, as Tony put it, “Why not?”

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