Devenish Island
Courtesy Photo

It all began with Helene Schneider. As mayor, she’d made a trip to Santa Barbara’s sister city of Dingle, Ireland, and had a grand time at Dick Mack’s pub, which she thought would make a great venue for a poetry reading. She mentioned the idea to one former Santa Barbara Poet Laureate who mentioned it to another, and when the idea got around to me, I decided to run with it. The trip was a year in the making, and ultimately three former Poets Laureate — Chryss Yost, Paul Willis, and me — were able to head for Ireland this past July for seven readings over the course of 10 days.

If that sounds like a mad dash in service of poetry, it was. We made our way around the entire island, starting in the wild northwest of County Donegal, then heading to the Northern Irish city of Enniskillen, and on to the Seamus Heaney Museum in rural Bellaghy. After a long drive back into the Republic and down to Waterford, we went to Cork, then over to Dingle, finishing up in Sligo, in the heart of “Yeats Country.”

All that driving was not for the timid. I took years off my poor wife’s life, narrowly missing countless cars, lorries, and hay threshers on the winding back roads to which we were perversely directed by Google Maps. Among the routes I would particularly not recommend to the uninitiated driver are the R618 from Coachford to Macroom, the R561 from Castlemaine to Inch Beach, the one-lane unnamed road from Dunfagahy to The Ross, and any travel on the narrow one-way lanes of Derry, where, if looks could kill, a certain taxi driver on Shipquay Street would have slayed me.

We poets were lucky to have our spouses along. On the many occasions when we dined together, Chryss’s husband, George Yatchisin (a food writer for the Independent), was in charge of selecting the restaurants, and he didn’t make a single bad selection. (You can read about the trip from George’s perspective in much more detail at Sharon Willis and Sandy Starkey handled much of the socializing with our Irish counterparts when the rest of us were too dumbstruck to talk after a long day’s drive.

Chryss and Paul and I have known each other for many years, but we weren’t sure how our very different approaches to poetry would play on the same stage, night after night. Paul’s focus was often on the natural world, while Chryss read her exquisitely crafted lyrics. Meanwhile, I banged ahead with whatever felt right at the moment — often that meant poems dealing with America’s unsettled place in the world. Yes, there were the occasional awkward silences, and lines that didn’t quite connect, but usually we’d end the evening feeling as though we had done okay for ourselves and for the city we call home.

Among the memories I’ll cherish: The sold-out “High Tea with Santa Barbara Poets Laureate” at the Parlour Vintage Tea Rooms in Waterford. Standing amid the ruined medieval monastery on Devenish Island — the grass so green, the sky so gray. Watching Atlantic Salmon launch themselves up the River Sheen to spawn. The lone bouquet of flowers leaning against Yeats’s headstone in Drumcliffe Churchyard. And, of course, the people, especially the women and men who sponsored our readings based on little more than my promise that we wouldn’t suck.

Naturally, it wasn’t entirely how we had pictured it. We envisioned raucous evenings at local pubs after the readings — and there were a couple of those — but the drunk driving laws are very strict in Ireland, and mostly our hosts headed home immediately after we finished, generally consuming nothing stronger than a pot of tea.

At our final event, in Sligo, our venue fell through just a couple of hours before we were to go on. Our heroic hosts contacted the mayor, who opened up City Hall, and a security guard was posted outside to wave people in from the rainy night. The audience was no more than a dozen people, but they listened attentively, like all our Irish audiences, as though poetry were the one true thing any sane person would ever need.


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