Monday, June 13, 2005

Belated Listowel update

First off, apologies for the delay in getting my post up on the blog. Here's how it went:

Big gala launch night at the Listowel Arms Hotel, for the 35th annual Listowel Writers' Week. The sun was setting over the town's race course, visible through the windows of the ball room, as the speeches began. I turned up, hoping I wasn't overdressed (sparkly shoes, lip gloss) but Ireland's glamour revolution has definitely reached the southwest, the fake tans and posh frocks were out in force. Minister for Art, Sport and Tourism, John O Donoghue officially opened LWW, and festival Chair Joanna Keane O Flynn used her own witty opening speech to make an entirely justified plea for more funding for next year.

Neil Jordan's novel Shade won the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. Previous winners include John McGahern, William Trevor, and John Banville, and this year's other shortlisted authors were Ronan Bennett, Gerard Donovan, David Park and my favourite Irish contemporary writer Colm Tóibín. (Seriously, the man can do no wrong - wonderful essayist and travel writer and a subtle, unobvious novelist - I must never, ever meet him or I'd end up fawning and making a total eegit of myself.)

The proper Writers' Week business began on Thursday, with workshops, book launches, film screenings, theatre shows, kid-friendly events, a book fair, and readings. (I should declare an interest at this point - I was running the screenwriting workshop.)

Billy Keane's book launch was the talking point for Thursday night- I didn't make it as I was double booked but I did hear him reading an amusing extract from his novel The Last of the Heroes at Poets' Corner on the following night. The other talking point on Thursday was Pauline McGlynn and Ross O Carroll Kelly's session on comic writing - a highlight not to be missed, by all accounts (I missed it).

Another highlight I heard about second-hand was the Ronan Bennett reading on Friday, June 3rd. A lot of my students made it, however - they told me it was excellent, and they seemed utterly charmed by the way he skipped over a rather explicit love scene in the extract he was reading as he was too embarrassed to read it out loud in front of so many strangers.

I did, however, make it to the book launch for veteran crime writer Laurence Block's new novel All the Flowers Are Dying on the Friday (and a big thank you to my parents for babysitting so I could go out gallivanting). He read an extract from the new tome, cleverly managing to avoid anything that would made him blush.

Then on to the Listowel Arms for a reading by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I'm more of a pop-culture girl than a high-culture girl, but I have to admit, this was the high point of the festival for me. The hotel ballroom was a magical venue, with the poet silhouetted against the setting sun and the race course. He read for well over an hour - his Anglophone son started things off, reading a selection of better-known works. Then the man himself recited a poem in Russian, explaining that there are 25 times more rhyming opportunities in his mother tongue than in English, so it was important for us to hear the rhythm that his poetry has before it's translated. He was right, it was. Yevtushenko doesn't stand still when he reads - he prowls the stage like a panther - and he's sexy and funny, with a stand-up comedian's timing. I won't list everything he read but the greatest-hits selection included intimate personal works Sleep, My Beloved, Sleep and I Love You More Than Nature, comic poems such as Metamorphoses and a recent piece, Kissing in the Subway, inspired by recent Chechen attacks in Russia, and an attempt by Moscow puritans to ban public displays of affection. Nobody was surprised when Yevtushenko told us he took part in a mass kiss-in to protest this dour and silly measure.

The Q & A session must have felt like an ambush, with endless questions from the floor about politics, Putin and the state of the Russian Federation. His delight that the Cold War has ended got a big cheer, as did his wariness at both Putin and Bush, though his views on the world and its leaders are overtly expressed in his poetry, so I'm not these questions were entirely necessary (and where were the wannabe poets to ask questions about stanzas and structure?)

Distinguished Malawian poet, Jack Mapanje, who read at five o clock on Friday, had a similar experience - an enthusiastic response to his lively and accessible poetry, followed by a Q & A session where members of the audience asked him to explain Africa (no small order). From all accounts, he did his utmost to oblige. Perhaps in a world where we no longer trust politicians (Mapanje himself was imprisoned without trial for four years by dictator Hastings Banda) and we no longer trust mainstream media, writers are once again seen as eyewitnesses, or less tainted sources of information.

My father's highlight from Listowel '05 was the Robert Fisk lecture on the Saturday, moved (like many of the other events that sold out) from the Seanchai Centre to the ballroom at the Listowel Arms. The ballroom was packed, the conference room upstairs - linked by a video link- was packed and even then, people were still clamouring to get in.

My friend from Tralee felt that the DBC Pierre reading on Sunday morning at 11 was her personal highlight.

But, if Listowel '05 had a theme, I'd say it's that the bookloving public is once again hungry for "the real truth" - postmodernists may scoff but I think it's a Good Thing.

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