Elaine feeney

PoetryFest gets a broader focus

Belinda McKeon is co-founder of the PoetryFest, which is held annually at the Irish Arts Center.

By Orla O’Sullivan

When PoetryFest was packed in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, co-founder Belinda McKeon, knew the event was here to stay.

“That was when it was clear we had turned a corner and that this was something people really wanted,” she said. “We have very good houses—even three years ago when the festival was just a few days after Hurricane Sandy.”

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Now in its seventh year, the annual gathering at the Irish Arts Center will take place this weekend presented in association with Glucksman Ireland House, NYU, and the bibliophiles’ website, Literary Hub.

PoetryFest is said to be a first. There are general literary gatherings, such as the New Yorker Festival, McKeon said, “but are there other international poetry forums in New York? No."

The event grew out a casual conversation between McKeon her husband, Aengus Woods, also a writer from Ireland, and Aidan Connolly, executive director of the IAC. Connolly was intrigued to learn that McKeon had for years curated the Poetry Now festival, an international gathering in Dublin. “Aidan said, ‘I wonder could we start something like that here?’” she recalled of that conversation.

McKeon and Woods have since co-curated the gathering, which this year includes two Pulitzer Prize winners, neither of whom has a particular link to Ireland, Tracy K. Smith and Vijay Seshadri.

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Tracy K. Smith is one of two Pulitzer Prize-winners who will read at the 7th annual PoetryFest. PHOTO: TINA RUISINGER[/caption]

Although the initial audience for PoetryFest tended to be Irish, now the audience is bigger and more diverse. “It’s a festival that has Irish poetry at its core but it is international and will be more international as it grows.

“It’s for people who really love poetry, first and foremost,” she said, stressing, “The festival is not in any way academic.”

It’s a great way to re-connect for those who may have loved poetry in school “but have fallen out of connection with poetry,” added McKeon, whose debut novel, “Solace,” was published in 2012, and whose second, “Tender,” is due out here in February.

This is especially true considering that the events over the weekend are free, with the exception of the Friday-night fundraiser featuring an after-party with the poets.

The County Longford native McKeon studied English literature at Trinity College Dublin, but her own love of poetry pre-dates her university days. She mentioned “Geography III,” a collection by the American Elizabeth Bishop that has been a favorite volume since her youth.

Asked to recommend a favorite anthology for the uninitiated—the poetic equivalent of “The Joy [or angst] of Cooking”—McKeon said she wouldn’t want to show favoritism. Among the many anthologies people might explore, though, she mentioned a commemorative edition, which she has not yet read, “Windharp—Poems of Ireland Since 1916.”

Elaine Feeney is a “brave, innovative” new

voice in Irish poetry, says Belinda McKeon.

One of the PoetryFest events commemorates the birth of William Butler Yeats with a panel discussion on Sunday at 3 p.m.: “Yeats at 150: Cast a Cold Eye?”

McKeon said she doesn’t know what particular poems the 13 poets participating in PoetryFest will chose to read, adding that they have published up to 20 volumes between them.

Among the long established poets is Ciaran Carson, coming from Belfast, where he directs the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University.

At the other end of the spectrum is Elaine Feeney, from Athenry, Co. Galway. Feeney is, McKeon said, “a great, new voice… really innovative and brave.”

McKeon said reading poetry is “very important” to her as a fiction writer. Although she doesn’t write poetry, she said, “I think every prose writer is aiming towards a poetic achievement as well.”

Mario Cuomo, the late three-term governor of New York, famously said: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”

Asked about that, McKeon laughed and remarked, “There’s the idea of the power of language being so heightened in poetry that it has the power to be compelling.”

She and Woods, an essayist and a philosopher, met in Ireland and now live in a leafy, residential area on the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border in Brooklyn. “Our street reminds me of Dublin – Rathmines or Portabello,” McKeon said.

“We’ve been married seven years—as long as the Festival.” Now, that’s poetic.

PoetryFest will take place at the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st St., New York, N.Y. For more information, go to www.irishartscenter.org.