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Piecing together a New York story

May 22, 2019

By Peter McDermott

Poet Vona Groarke researched her book “Hereafter” while a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT

 

By Peter McDermott

County Longford-born poet Vona Groarke is grateful.

And that seems to be what everyone else feels at the end of their nine-month stint as a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library.

Groarke’s research in New York has led directly to the yet to be published “Hereafter,” which addresses directly the experiences of a particular immigrant demographic in the city’s past and speaks to her own great-grandmother’s story.

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The NYPL says, “The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers is an international fellowship program open to people whose work will benefit directly from access to the collections at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building—including academics, independent scholars, and creative writers (novelists, playwrights, poets) Visual artists at work on a book project are also welcome to apply.”

Each year’s 15 fellows, it adds, “engage in an ongoing exchange of ideas within the Center and in public forums throughout the Library.”

Prominent American historian Anthony Grafton commented in admiration, “I have always been a skeptic about research centers, but this year [2012-13] has converted me—at least so far as the Cullman is concerned—into a believer.”

“I’ve never had an opportunity like this; to just be able to study, study, study, with no deadlines and no pressure,” said  Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker.” It’s simply been about enrichment and research.  And that is the great privilege of the Cullman fellowship: to see where your mind takes you. To have the time and the resources to pursue your own intellectual adventure.”

Lucy McDiarmid – another American scholar focusing on the past, with studies like “At Home in the Revolution: What Women Said and Did In 1916” –  was a fellow a decade ago, as were novelists Joseph O’Connor and Jennifer Egan.

Another past fellow, Colum McCann, wrote, “You walk the corridors of the Library with the acute sensation that what has been bestowed upon you, amongst all these books, is a sense of what matters. You enter a silence that requires humility, grace, and the deepest thanks.”

The Echo asked Groarke some questions about her experience at the Cullman Center and her work generally.

 

Irish Echo: You will leave New York at the end of this month. How did you enjoy your time at the Cullman? What did it entail?

Vona Groarke: I’ve been working on a book called “Hereafter,” about Irish domestic servants in 1880s and 1890s New York. My great-grandmother was one, coming over here from County Sligo in 1882. “Hereafter” is an unusual kind of book, a hybrid combination of poetry, lyric prose, historical fact and images, which I’ve really enjoyed putting together.

My fellowship at the Cullman Center involved a great deal of research and writing, trying to piece together not only my own family story, but a bigger story of a general experience of these women who worked so hard and sent back money, faithfully, to support their families at home. That money kept the country afloat for several difficult decades, but I’ve a feeling those emigrants might have got scant thanks, certainly officially, for their generosity.

Being able to concentrate so specifically on a single project and to draw on the extraordinary resources of NYPL has been a wonderful experience – I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity, and while I hate to have to give it up, I’m grateful I had it at all.

 

Do you have plans to return to New York?

I’m not sure I know anyone who doesn’t! Unspecified as yet, but if you told me I’d never be back, you might make me cry.

 

Tell us something about your life and career.

I’m a poet, with 10 books published with the Gallery Press in Ireland, including seven poetry collections, a translation of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s classic 18th-century Irish poem, “Lament for Art O’Leary,” and a book-length personal essay about art frames, middleness and growing older, “Four Sides Full.”

In addition to writing poems, I’ve had all sorts of jobs: I’ve worked as a shop assistant, secretary, waitress, curator, editor, film archivist and teacher. I’m currently a Senior Lecturer in poetry at the University of Manchester in the U.K., where I do my best to encourage students to read poems carefully, write them boldly and edit them minutely.

I’ve a new book of poems, “Double Negative,” coming out in Ireland in June: like all poets with a new book of poems, I’m convinced this will be the one to make me rich beyond my wildest dreams — which may help with those plans to return to New York. Failing that, I hope for some new readers, and for those who’ve kept with me over the past 25 years of publishing to keep with me a while more.

Will you be returning to your usual routine?

I’d be sorry if I did. What I’d really like is to smuggle some of the time and attention I’ve been able to dedicate to my writing over the term of the Cullman Fellowship back into that usual routine so it becomes, well, a bit more unusual. I feel I have a few more books in me and I’d like to make them as good as I possibly can. For them to be good, they’ll need to be surprising, at least to me. So that’s what I want to do: I want to go home and surprise myself. And try not to miss this New York whirligig too much, with all its wild color and flash!

 

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