March 01, 2019

The Road to Cork

The universe knew I needed a change. I love DC, but I have been soul-weary. So when the call came from the director of the Munster Literature Centre (an actual phone call) asking if I would take on the John Montague Poetry Fellowship, I said yes. 

I had never been to Ireland. In the weeks leading up I fielded kind suggestions of what I had to see in Dublin, in Kerry, the castles and cliffs. but I privately thought I just want to live in Cork.  I was determined to embrace this city. This city, in return, has embraced me. 

My home is at Nano Nagle Place, where the namesake Honora Nagle is buried. Born in 1718, she went on to open a half-dozen schools (partially in secret, years education was still forbidden to Irish Catholics), to found the Presentation Sisters, and to spend her life serving Cork's people. My apartment is simple and bright, with a full kitchen. All my neighbors are nuns. 

On February 4, NNP hosted a Chinese New Year celebration for the Year of the Pig. Goldie Chapel was transformed by a Buddhist altar, bright with incense flowers, and fresh fruit. The festivities included a dragon dance, several hours of chanting, and a communally lit table transformed into a "river" of 1,000 tea lights. 

Every Tuesday walk up and around a cobblestone bend to Alchemy Coffee, where I get a regular black coffee to go. From there I quickstep to the University College Cork, where I lead a workshop for ten graduate students. We're using the building block of the sonnet, complicated by extensions and playfulness in the form: Rita Dove, Mark Doty, Wilfred Owen, e.e. cummings, Olena Kalytiak Davis, with Terrance Hayes and Wanda Coleman on the horizon. Along the way we're detouring to look at poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Harryette Mullen. Five workshop poems per class is the magic number--crunched, sure, but manageable, unlike the six per class that I always tell myself I can do (but never can). 

Wednesdays, I try to not leave the apartment at all. I stay in and I rest, and I write. 

On Thursdays and Fridays, I have two-hour one-on-one sessions with poets in the community, who I chose based on applications with work samples and project statements. These are a different space, chatty and collegial, but at the same time I can really push on individual needs and risks to be taken. Although I orchestrate readings for each given week, I don't try to do written feedback--they simply leave with the notes they've taken during our conversations. I'm struck by how energized I am by a model where each week holds six hours of "live" teaching paired with two hours spent on notes and prep, versus what is usually the opposite ratio. 

When I walk--and I walk everywhere--I just try to take it all in. 

The river Lee is a constant, audible presence. 

Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral was completed in 1879; the site's significance for Christianity dates back to a seventh-century monastery.

Took me more than a week to realize that signs for "The Lough" were directing me to a lake thick with swans, ducks, geese, assorted wild fowl, and--on the particular morning I walked there--older men directing their remote-controlled boats in a kind of regatta. 

The street graffiti is vibrant, often interrogating Ireland's politics and nationalisms. 

The Welcome Inn is one of two downtown pubs licensed to open at 7 a.m.

In the Shandon quarter, visitors can climb to the top of in the tower of Saint Anne's Church and ring the bells on the way up. The tower is known as the "four-faced liar" because the clocks never read the same time. The weather vane is affectionately known as the "goldy fish"; it's actually a salmon.

Cork suffered terribly in the recession a decade ago, but there's signs of recovery in the construction all around town. Tension, too, as residents plea for affordable housing instead of fancy hotels. 

I get a long weekend of Saturday & Sunday & Monday. There's terrific music at places like the Corner House, Charlie's, and Sin E. Pub life is as simple as walking in to pick out your draft (I prefer Beamish), plunking down the requisite stack of coins, and striking up craic with whoever is in earshot. The O'Bheal poetry series, which includes an open mic, takes place above the Long Valley Bar (the "Hayloft") and runs until midnight on Monday nights. 

The Triskel Church, just over the bridge, has been converted into a theater--I saw Casablanca there on Valentine's Day. I got a balcony seat for the "Johnny Cash Road Show," a grand sing-along at the Everyman Theater. I went back a week later with a second-row seat for the Irish National Opera's Orfeo ed Eurydice.

All the principle roles in the opera were sung by women, the choreographer did double-duty as the director, and the conductor played harpsichord. 

One of the best things about conversation here is that when you tell someone you're working as a poet, they don't freeze up or look embarrassed for you  There's always a common ground--another writer they know, or a favorite book to recommend. Walking down the street, one passes whole blocks mural in the words of poets. I have difficulties with the brogue, sometimes mistaking a question for a statement. But I have no difficulty owning who I'm here to be. Even my American-ness is greeted kindly, versus the self-disgust I've internalized as a function of the last few years' national affairs. As I experienced in Cyprus, the rest of the world does a much better job remembering how young we are as a country. 

I've been modest in my restaurant ambitions, mostly happy to have the roast chicken lunch at Farmgate or a quick sushi bite. The Quay Co-op (I had to learn to say "key," not "qway") has fresh produce, canned curries, brown rice. I have made good stir fries, squid ink pasta tossed with tuna, but I'm saving the more intensive prep for when I can team up with my husband. We'll walk to the English Market and buy a meal's ingredients from A to Z. I miss him terribly. If I could figure out a way to smuggle the kitty into his suitcase when he comes over, I would. 
I keep my drink orders here simple--a Beamish, a whisky--but one spot, Cask, has excellent fancy cocktails. The Conkers consists of Powers, blackberry wine, palo cortado, and chestnuts salted in-house. They set it on fire before serving. 

A fellowship isn't a residency. My duties are more complicated than that--not only because of financial concerns, but because I feel a general responsibility to be out and about in the city. But like a residency, this time gives me distance and fresh perspective on life at home. I miss so much, but I don't miss everything. And letting go of those things that I don't miss will be an important part of returning.

The weather can be mercurial. The hills are steep. Strange to become a version of myself that reaches for blue jeans and flats, instead of skirts and heels, and buries herself in warm clothing. But this is a deeply good place, and I am grateful to be here. 


Unknown said...

If you haven't been, checkout the HI -B bar on Oliver Plunkett st. Very small, generally locals only. You are not allowed to take out your cell phone in the bar.

Sandra said...

I have been to the HiB! Thanks--and it's a tip I'd pass along to anyone else visiting, too.

Cynthia said...

Sandra, there is so much I would like to say to, and share with, you. Ever since, wow, so long ago, that post you wrote about an old boyfriend taking the last banana out of the refrigerator. Ever the watcher. I have immense admiration for the way in which you live through your life. Your generosity with what you learn is a gift to the world. All my best, Cynthia

Erin Lynn Marsh said...

What a lovely post, Sandra! I am glad you are enjoying Ireland.

Sandra said...

Thank you for these comments! Always fun to realize people actually see this little blog.