Concerning the Chopping of Onions

Louise G Cole and Billy Collins
The look of disbelief is hard to disguise. Louise G with Billy Collins

You might know the ‘G’ in my name covers Giddy, Gush and Gabble?

No wonder – I’m trying to decide which part of yesterday’s memorable birthday was the best. Maybe all of it? Coffee and a chat with legendary American poet Billy Collins, then being showered with wonderful gifts when I got home, one of which was a canvas print of a photo from last year’s Hennessy Award.

Even if you don’t like poetry, you’ve gotta be impressed that I had a Dublin pub named after me, if only for a weekend! My lovely family had heard me claiming I was giving up the writing (I lie a lot, that’s what addicts do), and they wanted to remind me what happened last year.

And if you do like poetry, you might be impressed that Billy Collins bought me a coffee and talked to me about poetry, onions, mothers, and other stuff.

This week, alongside another 11 writers, I won a place at the Billy Collins Poetry Workshop at the John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh, Northern Ireland. Well, just being there was enough to make me giddy (it is easily done) since he’s a former US Poet Laureate and I’ve loved his work for several years now (I’m a late starter here, forgive me). The poem of mine we workshopped was about chopping onions, my mother, and grief (the last two being common themes recently), and that was enough, I was happy to have had my work read by such an iconic modern poet.

Workshop participants were asked what they hoped to get from the session, and I think I gabbled something about wanting advice about being stymied by first winning the Hennessy last year and then being chosen for publication by Carol Ann Duffy (when she was UK Poet Laureate). I’ve hardly written anything since (well, anything I’m ready to share). How to get past that? Later, I was surprised to hear this is not an uncommon experience, and in the Irish idiom, I need to get over myself.

That aside, the workshop taught me a lot about poetic titles, endings and pace, which was invaluable. The next evening was a demonstration of how all that works, as Billy Collins read to a packed, appreciative audience.

I’d never been to the John Hewitt International Summer School before – I’d never been to Armagh either, and discovered it is lovely, even in a heatwave!

The week-long festival was a delight of all things literary, with talks, workshops, performances and readings. There was a pop-up bookshop that accepted plastic (which everyone knows isn’t like spending real money), and I networked my ass off (to coin a phrase). Brilliant!

One highlight was a reading by Kevin Barry, newly longlisted Booker nominee, interviewed by Jan Carson. I’ve just read ‘Night Boat to Tangier’ and found it great entertainment. If you know me, you’d be surprised to hear recommendation of a book I’d described on Twitter as being ‘seedy, sexy, foul-mouthed, intriguing – poetic’. It isn’t for the feint hearted, but oh, the language, the clever turn of phrase, the needle-sharp Irish expressions, the humour. Vile characters so deftly drawn, I found myself caring about what happened to them, which is quite a fiction-writing feat.

I’m probably not going to get sick of this image 🙂

And the other highlight? Yep, as I left yesterday, revealing to Billy Collins it was my birthday, and having him invite me for a coffee and spend 40 minutes chatting about my work. And unexpectedly, him asking me to inscribe a copy of ‘Soft Touch’ for him. No idea if the book is heading America-wards (I appreciate travellers have to carry luggage), but hey, how about that? No wonder I’m giddy and gushing.

And just in case you’ve got this far, the ‘G’ is really for Gillian.

Watch Billy Collins on Youtube here . My favourite bit starts at 12.53 when he reads ‘To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl’, which you’ll appreciate if you’ve ever had anything to do with teenagers 🙂