Joe Woods Heads East

Joe Woods, poet and former Director of Poetry Ireland

BY NOW, you will have probably already heard that Joseph Woods, poet and now- former Director of Poetry Ireland, will leave these shores tomorrow, 12th of July. Joe and his wife Sarah (née McCan) are relocating with their two young children to Burma, as Cashel woman Sarah is Trocaire’s Asia Project Officer.

Claiming to have attended at least one thousand poetry readings during his thirteen- year tenure as Director of Poetry Ireland, the Drogheda man undoubtedly has a unique insight into where Irish poetry is now and how far it has come since the beginning of the 21st century.

I recently spoke to Joe Woods in Inniskeen, Co. Monagahan, where he was leading a weekend workshop in which I participated. Among many things, Woods said that what he had noticed more clearly than anything else over the past ten to fifteen years in Irish poetry was the influence and inspiration that page (or, for want of a better expression, “established” poets: a poet whose work has been accepted by a publisher, published in book form and has something resembling a reputation) were taking from performance poets. Mumbling into a microphone and flicking between pages to find a poem whilst in the middle of a reading was simply unacceptable when, by comparison, performance poets were well – rehearsed and engaging their audience in new, fresh and exciting ways.

There are truths in Woods’ claim. I’m reminded of an interview Paul Durcan gave to the Irish Times in promotion for Life Is A Dream: 40 Years Reading Poems, 1967 – 2007. Durcan was asked by the interviewer where it was in contemporary poetry that he thought his work fit. Durcan answered: “Well, all the established poets think that I’m a performance poet and all the performance poets think that I’m an established poet.” Durcan later cited the example of T.S. Eliot, who he claimed was a fine, good and authoritative reader of his own work; that Eliot was a poet who stressed all the differing registers in his work. However, one would never refer to T.S. Eliot as a performance poet.

Though best known to most as Poetry Ireland’s now- former Director, Woods is certainly no slouch as a poet. His first collection, Sailing to Hokkaido (Worple, 2000), comprises of poems that netted him the 2000 Patrick Kavanagh Prize, Ireland’s most prestigious poetry prize for young, aspiring poets on the cusp of a first collection of poems. Though I have plenty of thoughts about Woods’ début collection, I will reserve my critical opinion for a feature that I am writing on all of the previous winners of the award, in which I will review all the début collections (where applicable; some winners have not published a début collection since winning the prize) by every Patrick Kavanagh Prize winner since the award’s inception in 1972.

Instead, I’ll give special mention to Bearings (Worple, 2005), his second collection of poems. Both Sailing to Hokkaido and Bearings were later published in one single volume by Dedalus Press, entitled Cargo, and with good reason. For me, Bearings is Woods’ finest, most accomplished and most memorable collection of poems.

The poems collected in Bearings are pleasing both to the eyes and the ears and full of poetic observations that would be the envy of poets with much weightier reputations; poems that get straight to the heart of life in small- town Ireland, containing such gems as ‘A Carvery Lunch in Louth’, ‘Surveying the Midlands’ and ‘Tyrekicking’.

Fare thee well, Joe. Taisteal sábháilte.

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