by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
Sept. 30, 2009
TV LACKS THE HUMAN TOUCH
LOS ANGELES -- When I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley, which now seems a century ago, I had the ambitious idea of reading through all the volumes of the Loeb Library.
I probably never got more than a quarter of the way through, but I still remember some of the stories in Athenian Nights, probably the least-known volume in the set. One of these was about an old poetaster who in old age inexplicably wins some kind of award. The shock proves too great for him and he dies forthwith from a massive heart attack.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Gabriel Griffin, the founder and director of the annual Festival Internazionale di Poesia, or as it is better known, The Poetry on the Lake Festival. She was impressed with some of my poetry and asked if she could print one of my poems, "Missing the Sunset at Sounion," in the journal issued with the festival each year. She also invited me to attend the festival and read some more of my poetry.
While flattered by this more than generous offer, my experiences of poetry conferences and festivals in this country had been less than inspirational. They mostly involved, as Joe Kennedy has written, a group of poets circling one another and sniffing at each other in the manner of dogs. I had had enough of those types of poetry festivals to last me into the next world.
But the fact that Carol Ann Duffy, Britain's new Poet Laureate, would be present, a poet I had long admired, and the international character of the event intrigued me. But I am 70 and in the last stages of Parkinson's Disease - and the expense would be considerable. The other participants in the festival, being predominantly English and some Irish, could expect funds from their governments.
I had no such expectations. Still, I considered the possibility of tacking on the festival to a planned trip to Ireland where, as a dual citizen, I considered finding a board-and-care facility where I could expect to decline in the future in dignity and without leaving my wife a pauper.
My wife could not make the trip with me, however, and I had almost abandoned the idea when some friends who have been supportive of my poetry in the past urged me to go. My wife was horrified; she had seen me in some of my worst moments, not being able to walk, or falling and breaking a rib. She begged me not to go.
Nevertheless, I was on board a flight to Milan early on the 22nd of September, hoping I would be able to sustain my bravura until the end of the festival and return home safely.
This, the 11th annual festival, was held where it always is, at the lake in Orta in the Italian Alps. I have been to Italy a number of times in my life, and with the exception of the Lagoon at Venice had never been to such a beautiful location. I could have spent the entire four days sitting on the side of the lake and looking out at the palazzo on the island in its center.
Gabriel, in her unceasing generosity, had set me up for a reading of some of my poems on Friday the 25th, but my voice has substantially declined in the past year and it was difficult being heard. I was feeling depressed and even thought of skipping the dinner planned for that evening when a couple of the poets knocked on my door and encouraged me to go.
Everyone was friendly, as they were to be throughout the festival, and I felt better. But something occurred the next morning that came as a great surprise to me. Gabriel had mentioned that I should bring any of my books when the group might buy them the following morning.
I had only three copies of "My Dark People," my current collection, and they were bought up instantly. Apparently, the people who acquired those three books had to endure the nuisance of various people asking to borrow them.
The next two days were days of nothing less than adoration. People hung on my every word. Everyone wanted to know this lone American who had appeared from nowhere. I realized during those next two days what if must have been like to have been Robert Frost - that's how intense it became.
This is not to suggest I was the star of the show. That honor clearly went to the Poet Laureate, but it was by far the greatest acknowledgment I have yet received for my verse and it was very stirring.
The participants at the festival were all polite and welcoming, and serious about their own poetry as well as others'. There was nothing of the typical nastiness and undermining I had become accustomed to in American affairs of this type. They were genuine people, not the bloodless types I had become familiar with.
When I slipped out of town that Sunday, it was with a much lighter step and a new determination to write. I had, however briefly, spent time in poetry heaven. I will never forget it.