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***Rye Aker’s “A Penance of Sundays” is #272 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem. All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece.
Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? I arrived in the beautiful city of Galway, Ireland in late 2019 to cover in poetry the European Capital of Culture programme for my publisher. My plan was to spend a year in marvel at the wonderful programme of events the Galway 2020 people had scheduled. I made some great friends from a time when I was in Ireland in 2014, so they brought me to sport and culture and eating out and many nights drinking and singing. They told me I should go to Catholic Novena over nine days. There were three masses every day, but they did not say I only had to go to one each day, so in nine days I went to 27 masses. This made my friends laugh a lot. But I got to meet many people who were elderly and I had tea and buttery scones in a cafe near the river after every Mass. The connection between this and my chosen poem A Penance of Sundays was the great faith they had and the concept of if you had any misfortune in life, you ‘offer it up’ as penance. There I got the name for it because Lockdown saw Ireland’s streets reduced to the silence there used to be 40 years earlier when nothing happened. It also gave me a sense of what these people would be missing during lockdown which helped me to write other poems.
In Ireland, people look back to the summer Sundays of childhood because they evoke memories of sunny days and Gaelic football matches with a commentator called Micheal O Hehir (Left) who had an inimitable high pitched voice. This voice and the mention of it, raises the memories for the Irish people. So too, did the concept of going to Mass and having a traditional dinner of potatoes and meat and peas and dessert of jelly. The old Irish Sundays were timeless and represented a simpler time. The possibility of lockdown represented a throwback to those simpler times and I wanted my poem to mirror the reality of that. I think it succeeded.
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. I was in my rented cottage in Galway. It is a very cosy place where the big fireplace dominates the room, throwing orange light around the room. I had just been talking on Skype to my friend Seamus and his wife Maureen and we were trying to encourage each other about the possibility to maintaining our sanity through the next ten weeks of lockdown, same day after same day. I think they were feeling sorry for me because I would be on my own with no event to go to. But I knew that I would be fine and that isolation would be good for me. Three months earlier, I put my mobile phone away and I knew that this would like a Robinson Crusoe time for me. When the solitude would spark inspiration in my mind. The Irish people have wonderful language, as in the the wonderful English words that give great meaning to their sayings. Like when they say “I will yeah,” that means “I won’t.” Or “I will in me hole,” means we won’t.
In the year since I have been here, I have found a richness in the words that I am keen to explore. I live a simple life. I eschew public readings and my telephone. I offer my poems to charity so that the karma of goodness will come back to me. And it has. I have been treated with wonderful kindness. I publish my books and I live on what they bring me. So I have an incentive to write and to sell and if they don’t I sense a failure as a failure of the words. So far, I have lived frugally and happily. Many people have thought that I was part of the European Capital of Culture programme, and not that I was an independent poet who came to record the momentous year. Alas, many of the events did not happen so I had to find myself a different purpose for being here in Galway. I have written poems for national organisations and books while I have been here. So my work is resonating, I think. (Above Left: Catholic Novena.)
What month and year did you start writing this poem? I started the poem on March 29 and wrote it over one night. I recall going to sleep happy with it and in the morning I took to it again and then a few hours later, I posted it on my twitter account and went for a walk. When I came back I was amazed with the response. I had more than 10,000 views by the end of that day. I do that with all of my poems. I make my notes and my research and then I start the writing of it. My friends, let me tell you, get rid of your phones and the words will flow. I love to interact with my readers online, but I discipline myself to shut it off as soon as my purpose of posting my poem is complete. (Right: Dublin at Lockdown)
How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) I had just the one draft. Any changes in the morning were just stylistic. I do not do many drafts. I like my poems to be written with a sense of just baked, you see. I have compiled a collection of more than 400 Irish sayings and expressions. I think that some day I might write about these in a book because they are funny. But I want to use as many of them in my work. I often ask my readers what a word means. I write my poems straight into my laptop. I have written more than 120 poems since I came to Galway one year ago, and I intend for most of these to be posted and published before I leave. If I ever leave. (Left: Place where Rye Aker wrote "A Penance of Sundays" Credit and Copyright by Rye Aker)
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? I knew that my first few poems needed to make a subliminal connection with the Irish people so I used images of times past that would resonate with the readers.
I wanted to create a sense of time, slow time, not fast time like we have now. Slow time where it drags and stays in your memory. I have such memories from a small village in Holland. Perhaps they were not innocent times but when you are looking at life through the rear-view mirrors, it seems magic and slowed-down, almost static. This slowed-down static feel is what I wanted to achieve in my poem A Penance of Sundays. As if the penance of months of lockdown was a sort of punishment or discipline that we would have to go through before life turns normal again. I had had many readers who say that this poem resonated with them because of that. (Right: Opening film scene of THE RIORDANS)
Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? I made questions to my Irish friends about what Sundays were like when they were in their childhood. It was interesting to see what rich memories they had. There was one television channel in Ireland in the 1970s and everybody watched the programmes. There was one soap opera The Riordans (above left) where the theme music at the end used to send chills down the spines of the children who would not have their homework done for school. The lines which moved me were the “Old Irish Sundays had a lot of nothing, so we sat around and devoured it.” The reaction to the poem was very moving too, more so for native Irish people who lived through those long hot summer childhoods and who saw the same nothing ness in those warm sunny days of early lockdown in the summer of 2020. (Left: Gabriel Byrne who appeared in THE RIORDANS)
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? The poem has been published in my 2020 collection Fifty Akers —A Penance of Sundays, Galway Collection Vol 1, which contained 50 poems from my first year in Galway, Ireland. The book went on sale in August 2020 and sold well. The second collection 100 Akers — The Man With The Clock Galway Collection Vol 2 is due to be published in March 2021. I had intended to be leaving Ireland in this time because the Galway 2020 year was to be complete, but I have been so happy here that I am to stay until this changes, which I hope will be a long time away.
A Penance of Sundays
(Reflection on a Galway lockdown)
Think of it like a hundred Sundays,
Seamus says to me down the skype.
Not modern Sundays, but old Sundays.
Old Irish Sundays, me little
non-rhyming Dutchman friend.
Old Sundays where nothing moved
‘cept the marrowfat peas on the Sunday roast
and the volume dial to bring that summer Sunday
sound of gladiators in some field;
Batin’ into each other
feeding O Hehir’s excited prose
Modern Sundays have shopping centres
and Sky Sports and brunch
where luvvies clutch the pearls
while devouring newspaper supplements
covered in crumbs of toasted brioche.
Old Irish Sundays had a lot of nothing
So we sat around and devoured it.
Car-less, we walked, slowly, like everyone
did in those days, not fast like now.
inhaling the sweet incense
of evening benediction, hugging pews
hours after our morning sweat had dried.
Days of chops and jelly and custard
and Spot The Ball and Pub Spy
to the air of a Glenroe tune that sent chills
down the spine of all who hadn’t
Read their scothscealta or Frank O’Connor.
This is like those Sundays.
Every day an old Irish Sunday.
An endurance test of our forbearance.
A penance to be endured.
A medical act of contrition from this side
of the mesh.
’Tis like the priest said, ye’ll do
A hundred Irish Sundays
and then you’ll be cleansed.
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