An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Poetic New York

Posted in Culture, Irish, New York by Frieda on November 20, 2009

Beautiful images from Bernard O’Donoghue

Tonight I was at a wonderful poetry reading at Glucksman House in Manhattan, by Bernard O’Donoghue, an Irish scholar-poet who teaches in Wadham College, Oxford. A sweet, friendly man, originally from the borders of Cork and Kerry, he introduced each poem with a preamble, which gave a revealing context and background. He’s come up with such wonderful images as this: “like breath on eggs or love pressed too far…”

Every place you live in brings something new to your life, but who would have thought that it would take New York to introduce me to poetry, and Irish poetry at that?

I’ve always “loved” poetry, in a general sense. In school I was a fan of Soundings, a lovely little anthology with poems by the likes of Milton and Shakespeare, and more contemporary figures. I especially loved the Irish section — not only because it introduced me to Yeats, but also because of Austin Clarke’s “The Lost Heifer,” Patrick Kavanagh’s “Canal Bank Walk,” and  Thomas Kinsella’s “Mirror in February.” All through my adult life I remembered these poetic pearls, and would have described myself as a lover of poetry, if you’d asked.

But I was kind of stuck. I rarely read anything new. And although I love Seamus Heaney too, it’s actually his prose I like best, the essays in his “Redress of Poetry” in particular; you can read them as a defense of literature and the arts.

It’s only in New York that I’ve been exposed to poetry, not in books but in performance. A couple of weekends ago, I went to a poetry festival at the Irish Arts Center in New York. The poets who spoke there — Enda Wyley, Joseph Woods, Peter Sirr, Paula Meehan, Harry Clifton and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain — were all Irish, and (obviously) all living people. It was wonderful to hear them read in the small theater with other listeners, and to hear them speak the rhythms of their poems. Paula Meehan’s heavy lilting tones were especially affecting, but all the readings gave the listener an emotional experience of some kind.

It’s ironic for me to find out that this is how I like poetry. I spent years (a decade) studying and analysing the poems of ancient Greece — Homer, Sappho, and stranger names like Archilochus. I encountered them in old editions, in dusty libraries at Oxford where even the air was yellow, but all the Greek poets originally performed their compositions in public places. They accompanied themselves on musical instruments, performed at parties, and sang bawdy lyrics, while audiences laughed along. Poetry was more than public, it was communal, and festive.

Anyhow, back to O’Donoghue. I bought his book. He was signing copies, and chatting away with a kind friendliness, and what seemed like endless patience, so now I have a signed copy of his selected poems. I’ll leave you with my favorite poem so far. In his preface to it, O’Donoghue explained he’d met a wonderful nun in her 70s. She had joined the convent when she was 14, and she told O’Donoghue that that same day, she also saw a car for the first time. The poem’s called “A Nun Takes the Veil” and I’m only going to quote the beautiful first stanza (it’s eight stanzas long, but to quote dislocated sections would spoil it):

“That morning early I ran through briars

To catch the calves that were bound for market.

I stopped the once, to watch the sun

Rising over Doolin across the water.”


Nora Ephron in conversation

Posted in Culture, New York by Frieda on November 11, 2009
The pic is from the

Nora Ephron spoke about her days as a journalist

Since coming to New York last August, I’ve been taking courses at NYU. This means not only that I get to learn useful stuff, but also that I’ve access to wonderful resources, and to events. Today Nora Ephron was speaking with Pete Hamill at the so-called Arthur Carter Institute of Journalism at NYU, as part of a series called Primary Sources.

I’ve had a crush on Hamill since I first spoke to him a few weeks ago. I know he’s fairly famous and all that (he’s been editor-in-chief of the New York Post and the Daily News, has written numerous novels and covered wars in Lebanon, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, etc.), but he’s also simply nice (if that’s a word people still use as a compliment), friendly, and has a wonderfully benign air about him.

It also so happens that I recently read Ephron’s book Heartburn, about the demise of her marriage, when I visited a friend in London in September. I liked it. As Anna Shapiro put it in the New York Observer a few years ago, her wit is “sublime.”

Hamill and Ephron worked together at the New York Post, and the conversation was relaxed, as they reminisced and chewed over anecdotes. Ephron is 68. She looked effortlessly elegant, in black trousers, a black polo neck, and black boots, with dangly earrings. She gestured widely when speaking but otherwise sat utterly still, looking straight at whoever she was talking to, and sometimes blinking at an alarming rate. Hamill is 74 (or at least, he was born in 1935), and I don’t know why, but he reminds me of an old lion, it may be his beard.

The pair sat on red leather chairs chatting and bantering while the NYU profs fussed about getting the video ready (I’ll post it when it’s up but it’s not out yet).

Here are some excerpts from their conversation. My paraphrases and comments are in italics.

Update (Dec 24): After writing this post I realized that I found Ephron’s focus on the past somewhat grating. I’ve recently heard several journalists talk about how great it was to be a reporter in the good old days. Implicitly, and in some cases, explicitly, the suggestion is that young journalists now are a) not as good as they were and b) don’t have as much fun as they had. It’s annoying to hear that, especially when they’re presumably (?) getting paid to speak to college grads studying journalism. Surely they could offer something more positive? If they can’t, harping on about times of yore hardly helps. Having got that off my chest: the conversation is below.

NE: When I started out at the Post [in 1963] I was a mail girl, then a clipper, then a researcher. It was so sexist and yet nobody really thought about it. Men were writers, women were researchers — which really meant fact-checkers.

Hamill joined the Post in June 1960. He had been working as a cartoonist or, as he put it, “graphic artist.” When he got a job at the Post he worked as a journalist by night and did other work by day, so sleep was not high on his agenda.

NE: Times were different then. There wasn’t this thing that you had to go to journalism school.

PH: They [The Post] had a custom of summer tryouts, they were depleted over the summer when people took holidays. There was that sense of editors rolling the dice and taking a chance on people who didn’t have resumes but might have talent. It’s different now.

The Post also took a chance with women reporters.

NE: Yes. And why?

PH: The publisher was a woman.

NE: The paper had a tradition of a certain kind of sob-sister writing. There were seven editions in the course of the day and your job was to make the news into a feature story. This was the readers’ second paper [after the Times, which told them the news] so you gave them a point of view.

Another reason they had women was that they were cheaper.

PH: But my first pay stub was $108 per week!

NE: That was my second wage, after I got a raise. I started at $98. Ephron starts talking about the city room, the newsroom at the Post where she used to work. One door had a glass window. It was so dirty that someone had written “Philthy” on it with their finger, in the dust. It was romantic in its own way. You didn’t even have your own desk.

PH: They were always two chairs short.

NE: It was really fun being a reporter at the Post, that was why we all loved it. The front page stories of the Post in those days were very short — five or six hundred words. Fred McMurrough [I’m not sure about this spelling] said, “never start a story with a quote. We always want to know who’s saying it!”

Ephron’s recounts how she found her first front page story incredibly hard to write, even though she had great material. Another staff member helped her write it.

It takes a while to learn to do things, even  things that look very simple. Always be careful that you overreach.

[My note: although her experience also proves the opposite. That front page story must have helped her career; and she later said she loves doing new things that she knows little about! See her comments on screenwriting below]

PH: We had terrific editors. One thing an editor said to me that was good advice for life — “if you want it to be true it usually isn’t.” It’s good advice — you wanna believe the woman or guy you’re madly in love with is perfect but they’re not. You roll the dice a few times in life before you hit seven. The editors were educating us as young reporters. It was all about craft.

NE: I didn’t know how to write a long piece or a profile or a column when I started, yet four years later I was writing a column for Esquire. You need to put yourself in a position where you can write and write and write, and finally you can write!

There’s no question in my mind, I have to say in all honesty that I not only wanted to be a journalist, I definitely wanted to date a journalist. And I did. I wanted it to be romantic in every sense. It was romantic and exciting but it was also fun after work. Journalists are so smart, and they’re unspecialized, you don’t have to worry about marrying a heart surgeon and having to talk about heart surgery for the rest of your life.

PH: They happen to be the worst husbands as well. The Hotel Earl, not too far from here, was full of musicians and newspaper men whom their wives had thrown out. But there was sense of the craft. That came first because nobody was going to get rich.

NE: We weren’t poor either.

PH: It was a lot more bohemian. Later, in the seventies, when people started getting paid what they should have been paid, the editors started to move to the suburbs.

NE: Everybody was a drinker. Well, not me, but all the guys. It was wild. People were just falling down drunk. Then they would sit down at their typewriters; and they were drunk.

PH: When did you start moving into other forms? Was that an accident?

NE: In my last year at the Post, I started doing freelance stuff at magazines. I was thinking, now what? Magazine work was harder and interesting. Then I became a freelance magazine writer. But I never gave up the first thing before the next thing came along. Looking back on it I pretty much changed my career every ten years. There’s no question, with screenwriting I really didn’t know what I was doing. And that was exciting.

PH: Says he taught himself to write by typing out the books of authors that he loved, like Raymond Chandler (not the whole book)

I think every writer is self-taught. I kept a journal. And for example, I took a Joseph Conrad paragraph — “storm at sea” — and would transform it to “snowstorm on land.”

NE: When I started screenwriting I knew about beginnings, middles and ends from journalism.

In the Q&A session I ask Ephron whether she thinks things have improved for women in journalism. In a Guardian interview she said that online journalism was a man’s world and I wondered why. She vehemently says there’s less chauvinism in the field, but says the digital world works better for men than women because they have more ADD and like multitasking. “And I believe men work fundamentally differently from women,” she adds.

In response to a question from Ephron herself — what advice would Hamill give to a young journalist starting out today — Hamill offers his thoughts.

PH: Get out and get a couple of years of becoming fearless in front of a keyboard. Don’t work for free. Get the fear out of yourself, the computer doesn’t write the story any more than the piano writes the music. I’m optimistic. I do think journalism is going to survive.

*The pic at the top is from the New York Observer (

Week in brief: former doms & feminists

Posted in Culture, Relationships by Frieda on November 4, 2009

The week’s real kick-off was on Wednesday at The Richardson in Williamsburg. There I met a friend who formerly (it turned out) worked as a dominatrix in the Dungeon of Mistress Jasmine in Manhattan — I’ll call her D. It’s funny because D. is so sweet — innocent and smiley, with short hair and a retro style, and a mere 26 years old. She teaches, and at one point this year, her students were joking about her private life. “I bet you’re a dominatrix,” one suggested, thinking it miles from the truth.

I had intended to grill D. about her experiences, but she had already quit, after just six weeks or so at the Dungeon. Her boss refused to pay for condoms, with which the girls covered some of the sex toys; nor could they bring their own. They had to buy them from him. Not only that, but  he allowed more and more girls work in the dungeon, so the staffroom became crowded. The clients themselves were creepy; one saved up all his dole money to pay for a monthly hour. Sex with clients was not meant to happen at the dungeon, but the newer girls were inexperienced, and more likely to cross that boundary. All in all, it doesn’t sound like fun.

Second, I went to the launch of a book I’ve been awaiting for a long time. Girldrive, by Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein, charts two women’s trip across America. They were little more than girls when they made the journey, just 22 and 23 (Emma has since died tragically through suicide, last December). Girldrive is replete with gorgeous images taken by Emma. The pair interviewed hundreds (I think 200) women across the States, to find out what they thought about feminism.

Nona, who I interviewed on Thursday, does a great job of bringing the story together — writing most of the sections of the book that explain what they did, and where they went. The most surprising thing about is not the number of women who reject the term “feminist,” but how embattled many are. One 16-year-old, who was raped, tries to comfort herself by saying, “in God’s eyes I’m a virgin. I’m still pure.”

When I spoke to Nona, over our lunch at Balthazar, I expressed my shock: I’d always thought (very naively, I admit) that the most of the US was fairly liberal and cool. “You thought America was progressive?” Nona laughed. ” No offense, but I kind of hate when Europeans are so high and mighty about how progressive they are because realistically it’s a lot easier to be progressive when you have less deep-seated racial situations going on. It’s difficult to get through all the bull-shit in the United States. We have such a fraught history.”

Sale: 50% off selected puppies

Posted in Healthcare, New York by Frieda on November 3, 2009

Pooches like this one were going cheap

Today I was up in Yonkers, doing some research on a story on health-care for Irish immigrants. It’s a hard-to-get-to (from Brooklyn) part of New York state, beyond the Bronx, and Irish people have tended to congregate there in an enclave far from NYC. Please correct me if I’m wrong — and I know some bits of Yonkers are nicer than others — but it seems a godforsaken place.  The medical center I visited (Docs, 471 Central Park Avenue, not recommended!) was right on a highway, although tinted glass prevented drivers from peering in. An old couple bickered in the lobby, the woman who was obviously a smoker, coughing phlegmily — she wasn’t the one to see the doctor, though, her hunched little husband was.

When I left, to check out another medical center, I passed by a nearby shop named, “Exotic Pets,” and felt drawn in. Not for long. The smell of animals was pretty overwhelming.  I saw nothing exotic, unless you count squawking white parrots. Mostly, I saw lots of puppies, four to a cage. They were all types — furry, smooth haired, with snouty noses, wrinkled skin. Kitten were in cages right beside them, cleaning themselves blithely. The cutest inmates were the labradors: tiny pups, cream and black-coloured, just like in Andrex tissue ads. They looked like newborns.

I wanted to take them all home with me, but of course I couldn’t. Outside, I noticed that puppies with huge eyes, and kittens, were painted on the walls on either side of the shop. And I saw the saddest sign ever: “Sale: 50% off selected puppies and kittens.” The bigger ones, I bet.

(PS. I didn’t bring my camera to Yonkers. I stole the above pic from an intriguing UK blog)