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By Timothy Gillis
AIRE Theater is bringing back Bloomsday for Beginners, its celebration of June 16, the day that the action takes place in James Joyce’s much revered but perhaps lesser read master work, “Ulysses.” In one hour, the troupe will take you through the perambulations of Leopold Bloom, the main character and Irish Odysseus who wanders the Dublin streets and pubs and, at for one point, a brothel. It is there that he meets up with Stephen Daedalus, the artist Joyce paints a portrait of in his earlier, more accessible work. Bloom is chaste in the scene, and spends his time trying to sober up Stephen and keep him from the missteps of youth, as if her were his own son, Rudy, who dies as a child. Meanwhile, back at his house, his wife, Molly Bloom, has been the opposite of her “Ulysses” counterpart, Penelope, who kept her suitors at bay, weaving and unweaving.
This marvelous, myriad cast of characters is brought to life through dramatic readings, in full brogue.
The rollicking performance piece was written by AIRE Artistic Director Tony Reilly, using scenes, songs, and lots of humor to explain the story line.
“I had read Ulysses and several other Joyce books, but I wasn’t a fanatic, as I soon learned a lot of people are,” Reilly said this week. “Since that initial production, AIRE and the MIHC have done many Bloomsday celebrations, including readings of the book by local Portland celebrities, pub crawls and readings at local landmarks, such as Monument Square, the Portland Public Library, and local book stores.
The MIHC plans to keep the tribute going with an exhibit of their collection of Joyce’s books, memorabilia, and a showing of the film “The Dead,” John Huston’s final film starring his daughter Anjelica Huston. Many cities in the US such as New York, Buffalo, and San Francisco have their own unique ways of celebrating, and with a blooming literary scene, Portland is throwing in its dented hat.
Last year, the MIHC held a program at their library, buoyed up with help from a Maine Humanities Council grant, featuring a reading of Joyce and other notable Irish authors.
“We’ve added an amazing amount of eclectic gatherings here in the last year,” said Vinny O’Malley, executive director. “And made some movements to encourage non-Irish folks. We want to be active, and have people come here to a real community center.”
Their slogan is “All are welcome,” and they have been working towards expanding their reach. “We’re an Irish center, but we want to make a space for all immigrant groups appearing here in greater Portland,” he said. “Some people can be intimidated by this place. They still think it’s a church. We have had wedding and funerals here; it’s not like some of that is not still going on here. But we’re so much more than that now.”
Last year, the MIHC hosted the 1st annual Welcome the Stranger, a local organization that helps new immigrants with issues surrounding their refugee status and seeking of asylum.
While broadening their scope, the center is still the main repository in town for all things Irish. Situated and steeped in the old neighbor of Tyng and Tate and Danforth Streets, and anchored at its opposite end with the statue of John Ford, the center brags of being the school of the acclaimed Hollywood director who got his education on these streets and at Portland High School when he was still “Bull” Feeney.
The center offers DNA testing and genealogical studies, and since 1994 when the old St. Dominic’s was closed by the Portland diocese and the MIHC was born, Dubliners have been feeling at home there.
“My wife Susan and I came up here to Portland to live in 2003. We had a previous relationship with the MIHC (Maine Irish Heritage Center) and our goal was to establish an Irish theater company, which we did. AIRE (American Irish Repertory Ensemble. In 2004 members of the MIHC wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of “Bloomsday” — June 16th, 1904, the day the events in the book James Joyce novel Ulysses are set. Everyone had good ideas but they were having a hard to implementing them. I very foolishly stepped up and said that I would put together a theater piece for the occasion. I sat down and reduced – probably one of the most difficult and important books in the English language – in to a one-hour piece for anyone who has read the book or anyone who never has and doesn’t intend to. It’s silly, fun and fast. And it actually covers the whole book in one hour.
Tony and his wife, Susan, were in a tragic car accident that claimed Susan’s life. Tony’s return to the stage they once shared has been an inspiration to center members, theater fans, and actors everywhere. “We love Tony, and we love that he’s back here,” O’Malley said. His return, though incredibly difficult, has inspired Tony, as well.
“I have to say that Susan was the prime mover and shaker on the Portland Bloomsday activities. Every year, she and a handful of local devotees would work very hard, to make it a fun and memorable event. When I was still in the hospital after the accident that took my wife, I got a call from members of the AIRE board that gingerly said ‘would you maybe consider doing Ulysses for Beginners this year? At the time I immediately said ‘yes,’ even though I don’t even think I was able to walk yet. After the initial yes, I started thinking that I was nuts to do it. But the thought of honoring Susan and her memory was too strong, and it was the best thing I could have done,” Reilly said. “The response that night (June 16, 2015) at the MIHC was overwhelming. ‘Ulysses’ is a funny book that attracts a very strong following. And it’s a very strong part of Irish culture, and that’s what AIRE and MIHC are all about: celebrating and spreading Irish joy.”
Bloomsday for Beginners
Friday, June 16, at 7 p.m.
The Maine Irish Heritage Center,
at the corner of State and Gray Streets in Portland
Festive and period attire encouraged. Cash bar.
By Timothy Gillis
Pleasure’s no one I have met who did not seek a favor.
Pain’s an undemanding friend whose company I savor.
Granted laughing brings relief from unabated pain,
but crying offers me a sea that fills up when it drains.
By Timothy Gillis
There are so many cultural things to do around town that one is never at a loss for an evening of dance, music, poetry, storytelling, or art. But even in these artistic environs, it’s unusual to find them all combined in one show.
“El Lobo y La Paloma” (The Wolf and The Dove) is a flamenco dance performance choreographed by Lindsey Bourassa that will be held Saturday, June 3, in South Portland.
“This work was inspired by the loss of my own father but also includes the universal experience of loss — that of losing a loved one, a homeland, a freedom, a right, an identity,” Bourassa said last week from her Forest Avenue studio, which she’s owned since 2014. “It’s about the reconstruction of our relationship with our lost being through the process of grief and healing.”
In addition to the original dance stylings of Bourassa and dancer Megan Keogh, it features Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri, oud player Thomas Kovacevic, and the paintings of Khosro Berahmandi, a Canadian-Iranian artist.
Videographer Ali Mann gives the live performance a visual backdrop, with images of the recurring wolf and dove symbols, and Molly Angie designed simple but symbolically colored dresses that move from dark to light. The Iraqi poet Kifah Abdulla translated original verses, odes to the dead written by Bourassa and her father, into Arabic.
This dazzling line-up of cultures and art forms is supported in part by a project grant from the Maine Arts Commission. It’s the liveliest of creative performances, but it has its origins in a difficult grieving process.
In 2015, Bourassa’s father, David, was dying of pulmonary fibrosis. She had recently returned from a year of studying flamenco dance in Spain, and able so spend some treasured time with him before he passed. She subsequently resolved to create an artistic response, a way out of her grief.
“I’ve always made work based on life experience, so that was the starting point,” she said. “During the time he was dying, I came to believe in the possibility of building a spiritual relationship with those who have passed … the choice of Arabic music to accompany the flamenco dance reflects one branch of flamenco’s ancestry, which guides the unfolding of this story.”
The story Bourassa created involves a wolf and a dove, symbols she kept encountering in the months leading to her father’s passing.
“My father named the wolf his spirit animal,” she explained. “In studying the meaning of animal symbolism in diverse traditions, I came to discover that wolves represent pathfinders … (and) that the dove is a symbol of the maternal spirit messenger who comes to lead her children safely from struggle.”
Later, when going through her father’s things, she discovered poems he had written when he lost his mother. Bourassa decided to write poetic responses to his odes, crafting the eventual narrative.
When it came to choreography, she had several options to choose from. In flamenco, there are many styles of dance—maybe 45 styles, according to Bourassa—each with its own melody or feeling. She selected seven different flamenco and Arabic styles. Kovacevic then created oud music for the seven paired-poems (Bourassa’s father and hers), and Alzefiri “sang in a way that went with the music,” she said.
Providing the sonic textures and backdrop needed for Bourassa’s flamenco show are oud player Tom Kovacevic and Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri.
The project was a return to the past for Alzefiri, who is from Kuwait City and moved to Westbrook in 2010. He grew up with a family of singers—his father, Ebra, and five uncles—and experienced music as part of daily life. When he left Kuwait, that all changed.
“I stopped singing when I came here,” he said. “I was focused on finishing high school and was facing a hard time with my grandmother’s death. I turned away from singing. But when I first saw this flamenco dance and the style they do it, it reminded me a lot of my culture and brought me back to my childhood. That’s when I really started to go back to singing.”
Alzefiri has even more to sing about lately. Last year, he got his United States citizenship, after a five-year process.
“It’s wonderful to finally have a piece of paper in my hand. Now I can travel,” he said. “And that’s the most beautiful thing about this project: Lindsey is a very hard worker—how she was able to bring so many cultures together.”
Cultures combine, and the performance whirls in and out of genres. Behind the unfolding works of music and dance, two poems are simultaneously narrated. These verses are layered atop video imagery of the natural world that is interspersed with digitally projected paintings.
The production represents an end and a beginning for Bourassa. She completed her Certificate of Professionalization in Flamenco Arts in Spain in 2012 at El Centro de Arte y Flamenco de Sevilla. When she returned to Maine, she wanted to start something.
“There was no flamenco in Maine, and I wanted to create something based on these rhythms,”] is because this is the reasoning behind creating Olas – to create something reminiscent of flamenco, but with local artists of diverse genres. Olas lasted from 2008 to 2016. El Lobo y La Paloma is my own work, a Bourassa Dance production, and departs from Olas. It was made in collaboration with several artists, three of which were also members of Olas (Megan Keogh, Tom Kovacevic and Molly Angie). Talal, Khosro, and Kifah are all new collaborators to my work.
The flamenco community in Maine is still small, but it’s growing. I’m trying to teach as true to the art form as I can.”
“El Lobo y La Paloma,” performance by Lindsey Bourassa | Sat 7 pm | June 3 | South Portland High School Auditorium 637 Highland Ave., South Portland
Poetry inspired by Donald Trump, with apologies to Robert Frost
Someone there is who loves a wall,
Who foments the hate that boils up to build it,
And creates fake news, equates terror with one religion,
And makes a place where predators can grab a breast.
The work of the people is another thing:
I have joined them in their marches, their peaceful protests,
Which met with tear gas, resentment, and bile,
The resistance that has irked the angry dogs.
At mending time, a time to heal all wounds,
My neighbor lets me know beyond the hill,
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And crack the wall between us once again.
We smash the wall between us as we go.
He is all pine and I am apple orchard,
but together we get nourishment beneath the shade.
He’s heard “Good walls will keep out bad hombres.”
We wish we could put a notion in Trump’s head,
How do you know they’re bad before you meet them?
But Trump believes Breitbart News and watches Fox,
And thinks a wall’s the trick, doesn’t care if he gives offense.
Nature it is that doesn’t want the wall,
That tears it down when the people gather, rise up.
I see Trump there, hiding in his fool’s gold castle,
Peeking out behind the shades, afraid of another’s difference.
He takes no self-exam and can’t see similarities
With the very people he chooses to detest.
I want to pelt him with a barrage of ripe red apples,
The age-old symbol for knowledge he so disdains.
My neighbor wants to make a drone of pinecones,
And deliver a prickly payload of stark reality.
But Donald is the duck in a raincoat.
His conscience doesn’t work like yours or mine.
He moves in darkness, a product of his party’s mindless rage.
And doesn’t read a book nor turn a page.
Scott Cairns was born in Tacoma, Washington. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an MA from Hollins College, an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from the University of Utah. This interview was conducted by Tim Gillis ahead of Cairns’ reading in South Portland on Jan. 30.
TG: How does geography influence your poetry?
SC: I don’t know that I consciously am aware of how it might. I do know I’ve been in exile for 40 years, in the wilderness. I grew up here, but left for grad school in ’77 and then didn’t really get back until just now. Despite having lived and taught all around the country, this landscape has always been the landscape of my imagination. Maine is similar, the evergreen trees that creep down to the shore, the low skies on a cloudy day – I found it analogous to the kind of quiet that one pursues when settling into writing a poem or saying a prayer.
Besides writing poetry, Cairns has also written a spiritual memoir, Short Trip to the Edge (2007), and the libretto for the oratorios “The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp” and “A Melancholy Beauty.”
TG: Talk about the element of spirituality in your work.
SC: When I started out, I was like most of my American contemporaries, working off of my own experiences and trying to find something useful to talk about. I guess at some point, around my second book, I started writing to find out, instead of writing what I thought I knew, pouring over the language on the page looking for something I hadn’t apprehended. Most of my career now has been comprised of composing that way. Not too far along that way, I started attending to my own personal obsessions with God – using that practice to lean into an understanding of the nearness of God, developed through the poems, meditations, through that contemplative compressing of language, and figured out how I commune with God. Not every poem, but most in the past 30-plus years have commenced that way.
Cairns has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was awarded the Denise Levertov Award in 2014. He has taught at numerous universities including University of North Texas, Old Dominion University, Seattle Pacific University, and the University of Missouri. He also directs a low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University.
TG: Tell me a bit about the nitty-gritty of your writing process?
SC: I use a legal pad and a pencil, and am usually reading something. What I’m reading is varied – a great poem or some theological text – Patristic Greek, the fathers of the church, early saints and their writings.
TG: Can you contrast when process when writing poetry, memoir, and libretti?
SC: They require a different filter of the head. With poetry, my primary mode, I write to find things out. If I have an idea before I start, I wait for it to go away. I want the language to tell me something I don’t yet apprehend. With the memoir, a template of actual events that I allowed into the text in a way I wouldn’t have done with a poem. I wanted the events to be recorded and examined. Memoir is a way to revisit those occasions and glean from them a more useful sense of what to make of them, these visits to holy places and discussions with holy men. Libretti were pretty much defined by historical occasions – e.g. the martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Symrna. I worked with a composer who did the music. He supplied verses for moments in the score. Then the composer worked from those and educed from those musical phrases.
TG: You’re founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, a program that brings writers to study and engage with literary life in modern Greece. How did that enterprise come about?
SC: In college, I started reading patristic texts, which led me into becoming an Orthodox Christian. Most noticeable Orthodox Christians in America are Greek Orthodox. An understanding of the faith led me to pay more attention to these early writings – usually in Greek. I started learning Greek and going to Greece. I visited a monastic enclave at Mount Athos. The Byzantine Empire covered much of the Mediterranean from Venice east, and subsequently succumbed to Islamic takeover. This place is the last vestige of the Byzantine Empire, a finger of a peninsula. It still goes on to this day, a part of Greece but self-governing, like the Vatican. I developed the writing program as an excuse to go to Greece more often. By now, I have gone to this holy mountain 24 times.
TG: A sharp contrast to disturbing recent new of religiously motivated attacks and threats of violence nationally. In Portland last Thursday (Jan. 19), a bomb threat was called into a Jewish pre-school. You’re reading at Congregation Bet Ha’am, a Reform Jewish congregation in South Portland, at an event hosted by the BTS Center, a United Church of Christ affiliate that’s ecumenical in nature. Talk about these intersections of politics and religion, and the possibilities for peace. And how can contemporary poetry speak to that end?
SC: Orthodox Christianity is probably the most Jewish of Christian expressions. In orthodoxy, that connection has been maintained, even the way the priests dress. I studied a lot of rabbinic texts, a lot of early writings that revolve around a puzzling moment in scripture. In terms of poetics and politics, one writes poems from a place of understanding words, and the power of words, and honoring what truth and attention can avail. If there is a relationship between the poet and the politician – the poet examines the language of the politician for veracity. Poets in our culture now are in a position to challenge careless or misleading uses of language in the political realm. We have to call people on it. For that reason, we have an obligation to share what we see against euphemism or obfuscation.
Poetry Reading by Scott Cairns
Hosted by The BTS Center
Congregation Bet Ha’am
81 Westbrook St, South Portland
Monday, Jan 30 7-8 p.m.
Cairns is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translation of Babel (1990), Philokalia (2002), Idiot Psalms (2014), and Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems (2015). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Poetry, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing.