R.I.P. Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 when I was in high school, writing poetry all the time, obsessed by writing, and there was something about his work that I really responded to. He wrote about nature and rural life, but it wasn’t pastoral. He dealt with politics but he wasn’t a political poet. He quickly became one of my favorites.

A few years later, he visited Vassar College, where I was studying, and gave a read reading to a crowd that couldn’t fit, with people standing along the walls and listening in the halls outside the open doors as he read. Professors let classes out early or cancelled them so students could attend. It was one of those wonderful, extraordinary events to see .

Mr. Heaney was also my first big interview. In retrospect, I should have made a point of doing a few more interviews before trying to talk with a Nobel Prize winning author I admired the hell out of–but of course, life doesn’t always work out so neatly. I knew, slightly, the poet Eamon Grennan, who taught at Vassar before he retired a few years ago and asked him if it might be possible to talk with Mr. Heaney for a few minutes after or before the reading.

I remember sitting there with a cassette recorder and when I transcribed the interview a day or two later, it was obvious that I was nervous, stuttering a little, but I had prepared a few questions and for those five minutes Mr. Heaney was thoughtful and funny and the truth is that even though I no longer have a copy of that interview, I remember some of what he said to this day.

My cassettes are gone–thrown out long ago. There was a good chance that I had recorded over it before I switched to working digitally. The word processing document that it was transcribed and edited onto was lost many computers ago. I don’t have a physical copy of the magazine and sadly, when I hunted for the interview online, I couldn’t find it. I may have to return to Vassar one of these days and hunt through the library for a physical copy and make a photocopy.

What I remember of the interview is my final two questions. Well, it was really my final questions but but I was nervous and so did a poor job of phrasing it initially and so he jumped in and answered what he thought I was asking. It was very kind of him, but he was a very kind man.

In his Paris Review interview, which was published in 1997, he was asked about his Nobel lecture and he joked about how in conversation with one of his friends they talked about whether he should mention Yeats in the speech and talked about just the other Irish writers who have won the prize. I started to ask him about it and he said that it was just a bit of fun, but my question was about how he thinks about and locates his own work in the context of those writers and Irish poets.

And he responded by saying that he thought that he and Grennan and he proceeded to name a few other writers were part of the same moment and that their accomplishments and the awards they had received were a recognition of what they had all accomplished.

Here’s a guy at the top of his craft. He’s a bestselling writer who’s a poet and translator, more awards than most of could count from many countries, cultural, literary, academic. If he had talked about what he’s interested in compared to what Yeats was interested in, that would have been a perfectly reasonable answer. But instead he talked about his peers and said that they had accomplished something important and that they were all being recognized for it.

That stood out for two reasons. One because it showed what kind of person he was. He was a kind and humble man who was willing to sit down with a student and answer nervous poorly-phrased questions. He understood that it wasn’t just about him. Part of that is the result of having such a kinship with others with the same goals and ambitions and concerns, but it’s just that he was a good guy.

It was a moment that I didn’t really understand until later when I transcribed it out and thought about it, but it’s a feeling that I’ve come to know after doing many interviews. It’s that moment when you ask a question and the interview subject gives an answer that offers you–and theoretically others–something new to think about, another way to perceive their work, different avenues to explores. Sometimes these moments surprise the person speaking and sometimes not, but they are the moments that I love about interviewing people.

Rest in peace, Mr. Heaney. He was an excellent poet, a brilliant mind and a kind person. I continue to read– and love–his work to this day. And in some small way, he played a role in setting me on this path that I walk down.

Before he died, he sent his wife a text message: Noli timere. Latin for "don't be afraid." Just minutes before he died.

Don't be afraid...

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