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A few years ago I was reading poems at a festival. The festival was held in a gorgeous — but tiny — bookshop. Sixty people crammed in. One evening, between poetry readings, someone squeezed their way next to me and said, loudly: “I saw your name on the program, but I know I’ll get it wrong. So I’ll just call you Patrick. That’s okay isn’t it?”
What made it awkward was that this man was from England. Old furies flared. That wasn’t their fault, but it was in the room.
I said something that sounded like “No.”
But, we got to talking. He told me he was a translator and was fluent in five languages. I liked him, he was so warm. After a while I asked him why — given that he was such a linguist — he had perpetuated that old Irish-annihilating trope. He wasn’t sure. I taught him how to say my name. We kept talking about how he could perform Britishness in a new way, particularly Britishness as it relates to the names of Irish people.
This week’s episodes all turn to particular experiences: particular experiences of examining your own history; particular experiences of asserting the correct pronunciation of your own name; particular experiences of isolation.
Krista explores the matter of being human and being white with audio documentarian John Biewen. He is a well-seasoned journalist whose recent work explores masculinity, place, and whiteness. Krista and he engage in discussions about the particularity of whiteness in named places: Oklahoma, Minnesota. As Krista says, “Tracing the racial story of our time through the story of a single life … becomes a step towards who we want to become.”
Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi’s poem “Say My Name” for Poetry Unbound is a declaration of the story of a name. She tells the story of her name through parents, grandparents, ancestors and old gods, pride and pain; so when the poem speaks of deliberate mispronunciations, we are with her in the tidal wave of resistance to such commodifications. Seán Hewitt’s poem “Suibhne is wounded, and confesses” is a retelling of the old Irish myth of a man cursed to spend his days wandering. Near the end of his life now, the character in the poem recalls beauty and loneliness. In a pandemic year, where many of us have noticed the singing of birds, but also noticed profound loneliness, this poem shows us that myths are often more true than true.
It is coming into election week in the U.S. I am here, on this side of the Atlantic, looking at the other side of that ocean. So much has happened in the sea between us: ships shipping enslaved people, hungry people, desperate people; ships going to a land they called uninhabited from a Europe that prefers to forget its history. As I think about how reparations and justice can be enacted, I’m reminded of an old Breton prayer: God help me, because the sea is so big and my boat is so small.
Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound
P.S. — Last week hundreds of people gathered with Krista and Lucas Johnson to share the questions they’re holding in themselves and for the world right now. If you missed this Living the Questions: Live event, you can watch a replay on Facebook.
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This Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista Tippett
“The Long View, I: On Being White”
On retelling the stories of our families and our hometowns, what it means to be human, and what it means to be white.
Say My Name
A poem about names: their stories, histories, and pronunciations.
Suibhne is wounded, and confesses
A poem recalling a mythical Irish character, Suibhne, who was cursed to live in isolation.
We’re delighted to announce the debut of a new home for poetry at onbeing.org that offers multiple entry points into all the ways poetry is manifest in our work — including interviews with poets, recorded readings, discussions about poetry’s contribution to the common good, and more. We hope this new offering will nourish you now, next week, and in the months to come. Take a look — we’d love to know what you think.
As part of this project, we’ve also released a new “Poetry Films” series on YouTube, collaborating with a diverse array of international visual artists. Watch Charlotte Ager & Katy Wang’s film featuring “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.
Voices That Point the Way Forward
We created a Spotify playlist with podcasts and poetry to get grounded in reflection that will be with us the day after the U.S. election and far beyond, whoever wins.
Train your eyes on the long arc of the moral universe. For there have to be enough bodies adding their weight to pull down that arc and bend it toward justice. And enough of us across every divide — we at On Being believe this — are ready to turn our lives toward that great adventure.
Pádraig Ó Tuama Poetry Reading
Sunday, Nov. 1, 2 p.m. ET
Ticketed livestream (must register)
Pádraig will read from new work spanning nature, conflict, religion, memory, and gift. More information.
After the Election: Spirituality, Civil Conversations and Social Healing with Krista Tippett
Tuesday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. ET
Ticketed livestream (must register)
Krista will speak with Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel Dean Brian Konkol as part of the conversation series “Matters that Matter.” More information.