In 2018, poet Erin Fornoff will have spent more time away from the place she grew up – in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina – than she ever spent living there.
“Is it on me like a tattoo? Or in me, like an accent? Or is it just the first stop on a long route, where I keep my toothbrush in the bathroom?” she asks in her spoken-word poem “Home“, which offers an account of the life of a person who never seems to be in the same place for very long.
Such questions – what it means to have a home, to miss one’s home, to live in a place far away from where one was born and raised – inform much of Fornoff’s first collection of poems, Hymn to the Reckless, which was launched at Dublin’s Poetry Ireland last Friday, by Dedalus Press.
Recently, Fornoff was due to become an Irish citizen, until hurricane Ophelia cancelled the ceremony.
“I definitely see myself as having two homes right now. I will always be American, and I will always feel distinct here as someone from a totally different place,” she tells me, sitting in an empty upstairs room of the soon-to-be-jammed venue. “But for now, home is here as well.”
Fornoff, whose CV includes time working on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, a stint in the United Nations, and a gig as a homeless-shelter supervisor and hypothermia outreach worker at non-profit Ashoka, moved to Ireland for a temporary job, but ended up sticking around for the past eight years.
She describes the award she won for the single poem she penned prior to moving to Ireland as “a fluke”, but something that would later give her confidence when she once again put pen to paper.
“I wrote maybe one poem in college, that was it,” she tells me. “It won the Cellar Door prize for poetry, which was the literary magazine that came out twice a year in my university … so I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I did that.’”
In 2009, a chance encounter with Dublin’s performance night The Brown Bread Mixtape would inspire Fornoff to create a repertoire of her own poems and performances.
“I didn’t start again until I came over here,” she says. “Part of it was being really lonely, and you want to tell people who you are, and where you’re coming from, and it’s this communion between artist and the audience.”
Since then, her work has become a staple of Dublin’s spoken-word scene. She has performed twice at the Glastonbury Poetry & Words stage, alongside Hozier and James Taylor, as well as at just about every poetry event Ireland has to offer.
Something of a pick-and-mix, Hymn to the Reckless is a selection of pieces Fornoff has been performing over the past few years, as well as some new ones too.
“I have a bunch of poems that I would have only done in spoken word that wouldn’t actually even be on paper,” she says. “But I submitted some of them alongside the more pagey poems, and the publisher liked them.”
The book’s titular poem was originally written as a spoken-word piece, and submitted to the Strokestown Poetry Prize “on a whim, after a few drinks”, placing in the contest.
“That was kind of the first time I thought, well, maybe I can sort of straddle both worlds: spoken word and written,” says Fornoff.
The Rise of Lingo
Once she was established as a spoken-word performer, Fornoff teamed up with poet Colm Keegan and others in 2014 to create Lingo, Dublin’s first spoken-word and poetry festival, which lasted for three years.
“There are a lot of literary festivals in Ireland, but many of them have spoken word almost like a token event. It could be one show, where everyone is already drinking at the bar or something,” she says.
“Yet at the same time, there was just this big spoken-word scene in the city, with all of these nights popping up all over Dublin.”
During a trip to perform at Glastonbury, Fornoff saw some of the funding and support poets from the UK had received. She decided that Irish poets needed something similar, a way to support the more-than-equal talent here. “So, really, the creation of Lingo was to lift up Irish talent on the level of national luminaries,” she said.
Last year, acts like Blindboy Boatclub, Saul Williams, and Sage Francis performed in venues all over Dublin for the event, alongside plenty of local talent. While the festival took an indefinite hiatus following this year’s successful run, Fornoff is optimistic that it will return, or that perhaps someone else with take up the mantle.
“We had always thought of it as something that could exist and ignite other things, rather than building a big institution. Because the problem with that is that it becomes solidified and calcified, and you become this gatekeeper with the money, which isn’t always good,” she said.
Hymn to the Reckless
On Friday, about 70 people – poets, artists, activists, family, and friends – filled the hall of Poetry Ireland for the evening’s dual celebration. (Wordsmith Elaine Cosgrove’s new collection, Transmissions, was launched the same night.)
Fornoff is “way ahead of the curve”, said poet Colm Keegan, in an introductory speech.
He praises, in particular, her poem “The Opposite of a Thank You”, which describes a nauseating interaction she had with a well-connected Dublin writer, who offered her a book deal in exchange for sexual favours.
Keegan says the piece facilitated a much-needed discussion in Dublin’s literary and publishing world.
As she takes to stage, Fornoff has a request for the crowd. Her aunt has been unable to travel to Ireland for the event due to illness, so she asks that everyone in the room shout hello as she films it for her. “Hi Susan!” the room yells towards her phone.
She thanks the crowd, then reads a poem for another family member who isn’t present, her father, a former skydiving instructor.
“We all watch our fathers fall to earth. They become less tall. No longer know it all. 5’10” and fallible, thinks I don’t call enough – but he’s still the man who flew.”
The poetry in Hymn to the Reckless oscillates between the personal and the political, while simultaneously demonstrating the author’s ability to capture the intricacies of narratives and identities radically distinct from her own.
“He can be forgiven for refusing to elaborate the infernos of his daily grind, for keeping his witness to himself,” Fornoff writes in “The Fireman”, a piece concerned with the vicissitudes of life working a perilous occupation. “Life at its fragile cracking; a language in ashes, remedy too often too late.”
In “When Your Country Is a Weapon”, a lament about the election of Trump, Fornoff offers a moving account of witnessing a rightward shift in her home country from afar.
“What do you do when something ugly unfurls? When your country is a weapon that chops at the world? What do you do when a bully knows he’s been chosen? And your heart is a weapon that throbs at the words.”
A palpable sense of empathy leaps from the 84 pages of Fornoff’s debut, grabbing the reader and inviting them to gorge on rich descriptions of both her own, and other people’s experiences.
Or, as Keegan puts it: “She has the skill and the guts to write that way.”