Talk focuses on Irish poet Seamus Heaney, teaching with archives

Emory Report | Nov. 6, 2018

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Curated by Emory professor Geraldine Higgins and created over a two-year period in Dublin, “Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again” opened earlier this year in a cultural space at the Bank of Ireland. Higgins speaks Nov. 7 on the exhibit and how she uses archives in her teaching.

Emory professor Geraldine Higgins will deliver a talk at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 7, in the Rose Library on the critically acclaimed, multisensory exhibition, “Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again,” that she curated in Ireland – and how she is using that experience in the classroom.

Created over a two-year period in Dublin, “Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again” opened earlier this year in a cultural space at the Bank of Ireland and, for the next three years, will remain open to the public, free of charge. To date, over 40,000 visitors have immersed themselves in the exhibition’s 100 items, described in a glowing New York Times review as “a tasting menu of Heaney, young to old,” that “gets behind the finished walls to expose the gears of his poem-making.”

 “My dream job was to delve into box after box of this rich archive,” says Higgins, director of Emory’s Irish Studies Program and the Massee-Martin/NEH Distinguished Teaching Chair in English. “And my problem or real job was how to distill and display thousands of pages of drafts and typescripts, notes and jottings, for a wide audience.”

 At the Rose Library event, Higgins will discuss the acclaimed exhibition that takes visitors on a multisensory journey through Heaney’s poetry, following a thematic path that couples the chronology of Heaney’s life and work with the four elements: earth, fire, water and air.

 “I’m looking forward to taking the audience behind the scenes of the exhibition,” says Higgins, “to look at the trajectory from earth to air and pausing to examine some of the key drafts and extraordinary objects in ‘Listen Now Again.’”

The exhibition boasts audio readings, videos and stations displaying drafts of Heaney’s work, making his genius more accessible by encouraging visitors to take a deep dive.

“Most English professors wouldn’t mind reading hundreds of pieces of paper, but most normal people don’t want to spend their life reading document after document,” explains Higgins. “So, we have tried to find new ways to bring the poetry to life using images, photographs, video and the senses.”

In the classroom, Higgins turns to the power of archival material to ignite a spark of possibility within her students. This semester, she is teaching a graduate course, “Exhibiting Yeats and Heaney,” requiring students to research the life and works of the two major poets before considering the process and politics of exhibitions.

“In teaching with archival material, nothing beats the amazing depth of picking up a letter that was written by W.B. Yeats or seeing Heaney’s poems emerge from jotted lists of ideas,” explains Higgins. “Students love to see the reality of the writing process as well as the lively exchanges between groups of poets. They realize that poets aren’t just sitting around waiting for the muse to strike.” 

“Seeing the process is really important in the Heaney exhibition as well,” explains Higgins. “One of the most powerful things on display is Heaney’s desk. It’s just a slab of wood sitting on top of two filing cabinets. It’s incredibly ordinary and it gets across his accessibility and lack of pretentiousness. He said he didn’t want to create a designer study and then sit down and discover that the writing had ‘absconded.’”