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Poetry from the Heart, and the Land

Burns Scholar Fallon equally well-known as a publisher and a poet

Peter Fallon: "I look at Boston College as an important station along the route of any Irish writer." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Jan. 17, 2013

If you’ve been running a successful Irish literary press since you were in college, and you’re an accomplished poet yourself, it stands to reason that you must have spent childhood with a pen in one hand and a ledger in the other.
If you’re Peter Fallon, well, not exactly.

Fallon, who is the 2012-13 Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies, is founder of The Gallery Press, which in four-plus decades has published more than 400 books of poems and plays — works by both young, emerging authors and renowned figures like Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Brian Friel, John Montague and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. He also is widely acknowledged as one of the best Irish poets of his generation, his honors including the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award from the Irish American Cultural Institute.

Fallon’s unlikely entry route into writing — his youth spent not in some literary hotbed, but on his uncle’s farm in County Meath — and his roles as a publisher and editor have given him a unique, and acclaimed, perspective on the Irish literary scene.

The opportunity to serve as Burns Scholar — which entails using the library’s Irish collection for research, teaching one Irish Studies course and presenting a public lecture each semester — is another source of fulfillment for Fallon, a frequent visitor to Boston College.

“I look at Boston College as an important station along the route of any Irish writer,” says Fallon, who has been Writer Fellow and Visiting Writer at Trinity College in Dublin where he is now an Adjunct Professor of English. “To spend an academic year here is a tremendous honor and privilege. Besides the attractions of being in Boston, I enjoy the chance to teach — something I don’t get much of a chance to do — and, of course, being able to look through the resources of Burns Library.”

Fallon, who presented a reading of his poetry at Burns in November, will be using the Burns holdings to explore the works of harpist-composer Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) and his association with Meath, where Fallon continues to make his home. Last fall, he taught a graduate class on Friel and Heaney — “I revere both people. They’re friends of mine and I’ve been involved in their writing for decades. What could be better, I felt, than to revisit their work and talk about it in a classroom setting?” — and this semester is leading a poetry workshop for undergraduates.
“I’m not sure you can teach people how to write poems, but you can help them to learn to read poems,” he says. “And that’s a way of fine-tuning, so you can see better what you’re writing.”

Fallon’s own youthful experience in writing poetry, he says, came “from some impulse, utterly unschooled, to write something down — with no sense that it might be poetry.” In fact, up until age 15, he says, “happy as I was reading poems, I didn’t think anyone actually wrote poems anymore. Given what was taught at school, I thought all the poets were dead.”

Since then, Fallon has cultivated a poetic view that is rooted in the rural life he has known most of his years, with evocative yet unsentimental depictions of daily activities, people and places, as well as the rhythms and lore of nature. His collections include The Speaking Stones, Winter Work, and Eye to Eye. Another volume, News of the World: Selected and New Poems, was included in the Irish Times’ “Books of the Year.” His most recent collection is The Company of Horses.

“Out of limited possibilities Fallon creates, records and celebrates local activities and people,” noted critic, biographer, editor, literary historian and poet Maurice Harmon, who was Burns Scholar in 1993-94. “The rhythm of the work and of the words not only brings the region alive, they bring them into an aesthetic that is both distancing and immediate. One thing offsets another, what destroys is replaced by what endures.  Once again the music of the lines, their inner rhythm affirms what the conclusion confirms.”

Fallon’s “other” enterprise grew naturally, and rapidly, out of his embrace of poetry: Publishing poems and arranging readings led to his starting a magazine, and then in 1970, while a student at Trinity, a publishing company. As it turned out, The Gallery Press filled a need for Irish poets, Fallon explains: “At that time, you would be more likely to look toward London or Oxford, instead of in Ireland, to publish your works. The Gallery Press helped to change that.”

Such has been the impact of The Gallery Press that its 25th anniversary celebration was held in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and among those giving tribute was Irish President Mary Robinson, who praised Gallery for “bringing Irish poets and writers of plays and fiction to a wider world culture.” The 40th anniversary in 2010 included an hour-long radio tribute, readings at the Abbey, and concerts featuring Bill Whelan’s musical settings of poems by Fallon and others.

But Fallon is not about to claim the mantle of management genius where Gallery Press — which is supported by arts funding from the Republic of Ireland — is concerned. “If you were to ask how I combine the business side with the artistic, I’d say ‘badly,’” he quips. “When I have discussions with our accountants about finances, they’ll say, ‘That’s impossible,’ and I say, ‘Well, it’s been impossible for 15, 20 or 30 years.’ My important role is as editor. That’s where I make the most of my contributions, hoping to help poems become their best selves.

“But it’s very pleasing to see that a small press like ours has a favorable reputation in Ireland, with its national, even international, standing.”

Fallon notes that his appointment as Burns Scholar necessitated “front-loading” about a year’s worth of Gallery Press-related work before departing, as a means of avoiding distractions while at BC.

“In more recent years, as The Gallery Press has grown, it’s taken a lot of time and energy I might have spent on other endeavors, such as my own poems,” he says. “Being here removes the excuses.”