A hopeful thought on February 21st, 2008 because we were on our way into Noel Storey's The Base Studio in Fitzwilliam Sq., Dublin to begin the first session of a hefty undertaking - Seamus was going to read all poems from his eleven collections to date. He was generous with his time during the next several weeks but he had to juggle his availability to us with his other prior commitments. Recording sessions, engineered by Mark Duff and Emer Sands, were usually no longer than three hours. Anything longer and any reader's vocal cords usually begin to fray and tire. Seamus was no exception. Once or twice, sessions lasted an extra hour. On those occasions he would take a mini-break, stay-put in the recording booth, and restore energy levels through a quick 'power nap'. Eyes closed. Head on chest. Forty creative winks. No more than that, yet they seemed to do the trick.
By April 4th all the 'raw' material was in the digital 'bag'.
What's Seamus Heaney like to work with?
Even if, for fun, I'd lied by saying - "Oh, sure, like a literary Caesar he doth bestride the studio like a colossus!" no one would have believed me. In fact, a more gentle, gracious, hard-working contributor I've scarcely ever met in a recording studio".
What about the subsequent editing work?
Well, that took quite a while. Mark Duff and myself spent hours and hours combing through the material trying to ensure that the finished product will 'do what it says on the tin' i.e. Herein Seamus Heaney reads his eleven collections from start to finish. Coleridge defined poetry as 'The best words in the best order', and our finished product aims to have the right words in the right order!
Why this article is called 'Mice at the Crossroads'?
Keeping an alert eye and a sharp ear on all the words scampering about from the page through the microphone to the recording file and back to the sound-speakers is best described as 'minding mice at the crossroads'. Little tricksters! Oh! the annoyance some days later, listening back through attentive headphones, only to discover the subtle shifts and displacements of sound. How did that 'if' become an 'of'? That 'of' an 'off'. That 'and' become an 'an'. That 'Mary' become 'merry'? Where did that extra 'the' come from? How did we not notice that when recording!?
Just take your eye off the word-line for a moment - that's how. And how easy and tempting, in Heaney's work, to take your eye off the spoken line and to linger awhile. To linger and to savour. Two quick examples from the poem Shore Woman (Wintering Out). The Shore Woman and her husband are in a small boat out beyond the headland, fishing for mackerel, when suddenly it's subjected to some very rough play by a hyperactive school of porpoises. The Shore Woman is terrified:
...I lay and screamed
Under splashed brine in an open rocking boat
Feeling each dunt and slither through the timber,
Sick at their huge pleasures in the water.
Every time, that visceral 'dunt and slither' is a hold-on moment.
Some lines later we learn of one of her husband's fireside habits:
Skittering his spit across the stove.
That sizzling, dancing spit there on the hot metal - 'skittering'. Disgustingly perfect!
No wonder some of the 'mice' can play while the 'eye cat' is distracted. So I say to Seamus Heaney: 'Seamus Heaney' I says, 'It's all your fault!'