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For One Professor, Seamus Heaney Visit Has Been a Life's Work

Feb. 27, 2013

The Beall Poetry Festival, an annual event hosted by Baylor's English department, kicks off its season next Monday with a special event. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel-prize winning author from Northern Ireland, will read his poetry in an event that is free and open to the public.

Poetry and Peace

The event marks the second time in the last ten years that Baylor will host a Nobel-prize winner. Derek Walcott presented at the Beall festival in 2007.

"We are expecting a huge crowd," says Richard Russell. Russell, the director of this year's festival and a professor in Baylor's English department, has been working toward this day for many years.

"We first tried to get Heaney in 2010, but he had health issues," says Russell. "And, this year Heaney's agent told us he would only do an American tour in the fall, so it didn't look like we would get him."

But, that changed - largely thanks to Russell.

"I sent him a copy of my book and that started a conversation that eventually led to this event," says Russell. The book is called Poetry and Peace: Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Northern Ireland. Using poetry, Russell shows how Longley and Heaney brought ideas about reconciliation to a large audience within Northern Ireland and ultimately the world.

Russell's interest in Heaney began more than a decade ago when Russell was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. "I remember hearing people talking about him, but I didn't know who he was," says Russell. "Then, I read this essay called 'Sense of Place,' and that really launched me into Heaney studies.

"In the essay, Heaney talks about a real primal connection to the land. At the same time, he is living at a type of crossroads. Ireland has a rich cultural heritage that includes pagan and folk influences. But, there is also evidence of British imperial presence and a history of religious tension. Heaney seems to me to be able to not only explore that divided heritage but also offer potential avenues for reconciliation."

Immediately, Russell noticed connections with his own life and experiences. "Having grown up in the South in a somewhat divided culture, the essay really resonated with me." Russell ended up changing his focus from Southern Literature to Irish, and his dissertation included chapters on Heaney and Longley that would eventually form the book Poetry and Peace. Notre Dame published the book in November 2010, and the book went on to win two awards.

"It's been really well-received," Russell says. "It seems to cross departmental boundaries - English, of course, but also religion, history, theology, and peace studies."

Russell's next project, Seamus Heaney's Regions, is already under review for publication. "The idea of regions is something I've looked at here and there," says Russell. "I think it is sort of a concept that can expand out from Heaney's home region in Northern Ireland to something like transnationalism. I see him like Dante - someone who is faithful to the local but also with universal applications.

"Poetry and Peace really focused on the poems," Russell says. "This new book will look more deeply into the essays, the stage plays, and things like his radio work for BBC. So, I'm trying to cover a lot of genres from Heaney that aren't usually considered."

Heaney will read from his poetry on Monday in the Jones Concert Hall in the Glennis McCrary Music Building. The event begins at 7pm and is open to the public. Doors open at 6:30.

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