Cloquet poet has plenty of stories to tellIt is odd – or perhaps not – that the name of experimental poet and performance artist Séamas Cain is not known to every fellow resident (who can read, that is) in his hometown of Cloquet, Minn.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
It is odd – or perhaps not – that the name of experimental poet and performance artist Séamas Cain is not known to every fellow resident (who can read, that is) in his hometown of Cloquet, Minn.
After all, he is the subject of many a blog posting and artistic review and his works have been featured in theaters and arts spaces in England, Scotland, the Philippines, Indonesia, Italy, Russia, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Burma, Thailand, Ireland and, of course, across the United States.
It is Ireland that calls to him the most.
Cain recently returned to Cloquet from two weeks in Ireland, where he performed in the IMRAM Irish Language Literature festival and spoke at the Mater Dei Institute.
Why invite a Cloquet writer to an Irish Language Literature Festival?
Because many of Cain’s writings are in Irish, the native language of his ancestors, and a language Cain and his sister, Mary, learned sitting at their grandmother’s knee.
In fact, it was the stories of her youth, growing up in the Irish-settlement of Murdock on the plains of southwestern Minnesota, that inspired Cain’s bilingual historical piece “The Prairie Gaeltacht.” (Gaeltacht refers to an area where Gaelic is the principle language spoken.)
His grandmother’s name was Bríd Ní hAndradháin and, while she was born in Swift County, Minnesota, she spoke mostly Irish as a child. She moved to Cloquet later, when she was 20 years old, and lived here until she died, just shy of 100.
“It was an older form [of the language] though,” Cain said, noting that the program for the recent Irish performances of his piece actually had a glossary of some of the terms he used in his writing, so modern Irish speakers would understand. It also included words specifically describing life in the United States, like the words for buffalo (“Buabhall” in Irish), or blizzard (“Siobadh sneachta” in Irish).
For the two performances of the “The Prairie Gaeltacht” last month in Ireland, Cain narrated the piece in English, while a troupe of Irish actors portrayed the various characters speaking Irish.
“The stories, as told to me, were a mixture of Irish and English and that’s how I wrote them down,” Cain said, noting that he never went back to these notebooks until just this last spring. “I was supposed to be doing the other event – ‘trid an gcoill’ by Cain and Slavek Kwi – nothing was said about the Prairie until April.”
At that point, IHRAM director Liam Carson gently insisted that Cain do a piece on his American-immigrant Irish ancestors.
Cain said it is impossible to refuse Carson.
“First I went to an essay I wrote in 1978 that was published in a journal in Belfast and I started with that,” he said. “But I kept thinking of this notebook of stories. So one day I spent the entire day – I ransacked the house – looking for these notebooks. As Mary can confirm, I never throw anything out. The problem is, how do you find anything?”
He did find it, and from those notes “The Prairie Gaeltacht” was born.
It is at once a theatrical experience and a history lesson. Cain takes the audience with him, to meet Thomas Burke, kinsman of Edmund, who fled to the Irish colonies of Minnesota in 1878. Once here, Irish settlers learned from Indians “where strawberries grew and which birds were most delicious to hunt.”
“The Prairie Gaeltacht” brings listeners from the time of the wagon trains to the day electricity arrived in the village of Murdock, Minn., in 1922. Along the way, they hear stories of the Molly Maguires, the communitarian Connemaras and their vision of creating a Gaelic socialist utopia on the prairies of western Minnesota, of fiddlers and harmonica players at dances, of droughts, snowstorms and swarms of locusts that would eat a man’s boots in no time.
“I wrote the stories down in 1960, 1961, when I was in high school,” Cain said. “I refer to it as my ‘interviews’ but it was not like a journalist would do interviews, because much of the time they would forget I was there. I had heard the stories before. What was new was that I was sitting with a pad, in the corner, and they would forget entirely that I was there. That was what I wanted, because if my grandmother became self-conscious, she would stop talking. I could never record her, only once, and she was just mortified. She would not speak to a mike. If she didn’t know it was being written down, she would just talk on and on and on.
“Over the years, I would, or Mary would, hear the stories more than once. So I could add little details.
“[The Prairie Gaeltacht] is only a fraction of the material. I was just going through page by page, drawing out with a writer’s eye what seemed to me to be the most vivid kinds of details, phrases or sentences and just putting them in there.”
As part of its “Irish Minnesota Project,” the Carlton County Historical Society co-sponsored Cain in Dublin. Director Rachel Martin said the bilingual piece is a perfect match for the historical society.
“I’ve worked with Séamas on history projects for more than 20 years,” Martin said, noting that plans are under way to perform “The Prairie Gaeltacht” in Cloquet on or around St. Patrick’s Day. “He does top notch work.”
Cain’s writings cover an incredible range of topics and formats, from 17-word poems to longer performance pieces like “The War Requiem.” (Cain was a member of the original group with Sam Hamill who organized the “Poets Against the War” project in the U.S.
In his youth, Cain participated in Martin Luther King’s Selma freedom march (a formative and decisive moment in his life, he said). Later, Cain was one of the organizers of the National Mobilization against the Vietnam War, and a protester against the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago.
Throughout his life, Cain has had occasion to meet and befriend a number of people, including Dorothy Day, Sam and Esther Dolgoff, the novelist and playwright Jean Genet, the poet Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, Ammon Hennacy, Martin Luther King Jr, Thomas Merton, and the poet Kenneth Rexroth – as well as members of the Living Theater, the Firehouse Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the initiators of the FLUXUS movement in the arts and more.
His friendship with Ginsberg was the subject of Cain’s talk at the Mater Dei Institute.
They met in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, when Cain and Duluth friend Gary Moland headed out to the West Coast in 1967.
“We found all sorts of people living there who had been students at UMD,” said Cain. “We went to a place called The Diggers, where anyone could bring food and anyone could take that food away. When you walked in, you had to jump through this wooden framework and say a little poem. We were given a breakfast of freshly baked bread and a handful of grapefruit, and that’s where we met Alan and Phillip Limantia, two of the original beat poets, who both started chatting away. Alan was very approachable, not a snob, no nose in the air. Phillip was more shy.”
They met again at the 1968 protest in Chicago, where they interacted more, Cain said.
“I think my description of that encounter and what Allen did there really captured the imagination of the audience [at Mater Dei],” Cain said with a chuckle.
In short, the 60-something artist has led an interesting life.
It’s a habit he’s not about to break.
“I told my doctors, ‘For the rest of my life I want to do interesting things,’” he said, “‘mostly associated with the writing of books and spinoffs from that. So keep me going as long as you can. …’ The left leg has been going this last winter, but the brain is still active.”