Featured Speaker Friday
Each week the Hank Center highlights a speaker at the 2019 Catholic Imagination Conference. This week we are featuring two speakers: TV writer and playwright Dorothy Fortenberry, and poet and essayist John F. Deane.
Dorothy Fortenberry is a Los Angeles-based playwright and television writer who is currently in her third season as a writer and producer on Hulu’s award-winning adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Prior to that, she spent three years on the writing staff for the CW series The 100. She also developed and sold a pilot, Witch Hunt, with filmmaker Ry Russo-Young and Fabrik Entertainment to the Bravo network.
Her plays include Partners, Mommune, Caitlin and the Swan, Good Egg, and the play with music Status Update. In 2017, IAMA Theatre Company produced the world premiere production of Fortenberry's play Species Native to California, a modern re-telling of The Cherry Orchard. Her play Partners had its world premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Fortenberry's essays on subjects including faith, fear, and the politics of country music have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Real Simple, and Pacific Standard.
Dorothy’s work has been developed at Arena Stage, Ars Nova, Geva Theatre, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among others, and produced by Center Rep, Chalk Rep, Live Wire, Red Fern Theatre, and The Management. She is a winner of the 2011 Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights, and a two-time Finalist for the O’Neill Conference (for her plays Status Update and Mommune). Residencies include the MacDowell Colony, the Djerassi Program, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Page 73. Dorothy is a member of the Playwrights Union, a founding company member of Tilted Field, and in the 2013 Warner Bros. Television Writers Workshop.
She holds an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama.
Deane is a poet of magisterial elegance, in works such as the spiritual, incantatory-like lament, 'Fugue' (2000), he uses language with a purpose, yet despite its intent, the impact is as beautiful as it is challenging and direct; he looks more to feeling than sensation. A 1996 poem, 'In Dedication', expresses this well and could serve as his poetic manifesto.
Deane's passion for poetry inspired him to establish the Dedalus Press in 1985 and to operate it from his home, then in Sandymount, and now in Templeogue where he lives. Before that, in 1979, he founded Poetry Ireland, the National Poetry Society "to give poetry a status which it lacked up to then. At that time, it was still a fly-by-night event, largely readings in pubs. I tried to bring it out into the open and to give poets a status, and an income". He is also general secretary of the European Academy of Poets founded in Luxembourg in 1996.
Highly regarded as a poet throughout Europe, he is published in Britain by Carcanet, has been translated into several European languages and also translates from French and Swedish. Deane particularly admires the senior Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer - "You must read him."
The second son in a family of four, he was born in 1943, and raised on Achill Island, Co Mayo. Although since the age of 18 he has lived mainly in Dublin, and for some years in Mornington, Co Meath, Deane remains a west of Ireland man.
The darker sense of religion emerges in his conversation and memories - "Each day dawned with prayer/and each day died." It is the weight of an absolute Catholicism that has dominated his experience of religion. "I kind of slithered into the priesthood," he says mildly, and recalls "cycling into UCD, wearing my clerical suit and collar and once being spat at" and he laughs abruptly. He was not to be ordained - "I had all the gear, the trappings, but I left."
At university he studied English and French. However he did not select his subjects. "As a seminarian, I was told 'You do English and French', so I did." Midway through his degree, his sense of vocation abandoned him. Deane then went on to complete an MA on the poetry of Hopkins, of whom Deane writes in 'Artist' (from Christ, with Urban Fox, 1997): ". . . our intent, depressive scholar/ who gnawed on the knuckle-bones of words/ for sustenance - because God/ scorched his bones with nearness/ so that he cried with a loud voice/ out of the entangling, thorny/ underbrush of language."
There is no doubt that Deane is instinctively a poet, for him it is his given mode of expression, the power of the exact word, the image. Of 'Fugue', his most technically ambitious poem to date, he says: "It has a narrative structure to it, and it has the structure of the Liturgical cycle from Christmas to Easter. I like an identifiable structure to a collection, not just to individual poems."
But he also writes novels and short stories. "Poetry is the main thing for me - but anything that won't become poetry, goes into fiction." He particularly enjoys the short-story form, remarking on the perfection of it. His first collection, Free Range, was published in 1994; his second, The Coffin Master and Other Stories (2000), is dominated by the superb title work, a novella of near religious power. Characterisation lies at the heart of his storytelling.
Characterisation is also vital to Undertow, a narrative divided between the Achill of the 1950s and the somewhat less brave new world of the island in 1997. "The characters are largely based on real people," says Deane. Central to it are extremes and contrasts, with the characters all engaged in various bids for freedom and are linked by relentless connections of fate.
Deane also observes our society. The poem 'The Dead and the Undead of St Michan's' is a brilliant denouncing of the vandals, "the cider drinkers, the language killers" who "came at night from our impatient streets" to desecrate the ancient wonders of a tiny Dublin church.
Still, he is a poet and as one must be asked why do poets, with few exceptions, invariably achieve far less attention than novelists? "I don't know. Perhaps poetry is too demanding of the reader. It is easier to come to terms with a novel."
Is the standard of poetry high? "The biggest problem is the lack of self-criticism, and with that, the lack of criticism." Above all, Deane, shaped by Hopkins, Eliot, R.S. Thomas and Austin Clarke, believes it is important "to try to measure up to poets you admire most, it's a help".