POET Roberta Beary’s beautiful short-form poetry has won her international acclaim. Pic: Dave Russo
Since moving to Westport, native New Yorker Roberta Beary has not looked back. It was a big decision. She and her husband, Frank Stella, had both spent their whole lives in cities, with Roberta having lived in New York, London, Tokyo and Washington DC before choosing to step out of the fast lane and into the slow.
Beary’s journey to her new life in Westport was enchantingly encapsulated in a short – very short! – story that appeared in the New York Times earlier this month as part of the newspaper’s Tiny Love Stories series, which features ‘modern loves stories in miniature’, each no more than 100 words long (reprinted below).
Speaking to The Mayo News last week, Roberta said she was thrilled to be selected. And it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that short-form writing is her forte.
Beary has been writing Japanese haiku and haibun for many years. While many understand a traditional Japanese haiku to be three-line poems with 17 syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count, Beary is quick to point out that this is not necessarily true. Haiku are much more flexible, she insists, and brief. As a poem she tweeted illustrates, rigid adherence to form is not her style:
don’t ask me why
Haibun, meanwhile, is a form that combines prose and haiku, typically a ‘scene-setting’ piece of prose writing followed by a haiku.
Beary’s work has won multiple international awards and appeared not only in The New York Times and in many anthologies, as well as in US poetry and literature magazines ‘Rattle’, ‘KYSO Flash’, ‘100 Word Story’ and ‘Cultural Weekly’. Her poetry collection, ‘The Unworn Necklace’, received a finalist award from Poetry Society of America, while her prose poem collection, ‘Deflection’, was named a National Poetry Month Best Pick by the Washington Independent Review of Books. She recently co-edited ‘Wishbone Moon’, an international anthology of haiku by women, which was launched in Mayo last October during Westival, the Westport Music and Arts Festival. Over 25 years in the making, this anthology showcases the haiku aesthetic at its best.
So why the move to Ireland? Beary explains that with her father’s roots in Monaghan, she always felt an affinity with the country. But the path to Clew Bay was circuitous.
In an earlier part of her life, Beary worked as a finance lawyer and was married to a journalist, with whom she had two children. The couple moved to Tokyo, where she continued to work as a lawyer, while immersing herself the haiku poetry form. Neither Tokyo nor the marriage was to last.
the words of his letter
darker and darker
Back in the States, now a single mother of two, she found solace, catharsis and healing in her short poems. The act of distilling difficult life events and her feelings about them down to their essence in a few simple, intense, direct words helped her navigate those events – and finding others who also wrote haiku poetry helped her feel less alone, less isolated. “By sharing your poems with others, you connect with them, and by listening to their poems, you feel less alone,” she explains, adding: “Haiku is a great way to meet people – I always seek out other haiku writers when I travel.”
no longer married
only their shadows touch
... graduation day
A profile of Beary on the Poets and Writers website (www.pw.org), says that she ‘identifies as gender-expansive’ and ‘writes to connect with the disenfranchised, to let them know they are not alone’.
Her gender expansiveness, she explains, is rooted in the idea that ‘male’ and ‘female’ represent a false dichotomy that fails to convey the nuanced breadth of human lived experience.
Indeed, she reveals that she sometimes thinks of herself as Robert – the name and sex that she would have been given had her mother’s wish for a second boy come true.
Her views are also informed by the fact that her son, Nathan, is gay, and her feelings of protectiveness and total acceptance. When she quotes a haiku that she wrote about an observed reaction to her son’s sexuality, her gentle, lilting voice hardens. It turns steely, accusatory, angry, almost pitying. A living catharsis.
not something that’s contagious
still you step back
from my son
and his boyfriend
Several years after returning to Washington, Beary met her now husband Frank Stella at a book club for people who were separated and divorced. Both were divorced, both had a daughter and a son, and both grew up in Queens in New York. Love blossomed.
That was 1997. Twenty years later, retired from their jobs and their blended family raised, the couple made the move to Beary’s spiritual homeland, Ireland – with all their worldly belongings stuffed into two suitcases.
The move had been delayed for few years by two of their children’s weddings and the passing of Beary’s mother and her nephew.
the shape of grief
Eventually, though, life made space for the new chapter.
After checking out Dublin, Waterford and Sligo as potential new homes, the couple at last decided to try Westport. They had read about the town in The Irish Times when it was named the Best Place to Live in Ireland.
Won over, they have since settled here, flanked by town and sea, with shops and restaurants in walking distance and scenic rambles on their doorstep.
a heron unlocks
The move from big-city life to small-town Ireland has not narrowed Beary’s horizons – if anything, she says, it has broadened them. Her new surroundings have seen her strike into new areas, new ways of writing.
She now finds herself incorporating less-personal themes into her succinct poetry, and distilling not only her own lived experiences and observations, but also those of others.
Appointed Roving Ambassador for the US-based Haiku Foundation, Beary has been bringing the genre to ever-wider audiences too. She conducted a haiku workshop in Westport last September as part of Westival, while the previous year she curated an exhibition, Haiku Quilts, which paired selections from Haiku Ireland’s anthology, ‘Stone after Stone’, with framed fabric squares created by Westport’s Octagon Quilters.
When speaking to The Mayo News last week, she was preparing to head to Listowel to facilitate a haibun writing workshop at the Kerry Writers’ Museum. Continuing to spread the word about how less words really can be more.
• All poems by Roberta Beary. A selection of work by Beary is available in Seamus Duffy’s Bookshop, Westport, with more available on amazon.co.uk.
Now It’s All Fresh Fish
We are grandparents. The age when most couples stay put. “We need something new,” I said as our Trader Joe’s fish defrosted in our suburban Maryland kitchen. “Why not sell the house? We’re retired and the kids are settled. And you know it’s been my dream to live abroad while we still can.” My dream, not his. He looked at me, his face inscrutable. Three years, two funerals and two weddings later, we still eat fish for dinner.
But it’s caught in Clew Bay, near our home in the shadow of Croagh Patrick. We’re old, we’re new, we’re together, in Ireland.
— Roberta Beary
(Published in The New York Times as part of the Tiny Love Story series.)