by Annie West, Illustrator
Annie recently donated a selection of her prints to our Prints & Drawings Collection
Yeats in Love
Looking at my work, you’d probably expect to hear I’m busy with my nose in my Collected Works of W.B. Yeats every day, carefully studying every line, looking for nuance, analyzing every simile and metaphor. But no.
My relationship with Willie Yeats was never all that great, being as I was a part-time Sligo person and from a very young age, fully aware of the fact that Yeats was neither born here nor lived here. So already I viewed Yeats and his Sligo connection with a cynicism which did not improve with the years. I was surrounded in Sligo by the Yeats Country Hotel, The Yeats Tavern, The Yeats United Football Club . Was he born here? No. Did he live here? No. I was already familiar with the tale that perhaps he wasn’t even buried here, due to some kind of hilarious mix-up at the grave site in France.
My relationship with the Nobel Laureate had been further and, I thought, irretrievably soured in Secondary School by a teacher who clearly not only disliked me, and all my friends, but also Yeats, all Literature, English in general, and the whole entire process of teaching. By the time I emerged from school, blinking and gasping, with my Leaving Cert in my hand I vowed never to open another poetry book again.
Things took a turn for the better in the nineties when I had moved back to Sligo and was given the job of Church Warden at St. Columba’s Church, Drumcliffe. As a result I got to meet a huge number of visiting Yeats’ Scholars who assisted in my rehabilitation by recounting stories of Willie Yeats and his Muse. The Muse who made him great. It was as if a veil had been torn from my eyes.
I began to read about Yeats and Maud Gonne. His hopeless pursuit. His four marriage proposals (“FOUR?”). How he waited for Iseult to grow up and then proposed to her as well. And how she turned him down too. To steal a line from comic writers: This was comedy GOLD.
It started slowly: just one illustration, a comic strip where Yeats meets Maud Gonne for the first time. I thought that was it but then more started coming. Ideas arrived in my head by themselves, with no prompting at all. My usual circuitous walk every morning would end with me running for the drawing board: Those four proposals. Various attempts to get Maud’s attention. Stalking. Nerdy stalking. In every illustration he carried his battered pink book of Love Pom’s, wore red skinny drainpipes and a purple velvet jacket. Probably not historically correct but then not much of this was.
The series of course had to have some kind of basis in fact, so I continued on with Yeats and his whiny, nerdy non-existent love life as Maud married John MacBride, as he considered his retreat to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, and his occasional meetings with other literary giants like James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, ending with him coming full circle and meeting Iseult Gonne MacBride.
The Yeats in Love series grew and grew and culminated in a touring exhibition which was opened in Dublin in 2008 by Senator David Norris. My unimpeachable sources have revealed that the Senator now has what he calls The Annie West Room in his home, containing a very special one-off miniature sized collection from the series.
Joyce Bookmarks. Joyce Beermats. Joyce Skateboards.
Where to go after Yeats, I wondered. The obvious place is James Joyce, you’d think. I had done a couple of Joyces already, but in the context of Joyce giving Yeats a bit of manly advice about how to get girls to like him. Again I must stress that the actual literature does not feature heavily in this subject either. My English teacher really did untold damage in the seventies. I had no desire to read any more of Joyce’s work than was absolutely necessary, and if possible I would go to remarkable lengths to avoid reading altogether.
I went for various walks and considered Joyce, but every time I thought about him, his face would appear on a mug, or a golf tee. Or a place mat. That was my problem: if I did Joyce it would end up being the literary and visual equivalent of Dogs Playing Snooker. I couldn’t see any way to illustrate Joyce without it looking like some cheap piece of tourist tat. Joyce was ruined for me by the relentless production of cheap merchandise. Apart from an occasional illustration of him in the pub with his mates Yeats, Shaw, Pound and a young Beckett, I decided to look elsewhere for inspiration.
All the time I was wondering and scribbling and thinking and fretting over Joyce, I kept bumping into Seamus Heaney. Mad but true. I went to speak to a roomful of under nines at Listowel Writers’ Week and Boom, there he was, standing in the lobby. Smouldering quietly, surrounded by a coterie of middle-aged babes, all desperately trying to get his attention. A word. A nod. A handshake, even.
I went to do my Church Warden thing at Drumcliffe for the Yeats Summer School and Boom, there he was again.
I was hanging the Yeats in Love exhibition in the Hawk’s Well theatre in Sligo and Boom, Seamus. With a trail of women, trailing. It took the receptionist at the Theatre, Hilda, to make the eventual, now obvious breakthrough. When she referred to Seamus as The new Joe Dolan. It was a sign.
Should I? Could I? Would I get into trouble? Could I be sued? Worse still, would he hate me? I asked (now President) Michael D. Higgins who enthusiastically encouraged me to embark on this project. I also got some technical support from Barry Devlin, Horslip and Brother-in-Law.
The Heaney Series took shape very quickly. The black shirts (“His favourite book is the Ben Sherman Catalogue, you know”). The gossamer cloud of snow white hair. The voice like warm chocolate sauce over a slice of fudge brownie. What he might do on a day off. The army of women-of-a-certain-age became known as Heaneyboppers, who followed him everywhere like Bob Dylan’s Bobcats.
I haven’t been sued, not yet. I don’t think he’s annoyed. I saw him again recently and fell into a swoon as he smiled at me. I am now applying for full membership of the Heaneyboppers club.