In Praise of Poetry Weekends

I’m home again but off to Octavia’s shortly for supper and to celebrate her mum’s 94th birthday, so this will of necessity be a quick, photoless post. Just to be clear, her mum is there, so we shan’t be toastimg the start of her 95th year in her absence.

I had a fabulous time in Northern Ireland; three poetry events in three days at the Heaney Homeplace. The highpoint for me was undoubtedly Simon Armitage on Saturday afternoon, but I enjoyed the rest and have a book of Nick Laird’s poetry to add to my shelves.

Simon Armitage is the real deal; funny, profound, poignant, his poems provide a commentary on the world about him. He opened with Thank-you for Waiting, which for an audience no doubt familiar with both Easyjet and, in particular, Ryanair, sent ripples of knowing laughter round the Helicon, as the auditorium is called.

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When I went into my local Poundland today in search of boxes of paper hankies, I picked up my wire basket and prepared to voyage. Armitage checked that his audience knew what Poundland is, and commented that when he read the eponymously titled poem in Oxford he wasn’t sure people knew what he was talking about. The poem came about when one of his students told him he had seen a copy of Ezra Pound’s poems for sale in Sheffield’s Poundland for a pound. Armitage having, as he put it, a bit of an obsession about Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, the two ideas collided to create something very wonderful. Read it here.

Nick Laird on Sunday was a new name to me. As a local lad, he attracted quite a crowd. He’s from Cookstown where I spent some of the summers of my youth. Or rather I spent those weeks in the country not far from Cookstown. Cousin’s son-in-law went to the same school, as indeed did some of our family who belong to my generation. He’s currently based in New York, but if he’s doing readings anywhere near me on this side of the pond, I shall certainly try to get there. He has also written novels and there’s a television series he’s authored coming this year on, I believe, the BBC. I really liked the look of the anthology he has edited, but I only had a small in flight bag, and so I chose a slimmer volume.

The weekend kicked off with three poets and a disappointingly small audience. Andrew Jamison is from Co Down, and grew up near Strangford Lough, but is now based in Bristol. I loved his poem about the things poets don’t include in their acknowledgements – friends who don’t buy their books; noisy neighbours with a penchant for Led Zepp in the middle of the night; landlords who don’t fix leaking taps. Eilean (pronounced Elaine and not Eileen, which surprised me), Ni Chuilleanain (don’t ask me how to say her name; we reached a vague consensus around Callaghan, but that may be incorrect) had poems about nuns, partly she explained, from having three aunts who were nuns, and three aunts who were more pious. One poem, based on a real story, still makes me shiver. she describes a young woman working with her scythe in the field. The landscape is realised in detail. In the gloom of the house the young woman’s sister waits, her bag packed ready for her to leave and become a noviciate in a convent in America. The car arrives. The girl with the suitcase says she cannot go. I’ll take her place, says her scything sister. The letter she sends saying she is happy takes three weeks to arrive. The third poet was Tom French whose poem about people entering the workhouse, their dreadful conditions and the workhouse rules, the information culled from public records, showed clearly how the Irish Famine was no respecter of religion or age. The old, the young, the middle-aged, catholic and protestant, all starved, all died. He gave Cousin’s friend Ann, my accomplice on these cultural outings, the photocopy he had with him of the workhouse records for Magherafelt. We both looked to see if any of our families were mentioned. They weren’t, but that didn’t make it any better.

It was wonderful Ann was able to attend these events. Last summer she was a long term inmate in Antrim hospital, now she is reclaiming her life, getting her mojo back. We’re already rubbing our hands at the thought of the new programme.

Bring it on.

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