Blog from the Poet in Residence, Catherine Ann Cullen, to keep you up to date on her latest news and activities.
October 2021 Blog
Raising Our Voices
One thing many people have missed over the past year and a half is getting together to raise our voices in song. Choirs have done their best online, but they’ve mostly resorted to singing while muted so the various delays on their online platforms don’t lead to a cacophony. So it’s wonderful news that The City of Derry International Choir Festival will run from 20-24 October, and I’m very excited to be part of two of its events.
Poet Enda Wyley and I will be on the panel for a Words and Music Symposium on Wednesday 20 October, live and online at 12.30pm. The symposium, in partnership with the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry, is partly to celebrate the fact that four new pieces of music will premiere at this year's festival. The panel will include composers Elaine Agnew and Eoghan Desmond, John Toal, co-host of Trad ar Fad on BBC Two NI and The John Toal Show on BBC Radio Ulster, and James Kerr, Chief Executive of the Verbal Arts Centre.
We’ll be talking about subjects very close to my heart: the relationship between words and music, poet and composer, singers and new works, and current performance opportunities. We’ll also discuss how the experience of the past 18 months has impacted on the creative output of composers and poets. You can register for the free event here: Register now
Dónal Doherty, Artistic Director of the Festival, must be a juggler and a magician as well as a musician, as he has managed to organise a wonderful programme against the backdrop of uncertainty. Dónal and the festival crew have adapted to the changing Covid-19 protocols, and the format for the festival’s Primary and Post Primary School days has changed more than once to facilitate children and young people to participate in a live event. The result is that pupils from eight local primary schools will be gathering in the Millennium Forum in Derry on Thursday 21 October for The Primary School Big Sing at 11am, and eight secondary schools will converge on the same venue for the Post Primary School Big Sing on Friday 22 October at 11am.
The format for the two schools sessions will be a general introduction and vocal warm-up, a Kodaly-focused workshop led by music education expert Lucinda Geoghegan with songs, games and rhymes, and finally the learning and performance of specially-composed pieces for young voices by leading Catalan composer and conductor, Josep Vila i Casañas. Josep has used a poem of mine called ‘The Jellyleg Germ’ for the Primary Schools’ song, and Enda Wyley’s ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ for the Post Primary groups. Numbers have been capped at about 30 pupils per school to allow for social distancing. That means that each day there will be about 250 pupils participating in the workshop session and singing the words written by Enda or myself. Isn’t that a lovely thought? The participating schools will be given the music and accompanying tracks to use with their pupils for future performances. I’m looking forward to hearing both songs in these celebratory days of singing!
Voices of Witness
The Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival takes place from Friday 15 to Sunday 24 October, and Poetry Ireland’s event for the festival is called Voices of Witness. I’ve curated the event to include people whose work reflects the drive for all kinds of freedoms and equalities. Fióna Bolger, who has lived in Ireland and India, believes in plurilingualism as a strategy to cross borders and create new spaces for playing, thinking and healing through words. Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal was born in India and her poems explore her sense of being uprooted, and the notion of place and its effect on our bodies, minds and memories. Richie Keane is a community worker in Fatima and one of the stars of my Poetry Vigilantes writing group. Oein De Bhairduin is a mincéir community worker and the award-winning author of Why the Moon Travels from Skein Press. Niamh Parsons is a traditional singer, trade unionist and long-time campaigner for women’s and other rights. I’ll be presenting the event and throwing in a few of my own poems too. Bígí linn myself. You can read more about the Poetry Ireland event here and the festival, which is run by the theatre company Smashing Times, here
The Writer’s Voice
It’s wonderful to be finally back organising school visits, and I’ll be doing my first one since April next week. For children and young people to hear the voice of a writer, ask questions, and understand that writers are real people with ordinary lives, can be life-affirming and inspiring (even if the question most often asked by primary school children is “Do you make a lot of money?!”) The Writers in Schools scheme is accepting applications now for real, live, in-person school visits by writers of all kinds, while there are still virtual visits for those who feel more comfortable with them. If you are a teacher anywhere across the island of Ireland, in a primary or secondary school, who would like a writer to visit and talk about their work and/or writing in general to your students, to facilitate a writing workshop and foster creativity, do have a look at the Writers in Schools website here
The Sound of the Shuttle
The Weaving Words event that I curated for the Frank Harte Festival has been ratcheting up views since it premiered on 24 September. I’ve had some lovely feedback on the whole event, which has mentioned every one of the singers and speakers, but I think the edge has gone to singer and song-historian Maurice Leyden. Maurice’s rattle-through of the first line of a clutch of weaving songs, his compendium of weaving phrases, and his lovely song, ‘The Weaver’s Web', about a weaver for whom “the best music to my ears was the shuttle’s sweet sound” has definitely woven a spell. Catch the event here, and if you’ve a love of traditional song, you’ll also enjoy the voices in the Frank Harte Festival’s Grand Concert event here, with the explosive energy of The Bonny Men, the Liverpool lilt of Rosie Davis, the hilarious Conn ‘Fada’ Ó Drisceóil and the gloriously sweet voice of Bláithín Mhic Cana among others: watch video
It’s still a surprise and a delight to have poems pouring in for the #PoetryPrompt #NodFilíochta duo every week on Twitter, and we’ve been blessed with good weather when I’m out hunting for photographs to match the prompts every weekend! It’s encouraging to see that even after over 18 months of prompts, and a great community of poets on our Twitter, we are still getting the occasional new responder. Frank Callery of Kilkenny sent us his first #PoetryPrompt work for last week’s prompt of #magpie, with the screaming voice of that beautiful menace put to rest by a hawk. Well done Frank!
Between Two Minds
An iridescent bag of loot -
You’re caught between admire and shoot;
Raider of each nest, it screams:
The harder option now, it seems.
But while you’re caught between each thought
The hawk that swooped, your battle fought
And brought its booty to the ground:
An iridescent feather mound,,
Created by its beak’s precision,
A dolmen to your indecision.
That’s another round-up of voices for this month - keep an eye on @tarryathome on Twitter for all the #PoetryPrompt activity and the clamour of events!
September 2021 Blog
I’m picking up the threads like everybody else in September - it’s back to schools, colleges and workshops. I’ll be weaving lines with the fearsomely talented Fatima Poetry Vigilantes and with the Pathways group for former prisoners. The Writing from Scratch group of SAOL writers that I share with Rachael Hegarty will be getting a look-in too, all part of the fabric of life in Poetry Ireland!
Speaking of Rachael, the Poetry Town initiative is well and truly underway with 20 Poets Laureate around the country unveiling their commissioned poems about their town. I was honoured to take part in the launch event on Friday 10 September with the Dublin 1 Laureate, Rachael, introduced by one of my heroes, Paula Meehan.
Along with Rachael’s engaging poetry, we had readings from poets Rosaleen McDonagh and Martin Reilly, who both have associations with Pavee Point, and a great a cappella rendition of the Rocky Road to Dublin by sometime Dublin 1 resident, Glen Hansard. You can watch it back on Poetry Ireland’s YouTube channel. Keep an eye out for some other Poetry Town initiatives: Poetry Underfoot will see lines of poetry appearing on paths when it rains, and disappearing when it dries up.
If you’re passing Poetry Ireland at 11 Parnell Square East, you’ll find some poetry right outside - I haven’t managed to see it yet because on the few occasions I’ve ventured in, the sun has shone! You can also pick up lovely Poetry Town postcards for free in cafés and other local spots. I’m delighted to have my roundel about Maud Gonne’s artistic protest for Queen Victoria’s visit to Dublin in 1897 included in the café Pocket Poems. Gonne projected scenes of famine and eviction from the windows of Poetry Ireland’s home, then the National Club, with her magic lantern. Now there’s a great yarn.
Strong women were at the forefront of another event I was delighted to participate in on Sunday 5 September, to honour the Irish Women Workers Union on its 110th anniversary. The event was organised by SIPTU and included the launch of a book on women on the left in Ireland, edited by Mags O’Brien. I read my sonnet on Rosie Hackett, written for the opening of the bridge named in her honour, and a newer ‘rap’ on Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, the suffragette and union organiser.
My rap was inspired by the plaque in Dublin Castle, where Hanna and some of her fellow activists smashed windows in 1912 in protest against the refusal of the Irish Parliamentary Party to include the vote for women in the Home Rule Bill. In English the plaque mentions that Hanna “smashed these windows”, but in Irish it has the much more evocative phrase, “a rinne smidiríní do na fuinneoga seo” - “who made smithereens of these windows”. That Irish phrase has a great ring to it and sounded like a rap waiting to happen, so I obliged!
The event was a fine tribute to those trailblazing women, including an interview with Máirín Johnston, whose book Around the Banks of Pimlico gave us a vivid picture of the life of women in the early to mid 20th century in the Liberties of Dublin. I was especially struck by Máirin’s description of the women gathering to do their laundry on the banks of the Poddle in Pimlico - which she admitted was not a very clean river, due to the many factories in the area. Talk about washing your dirty linen in public!
Linen is one of the themes of Weaving Words, intertwining the threads of poetry, song and history about the weaving and sewing trades across the island of Ireland, with a nod to our neighbouring island too. On Friday 24 September, we’ll be bringing you our second annual tribute to song-collector Frank Harte. We’ll hear Jerry O’Reilly of the Góilín traditional singing club with his fantastic version of ‘Ye Men of Sweet Liberties’, a song about the demise of the weaving trade in Dublin after the Act of Union in 1801. The song was written by the iconic Dublin balladeer Zozimus, aka Michael Moran.
We’ll also hear from Terry Moylan, retired archivist of Na Piobairí Uilleann and editor of the magnificent A Living Voice: The Frank Harte Song Collection among many other fine books. Terry will give a brief history of the connections between Harte, Zozimus and weaving in Dublin. Maurice Leyden, singer and song historian from Belfast will talk about the fascinating songs from the linen factories there, and Belfast writer Heather Richardson will share some beautiful work in tribute to her aunt who worked in a weaving factory and died tragically young.
I’ll have two new short poems, one on the Tenters area of Dublin, called after the weavers’ tenterhooks where the linen was stretched, and another on my grandmother Kitty Cullen, who worked in a stitching factory in Drogheda. Gerry Cullen will make a rare guest appearance to give us a song from Drogheda radical songwriter and weaver, John Sheil. Rosie Davis from Liverpool will give us the lovely ‘Shift and Spin’ song written for a local history project - and there is more! ‘Weaving Words’ will be online at 4pm on the afternoon of Friday 24 September, just before the Frank Harte Festival weaves its own spell online from its base across Parnell Square from Poetry Ireland in Club na Múinteoirí, the Teachers Club. Wind your bobbin up and join us!
And finally - the celebration of the Trócaire Poetry Ireland Poetry Competition will be on our YouTube channel at 6pm on Friday 17 September, Culture Night. It was inspiring to be a judge in the competition, and women are definitely in the forefront this year. Don’t miss the wonderful readings from established and emerging adult poets as well as secondary and primary school writers, all of them weaving the thread of this year’s theme, Pathways to Peace, through their work.
August 2021 Blog
Transports and Travels
The phrase on everyone’s lips this month is #HakunaMatata, in honour of boxer Kellie Harrington’s inspiring performance at the Olympics. Kellie uses the Swahili phrase meaning ‘No Worries’ as her motto, based on the song of the same name from the film, The Lion King. We have very few words in English from Swahili, a language of mixed African and Arabic origin, but one you’ll surely know is ‘safari’, which in Swahili simply means ‘journey’. Well, we’re continuing our #PoetryPrompt journey and as we were all in transports of joy to see Kellie’s achievement, one of our August prompts is #HakunaMatata. Regular responder Robin McNamara brought us another Swahili word in the title of his poem, ‘Mafanikio’, which means success, achievement. Here are a few lines:
How long the journey / how long the time
To lace up, glove up, psych up…
A last shot of advice
The bell rings, they go
We had many other fine poems in honour of Kellie too, as befits an organisation which shares her Dublin 1 home base. A few more choice lines, from Richie Keane:
Rallying the nation
Sunday morning at six
Toast tea and weetabix.
And there was more toast in Damien Donnelly’s poem:
After the distance
we haven’t fully measured,
the toast jumped higher
than any kitchen ceiling
For the last word, Marie Studer combined the prompt with our callout for #LimericksUnlimited in this tribute:
Kellie warrior for the Gold
Put heart beats last Sunday on hold
Earned pride for the green, white and gold.
It looks as if #HakunaMatata is one phrase from Swahili we will continue to say with relish, even if some of us are punching above our weight!
A Word for a Rickety Vehicle
Speaking of words from other languages, I’m always fascinated to discover their roots - and indeed, I’m transported by unusual words from Irish and English too, words that enrich us and our writing. Being a lover of ballads, I’m interested in how songs occasionally preserve words that have been lost in the general vocabulary.
For instance, one traditional Dublin song has retained two words in the title, ‘The Waxies’ Dargle’. Waxies were cobblers, based on the waxed thread they used, and a Dargle was a holiday excursion, as these were often taken by Dubliners to Bray in Wicklow, with picnics on the banks of the River Dargle. My own recent research on a lost Dublin street poet and balladeer, Joseph Sadler, has turned up a few interesting Hiberno-English uses in his songs.
A song called ‘The Militia Boy Discharged’ has the exclamation ‘wirristhrew’. That’s explained by Terry Dolan in his wonderful book, A Dictionary of Hiberno-English, as ‘a Mhuire, is trua’, although Terry for once gets the English translation wrong. He has, ‘Mary, it’s true’ - in fact, the phrase means, ‘Mary, it’s a pity.’ Even Homer nods, as they say.
Another mesmerising word, in a Sadler song called ‘The Orange Repealer’, is ‘shandheradan’. From the sense, it is clearly a mode of transport. The word is not listed in the Oxford Dictionaries online but it’s in my New Shorter Oxford (1993) as ‘shandrydan, L18, origin unknown, a kind of chaise with a hood, and later any rickety… vehicle’. Webster’s Dictionary of 1913 gives us a better hint: ‘A jocosely depreciative name for a vehicle. [Ireland].’ The word is clearly of Irish derivation, ‘shan’ being the anglicised ‘sean’ or ‘old’, as seen in the song, The Shan Van Vocht, and numerous anglicised placenames in Ireland: Shankill, the old church, Shandon, the old fort.
The second part of the word, ‘dheradan’, or ‘drydan’ as the dictionary has it, is a puzzle. It may be from the Irish ‘dearraide’ (seclusion) or ‘dordán’ (a deep sound, hum, buzz etc). I’d warmly welcome any other suggestions from Irish scholars! Such Irish words in English-language songs of 19th century Dublin give us a real flavour of how Irish remained alive on the tongues of even in the most anglicised city dwellers. And speaking of Sadler, my guest blog post on this street poet of 19th Century Dublin for the Irish Traditional Music Archive will go live at itma.ie/blog later this month. Take a stroll down Thomas Street in his company, it’ll be worth the journey!
Mapping and Weaving
As we travel towards September, Poetry Ireland has been mapping a new term of cultural events. You’ve probably heard about Poetry Town, with twenty towns around Ireland each selected to have a Poet Laureate. Each of the laureates will write a commissioned poem about their home place. I’m excited to join the Dublin 1 laureate, Rachael Hegarty, at an event on 10 September, with some special guests - watch this space!
I’ve just finished organising the line-up for Voices of Witness, Poetry Ireland’s event for the Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival, which will be beamed out to you on Thursday 21 October at 7pm. Included in the wonderful line-up are Mincéir storyteller extraordinaire, Oein DeBhairduin, glorious singer Niamh Parsons, and poets Fióna Bolger, Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal and Richie Keane. And I’ll be there too, lucky me!
Long before that, you’ll have enjoyed another inspiring event, Weaving Words, which will bring together history, songs and poems on the weaving trade across the island of Ireland. The event is our second annual tribute to singer and song-collector Frank Harte, who did much to revive the memory of weaving in the Liberties of Dublin, including with his classic rendition of ‘Ye Men of Sweet Liberties’, a weaving trade song by the much-loved balladeer Zozimus, aka Michael Moran. ‘Weaving Words’ will be online on the afternoon of Friday 24 September, just before the Frank Harte Festival fills its lungs across Parnell Square from Poetry Ireland in Club na Múinteoirí, the Teachers Club. Bigí linn, and bigí leo - join us, and join them!
Until my next elevenses, may you travel with a song in your heart and a poem in your pen.
July 2021 Blog
Finding a Voice Where They Found a Vision
What a July for judging! I was on the adjudication panels of two competitions that involved much deliberation, the Trócaire Poetry Ireland Poetry Competition and the Poetry Aloud contest. You’ll be hearing about the winners of both over the next few months.
The Trócaire Poetry Ireland Poetry Competition, with its six categories from junior primary to adult published, attracted voices new, established, young and old, with a huge variety of responses to this year’s theme of Pathways to Peace. The many personalities revealed in the poems reminded me of the final line of Eavan Boland’s ‘The Singers’, which is my headline for this blog.
Poetry Aloud, the poetry speaking contest for post-primary schools, revives an art that was still popular in my childhood - that of memorising and reciting poetry to convey its meaning with feeling. A singing session wasn’t complete without someone who had a ‘recimitation’ or poem to perform. I remember going to the Father Mathew Feis in Church Street, Dublin, at the age of six or seven to recite John D. Sheridan’s ‘The Sycamore Tree’, or ‘An Old Woman of the Roads’ by Padraic Colum. What is especially precious to me is that along with the words, learned by heart and still very much remembered, I have retained my own childish imagining of the poems.
In my mind’s eye, the old woman’s longed-for dresser, with its delph “speckled and white and blue and brown”, is exactly as I saw it at six or seven: a neat, dark oak dresser in a rather dim room, watched over by the old woman as she sits by the fire in her creaking chair. I still feel a pang as I see her wandering on lonely, wet roads, longing for “a house of my own/Out of the wind’s and the rain’s way”. I believed in the poem, and I memorised that belief along with the words.
As for Sheridan’s tall tree, growing “Up into the blue sky,/Beside the garden wall”, I don’t even have to close my eyes to see myself trying to scramble to the top of the grey stone wall over which the tree towers. The sycamore tree in my mind as I recited the poem was at the bottom of a nearby garden, and the arrangement of its branches created a huge face in profile that I could see from my bedroom window. That tree is long gone, and the memory of it would be gone too without the vivid picture captured in the poem.
Seamus Heaney was a great supporter of Poetry Aloud and said that it brought poetry “into the memory and affections of the young in a way that will make it a lifelong possession and value”. With my lifelong possession of those poems and the valuable images that go with them, I can only say that Heaney is right - again.
Voices and Verses
I often say you never know where a poem will go. I got an email lately from Dónal Doherty, Artistic Director of the City of Derry International Choir Festival, enquiring about one of my poems for children. ‘The Jellyleg Germ’ was published in All Better! (Poems for children about illness and recovery) by Little Island books in 2019. I reimagined the poems in this collection from a Latvian book by Inese Zandere.
However, ‘The Jellyleg Germ’ was my own invention: the original poem embodied one of those cultural differences between Ireland and Latvia that just didn’t translate, so I wrote a new poem to go with a wobbly green character drawn by Reinis Petersons. Dónal said the poem was one of two texts chosen to be set to music, one for a primary school choir and one for a youth choir.
The ‘youth’ poem is ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ by my friend Enda Wyley, who by coincidence launched All Better! in February 2019. The Festival has commissioned Catalan composer, Josep Vila Y Casanas, to set the two poems as choral pieces. “Josep is a wonderful composer and I'm confident that his setting of your text will be something very special,” wrote Dónal. “I see you are a singer/songwriter yourself, so hopefully this is something that might appeal to you.” And indeed it does! It’s a thrill to see a poem go out into the world and find new voices. The two pieces will be premiered by local school pupils in October 2021, celebrating the joy of singing together again with a focus on young voices. Now that’s something worth listening out for! www.derrychoirfest.com
Listening back - or back listening
One of my #PoetryPrompt themes for adults this month is #eavesdrop or its Irish equivalent, #cúléist. Both of them are lovely visual words. Eavesdrop comes originally from the Old English yfesdrype, a word we would now say as ‘eavesdrip’, rather than ‘eavesdrop’. It literally means "the place where the rain drips off the roof".
It was an old legal term which allowed rain from a roof to drop onto a neighbour’s property, before it became the name for standing under the eaves, beside windows or doors, to listen to what people were saying inside. The Irish word ‘cúléist’ has ‘cúl’, usually meaning ‘back’ or ‘behind’ something, as in cúl an tí, the back of the house or behind the house, and ‘éist’, which means ‘listen’. So - back listening, or listening from behind, now that’s sneaky!
The #eavesdrop prompt has been inspiring some wonderful responses. Here’s one from Richie Keane of the fiendishly good, feverishly writing Fatima Poetry Vigilantes. I’ve been enjoying my workshops with this group of writers who are mainly in the over-50s age-group, with one or two young ‘uns added for good measure. Richie is not content with one response to every prompt, he’s been clocking up two, three and even four to some of them. This one gives voice to a real character!
I hope karma bites him in the bollix she roared
A rogue and blackguard had scorned her
A lucky escape from traipsing to the pawnbroker
Or knocking on the door of a loan shark
You could eavesdrop all of this in the aisle at Quinnsworth
near the shelves of Batchelors beans and Mattersons peas
Once I heard her near the Yoplait chilled fridge say she got a love bite from Elvis Kenny
Jaysus, there is isn't enough carbolic soap in aisle number 7
Carbollix I roared in my head like a scream from Edvard Munch.
© Richie Keane
And here’s a gentle response from Xenia Tran, whose beautiful photos and nature poems are always a joy. You can check out her work on https://whippetwisdom.com/
I’ve extended the run of #LimericksUnlimited through July and August: an invitation to write a limerick as limits lift (or don’t) on how you’ve been, where you are now or your plans for the future. It can be funny as limericks often are, but it doesn't have to be. Listen to your inner voice and pen those five lines on how you’ve got through the pandemic so far. Check out some more #PoetryPrompt poems on my Twitter feed @tarryathome, and keep listening to all those poetic voices and visions that help us through these times. Beirigí bua!
June 2021 Blog
Newly Sprung - or Blooming?
The Scottish national poet Robbie Burns wrote of his love being like a red rose “newly sprung in June”. Anyone who knows anything about roses might quibble with the “sprung” - in my garden at least, the roses bud, they unfurl slowly, and they bloom, without much springing. More about Bloom and blooming later, but I have sprung a new challenge for June on my #PoetryPrompt pals.
#LimericksUnlimited encourages all of you to write a limerick as limits lift, about how you’ve been, where you are now or your plans for the future, and share it on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t forget to tag me and Poetry Ireland. So far, we’ve had limericks about vaccinations, the 5km limit, the lessons of staying home instead of going abroad. We’ve had some on topical issues such as vulture and cuckoo funds. We’ve even had one about James Joyce, that most June of writers. If you search the hashtag #LimericksUnlimited on Twitter, you’ll see the poems so far. Small prizes for the top three entries! Here was my opening shot:
Watching numbers, but never the wiser,
Buying pints, but of hand sanitiser,
At last we hear we’ve a
Date in the Aviva,
And soon we’ll be older, but Pfizer!
A little 5K nostalgia from regular #PoetryPrompt responder Maura McDonnell @soundingvisual:
When distance was under 5 K
our walks were all going one way
up streets then back down
all over the town
then home to the zoom for the day
And the Joycean one, a mollifluent entry from another regular, Billy Craven:
Swerves and bends, river-rollin’ roles Royce,
Blood is Boylan while Molly makes noice,
Flowers bloom at a wake
For the dead-alus sake
Don’t attempt to make limericks of Joyce.
Less than a week to go until Bloomsday on 16 June, the celebration that commemorates the first date of Joyce and Nora in 1904 and the day on which Ulysses is set. It’s clear that Level 5 restrictions did not apply to the novel, for it spans almost 30km of Dublin from Sandycove to Howth, but Joyce did stop within his county boundaries. A few years ago, I wrote a song for Bloomsday in the voice of Molly Bloom, basing my Molly partly on Nora, as Joyce did, but with a feminist slant. Last year I made a video of the song with the help of my resident cameraman Harry Browne - you can see the video on Facebook, where it’s had over 3,700 views. It’s also on YouTube.
Every week I meet with the Fatima Poetry Group, now renamed the Poetry Vigilantes. We managed to have two of our recent meetings in the grounds of IMMA (the Irish Museum of Modern Art). There’s plenty of room to be socially distanced there, although we have found that we are much more productive on Zoom and more likely to chat and queue for coffee and cakes at IMMA, as well as admiring the flowers! We’re currently writing a group poem for Pride month, which we’ll record there next week. And speaking of poetry films and IMMA, you’ll find some beautiful examples in a project called Poetry Speaks presented by The Adrian Brinkerhoff Poetry Foundation and Poetry Ireland in the Garden House at the back of the formal 17th century gardens. More info on the Poetry Ireland website.
Festival for our Buds
Cruinniú na nÓg, the arts festival for children, takes place all over the country on 12 June. I asked my friend Áine Ní Ghlinn, a wonderful poet and children’s writer and the current Laureate na nÓg, if she would record herself reading a few of her children’s poems as Gaeilge to share for the day and whenever teachers and children have time to watch them, and she agreed. You’ll find her poems 'Obair Bhaile' and 'Rap an Ocrais' on the Poetry Ireland YouTube channel. I recorded two of my children’s poems too - 'A Unicorn in a Uniform' and 'Teachers Live in School'. Take a look on the YouTube channel. Hope you enjoy both videos - all four poems will make you smile!
Still Bloomin’ Brilliant
And finally, to celebrate Bob Dylan's 80th birthday on 24 May, I decided to post a tweet-sized review of each of his 39 studio albums. It took all week, and you’ll find them under my twitter handle @tarryathome and the hashtag #Dylan80. Dylan has always been an inspiration to me and it was reassuring to remember that he had some definite troughs in his career. He’s a lesson in mining American folk music, along with some Irish songs and poets such as Yeats. My takeaway from my Dylan fest is twofold. I'd unfairly hated 'Sara' from his 1976 album Desire as a self indulgent dirge, because it featured in the dreaded slow sets at my first discos. I realise now that it’s a stunning love song to his crumbling marriage:
Now the beach is deserted except for some kelp
And a piece of an old ship that lies on the shore.
And I marvelled again at his 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, released a year ago this month. The magnificent 'I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You' is, I believe, Dylan's 'The Circus Animals Desertion', though where Yeats is filled with self disgust at his “lion and woman and the Lord knows what”, Dylan is more self-forgiving: It “Just takes me a while to realize things”. It's a love song to himself and to us, his fans. And whether he really does give us himself or one of his many shapeshifts and conjuring tricks, I’ll be listening as long as he goes on blooming. Go maire sé an céad.
May 2021 Blog
May is ablaze with the Bealtaine or ‘bright fire’ of the season. It’s the month of the hawthorn or ‘the may’ as my grandmother called it, that plant of superstition and dark magic. As we have just marked the first anniversary of the death of Eavan Boland, I’d like to share her own reading of her beautiful poem, 'White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland' - you can watch it on YouTube.
Hawthorn is also a feature of one of my own poems, 'Queen of the May', which has echoes of my childhood Marian processions and altars, with a generous dollop of the older pagan traditions associated with the month of May or Bealtaine. Here it is, with photographs courtesy of the singer and songwriter Padraigín Ní Uallacháin, from her garden in Mullaghbawn, County Armagh. Enjoy! https://bit.ly/2R3fUhQ
Chatting by the Hearth
While many are fired up by the possibility of professional hair cuts, I’m keeping my unruly locks. I did, however, have a series of Short Cuts for Poetry Day Ireland - eight 20-minute individual Zoom workshops during which I engaged with poets about their works on this year’s theme of New Directions: Maps and Journeys. The participants were mostly women poets with a nice spread around the country - Wexford, Mayo, Meath, Wicklow, Dublin, Cork and Donegal, and an even wider range of themes. There were poems based in Japan, Rotterdam and the townlands of Meath, and poems that mapped the mouth, the heart and the body. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be invited into people’s kitchens, living rooms and studies, to sit virtually by their hearths, and to chat about and share in the intimacies of their poems. Thanks to all who took part, I’ll be looking out for your names and your poems in future!
Whirlwinds and Storms
Between Short Cuts and other online outcomes of our long lockdown, Poetry Day was a bit of a whirlwind. Thanks to the wonders of pre-recording, I managed to take part in several readings, including a bumper edition of Damien Donnelly’s Eat the Storms podcast where I got a chance to read with 15 poets from around the country - now there’s a good taster for anyone who’d like to sample a range of poems! Damien is a faithful Poetry Ireland #PoetryPrompt responder, and must be one of the most productive poets of the pandemic. Listen back to the podcast here.
Passing the Poetry Torch
I’m lucky enough to live in Kimmage, within shouting distance of a host of old Dublin villages from Crumlin to Terenure to Harold’s Cross. The Harold’s Cross Stay @ Home Community Festival is in progress and it was a pleasure to take part in Eight by Five, a reading with seven other poets who live along a 5km stretch through Harold’s Cross from Portobello to Rathfarnham. The poets reflected on the neighbourhood and how it had influenced their writing, and it felt as if we were passing a poetry torch along those five kilometres.The reading was organised by Amanda Bell and I was in the fine company of Gilles Fabre, Maggie O’Dwyer, Michael O’Loughlin, Peter Sirr, Gerry Smyth, Enda Wyley and Amanda herself. You can watch the reading here and have a sneak peek at a range of poets’ living rooms and studies for yourselves!
Blaze a Trail for Peace
The Trócare Poetry Ireland Poetry Competition deadline has been extended to 27 May. Entries on the theme of Pathways to Peace are welcome from all ages from 3rd class in primary school up to published and unpublished adult poets. Full details here, get your entries in - it’s free, and I’m looking forward to reading them all!
From the Ashes of Oblivion
I’ve been asked to write a guest blog post for the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) website, based on a paper I gave in February to the Broadside Day conference in (virtual) London on a forgotten street poet and balladeer of mid-19th Century Dublin, Joseph Sadler. Mine is the first piece of research into Sadler’s work, and I hope it will help to bring him into the light. The connection between poetry and song is one of my special interests, and indeed was part of my PhD studies, so I’m especially delighted to be forging stronger links between Poetry Ireland and the ITMA. After all, my desk and lamp in the library at Poetry Ireland were donated by the ITMA when they were making space for more manuscripts and recordings from our musical heritage, so I’m happy to shed some light in return.
Keep Her Lit!
There’s always plenty of blazing creativity in my weekly workshops. The Fatima Groups Poetry Circle has been writing wickedly good poems each week, responding to the Poetry Ireland #PoetryPrompt series, as well as to other themes we work on every Tuesday. The group has adopted the name The Poetry Vigilantes and, later this month, we’ll be launching a website for their poems, with accompanying artwork created by other Fatima groups. Meanwhile, the Pathways group for prisoners returning to the community is authoring fine pieces every week, and the Writing from Scratch workshops for people with dyslexia is doing beautiful work too. And as a special in this month of the Bealtaine festival, I’ve been invited by Dublin City Council Culture Connects to run a poetry workshop for a group with an older age profile. Look out for some highlights of all four groups in my Twitter feed @tarryathome, and may the bright fire of Bealtaine inspire your creativity this month - keep her lit!
April 2021 Blog
Comings and Goings
Last month I promised you a song video. Here’s a reminder of the background story: on Easter Monday 1916, one of the youngest women active in the Rising was 16-year-old Molly O’Reilly. The messenger belt she used to carry dispatches in and out of the GPO was given to her by James Connolly, and is held in the North Inner City Folklore Project collection curated by Terry Fagan. As part of my residency, I’ve been writing poems on other objects in the collection - dockers’ buttons or badges, irons from the Magdalene Laundry in Seán McDermott Street, a cross made for a dying prostitute in the Monto. At this Facebook link, you can see and hear me singing my song for Molly and her messenger belt, “Who Goes There?”, filmed by my beloved Harry Browne in the appropriate location of my own sixteen-year-old daughter’s bedroom. The banner on her wall is not the ‘uncrowned harp on green’ raised by Molly at Liberty Hall on Palm Sunday 1916, but the rainbow flag. By the magic of social media, my song was shared with Suzanne Corcoran, Molly’s granddaughter, who posted “Aw, what a lovely song!” on Facebook, and sent me a note about it too, with a photo of Molly in her white hat with her son Liam, Suzanne’s Dad. It’s a delight to connect through poetry and song, especially with people who have been an inspiration. And delighted to report that the song video has now had over 1,100 views on Facebook.
Thanks to Suzanne and to Terry for being generous with their histories!
We’re at full throttle at Poetry Ireland getting ready for Poetry Day Ireland on Thursday 29 April. Last year it was a scramble to move everything online at short notice, this year we are old hands in the online world. I’ll be running eight individual mini-workshops of fifteen minutes each on Zoom (or phone if necessary) where people from all over Ireland can workshop a poem on this year’s theme of New Directions: Maps and Journeys. I’m calling the sessions “Short Cuts” to fit in with the theme. Last year, I had participants from Armagh, Kerry, Cork, Wicklow and Galway among others. It was some consolation for not having the workshops as a series of ‘drop-in’ events at Poetry Ireland in Parnell Square, when we would surely have had writers mainly from Dublin and neighbouring counties. If you’d like to workshop a journey poem with me, email the poem to email@example.com by Friday 23 April (Shakespeare’s birthday), and I’ll let you know if it’s “to be or not to be”!
In the Footsteps of Eavan Boland
We’ll be marking the first anniversary of our beloved Eavan Boland with Poetry Ireland hosting a special video event (details to be announced shortly). I’ll be taking part in a tribute to Eavan run by Sandy Yannone’s wonderful Cultivating Voices poetry group, which is based in Olympia, Washington and has a wide transatlantic following. Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Poetry will speak about publishing Eavan's poetry early in their careers. Ray Ball, a poet from Alaska, will talk about how he has been influenced by Eavan’s use of history. I’ll be representing Poetry Ireland, speaking about Eavan's connection with the organisation and reading a favourite poem of hers - it’s very difficult to choose just one! There’ll also be an open mic to let the audience pay their respects, reading a favourite poem of Eavan's or one they wrote inspired by her. The event is on Eavan’s anniversary, Tuesday 27 April, at 8pm Irish time. More details shortly on the Cultivating Voices Facebook page.
Pathways to Peace
Before my next Elevenses blog, the deadline for the Trócaire/Poetry Ireland Poetry Competition will have come and gone. I’m one of the three judges, and I’m looking forward to reading all the entries on this year’s theme of Pathways to Peace. There are categories from third class in primary school up to adult published and unpublished, and entry is free. What are you waiting for? Details here.
Until my next elevenses, wishing you a poetry journey with roads less travelled as well as beautifully worn paths!
March 2021 Blog
Loud and Shrill
“March brings breezes loud and shrill” as we learned at school in the calendar poem by Sara Coleridge. I’ve often thought that ‘shrill’ conjured up not so much a breeze as a howling wind, but it had to rhyme with ‘daffodil’ in Coleridge’s poem. ‘Shrill’ is a word with a long and misogynist history, often used as a putdown for women who speak up for themselves. So call us shrill if you will, but it was a powerful group of women that got together on Zoom for Poetry Ireland’s IWD2021 event, a fundraiser for Women’s Aid Ireland. In the past, we’ve had a larger group of women live at Poetry Ireland on the day, roll on next year when we hope to again! This time, we decided on a ‘less is more’ approach. We had six poets - Aifric MacAodha, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Rachael Hegarty, Rosaleen McDonagh, Siobhan Daffy and myself. Rosaleen is recovering from Covid-19, so her blistering poem was read by her friend Kathleen Lawrence, another strong Minceir/Irish Traveller, who did a beautiful job of the reading. We send our warm wishes to Rosaleen for a speedy recovery. If you missed it, pour yourself a cuppa or a glass, and tune in on YouTube - you’ll find us proud to be loud and shrill!
Poems on Pathways to Peace
I’ve just recorded a promo for the Trócaire Poetry Ireland Poetry Competition which launches on Monday 15 March and closes on Friday 7 May, with a celebration event on Culture Night, Friday 17 September. Look out for the details and make sure to enter! There are categories for all ages, from Junior and Senior Primary through secondary students to adult published and unpublished poets. This year’s theme is Pathways to Peace. I’m on the judging panel with Aidan Clifford, retired former director of the Curriculum Development Unit, and Trócaire's Campaigns Manager, Joanne McGarry. It was lovely to be part of the same team last year, and I can confirm that every poem was read with care and curiosity, and it took hours of deliberation to decide on the winners from a shortlist of exceptional poems. I’m looking forward to reading all your poems this year!
Trying to Play Music?
By the time I write my next ‘elevenses’ blog post, Easter will have come and gone. Before that, I’m planning to record a video of a song I wrote about one of the artefacts in the North Inner City Folklore Project. This collection is a labour of love by Terry Fagan, and is currently looking for a permanent home. My song is inspired by a messenger belt worn by one of the youngest women involved in the 1916 Rising, Molly O’Reilly of Gardiner Street. The song started as one of a series of poems on this fascinating collection. The poem just would not come right, and after a few days of frustration, it dawned on me that inside the poem was a song waiting to get out. It wrote itself after that. I sang the song at the end of our Poetry Ireland IWD 2021 event (see above), and realised that all those warnings about playing music on Zoom without making proper provision for it are justified. I had a hilarious moment (in retrospect) when I launched into the song and a message came up on my screen asking, ‘are you trying to play music?’ It wasn’t a criticism, I’m told, but was pointing me towards various studio tools I could use. Too late for IWD, as I was already playing to a forgiving crew. However, with the help of my inhouse camera operator, I'm going to share a video of the song around Easter with some visuals of Molly and her belt. Hope you enjoy it!
Coming Around Again
The end of this week marks the first anniversary of the first lockdown. The Poetry Ireland team had a hurried meeting on Thursday 12 March 2020, and decided we would close - for a few weeks, as we thought. One year on and, like many other colleagues, we have yet to get together. On that long-ago Thursday, I decided to post a #PoetryPrompt duo, one for adults and one for children, with photographs to match, every day while we were closed. Last autumn, after more than 200 prompts, I decided to change to a weekly #PoetryPrompt duo, along with a new project, the #ABCDublin rhyming alphabet. This week I reached 300 prompts, with over 400 photographs, and counting! It’s been a wonderful journey with thousands of poems shared by a warm and creative circle, mostly on Twitter. Maith sibh go léir - well done everyone! Rest assured I’ve no plans to pull the #PoetryPrompt series. The prompt for adults for the week beginning 15 March is, appropriately, #circle. March has come around again with its daffodils, as in the Coleridge calendar poem, and the circle is complete. Till our next elevenses, stay safe and hope to see you (a)round soon!
February 2021 blog
The phrase ‘going viral’ doesn’t have its old cachet these days, when there’s just one virus on our minds, but this month I’m happy to report my first positive viral experience. The Song of Brigid’s Cloak, which I wrote as part of the Songs for our Children project last year, has had an astonishing 80,000 views (and counting!) on Facebook in a few short weeks.
It was shared in a lovely version by traditional singer Aileen Lambert and her daughter Nellie for 1 February, or Lá Fhéile Bríde, the first day of spring in this part of the world. The video has had a warm reaction from teachers and parents, folklore groups and singing circles. The Catholic Girl Guides of Ireland have even adopted the song as one of their anthems for the younger Brigín guides. The ballad tells the story of how Brigid outwits the mean old King Of Leinster when he refuses to give her land for her church. Have a look and listen to Aileen and Nellie here, and you can hear me singing the song here.
If the thought of spring makes your fancy ‘lightly turn to thoughts of love’, consider yourself invited to a living love letter with poets laureate from across the United States, with special guests from Canada and Ireland (that’s me!). It’s the first ever Laureate LoveFest, a free event on Valentine’s Day, Sunday 14 February, from 8pm to 11pm Irish time.
Join hosts Nathalie Kuriowa-Lewis and Terri Cohlene (Olympia Poetry Network) and Sandy Yannone (Cultivating Voices LIVE Poetry) for a live Zoom webinar with readings, featuring special performances by former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and current US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. I’m smitten by the whole idea! To register for this free event and see the full line-up, visit this link.
Speaking of international poetry, you never know what you will learn when you read writing by children:
‘Did you know Dublin has a Hollywood?
Not the one in America, don’t get misunderstood.’
‘Esker House, former English land,
A time when they had Ireland in the palm of their hand.’
The #ABCDublin #ABCBÁC project was due to finish at the end of January but we left the door open a crack and I’m glad we did, because a whopping 67 entries came in from sixth class in Scoil Cholmcille, Ballybrack, last week. There are some examples above, and you can see the whole shebang on https://abcdublin.org/all-by-chiselers/ All I can say is, Awesome Ballybrack Creations!
I’m still working on my paper for the Broadside Day conference on Saturday 20 February. Despite the challenges of researching with libraries and archives closed, I have managed to pin down some fascinating facts about an obscure Dublin ballad writer, Joseph Sadler, whose name is spelt in a bewildering variety of ways in the dozen or so ballad sheets that bear it. All will be revealed on the day!
If you’re interested in broadside literature, or as my English Folk Dance and Song Society friends have it, “broadsides, chap books, songsters, woodcuts, engravings, last dying speeches, catchpennies, wonder-tales, almanacs, fortune tellers, and all kinds of cheap printed material sold to ordinary people in the city streets, at country fairs, and from pedlar’s packs up and down the country in past centuries”, for the pauperly sum of 10 pounds, you can enjoy a series of short papers from 10am to 5pm, more information here.
In other news, our illustrated weekly #PoetryPrompt duo on Twitter and Facebook are nearing another milestone - find out next month! My poetry workshops are continuing on Zoom with the Fatima poetry circle and the Writing from Scratch group, both groups are budding like spring flowers, and plans are afoot for International Women’s Day on 8 March, keep an eye on Poetry Ireland’s social media channels for more news.
And finally - did you notice that this blog is updated on the 11th of the month? That’s no coincidence, as the number 11 is the one on Poetry Ireland’s front door at Parnell Square. It’s also the number of poems I undertook to write about the history of the building, using the number 11 in some form in each poem. Last month I gave you the fiendish 11-line roundels. This week I’m letting ye off lightly with two eleven-word poems. Enjoy!
Between 1901 and 1911,
Margaret Pierce, house keeper,
ages six years.
Words break loose
slide up the banisters
graffito the lofty ceiling
January 2021 blog
Coming Around to the Roundel
It’s 2021 and I’m still awaiting the pleasure of a poetry reading in Poetry Ireland. The catch-ups, the queue for signing, being swept into the performance space with a coat draped on one arm, the phone in the hand, the new book(s) clutched under the other oxter, and a glass in the fingers. I can’t wait to hear the murmurs die away, and to let the words take me with them. It will happen, and it will be “sweet like a sweet”, as a French importer once described to me the taste of his favourite olives.
Meantime, I’m researching a conference paper about Joseph Sadler, a Dublin street poet of the 19th Century, for Broadside Day 2021 next month. Tickets are a snip at £10 for the (online) day, details here: https://tinyurl.com/yywqty38
I’m still posting a #PoetryPrompt duo each week on Twitter @tarryathome and Facebook facebook.com/catherineann.cullen, and enjoying the responses. Alphabet Blitz for the City of Dublin is open till 31 January at abcdublin.org for individuals, groups and classes to post rhymes on Dublin for any or all the letters. A new project is brewing!
Finally - one of my lockdown projects is a series of poems about the historic building at 11 Parnell Square East which is home to Poetry Ireland. I call the project 11x11 for Number 11, that’s eleven poems of eleven lines, words or syllables. Among the rare poetry forms of eleven lines is the roundel, a form credited to pre-Raphaelite poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, partly based on the French rondeau. One of Swinburne’s many roundels is dedicated to his friend Christina Rossetti, who wrote some fine roundels herself. Swinburne even has a roundel on the roundel: https://tinyurl.com/y3o6ny29, while my favourite of Rossetti’s swings between ‘Sleeping at Last’ https://tinyurl.com/y29vsu4s and the challenging ‘A Helpmeet for Him’ https://tinyurl.com/y2o2d7aa
The trick with the roundel is that its fourth and eleventh lines are the first half of the first line, so it takes thinking and tinkering to get right. Here are the two from my Number 11 poems, about two people who spent time in the building in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both have a Yeatsian link: the revolutionary, suffragette and actor Maud Gonne, muse to Yeats, and the Fenian John O’Leary, who Yeats referenced when he wrote: "Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the grave".
Romantic Ireland’s still alive and twitching,
though, fingers crossed, she's made her bloody will.
O’Leary husbands, without self-enriching,
Romantic Ireland’s till.
Joyce’s Last Fenian, who’d have had his will
if not for all the spying and the snitching,
the man of property who paid the bill,
the editor whose pen was always itching
to point out to the poets their lack of skill.
While Yeats (through rosy eyes) finds her bewitching,
Romantic Ireland’s still.
Maud Gonne Roundel
I’ll work my magic lantern’s slide projection
And meet the thrust of empire with the tragic –
Scenes of eviction, famine and abjection.
I’ll work my magic.
The flutter of Union Jacks turns me dysphagic.
I’ll hoist my bloomers for the royal inspection:
like flags, their value’s merely camouflagic.
We’ll soar above the Famine Queen’s objection,
And if this time our wings are burned, I’ll cadge
Icarus a chance at rising, resurrection –
I’ll work my magic.
Roundels have a circular form, a chorus that comes around again. Have a creative January till next time around!
Catherine Ann Cullen, Poet in Residence