What’s in a word?

IMG_0676Yesterday, I made what has become my annual pilgrimage from the north coast to Carnlough – a beautiful little seaside village nestled beneath the cliffs where, every Spring, the John Hewitt Society’s Spring Festival takes place.

The route I take to get there hugs the coastline; the road winding through quiet villages; stretching over sparse, windswept hilltops, and twisting and turning beneath canopies of crooked trees – all against the backdrop of a glittering blue ocean and sweeping blue sky. In short, I relish the drive almost as much as the Spring Festival, and for the past three years, I’ve been blessed with wonderful weather each time.

Stephen Sexton reads from his debut poetry pamphlet, Oils.

Stephen Sexton reads from his debut poetry pamphlet, Oils.

I’m writing a review of yesterday’s poetry readings – which came from Belfast poets Stephen Sexton and Ciaran Carson – for Culture NI, so I won’t go into that now, but I did want to pick out something that both writers mentioned when it comes to writing poetry.

Apparently, Ciaran Carson, who lectures at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University in Belfast, always tells his students to ‘look every word up’ when they write. A lot of the time, he said, you’ll find the word doesn’t mean exactly what you thought it did. It will help your poetry, was the implication.

I do this now and again when I’m reading. A word might keep cropping up that I read all the time and roughly know, in context, what it means, but then I’ll think – if someone asked me, I couldn’t give them a definition. So, I’ve looked up a few words in my time (!) and have usually found exactly as Ciaran said – that the word will mean something slightly different from what I thought it did, or it will have multiple more meanings which immediately make it more interesting and give me more ways in which to use it in my own writing.

Belfast poet, Ciaran Carson, chats about writing and reads some of his work.

Belfast poet, Ciaran Carson, chats about writing and reads some of his work.

Both Stephen and Ciaran (Stephen is an ex-student of Ciaran’s) have done this in their work, and both are very successful poets. I’m not saying everyone has to use this technique, I do think it’s a good idea, as words can change their meaning over time, or still have meanings that we’ve forgotten about or never really knew.

When it comes to language, we never know it all. Language is full of twists and turns, and is always metamorphosing, so there are endless possibilities, I think, when it comes to weaving those words together…

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Poetry with Penelope

Opposite Belfast City Hall sits the city’s oldest library and it was here, squirreled away in a book-lined room amid beautifully ornate surroundings, that Penelope Shuttle was to be found a few days ago.

Linen Hall Library is resplendent in original features, with polished wooden bannisters, a bubbling café area and of course, a fair few books. It’s a little gem embedded in the heart of Belfast and one which I intend to visit more often, but my recent visit was all about the poetry – in this case, a workshop led by Penelope.

Our theme was ‘streets’ and we began by reading the poem Heckmondwyke by Catherine Smith – a poem which illustrated perfectly how a street can inspire so much more than you might at first think! That’s the beauty of poetry of course – it can take you somewhere completely different from where you intended to go…budapest-253850_1280

Before we knuckled down to the writing, we each brainstormed some street-related words for use, if we liked, in our own poems. It turned out though, that Penelope’s prompts of strange street names (my own choice was Beak Street), along with random words to work into the text, were sufficient for most of us!

This is what I like about workshops – I’ve never written about a street before, or indeed used it as my starting point for a poem, but this exercise has inspired me to do so again. The poem might be about the street, the people in it, on it or near it; it may be about the idea of the street; it’s essence/history/future – or it might led you off on a tangent to somewhere deliciously different. But why not start with a street?

The two poems we each created stemmed from two exercises:

1) Either writing about the dark side of a street (using a name chosen from those Penelope provided), or writing about five things a street can do.

2) Choosing a question Penelope gave us about streets and writing an answer to that in our poem (I, along with a few others, chose to write about The Perfect Street).

photo 2We also read through a few other street poems, including Rue di Puits-qui-Parle by Pascale Petit, Niece by George Oppen, and Retreat by Gerry Cambridge (my particular favourite!).

I left the workshop suitably inspired to work on my poems, or to write fresh street-related poems using my own internal prompts. It’s always great to get out and learn from other writers – to consider other perspectives to your writing and to return home with new ideas and a little more spark than before…


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Philosophical words

bone clocksSince last week, I’ve jumped straight from David Mitchell’s brilliant, The Bone Clocks, to Jostein Gaarder’s equally absorbing Sophie’s World. (The original was published in Norway in 1991 and the English version later in the decade, but it was a big hit at the time.)

Both of these books embody what I love about reading – the stories encourage you to think a little more about the world, and in a different way than you did before. You might say, well – surely all books do that? Okay, yes, but not all to the same degree.

It’s possibly also why I love fantasy books so much, as they challenge readers to consider something outside of their normal world view – to explore beyond what they know, even if there’s no ‘real’ possibility that such things could possibly happen in their own lives… Fantasy stories sometimes get a bad rap, but myths, fairy stories and the fantastical creations of people like Tolkien and Pratchett push the boundaries in writing and challenge us to think more creatively.SOPHIES WOrRLD

I’ve slackened a bit in my own writing this week (!), due to the aftermath of Easter and getting stuck back into work, but I think my stories and poems will be laced with the spirit of what I’ve just lately read and am currently reading. Sophie’s World is a crash-course in philosophy, written by an author who taught the subject, but the ancient ideas it discusses are embedded within a fictional narrative and it’s so far proving to be excellent reading (perhaps particularly as I almost studied philosophy at university!).

I always want my own tales to challenge the reader and make them ponder the story afterwards. Philosophy, to me, is the epitome of open-mindedness and as I delve deeper into Sophie’s World, I’m excited about what will rub off on me. :)

PS Some more good news this week regarding my poetry… My poem, Spinning Shadows, will be published in the next edition of the Northern Ireland literary journal, Abridged, so I’m very happy about that! If you read the link above which describes the issue (Take Me Home) that my poem will appear in, it fittingly ties in with what I’ve just been writing about here…

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Spring writing!

spring-640958_1280Today, on Easter Sunday, spring finally decided to shake off the winter chill and emerge bright and warm and wonderful.

Whether it’ll last is another thing, but it inspired me to have a little spring clean of my spare room (!) and to consider my next wave of writing…

Of the short stories written since last July, I have still a few I want to rework, but the shift in the seasons has also made me want to spring-clean my writing, so to speak. bone clocksA couple of my earlier tales still have potential, but they need to rest a while before they can be refined. At the minute, I’ve lived with them too closely for too long, so it’s onwards to something new in the meantime!

With the longer evenings and brighter days, perhaps my writing will also take on a sunnier disposition… My poetry, at least, has very much been influenced by dark winter evenings over the past few months, with much talk of the moon and stars, so we’ll see what spring brings. Do the seasons influence your writing, I wonder? As a daily dog walker, I have to admit, my writing does seem to soak up my surroundings, but I also do have a natural inclination towards dark, quirky fiction!easter-683084_1280

With my reading, meanwhile, I’ve just delved into a whopper of a novel by David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks, which is turning out to be just as brilliant as I suspected it would be.

So, for now, Happy Easter and I hope the spring sunshine inspires you to some fresh new writing as well :)

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The power of storytelling…

“The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story… That’s what I do, tell stories.”

This is a line from a superb play I saw at The Lyric Theatre in Belfast at the weekend called The Pillowman. Written by the critically acclaimed playwright, screenwriter and film director, Martin McDonagh, the play explores the power of words – of storytelling – through a mediocre writer who’s been hauled in for questioning by a policeman and a detective with a penchant for shooting writers. The story is set against the backdrop of a totalitarian dictatorship, where to be different or to speak your mind – to have a voice – is dangerous.

PILLOWMANOur writer – Katurian – admittedly isn’t one of ‘the greats’, and he claims only to want to tell stories, not to create symbolic art, but as the play progresses, we see just how loaded his words really are.

Without giving anything away to those who haven’t seen the play, Katurian is arrested because his stories – tales which mostly depict the gruesome deaths of little children – have seemingly started to happen for real. He doesn’t understand it, and we go on a journey with him as the story unravels and we discover the truth behind the grisly goings-on.

Essentially, The Pillowman explores the potency of stories – how they can inspire people to good; others to bad. They have a weight, a depth that can resonate long after they’ve been read, and they can be interpreted in many different ways.chalkboard-620316_1280

In my opinion, this is a great play that’s layered with myriad themes and overtures. There’s lots to think about – both in terms of the play itself, the stories created by the fictional writer in the play and also how our upbringing can affect us adults. And that’s before you even begin to peel away the 1984-type world the play is set in.

It brings to mind a book I love, and must re-read –  The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov, who lived under the Stalin regime and indeed, initially enjoyed a level of approval from Stalin for his work, later saw his stories and plays banned, as critics condemned him and censorship won out. His fantastical tales, which critiqued Soviet society as he saw it and experienced it, lived on however, finally being published after his death.

Freedom of speech – of thought – is always at risk and should always be protected. The Pillowman, and stories like it, reminds us of this, and of the inherent power that the written word can have.



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CULTURE NI_I first discovered the treasure trove that is Culture NI a few years ago, when I was working as a newspaper reporter at The Coleraine Chronicle. The weekly newsletter that was delivered to our office inbox was a fount of information about what was going on in the arts across Northern Ireland, and it not only kept me and everyone else up to date on events, it also allowed us to follow up on north coast artists, and give them even more exposure in the paper.

Eoin McNamee (photo by Sarah Lee), who I recently interviewed for Culture NI

Eoin McNamee (photo by Sarah Lee), who I recently interviewed for Culture NI

Without Culture NI, we wouldn’t have heard of many of these artists and events, as there’s no other online resource which so brilliantly archives the cultural scene in Northern Ireland.

Culture Northern Ireland is, as it says on the website: “Northern Ireland’s leading arts and cultural website, covering music, literature, heritage, sport, dance, theatre, the visual arts and much more besides.

“With thousands of articles, reviews, profiles, event listings, and multimedia content, Culture NI is a unique and exciting resource.”

The cover of Oils, a poetry pamphlet by Belfast poet, Stephen Sexton, which I recently reviewed for Culture NI.

The cover of Oils, a poetry pamphlet by Belfast poet, Stephen Sexton, which I recently reviewed for Culture NI.

Produced by the Nerve Centre in Derry – Northern Ireland’s leading creative media arts centre – Culture NI was dealt a seemingly fatal blow this week with the announcement from the Arts Council NI – its principal funder – that its core funding was being cut.

It wasn’t the only organisation to hear such news of course. Blackstaff Press and Guildhall Press –  our leading publishers based in Belfast and Derry – also suffered the same, along with various other arts organisations. (More details on the story here.)

You can read more on the devastating effects of the cuts to Culture NI here, but suffice it to say, after 10 successful years in supplying Northern Irish readers and indeed, readers worldwide with news of our thriving arts scene, five jobs are now at risk, as well as many more part-time jobs in the myriad freelancers who contribute to the site.

The faces behind Culture NI

The faces behind Culture NI.

News of the cuts in Northern Ireland is nothing new of course. Belts have to be tightened, as the NI government, while telling us they’re committed to developing and supporting the arts on the one hand, continue to take away vital funding on the other. Budgets must be managed, but the question on many people’s lips is this – when the cuts not only threaten to reduce the output of a key service like Culture NI but will actually kill it altogether, surely there needs to be a rethink?

Culture NI has been campaigning about the funding cut since the news broke and so far, its 400,000-plus readers seem to be getting behind this, tweeting and signing the petition to have the funding restored. If you have a couple of minutes to add your name to that, it would be much appreciated. Just click here.

So, why keep Culture NI?CULTURENI

  • It’s NI’s leading arts and culture site
  • It updates daily with FREE content on ALL the arts in Northern Ireland
  • There are interviews, reviews, features, competitions and more
  • It’s FREE promotion for artists/musicians/writers/performers/festivals and more
  • You get a FREE guide to What’s On in NI
  • You can discover new events/artists that you’d never hear of otherwise

EwagoralsThese are but a few reasons why we should keep Culture NI.

You’ll notice the word FREE is mentioned a few times. This fantastic resource is free for anyone to browse, read and digest at their leisure at any time of the day or night.

It’s crammed full of more than 10 years of archived material on Northern Ireland’s arts and culture scene and if it goes, that’s an online museum lost.

The website also recently underwent a revamp just a couple of months ago, launching a fully mobile responsive site as it prepared to march on into the future.

Newspapers and magazines have little space to give to the arts. They offer massively reduced coverage of the vibrant cultural scene that we still have in Northern Ireland and the thing is – if Culture NI is to disappear, who will be left to champion this? There are other organisations and publications of course that promote the arts, but Culture NI is your one-stop shop and more. It’s unique in the level and quality of content that it provides. Read freelancer Terry Blain’s views on the matter here.

With (L-R) NI crime writers Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway and Steve Cavanagh

With (L-R) NI crime writers Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway and Steve Cavanagh

I’ve been freelancing for Culture NI for the past year and have enjoyed every minute of it. I love the arts and am a big fan of the local literary scene (as readers of my blog will know!). I’d hate to see this wonderful website disappear over money.

If you’ve read this far, then thank you. As a writer, this is how I can show my support.

The Arts Council NI has today posted this message on Facebook:

“We are receiving emails regarding the annual funding award made to Culture NI. Thank you for your views. You will know that the Arts Council has had to take difficult decisions in a very challenging funding climate and we appreciate your interest. We will be meeting with the Nerve Centre soon to hear their concerns.”

We know belts have to be tightened, and the Arts Council NI is, of course, a vital organisation in Northern Ireland that is very much appreciated for all that it does for arts and culture here. Let’s not forget that for a minute. They’re simply having to make tough decisions in an ongoing economic climate that’s battering the arts.

If you’re interested, you can read my archived work for Culture NI here, or on the Articles section of this blog.

I’ll keep you updated! #SaveCultureNI

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Poetry and prose!

With The Incubator editor, Kelly Creighton, and short story writer, Danielle McLaughlin

With The Incubator editor, Kelly Creighton, and short story writer, Danielle McLaughlin

It’s been a busy couple of weekends with the writing – both in terms of scribbling words and attending events – with the launch of the fourth edition of The Incubator journal last Sunday, and the launch of the Community Arts Partnership (CAP) poetry anthology this Sunday.

Last week, I enjoyed an afternoon of wonderful readings from a mix of Irish writers – north and south of the border – and had the pleasure of meeting and introducing acclaimed short story writer, Danielle McLaughlin, whom I interviewed (through the power of the internet!) for the most recent edition of the journal.

Introducing Danielle McLaughlin to the stage at the launch of The Incubator journal

Introducing Danielle McLaughlin to the stage at the launch of The Incubator journal

The editor of The Incubator is Kelly Creighton – poet, short story writer and soon to be published novelist – and she was also in attendance in Belfast today for the CAP launch. Kelly was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize for New Writing, with the overall winner of the prize being Stephanie Conn, and I have to say – I’m very happy indeed to be included in an anthology with them, along with a plethora of other talented Northern Irish poets.

The 2015 CAP poetry anthology

The 2015 CAP poetry anthology

With the arts under real pressure in Northern Ireland at the moment – as the government continues to axe funding left, right and centre – these events are, I think, all the more important in showing the powers-that-be that not only do we have a wealth of artistic talent in this country, but there’s an army of support behind it.

The arts benefit everyone and, I’d also like to mention here that the arts website Culture NI – which I often write freelance articles for – is also at risk, and could be shut down in April if the cuts go ahead as planned. CULTURENI

Core funding for Culture NI has been withdrawn and after 10 years, it would be a real shame to see it go. If you have a couple of minutes, I’d really appreciate it if you could show your support by clicking this link to help us save it: #SaveCultureNI

To the arts! :)


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