Friday, 30 October 2015

Botanic and brews: the Poets of Belfast

I’d like to talk a little bit about my PhD research, and quite a lot about Belfast, which I visited for the first time this week. I hope not to sound too solipsistic.

There is a strong and inclusive poetry community in this city, which stretches back a long time, through poets such as Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, to newer names, such as Sinéad Morrissey and Leontia Flynn, and to those newer-still, such as my hosts/drinking buddies/suppliers of fine, Northern Irish hospitality: Stephen Connolly, Manuela Moser, Padraig Regan and Tara McEvoy.

Queen's University

 I apologise that the “older” of those names were supplied rather arbitrarily. I do not mean to offend, but it really would be specious to reel off every Northern Irish poet I could. The latter four – Stephen, Manuela, Padraig and Tara – were part of the reason I was in Belfast in the first place: for the first Northern Bridge conference of the academic year. (Actually, Stephen technically wasn’t, though he’s also doing his PhD at the Heaney Centre, so it’s fine).

Northern Bridge, as some of you will know, is a Doctoral Training consortium and partnership between Queen’s, Newcastle and Durham Universities. They are very kindly funding me for the next three years to undertake my own PhD, with big get-togethers at the partner institutions being ideal opportunities to network/drink dandelion wine into the small hours.

Upon arriving in Belfast, and thanks to the wonders of social media, I received tweets from both Padraig and Stephen, first welcoming me to their city, then subtly suggesting that I might want to knock the official conference dinner on the head and attend a poetry open-mic instead. Cue apology to the Northern Bridge directors: I’m sure your Italian was gorgeous, and I appreciate the offer, but listening to poems and reading my own to a sympathetic audience is me networking, honestly.

Jo Clement reading at Bookfinders. 60 people in this room, 50 turned away at the door. Incredible.

 I met Stephen, Tara and Padraig in the Woodworkers on Tuesday night (Aye, I was that man who had to go up to each table and ask “do you know Stephen Connolly?”) Handily, on my second request, Tara told me he was just at the bar and would be back soon. The Woodworkers is basically to Belfast what Lady Grey’s is to Newcastle: one of the new breed of craft beer bars which have popped up across all UK cities in the past few years, but one in which honest conversation – and not pretentious wankers quaffing ten pound bottles of Mikkeller – still dominates.

Fast-forward to Wednesday night, conference meal skipped (after the free wine reception, obviously) and a short walk to Bookfinders. Padraig, Tara and I had had coffee with owner, Mary Denver, earlier that afternoon. Taking up Stephen’s plea to seek out Muldoon’s Selected, I asked Mary if there might be a copy lurking amid her shelves and pile of boxes. “I know I have one somewhere, Jake, I’ve definitely seen it recently.” She promised to dig it out, and, true to her word, it was waiting for me on the counter at 11am the next day. Five pounds, with a Club biscuit and a cup of tea.

A gem of a place.

For thirty one years, Mary has been proprietor of Bookfinders, but it is probably safe to use the oft-deployed (and, hence, weakened) term and call her a living legend. Queen’s English Society have been running open-mics in the back room of her shop for years now. Everyone has been through: Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson locally; Hannah Lowe not-so-locally. If the walls of Bookfinders could talk (and, in a way, they do, with their framed images of famous writers), they’d tell of lost evenings and candle-lit readings. Poets incanting poets; wine being spilled and slugged.

As is to be expected with a combination of a hangover, four hour’s sleep and being made to converse about your own research after a fairly dire continental breakfast with a load of archaeologists, my enthusiasm to discuss ‘space, place and landscape’ at 11am was about as strong as my desire to eat my own fist. Apologies to all the NB archaeologists, but discussing the poets who’ve graced the packed nights of Bookfinders was much more up my avenue.

I gave Mary a copy of my new pamphlet, thanked her for her kindness, payed for Muldoon, and headed back to the conference and to what turned out to be a stunning talk by Professor Richard Clay, on re-coding space. *Tangent claxon* Mixing Thomas Spence’s radical messages carved into coins with the street art chicanery of Sowat and Lek’s Paris mausolée – a mass street art exhibition in a disused supermarket originally squatted by a group of Romani people – Clay told us how graffiti artists, radicals and self-styled street artists reconfigure public space and attitudes towards ownership and hierarchy (now, via social media) in often tiny, but sometimes large, acts of space re-coding, which is not vandalism, he asserts.

Boundary Brewing: re-coding beer.

 After that, I was full: brain a heavy sponge, hangover in full-swing, belly grumbling from low-grade croissant consumed four hours earlier. So, Jo Clement and I retreated to Belfast’s other great book shop: No Alibis, which – as the name implies – is a crime fiction specialist, but should be better imagined as a safe haven for book readers and thinkers of all credence, age and background. I picked up one, two, then three books (would I have stopped? No, but my bag was already full to bursting, and I had a flight to catch), approached the counter, whereupon I spotted a signed poster by Boundary Brewery.

“Is that a Belfast-based workers co-operative craft brewery?” I enquired, placing my to-be-purchased pile on the bench.

“Yes, it is. Are you getting these?”

“Aye, please.”

“Well, I’m going to make your day!”

David then handed me and Jo a bottle each of Boundary’s IPA, which we dutifully supped while he showed us some of his more beautiful tomes; for instance, Michael Longley’s Sea Asters, complete with pen and ink illustrations by his daughter, Sarah. Beautiful as the book was, £110 on the card would have been – I don’t want to say ‘something I’d come to regret’ – but perhaps slightly unnecessary.

JC, JC, David.

 David’s wife/business partner, Claudia, also showed Jo a limited-edition they’d published by a crime writer, complete with its own set of bespoke engravings. Jo being a Bewick enthusiast, the delight on her face was evident. She was then diligently aided in searching for poetry collections incorporating engravings (ones that didn’t cost three-figures) while children and their families browsed around us and 80-year-old men brought in orders and women asked if they could advertise for their local markets.

I wanted to end with a quote: some perfectly suitable line from one of the names I mentioned at the start, but the truth is I don’t know one. My knowledge of Irish Literature, being an Englishman (though, wey, I’d say Geordie), is akin to Patrick Cotter’s thoughts in his introduction to the Young Irish Poets edition of Poetry Magazine (September 2015): “The Irish know more about Britain than the British know about Ireland, and Irish speakers in Ireland know more about the world of their monoglot Anglophone compatriots than the latter do about the discourse taking place in the minority Irish-speaking networks and communities.”

Though I only half agree with this statement (for the whole Geordie issue alluded to above, though for which I will, on this occasion, spare the reader from) I wanted to use it because while I think it is half wrong, it is definitely also half right: there is a very strong and very rich community of poets here. Manuela and Stephen, who run The Lifeboat series of readings, and who are branching further into pamphlet production next year, are just one example of many; Mary’s Bookfinders and No Alibis being two more. There is a sense, I think, that Belfast takes its poetry seriously. Not like it’s a duty, but something similar, civic pride, perhaps. In any case, it is both heartening to witness and a joy to behold. I look forward to getting more involved with it the next time I’m in the city, which I expect will be soon.


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