Friday, 20 July 2018

Poison ivy and rain ponchos

In Donegal, we’re in the middle of the Earagail Arts Festival (7th–29th July Music, theatre, visual arts, literature and circus events are running all over the county throughout July. Go see something if you can.

On Tuesday night last, North West Words ran an international poetry event for Earagail Art Festival involving three poets laureate from the city of Santa Barbara. I’ve been heavily involved in organising the event and it was lovely to see it happen this week. There was such a buzz around Florence Food Co with these poets coming first to Letterkenny on their summer tour in Ireland. David Sharkey, Chryss Jost and Paul Willis are all past Santa Barbara poet laureates  Such a great idea for engaging with the written word in the life of the local community – we need more writers in residence around Ireland. Sharing their poems about life in California proved to be an engaging and interactive experience. Do we have poison ivy – no, we have nettles? What came up? Various things emerged – angels, poison ivy, water treatment plants, mountain treks, serial killers, deer, and lawnmowers in living rooms (not recommended by the poet).   

Left to right: David Starkey, Paul Willis and Chryss Jost (Santa Barbara Poets Luareate), Ann Marie Gallagher, Deirdre McClay and Deirdre Hines (North West Words): photo by Eamonn Bonner    

As a feature of the event, we had come up with the idea of response poems. The three poets had been gracious, and interested, in sending me a poem each from their body of work. I had sent the poems out to local writers groups and made a call on Facebook for poems in response. The three sent poems were all quite different and set the tone for the night. So, in the spirit of response, the poets laureate decided to read at North West Words, in a round, responding to each other, with a poem connected in some way to the previous reading. The final round comprised the three ‘response poems' - two of which were written as poets in residence. Paul Willis read his poem about watching deer in a national park ‘Deer At Twilight’. Chryss Yost read her poem about the impact of water ‘The Flow’, and she explained that it was written for the opening of a water treatment plant. Finally, David Starkey read his poem ‘Nordic Noir’ – a murder mystery. There were five response poems - by Deirdre Hines, Guy Stephenson and Teresa Godfrey (all read by their authors), and one poem by Mari Maxwell (which I read in the absence of the poet). It was a lovely night with great poetry and a lovely blend and interaction of poetic communities. Scratch the surface and there are so many common themes.  
Then, last night, I attended another Earagail Art Festival event – ‘Foyle Punt’. It’s a local, immersive, theatrical experience based on the true life stories of the McDonald family of boat builders from Inishowen, Co. Donegal. I had heard radio interviews and I’d also read reviews of the event which intrigued me It’s a debut project by The Local Group and it emerged from the story of 6th generation boat builders in Donegal (originally, pre-1750, from the Isle of Skye in Scotland). I attended the performance at Rathmullan pier - each event is site specific. Normal Donegal weather was the tone for the night, but it only added to the atmosphere on this occasion. The whole performance was outdoors with some tarpaulin and ‘rain ponchos’.

I can certainly say that it was a new and thought provoking experience for me, and particularly on that historic site (Flight of the Earls, Rathmullan, 1607). The McDonald family were originally Scottish boat builders, but fled from Skye in 1750 and settled in Inishowen, Co. Donegal. The performance reflects on the craft of wooden boat building; the Foyle Punt are now hobby/racing boats and not working boats.  Then the vulnerability of humans on board small boats:  you are on a boat, you are safe, you are still breathing, you get to eat - do you get a life jacket or not? There is music, movement, stories, food, audience interaction and the real-life character of the on-site pier. It is slow in pace and allows time to absorb the surroundings. I would highly recommend the experience – it’s  immersive, interactive and highly sensory. It speaks to the past and to the present in so many ways, and has been sold out at many venues Well done to all involved – enjoyable, thought-provoking, and both local and international.  

Maybe in time it will  inspire a poem or two.

Deirdre McClay

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