Ó Bhéal: “The Atmosphere Has Been Welcoming from the Beginning”

For the past eleven years, one poetry night has provided a lifeline for the artform in the city, going ahead every Monday night, rain or shine, 50 weeks of the year. For facilitator Paul Casey, overseeing the activities of Ó Bhéal is a matter of duty to the city’s poetry community, and for the social potential of the artform. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds out more.

Since its first edition in 2007, weekly poetry event Ó Bhéal (pronounced oh-vale) has provided the city’s spoken-word and verse community with a sounding board for ideas, a platform for visiting poets to have their work heard, and various challenges for aspiring poets to wrap their heads around, as they develop their technique and storytelling. With over 500 installments under its belt, and a number of annual anthologies stemming from its weekly ‘Five Words’ challenge, Ó Bhéal, alongside other semi-regular nights such as Cara Kursh’s Sling-Slang open mics, is a lifeline to the city’s cultural offering. Founder and facilitator Paul Casey discusses how the idea came to him upon coming home to Cork after years away. “There were a number of factors. One was that I was moving back to Cork, and I wanted to work in an area that I was familiar with. I have a particular skillset, I worked in film and multimedia for many years, and I wanted to see if I could use those together, but poetry at that point was my mainstay. I ran a venue in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, which was quite productive in terms of creativity, being a remedial, neutral space for tensions in the area. We had a poetry night there that ran every three weeks, and that took off. I was supposed to be back in Cork for the 2005 Capital of Culture that was my aim. I got delayed with a few legal issues, the Habitual Residence Condition kind-of hit me, when I got back to Dublin, I found there was this new law in place to stop me from getting any sort of help until I got a job. I was stuck up there for a few years, in which time I got a good feel for what was happening on the poetry scene. I literally went to every city in the country, to every event I could get to, to get a sense for what was happening. Cork didn’t have anything regular. There were lunchtime readings that Bradshaw Books and Tigh Filí had, they were occasional, not very secure. There was a gap.”

Since its inception, the night has been a place of first call for new and aspiring poets, with an inclusive and beginner-friendly ethos. An open-mic section for poets gives them immediate access to feedback from the night’s knowledgeable regulars, the night’s regular international guests have also provided advice and assistance. As a result, numerous area poets across the age and social spectrum have found their makings at the night, from veterans like Stanley Notte to still-emerging young voices like Matthew Moynihan and Megan Cronin. That accessibility and drive to develop poetry in the city has informed the night from the outset. “We get a lot of first-timers come into us, at the open-mic, reading something that they’ve been afraid to share previously. An equal amount of people have written their first poem at Ó Bhéal, because of the Five-Word Challenge, which was put in place to break the ice for the guests, but also to make the art, the craft itself available to anyone that walks through the door. We’re seeing people get up and read a poem they’d written 15 minutes previous, be blown away by the results, and be encouraged. I found it very contagious for people who came in, and the atmosphere has been welcoming from the beginning, which has become a personality trait of the night.”

Casey’s background in multimedia stood to him as the night’s remit expanded and developed, with one of Ó Bhéal’s hallmarks being the annual Poetry Film Contest, conducted in conjunction with IndieCork Film Festival. Maintaining it over the years, building and screening the contest’s archive on a weekly basis, has been a major point of development for Ó Bhéal, introducing another layer of storytelling to inform new and seasoned wordsmiths alike. “I was involved in film for many years, and became disillusioned with it, because of producers essentially destroying scripts, leaving creatives at their behest. I responded to that by writing poetry. One of my first published poems was a satire against the commercial film industry. I packed that life away for good and was sticking with poetry, and about five or six years later, a year or two into running Ó Bhéal, I was invited by the Munster Literature Centre to attend the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, 2008. I’d never heard of the two words put together, I had no idea that it was a completely unique collaboration of artforms. I was blown away by it, I must have seen over 300 films in a few days, all a few minutes long. It opened that world up to me, and reawakened my skills in film, specifically editing and directing. I saw an opportunity there, and because this is a generation that is visually oriented, that this could be a way to bring back those people, those visually-oriented human beings, back to the written word.”

The night’s remit of accessibility and innovation, reaching people where they are, has created opportunities for social outreach in conjunction with the City Council and Library. The annual Book of Unfinished Poetry, compiled by local teenagers with help from mentoring writers, and Creative Cork, a programme of culture and integration for the city’s new Irish, have been equally important to the community as they have been to Casey, in ascertaining the place and potential of poetry in Cork’s community. “The Unfinished Book, which the Library started during the 2005 City of Culture, and is a legacy of that… I only took it over seven years ago, when the City Council asked me if I’d be interested. I’ve given workshops to writers of all ages for many years, so it worked for me, and I had a base of poets in the area, so it made sense. It’s one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve ever been involved in. Teenagers get nine intense sessions with an established writer, and they come out with the requisite skills to develop into a fully-rounded writer. It’s extraordinary, the quality of poems we get back are good enough to go into adult journals. The enthusiasm is phenomenal. It’s a difficult one to co-ordinate, ‘cause it’s five schools, five local libraries, five writers. We’ve just finished this year’s one, and because the city is bidding for City of Sanctuary status, a number of schools have been identified as Sanctuary Schools, and we’re working with them.”

Ó Bhéal’s annual showcase event is the Winter Warmer poetry weekender, happening this November at venues across the city. International guests join nationally-established writers and the night’s regular clutch of poets and attendees for a series of special events that comprises the jewel in the Ó Bhéal crown. “Winter Warmer is the culmination of the year for us. We have over twenty poets, usually over two days, and we try to get as many international poets as we can afford. It’s funded by a lot of local businesses. It’s very piecemeal funding, so it’s more of a shoestring budget. But we have a number of partnerships that help us overcome that, such as Ark Publications, who send us over three or four high-quality international poets every year. We put them up, and pay them a fee. We mix it up with national and local poets, but you need that international flavour. We also fuse the artform with others wherever possible, so you’ll have the poetry films, but this year, we have The Ballad of Reading Jail, a three-hander play of Oscar Wilde’s epic poem. We have hurling poetry on the Sunday, and we’re going to have 25 visitors from different festivals join us for a sequence of hurling and camogie poems, before taking them to a hurling match.”

Ó Bhéal happens every Monday night at the Hayloft Bar, upstairs in the Long Valley on Winthrop St.

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