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.

Inni-K and Stephen James Smith: The Best of Both Worlds

As singer-songwriter Inni-K prepares for collaborative dates with poet Stephen James Smith, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with both about how they came together and what to expect.

The interaction between music and forms of spoken word has been a recurring feature of live activity in Cork, with an active and vocal hip-hop scene buttressed by spoken word acts like Wasps vs. Humans that cross-check their musical frame of reference with their own words and cadence. Against this background comes the collaboration of folk singer Inni-K and poet Stephen James Smith, touring the venues of Cork county next weekend and coming together from a collaborative performance on Smith’s celebratory commission for St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin last year. Smith explains the roots of the collaboration. “I first heard Eithne when she was playing alongside Alyanya, who ironically is part of the tour also in Levis’ Bar, about 10 years ago, and her music stayed with me since then. Her song Gui always touched me and I felt it would be a fitting prayer to end my poem for St. Patrick’s Day My Ireland. After all it is a fairly intense piece, so having Eithne’s presence helped to ease the listener out of the frenzy. The fact the it’s an Irish language song and something that I know to be dear to Eithne also added an additional layer of mean for me also.”

It’s a very specific thing, a “tour of Cork”, with four very important local venues across the county being hit. Levis’ of Ballydehob, Connolly’s of Leap, DeBarra’s of Clonakilty and the Triskel each host a show with different opening acts. Smith provides insight into the idea and assembly of the tour. “Well I can’t really take too much credit for it. It was Eithne’s idea as she was down in Cork and wanted to do some gigs. I’ll be in Kerry for the Listowel Writer’s Week for the 5 days before the tour, so it was only a short trek to buzz down. I’ve performed in all these iconic venues – apart from Levis’ – before and thought it would be fun to hit them all over four days. I guess also, where I’m at now, I need to be doing more tours like this. I’m lucky to have travelled far and wide touring 11 different countries with my poetry, which I never expected, but now I need to be a bit more focused and organising trips like this, and not be reliant on others to offer support slots or festival gigs. That why this is so exciting for me as it’s a new frontier.”

This autumn sees Smith release his debut collection of poems, after a career that has seen him cross the world. How does it feel to see your experience encapsulated in a singular tome? “I’m sh*tting myself (laughs), excuse me! But it’s the truth. It’ll also be a relief to finally get it out there and allow me to move on somewhat. I’ll have lived with some of these poems for years, and in a way the book will be a resting place for them allowing me to refocus on new challenges. I’ll be working with a choreographer for a show in 2018, I’ve other musicians and directors I’d like to work with, so while the book is a long time coming, I feel it’s cooked now and I’ve dragged my heels with it for far too long. I guess part of that is once it’s out there, there’s no turning back. Still, I don’t want to be trapped by my own inertia. At the risk of being cocky I think it’ll be a good collection and sure if folks don’t like it I can at least be proud that I was bold enough to try.”

For Eithne Ní Catháin, the artist better known as Inni-K, this collaborative tour is an opportunity to flex musical muscle and explore the interplay between the musical and speaking disciplines. Ní Catháin looks at how the tour allows her to do so. “Since my early days listening and playing in sessions, there’d be a song, a tune, a poem, a funny story; a lot of the old songs were of course poems put to music; so songs and poems go hand in hand in my world. It’s interesting for me to collaborate with an artist like Stephen. His performances of his poems can leave you floating in the whirlwind aftermath of his epic My Ireland or the sheer honest & poignant beauty of The Gardener. To follow on with music or a song inspired by the mood of the poem, or to bring the listener to somewhere else entirely is a dynamic interplay I look forward to during our shows next week. We’ll both be doing what we do, and I’m excited to see what the interaction will be – between Stephen and I, and our special guests along the way – Brían Mac Gloinn (Ye Vagabonds) & Alyanya we’ll be coming to the audiences brimful of songs, music & poems, I think there will be something for everybody.”

Most recently, Ní Catháin’s song Come With Me was used as the theme for the Cruinniú na Cásca festival. How did that come about? “I was thrilled to have my song ‘Come with Me’ blasted all over the radio & TV for the lead up of Cruinniú na Cásca. It was a great day of music & culture all over the country and I was proud to be part of it; both having my song used as the theme for the day, and also performing in Dublin castle with my band, and also in Kilruddery house later in Bray. RTÉ got in touch with me to see if they could use the song, so I of course was delighted.”

The tour goes to arguably the backbone of Cork cultural venues. Ní Catháin explains her frame of mind heading into the tour, and how performances might change to suit the idiosyncrasies of each venue. “These indeed are very lovely venues we’re going to visit next week all over Cork. My favourite kind: small enough, intimate, listening venues. My thing going into the tour is that this will just be a lovely week of doing what I love doing, singing my songs for people who’ll listen. I’m in a writing period these days, so it’s great to get out and perform from time to time too. I look forward to hearing Stephen’s poems as always, and I suppose I’ll endure his bodhrán ‘playing’ (laughs). Brían Mac Gloinn, who’ll join us in Connolly’s and Gulpd, is really one of my favourite singers around & Alyanya who’ll join us in Levis’, is an old friend and super singer-songwriter. We’ll have a ball, sure, and hope the audiences will too. There certainly will be an element of improvising as each venue & special guest will inspire. I’ll be down for a few weeks in west Cork writing and working on some songs for my new album, so this will be a total distraction!”

Inni-K and Stephen James Smith perform a series of collaborative dates next weekend: June 5th at Levis’ of Ballydehob (7pm, donations); June 6th at DeBarra’s of Clonakilty (8pm, part of Psoken Wrod open-mic); June 7th at Connolly’s of Leap (8pm, €10) and June 8th at Gulpd Cafe (8pm, €10).