It is said that every possible theme has already been covered in the arts, so whether it’s a love poem, a still life painting or a war film you’re working on – it’s all been done before. Yet, throughout history, literature and storytelling has thrived, and they continue to thrive. So if it’s all been done before, how can writers create fresh, exciting pieces of work that can attract and thrill an audience?
Day three of the Cork Spring Literary Festival demonstrated the answer to this question as another six talented writers took to the stage to share their work with us, each taking inspiration from different areas to create a colourful evening of literary goodness.
Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh gave us evocative poems in Irish, accompanied by their English translation. Alibhe explored unexpected themes, such as a whistling language in the Pyrenees which as now disappeared, payments received for hunted wolves, and a Basque-country shouting language which ends with the stunning line, “we’d be frog voiced and full of love.” As a talented linguist and poet, Ailbhe provided an original platform from which the audience could learn about antiquated, extinct languages and historical events.
Matthew Sweeney took a different approach, reinventing the ordinary, making everyday occurrences come alive before turning them into something magical or bizarre. I loved the poem Fish and Chips which switched from a person enjoying this simple meal to the viewpoint of a gull, dreaming about setting up his own fish and chip shop on a remote island, complete with a bird poetry radio station. Sweeney also gave insight into how writers find their inspiration after reading The Glass Chess Set, saying; “I read that poem to my brother, he said, ‘Dad didn’t play chess’ – I said, ‘poets have to lie their way to the truth’.”
With incredible stage presence, Catherine Smith read several poems which used her own experiences as a youth as their focus, creating a personal, “confessional” touch. With comical and familiar themes such as skiving school to watch bad TV programmes (How it All Started), underage drinking (Snakebite) and lack of confidence (Smoking and Reading Nietzsche in the Cardoma), Smith included her audience, drawing them in by asking questions. Smith revealed, with much hilarity, that one of her students told her that during an MA in the US, grandparents were highlighted as a banned topic – before launching into a poem about grandparents. In addition she had a few poems that used dreams as inspiration, saying “dreams have their own truth, their own force.” Another idea that Smith raised was that when writing; “you can explore experiences you haven’t had in real life.”
The series of poems by Valerie Rouzeau were even more personal, taking the “write about what you know, what moves you” route. An incredibly emotive poet, Rouzeau’s poems were laden with anguish and loss but filled with stunning ideas and beautiful images such as; “the snow has dreams she doesn’t know about.” Rouzeau brought the audience on a journey, carrying them along beside her in the train carriage as she hurries to see her dying father, drawing the audience in further still as she experiences waves of regret, anger and hurt after his death. Rejecting black as colour of mourning, “I can spend whole days thinking of you in blue”, Rouzeau’s deeply touching theme and passionate approach guaranteed the audience was enthralled, right up to the final line uttered; “I wanted to see you but you shut your eyes too tight.”
When Ian Duhig took the stage, it was clear that many of his poems were centred on the joy of language and joy of verbal dexterity. Covering a variety of themes, each with a strong sense of place, Duhig mixed social consciousness and politics with humour. His first poem was what he referred to as “the most unsuccessful love poem ever – in fact, the person it was written for two decades ago still hates it.” Like Ailbhe, Duhig also had a historical element to his poems, where “masked gods walk among us as a test”, looking towards examples from the past for modern solutions. Particularly potent were the series of ‘navvies’ poems, including Jericho Shanty and Ornithology, where “the Navvies cry is the pick-bird song.”
Closing the evening with the first chapter of her novel, Lory Manrique-Hyland’s reading contained a delicate yet colourful mixture of an American childhood and displaced Cuban roots (which received a dedication the following evening from Gerry Murphy). Filled with superstition, pace, punchy dialogue and vibrancy, the characters leapt into the audience with a vigour that only such a personal understanding of a situation could enable.
I guess the answer to the question I posed earlier – how can writers create fresh, exciting pieces of work that can attract and thrill an audience? – is that there isn’t a single source of inspiration. There are ideas to be found in all areas of life – whether personal or imaginary, truth or lies, rooted in politics, history or the every day. But the key is writing about it so skilfully, so passionately and so convincingly that it can move an audience, taking them outside (or inside) their own lives, and come out feeling informed, entertained and renewed.