Faded Splendour – Ruth and Kate in Palermo

On my first afternoon, it sounded like a shoot out salute from the mafia: rifle fire, cannons or a firework show in broad daylight. It was followed by sirens and more politizi sirens. With some concern for my head, I peered over the balcony but all I could see was the Sunday afternoon footy match taking place in the Catholic Centre below. I was on our airbnb terrazza drinking tequila and orange having got the basics from Lidl (Tequila became a basic at only 5e a bottle). There were great views across the city to the Royal Palazzia, the Cathedral, and roof tops of red terracotta tiles, white walls, geraniums, TV arials (not satellite dishes) and cactuses. Sicilian chit chat wafted on the warm breeze…and clearly the tequila was going to my head.

The apartment was in the centre of historic old Palermo (as luck would have it). The maze of tiny lanes were strung with washing flapping in breezes and the piazzas were sunny and delightful, strung with cafes and markets. There were ornate churches, and most buildings were decorated on the outside with wonderful cornices, sculptures, ghouls, and on the inside with dark basements, kitchens and poverty. On the lane down to the cathedral, Ruth (the best friend) and I passed the family who had moved their armchairs and tables outside (along with their pile of ironing). Rather sensible, I thought. I think it is called charming poverty. I loved the huge wooden doors which had very shut tiny little wooden doors in them leading, I imagine, to beautiful courtyards and Alice in Wonderland world. It seems that it was only 25 years ago that this area got sewerage and running water. As a result, just before then the wealthy moved across town where the Mafia/bankers/developers built new Palermo and the immigrants and poor moved into Old Palermo.

On my way back from Lidl, I came across a Piazza where men and women were dressed up in 19th century gear (crinolins and all) They were waltzing to  Strauss around naked white marble statues of men and women. The story I was told later by my cook tour is that the nuns and priests used to meet in the tunnels below the Piazza for secret dalliances but were discovered and the nuns were ‘defrocked’ (unfortunate term) and in revenge broke the penises off the male statues. It all happens in Palermo.

So, Ruth arrived and we headed out for our first night. We came across loud music and dancing almost immediately. The football match in the local catholic centre was finished and replaced by a seven year old girl, dressed up in white, sitting with her parents on a long table, at her communion, stuffing her face, while colourful, traditionally dressed African men and woman danced in a line in front of her. Staring from the gate at the party longingly, we were invited in and so we too jigged and wiggled our hips in front of the girl, waving paper serviettes. It was fun. Later that evening, in our square (the nearest) there was more dancing and Ruth and I flung ourselves into the melee with abandon, sadly not understanding the instructions shouted out by the woman caller, but we enjoyed it and people seemed to stay out of our way!

The next day, Ruth and I found art, sculpture, decay, glory and succulents around every corner. Cars and scooters nudged our arses in the lanes. The market was a cornucopia of chilis, oddly shaped aubergines, red blood tomatoes, elongated courgettes (3 feet long), tiny artichokes that looked like they might graze your throat and hills of fava beans. Ruth and I walked down to see the sea (a sparkling vista at the end of a tiny lane). It was a modern prom, child’s park and a cruise liner that reminded me of the blocks of flats on the side of the Thames in London, a grey navy military ship, all framed by the oddly shaped, dark limestone mountains that shield the city. They are knobbly peaks, like erratics, dumped by the receding sea of the ice age. Palermo unravels itself across the plain at their feet, square, pink, cream and beige. You can understand why the pirates, Pheonicians, Normans, Romans would want to conquer this place. It demands to be conquered!

We turned back to re-enter the city walls guarded her by two giant gargoyles, stone birds of prey protecting the palace and go to visit the Royal Palace of Palermo. The Palace Royal is a mix of palace, church and turrets. Arabic splendour coagulated with plain Norman, gold mosaics and stone, intricate Chinese lacquer, fresco ceilings, marble, wood and 19th century pomp. The Palatine Chapel was magnificent.

So, throughout the week, Ruth and I wandered these conquered streets and alleys stuffed with people, produce and motorbikes, gold and ornate, and talked of our own faded splendour, discussing the  wisdom that comes with age, the disappointments, the loves and experiences, politics, value systems art and it feels very right.

One of the days we navigated ourselves on to a boat with two marine biologists who have found it more profitable to conduct ‘Mare and Terre’ tours. Mauro picked us up at 8.30am at the cathedral (a most beautiful edifice of Pheonician and Norman construction) and whisked us off to the sea giving us a breakdown of the social, political and environmental state of Palermo while skidding, halting and staccato-ing through the Sicilian traffic. I didn’t understand much as his Italian accent was thick as Marsala port. Within 30 minutes, Ruth and I found ourselves lying on white cushions on a boat, gazing at blue sky, trailing finger tips in clear green sea, staring at bottom white sands, sea grasses which Mauro told us were protected and worth thousands of euros. Throughout the trip he told us of nature reserves, molluscs, lagoons, pirates, protected sea grasses, Marello towers (like our Martello towers), caves, elephant skulls. He told us of fish, protected sea grasses, molluscs, nature reserves, pirates, fishermen…you get my drift and I was drifting until Eros (yes, Eros was the other marine biologist) threw anchor and suggested we swim. They gave us flippers and goggles and we flipped over backwards (I lie) into the blue green waters and swam with the shoals of fish through the sea grasses (well, that was the idea) but it was pretty wonderful…until I had to get back on the boat. I will leave that to your imagination.

We also went on a food tour. Six of us including a very irritating American woman who wanted to practice her Italian on our English speaking tour. Fabrizio and Antonio guided us through delightful markets and piazzas, providing tastes of traditional Sicilian food (you’ll have to come to dinner) told us many legends and myths (including the priest and nun story), and gave us advice as to where to go. It was fab.

We followed their advice that night and found ourselves seated in a cool bar, watching cool people. Well, I was watching because Ruth found herself a very miserable but cool looking Columbian (she used to live there) and was talking Spanish to him. It was all so cool, I wondered if the Palermo Tourist Board might not have set the whole thing up, employed students and the like to dress up in cool gear, and do cool drinking and smoking.

It was time to get out of town. The road to Trapani (on the North West tip of the island) travels the coast, then in-land through undulating hills of wheat, vines, olive trees. Traditional two storey brown stone farm houses stared across square fields of green and gold like an Impressionist painting. The centre of Traponi was beautiful. Wide streets lined with two storey buildings rather like a cowboy town. In the historic centre, it turned into New Orleans, elaborate stone, iron balconies, wide but cobbled stone streets and the blue, sparkling sea at every turn, calling to you. In the port was a Thompson liner twenty storeys high. It disgorged passengers across the town in a red double decker London bus. Ruth and I gorge on gelati and croissant in the sun and then board a boat for Favignara.

I had been hoping for a Cornish fishing village. It wasn’t. It was a Mexican fishing village: Plain wide tiled streets, white houses. I ate the most divine tuna and swam in a pure blue sea with lots of fishes. I lay on sand and corals, bathing in the sun and sea breezes. I came home with salt tight skin, a glow and cooked fava beans for supper. Happy.

Every morning the sea gulls woke me. I thought they sounded as if they were cackling with laughter at us poor humans. We are scurrying, wingless creatures, mindless, and self-absorbed. One morning, I got up and went up to the terrazza to see if it was a particular gull. The gull wasn’t laughing. It sounded snappy and cross. I found it squatting on the corner of the white sky, puffed up, strong and voluble. It sat on a red terracotta tile. I wondered if it was one of the soaring beauties I watched last night. White wings spiralling the ink blue, late evening sky, silent and graceful, flying between the stars. So un-sea gull like and very beautiful.

On our last day, we were invited into the neighbours. They happen to be the Fredericos – Conte Frederico, and live in a palace. The Conte gave us a tour but didn’t invite us for tea. The Palazzo was built in 1100s and rooms have modernised every two hundred years, in the 1400s, 1600s, 1800s so it has original hand painted wooden ceilings, painted frescos, beautiful tiled mosaic floors, ornate sculptures, wooden carvings, fabulous furnishings. There was so much light and glory. The current count’s father was a Formula One rally driver. His trophies are everywhere.

On our last day, we joined a political rally in ‘our’ square. We weren’t sure what the political party was (yellow shirts), but as far as we could work out, from discussions and reading its leaflet, it was a party that talked about the politics of participation, transparency. That used to be our language and still is but over the week we talked about how age has crept up upon us. How change seems so much more challenging and may soon have to take place without us. Funny, but I feel I have done it all before, and it is very sunny in Sicily, and the wine is rather nice. I think I have other things to do.  I can now leave ‘change’ to others.

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Mother

Last week, I tested out eating outside in the Bungalow’s back yard and sun bathing in its front garden and was very pleased with the results. The grass was comfortable, the bench table worked and the company was great so it was with heavy heart that I left the astonishing sunny climes of Cavan and touched down into the cold, clammy cloud of London to visit and take care of my mother for a few days.

I have been coming over regularly recently, and to date my mother has told me all about her daughter (i.e me, she thinks I am her grand-daughter), told me I look ‘very old’, and asked if I am ‘ok’ as an ‘old person’. I came down with her dinner yesterday to find ten cigarettes in her hand. She was trying to charge them in her mobile phone charger (she couldn’t get them to stand up). When I eventually convinced her that she didn’t need to charge them, she laughed at herself and said, ‘of course, I can charge them from the packet.”

In her basement flat, I sit on the broken, uncomfortable couch (the cat takes precedence and gets the only comfortable armchair other than hers) and listen to her repeat the cat’s daily routine, interspersed with moans about the horrors of incontinence and her bowel movements. After a few glasses of wine, I try to engage, but I have to repeat everything four or five times and eventually I lose heart and we sit in silence. This woman, who once was an academic with a sharp mind, seems happiest picking the cat hairs from the woolly cardigan she spreads across her nightie, itself already stained with food and cigarette burns. Except, in her lucid moments, I see the horror and fear in her face.

I have always had a feeling of never quite making the grade in my family, never doing it quite right, in fact, usually getting it wrong in some minor way. I am too slap dash, easy going, and am more like my father who enjoyed the ‘joie’ de vie. I defer to my older brother and mother who generally ‘know best’. But I have always been able to talk to my mother, happy to enjoy a drink and tell her my woes when the ‘joie’ is not so apparent. And she has always liked to give measured, rational, grown-up advice. So, we have been close. We talk. Without this this talking, it is hard to know what to do or what to be, and once again, I feel a failure, not up to the mark. I am letting her down. In our silence, watching her tendrils of cigarette smoke drift into the stifling air in the room, I wish I was in sunny Cavan – and immediately, guilt surges up inside and I try to stuff it back down my throat into my stomach where it turns and flaps like an unwieldy baby dragon.

In all this silence, it strikes me that I might be struggling with grief, even though my mother is still alive. I remember from when Dad died, how grief strikes; it taints everything. I had been thinking that I was depressed by Brexit, Trump, Teresa May, the attacks on Corbyn, the corruption of politicians, the world. But maybe my depression is also linked to my mother. Aha, something else I can blame on her! Typical, I think with some resentment (quickly followed by a surge of guilt), that she would cause me grief before she even dies.

If we were talking, and she was offering advice, she would say breathe deeply and slowly, it will pass. My mind quips, ‘not fast enough’. I have another guilt surge. I say here and now to my daughter (the one my mother thinks I am) beware this mother daughter thing as I get older. But my mother is right. Whatever happens, it will pass. I take a deep breath, I just hope quickly, preferably in good company, in the back garden in sunny Cavan.

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Holy Show!

I love the grandeur of the Irish Writers Centre at 19 Parnell Square, Dublin. It’s broad front steps bordered by cast iron black railings. The sweep and curve of the shallow staircase when you enter. The paintings. The book lined, wooden floored intimacy of the reception room with tables for you to sit and write, read, chat. The grand Georgian double fronted training room. The warm red painted walls, white high corniced ceiling, the grand windows looking out on the square. However, I’m not sure about the writers.

I attended the launch of the IWC Novel Fair last night along with an assortment of fifty plus men and women of all styles (all varying shades of white though). There was the casual, smart, trendy, bohemian, shabby, capped, colourful – as you’d imagine. Most of us were alone and, what’s the word? Diffident. There is always an air of diffidence among the writers at the IWC.

The discussion panel consisted of Angela Carter, a successful finalist of the Novel Fair from 2013, Dan Bolger from New Island and Martina Devlin, one of last year’s judges and board member. Kate Cunningham, the Communications Officer did the introductions and away we went, excellently chaired by Martina. The questions she posed were incisive, probing and elicited interesting information from Dan as to what he, as a publisher wanted (good authentic writing, clear, empathetic and emotional) and what he might edit out (raunchy sci fi) and from Angela about her experience of the novel fair (it made publishers and editors sit up and take notice).

It was the writers’ questions that made me shiver. ‘Tell us what you mean by “good writing’’’ they cried, ‘could you expand on your answer’. It was plaintive, a wail that hung in the ether by threads from the beautiful Georgian cornices; a silent plea to tell us what to write; to define good. It felt so needy. Surely, as writers, they understand what writing is? Good prose, good dialogue, good character development, good plot, suspense, humour, magic. And no one book can have all those elements. I understand ‘writing’ is a lonely and insecure occupation, but please, writers, don’t make a holy show of yourselves. If you don’t know what good writing is, read more books or give up writing. If you want to know whether your writing is good, read it to people and/or get an editor or a mentor (check the IWC website). Or attend one of the IWC courses or indeed, send it in to the novel fair.  Have courage, writers, take heart. Oh, dear, listen to me…maybe I should get out more.

Happy Easter…and writing!

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Creative Ireland – A Glimmer of Hope?

The Sheelin Suite was positively bopping with artists (a smattering of councillors, and a good few council officers) last night when I went to the Creative Ireland consultation workshop. There were painters, poets, writers, sculptors, video artists, embroiderers, curators, playwrights.  It was a positive love-in. I felt wooed and stirred. The Minister told us that ‘culture was going to be at the heart of government policy’, that the legacy of the 2016 celebrations was the revelation that culture mattered. There was a video of all the great and the good in the Arts World telling us how wonderful it was going to be with Creative Ireland in the frame. And face to face, the Cathoirleach, Cavan CEO, the Minister, Director of Culture Ireland, the Chair of the Cavan Culture team all told us, again and again, about how positive and radical it was going to be. Then, for the final twenty minutes it was over to the artists to say what we thought would be great in Cavan, creatively wise.

And did we think! We wanted to start young, get artists into schools running workshops, set up a network of artists in Cavan. We wanted space for exhibitions, rehearsals, workshops across the whole of the county (the Minister later referred to these as creative hubs). We wanted to make use of Castle Sanderson (a magnificent conference centre set in fabulous grounds restored under Peace Programme for the scouts) for training in traditional crafts. We wanted to develop a Cavan Gaeltacht, we wanted a heritage audit, we wanted to word farm and story tell, we wanted a children’s festival, to invest in our archives, an active creative and mental health programme, we wanted an artist buddy system, we wanted to make this Cavan Creative Team public.

So maybe, if anyone is listening, as the present Cavan Culture team seems to be all state/public sector officials, the first step is to ask a few artists from different creative fields to get involved.

In the world of Creative Ireland, there are five imaginings:

  • Enabling the Creative Potential of Every Child
  • Enabling Creativity of Every Community
  • Investing in our Creative and Cultural Infrastructure
  • Ireland as the Centre of Excellence in Media Production
  • Unifying our Global Reputation

So, it is not unambitious.

The core work of Creative Ireland is creating and sustaining functional and productive partnerships with all identified agencies built on detailed workplans, with tangible outcomes, that will be developed in consultation with each partner organisation.”

Maybe, the second step should be to write a little less creatively.

There is cabinet committee chaired by the Taoiseach, a senior officials group, a dedicated projects office to drive this initiative. But I am not sure how many Indians are involved. There is one, the director, John Concannon, who is currently touring all the counties with the presentation, so he has energy, and the Minister, Heather Humphreys, is enthusiastic. It reminded me of the National Anti-Poverty Strategy which ten plus years ago was very trendy but which created little change which impacted on poor people.

However, last night, I was heartened by the ideas, the suggestions, the artists! It was a glimmer of hope on what is presently a dark canvas. And, don’t you think its lovely to think that we might have government policy that is driven by the artistic and cultural well-being of its people. But, the collaborative nature of Creative Ireland is key. All Government departments need to be actively involved and creatively proof their policy making. And, artists need to be involved at every level. Not all artists will want to, but I am sure there are many who have been actively involved in their communities and who will be interested in helping make Creative Ireland successful. So, I will put aside my cynicism, all my previous experience as a community activist. Artists, check it out and maybe get involved. I leave you with the words of Oscar Wild, ‘a cynic is a man  who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’

https://www.facebook.com/CreativeIrl/ or http://creative.ireland.ie/news

Oh, and while I’m here – don’t forget the Poetry Party in the Town Hall at 6.30pm on Thursday 27 April. Bring poems and cakes. And this years first AT The Edge, Cavan takes place on Tuesday 2 May in the Johnston Library and we’ve got great readers. Truly: Colm Keegan, Helena Mulkerns, Kate Dempsey, followed by Open Mic.

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A Discovery of Human Nature

Having had all my ‘first loves’ in London, I can confirm that it is one of the most romantic cities in which to wander. The markets, pubs and cafes, the West End, the Thames, the parks, canals, Georgian terraces and gardens provide a wonderful setting through which you can two step a dance of human discovery – as indeed do the protagonists in both Doris Lessing’s and Eimear Mcbride’s very different novels!

I have just finished The Diary of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing. It is a dense, intimate diary in two parts written by a professional, female magazine editor, (Janna at work, Jane at home) aged fifty plus, who in the first part discovers the horrors of old age for women. She reflects on the physical breakdown of the body and the mind, the growth in frustration, fear, stubbornness, and fury as the old women she befriends battle with family, neighbours, doctors, officialdom, anyone, for dignity and recognition. It struck a chord (an uncomfortable one) as I watch my own mother with anguish, irritation, and impatience. Doris Lessing shows how these emotions, moods, responses are universal. The anger, frustration, love are natural responses to a stimulant or provocation. The feelings of frustration that my mother experiences in her physical inabilities and the impatience and irritation I have in response to her complaints are commonplace. They are natural responses.  Neither I nor my mother own these innate emotions. They are universal and are manifest by all of us. They are part of life.

In part two, Janna/Jane falls in love with a married man. In this section, Lessing reveals the potency of love as Jane tumbles into a physical, explorative relationship in London but without sex. Her affair becomes the most important aspect of her every day, her professional life peels away.

While the book is a diary of one person, what was revealed was the characteristics of human nature. It was not just about Janna/Jane, it was about the people around her and how they impacted on her. It was about the interaction of love, hate, bitterness, resentment. It was about pride and dignity and how they form a person. It cleverly focussed on the innate, natural emotions and behaviours of human beings rather than the person. Lessing used Jane as a blank canvas to paint a picture of society.

Contrast this with Eimear McBride’s novel, The Lesser Bohemians. This also deals with first love (also in London) from a personal perspective and abuse and incapacity also feature. The difference in this novel, is that the protagonists embody their emotions; they own them, they feed them. In this book, human nature, as revealed by anger, sorrow, love, burrows deep in their consciousness. It is not universal.

I enjoyed the poetry and flow of Eimear McBride’s prose, and her detail. Her narrative voice, the inner conscious, the muddle, the half thoughts, the observations, names of roads, pubs make reading the book real (particularly since it was the stomping ground in London of my teenage years). She describes the sex scenes in absolute detail with fabulous clarity, but the reader is focused on the sex and the relationship. The external factors barely feature and somehow this couple is isolated in London. The abuse is sordid, cruel and particular rather than inevitable and universal.

Both books are good reads. It was a coincidence that I read one after the other. They are both set in London. Both couples walk the city, alone, endlessly. Both couples fall in love. One couple discover each other through sex and the body. The other discover each other through the discovery of themselves. Both novels paint love in all its glory and destruction and I think both reflect the society and generation the writers live in, and so, interestingly, are very different. One reveals the response of someone living in the wider world, grappling with the impact of society and one shows a human grappling and dealing alone with emotions that have become subsumed in her inner consciousness.

I want to finish with a quick word about Sebastian Barry’s book, Days Without End. This is a beautiful story of love, death, cruelty, nature, vengeance, loyalty. All the virtues and sins of human characteristics teem across this book. But it is the voice of his protagonist, McNulty who carries the reader with him into battle, into bed, across deserts, mountain ranges, through fields of scalped heads, cut limbs, chopped body parts. It is an undulating voice, rich with wonder at the world, sonorous with wisdom, crackling with fear, and innocent with honesty. It scythes a path through the frontier of violence and reveals the metal of human dignity, perseverance, courage, loyalty and love. It is a book of sighs and gasps, perspicacity and intelligence and growth. It is a story that shows humankind in all its darkness and light.

 

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Thank You, World

2017 has been good to me, so far. My mother would say that by announcing this, I am putting its future in jeopardy! But to hell with caution, my yellow daffodil of spring wants to trumpet!

I have funding from Cavan Arts Office for a fourth series of AT The Edge this year, and not only that, we have nine brilliant readers (think cat and cream and you have the right image of me here). The first on Tuesday 2 May will see Cavan welcome Kate Dempsey, Colm Keegan and Helena Mulkerns. In August, Maurice Devitt, Stephen James (tbc) and Lisa Frank and in October, Afric McGlinchey, Mairead Donnellan, and Brian Kirk. I am so looking forward to seeing them all in Cavan.

So, I was surprised when another Cavan Arts Office envelope plopped down into the porch of The Bungalow last week – the porch is where I occasionally sit when my muse goes awol. I smoke, keep an eye on the neighbours, and watch for what my garden is growing. Anyway, this envelope from Cavan Arts Office was telling me that I had been given a professional development award to get a mentor to help me finalise my first novel and collection of short stories. This was brilliant news which came at a very good time for me as my muse has been more missing than musing recently. Not writing is another ‘art’ of writing that my mentor may have to help me with! In fact, in the past few months, I have spent more time submitting material (thanks to Angela Carr for her circulation of submission and competition deadlines) and editing my early stories. It has been alarming but interesting to see how raw and unkempt my early short stories are; a raggle taggle of cock tales in sore need of pickles and extra shots! I vaguely wonder, how I know this. When and how did I learn the craft? More to the point, what exactly did I learn so I can do it now? I’m hoping my mentor who has much more experience than I will be able to tell me!

Anyway, that is not all! There is more good news. We are having a poetry party in Cavan at the Town Hall Arts Centre on Poetry Day, Ireland (Thursday 27 April at 6.30pm). The Town Hall has just received good news too. It has received three quarters of a million euro from the Department to refurbish the listed building. They plan to install poets on every landing to recite poetry every thirty minutes (not really, I’m just getting carried away). So, we having a poetry party to celebrate Poetry Day, Ireland, but not just a poetry party, we’re having a poetry and cake party. What better way to spend a few hours on National Poetry Day, reading poetry and eating cake!

So, this Spring is good, and I want to say thanks. Thanks to Crannóg in Galway, the Lakeview International Journal, Anomaly, and the Honest Ulsterman for publishing four of my short stories.  I loved reading at the Crannog launch in Galway last Friday. My son, Joe, said there were two women who were crying with laughter. I could hear their guffaws and it was very encouraging, so thank you to them. (The story is Irish Mothers, Beware and you can read it in this edition of Crannóg (http://www.crannogmagazine.com/). Thank you to Cavan Arts Office for supporting At The Edge, Cavan, and myself. Thank you to all the readers who are prepared to come to Cavan and read. Thank you to Nuala, and all the local poets who come to my own poetry workshops, and thank you for reading this blog. I should also thank my family, and Poppins, my dog, and, Ciaran, the postman who brings such good news and is nice about Poppins barking at him, and oh, my mother! I should thank my mother!

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The Wizardry of Cork Poetry Festival 2017

It felt like being at Hogwarts – a school of wizardry and imagination. I weaved my way through streets, parades, fine rhymes and cuts of fresh meat and a river that beguiled my sense of rhythm.

My masters were magicians. Tom McCarthy cranked up my voltage, showed me how to play honestly. Brian Turner blew my mind and showed me the windows in my poems, the opportunities that they yield me. Natalie Diaz showed me how my hand can feel the heat of a poem and to use that heat to ignite fire. Martina Evans drilled for heart, piercing and accurate.

It was amazing to be a part of a street rhythm that was poetry; to be lost in a city where the roads were trafficked with words. I loved the flow, the uncertainty of strangers, the tentative of nerves, the diffidence, the strains, the excitement of readings, and the kindness. I loved being always on my way. I often feel I swim upstream alone. It was good to be jumping in a shoal.

Thank you to the Munster Literature Centre for a wonderful few days.

Readings: Brian Turner, Steve Heighton and Eleanor Hooker and Eileen Sheehan

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