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What’s the opposite of gun?

I have a fondness for poetry. Not all poetry. Some poetry. I like slam poetry, with its fast and furious pace, its jumble of words cascading over one another as thoughts rush out and feelings rush in. I’m a fan of the Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan and travelled last year to Bristol to hear him live. He didn’t disappoint. You might know him for his poem on bullying To This Day…For the Bullied and the Beautiful that went viral a few years back. He suffers from depression and speaks openly about it, as he does many other issues that are so human, so prescient, so now. He makes sense.

And while WB Yeats gets my vote for an old Irish classic, an Irish classic in the making is the fab Neil McCarthy. Of anyone, he’s the one responsible for reconnecting me with the joy that is the spoken word. He’s going to be in Budapest launching his latest book on May 10th – at Massolit. If you’re in town, don’t miss him. When Neil recommends a listen or a read, I listen and I read. Enter Brendan Constantine and his opposites game. Given the debate that’s reverberating through the USA, supported by all those on the outside looking in, it’s a topical one. One that gives pause for thought – and more.

 

I’ve finally made time to listen and to read. I’ve realigned my priorities and taken the back control I’d temporarily lost to the gigging world. No more working myself to near exhaustion. Life is far too short not to make time for poetry.

 

Judged on their many merits

One of the perks of being a big fish (says she, literally) in a small pond (native-English-speakers in Budapest) is that I occasionally get asked to attend functions I would otherwise miss. Last Friday, I had the good fortune to be invited to sit on the judging panel for the International Schools’ Poetry Competition. I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down at the prospect of spending my Friday evening listening to poetry recitations. But if I’m to preach about the importance of community involvement as an expat, or the benefits of volunteerism for mental health and well-being, I have to walk the talk.

poetryThis is the eighth year that the International Schools in Budapest have held this competition. Contestants compete in four categories: 10–12, 13–15, 16+, and group recitals. They came from five schools: American International School of Budapest (AISB), British International School Budapest (BISB), SEK Budapest International School, International Christian School of Budapest (ICSB), and Britannica International School (the latter hosted the 2014 final).

poetry 3I read the order of events with a sinking heart, noticing that some poems would be recited by more than one competitor. The theme of the 2014 competition was water. I had mistakenly thought that the competitors would be reciting their own work and had been vaguely looking forward to hearing something of Budapest’s young creative talent in action. Trying hard to stem the growing tide of despair, I settled down to judge.

What ebbed and flowed over the course of the next couple of hours was inspirational. Each one of these young people had put time and effort into their recitations. They had given thought as to how best to interpret their particular poem. And while some might have gone a tad overboard on the drama, they were all a pleasure to listen to. A few chose particularly ambitious poems, difficult to interpret and even harder to do justice to in reciting. Respect.

peoe2Luke Miller chose James Whitcomb Riley’s The Old Swimmin’ Hole, a poem written in eye dialect where non-standard spelling is used to draw the speaker’s attention to pronunciation. With his rendition, he painted an evocative image of an old man’s reflection of his life, a picture that warranted a medal in the 13-15 category. Fabiana Vilsan’s winning recitation of Black Rook in Rainy Weather in the 16+ category was an insightful treatment of one of the very few of Sylvia Plath’s poems that I consider life-affirming. Tanvhi Chadha and Rebekah Brown showed great maturity in the group recitals with their extract from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. For me though, the highlight of the evening was James Howells’ treatment of Rupert Brooke’s Heaven in the 10-12 category. I sat, in awe, listening to this young man express his understanding of what might well be Brooke’s most memorable and wittiest poem. We three judges chose Howells as the overall winner of the evening.

My font of knowledge was replenished on that particular Friday evening; my faith in the future restored. Though some were disappointed with their performances and others perhaps a little taken aback that they didn’t place, each contestant helped remind me of some of life’s key lessons: (i) There’s no shame in making a mistake; what matters is how you recover from it. (ii) The easiest option may be the safest, yet to grow we must challenge ourselves. (iii) When it comes to drama in life (as in reciting poetry), less is often more. (iv) It takes real courage to put yourself front and centre for others to judge. (v) Modesty in achievement is a quiet indicator of self-confidence. (vi) Saying yes can be the key to a whole new world.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 March 2014

In memory

Many years ago, I went to see a psychic of sorts near Oxford. She had worked with the local police on a few cases and had quite the reputation. I can’t for the life of me remember anything she told me, apart from an answer to an off-the-cuff question I asked as I was leaving. Would I ever be published? Her answer: Yes, your poetry will be well received. Poems? Mine?

I quite fancied that idea for a while, as back in my twenties I had a bit of reputation for being able to jot down a ditty about someone, on the spot, usually in the pub or at a party, and then recite it to great acclaim. Needless to say the acclaim was more in proportion to the number of pints that had been consumed than to my skill as a poet.

Lori 001 (800x552)Then, about three years ago, in Budapest, I had the good fortune to meet the talented Neil McCarthy. And I knew for certain that whatever latent talent I might have with words didn’t come close to how he can master his. I was mesmerised. A few months ago, I asked Neil to pen a poem in memory of my mate Lori, who died a year ago today, aged 49. I miss her terribly. And while I know that she’s at work on my behalf and probably ratcheting up the fun factor upstairs, the pain of her passing is showing no sign of dissipating. I talked to Neil about her at length. He read some blogs I had written while she was ill. And then he patiently set to work, drafting a memorial. I returned each one with comments. I didn’t know quite what I wanted it to say but knew that if he could capture the essence of what I am feeling, I’d recognise it. We went back and forth until earlier this week when I received the final version. I think it’s beautiful.

Today, as I scatter some of Lori’s ashes from the Charles Bridge – she always wanted to go to Prague – I’ll read it to her. And I’ll remind myself, for the millionth time since her death 12 months ago, that life is too short to wonder what if. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who have gone before us, to make the most of today, to live life to its fullest, and to make sure that nothing that matters is left unsaid. I love you, girl.

A breath of wind through the long grass

                                    i.m. Lori Stephens

1.

Rest assured that the storm will never settle long enough for a smooth crossing,
that the tide has tied tightly its opus of memory to the stern of the boat; nor will
an enduring thought or concern from the shore settle into any intelligible order,
disruptive as a breath of wind through the long grass harrying the sands beneath.
Hindsight is a delicate bequest when surveyed from a careful enough distance,
smiles stifled by grief once again coming to the forefront; a break in the weather
or a high pressure moving in from the sea – perhaps the face of the forecaster in
the hall mirror announcing with buoyancy that we are all but over the worst of it.

2.

There is no space wide enough for consolation to take root, no exemplary words
to sate the hollowness, no charts to leisurely unfold and map the geography of  loss. Faraway cities run blue dye through the retina and birds move in, circling, drifting, diverting attention as the world below races on, stumbling every now and again. San Francisco comes thundering back, slows once it’s found itself perfectly still in the focus of your attention, as if a cinematographer has rolled back a velvet curtain in your thoughts and adjusted the resolution of that view from Columbus Avenue, the traffic out on the Bay in no rush whatsoever to get anywhere in particular.

3.

You make your offerings to the gods with trembling hands, not quite sure whether or not they will be received; or if through your hesitation and reluctance to let go they will be blown clean from your grasp, as a breath of wind through the long grass passes ever so gently, touches the back of your neck, carries her words onwards.  To stand and take this moment in is to feel the world shrink; to walk the cobbled streets of Prague, shake your head in wonder at the distance you have brought her; to pause on Charles Bridge and wait for a break in the clouds to encourage you with the swans asleep on the gentle lap of the Vltava like a white flag on the water.

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A long threatening comes at last

There is nothing quite as beautiful as the spoken word, spoken well. And chosen well. Enter Neil McCarthy. Originally from Co. Cork, he now lives in Los Angeles, via Vienna, and although I’d be chuffed to call him a mate, the truth is I’ve only met him the once. And very briefly at that. He was in Budapest doing a gig at Treehugger Dan’s on Lazar utca and I’d gone along, on my own, to hear if he was as good as his publicity said he was.

At the time, I was feeling a little homesick – not for Ireland but for her people. For that rich and wonderful way we have of telling stories. For the calculated casualness with which we choose our words. For the pictures we paint with our  imagery and the tunes we create with our turns of phrase Even in the innermost of our inner cities, poetry is on the move. We have a way about us and McCarthy is better than most.

He sat onstage, with his trademark flat cap turned backwards, looking every inch the fellah who sits in my local at home, sorting the world’s problems over a pint or three. And a little bit of me fell in love with him. I’m not usually given to such flights of fancy but that night, I wanted to take his words home. I cornered him outside over a smoke and asked if he had a CD  – I had visions of listening to him each time that hankering for all things Irish hit me. He was thinking about it, he said, but in the meantime, he had a booklet that he could send me when he got back to Vienna. And he did.

That was three years ago. He’s come to mind since on that rare occasion when I hear something that resonates with me, something that captures what I see or feel:

My accent stands out more and more every day,
as if I’m deliberately, yet subconsciously, over-pronouncing
my Irishisms ~ Ecdysis

He came to mind when I was in Transylvania, gobsmacked by its beauty and struggling to find the words to do justice to what I saw.

What couldn’t, however, escape my mind were those
clouds, inhaling the lights below until they engorged
and wore their whirl of colours like the Roma on the
train; their children feverish and wide-eyed as they
leaned out of the open-door carriage filling their cheeks
with slices of Transylvania through the trees.~  Sighisoara in Mid-February

His poetry is pitted with phrases that make me want to adopt them as my own

Two years ago in Shanghai,
I saw buildings as big as
my ambitions. ~ Worry about it Tomorrow, Do

And then this morning, I get an email from him. It’s not addressed to me so I know I’m just one in a long line of BCCs. And honest as he is, he admits the same:

I apologise for the group email but the list of this one is big, and I will sit down and write to each and every one of you in good time.

He tells us of his new project – he wants a push to get a live CD of spoken word (recorded in Verein 08, Vienna earlier this year) into physical form. Three years, it’s taken, I think to myself. Three years. But a long threatening comes at last.  He’s using RocketHub to fuel the coffers and bring in some money to help make this happen. I’m not blogging this because he’s promised me anything other than the CD I will get for fuelling his funds and the poem he will write for me in memory of my mate Lori. I’m blogging this because everyone who has any love for the spoken word should hear Neil McCarthy – at least once.

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