Went to the Belfast Literary Festival 2011 tonight. I don't know anything about poetry but I like the way it sounds. I was keen to see University Hall as I'm seeing Les Mystere de la voix Bulgare there in October and wanted to check out the acoustics. It was also free because I'm, like, super-connected.
I needn't have worried about the acoustics. The Ulster Hall is a fantastic venue; a small, intimate, high-ceilinged chamber with a giant organ dominating the stage. Led Zeppelin played here in 1971 and the set up must have been very much the same! I'm programme-less and note-less, so this is a thumbnail sketch, at best, of what I saw and, inevitably, there were two further problems: Irishness and the fact that these people, reading out these poems, tended to be poets. Poets, by their very nature, are half tramp, half social-inadequate and all over the place. I don't think any poets would be offended by that description; they are a gentle folk, given to ironic distance and profound self-awareness: they know they're oddballs, fringe-dwellers and carriers of sexual disease. That's why Byron was described as "Mad, bad and dangerous to, y'know". And it's this shambling, dissipated, shirt-tail-not-tucked-in persona that means they're not always the best public speakers. You wouldn't go to a power-point presentation presided over by a poet and expect to learn about your company's core values. Though you might learn a little something about yourself.
The other difficulty was the Irishness. Now this I cheerfully admit is entirely my problem. If you're an Irish and you grew up here, amongst cultural certainties and shared ideas and a shit-load of mountains, this evening would have been a walk in the park for you, a gentle stroll around the arboreum, a gay canter through the courtyard. But I'm not you, I'm a big thickie who knows nothing about the city he lives in; its geography, its cultural and political history or why an "Ulster Fry" is any different to any other fry.* The upshot of it was that, because it was a specifically "Belfasty" event, a lot of the poetry was tailored towards Belfast. It was a Shibboleth-fest.
So what I'm saying is that I didn't know any of the poets, understand any of the references or pay to get in. I'm keeping the Belfast literary scene alive!
The evening was compered by Glenn Patterson, dapper at fifty in the Paddy Kielty manner, and oozing charm in an electric blue suit. He's a neighbour apparently though I haven't seen him in the Bethany Fish Bar.
Most of the Belfast Group were present; Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, Frank Ormsby and Paul Muldoon. Representing younger poets were Leontia Flynn, crowd pleasing and understated with her quirky titles and nervous delivery, and Sinead Morrissey, whose rhythmic, head-bobbing attack pushed her vivid imagery into every corner of the room, pressing her words onto the audience, her own rapt, un-read, word-perfect performance becoming an incantation. The effect was quite astonishing.
It was peculiar that after delivering this charged exciting performance she had to sit on stage while Colin Bateman read what seemed to be an entire first chapter of one of his books. I'm not a fan and, while it was mildly amusing, Morrissey's** effect was still resonating electrically around the room for the first few minutes of his blather.
I didn't know what to make of Longley. He looked venerable, of course, in his big Hemingway beard and pink Uncle Albert face, but his poems seemed like long lists of things made poetic by his delivery. Ciaran Carson was introduced with words "Ciaran Carson has the distinction of being the only Ulster poet to date..." There was a long pause here and then a list of his accomplishments was read out. But I think I preferred my version. Carson elected to read a short prose piece and then sang, unaccompanied, an Irish air. He was immaculately dressed. Owen Mccafferty, a play-write, decided to read out a lengthy piece of prose about a man buying two scented candles. It might have been my favourite thing; humorous and desperate in turn but never "dark" in its tedious modern sense; there were no extremes, no polarities. It presented a life, in a city, that is fag-ash grey, stepping gingerly over a tacky carpet, working out the complex mathematical probabilities that are the natural precursors to getting a round in. He showed us a world where buying a scented candle to burn up the smell of beer farts and cigarettes represents a liberating act, because the money spent on the candle could have been used to buy more booze.
Muldoon was excellent, bracing himself at the podium as if the sheer power of his words would knock him down if he weren't clinging on for dear life. It wasn't quite like that. He introduced a poem about glow-in-the-dark cauliflowers with a quotation from the National Enquirer. His halting, Mary-Robinson-President-for-life delivery was slightly off-putting and I'm not sure live readings are a natural home for either him or the poems, but enough jarring ideas came skittering through the fug to keep the interest and to prompt further investigation. Also he has Dulux dog hair which I like.
That was my first ever literary festival and it felt like my first ever gigs in London: wandering around, thinking that everyone was cooler than me and that they were all poets and in the know and anyway I wouldn't know Paul Muldoon if he came up and was allusive and pedantic to me. It won't last. I'm older now and I'm a clever swine. I'll be running next years.
* I think it may have something to do with a soda farl.
** And it's not often I say that!