Words have power. In print and broadcast news in the North, in this past week alone, came reports of graffiti on walls that read “N ----rs out”; families fleeing sectarian threats; swastikas daubed on walls; a pig’s head left outside a community centre used by Muslims; anti-Muslim slogans sprayed across the doors.
Another day, another time, another place, it would be homophobic slogans. Misogynistic graffiti, though prolific, rarely makes the news, but a Belfast cafe caused a stir this week when it claimed “You can beat the wife, but you can’t beat a £5 lunch”. This was on a sandwich board sitting in the street. The owners hit back on social media, saying people were over-reacting, it was just a joke, people were too sensitive. Blah, blah. Eventually, under duress, they apologised. Eventually.
The airwaves are filled with casual opinion dressed as fact. The tone is overwhelmingly combative and gladiatorial. It feels like it is the same discussion over and over again for decades. He said. She said. Them’uns. Zero sum. A race to the bottom. The noise is constant. It is overwhelming. We become more stuck. And yet, these voices, these words, these sentiments, though they constitute the prevailing discourse, are not all of what we are. We are more than this.
There are two life-affirming pieces of graffiti in Belfast’s public art. Opposite the Ormeau Embankment, on a gable end wall, one reads: “What can quantum gravity tell us about the origin of the universe?”. The other at Bridge End in east Belfast, “Teenage kicks so hard to beat,” a homage to the DJ John Peel, was painted out at the behest of Stormont politicians, only to be repainted by teenagers in a cross-community project after much public uproar. All is not lost.
The single richest shared culture we have on this island is literature. It occupies a curious place in our psyche, being omnipresent but also, paradoxically, quite invisible. Perhaps it is simply elite. In Belfast if you asked the average person what we are known for, almost certainly they would say the Troubles, perhaps the Titanic. They might also say we are known for our friendliness – we are, but we are also not. We are also not friendly. We are hostile too. We are all these things – we are the best and at times we are also the worst. We are unpretentious. Gritty. Human. Quiet voices get drowned out.
This is our context and it becomes then all the more important for us to animate and occupy public space and public discourse with something quite contrary. Poetry Jukebox might seem like a feeble fightback when viewed against the weight of the prevailing discourse, but doing nothing is also to collude. We cannot settle for letting bigots and those who shout the loudest have the whole say.
As part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, Poetry Jukebox will be a permanent installation featuring 20 poems by writers living in Ireland, allowing listeners to hear recordings by pushing a button.
The project of bringing Poetry Jukebox to Ireland has been almost two years in the making. It was developed in the Czech Republic and there are perhaps 50 or so in the world, in Berlin, New York, Warsaw, Brussels and Prague. Only the Belfast one has been entirely poet-led. It is a first for Belfast and for Ireland, but we hope we can work to develop a network of jukeboxes across the country. As time goes on, we want to retain that network as a curated journal of contemporary poetry.
This first curation is a combination of open call and invited poets – we have some big names: Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland, Michael Longley, Celia de Freine, Joan Newmann, Katie Donovan, Padraic Fiacc, for example. We are so grateful for their support, as we are to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Belfast International Festival who have weighed in to help us realise the project. Culture Ireland and Poetry Ireland facilitated a research trip earlier in the process.
For us it is not just a fancy installation. Rather this is the means to put poetry to work for the benefit of everyone and to put it where it belongs, in public space. Poetic words, beautiful words, ideas and images have so much to offer. This is a way to connect more people with other ideas, aspirations, ways of seeing the world, to pique their curiosity, to play: go to the jukebox, push a button and hear the words and voice of a poet spill out. It is fun. People can engage with poetry of their own volition, perhaps especially people who wouldn’t normally do so.
Isn’t that the work of poetry – to travel the distance from one person to another and animate their imagination, thinking, reflection, enrich the lived experience? Isn’t that the work of poets? We can’t do that if all that we are doing as poets is just speaking among ourselves. This is a rebellious act – against the prevailing messages, expanding the repertoire of presenting poetry, pushing the ideas of what poetry is and isn’t, about who it is for, about what art is.
We are jobbing poets – freelance artists. Two fiftysomething women aren’t your typical rebels, but our poetry jukebox project and the context in which we live make us so. We’re amplifying quiet voices. We are amplifying beautiful words, images, ideas, aspirations. Imagination.
First and foremost we are poets – it’s not trendy. It’s not sexy. For us, poetry has a relevance to everyone – though obviously not everyone feels that way about it. Deirdre and I came to poetry the long way around – some exposure and engagement at school, many years in between barely even reading a book and then the quiet voice, with important things to say – a voice that would not go away. Poetry is powerful. Quiet. Unshouty but persistent. Insistent.
We each grew up in the North, during the Troubles, from working-class families and bookless houses. Poetry was not part of our narrative, nor for that matter were the arts. Theatre, dance, literature, music – these things found us in the end. These are the things which have transformed our lives, and given us joy, comfort, space. Poetry has the power to touch the soul, to make you stop and think, to see the world in a different way. We want the unexpectant to encounter poetry unexpectedly in the street, in the hope that it can change one’s mood, perspective, take up residence in a person. We want more people to know that poetry also belongs to them and that it is for everyone.
Through the Jukebox, we hope that we can connect with a wider audience for poetry – not just the ones who will go to a reading, or buy a poetry book, but other people – people passing in the street. The curious.
This is about normalising poetry. Why shouldn't it be part of everyone's everyday life? Why shouldn't it nourish their soul and their imagination?
The Poetry Jukebox launches on October 12th, at 7pm, in Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast