A commission from the St Patrick's Festival to write an epic spoken word poem about Ireland might have had the potential to produce the literary equivalent of Michael Flatley's feet thrumming across the page.
Fortunately, there's not a shadow of a shamrock anywhere in the 1,755 words of Stephen James Smith's thundering, vibrant and visual #MyIreland poem.
“I don’t know if it’s even a poem. It’s me just opening up my arms to Ireland, and trying to see what I can grab. And trying to talk from my heart,” Smith said.
The poet, playwright and performer carried a notebook around for the past six months, capturing fragments of thoughts and images, to eventually be transferred into a Google Doc.
What emerged at the end of the process is a thrilling, startling, irreverent, and sometimes angry reflection on contemporary Ireland, which manages to tread the line between knowing and clever on the one side, and full of heart and raw emotion on the other.
It may not be the entire history of Ireland distilled into a 12-minute film – which features footage by Myles O'Reilly and music by Conor O'Brien of Villagers and Colm Mac Con Iomaire – but it's not far off, touching on themes from Queen Meabh to 1916 to Bloody Sunday to Savita to the undocumented Irish to Apollo House.
There are universal memes and ones only Irish people will get, like Superquinn sausages and Copper Face Jacks. Lady Gregory is in there, alongside Talk to Joe and Marty Morrissey’s hair, Simon Zebo, Zig and Zag, the Rubberbandits, Sinead O’Connor, Katie Taylor and Joanne O’Riordan.
Part of the poem’s appeal is that is imbued with history but not weighed down by it: it resolutely looks to the future, asking: “I’m trying to listen / so what have you to say?”
As he prepared to perform live at the Wednesday night launch as part of the Saint Patrick's Festival, Smith said he had been "overwhelmed" by the reaction to the poem, which was published in full by The Irish Times.
“The reaction has been kind, and it’s been lovely to feel that people are connecting with it in some way, and it’s resonating with them,” he said.
No romantic vision
He was determined not to romanticise Ireland. “I have a great grá for the country, but I also see its failings, and how problematic it can be. What frustrates me is that we have so much potential here to be better than what we are, and I don’t always think we realise that.”
Part of the intention is, he said, to encourage people to look to the future, and “to ask more of ourselves. I think it’s a calling for that.”
“I didn’t set out to write it as a theme for the St Patrick’s Festival. When I was researching a previous poem, Dublin You Are, I ended up with more stuff that I wanted to say that wasn’t about Dublin, so I put it to one side, and eventually it grew into this piece.”
Though he’s enjoying the reaction to his poem, Smith won’t be resting on his laurels. He is already moving on to his next artistic project, which is likely to be a play.
“I have to keep creating if I want to make a living, and have a family, and do all those other things. All artists in this country need to be doers, and be entrepreneurial. Unfortunately this State doesn’t do enough to support artists.”
He cites the example of the writer, Donal Ryan, who revealed recently that he has to return to his job as a civil servant. "An incredible writer, an internationally renowned one, and someone I'd aspire to be. And he can't make a living as a writer. What message does that send out for other artists?"
Join the conversation
In the meantime, Smith is hoping that his #MyIreland can be sustained as a living work of art. There’s talk of turning it into a dance performance. But first, he wants to hear from people who have something to say about what Ireland means to them.
“I want people to add their voices to it. I’d love them to use the #MyIreland hashtag on social media, and say what Ireland is to them. I want people to tell me what I’m missing, what’s relevant to them, what are those unique details that I’ve missed out on.”