Poetry at NI Mental Health Arts & Film Festival

Poetry NI presented a special showcase reading for this year’s NI Mental Health Arts & Film Festival at the EastSide Visitor Centre, with an invited selection of Northern Irish poets who are currently leading the way to help end the stigma of mental illness through writing and performing. One of the readers was 12NOW poet Peter Adair, who below, recaps of the array of experiences and emotions involved in the poets’ mental health journeys.

The Poetry NI ‘One Poem at a Time’ reading about mental health was by turns intense, poignant, funny and hopeful. It was an intimate gathering in an upstairs room at the Eastside Visitors Centre in East Belfast, with quotes on the walls from CS Lewis, George Best and Van Morrison. From a window you can glimpse the squat redbrick tower of St Mark’s, where CS Lewis’s grandfather was rector. In the square American tourists were snapping photos of a giant metal statue of Aslan. Twenty years ago I could not have imagined any tourists in Belfast. There was a relaxed bank holiday feeling.

Each poet spoke about mental health, whether of self, family or friends. As we cowered in fear of being the first reader, Colin Dardis opened the event and, in a poem I particularly liked, guided us through the murderous landscape of our past and then showed us buildings rising from the rubble of hate. I was moved by (fellow 12NOW poet) Tory Campbell’s poem with its fragile image of an A3 notebook in which she found the unexpected poems of her brother. Oedipus was the muse of Vincent Creelan, who warned us, like the announcer on the radio, that ‘this poem contains strong language’. Indeed, hatred is a strong subject, especially when the hate is for your father. I think Vincent deserves an award for using ‘fuck’ so many times in one poem.

In his usual quiet and commanding manner (where I’m always reminded he was once a teacher) Ray Givans recalled friends driven to breakdown by the pressures of work, and read a short poem with simple diction about an accident and a boy asking for a comment, and what happens after the reporters and cameras move on to the next horror. Dan Eggs read one poem, which was alive with images of sea and clouds and fields. The poem conveyed a gentle, reconciled mood.

Geraldine O’Kane took us to the everyday settings where panic can possess us, like the old god in a Grecian forest. The forest today is the supermarket. There was a marvellous list of bread – crusty, wheaten, wholemeal – that was like a prayer to drive Pan away. Patrick Taggart led us into the lush vegetation at the centre of a roundabout where suburban Neanderthals might be preparing meals or mating with Homo sapiens. In a striking poem a sinister lion, or Trumpopotamus, prowls and paws and pants.

After a brief open mic, with young and old(er) reading, we prowled forth into the Belfast streets and panted back to our lairs.

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