Tales from the Reading Rooms – Hilary Wickenhauser

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” 

Staff at Verbal have just said good-bye to our Minnesota-born Reading Rooms intern Hilary Wickenhauser who spent three months at Verbal as part of Ulster University’s INCORE (International Conflict Research Institute) programme, which focuses on the theme of ‘Democracy and Social Change in Northern Ireland’. Here are some of Hilary’s reflections.

My time at the Verbal Arts Centre has been an eye-opening and wonderful experience for me. I have seen both the story-selecting process and the Reading Rooms in action and am able to truly appreciate the power that storytelling and sharing has on individuals and groups.

At Verbal, my main role has been to work alongside the programme’s Literary Guide Susanne Stich, selecting stories and poems to be used in Reading Rooms. In the process, I have come across materials previously unknown to me from authors like Anton Chekhov and Saki, but also stories from my childhood, like Rumpelstiltskin by the Grimm Brothers. I have also been able to explore the vast and beautiful world of Northern Irish and Irish poetry and have found some remarkable poems by Moyra Donalson, Gerald Dawe and Padraic Fiacc – to name a few.

I have also been able to explore international literature and poetry and have realised that the 14th Century Sufi Poet, Hafiz, has a lot to offer us today about humanity, existence, and the beauty of love. I have also been involved in the combining of stories and poems, and hope that these sets of materials will spark many interesting and impactful conversations. Some of the combinations I feel most excited about are Katherine Mansfield’s “The Dolls House” combined with “Alone” by Edgar Allan Poe, and Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” with “Broken Keys” by Hafiz.

One of the highlights of my time at Verbal has been participating in several different Reading Rooms across Northern Ireland. I’ve experienced the thrills of a first crush with a group of P4’s and 5’s through Miranda July’s autobiographical short story “How a River Phoenix Look-Alike Lured a 13-Year Old Miranda July into an Unexpected Adventure” and then examined the power of our choices through “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. In another session, with a group of young adults, the conversations explored the universality of feeling invisible through an excerpt from The Invisible Man by H.G Wells. I have witnessed the joys of remembering with a Memory Café of people with dementia and was able to understand a bit of what it was like growing up in Ireland through the short story “The First Confession” by Frank O’Connor. And I have experienced the day-to-day thrill of sharing literature and conversations with the wonderful staff and volunteers at Verbal.

I am also thrilled to have had the opportunity to undergo Verbal’s own OCN-accredited training in ‘Facilitation Skills for Shared Reading’. I am eager to bring back my knowledge of Reading Rooms and the importance of reading, listening and storytelling to my small town in Minnesota and use my new skills in my far-off, but not so distant home.

I am very sad to say goodbye to the Verbal Arts Centre, the staff, and am eternally grateful for the opportunity to intern at the VAC. Overall, my time at Verbal is something I can say I will remember for years to come, and I will reflect on with fondness.

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