Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A dual carriageway through Seamus Heaney’s landscape; or whatever you say, say nothing



Our greatest poet’s dead, so let’s run a dual carriageway through his childhood landscape.  Apart from a motivated group of local people hardly anyone’s making a fuss.  Either in Ulster or over here. 

A flyover is planned within 100m of Seamus Heaney’s childhood home at Mossbawn. 

One of the UK’s most precious poetry landscapes is about to be destroyed.  It also happens to contain pristine wetland which is a whooper swan site.  The 4-lane A6 road, carrying 22,000 cars a day, will pass through the Lough Beg area within yards of an Area of Special Scientific Interest protected by the Wetlands Convention and the EU Habitats Directive. 

A local environmentalist called Chris Murphy is taking the Northern Ireland Department of Infrastructure to court, seeking a judicial review. There’s a BBC piece here on the background.  The hearing happened last week; it had to be moved to a larger courtroom to accommodate supporters.  The case has to be solely about whether the project is being taken forward according to Article 6 (3) of the Habitats Directive.  Heaney’s legacy isn’t part of it.


Murphy says they have a strong case because the Infrastructure Dept has made errors and there are good alternative routes for the road.  Here’s the link to a crowdfunder for the court action.    Some way down the page is a scan of a letter Heaney sent to Peter Hain (then secretary of state for NI) in 2005, asking him to get involved:

I have known and loved this area since childhood and have written about it – or rather out of it – often. It is one of the few undisturbed bits of wetland in mid-Ulster, a direct link to the environment our mesolithic ancestors knew in the Bann Valley and a precious “lung” in the countryside.  Any motorway desecrates, but some desecrate more than others.

This is a crowdfunder that could have gone viral – but it’s only reached £840, with 29 backers, though Murphy says pledges have been made offline too. 

The only NGO to oppose the plans is Friends of the Earth whose Northern Ireland director, James Orr, has been in the NI press highlighting that trees on the route are already being cut down and hedgerows taken out.  “Highly irregular”, he says; the Dept for Infrastructure should be waiting for the outcome of the court case.  

Others have kept their heads down.  I’ve been told that the local atmosphere is somewhat toxic.  The RSPB, for example, has a cryptic statement on its website as if the author was biting his/her lip not to say more.  According to the BBC the land across which this road would run has already been bought and compensation agreed.

I emailed Home Place, the new Heaney centre in mid Ulster, who could only find this to say:

Mid Ulster District Council supports the development of the strategic road network in the Mid Ulster area. The Council also recognises that with any major road infrastructure project it is important that the environmental impacts are fully considered.  Addressing adverse impacts, and putting measures in place to mitigate against them, will be particularly important for the A6 road scheme.

It seems that Home Place is happy to foster an artificial, virtual Heaneyscape while the real one is destroyed.  But it turns out that Home Place was funded, very generously, by Mid Ulster District Council, who will also cover the considerable running costs. 

There don’t seem to be celebrity supporters either.  When you think of Heaney’s national and international connections, Irish, American, Nobel Prize and many others, that seems remarkable.  One exception is naturalist and writer Mark Cocker who visited the area last autumn and heard about it all.  He is supporting the campaign and wrote briefly about it in the Guardian

A few weeks ago I emailed various people who I thought would have an interest in this because of Heaney associations or general poetry interests, asking them if they’d donate to the crowdfunder and/or share the news and lobby.  I got a few responses including from the Poetry Society. 

Similarly hardly anyone responded when I posted about this on social media.. not that I’m a social media queen but if I’d posted something quirky, or a poetry story closer to home, the response would have been much better.  


Is it that Northern Ireland might as well be on another planet for most people in the rest of the UK and elsewhere? 

Or perhaps they think the situation is lost already and it’s better to turn their backs.  We’re all exhausted with all the other causes we must support in 2017.  Or they’d like some heavyweight endorsement of the cause, to be sure it’s worthwhile; fair enough.  Mark Cocker’s support after his visit should suffice. 

Perhaps fatigue and resignation are setting in when it comes to destruction of the countryside.  It just happens and happens and happens and happens and happens. 

I find the whole thing perplexing. 

There’s a hashtag #stopHeaneyroad but only one tweet so far.

By the way, I don’t know what the timetable is beyond last week’s court hearing, e.g. how long the judge will take to decide or whether an appeal is possible if the decision is No.  

If a judicial review is allowed, I hope attitudes will change.  I hope I'm not the only person to have a Heaneyscape in my head, or wherever it is that poetry takes root.  


Sunday, 29 January 2017

Sifting the Rialto pamphlet competition


I've been reading hundreds of pamphlet submissions to the Rialto’s competition.  Absorbing, fascinating… and intensive.  Three of us sifted the entries to give our judge, Hannah Lowe, a longlist of fifty to read.  The results are on our website.  Here are some thoughts about the experience of sifting and trends among the entries.

* Life writing was popular, some of it addressing, admirably, difficult issues such as childhood abuse or mental illness.  Racial and cultural identity, often with an autobiographical and/or ancestral angle, was a big theme that produced some of the best poetry.  Herons, cats, marshland, floods, trees, the sea… all were here, sometimes (not the cats) in elegiac mode for what’s passing or passed.  Unelegiac urban life was here in all its richness and confusion, and with foxes.  Brexit appeared sporadically.  The US elections came just before the deadline.

* For the sifter, entries with an overarching theme or story are easy to take in and remember.  Sets of poems that are quiet or work together without a story need to be given the attention they deserve.  I found it a pleasure to read formally versatile entries, and those with poems all in the same form skilfully handled.  The same applied to whole pamphlets of short poems; we didn’t get many of those.  Short poems are hard to do well. Formally and/or linguistically experimental sets stood out.  We didn’t get many of those either; I’d have welcomed more.

* The first poem is important: eg as setter of tone and theme, and inviter-in of the reader who is longing to be excited, charmed, wrong-footed, made to laugh, lured, thunderstruck, transported... This is especially true for electronic submissions (around 4/5 of ours were online) which encourage linear reading.  Yet a surprising number of pamphlets didn’t lead with one of their best.  This phenomenon struck all three sifters independently.  Maybe entrants had a certain idea about ordering, or were unsure which were their best poems.  Some entries only got going after the first few poems.  It felt like that familiar workshop question, Do you need the first line / the first two verses or are these just writing into the poem?  Perhaps ordering into a pamphlet is something to watch out for.

* Risks are good to take even if they don’t come off.  Conceits, for example, have to be really well done to work.  But that’s OK; the reader respects the attempt. 

* Trusting the reader to understand, make connections etc is important.    

* Line breaks that energise their poem are a delight.  If they aren’t doing this it might as well be prose. 

* Adjectives…  Yes, they still need to be talked about!  Many are superfluous or part of a predictable adjective/noun combination.  Each adjective should be scrutinised to see if it deserves to be there, and if so, whether it’s the right one.  (It’s totally fine to write a poem bristling with adjectives … provided you know what you’re doing and the poem is hungry for them.)  There are other poetry habits too, especially what long-standing HappenStance pamphlet publisher Helena Nelson calls leaning verbs.  She even has a blog-tag for those and her analyses of current habits are very shrewd. 

* Titles: they don’t matter much at this stage but it’s nice to find one that works. 

* As a sifter all I wanted was pamphlets that channelled old Ezra, more than 100 years on: MAKE IT NEW.  The best ones created a world of their own and invited me in.  Line breaks electrified the poems, the language felt alive with unexpected turns of phrase or syntax, form and content worked together, the poems had their own particular music (harmonious, harsh or whatever), beginnings and ends earned their place… etc.  The subject matter might not be striking but the angle on it was.  What’s the point of poetry (among so much other discourse) if it doesn’t convey the shocks and wonder of living? 

* When these things happened I’d get a sense of confidence mixed with excitement, and read on knowing that the next poem would work, and the next, and with luck, most of them…  I’d also have a sense that the writer was reading and listening to poetry, whether from the back of beyond or an urban attic.  So along with Ezra this too goes in capital letters: READ READ READ.  The two exhortations are complementary, not contradictory.  Read to write and write to read.  Read to make it new.