What better way to end your tenure as Belfast’s inaugural Poet Laureate than with a quirky reading alongside the UK Poet Laureate and a Scottish musician – in a movie theatre.
Poets in the City is part of the One City One Book programme for 2014, and for Sinéad Morrissey, a rather fitting finale to her year-long stint as Belfast’s ‘poetry for the people’ facilitator. The free event also features Carol Ann Duffy, a real treat for writers and poetry fans – as evidenced by a packed-out Movie House Cinema at Yorkgate.
The audience is a who’s who of writing talent. Amongst the throng are Damian Smyth, head of literature at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland; novelist Glenn Patterson and the esteemed poet Michael Longley, now aged 77, who quietly surveys the pre-performance mingling from an armchair set discreetly in one corner.
Also regaling the crowd is the aforementioned musician, John Sampson, who pops up and down between readings to entertain with his quick-tempo, melancholy and haunting tunes. But more of that later.
First, to the poets. With Morrissey’s year as Belfast Poet Laureate drawing to an end, there is an air of expectancy about the unlikely venue. Will this be the night we hear who will take up the baton? Will there still be a baton to take into 2015 at all?
No-one is quite sure, and the powers that be have so far remained tight-lipped, although Belfast’s Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir – whose idea it was in the first place – tells us: 'Sinéad Morrissey has been an exceptional, exemplary poet laureate. She’s set the bar very high for whoever comes next.'
Introduced by novelist David Park – whose book The Poets' Wives is this year the focus of One City One Book Belfast – Morrissey is the first of the two laureates to take to the podium and, this being a cinema, she uses the unique setting to give an audio-visual run-in to each of her four poems. Poetry in motion-picture, if you like.
Cut to the first clip, which sets the scene for 'Electric Edwardians', a poem which poignantly draws inspiration from a 1901 factory reel recording of employees milling in and out of the workplace. ‘Children linger longest,' Morrissey tells us, as we visualise the haunting images from just seconds before, where urchins played to the camera.
'The Mutoscope' takes us on another visual journey, as Morrissey conjures up a world when flip-book-type images created the first ‘motion picture’ experience, and 'Display', from her TS Eliot Prize-winning collection, Parallax, follows.
A1933 clip of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty on Parade provides the backdrop. Men watch as the women exercise in Hyde Park: ‘quietly and sharply focused / like eyeing up the horses at a racecourse, but with much more choice’.
Morrissey’s final offering is 'A Matter of Life and Death', which contrasts impending childbirth with snatched scenes from the 1946 film of the same name, where an RAF pilot prepares to exit the mortal coil.
A musical interlude from Sampson precedes Carol Ann Duffy, performing on a Crumhorn (a Renaissance pipe), Gemshorn (or Goat’s Horn, which sounds like a fairy flute), Chinese Hulusi pipe and a recorder. Later, Sampson hauntingly plays 'Never Walk Alone' as Duffy recites 'Liverpool' in memory of victims of the Hillsborough Disaster.
Her other choices are rather more upbeat, however, and ripples of laughter run through the theatre at 'Mrs Midas and Mrs Darwin'. ‘We all have wishes – granted / but who has wishes granted – him!’ laments Mrs Midas when her husband’s dream of turning everything he touches to gold comes true, Duffy deftly subverting the legend into a modern-day poem.
She also reminds us of the plight of the honey bee with 'The Human Bee', and reflects on her mother’s death in 'Water' – the last word she heard from her mother’s lips – while in 'Premonitions' she imagines her mother’s demise as the first time they were introduced: ‘We first met when your last breath / cooled in my palm like an egg.'
At the end of all this spectacular fusion of poetry, film and music, there is but one thing for Duffy left to proclaim: 'This is quite the most extraordinary poetry reading I’ve ever done,' she admits. 'I think it’s a fantastic idea – poetry at the movies!' Hear hear.
One City One Book continues in venues across Belfast until May 31.