The Squat Pen

Ballycastle Writers Group host the fortnightly showcase of poetry and music on tour from its usual home of Belfast's No Alibis Bookshop

Taking its name from Seamus Heaney’s much-loved poem, Digging ('Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun'), The Squat Pen literary evening has been running since 2013. Showcasing Northern Irish poetry, prose and music, it gives new and experienced writers a chance to read their work in public and has gathered in momentum over the past two years.

Normally this literary extravaganza takes place twice a month at No Alibis Bookshop in Belfast, but this March, The Squat Pen is on tour. Rather than the cosy setting of Botanic Avenue’s popular bookstore, we are instead ensconced in Thyme & Co café in Ballycastle; tea-lights flickering as an expectant crowd gathers.

Hosted by the Ballycastle Writers Group, the turn-out is impressive and not a seat goes spare as coffees are ordered and wine is decanted for an evening of entertainment.

Serenading us with words and with music tonight are The Squat Pen co-founders, Belfast poets Paul Jeffcutt and Ray Givans, along with acclaimed novelist, John McAllister. Kicking the evening off, however, is Jeffcutt, whose debut poetry collection, Latch, was a Book of the Month by Ulster Tatler in 2011.

A seasoned pro when it comes to public readings, Jeffcutt explains the premise of The Squat Pen, for those who may be unfamiliar with the events: 'Why are we called The Squat Pen? Well, 18 months ago, when Ray and myself were planning the first event, Seamus Heaney suddenly passed away,' he says. 'So, we decided to call our literary evening The Squat Pen in homage to him.

'This is our first show of the tour and we’re absolutely delighted to be here at Thyme & Co as guests of Ballycastle Writers’ Group. What makes us different is that each event offers a rich mixture of words and music. We present up-and-coming writers and performers alongside those who are more experienced, and entry is completely free.'

Our first reading comes from McAllister’s latest novel, Barlow by the Book, due to be published in June this year, and the second in a planned trilogy. A follow-up to his critically acclaimed book, The Station Sergeant, Barlow by the Book continues the story of rogue policeman, John Barlow, who is based on a real-life character from McAllister’s youth.

First though, McAllister lets us in on a few of his writing rituals – something which always intrigues an audience. 'I keep a journal,' he says. 'And in the mornings, before I start to write, I do a keyboard exercise – I do shopping lists, write down things I have to do – anything to get me going.'

He goes on to explain how Barlow – who was only ever meant to be part of a simple writing exercise – has created a trilogy of books.

'When I was growing up in Ballymena, there were stories about a man called John Barlow, and what he got up to. I wrote five stories and I used them to get my Masters in Creative Writing, and then I forgot about it. Barlow generated memories in people though – about the rogue policemen in their own towns. The sixth story then became a novel.'

McAllister’s reading subsequently goes down a treat, as we get reacquainted with Barlow and his antics, or for some, meet him for the first time.

Jeffcutt then takes to the floor to share some of his new work, including The Lapping Room, inspired by an exhibition of linen workers, and a sequence of poems based around the Orkney and Shetland Islands. These include 'Hunter', and two from later in the sequence, 'Abbot' and 'Hermit', which depict the arrival of the early Christians some 1,500 years ago.

The Squat Pen is, however, also an evening for music, and so singer and dramatist, Martha McGonigle, also takes her turn. She appears again later alongside artist and musician, Hugh G Rice, who provides an accompaniment on guitar.

Before a brief break to refuel on coffee, wine and cake, Givans, whose first poetry collection, Tolstoy in Love, was shortlisted for the Strong Award for Best First Collection in 2009, treats us to a reading.

Originally from County Tyrone, but Belfast-based since he was 18, Givans reminisces about 'The Cultured Tongue' of his youth and about coming 'Up from the City' and 'Going Home'. They are poignant, pensive poems and are rounded off by the more humorous piece, 'Is this the Most Dangerous Letter in the Alphabet?'.

Our night of two halves continues with further readings from all three writers, including more from Barlow. We also enjoy another trio of poems from Jeffcutt, inspired by everything from creation, to the Vikings and the Spanish Inquisition.

Givans finishes off what has been a successful Squat Pen visit to the north coast, with poetry that depicts the awkwardness of B&B dining and a nervous mother-of-the-bride. He also takes us on a 'Visit to the New Hairdresser', who just happens to be a past pupil – ending the evening on a suitably light note. As Givans says: 'It’s been tremendous and really enjoyable!' 

Perhaps The Squat Pen on Tour will come again…