The Washington Post

Kirsten Kearney's Rediscover NI blog follows the Irish invasion

DC is overrun... by grey squirrels. And by NI artists. 

Washington’s listings for this week have an impressive Norn Iron colour, although we are being overshadowed by the Queen’s visit and by today’s historical political announcement (concerning Mssrs Paisley and McGuinness.)

Two white girls with funny accents caused a stir down in Anacostia, and that was before we were covered in white paint. Washington’s ‘most notorious neighborhood’ (to quote The Rough Guide) was treated to the double whammy of me, poet in residence, and Tracey Gallogly, Armagh’s mural artiste extraordinaire, lining up huge cement boards and encouraging a gaggle of school kids to keep the paint on the boards and off their clothes. All in the name of art.

Anacostia is not, as some would tell you, a one way trip to hell. It is, rather, a secluded village-like community, cut off from the city by the river and left to disintegrate and decay by poor financial investment. It is also friendly, colourful, full of street life and characters like Mama Cole, who serves the best fried chicken in town.

Anacostia is also a place where art and the arts are staging a wide ranging revolution. The ARCH community centre, where I am based, work with kids, young teens, young adults, young mothers, the lot, using the visual arts, writing, photography and the performing arts to help people expand their skills, raise their expectations and work through their issues. They are a shining light in the community, with a visual arts gallery to die for. 

This gallery, The Honfleur Gallery, will be hosting the Belfast Exposed photography and poetry exhibition in June, while the gable end wall on Martin Luther King Jnr Ave will be transformed in the next 10 days into a collage of afros, ice creams, cats, dogs and families, all trotting happily along a red brick road.

I’ll keep you up to date in the next few days about how far they get, how the rehearsals for Owen McCafferty’s play Scenes from the Big Picture are going and how our Ulster singer, Rosie Stewart, goes down at the Library of Congress. And I’ll let you know if I ever find my elusive poem on the Washington Metro…

Snow Patrol are playing. I snaffled the new NIMIC CD at the NI Bureau party to celebrate NI eventually having an Assembly! Assorted congressmen, psychotherapists and artists assembled to admire the remaining photographs from the NIPR exhibition, listen to Irish trad and smooze (not a chi-chi mini Ulster fry in sight unfortunately). 

One congressman had even managed to talk to Bertie Ahern, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley all in one morning. One wonders when our politicians are going to do any work…
DC is having a full-on NI onslaught. NI printmakers and visual artists are still displaying their wares at galleries across the city. And I’ve written two poems and still haven’t found my poem on the metro, although I now have a team of DC-ers armed with mobile phone cameras on the case.
Tracey Gallogly, down in Anacostia, is teaching kids about murals in east Belfast, while Rosie Stewart from Fermanagh sings her heart out for a whole hour to a packed auditorium in the Library of Congress.
‘Tandragee – sure the only thing to come out of there is Tayto crisps…’
Rosie Stewart has the audience eating (potato chips) out of her hand. She beguiled, charmed and amused the educated audience of the American Folklife Center with songs of loss, lament, satire and protest. With her strong, deep tones she transported her listeners to Athlone, Lough Erne and the banks of the Nile. 

The weekly trad concerts have been packed out, much to the pleasure of the organisers. John Moulden last week squished them in and the McPeake family are yet to come. The funky café-cum-bookshop, Busboys and Poets, are looking forward to Glenn Patterson and Lucy Caldwell’s visit and Des Kennedy is working his heart out trying to perfect 21 NI accents.
It’s nearly time for Scenes from the Big Picture and nearly time for me to go. The poets’ laureate from the US and the UK are reading this evening and I’m thinking, with our new Assembly etc, maybe it’s time NI had one? 

Washington is civilised, slow moving, polite.

Everything NYC is not. Sitting in New York, looking back on my week in DC it feels like someone has pressed the slow-mo button on the city. The metro is straightforward (although still lacking in any poems...), people do queues, chew slowly and enjoy culture. As they do in NYC of course, just in slightly more raucous and high-speed ways.

The last batch of DC gave me the chance to meet up with 'hot new director' Des Kennedy, see how Philip Hammond, the mastermind behind Rediscover NI was holding up, and to experience not one, but two poet laureates in one room. (Neither, unfortunately, being Seamus Heaney, but I have heard so many people rave about Heaney's filmed contribution to the Shower of Rhyming Couplets event to feel he lurks beneath every muddy puddle.)

Kennedy has undertaken one almighty task. When I met him with one week to go until opening night, he was calm, collected and had given up on his 21 actors all being able to speak in passable Belfast accents.

As Owen McCafferty told me, he says, 'If the actors think it's a Belfast accent and the audience think it's a Belfast accent, what does it matter?' It seems churlish to point out to him that the crème de la crème of Belfast's arts critics (in the guise of the young critics exchange programme) would be present for opening night, but even that doesn't phase him.

'With such a wide-ranging play, so many actors, it was more important to focus on the textual integrity and the truthfulness of the scenes,' says Kennedy. He's right of course. With 46 scenes (from the big picture) to handle and 2 1/2 hours of constant scene shifting and interlocking stories to deal with, Kennedy's five weeks are better spent drawing the best out of the actors. But he's still quaking, ever so slightly...

Philip Hammond has given up on quaking and gone into all out shakes. The man who is holding the entire Rediscover NI operation together, has reached the half way point in the programme and used up about 85% of his energy. But he still remains devoted to the task.

We checked out the very funky (not in American sense - that means smelly) coffee house Busboys and Poets which will shortly host Glenn Patterson and Lucy Caldwell. So at least I can say I shared a stage with them, even though I arrived a week early.

With a welter of traditional musicians, literary stars, and those scary critics about to arrive, Hammond is bracing himself. But looking forward to it, or at least looking forward to looking back on it.

My final bit of culture, I'm ashamed to say, was not NI tinged, but involved the US poet laureate Donald Hall and the UK laureate Andrew Motion reading from their own work and others at the stunning Library of Congress. Despite reading from a Scot and two Englishmen, Motion didn't seem to have realised that the lion's share of poetic talent lay in NI. But still, maybe by the end of Rediscover NI, he will.

So I hand the baton over into the able paws of Mr David Lewis and head back to the coalface of CNI Belfast, leaving Washington to its own devices and to its next batch of talent.