Poetry NI Online Resource Launched

Founder Colin Dardis on providing a platform for new writers and launching Pen Points Press at Belfast Book Festival

The poetry scene in Northern Ireland seems to be in rude health in 2014.

The year began with Belfast’s first poet laureate, Sinéad Morrissey, winning the prestigious TS Eliot Prize for her collection Parallax, whilst on the publishing front the return of renowned literary magazine The Honest Ulsterman (in online form) features poetry from rising stars Deirdre Cartmill, Miriam Gamble, Stephanie Conn and Stephen Connolly amongst others.

There are also regular poetry nights taking place around the country. The Sunflower Bar in Belfast, for example, hosts The Lifeboat, a monthly reading series organised by Stephen Connolly and Manuela Moser, which pairs an established poet with a new poet.

There is also a monthly open mic poetry night, Purely Poetry, which regularly packs in the crowds at the Crescent Arts Centre in the city, and various other poetry events take place in Derry~Londonderry, Portstewart, Portadown, Downpatrick and other towns across Northern Ireland.

To keep both poets and lovers of poetry up-to-date on what’s happening, Belfast-based poet Colin Dardis has set up Poetry NI, a website dedicated to not only providing a platform for Northern Irish poets, but also to showcasing new writing through readings, open mic nights and poetry slams, as well as publishing up-and-coming writers. The site also highlights events and resources for writers.

'Poetry NI is an umbrella organisation,' Dardis explains. 'I want to look at the wider poetry scene, which is happening here in the North. Outside of Belfast it’s hard for poets and fans of poetry to pick up on things, to find out about events or opportunities. Even within Belfast there are great things happening that don’t get as much notice as they deserve and I want to help shift the focus and highlight poetry at a grass roots level.'

The website highlights various projects that Dardis takes a leading role in, including Purely Poetry, the open mic night he runs from the Crescent Arts Centre on the first Friday of each month. There is also the FourXFour poetry journal, an online quarterly, each issue featuring four poems by four Northern Irish poets.

Dardis has also recently formed Pen Points Press, a publishing arm which – in the coming months – will produce broadsides, chapbooks and short collections by local poets. It is set to officially launch at the 2014 Belfast Book Festival at the Crescent Arts Centre on June 15.

Three new titles are finished and ready to go: Slumberland by Ross Thompson, Quick Succession by Geraldine O'Kane and a broadside from Christopher McLaughlin. 'I wanted to take some of the poets from FourXFour and give them a bit more of an established platform,' says Dardis. 'I really think they’re great, talented writers who deserve to be heard.'

Aside from, and in tandem with published poetry, Dardis is excited by the rise to prominence of performance poetry in the cultural landscape of Northern Ireland in recent years. 'In the past people have been reluctant to go see poets reading in a room. They’d think it’s really boring. But then they go along and they find out it’s good craic.

'I remember years ago when the poetry scene consisted of one night, which was run by Mark and Debbie Madden, and took place at the Arcadia Coffee House in North Street Arcade, which was sadly burnt down,' he recalls.

'Even two years ago there would be hardly anything. Now I think venues and pubs are aware that there’s money in this. Maybe on a quiet night they decide to put on a poetry event. There’s interest out there in poetry nights, so there’s business there for them.

'People have seen that listening to poetry is a form of entertainment. They find out it’s not just someone standing up and doing a recital – there are elements of stand-up comedy and theatre – but essentially it’s some really good strong writing featuring people who are very capable of projecting that and getting that across.'

Born in Omagh in 1979, Dardis began writing poetry in his early teens. It was only when he moved to Belfast aged 19 to study at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown that he was introduced to performance poetry, and decided to give it a go.

'It was 2000 or 2001 when I went to my first open mic poetry night in Arcadia Café. I remember how welcoming and supportive everyone was. I made so many friends and contacts there. Even now my friends are almost exclusively people I met on the poetry scene.'

The support and encouragement of his fellow poets gave Dardis the confidence to submit his work to various magazines and anthologies, and he was soon being published widely. In the years that followed he set up and edited Speech Therapy, a poetry magazine which was the precursor to FourXFour. 'I knew so many writers on the scene and wanted to give them and their poetry a home.'

The magazine ran sporadically for four issues in print, then transfered online before Dardis decided that FourXFour would be a better platform for Northern Irish writers work. Dardis also helped run an open mic night, Make Yourself Heard, at Safehouse Arts Space on North Street, which ran for three years in the mid-to-late 2000s.

'Some nights would be sold out and some nights only a few people would turn up and we’d retire to the pub and talk about poetry,' he remembers. 'But it was still great to have that base. You need a physical centre for poets to meet and discuss and share their work. For us, the Crescent Arts Centre have been really great letting us put the Purely Poetry nights on, take over their rooms and give us a spiritual home.'

Dardis' current collection, Doji: A Blunder, is available from Lapwing Press. What pleases him most about the current state of the Northern Irish poetry scene is the growing number of people taking local poetry and poets to their hearts, and turning up to support the poets who perform at open mic night, festivals and other cultural events. He is keen to invite new voices to join the fray.

'At Purely Poetry we have a wide age range, from people in their 20s to people in their 60s and 70s,' he says. 'What is really encouraging for me to see is the development in people. Coming up the first few times they’re really nervous, not too sure what they’re doing on stage, some not knowing how to even hold the mic. Then a few months down the line they’re owning the stage and blowing people away. It’s amazing.'

And with the launch of Pen Points Press, Dardis hopes to give the best of these local poets a further platform to grow from.

'Aside from the three initial releases we will be launching at the Belfast Book Festival in June, I also have a shortlist of poets that I think are really great. I want to publish their chapbooks and broadsides, which will be available to buy online at the Poetry NI site.

'The whole point of Pen Point Press is to give poets a product, a calling card that says: "This is what I’m capable of, this is my potential." Hopefully the poets we do publish will go on to bigger things.'

Visit the Poetry NI website for more information. Belfast Book Festival 2014 takes place from June 9 – 15.