Earth to Alice McCullough

The spoken word artist on finding her way with the medium and how poetry keeps her grounded ahead of new one-woman show

Alice McCullough appears to be everywhere at the moment. Whether she’s floating around the gardens of Mount Stewart like Elfine from Cold Comfort Farm for Arts Extra, or loitering with intent to rhapsodise on the streets of Belfast for one of her 'Alice Fresco' pop-up-poetry shows, it seems there is no escaping her.

This is certainly true of this year’s Eastside Arts Festival, which features three McCullough performances: two Alice Fresco shows (down in 'The Hollow', Van fans), culminating in a headlining show at the Strand Arts Centre.

I meet her in a pub on the first sunny day of the year. The pub’s jukebox is set on repeat and the same Rolling Stones song plays over and over again throughout the interview. Oddly, this creates a perfect ambience for our chat.

'Why Earth to Alice?' I ask. 'It was my twin sister and best friend at school,' she replies, hardly seeming to mind the dullness of the question. 'It was around the time that people were starting to set up e-mail accounts and they created the address “Earth to Alice”. This was about thirteen years ago.'

So you were an acknowledged space cadet even then? This is your life’s work! 'Yes,' she laughs, luckily, 'My teacher at school used to ask me “Alice are you practising staring into space again?", but my dad was really into Zen meditation so he thought that that was really cool – “My daughter’s a genius!”. I started off life as a painter and illustrator and solitude was important to me.

'It was that awkward, introvert thing of finding it easier to connect with books and paintings. I have a sort of tortured artist thing – I have this poem called 'What to do with my collection of blank canvases'. I always wanted to be an artist and I thought it was going to happen through painting but I didn’t and I struggled with my health, and then, suddenly, writing just seemed to flow for me. There has been no plan with any of this – it’s just whatever I managed to splurge on the page.

'It’s no exaggeration to say that poetry saved my life. It’s escapism but it actually pulls me back to reality. So most of the show isn’t the surreal stuff, it's poems about Belfast and various things I’ve experienced, my childhood, struggles with my confidence, being that shy person and attempting to overcome that. A lot of the poems end up being about empowerment.' 

You say you’re shy, but you do things that I would never be able to do, like your 'Alice Fresco' shows, where it’s just you and a microphone, in the middle of people who haven’t paid to see you and don’t necessarily even want you there!'

'Any time I’ve done it it's always been as a part of a festival and I like the legitimacy of that. Poetry was a very slow process for me from my early twenties when I would go along to open-mic nights and just sit in the audience. And then I was getting up and reading these timid, girly pieces and I wasn’t tapping into any decent poetry at all. 

'I went along to the Seamus Heaney writer’s group and they tore my poetry to shreds but it wasn’t until I went to a workshop with a performance poet, Tony Walsh (AKA Longfella), and he just seemed to plough through and I thought, “Yes – that’s for me!” He just seemed to come along at the right time for me to break through and start writing in a different way.'

And of course you don’t read out your poems: you learn them and recite them. Does that make a difference to how audiences perceive you? 

'I had a theatre background and I knew, and Tony Walsh said this, that when you have a piece of paper in front of you it’s a barrier between you and the audience. You lose the eye contact, there’s a loss of commitment.'

You’ve spoken about poetry saving your life and mentioned the therapeutic effects you’ve felt...

'It is 'what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger', she admits, 'but I do feel that I’ve died a few times and in getting up on that stage I’m able to share my own struggles and making myself vulnerable in that way and people seem to connect with that.

'It’s a necessity for me as well: I don’t really think about the audience in the writing process, I don’t think “I’m writing this to get approval”. But people respond to it. I do genuinely struggle with connecting to the real world and it’s not all a big joke, it has been a big problem in my life. But I’m channelling that, I’m making something positive from it.'

What ultimately do you think is the most important thing about your work? For you and for your audience, what is the key message?

'For me what’s important is the truth. That’s what resonates with people. It’s “what comes from the heart touches the heart”. I wish I had a less 'My Little Pony' way of saying it but its true.

It’s just getting the balance right: I want to talk about mental illness, yes, but I also want to talk about Vincent Van Gogh and Van Morrison and Alice in Wonderland and Boojum – all the things I’m passionate about. And that’s the show!'

Alice McCullough recites poetry at the Hollow on August 23 and 29 followed by a performance of Earth to Alice at the Strand Arts Centre on August 30. Tickets are available via the festival website.