An Evening with Damian Gorman at The MAC

The award-winning playwright, poet and filmmaker prepares to step down as artist-in-residence at The MAC

The MAC's fourth artist-in-residence, Damian Gorman, has spent the past three months armed with his fountain pen in a fourth floor room known as the Study – he describes it as his 'wee cave'.

There he has worked on new material, and worked with others on theirs, always using a fountain pen or a Dell pen, because 'the first draft looks too good and finished' on a computer.

Despite the fact that he's now an old hand at the residence game, the 52-year-old award-winning playwright, poet and filmmaker remains enthused. 'I've been artist-in-residence in Malta, at the St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity in Valetta, in Rathlin Island and elsewhere, but I always get a lot out of engaging with other writers,' says Gorman.

For three days a week at The MAC, Gorman has been tutoring writers and would-be writers and attracting people from trouble spots like Somalia and elsewhere to participate in events at the multi-million pound arts facility in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. He's also kept his eyes open.

'The other day I bumped into this retired woman from the north of England who was wandering round,' Gorman recalls. 'She demonstrates for peace and liaises with police before standing in a public place holding a placard. She'd come here to stand outside the City Hall and we ended up discussing the wording she'd chosen.' Gorman helped her edit her slogan. This incident fits perfectly with his work.

For Gorman's abiding subject, his heavy duty leitmotif, if you like, is war and peace and conflict and our reaction to them. In The Skull Beneath the Skin, Gorman examined 9/11. In Devices of Detachment he looked at the Troubles and the way they desensitised ordinary people. He has also written about his brother's alcoholism in 1974: The End of the Year Show.

But his time at The MAC is now drawing to a close. Gorman will shortly begin work on a three-year project under the aegis of the City University, London, involving Palestinian and Israeli writers. And he is also moving with his wife, Bronwen, to her home: Wales.

'Torn about leaving? Of course I'm torn,' Gorman admits, 'but I feel at home in Wales. And mostly I feel at home where my wife and children are.' Gorman's grown-up children, Molly and Jack – who is studying composing at college in Cheltenham – are both now based over the water.

Gorman says that, as a child growing up in a large family in Newcastle, County Down, he conflated family rows and the Troubles, as both were located in the kitchen, where their TV sat spewing out the news. Then he reads me a gem of a poem about that period, describing the way his job was to go shopping for the family with a big wicker basket.

The 10-year-old picked up bruised peaches and day old bread 'like a little forklift truck', then proudly brought the trophies home to his mother. Of course, the emotions and material that Gorman brilliantly skewers aren't necessarily recollected in tranquillity.

He says that the Troubles are not that distant and that he feels society in Northern Ireland is still recovering. 'I've worked with over 60 writers so far at The MAC – some experienced, some not – and they bring different things. But even though you may discuss their difficulties, it isn't therapy, although creative writing can be therapeutic. It's different.'

On June 27, Gorman is giving a rare public reading in The MAC, a farewell performance of sorts, which he has entitled Saying Things. He confesses to feeling slightly nervous. 'Well, it's a bit like Sinatra's farewell tour,' he quips.

'I'm worried nobody will come and that there may be a catch in my throat, as this is the last thing I will do here [in Northern Ireland] in a public way. Very occasionally in the past, I have been reading in public and suddenly the original felt experience catches me. It's a business of craft and when that disappears, you're left with the feeling.'

That Wordsworthian idea – of 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' – is something that Gorman expands on. 'It's important to speak, especially when your voice is vulnerable,' he says. 'That's the time to say your piece.'

Gorman promises that the evening will contain serious stuff, like excerpts from his BBC piece Devices of Detachment, but that he's also determined to have 'a bit of craic' with it.

'Devices of Detachment is 30-minutes long, but I'll do a ten minute version so we don't lose the will to live,' he laughs. 'We'll also have some guests, including actors I've worked with at the Lyric (Theatre), Abi McGibbon and Neil Martin. We're doing a marital row in real time, how the thing kicks off, the arc of it, the fact that it isn't just the row in hand and how it gathers pace.'

Gorman underlines the importance of song in poetry, particularly regarding public performance. He's been reminding his students of all ages about the instant of creation, the need to trust your arm. 'Not thinking about fame or money or being a writer as you start.' And often, as he remarks, the arm or instinct knows more.

There will also be some music at this most creative writer's farewell event. 'When I was growing up, I was in a rap band,' Gorman explains, quite surprisingly. 'We were the wild men of the north west and it was called Pagan, but my guilty secret is I listened to 70s soul. Chic, Barry White, anything, as long as it was 70s soul.'

I leave him get on with planning his reading, and selecting the songs he may include, and trying to hustle tickets for the Chic gig in Derry~Londonderry.

Saying Things: An Evening with Damian Gorman takes place at The MAC, Belfast on June 27.