New Writing Showcase

Poets and prose writers keep the Crescent Arts Centre audience entertained

The final day of the Belfast Book Festival kicks off with a lunchtime reading event featuring the festival's five (yes, five) writers-in-residence: the poets Moyra Donaldson, Maureen Boyle and Deirdre Cartmill, and the fiction writers Bernie McGill and DW Lewis.

The five have been selected by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for the Artists Career Enhancement Scheme, which is a programme that aims to assist in increasing their profile and help to produce new work.

For a while before the ‘salon’ begins at the Crescent Arts Centre it looks like there might be as many people in the audience as there are on stage. But, thankfully, by the time Festival Coordinator Hugh Odling-Smee steps forward to introduce the writers, the numbers have swelled considerably.

First up is Deirdre Cartmill, whose debut poetry collection Midnight Solo was published by Lagan Press in 2004. Her second collection, provisionally entitled Maybe Tomorrow, is due later this year. Cartmill reads a selection of poems from both books, beginning with ‘Belfast 2am’, a poem about her student days in the city.

She follows this with some work from her new collection, including a beautiful love poem, ‘Wedding Bouquet on the Count of Three', written about her honeymoon in Paris. Love and family are threads that run through Cartmill’s work, and it is fitting that on Father’s Day she reads ‘On Finding Dad’s Rosary Beads', written after the death of her father, an ambulance driver.

Cartmill finishes her reading with a few poems that deal with a recent personal loss, including the heart-rending ‘Stitches', as well as the title poem of her new collection, wherein she meets God on the Lagan towpath and asks him some awkward questions.

Fiction writer Bernie Magill follows. McGill, whose first novel The Butterfly Cabinet was published last year in the UK and Ireland, and is soon to be published in the US, introduces herself by commenting that it’s said one should do something every day that scares you. ‘This should last me a few weeks,’ she adds, laughing.

McGill displays no sign of nerves, however, as she reads a short story, ‘Language Thing', told in the second person, about a young woman teaching in Italy in 1988 whose friend comes to visit and brings with her an unwelcome reminder of what’s been happening back in Belfast. It’s a beautifully written story, poignant without being mawkish.

Sion Mills native, and Strokestown International Poetry Prize winner Maureen Boyle follows. Boyle, fighting a cold, reads from her collection Incunabula, which she describes as a series of informal sonnets. Mostly dealing with growing up in Sion Mills, the poems are wonderfully evocative of childhood, and – as well as being quite moving – are, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.

After a short break for the audience to fill their glasses, the salon continues with DW Lewis, a past winner of the Davy Byrne Short Story Award. His work has been published by the Stinging Fly and Lagan Press, and a new collection is due from Lagan Press this year.

Lewis begins by reading an extract from a review he wrote of Owen McCafferty’s take on Days of Wine and Roses, and follows this with short story ‘The Judgement'. Again written in the second person (‘You wait for ages for a story written that way, then two come along at once,’ he jokes), it is a mysterious tale of a man who travels to a foreign city after being sent a plane ticket by anonymous email. Lewis builds the tension in the story masterfully, and has the audience hanging on his every well-turned phrase.

The last reader is perhaps the most well-known in local circles. Moyra Donaldson, from County Down, is a multi-award winning poet whose work has been anthologised as well as being featured on radio and television.

Her fourth collection Miracle Fruit was published by Lagan Press in November of last year to critical acclaim. Donaldson laughingly admits to this being her first time at a literary salon, which fits in with her first poem, ‘Deep Space and Caroline', about the 18th century astronomer and salon keeper, Caroline Herschel.

More poems from her latest collection follow. She then reads a section from ‘Seeing the Demolition of Bangor Railway Station’ for her father, as well as a poem in remembrance of Mairtín Crawford, a friend and fellow poet. She brings the salon to a close with final poem ‘Nest’ from 2006’s The Horse’s Nest.

The Belfast Book Festival is a welcome addition to the yearly arts calendar in the city. And – judging by the work presented at the Crescent Arts Centre today – the future of writing in Northern Ireland can only benefit from the support of those who treasure the written word. Here’s to next year.