Sam Burnside Book Launch

Playwright Frank McGuinness and more mark the release of the poet's newest publications with recitals tinged with the significance of recent world events

It’s Saturday afternoon in Derry~Londonderry and the rain is streaming down as it has all day, puddling on pavements and making the sky grey and downcast. It’s a day not many would want to venture into and yet, the Verbal Arts Centre is bubbling with people.

The reason being a rather special double book launch from none other than the person who originally founded the literature and language arts hub more than 20 years ago – Sam Burnside.

Today Burnside, an award-winning poet and prolific writer, is launching his latest book of poems, Forms of Freedom, along with his second children’s book, Mrs Nettlebed and the Woodlanders. The event kicks off a little behind time, but only because seats keep having to be added to the already full room – such is the appreciation of Burnside’s work.

Dennis Greig of Lapwing Publications says a few words as publisher of Forms of Freedom before guest speaker, the esteemed playwright, Frank McGuinness, takes to the podium. In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks the night before, Burnside’s poems, which address issues of freedom, are tinged with an added poignancy today. 'The fight has to go on,' says McGuinness

'I’m delighted to have been asked to launch Forms of Freedom,' he says. 'Throughout his long career, Sam has proved himself to be a poet who has sustained his creative ingenuity.' Describing Burnside’s work as being 'steeped in Ulster tradition,' McGuinness says that for this poet, 'the past can erupt into the present, making memory itself a most unstable weapon.'

Frank McGuinness.jpg

Referencing a trio of poems inspired by WW1, he adds that the writing does justice to the terrible subject matter of human suffering. 'This sense of authority is at the core of his poetry,' he says. 'The new book describes Derry in all its diversity. Sam Burnside has command over his landscape; unearthing for the future what the present seeks to make most secure.'

Reading from the poem 'Remembering the Clearances', McGuinness adds that 'courage imbues this book,' which is full of 'powerful recreations of metaphor.' Despite all of this however, Burnside does not shy away from infusing joy into his poetry.

'Let Sam Burnside’s breathtaking song of love for the River Lagan be read from the rooftops and the skies,' says McGuinness, before reading 'A Lagan Song' to us. Zoe Reid from the Verbal Arts Centre is next to recite a clutch of poems, selecting Hillside and Foreshore first, which she says reflects 'the countryman' in Burnside.

Next is 'Epithalamium', a very different piece of work which perhaps shows the family man in its author, she says, and also 'the slightly mischievous' side to his character.

…So, this shall remain

On your bedpost pegged

This knobbly, wobbly stocking

Fit for some goblin’s fat leg

It’s in sharp contrast to the final piece heard from Reid – extracts from the long poem, 'The Stretcher Bearer’s Story', which is divided into eight sections. 'They’re reflective of various ways in which war is perceived,' she says. 'And they’re all centred on one stretcher bearer.'

…every night he is out there, all over again

the tears running down his face

the endless miles of mud

and then the trudge, trudge trudge

Our final reading from 'Reid is Route 80', which reflects beautifully, we are told, one of Burnside's experiences while travelling:

…It is early morning and route 80 is all hill and valley

The sun hot, hot; the landscape storybook painted,

The poetry launch complete, it’s now Mrs Nettlebed’s turn. Officially launching the book of children’s stories is Her Grace the Duchess of Abercorn OBE, also founder and patron of the Pushkin Trust, which encourages children to 'find their voice' and imagination.

'On a day like this, when we’re reeling from reverberations of the horror that’s going on in the world, I honestly feel sanity is in this room,' she begins. 'I think the role of the storyteller is of such vital importance at this time, because it’s the storyteller who carries the heart and the soul of society and of the community.

'The storyteller is a threshold-keeper – they stand in this space between the inner and the outer world. I think half of our world is suffering because we’re not listening to this inner world of our own. I do see this in education over and over again.

'The children learn facts and figures but we’re people with emotional intelligence and we need to have our hearts and our feelings at our fingertips. The inner world is of immense importance at this time.'

Mrs Nettlebed, a mysterious woman who lives in the woods and turns up to help the animals when they’re in difficulties, offers the magical component children need, adds Her Grace. She recalls her own father reading stories every night to his children, adding that this surely equipped them for handling real-life situations as adults.

'I think storytelling of this sort helps us to make a friend of fear,' she says. 'It builds a kind of inner resilience. As a child, if we can face these monsters and find there’s something in us that does overcome problems…. Then when later in life we have to face real troubles, we have this inner strength within ourselves.'

In Mrs Nettlebed and the Woodlanders, we find stories of compassion, says Her Grace, which are set in nature and will help children develop their 'inner landscape.' 

Also of the Verbal Arts Centre, Mary Murphy wraps up the launch by reading two stories from the book, saying that every tale has a 'morality and great tenderness' within it.

'You would know they’ve been written by a poet,' she adds. Burnside, who has been observing the launch from the front row and was meeting and greeting his guests warmly beforehand, now rises to close the event. Not one for putting himself in the spotlight, his message is short, but delivered with much appreciation. 'I have two words for you all,' he says. 'Thank you.'

Forms of Freedom is published by Lapwing Publications and Mrs Nettlebed and the Woodlanders by Green Road Press. Visit for details.