Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2015

Community Arts Partnership reward Stephanie Conn for her poem 'Lavender Fields' at a busy evening in Belfast's Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts

Packed to the rafters, Belfast’s Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts – a converted church – is a hub of activity as poets from across Northern Ireland congregate for an afternoon of readings.

This isn’t just any poetry event, however, it’s the launch of the Community Arts Partnership's (CAP) Poetry in Motion Community poetry anthology. It’s also the day that the winner of the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing is unveiled, and there is a buzz of excitement about who it might be.

Taking place the day before the Arts Council of Northern Ireland releases its Annual Funding Awards for 2015/16, which includes drastic cuts to the arts in Northern Ireland, it is also a somewhat bittersweet occasion. The turn-out for the event is impressive, with not a seat to spare, the crowd are here to celebrate creativity as the shadow of cuts looms.

The Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, also the principal funder of the Poetry in Motion Community. Additional funding for the organisation comes from Belfast City Council.

LaVA co-ordinator, Chelley McLear, says: 'In 2014, the Poetry in Motion Community project was blessed with the news that we were to receive funding to support the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing. This enabled us to stretch our poet facilitators beyond the annual workshops for writers’ groups into new opportunities.'

This investment, she says, subsequently allowed them to train extra poetry facilitators, run poetry masterclasses and present panel discussions on the 'craft and graft of poetry'.

Conor Shields, chief executive of CAP, adds: 'We’re here as your support for making art in the community. We’re here today to celebrate something universal about the arts, something about the alchemy of what art is. You make and create something out of nothing.

'The alchemy of words is an incredible thing to be a part of, either to be the alchemist yourself, or to be the receiver of such tremendous treasure. And there is no greater alchemist of that craft than Seamus Heaney.'

Before the winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing is announced, a selection of poets take to the stage to share their work. The 2015 anthology is entitled Making Memories, and so it is fitting that the first reader is Erica Leay, with her poem of the same name.

Kelly Creighton – editor of online short story journal, The Incubator – is next, with her shortlisted poem, 'Drawing lines in bed between Nice and Mexico City, 1954'. The final line surely resonates with the crowd: ‘that it is possible to dance in spite of the dark.’

A total 24 poets read their work from the anthology, including the other poets shortlisted for the prize: Lindsay Hodges with 'La Vie En Rose', Lesley Dowds with 'Friday Evenings' and Sharon Flynn with 'Salmon Fishing'. Runner-up, Sue Morgan, also reads her poem, 'Episkopi':

McLear then takes to the stage to reveal the overall winner of the prize. 'The writers from today underwent several processes during the shortlisting process. The anthology was the overall selection of poems chosen from the entrants, then myself and others, including Deirdre Cartmill, Moyra Donaldson, Paul Maddern and Paula Cunningham, went through the process of shortlisting again.'

It’s subsequently left to Damian Smyth, ACNI head of literature and drama, and CAP CEO Shields, to present the prize to Stephanie Conn, for her poem 'Lavender Fields'. Having already been named as a shortlisted poet for her other piece, 'When You Leave', the former teacher is no doubt surprised and delighted to hear her name being called.

The winner of the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2015 takes to the stage to receive her prize – a piece of artwork by Edward Cartin – and we’re treated to another reading of the winning piece.

'The reflectiveness of poetry is what people look to for inspiration and insight,' says Shields, as the afternoon draws to a close. 'The valid voice of poetry gives so much more depth and texture to where we are, what we think, what we believe. It offers personal truths and defects, either real or imaginary.

'CAP has always strived to give people a way in, for everybody in our community to have a place to be creative. Every one of our programmes are over-subscribed when they start up. People are hungry for the arts. We need to say something powerful to those folks on the hill about why the arts matter.

'Let’s collectively try to tell the government that the arts are the most clearly transforming power here in Northern Ireland and we can’t afford to lose them. The arts matter in Northern Ireland.'

Visit the Community Arts Partnership website for information on forthcoming events.

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