This week with Siobhan Campbell

First of all: Not only is there another American in this class, but she’s from Silver Spring, which is just 20-30 minutes or so outside of Baltimore. What’re the odds?

I’m so sad that there’s only one more of these classes. I keep reminding myself that this isn’t a 14-week course like at school, and I’ll have to say goodbye to my fellow students just as I’ve learned their names and heard their style.

What I really enjoy about Siobhan’s teaching is that she wants us to tap in to what contemporary poetry is like. The draft we have due tomorrow is a sonnet, and she had us read some sonnets that weren’t traditionally sonnet-y. She’s interested in bringing form to our lives today, and using our specific cultural vocabulary to do it. The first class when we went around the room and introduced ourselves, she also had us share a saying or idiom from our families that had been passed down to us. She says this opens up our personal relationship with language and reveals who we are as people and poets. She is tuned in to how relationships with poetry are different regionally, and perhaps this aspect came to the forefront during class because there are two Americans in the workshop.Yesterday, I made an observation about another student’s very abstract poem, and Siobhan observed that Americans tend to be more tuned in to “elliptical” and “dissociative” poetry, while Irish are more tuned in to lyrical traditions. She is pulling both parties out of their comfort zone, I think, and encouraging us to strike a balance between the two.

I also appreciate that Siobhan takes the time to direct us to writerly resources– poetry essays, archives, and even gives us the names of literary magazines to submit our work to. She gave us her email so we can message her our drafts for a closer read than can be achieved during class time and so she can direct us to an appropriate publisher. It’s great to have a teacher invested in the literary careers of the students. I sent her my drafts last night, and look forward to her feedback, which I’m sure will be extremely helpful.

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Our last few days in Armagh

When I first came here, there was so much that I wanted to do that I felt directionless. Four years ago, I had a phone that wasn’t WiFi capable and it was my first time traveling without family members. Now, I have Google Maps in my palm and, still, the impossible desire to see absolutely everything (everything accessible by bus route, at least). So my time here will last for a few days extra, and instead of boarding the bus to Dublin in the early morning of July 31st, I’ll head to Belfast.

I’ve learned how to figure it out this month. Where am I sleeping tonight? I’ll figure it out. How do I get to this city? I’ll figure it out.What will I do with myself once I’m there? Let me wander around and figure it out. I’m not so overwhelmed by the directionless-ness this time. Sure, having constant connection to the internet helps, but it also helps that I’m not the total weenie I was four years ago. I can do these things.

And to get sappy, I’m very proud of all the students. They’ve delivered an intense amount of work in a short amount of time. I feel as though every one of them is ready to present in front of an esteemed audience of writers and scholars. I’ll miss those of us who aren’t traveling back to Baltimore, and hope they can visit in November when we do all this again at the Maryland Irish festival. My door is open to y’all.

Classes with Nathaniel

Something that Nathaniel’s workshop drove home to me was that I need to constantly ask myself why. Par exemple:

This character loves to start fights.

Yeah, but why?

Because it’s the only way she gets attention.

Yeah, but why?

Because she was neglected as a child.

Yeah, but why?

Because her parents weren’t prepared for parenthood.

Yeah, but why?

Because they come from an economic class that attracts the scorn of the bourgeoisie, who, instead of investing in a fair distribution of wealth, starves the working classes of access to resources and education that may have in turn provided them with the means to an economically stable life suitable for child-rearing/ seize the means of production, topple dated monarchies, long live communism.

And now not only do I have the bones of a strong character, I also have an underlying theme for my story. But in all seriousness, having Nathaniel in class this week was extremely helpful to me, and I think for many of the students. After thinking about the same stories for a few weeks now, creating another character (or another story behind the stories we’re writing) was refreshing. I felt like my brain had been taken into the shop for an oil change.

Alana

Alana is the main character of a screen play I’ve been saying I’m going to write for about three years now. The premise is the set of a show akin to Bad Girl’s Club (where extremely aggressive partier-type women live in a house together and fight each other for entertainment). Only the cast slowly discovers that the show is fake and it’s actually a trap for them to be sacrificed to some ancient Eldritch horror. The cast must ban together to defeat the evil and escape the house.

-Alana is twenty at the time of the show.

-Born in a small town outside Frederick, MD. Raised in a trailer park.

-She was raised primarily by her grandmother, but when she passed away Alana’s main caretaker became her mother, who was never interested in being a parent.

-Alana begins to learn that acting out and throwing tantrums is the best way to get attention from adults, even if it’s negative.

-Her behavior begins to attract attention from her peers. Their favorite insults for her were “crazy” and “trashy”.

-Alana, instead of relenting, develops an iron-clad me vs. the world mentality. She can only believe that she’s right, spends a lot of time affirming herself and her wild behavior. It boosts her self-esteem, but she doesn’t like working with other people or even being around them for too long a time.

-After a string of food service jobs that inevitably end with her being fired, Alana finds a casting call on Craiglist for a new reality show about “ladies who don’t take any bullshit and aren’t afraid to keep it real.” Each contestant will stay in a lavish mansion in Hollywood and be treated to a life of luxury until they’re voted out of the house by other contestants. The whole house is their domain except for the basement. They will be filmed by hidden cameras.

-Alana sees this as an opportunity where her personality can be used to her benefit instead of her detriment. She signs up and the audition is surprisingly easy.

-She moves into the house and her antics adhere to the producers’ expectations exactly. She starts fights, makes manipulative alliances, etc. When girl gets kicked out of the house, her belongings are found strewn across the mansion driveway, but no one knows what happened to the girl. In fact, all the ejected contestants seem to completely disappear.

-After a particularly bad night, Alana goes into the confessional booth to rant and rave. She’s had a row with another contestant who said some things that Alana couldn’t brush off, probably because they were true. She bangs on the wall in frustration and the camera falls out of the wall. She sees that it’s not attached to anything.

-Curious, she goes into the basement, the only locked door in the mansion. She finds a dungeon with ritualist paraphenalia. Something inside the earth growls.

-Alana immediately goes to her room and begins packing. She plans on escaping on her own, but one of the roommates, the same girl she fought with earlier, enters and sees that she’s extremely disturbed. Alana admits what she’s found, and the two of them decide to gather the other contestants and defend themselves.

-The jig is up, and hooded figures bombard the house in an attempt to subdue them. Alana asks why they’re doing this to them, and one responds that they’re easy sacrifices because no one cares about them, and no one will come looking for them.

-The girls band together with beer bottles, knives from the kitchen, and a light/hairspray impromptu flamethrower, and fight their way out of the mansion. Alana learns to create bonds with other people, especially the other girls who have a similar life story. Alana becomes the person she needed when she was younger.

Comments: Needs a more solid “why”. Possible motivation for preying on the girls: organ harvesting.

Know your audience

It’s a phrase we’ve heard and said a lot over the past two and a half weeks. When speaking with Martin Lynch, someone asked if he thought that The History of the Troubles could ever be performed in America. He wasn’t sure, because even in Dublin he found that differences in the dialect and humor prevented the audience from reacting to jokes and lines as quickly as they might have if they were a NI audience. It makes me think of how he defined community theatre– theatre that is about a specific community that’s to be performed by that community and makes a statement about a regional identity (rather than your neighbors putting on Shakespeare at the local venue).

And I realized that most of my plays haven’t been for anyone in particular. I thought about what the audience might already know about a universe and what they might not, but I’ve written only two ten-minutes acts with a specific audience in mind. I wrote one about a month ago that was very much about millenials and our culture and to try and communicate that culture to non-millenia generations. I’ve started another that is based on a scene I witnessed during the Baltimore Uprising in a pizza shop, which is about a pretty specific time and place, but hopefully will convey a distilled version of those events from a singular, non-universal vantage point.

I write a lot to understand things myself, but I want the audience to understand my understanding of myself and things around me, understand?

I came in like a Fiiiiiiiiyahball

Fireball reminds me of my oldest uncle, so I found his energy and dynamic familiar and appealing. Like my uncle, I think Fireball is more aware of his absurdity than he appears. I think that once upon a time, Fireball (the character) began to be seen a certain way, and he chose to exaggerate his perceived traits to make a character of himself. And because Lynch based Fireball on a real person, I read him as a character of a character of a character.

Character sketch

While sitting in the tattoo parlor waiting for my turn, I met Lisa, whose partner Brian and her were also getting tattooed that day. I feel a bond with her because our sessions were at the same time and we went through the pain together. She was getting a touch up on a shoulder piece that symbolizes her 3 kids.

Lisa is 38 (not a guess, she said so). Her kids are 19, 11, and 7 if I remember correctly. She teaches autistic children. She’s very body positive and believes that you can’t compare yourself to others, and that once you have comfort in your own skin, everything falls into place. She loves popcorn and this cheesy peanut snack she was noshing on in the waiting room. Her guilty pleasure is reality TV, but she also likes the Big Bang Theory. We were also talking about the American presidential election, and she agrees that Trump is mad.

Physically, Lisa is very tall and lean, with beautiful auburn hair. She’s fairly tan so I think she must spend a lot of time outdoors. I think on Sundays she takes her younger kids to the park and plays football with them. Maybe her oldest is there texting on the sidelines. They have lunch and go home, and she winds her day down with some TV and a reading before bed.

Social justice in my writing

My writing, especially my poetry, is often very personal and looks inward. It doesn’t often explicate upon social issues, but I try to post on social media about new stories and events that I find unjust. Here in Armagh, I try to closely follow the developments of the news back home: the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the following protests and demonstrations, Dallas, our election. I’ve also been learning more about the UK government’s current upheaval and the schisms in the Labor and Tory parties, and following the massacre in Nice and the coup in Turkey.

I was having a conversation with the hostel security guard, John, last night. He strikes me as someone who’s more conservative. He feels like we, as humans, are constantly bombarded with bad news and we’re unable to process it. He says he doesn’t watch the news because it depresses him so much. I say that it’s important to give yourself that processing time by taking a walk or meditating, but I don’t want to look away. It’s especially crucial for privileged people like myself to not look away from events or issues that don’t directly effect me. It’s important that I work on this, and be better about communicating these issues to other people who have privilege. Writing plays is an extremely effective way to do this. While the play I’m writing this year isn’t so much about social issues, the play I wrote four years ago was. That play was not so much about teaching others, because I was the one being taught, but a way for me to process and understand the political atmosphere and historical context of Northern Ireland.

Belfast ballin’

Let me start by saying that Belfast is one of my favorite cities. Belfast is gorgeous. Belfast is bae.

Many of us made our first trip to the NI capital this past Friday; Sam and Jen, true journalists that they are, went last weekend so they could gather material on the July 12th holiday there. If you’re an American whos been keeping up with the blog, you may that July 12th is a date celebrated by Unionists, and commemorates the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne. The holiday consists of massive bonfires the night before and a parade of Orangemen the day of. These events have, during NI’s Troubles, been an axis mundi of sectarian violence, but I’ve heard that this year’s was one of the most peaceful in recent memory. However, our bus route into the city drove us past a Unionist estate (its bonfire remains charred in a concrete courtyard) and we were welcomed with some very strong anti-Catholic graffiti, which I will not quote here.

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(Some street art about another contentious issue)

I’ve seen a lot of comparably menacing graffiti, from both sides, even in Armagh which we find so quiet and tranquil. If you go to the Belfast’s interface neighborhoods, those that border Catholic and Protestant communities, you will find countless murals remembering each side’s heroes. On the Falls Road is a portrait of Bobby Sands, a hunger striker whose death by starvation was a rallying cry for Republican Nationalists. On the Shankill Road, a Unionist community, you could find Belfast’s Mona Lisa, which depicts a masked gunman pointing a rifle at the viewer; the barrel of the gun seemed to follow you no matter what angle you viewed it (this mural was demolished last year). But besides the murals, Belfast is absolutely covered in street art. Almost every alley wall is tagged and spray-painted, the sides of buildings totally covered with non-political art. The culture of public art here is strong, and I think its because there’s an anonymity of it, even when you tag. There is an ability to appear, leave a mark, make a statement, and disappear. I find that the people here are reluctant to discuss the past few decades because you never know who might be listening. The murals, the graffiti, and public art are a way to express loudly what they maybe can’t say with words.

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(Belfast City Hall)

From the bus station, we walked to the MAC, an arts centre in Belfast’s cathedral quarter. We had lunch with playwright Martin Lynch there, who gave us a workshop on character development. He related his experience growing up in Belfast, and coming into adulthood just as the Troubles began. He says that in his neighborhood, a densely populated Catholic community, was rife with exceptional storytellers. He learned there that good stories are often around you, and they’re always in your own family. He lamented that many of these people, including his docker father, had the souls of poets and thinkers, but were trapped making a living through hard labor. It still makes him angry that opportunities for creative development skip over poorer communities.

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(Apologies for the poor camera angle, but I swear that’s Martin in the back)

After lunch, we ventured from the city center to the Queens quarter, where Queens University is. Ellie and I joined Kimberley and Terri at the Lyric Theatre to see Frank McGuiness’s play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme. We met up there with Nathaniel, who will come to Armagh this week as a guest teacher. The play is a powerful story about eight Ulster natives who have volunteered their services during WWI and are sent to the Somme; this year is the centennial of this bloody battle. Nathaniel’s review (“I’m emotionally fucked”) pretty much encapsulates my reaction to this production. The set– its backdrop of endless bleak sky– was beautiful, the roles were brilliantly acted, and the script explored everything from loyalism, fraternity, sexuality, spirituality, and hopelessness. Every man in the regiment has a breaking point when he knows that he is going to die. Piper, whose memories as an old man create the frame for the story, began the play the most nihilistic of them all; at the end, he is the one doing the battle cry and encouraging the other men in the regiment to fight. He is the only survivor.

All the characters are deeply loyal to the English crown; they are all Protestant and share stories about doing their part to suppress the Rising, which is happening contemporary to the Great War. Anti-Catholic slurs are common in the script, and I wondered how audience members reacted to the representation of loyalism in the play. But beyond each character’s allegiances and prejudices are universal themes– war, belonging, mortality. I personally never thought I, being from a largely Irish-American Catholic family, would have been empathetic to them, and it was a reminder that I have brought my own prejudices with me. I’m not from here. My context is different. There’s a moment at the very end, as they’re just about to march into combat, that each of them dons an orange sash, a symbol of Ulster loyalism. But then, they each exchange their sashes with each other, a gesture of their unity. It was incredibly moving. So it was a good day, to learn about play writing from someone from one background, and then seeing a play about people from the other side. That Friday had a beautiful symmetry for me.

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(The River Lagan, which we walked along to get to alcohol.)

I’m sorry I write an entire book every time I do a blog post. I have a lot of feelings.

(Maggie May’s)The next day we had breakfast at Maggie May’s and then made our way back to the city center, where some of us were getting tattooed at Addinktion Belfast, also the headquarters of Hex Bombs bath bombs. Because so many of us had a session, we were camped out there for hours. For a while I was afraid that we must have been annoying to the staff, taking over their waiting area. But as each person finished their session, with talented artist James Conway, our rapport with the staff grew stronger. We joked about American presidential candidates, tried to imitate each others’ accents, and bonded over our favorite TV shows. Instead of a day full of sight-seeing (there’ll be plenty of time for that next weekend!) we spent that time making great friends.

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(from Hex Bombs Instagram)

I’m sorry, I’m really done now.