by Austin Dowling
LAST July, four young men with a penchant for poetry set up a microphone stand in a Limerick city café then known as Cellar Door in Foxes Bow and read poems to an audience of eight people who, as they admit, “just happened to be there”.
One year on and the monthly open-mic event pioneered by Shane Vaughan, Caleb Brennan, Jared Nadin and Dan O’Malley has grown into a weekend literary festival.
From July 17-19, the Stanzas group, as they are now known, hosted eight readings, two open-mics, a musical act and a comedy gig and all without charge.
Guests filtered in and out, strangers on the street stopped for a gawk and regulars dragged along friends whose only brush with poetry had been the pages of their Leaving Certificate English textbook.
I can’t help but nod in agreement when during Saturday’s open-mic, one Stanzonian (as the regulars call themselves) brands the nomadic, magnetic and endearingly organic poetry event a “moment that became a movement”.
When I first found ‘Stanzas’ it was half a year into its run and homeless.
In the spirit of the season, their Christmas open-mic had taken shelter from the cold and the puddles of a wintery Limerick in the snug armchairs of upstairs Central Buildings. Since then, Stanzas has made its nest in Café Noir on Robert Street but, following last weekend, they’ve upped their mic-stands for a new abode once again.
Just like all thriving literary forms, Stanzas continues to transform and outgrow its venues.
Despite their imminent uncoupling, on night one of the festival, it feels as if Stanzas has found its soulmate in Café Noir. The two-toned coffee shop not only compliments the black ink and white paper at the table of each budding poet, but adapts visually to the words of each performance akin to a blank canvas. When the first guest writer, Kathy D’Arcy, breaks into the Ave Maria mid-poem, it’s hard to believe the candles glistening in the windowsill behind her are a mere decorative coincidence. The mic-stand her performance christens has all the power of a pulpit.
The all-embracing soul of younger Ireland is at the heart of Stanzas conception. And that’s the must-see magic of Stanzas, whether you find yourself contented by the catharsis of a poetic rant on a Friday evening following a tough week or plan to challenge yourself to make art of your darkest secrets, this is an event where all voices are welcomed.
That’s certainly the sentiment I’m getting from Stanzas-pioneer Shane Vaughan.
“When we set up Stanzas first there was a gap. There was nowhere a younger generation; a more insecure generation who didn’t quite know what to do with their voice could go to feel comfortable sharing and learning. Throughout the year it’s been a mesmerising experience to see what happens when you create a space for people and say it’s okay to share, because writing is usually such a solitary experience”.
Day two commences with a workshop by John W. Sexton in Limerick Writer’s Centre and later an open-air poetry reading by Leitrim’s Roisin Kelly and Tipperary’s Eleanor Hooker amid the pots and plants outside Lucky Lane on Catherine Street. Motorists slow down and roll down their windows for a peek and those finishing their Saturday afternoon shop wander into the crowd.
Poems of deeply personal subjects are amplified to the city centre and passers-by cast a curious eye to the motley-clothed and colourful crowd: the concurrent pride festival is not the only event brightening up the city on this dreary and overcast weekend. As Eleanor Hooker pronounces, “There’s this idea that poetry is sacred, but here everybody can join in. It’s so democratic”.
After a few pancakes from outside next-door’s Pig Town Hall, it’s onto Café Noir for two spoken-word performances by rap talents Brian “Russo” Clancy and Shane Davis. The bells of St. Michael’s lead in “Russo” Clancy and by the time Davis has torn apart the concept of identity, you can virtually pinch the goose-bumps of the person next to you.
Later, contributors to Stanzas’ anthology of the literary high-points from their inaugural year share a sample of their work. Somewhere in all the shouting, whispering and hand-waving, the poems themselves come alive. Performance, it appears, is the door to poetry for a generation coming of age in a digital and visual era.
Each fresh voice to brave the microphone becomes part of what regular contributor Simon Benson refers to as ‘an identity conglomerate’. Tonight, even a year in, there are first-timers mere moments from meeting their peers. And no matter whether it’s your first night or your fifth, the fine people of Stanzas welcome you with a handshake, or a hug, or a smile.
Those who brave the downpour outside and venture into the Stormy Teacup for Saturday night’s comedy gig awaken to the sweet smoothies and iced lattes of health café Bubble Tea Paradise on Sunday morning where Victoria Kennefick and Paul Casey share their thoughts on whales and stones circles as sunlight pours through the glass ceiling.
While listening to Aaron Hackett round-off Stanzas’ first year with a follow-up to his performance during that founding evening in Cellar Door, I stumble across an illustration in the anthology with a slogan reading ‘Words Empower’. Stanzas kicked the door to poetry open for a universal audience in Limerick and as Eleanor Hooker remarked “There’s a spring of people coming up from beneath. They’re doing it despite not getting funding. They don’t need anybody’s permission”.
And that’s what Stanzas is all about; not waiting around and getting your words out there. No one here need hide away and pretend not to be good enough to share their work. There’s an exciting road ahead for all and as Shane tells me, “this is year one, we’re looking towards year ten”.
Onwards, and upwards.