Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Magic of Flash Fiction In The Orchard

Alternative title - Rain on a Cold Tin Roof and The Silence of the Lamb

The Armagh Cider Company proved to be excellent hosts as we kicked off the Armagh Food and Cider Festival 2018 with our flash fiction event.

People seemed to arrive more on time than usual, possibly the lure of warm mulled cider on a wet evening, or more likely - as was our case- afraid of getting lost in the wilderness of the Armagh Orchards.

The Barn was welcoming with its rustic decor and its aroma of cider and spices filling the air. Before too long the place filled up. I was heartened to see people who had been before greeting other regulars. Setting out on this project back at the beginning of the year, our goal had been to create community amongst writers and readers and I could see that unfolding effortlessly before me.

We started with Elaine Toal and her heartwarming story called Hurricane Glamping.

The title drew a wry chuckle from the audience considering Storm Ali had battered us all the previous day. We didn't need to stretch our imaginations too far back to feel the gusts of wind that Elaine described so eloquently. A minor technical hitch with the sound about a third of the way through Elaine's reading meant that parts of it were difficult to hear. She battled on professionally to the end, trying to ignore it when the misbehaving mics crackled and fizzed. (The joys of new venues and new equipment!) We got the tech sorted and were able to continue, but I was happy when at the break a member of the audience suggested we ask her to read again. They had liked what they had heard and wanted the full story, others agreed and I was struck by the generosity of our audience. It was also a huge compliment to Elaine who, unencumbered by mics throwing hissy-fits, rocked the story the second time around.

Next up was Jay Faulkner, bringing the audience to the brink of tears with his emotive story And Then She Danced. 

Jay always delivers and the crowd was dead silent as he read.

Somewhere outside a baby lamb bleated. I'm not sure yet if the sound came out on the recording but it was surreal - I wondered if I was imagining it, or if it was someone's ringtone, but later others confirmed they too had heard a lamb. It all added to being in a barn, in an Orchard, in Armagh, telling stories. I had one of those moments? How did I get to be here doing this? And grateful for every second of it, for every person in that barn, readers (listeners) and writers, for one was nothing without the other. My biology head kicked in and labelled it - Symbiosis.

Sue Divin lightened the mood with her lovely and lively rendition of Twist or Pull, a story aptly set in an orchard in Armagh about two young boys stealing apples.

The percussion of rain on the tin roof above us added to our sense of being right there in the orchard with them. The twist, as promised in the title was beautifully executed by this excellent wordsmith.

Jude Alexander had us all enthralled with her story Realization.

Her observation skills and attention to detail reminded me that that is what makes good writing, great.

If one can be a better writer by osmosis (or listening to good writing) then I was in the right place!

Réamonn Ó Ciaráin's story Glacadh arm agus an chéad mharú magically transported us, not only to the era of Cúchulainn but in the lyrical Irish language to a story about our Ulster Hero in an anger frenzy being calmed down by way of distraction by the women of Armagh stripping naked - I just hoped they weren't having the weather we'd been having. 

Yet again, it was great to hear people's positive reactions to hearing the reading in Irish.

I continue to be inspired to learn more Irish.

During the intermission Philip and Helen Troughton, acclaimed artisan cider makers treated us to a taste of their apple juices and ciders. Delish! But don't take my word for it - keep an eye out for their  cider range in Tescos, Marks & Spencers and Kellys in Armagh. Go on, treat yourself.

Thank you to Mervyn Steenson of Groucho's in Richhill for providing tasty platters of locally produced snacks.

Our first reader scheduled after the break created a spellbinding atmosphere with her reading that even silenced the lamb.

A true literary genius, Cathy Carson held our hearts in her hands as she read Ready, leaving hardly a dry eye in the house.

Hot on her heels, Paul Anthony pulled us into the world of a person obsessed with counting with his clever use of language in The Dead Counter.

The twist at the end collected a unified gasp from the audience and the lamb resumed operations!

The rain continued to 'fall like pebbles' on the roof - to paraphrase John O Connor's words - as Eddie McClenaghan took to the apple-barrel-podium.

He expertly wove a tale in his story, A Smile that carried the audience all the way through a fantastical twist that left us reeling. A new talent we hope to see more of.

Kieran Mc Gurk evoked emotion and wry smiles with his story Lonely Hearts.

He deftly captured our emotions and served them up to us with added spice and a twist of humour.

To round up the evening fellow Women Aloud NI member, Doreen Mc Bride read My Dolls Funeral, leaving us all with a good laugh.

When I complimented her on her humour, she looked me straight in the eye and declared that it wasn't funny at all. She had buried her doll! I've heard Doreen read at Women Aloud NI events, and the lady always leaves me smiling.

Our next Flash Fiction event takes place during the Georgian Festival in Armagh. Submissions are open for Flash Fiction in Georgian Armagh until 22nd October. Please do not submit if you are not available to read at the event. For dates of our other Flash Fiction events until March 2019 click here.

We'd like to thank the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon (ABC) Borough Council for their support and for including us in their festivals. I've seen the work and commitment that goes into making these festivals so sucessful. They should be really proud of what they have achieved here.

Byddi Lee

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Talking at The John O Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival Programme Launch

As I stood up to speak at the John O Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival Programme Launch, I had a wee of those quick stock-takes I do on the hop from time to time.

It led me to preface my talk with the ad-lib, 'This time three years ago, when I heard through social media that this literary festival was first taking place in Armagh I was really excited - except for one thing. I was living in San Jose, California.'

In a weird parallel-universe-type symmetry, at that time, back in 2016, I was meeting up with Catherine Barry the founder and organiser of the Los Gatos Irish Arts and Writers Festival just up the road from where I lived in California. They were preparing for their first festival to take place at the beginning of October.

As it turned out, I missed both those festivals that year because we moved to Paris.

And so fast-forward to 2018, I was thrilled to be included in a line-up of very distinguished, talented and renowned people involved with the local writing scene in the North of Ireland. This was the artist running order...

Joris Minne

Lord Mayor of ABC - Julie Flaherty
Damian Smyth ACNI
Mark Adair BBCNI
Nuala McKeever
Anthony Quinn
Nisha Tandon – Arts Ekta
David Park
Christine Morrow
Brenda Winter Palmer
Tony Villiers
Kate O Hanlon - John O’Connor Creative writing group
David Braziel
Byddi Lee
Cathy McCullough

I was second last up, so I battled down the oul' nerves as best I could as I enjoyed the other speakers, in between bouts of crippling self-doubt (How the heck was I going to match up with these guys?) and quietly fangirling because I was sitting beside Nuala McKeever ( Belfast's 'Queen of Comedy' from Give My Head Peace.)

And then, there I was standing at the podium realising that in three years I had gone from wishing I could go to this festival to speaking at its programme launch with all "them uns what were famous, like!"

Thankfully, I'd everything I'd wanted to say written down in from of me. Anne Mc Master, a good friend I'd met through Women Aloud NI had helped me prepare my spiel and all I had to do now was deliver it. I suffer from performance amnesia. When I do a reading or engage in any public speaking, I can't remember much of it afterwards, but I must have done okay because when I sat down, Nuala McKeever leaned in and said, "I'm doing a workshop in Dublin tomorrow. Can I quote your words?"

 I was flabbergasted and nodded vigorously.

She offered to take a photo of the piece of paper that was by now somewhat bend out of shape from my sweaty hands clutching it for the past hour and a half.

"No need. Sure, have the whole thing," I said, shoving it towards her, limp creases and all.

She read aloud the line she'd liked and thanked me, little knowing how much she'd made my day.

Here's the full piece for your own perusal - I wonder can you guess the bit Nuala liked...

Armagh is a special place, not only to those who live here but to visitors who come to enjoy this beautiful ancient city with its friendly people. It’s not until you leave Armagh that you realise how truly special it is. I think about John O Connor on his travels in hot dusty Australia and wonder, was he homesick for Armagh, did he crave the tang of a Bramley apple and the spice of our humour?
As I read “Come Day Go Day ” sitting in the heat of a Californian drought, O Connor’s words brought old Armagh to me. I heard the noise of water tumbling on the umbrella when he wrote, “... the rain drummed against it like a flurry of pebbles.”  I took delight in his description of how “The afternoon sunshine fell upon the clean dry road...”
At the time, I was already mentally packing up my life abroad – the tug of home, held at bay for a good half dozen years, had finally gained traction. But what would happen to my writing? When I’d last lived here, I’d been a biology teacher – now I was returning as a writer – sure, it was like I was a totally different person.
I’d only been settled back in Armagh for a month when I attended my first John O Connor Writing School Literary festival last year. This cultural feast served portions of literature, platters of poetry and servings of song – all seasoned with plenty of craic!
Writers need community. You sit in a room all day by yourself, even worse – you hang out in your own head for hours at a time. The John O Connor festival is a place to meet and connect with other writers, to practice your craft and to share ideas and resources. That’s where I first heard about ‘Women Aloud NI’ whose aim is to raise the profile of women writing the North. I joined and as a result, have had many opportunities to showcase my writing.
After the 2017 festival, I wanted to keep that sense of belonging, of community amongst writers alive and promote Armagh as a place where writing happens. That’s why I started the Facebook Page and group – Armagh Writers – a group for writers who are from or who live in Armagh.
I also volunteered on the John O Connor Writing School board and have been in the role of secretary since January.
To draw writers to and to provide a platform for writers in Armagh, another Armagh writer, Réamonn Ó Ciaráin and I started Flash Fiction Armagh. We’ve been included in the Food and Cider Festival at the end of this month as Flash Fiction in the Orchard and are collaborating as part of The John O’Connor Lyrical Literary Lunchtime on Sunday 4th November.
Festivals like this one enable our communities to thrive, whether that be the writing community or the wider community. Everyone needs the arts. Humanity needs language, in all its forms, to communicate and express our thoughts and feelings to each other so we may recognize ourselves in others, rejoice in our similarities and learn from our differences. And this is where the John O Connor Writing School Literary Festival plays a pivotal role in our city – for it represents the things that make Armagh great – namely, culture, creativity and community. 
Be sure to book your tickets ASAP to avoid disappointment. It's a brilliant weekend. For a reminder of how last years festival went click here.

Byddi Lee

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Flash Fiction in the Orchard Presents...

An outstanding response to our call for submissions gave us some difficulty making our final selection. We are delighted to present the following writers at Flash Fiction in the Orchard, as part of the Armagh Food and Cider Festival, on the 20th September 2018 at 7pm.

In no particular order, congratulations to:

Elaine Toal, Hurricane Glamping
Jay Faulkner, And Then She Danced
Sue Divin, Twist or Pull
Jude Alexzander, The Realisation
Sharon Dempsey, The Watcher
Réamonn Ó Ciaráin, Glacadh arm & an chéad mharú
Cathy Carson, Ready
Paul Anthony, The Dead Counter
Eddie McClenaghan, A Smile
Louise G Cole, Unscripted
Kieran Mc Gurk, Lonely Hearts
Doreen McBride, My dolls funeral

So please come to the Armagh Cider Company’s beautifully restored barn where we’ll be having the event. Booking is essential, and tickets are available here.
I have enjoyed reading all the submissions, and consider it a privilege to have writers send me their work. The standard has been consistently high and if a story is not selected it is no reflection on the writer’s talents. To all writers – including myself – I say keep writing, keep submitting and keep going – and thank you for your tenacity because without writers picking themselves up and burrowing through despite the rejection letters, we’d all miss out on great literature, books and stories.

Byddi Lee

Monday, July 30, 2018

Facing Change at the John Hewitt International Summer School

My brain whirls with such a kaleidoscope of thoughts and ideas that I hardly know where to begin. The theme of the John Hewitt International Summer School this year is “Facing change: shifting borders and allegiances.”

As I sit in the sun outside the Market Place theatre and look across the street, I’m transported back in time to see two little girls, my sister and I, swinging and tumbling on the bars between on the concrete bollards that spanned the black expanse of tarmac that once covered Market Street. This was our playground. I was an expert at hanging upside down by my knees like a little bat.

I share my flashback with my summer school friends by telling them I used to live there, point out which was our house, which one was my grandfather's tailor shop and most importantly which one was the sweetie shop. Someone says that it must have been lovely to live there, but I point out that it was 1970’s Armagh and the place did not look like it does now. Facing change in this way is a welcome thing. So much is better but as the talks and panel discussions highlight, we still have a way to go and the path can be rocky – especially apparent after the panel discussion “What went wrong?” on the very first day with Gregory Campbell, Brid Rodgers, Colm Gildernew and Trevor Ringland.

I hadn’t expected the political discussions. I try to keep local politics out of my writing. In fact, I try to keep all politics out of my writing, but that panel discussion left me feeling like all the emotional sand I’d used to cover my political opinions had stirred up and was now swirling around, muddying the waters. I’d wanted to shout at the panel, “Listen to each other.” Have we ever just asked simple questions like, “What do you want?” “What do you need?” Have we ever given simple answers? Can we simply be fair? Kind?

There were some beautifully uplifting moments too. It was a delight to listen to Liz Nugent and Claire Allan in conversation. These women were so supportive and generous to each other. It enforces what I always say about writers – we are never in completion with each other. A book can be read far faster than it can be written. If a reader loves two writers who have similar style/genres/subject matter then they will read both. Because of this week, I need to buy another bookcase! Also great to see Dave Torrens from No Alibis selling books in Armagh – perhaps he’ll consider a pop-up bookstore here in the run-up to Christmas?

My favourite speaker was Eli Davies. Her exploration of how literature portrays the role of women during the conflict here was inspiring. I fear the creative light-bulb moments she ignited… do I really want to ever write about those times from my own perspective…maybe sometime. The following day Monica McWilliams blew on those creative sparks, with her talk about Women Waging Peace as she infused me with hope for a better future.

If you ever get a chance to see Mikel Murfi’s The Man in the Woman’s Shoes and the sequel I Hear You and Rejoice don’t hesitate to go. Sometimes a piece of writing is just so brilliant it grabs a hold of you and just won’t let go. Even days later, there are moments when I laugh out loud or tear up simply thinking about these performances. Murfi savages the audience's emotions, mercilessly swinging us between gales of laughter to floods of tears. What is it about the human condition that we actually enjoy having our emotions thus pummeled?

Between the panel discussions and classes, over coffee or wandering around the city, new friendships were forged, old friendships strengthened, ideas shared, concepts explored. Thank you to the organizers of the John Hewitt Summer School for creating a diverse and stimulating programme that enables people to get together, to share and unite. This was the overall best part of the summer school experience – the way the attendees came together in a solid body, a meeting of minds, hearts and muses. The camaraderie was palpable, the laughter infectious and the tears too – especially for those of us who attended the Mikel Murfi performances.

I would also like to thank the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council for sponsoring my bursary to attend the John Hewitt Summer School.

Thanks also to the wonderful women in Women Aloud NI who were a joy to be with all week long. Despite the things that make us different, it is the things we have in common that matter. Accepting our diversity makes us stronger and more adaptable, more able to face change, more happy to accept change. I loved having you here – please come back soon. Click here to read what my friend Angeline King thought of Armagh - you might be surprised, or you may know better and might not be at all surprised...

For a local like me, it was wonderful to see people come and enjoy Armagh. It is a special place, has been for thousands of years, all the way back to times of Navan Fort. There’s magic here, and I feel that magic touched us all last week, helping us to listen to one another, share with each other, giving us the tools to face change together because together is the only way humans will surmount the changes facing us in the near and distant future. 

Byddi Lee