Chapter and verse at the Cork International Poetry Festival

Paul Casey: May have to close Ó Bhéal weekly event after 10 years.

PAUL CASEY, who will be reading from his new poetry collection at the Cork International Poetry Festival, says that while poetry in Cork is thriving, the weekly Ó Bhéal poetry-reading series he founded at the Long Valley may have to fold in 2017 on its tenth anniversary.

Casey’s second collection, Virtual Tides, published by Salmon, deals with society’s increasing reliance on the virtual world. He is dealing with the reality of the lack of support for poetry in this country.

Casey established Ó Bhéal at the height of the boom, having run a successful multilingual poetry venue in South Africa. This widely travelled Cork-born poet and filmmaker wanted to create something permanent for poetry in Cork.

“If there is a city in Ireland that could be called the ‘city of poetry’, Cork would be it. The city was strong on poetry in the ’80s. Paddy Galvin had a lot to do with that, as well as David Marcus, and Paul Durcan was living in Cork at that time. You had the Munster Literature Centre run by Mary Johnston.

“There were dips in the early ’90s. When Ó Bhéal started, for the first two years, I nearly had to run around and build up an audience. Then, the moment everything went bang around 2008/2009, we started flourishing. People had more time on their hands and also a lot of frustration. They wanted an outlet to express this.”

While Casey bemoans the way poetry is marginalised here, he says: “It is just beneath the skin in Ireland, like paganism. But it’s not given its due and is not given enough respect by the Arts Council. Poets are generally underpaid and expected to do things for nothing most of the time. That has improved but it has a long way to go. For the price of a short film funded by the Irish Film Board, Ó Bhéal could be secured every year into the future. As it is now, I can only guarantee that it will run until its tenth anniversary.

“I’m running it on a jobseeker’s allowance, having been on a community employment scheme for three years. We got to keep the scheme and I use it for an assistant. We need a wage for a director. I’d like to be able to hand it over to someone new. It’s very much community driven. I am the director of the company, which has a board, but I don’t have a wage.”

If Ó Bhéal isn’t given a lifeline, it “won’t die per se. We’ll keep the Winter Warmer Festival which is locally funded and we’ll keep our competitions. But otherwise, I’m going to have to get a paid job somewhere. It will be sad if the Ó Bhéal nights come to an end but I think we should celebrate it.”

Up to 40 people attend the Monday readings which include one or two guest poets, sometimes from overseas, as well as input from the audience. Up until this year, the Arts Council has given the company just €3,000 annually.

“This year, we were surprised to get €5,600 from the Arts Council. That allows us to increase the minimum fee for our guests. They get €100 each. It’s still not enough.

“We pay 80 poets a year and sometimes have to pay for their accommodation as well as travel expenses. Cork City Council gives us €2,000 a year and Foras na Gaeilge gives us €3,000 a year. The rest comes from donations at the readings. Usually, there’s a deficit at the end of the year.”

Long-term security for Ó Bhéal is Casey’s wish. As a dedicated nurturer of poets, it shouldn’t be too much to ask.

The Cork International Poetry Festival runs until Saturday. For more information, see www.corkpoetryfest.net 


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