Twin Cities Poetry Events


Cork – Coventry                        Cork – San Francisco

with photos and reviews from

Andrea Mbrushimana, Russ Berry, Ciarán MacArtain, Stanley Notte

and Kathy D’Arcy.

[L-R] Andrea Mbarushimana, Russ Berry, Ciarán MacArtain, Stanley Notte & Kathy D’Arcy

2017 marks Ó Bhéal’s first year taking part in two separate twin cities events. Kathy D’Arcy represented Cork in San Francisco for a cornicopia of events arranged by poet/professor Raina J. León from St.Mary’s College, California, whilst on this side of the Atlantic, Adam Steiner from Silhouette Press set up poets Andrea Mbarushimana and Russ Berry to visit Cork in July, with Leesiders Ciarán MacArtain and Stanley Notte reciprocating in Coventry during the Peace Festival in early November. This collective review includes photos taken by the participants, as well as by regular Ó Bhéal poet & photographer, Linda Ibbotson.

This year’s Twin City poetry exchanges were funded by Cork City Council, Coventry City Council and St.Mary’s College of California.

Cork (24th-25th July) and Coventry (8th-9th November)


Andrea Mbarushimana

I needn’t have worried where I was going to get my hugs from. Somehow in the space of 24 hours the people of Cork had already carved a home out for me in words and pebbles and standing stones. What a trip! It’s hard to know where to start…

After meeting Paul at the airport we took a look at the city from on high, a hotel balcony furnished with possibly the world’s greatest chocolate brownies and a panoramic view of the city in summer sunlight. Then we were stabled in the Handlebar B and B and walked, waiting for our Irish debut, funnelled by narrow streets towards the beautiful Cathedral where I found a strange stone that turned out to be a (probably human) bone and slept under a tree in the sun. It was that kind of visit. Full of humanity and history and weight.

Cork is a vibrant and fascinating place, the centre of which is surrounded by water in the same way Coventry city centre is surrounded by the ring-road. The centre is collected and being squeezed upwards. But Cork has managed to keep it’s architectural charm and support independent and quirky commerce. It is a shopping mecca, but the values of the place are better demonstrated by the number of places in which to enjoy yourself with friends – eating, drinking, chatting.

Monday night we rocked up early at Ó Bhéal and this gave us time to chat to people as they came in while my nerves gathered. The bar upstairs where we were stationed had the gorgeous, earless bust of a horse’s head on the bar. Oh, it was just knocked up by someone who used to work here – its sister is at the University! Cork is a city of creators. The famous Ó Bhéal five word challenge gave further proof as nearly everyone in the room got up to the mike to read out the poem they’d crafted from a random generation of words in just fifteen minutes. The diversity of subject matter and the quality of the writing was inspirational. Russ’s and my own headline readings were warmly greeted and I settled down to enjoy the open mic-ers who were fantastic. Afterwards everyone tumbled round the corner to a bar that looked more like the apothecary it took over from, till the early hours of the morning. We had fun chatting to all the genuinely lovely, warm people whose work we’d listened to. It was brilliant.

Next day we met the Mayor of Cork, who’d deputised a cultural attaché to the previous night’s reading – a man who’d eloquently expressed his passion for history and culture and his support for the arts. It was interesting to talk with them both about the pressures on culture in the face of austerity. We talked about Coventry’s bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021 and the impact of Cork’s experience as European City of Culture in 2005.

Via stone circles, the beach, skinny dipping and dinner with more new friends, we ended up in in Clonakilty in Western Cork for our final reading, with Coventry feeling very distant in space and time. De Barras club has played host to Bowie, who was invoked by Alexis during her reading. I did my best, reading from my new book from Silhouette Press ‘The Africa in my House’ and responding to interesting and insightful interview questions from Moze. Russ plied everyone with lyrical stories from Coventry and it was great to hear Ciarán and Stan, who were expected on the return link of the exchange in Coventry in November. Once again the five word challenge was amazing, as were all the readers. It was mesmerising watching everyone’s performances in such an auspicious venue.

It’ll take me a long time to unpack all the experiences and conversations from this short journey. I began writing two poems during my stay (not counting my five word challenge attempts, which believe me, really don’t count!). There are ribbons of ideas and thoughts about culture, comparisons between our two cities and attitudes to the creative arts which I’ll need some time to follow and unravel. What I can say beyond a doubt is that the whole trip was an absolute pleasure and an honour, that my Facebook friend count has increased exponentially and that I really want to revisit Cork again as soon as possible, to visit more of the sights but mostly to reconnect with the lovely friends we made. Big, heartfelt thanks to everyone involved.


Russ Berry

We spent a fantastic couple of days in Ireland, performing at Ó Bhéal’s in Cork on the first night and at De Barra’s in Clonakilty on the second – both of them wonderful venues full of supportive fellow poets and enthusiastic listeners. Paul Casey greeted us at the airport and instantly made us feel at home in Cork, pointing out sights to see and filling us in on the local history. We were also blessed with fine weather, finding time for a sunbathe in the Cathedral grounds before enjoying a (vegan friendly-yes!) Thai red curry down the road at the Co-op Quay restaurant. I was surprised and delighted to find that Ó Bhéal has not one, but two in-house artists who sketched us during our performances – and the late night apothecary wine bar around the corner was an unexpected delight!



On the second day we met the Mayor Tony Fitzgerald and his deputy Kieran McCarthy (a passionate local historian who had attended and read some fine poetry of his own the night before). I thought it might feel a bit strained, but both of them were very engaging and genuinely interested in the Twin Cities project. Afterwards, on the way down to Clon we stopped off to visit Drombeg earthworks and stone circle before going for a swim in the sea.

At De Barra’s that night I had the opportunity to get to know Ciarán and Stan, two outstanding performance poets due to visit Coventry for the ‘return leg’ in November. We were also interviewed following our performances, giving us the opportunity to elaborate on some of the experiences that motivate and shape our poems. We packed a lot into our brief visit and met some charming, warm and very talented people. I feel very lucky to be part of the project.


Stan Notte

‘Coventry is a shit hole that no-one should ever visit.’ Those are the words Terry Hall used to describe his home town in an interview in 1980. They are also the first words that popped into my head when I was asked if I’d like to represent Ó Bhéal in Coventry as part of the poetry exchange. Needless to say that is an inauspicious beginning to any trip. But as it turns out there was good news in that memory, and for two reasons. First it gave me a funny – or risky – introduction to the two scheduled poetry readings included in the trip. Second, as I am a huge music fan, and utilise song titles to write most of my poetry, it gave me an idea for a poem.

That poem was written using song titles of artists signed to the 2 Tone Record Label, founded in Coventry in the late seventies. And interestingly the The 2 Tone Village, a museum that pays homage to the Coventry music scene, proved to be a highlight of the trip. But before I get to that highlight I need to go back to the start. In truth my trip started earlier in the year when I met Andrea Mbarushimana and Russ Berry when they were in Cork on the first leg of the Cork/Coventry cultural exchange. At that time I didn’t know Andrea and Russ would be so prominent during the second leg of the exchange. If I had, Terry Hall’s ominous words may not have worried me as much. But then, had that been the case, my 2 Tone Poem may never have seen the light of day, so perhaps my ignorance was a blessing.

In Cork Andrea (despite a recent health scare) and Russ read beautifully, and were excellent company. Russ has a love of music that is almost as severe as mine, and we whiled away time on both nights of their visit discussing artists, and – as always when music fans get together – views. So, to Cov where Andrea, having rearranged her life (kids/school/husband), and wearing a welcoming smile, met Ciarán and I at Birmingham airport. From the first moment chatter abounded (even a tad of local gossip was offered) and the car journey to Cov (OK that’s the last time I’ll use that local abbreviation) was over before I knew it. Once in the home of Terry Hall it was a quick cup of tea in Andrea’s place, and then a brisk walk to local radio station, the Hillz. Russ met us in the reception area. And, with our group was complete, we were ready for an interview with Kate Hills (who, surprisingly, doesn’t own the station).

With hindsight, the radio interview laid the template for the remainder of the trip. We were warmly welcomed, the interview was relaxed and easy going, with an emphasis on the creative process, and the time (just over an hour) on air flew by. Mundanities (Hotel check-in, a snooze – we were up at Stupid O’ Clock for the flight – and a surprisingly good dinner in Coventry’s Premium Inn) accounted for the afternoon. And before we knew it Ciarán and I were one again in Andrea and Russ’s company, and heading to The Royal Oak for our first reading.

To garner a sense of how this evening transpired I could simply point to the earlier paragraph about the Hills interview. But that would not allow me to mention how beautiful a venue The Royal Oak provided. The event – which was part of the Peace Festival – was held in an extension at the back of the premises that, due a soft ambience and views over the garden area, was ideal for a gathering of keen poets.

MC for the night Aysar Ghassan was genial, humorous and welcoming, and the audience attentive and receptive. Afterwards we adjourned to the local Witherspoon – if you just gasped at the idea of a cultural exchange party frequenting such a place, let me assure you (as is always the case) it is the company you keep that defines a gathering, not the location.

We chatted into the wee hours (or as wee as licence regulations allowed) solving world issues the good and great of the political arena cannot find solutions to. OK, we didn’t actually solve any, but we did have a few GREAT ideas.

Day two began – surprise, surprise – with breakfast. I needed a hearty one, as we were meeting the Lord Mayor of Coventry at 10am. As I view politicians with (at best) heavy scepticism, this is NOT my type of thing. To ease the expected trauma I wore a tee-shirt emblazoned with a word – Echolalia – that sums up my feelings about almost all political mutterings. Oh, I knew it wouldn’t make any difference, and was unlikely to register with Lord Mayor Tony Skipper, but hey one must do what one must do. As it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong about Tony. He was funny and articulate, well versed on poetry (he exhibited a selection of portraits of local poets a few years ago) and MOST IMPORTANTLY music. An added bonus, due to Coventry native and Labour MP Mo Mowlan’s key involvement, a signed copy of the original Good Friday Agreement hanging on Tony’s wall.

Given all of the above you won’t be surprised to learn that the hour we spent in Tony’s company was very pleasant, and set me up nicely for the aforementioned highlight of the trip. I could wax lyrical for an age about the 2 Tone Village. But I won’t. Suffice to say it is a place that any music fan or history buff would enjoy. It is also a fitting tribute to the wide ranging influence 2 Tone had on many of my generation, particularly in raising awareness of racial acceptance. The final official leg of our Coventry trip was spent in Kenilworth. Where we were guest poets at Pure, Good & Right, a regular – and well attended – poetry event. The venue – The Tree House Bookshop – was cosy, and filled with the gentle ambience peculiar to spaces laden with shelves laden with tomes. Again we were warmly welcomed, and read to an attentive audience. MC John Watson not only steered the evening expertly, but also entertained us with poems of his own; a piece about manure. Afterwards Russ and Andrea passed a few hours discussing world problems with Ciarán and I in the hotel bar. And if we hadn’t received a message at 1am informing us our return flight was delayed we may actually have solved a few. Yes, we were that close!

Leaving Coventry on that delayed flight I had much to ponder. A lot had happened in such a short time, and I really hadn’t processed much of it. But on reflection I realised the trip was extraordinary on many levels. I had made new friends, read my poetry outside my home country for the first time and experienced a diverse city that has kept a belief in Peace at the forefront of its thinking for many years. But most importantly I learned that Terry Hall’s description of his home town in 1980 is now so inaccurate it may as well be deleted from history. Finally, it would be remiss of me to not extend an enormous thank you to Andrea and Russ. There is an old adage that the greatest gift one can give is that of their time, and the time these two lovely people donated to Ciarán and I was, without a doubt, the vital ingredient in what was a fantastic experience.

Stanley Notte

Spirit of ’79                     by Stanley Notte

Every Friday night
and Saturday morning
when the young at heart
come together
to twist and crawl
out on the streets
this dirty old town
drowns in hairspray
blank expressions
bright lights
and alcohol
the sole salvation
of the young, the black
and the gifted.

At 4 am Jeanette
a skinhead girl
she’s going
‘They’re all out to get you
They’re all out to get you.’
while bad boys
make monkey man noises
their requiem for a black soul
over and over again

‘Why,’ you’re wondering now
‘does this concrete jungle
do nothing but drop pressure
to get a job on the rat race?’

‘Why,’ you’re wondering
is Free Nelson Mandela
on my radio?’

‘Why does the Government man
believe our land of hope and glory
can promise this ghost town
‘Better must come when.’
the dawning of a new era
is such a long shot?’

When everyday
the young, the black and the gifted
hear the mirror in the bathroom
whisper ‘I can’t stand it.
They’re selling out your future.’

And ‘prospects’ are mere calling cards
for the government whose overture
‘It’s up to you to get a job.’
what’s that!
is an embarrassment when our house
has no money and tomorrow’s dream
is forever one step beyond
tomorrow being just another grey day.

So, shut up Mr Government Man.
You don’t know like I know
that in the middle of the night
the shadow of fear
is the only noise in this world.
How the doors of my heart
tighten up when the whine and grine
of facing situations too much
for one too young tells me my dream
is in deepwater.
How when dawn arrives
I get busy doing nothing everyday

Saturday night, Sunday morning.
The lonely crowd on the streets again.
This believe me is their dream.
Running away from the everyday
with a night on the tiles.
Running away from situations
too much for one too young.
Running away from the madness
of the mirror in the bathroom
whispering ‘I can’t stand it.
I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it.’

Ciarán and Stan’s Chapbook, printed for the occasion


Ciarán MacArtain

Our experience in Coventry was a thoroughly enjoyable one. More than that though I feel like the whole experience created by this exchange is one that all parties involved, as well as both respective cities, should take great pride in. It was wonderful having Andrea and Russ visit Cork in the early summer. The positive energy that trip was steeped in really made the prospect of Stan and I completing the second leg an exciting one. The comradery between the poets made the Cork weekend so enriching, and this was again evident from the moment we saw Andrea in Birmingham airport. The kindness of the gesture to come pick us up in the first place was not lost on us and was indicative of the fairly regal treatment we’d come to receive during our time in Coventry. The journey in from the airport lives in that special place in your memory reserved for laying eyes on a place for the first time; entering new space with which you have no associations. In this way our time in Coventry seems like it lasted two weeks while the rest of the week seemed to pass in an hour.

I’d absolutely no notion of Coventry as a city, other than the fact their football team wears sky blue and, as Russ informed me, there’s a ring road there. A credit to the programme of events in the exchange is that I feel much more familiar with the city now, especially for someone who was only there 2 days. We squeezed every minute out of our 48 hour visit. We met Russ at Hillz fm where we spent an hour talking to the wonderful Kate Hills about creativity, Cork, Coventry and their connection. Stan and I said some words on the mic to get the performative juices flowing and the conversation moved on to that evenings’ event as part of the Coventry Peace Festival. As first impressions go, the fact that Coventry has a Peace Festival greatly impressed me. The fact we were performing as part of it was a great honour. This was especially true seeing as we left the radio station to have our first mosey round a city that was razed to the ground during the blitz. Walking around the old cathedral, now a public square due to aerial bombardment, it definitely felt fitting that the city take pride in the fact that it is at peace and mark it with cultural events. I feel every city should do it and if so, maybe the link between peace and thriving cultural activity would be fully appreciated, and more so, peacetime be fully valued as something to be worked at to maintain. The fact our visit came the week before remembrance Sunday brought this in to even sharper focus.

After being treated to a delicious lunch and given some time to kick it in the hotel, we were driven out to The Royal Oak, where we’d be performing as part of Poetry for Peace. The one-off event was held in a beautiful room at the back of the pub. The space was tastefully lit and the energy in the room warm and welcoming. It was great to hear such high calibre poetry on the open mic and to hear what Cov poets are thinking/ writing about. Stan and I commented on some of the parallels between themes spoken about on the open mic at Ó Bhéal and here, in a totally different context and different city. The universal nature of poetry was well represented. Stan performed first and handled it so well, it put me at ease to follow. Great respect was given to each poet which made it an enjoyable set to perform. The chapbook Spoken Worlds: Sound as Character was published by Ó Bhéal for the exchange and it was humbling to have people queue up to buy signed copies of it after. This was definitely a new experience for Stan and I which we both enjoyed and had a good laugh about after. We digested the evening over a few pints after and had many interesting discussions as we were introduced to different characters in the Coventry poetry scene.

On the second morning we headed down to the town hall to meet the Lord Mayor. What a laugh. On paper such a visit mightn’t stand out as a highlight in the programme of events, as politicians are so good at fulfilling their stereotype as not to be trusted further than they can be thrown; “daytime actors” as such. Not every city has Tony Skipper as a Lord Mayor though. He was an absolute gent, full of humility, wit and interesting stories. We had a thoroughly stimulating discussion touching on the vibrant Coventry music scene, past experiences of classic gigs and even got an account of a photography exhibition Tony had of the Beat Poets when they visited London in the 60’s. To our great surprise, there was a framed original copy of The Good Friday Agreement on the wall of his office, as brought there by free person of Coventry and former Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam. The document had been gathering dust in the basement before being restored to the Lord Mayor’s wall when Tony took office.

We were honoured with gifts on our departure from the meeting and took time over a coffee to let the experience soak in. It struck me that Mr. Skipper said he was heading down to Hillz fm on Friday evening at 6. We for all the world assumed he was going to be interviewed as Lord Mayor but no, he was there to “spin a few tunes” as he put it. It is a good sign in a city when the lord mayor doubles as a community radio dj with great taste! Coventry was making a stellar impression on Stan and I and this was only furthered as we headed to the “Two-Tone Village”; a part of town dedicated to the famous Coventry Two-Tone Music Label. We were well impressed by this not only because of our shared love of music and in particular, this music, but also because the museum gave genuine respect to what the label achieved as well as giving a full picture of the history of music in Coventry. It was hugely informative and run by really lovely people who made us very welcome in the space and eager to go back should the opportunity present itself. We had a feast of Caribbean food in the caf next door and strolled back towards town.

The day’s activities really represented Coventry as an open city; somewhere that valued peace and welcomed all cultures. This gave us a warm feeling coming back into town in preparation for the evenings’ performance out in Kenilworth. Stan and I went for a pint in The Town Wall Tavern. It was a beautiful old pub that gave us a little taste of what the architecture around would be had the city not been destroyed. Russ had informed us that Coventry had been a thriving medieval city and the few remaining streets that still carry that feeling seemed to be cherished. Stan and I took alternating smoke breaks to go and practice our sets for the evening. It was nice spending time alone with the city to get off book for a new set, recalling words written at all different times in different places.

We set out for Kenilworth with calm anticipation. The reading was to take place in a bookshop which made for a completely contrasting venue to the night before. It was a gorgeous space, an old fashioned proper independent bookshop. I picked up on the different styles and subjects spoken about by poets in a slightly more rural setting than the more urban feel to the poems of Wednesday night’s open mic. The standard was again outstanding. Stan and I were both happy with our performances and just found it a delight to share work with such an attentive and appreciative audience.

Russ, Andrea, Stan and I went back to the hotel for a night cap after the gig and took the opportunity to reflect on the entirety of the exchange, from the laugh we had in Cork, at Ó Bhéal and then in West Cork and Clonakilty taking in Neolithic grave sites, jumping in the ocean and sharing food, drink and words, to this wholesome conversation in the residents bar of our Coventry hotel. It was apparent how much the exchange had meant to all of us, how we’d been able to share our own culture and become more familiar with another, how we’d been gifted this opportunity to hear the quality work of poets from a community you’d never otherwise have had the opportunity to hear, how we had our own work regarded as important enough to represent the city that we love and live in.

It was an absolute honour. An experience that I’ll never forget nor fail to appreciate. I am thankful to everyone involved in making this exchange happen, especially Paul Casey, Stan, Andrea, Russ and everyone at Silhouette Press, the community of Ó Bhéal and the City Councils of Cork and Coventry. The exchange is a credit to both cities; a most respectful gesture to honour the place of the poet in society and the cultural values that the cities share. Long may it continue to thrive, inspire and nourish. Until we’re brought in contact again…Coventry it’s been real.

Ciarán MacArtain


San Francisco (5th-15th October)

Kathy D’Arcy

This was a whirlwind trip, a baptism of fire during which in the space of two short weeks I was immersed in the dynamic, vital poetry scenes of San Francisco and Oakland.

It began with a reading at the Los Gatos Irish Writers Festival. Los Gatos is twinned with Listowel, and I had the pleasure of reading alongside poets Stephen Sexton, Stephen Connolly, Simon Lewis and Caroline Bracken on the panel ‘Irish Poetry: Daring Us To Act.’ My San Francisco guide and liaison, poet Raina Leon, Associate Professor of Education at St. Mary’s College of California, moderated the panel discussion that followed, and the audience joined us in an exploration of the political value of poetry.

Raina, me, Simon, Caroline, Stephen and Stephen at Los Gatos

The event, as described in the festival brochure

Two days later, I read (again with the Stephens, and also with Manuela Moser) at St. Mary’s College, and we participated in a craft talk with creative writing students led by their teacher, poet Brenda Hillman. This is me (above right) reading my curse poem in the traditional stance of the ancient Irish filí, as I tend to do…


St. Mary’s is a small white college set in forested hills, and though it’s dominated by a huge white church (and though, walking the open-air terraces and the pine needle coated pathways that twine through it, I came across several offices reserved for clergy) the atmosphere was open-minded and progressive.


Unlike UCC, this college has a busy women’s resource centre, which I later returned to visit. Its director, journalist Sharon Sobotta, invited me for an interview about writing and women’s rights in Ireland for KPFA, a Berkeley community radio station broadcasting to the entire Bay Area.

That evening, we read with Raina at a more formal event in the college: Writing the World, From Struggle to Joy, part of an ongoing reading series. The following day, I joined Raina’s student educators for a talk about poetry and creativity in education. Of course this became very political too. It’s hard to talk about anything in America right now, it seems, without needing to address what’s happening. In California at least, the mention of the president evoked genuine pain.

For the duration of my time in San Francisco, I was writer in residence at Nomadic Press in Oakland. This tiny press, nomadic as the name suggests, is run by JK Fowler, and publishes beautiful little poetry collections out of a co-operative building named ‘The Department of Make Believe.’ The actual department (the largest organisation in the building) runs creative writing workshops with a social justice theme for children from disadvantaged areas. The walls are papered with ‘applications to make believe’ filled in by the children, and inspirational artwork.

I spent most of my free time here (when I wasn’t cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge) turning my experiences into notes for a long poem and reading the work of the Nomadic poets. As the days passed, the sky outside turned browner and browner, the sun redder and redder. Eventually people were advising me to stop going outside, and every time I got on the BART there was a more colourful array of face-masks to behold. Because California began burning soon after I arrived, and was still on fire as I flew out two weeks later. During my visit, the president didn’t mention this.

Tongo (at the back), Javier (far right), René (second left) and other poets at Alleycat Books, San Francisco (the Mission District)

JK educated me about the Oakland scene, and at his suggestions I went to hear the incredible poets (in the photo above) Tongo Eisen-Martin, Javier Zamora and René Vaz read, and read in turn for them.


On October 13th I read in Nomadic (photo on the right), along with Oakland poet Kevin Kvist (on the left).


My last reading was part of the Litquake festival, a huge, diverse festival that takes place all over San Francisco. I read with Rosemary Graham, Avotcja Jiltonilro, Sabrina Nguyen and other amazing women poets at a vibrant cafe in the Mission. It was wonderful to connect with women writing from so many different perspectives, and to explain to them (as I explained to all my audiences) how difficult things are for women in Ireland at the moment, and our struggle for bodily autonomy. It was lovely to be supported by so many people so far away from my own home.

Raina speaking at Litquake

The day after the Litquake reading, I ran a workshop out of Nomadic Press: I say ‘out of,’ because it was a walking workshop like the ones I run here, starting in Nomadic and progressing around the nearby Lake Merritt. Even in the centre of Oakland it was easy to find peace and tranquility wandering around this urban lake.

Nomadic set up for the workshop (their publications displayed in the background); Lake Merritt

Towards the end of my time, Raina brought me on a tour of arts organisations in San Francisco, including City Lights, where I managed to convince staff to remove the anthology of Irish poetry they were displaying on their shelves. It was, of course, filled with male poets. I knew that a place like City Lights would be on the side of equality, and of course they agreed and asked me to name a more balanced anthology. I could not. Maybe I’ll be able to return in the future, when one has been published.

Just some of the books I brought home…