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Coventry Cork Poetry Exchange First Leg

Somehow in the space of 24 hours the people of Cork had already carved a home out for me in words, pebbles and standing stones.

After meeting Paul at the airport we took a look at the city from on high, a hotel balcony with a panoramic view of the city in summer sunlight. Stabled in the Handlebar B and B we walked, 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, surrounded by water in the same way Coventry city center is surrounded by the ring-road. The center is collected and 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 O Bheal 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, ear-less bust of a horses head on the bar, just knocked up by someone who used to work here – it’s sister is at the University. Cork is a city of creators. The famous O Bheal 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 fifteen minutes. The diversity of subject matter and the quality of the writing was inspirational. We listened to an impassioned speech and a poem, by Cork's Deputy Mayor Cllr Kieran McCarthy, who eloquently expressed his passion for history and culture and his support for the Arts. Russ’s and my own headline readings were warmly greeted and I settled down to enjoy the open mic-ers who were fantastic and expertly compered by Rab. 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.

Next day we met up with Cllr McCarthy again to visit the Mayor of Cork, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald . It was interesting to talk with them both about the pressures on culture in the face of austerity. We discussed 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 some incredible talent, such as David Bowie, who was invoked by Alexis during her reading. I did my best, reading from my new book ‘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 Ciaran and Stan, who we are expecting 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'd love to revisit Cork again as soon as possible, to see

more of the sights but mostly to reconnect with the lovely friends we made. Big, heartfelt thanks to everyone involved.

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