On 14th July I received a phone call offering me a bursary for the John Hewitt International Summer School. I accepted immediately – knowing of the fantastic programmes on offer year after year and just how inspiring a week at the JHISS can be.
I first experienced this immersion in the festival of culture and creativity in 2009. I had, shall we say, been dabbling with words. I had been writing intermittently, had a few poems published and had joined a writers’ group, where I heard about the JHISS. I applied and was delighted to be awarded a full bursary. I didn’t know a single person attending and had not heard of most of the poets and novelists – a reflection on me, not them!
It was an intense but exhilarating week. To hear others read their work and discuss literature with such passion was inspiring. To receive direction and encouragement at the writing workshop (in my case, from Joyce Sutphen) and to witness other people taking their writing seriously encouraged me to do the same. It was also a revelation to discover that writers were indeed normal people.
On my return, I immediately applied to the Masters Programme at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens University, Belfast. Between 2010 and 2013, I completed a part-time MA in Creative Writing under the tuition of Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian and Sinead Morrissey. Returning to JHISS in 2012 was every bit as stimulating and inspiring as my previous experience.
I therefore jumped at the chance to return once more, and it seemed fitting that it was this year. Having published a poetry collection, ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ (Doire Press) and a pamphlet, ‘Copeland’s Daughter’ (Smith/Doorstep) this year, and having spent the last few months on a reading tour and facilitating poetry workshops, I was more than happy to sit back and enjoy the varied voices of the poets and novelists and to participate in, rather than lead the workshops. A welcome rest bite before I head overseas to read at festivals from September onwards.
Aside from the thrill of having my book on David’s No Alibis book stall alongside such fantastic writers and that of seeing someone sitting in the sun reading a copy, it was wonderful to meet up with so many people I’ve come to know over the last few years. To anticipate the readings of poets I know and know of, to be introduced to new voices, to hear of writer’s experiences and responses to questions of a writing life, to be stretched and reinvigorated were all things to be welcomed. It was also a privilege to lend some of my own experience to others starting out.
The standard of the wide-ranging events remains extremely high and I would encourage anyone attending for the first time to attend as many as possible. It’s a packed programme and almost impossible to attend every single event but sticking with events or the genre you are most interested in is, in my opinion, limiting. The various discussions and readings feed into your own creativity and perspective and can ignite and inspire all sorts of wonderful thoughts and ideas.
Of course, the poetry readings were a high point for me. To finally get the opportunity to hear Paul Durcan was a thrill. Knowing someone’s work on the page is one thing but it is always special to hear poets read that work and this was the case with Rita Ann Higgins, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Grace Wells and Tom French. To become more familiar with the work of Catriona O’Reilly and Andrew McMillan and be introduced to the work of Matthew Francis and Jane Yeh was brilliant. Listening to the fantastic work of T.S. Eliot prize winning poets Sinead Morrissey and Sarah Howe, and then receiving an email from your publisher saying they have just submitted your book for the very same prize is somewhat surreal and disconcerting!
I promised myself I would not go mad at the book stall and tried very hard to resist but ultimately failed. My suitcase is a lot heavier than when I arrived and I can’t wait to get stuck into my bag of delights. Having escaped the realities of life for a week, the time inevitably comes to return home and I’m delighted to say that, for me, means getting back to the business of writing.
Find out more at http://johnhewittsociety.org/