What a year to win the Percy French Prize for Witty Verse. One of the highlights of the annual Strokestown Poetry Festival, the competition was due to be celebrated with a mighty hooley in the County Roscommon town over the May bank holiday weekend.
And then came lockdown.
“It is a particular sorrow that visits me as judge of the Percy French competition, as the year 2020 is the centenary of the great man,” wrote Margaret Hickey on the festival’s website, strokestownpoetry.org. “We had planned to mark it in a special way, but Covid-19 put paid to that.”
There would be no high jinks after all, no singalong merry renditions of Are Ye Right There Michael, Are Ye Right? or Abdul, Abulbul Amir with my new poet friends in the Percy French Hotel, no hugging Margaret Hickey or hob-nobbing with real poets like Michael Longley or Rita Ann Higgins. In contrast to my wild imaginings, with the times that were in it, the winners were announced in low-key fashion, online on Sunday May 3rd.
There was nothing low-key about it when I saw I’d won though. No fanfare was required as I was momentarily transported skywards to float above a pink cloud. That’s what a French friend once told me is their version of our being “over the moon.” Typical French, them and their beautiful ways with words.
While I’ve spent most of my adult life as a journalist, editor and copywriter, I came to “creative writing” only in recent years and it’s a different kind of pleasure. I use parentheses here, because to my mind writing for newspapers and magazines also requires quite a high level of creativity. Not that my mentor would hear anything of the sort when I started out as a cub reporter in my early twenties.
“Why do you want to be a journalist?” he asked.
“Because I love writing,” I replied.
The innocence of me.
“Then f*** off up a mountain and don’t waste my time!” he roared. “Journalism isn’t about writing, it’s about facts.”
He was a straight-talking, chain-smoking, former Fleet Street hack who despised flowery descriptions and soft intros. My early assignments were frequently returned with whole paragraphs crossed out in blue pen until eventually, I started getting more “Hmm, not bad” responses and finally, “You don’t need me anymore.” But I was never cut out to be a newshound or a court reporter where certainly, you can’t stray far from “He said/She said…” reports. I preferred features, which allow space to explore a subject with colour, context and nuance.
In recent years I started turning my hand to fiction. One day, while supposedly de-cluttering the attic, I started reading a letter from a long-ago boyfriend that jumped out from a dusty old box. (The letter jumped out, not the boyfriend, obvs). So I abandoned the clean-up operation and wrote a short story called Dreams of Flying, which was shortlisted for a Hennessy prize in 2016.
That spurred me to have a go at the Francis MacManus competition on RTÉ the following year. Inspired by memories of my late brother, I wrote Time for You and Time for Me, which was shortlisted and read on radio by the talented actor, Ali White. Listening to her voice, I hardly recognised my own script, which brought home to me the important contribution that actors bring to good storytelling.
I enter competitions only occasionally, for the fun of it. I write principally for the love of it, and I love the fact that the internet has levelled the playing field for indie authors. Large publishing houses spend a lot of money cultivating and marketing a small, select number of authors. But now we can all have our voices heard, which I did by self-publishing two books, a novel called Sink to Slumber, and My 1916: What the Easter Rising Means to Me, a collection of personal stories first published in the Irish Independent.
I often turn to writing.ie as a resource for information and inspiration. I enjoy getting different perspectives from other writers and catching up with literary news. It was here that late last year I spotted a notice about the Percy French competition at the Strokestown Poetry Festival. The brief for entrants was not to try to emulate Percy French’s comic style, but to let our own creativity loose with a poem which would embody the spirit of the Witty Verse.
I’d been ruminating about a study carried out by the University of Washington a couple of years ago which showed that Irish women had taken seventh place for global drinking. If the late teetotal commander-in-chief Matt Talbot could stop spinning in his grave long enough to have a word with us, what might he say?
So I went off to my happy space in the quiet of my bedroom, with only the laptop and two small fur babies for company, and started writing Ode to mná na hÉireann by the ghost of Matt Talbot. Margaret Hickey described it as a “concrete poem.” I had to look that up. A concrete poem, I learned, is one whose words are formed into a shape that reflects the content of the poem. This is what she had to say about it:
“The rebuke of the women of Ireland for their feckless drinking is wittily presented in the shape of a wine glass. The poem begs to be read aloud and it’s a beautifully crafted diatribe in the voice of the late Matt Talbot. He accuses the women of Ireland of being the seventh greatest drinkers in the world, drunk as skunks. It’s an impassioned plea, with scientific backing, for them to stop damaging their health and he urges them to pour the booze down the drain. Why? Because he loves them. The pure Dublin twang of Matt Talbot’s voice comes across, the rhymes are clever and the rhythm speeds up as he gets increasingly frustrated. It’s a very well-judged comic piece.”
I opened a bottle of bubbles to celebrate. Sorry, Matt.
Ode to mná na hÉireann by the ghost of Matt Talbot
whine o’clock is not good ye
know mná na hÉireann yer
merry-makin a holy show
of the irish nation instead of
bakin scones and bread and
tarts ye’ve taken seventh place
for global drinkin mother mary achin
head must be rollin in her grave thinkin of
how ye took the pledge and look at ye now fully
fledged drunk as skunks off yer heads on fruity
reds and cheeky whites and sometimes just for fun
blue nun leisure time is measure time and mother of
the divine would ya look at the size of the glass it’s
in yes i know you don’t like to keep things bottled
up but ye’ve gone to another extreme it seems a
study was done by the university of washington
that shows yizzer doomed unless ye abstain
pour it down the drain there is no safe
level the booze is the devil are ye
listenin wimmin of ireland
i love you
i love you
to my arse
(c) Celine Naughton