First, two pictures (below). First, with Booker 2022 longlisted author Audrey Magee, and second with noted poet Siobhan Campbell, whose workshop I attended at the literary fest JHSS in Armagh last week of July.
For the first time ever, I went to a weeklong retreat (of sorts!) and carried with me only a jersey jacket (My LSE jacket, no less!). I was being frugal and light. It’s another matter that I carried a dress for each day, and a leather raincoat, and face packs that I never used. I was too tired at the end of each day for any self care, but was I not happy? Finally, I was in the middle of poets, writers, whose company I have craved all my life. Did I make friends? Time will tell. Some of us exchanged cards, emails, phone numbers.
The workshop with poet Siobhan Campbell was enriching. A good group with (emerging) poets of all groups and ages. I like listening when I am in a group (and those who have done one on one with me won’t believe this), and I therefore enjoyed listening to others’ poems, reflected, learnt.
Events were smartly organised, I think. The organisers did a very good job at bringing together a diverse range of subjects and people to listen to and read. I attended as much as I could, and mostly skipped evening get togethers at pubs (primarily because too many pub outings tire me so skipping these is an act of self preservation against drunk networking. Often, the the camaraderie of heart-to-heart at pubs disappear as soon as sanity returns, so no sweat, I am just glad I could wake up still wanting to attend the morning events!).
My three dinners were at the hotel eating their excellent chicken mushroom with leek sauce and rice, with coke or hot chocolate. Alone, this helps me think and recharge. That’s just me, I am sure the pub outings were cool too. I have learnt, after years of networking and loud office parties, that in the end, you do what you do, no sweat over what tires you. Everything and everyone is fun, but you can choose your kind of fun. For me, a quiet evening after a long day does it. So that’s most of the week at JHSS after very stimulating long days spent attending events and listening to amazing authors, activists, poets, academics.
I loved the opening event, a powerful talk delivered by Olivette Otele, academic at the University of Bristol. Nandi Jola’s reading at the JHSS and Victoria Kennefick’s especially, and later the session where Audrey Magee read from her novel The Colony which is in the longlist for Booker 2022. Ms Magee was a journalist before she turned a full time author and that was the pull for me. I am now interviewing her for my newspaper in India and will share updates when I can.
There is a network theory which I am constantly referring to in my Business History research – the theory of weak ties. The argument is for people to mix with a wider set of people, total strangers, as that enables information flows that help future prospects in life. Research is robust and more and more evidence springs up as we speak. I love this. That’s what I think is the idea behind such events. You go, you mix, you get to know people you don’t know from before, while the event makes sure you are still on the literary landscape as you wander and explore. On one hand, the event brought forth many people who seemed to know each other, there were many who were first time attendees. Then, among the group, there were groups of students with a university or department affiliation, who seemed to know each other from before, and kept to socialising among their age group or circle of comfort. So, in all that diversity, I did see a ghetto.
As writers, we crave audience, empathy, without barriers, labels or ghettos. When we turn to those we already know or groups or affiliations we are comfortable with, it can be limiting, not in a nice way. A few of the older people during conversations did mention feeling left out or ignored or unseen or unheard when they encountered those ghettos. In future, inclusivity measures could look at mixing up participants from all ages and backgrounds, and not just in workshops but also in residential arrangements. One word of admiration for the organising team: they were a bunch of warm, enthusiastic people, true lovers of literature and writers. Everyone on the bursary had their personal attention and care.
What was immensely inspiring was the sheer number of people who came because they had taken up literary writing (I say this because everyone writes in Ireland but there is a point when writers in us realise, oh, it’s time to take this seriously so that’s what I mean by literary writing) after years of holding other jobs, or retiring from regular jobs. The oldest person I met was 77! Looking at them, I came back inspired. Writing is a long horizon and we must all strive on. The passion to endure the labor of writing for decades must stay alive. When you attend events like the JHSS, this is what you realise, among other things.