Cirque des Oiseaux – a reflection on breaking the sound barrier of my own artistic practice.

And so, finally on National Poetry Day – 6th October 2016, Cirque des Oiseaux took flight at Down Arts Centre.



The exhibition is the culmination of a 12-18 month process of collaboration. Basically, the deal was that I would write the text and engage with other artists who responded to elements of the text from their own creative work. The core theme is auguries and auspices – the ancient Greek and Roman art, of interpreting the will of the gods from the flight patterns of birds,  and conversely, sending messages from the people, to the gods.

I am fortunate in that I have had a long-standing and very supportive relationship with the staff at Down Arts Centre. That helped. It isn’t every day that a poet can pitch an idea to an art gallery and broker the exhibition space. Poetry is not something we necessarily and automatically associate with galleries, but they agreed.

Having gotten the gallery space and having wrestled with the theme, I knocked out some poems, then I pitched about for artist friends and collaborators. I also formulated the idea into an application to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The ACES award, which is funded by the National Lottery, is intended to support individuals to develop their own practice. The challenge for me, among many challenges, (like writing new poems – it’s hard!) was to experiment with putting poetry into public space, augmenting the conventions of publication and readings.

My premise, as a professional and full-time poet, is that professionally I can’t afford to sit around and wait for a new book to happen, or to get readings and festival slots, in order to get my work out into the world; I have to generate other ways to do that. I want to inspire other people to do so too, to share what I have learned and to learn from other people.

I am also committed to bringing poetry not only to poetry audiences, but also to people who wouldn’t seek poetry, nor normally encounter poetry – so that literature becomes available in unexpected places, in unexpected forms, at unexpected times.

The other artists who joined me in this experiment, committed a huge amount of their own time and resources to the project and the idea. Their work stands as collaboration and as response, but also as high-quality artistic work from each of the individuals – we are both a group and also  individuals.

So who worked with me?

Simon Waters – a composer, musician and lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. Simon created a soundscape. It is an experiential element of the project for which you must be present. The duration is 20 minutes in total including 3 minutes of silence, voice and abstracted sounds, including a pen writing on a page, pitched sounds created from playing the rim of wine glasses and instrumentation.  It plays through 12 mini speakers, and ripples across the continuum of speakers in simultaneously and slightly but intentionally out of sync. The poem ‘Corncrakes’ is a poem of loss, endangerment, vulnerability and risk-taking and ultimately redemption. To accompany the soundscape the poem appears hand-written on a hand-made, Chinese folding book.


Rosie McGurran is one of Ireland’s leading surrealist artists. A Belfast woman by birth, she retains strong links to the Ormeau Road, but lives in Roundstone, Connemara. Rosie is the artistic director of the Inishlacken Project – which in itself is homage to Gerard Dillon.

Rosie’s paintings are rich in colour and content, deeply feminine, and layered with symbolism,totems,  dreamscapes, and power. It is as if the ancestors are always available, always present. It is as if we are haunted, guided and cared for. She is available, penetrable and open to them and sharing their warmth, wisdom and warnings.


Tom Hughes is an artist I have collaborated with before. In 2009, Tom and I met for coffee to talk about this sequence of poems I had written, ‘The Cello Suites’. When we performed them for the first time, we hadn’t ever rehearsed them, only having discussed them deeply. It was a conscious choice.  It was a sacred and trusting approach for both of us, in responding to the dramatis personae of the poems – we were responding to the feminine cello, the masculine luthier, and the cellist – a sort of ‘suitor’ for the cello. Performances were always dependent on a connected and tuned improvisation.

We have remained friends since The Cello Suites, and I wanted to work with Tom again, though neither of us had a prescription about how that should be. This man, has many skills – as graphic designer, in digital media and film-making in addition to being a musician.

Tom’s film, which intentionally remains nameless, responded to elements of two poems, Peregrinations and Lost. The core themes he has focussed on is his relationship with both his father and his son, his journey in parenting. It is gentle, evocative, deeply sensitive and very loving. More of this, please. The world needs our gentle men. The world needs these tender stories and proof that this too is a narrative of humanity and a narrative of men and what men are. More of this please. More. Just more. His film is dedicated to his mother, Mary Hughes, who died around Christmas last year.


Bernarde Lynn is a fine art photographer. Bernarde joined me on the project in April. A friend had recommended we hook up with each other, suggesting that Bernarde undertake photo-documentation of the Cirque des Oiseaux guerrilla poetry ‘events’ I was doing on our other wonderful national poetry day….

Let me digress for a moment and just celebrate the fact that somewhere as odd as Northern Ireland with its often conflictual Irish and British identities, has the double-dose of poetry days as a result! I do both. Bring on as many poetry days as there are days…. 365 or 366 in a leap year. Yes.

So, Bernarde documented the events and then, we just continued to work together.  She encouraged me to experiment with hand-made books and I encouraged her to join the project and put in some work. Some of her images are those which headline this piece – abstracted imagery of type-written words on artists paper, left out in the rain.

She also made me a gift of the Chinese folding book, which accompanied Corncrakes, reminding me how much I love hand-writing, how it is disappearing, how our ability to read hand-writing is diminishing simply because we don’t see enough of it. Hand-writing … as individual as a signature or a finger-print.



Helen Sharp – an amazing artist who makes films, paintings, installations, cookery,  and writing among other things, has created the most amazing set of Tarot Cards featuring the “Jackdaws of Newtownbutler”. Sequentially and systematically Helen photographed the birds at evening time, against those filthy clouded  Fermanagh skies and created an astonishing set of cards, likening the Jackdaws to tea leaves. She’s right too. They are, especially when we see them presented in this form. At the launch artist and Tarot Reader Heather Allen read the cards for anyone who wished to have them done.14585683_1312240992133047_867460780_o

Helen’s other piece, a multi-media installation in response to the theme, is Modern Ju-Ju for Modern Problems.  Using antique geometry compasses which are soldered to a steel plate, and detritus ( and I use that word in appreciation ) of a voodoo nature, sage leaves, the skull of a bird, a fantastic dead and desiccated swallow, a horses tooth, a spinal column from a small mammal speared on the compass tips, the piece is presented where it will capture and cast shadows…….’cast a bigger fleeting shadow, and spill outwards.'( ref. unpublished poem MMcM).


Irene Uhlemann is a visual artist from Dublin. Irene has had a long-term fascination with crows and with all things poetry and crows (you know who I’m talking about when I mention crows and poetry in the same breath…). Irene produced a scroll, hand-made book a, triptych and a single painting….. all in response to the poems. She worked across several texts, such as Faolán, Lupo, Wolf.,  and Peregrinations ( AKA the poem formerly known as Something for Sunday Morning.…  published by the very wonderful Chris Murray).



Finally… there’s me. I broke the sound barrier of my own practice. The measure of success being, and I am paraphrasing Jonathan Harden here, that the only measure of success worth considering really, is that you ask what the opinion of your younger self would be – my younger self, would say I have achieved something – that I have pushed myself, that I have learned new things about collaboration, about poetry, about daring to …… My younger self would recognise that my feelings of vulnerability along the way were legitimate, but she would applaud me for not having let them swallow me whole, she would say, you kept going and you persisted. She would say, you asked big things of yourself, but you did better than you could have imagined. She would say, you kept people with you, you found a tribe, you found a way. She would say, all ships are floating. She would say

Reset the compass.

Salvage tail feathers and wings,

leave all other bones, the body,

the carcass, the unseeing eyes.

Make of your self

a stern, a sail, a hull.

Drop a plumb-line.

Avoid dry land.


from: Remnant Nomenclature


With particular thanks to Down Arts Centre staff – you have been amazing, trusting, persistent, patient and very kind.

To Simon, Rosie, Bernarde, Tom, Helen, and Irene – you are magical, generous, daring, creative and very, very lovely to work with.I could not have asked for more. You gave me more than I could have imagined.

Thanks are due to Dr. Emily Murray, an expert in ornithological  archeology, who talked with me and shared texts with me about birds at a formative stage of this project, which was invaluable.

Martin -my lovely husband –  you have had my back, every step of the way. Every single step. Every meltdown…….and in everything there has been to celebrate. Here’s to the present and to the future.

Damian Smyth, Head of Literature & Drama, ACNI – for your faith in me and your support in the right ways and at the right time.

Denise Ferran, President of the RUA and a fellow Fermanagh -woman, you have been so generous with your presence, your time and affirmation. It means a lot to me and to all the artists involved with this project.

Liam de Frinse – thank you for being there in the early days and naming the name.

George Szirtes – for mentoring the ‘mentee’ and wrangling with me, and with the text.

Thanks also to Poetry Ireland & the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annamakerrig for awarding me a bursary. ,

Thanks to the Irish Writers’ Centre for awarding me the residency at Cill Railaig.

Thanks to Kultivera  & Coracle Europe for inviting  me to Tranas for the Yeats International Residency.

To Nessa O’Mahony & Peter Salisbury for including me in The Attic Sessions and gave me a chance to talk about the project.

Thanks also to Conor Daniel Kinahan, who it seems was just sent by the gods at the right time and did such a fantastic job of documenting the launch while the rest of us were gadding about talking to each other, and drinking wine and the likes. A big clap hands for Conor – good on you mate – you were a gem.








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