Letters to The Healing Place of the Soul #FillingTheVoid – Write to Us

Public Art Participation Project – WRITE TO US NOW!

We live in extraordinary times.  We will gladly receive your (emailed) letters to FillingTheVoidProject@gmail.com. We will miss the immediacy of your handwriting and your envelopes, the physicality of the letter, but we will gain the immediacy of your lived experience of these times. We are extending and re-opening our project, but as an online experience, given the implications of Covid-19 – so email us instead.

Tell us what is happening day to day. How have things changed? What is different but good about the changes? What is it that is making you anxious? What and whom do you miss? To paraphrase the French avant grade artist Georges Perec, what is happening, when nothing is happening? 

The motto over the door of the historic Robinson Library in Armagh translates from the Greek, as The Healing Place of the Soul.  We are looking beyond these times. In March 2021, when we celebrate 250 years of the existence of the library, we will mark with a new site-specific dance theatre piece, AT THE MARGINS, based on the letters project and the participation of those who sent us their words. Join in – this is a place to tell us all of human experience in these challenging and unusual circumstances. Let the words talk, and let the words travel the distance, from you, to us.

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In our last iteration of this project, we had hundreds of beautiful, intimate and heartfelt letters in response to our call-out for #FillingTheVoid https://mariamcmanus.wordpress.com/2019/10/30/write-us-a-letter-filling-the-void/. Our writers wrote to the future and to the past, to people they love and about things that matter most. They made us laugh, they touched our hearts and they made us think. They also made us realise that through writing their letters, the opportunity to reflect, record the everyday, and connect with each other, is responding to a deeply held need to communicate.

The letters came from Australia, Spain, the UK and all over Ireland. During Georgian Festival we had many  visitors to the library on the day, and those that came also wrote letters – some were posted there and then, to friends and family from the beautiful Georgian letterbox on the street outside the Robinson Library, and others were left with us for the archive.

This is a time for reflection and a time when we need to connect. We are navigating  new uncertainties about the state of our world and where it is we find ourselves now, individually and with each other. 

This project is creating a contemporary epistolary archive written by citizens – especially the citizens of Armagh, but also from all over Northern Ireland, the border area, the island of Ireland, Britain, Europe and the whole world. Everything in a letter tells something –  the handwriting, post marks, the subject matter, the demographic and concerns of the writer: the letter is a  point in time pen-portrait.  We are also interested in receiving correspondence which for some reason has personal significance to the donor.

Letters are welcome from people of all ages and ethnicities, from anywhere in the world, on any topic they may wish to record. Then we will include it in our archive in the beautiful Armagh RobinsonLibrary for posterity and consider all letters received when were are devising our site specific dance theatre piece – AT THE MARGINS, in March 2021.   

  • If you wrote the letter you wanted to write, to whom would you write it?
  • What would you write about? A letter to your childhood home, the parent you’ve lost, your old lover, those pesky politicians, your heroine/ hero, the generations yet to come, the child in your arms, or in your womb, your idol, the lost, the prodigal, the fictional, the historical?
  • Who would be the object of your letter? We live in such uncertain and turbulent times. What do you have to say …what is the ‘thing’ you can write about in a letter, but just can’t say any other way?
  • Is yours letter to the masses, or to just one person?  To your older self? Your younger self? Your braver self – something for the record.

Letters from anyone, about anything are welcome. 

  Email us : FillingTheVoidProject@gmail.com

Maria McManus (Poet) is the author of Available Light (Arlen House, 2018), We are Bone (2013)The Cello Suites(2009) and Reading the Dog (2006) (Lagan Press). She has collaborated extensively with others producing performance pieces for choir (18, with composer Keith Acheson) dance (TURF and DUST with Eileen McClory) and multi-art form collaborations. She is Artistic Director and curator of Poetry Jukebox, an on-street audio installation of contemporary poetry.

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The case for flourishing now

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Today it is still warm in Belfast. I am sitting at my desk looking out onto the street below. People come and go constantly from the Asian supermarket opposite. Here is a vivid, culturally diverse, gritty and exciting quarter of the city.

I love it that one of the up-sides of more peaceable times here is that we are more culturally diverse, that there are more immigrants. It is a richer, healthier place for that, though I know too it isn’t necessarily easy for people to be here. It’s also a racist place; one full of contradictions; welcoming and hostile, relaxed and uneasy, progressive and deeply entrenched.

In the past, during the Troubles, and I know it is a generalisation, so spare me the corrections and bear with me while I explain what I mean – when people came here, who were from other cultures, for example from some of the countries of Asia and Africa, they were, most often, professionals – academics and medics for example.

This isn’t the case now. The majority of those who come here are working class people seeking employment, economic migrants, those seeking asylum. It means we have to ‘budge over in the bed’ and make room; adjust to learning new things; shift. In the round we are getting on with it, but I can’t help thinking……. let’s just say, we have some way to go. My own belief is that here is better for the diversity new people bring and for the challenges that come with it.

I liked Manhattan for that – another place full of contradictions. A place where people live cheek by jowl with their differences, difficult and all as that can be, whether what causes people to run up against each other is gender, politics, economics, race, sexuality, faith and religion.

Some things are unexpected. When I visited some years ago, I was struck by the fact that however far away I was, here, my own context had travelled with me. The pre-occupations I had at home were with me. The things that bothered me here, showed up and bothered me there too, though somehow, distance also gave a new perspective, and a chance to notice what was the same and what was different, and how the themes of our lives thread together, simply because we are human. I like to think about such things even when I haven’t gotten as far as a thorough analysis; even when all I can do, is continue to notice, to absorb what it is I see and experience – even if fully understanding remains an elusive thing.

There are things to be curious about and a value in being unimpressed too much by grandeur. Grit is interesting – the ways in which we run up against what is difficult and what we do when we get there.

The following is a poem I wrote while in Manhattan some years ago – from the privileged position of tourist and interloper. Unexpectedly, things came full circle for me and I inadvertently stumbled upon old painful memories of home, through old film in the archives of the Museum of Radio and Television. It is a small world. Suddenly I was remembering the death of a schoolboy peer, Paul Maxwell,  in the bombing in which Lord Louis Mountbatten died when his boat was bombed off the west coast of Ireland. Today the sunny day reminds me of the weather that day. I look out my window and the diversity I see around me reminds me of Manhattan.  Our news is full of Parades Commission rulings and ‘the marching season’. Overall, the atmosphere around doesnt feel too bad, and here, a place which was once an old flashpoint of it’s own, in the Lower Ormeau Road – things feel not too bad. In the round, things are so much better more of the time. Change is hard. It’s not always easy and it’s not always good, but it happens anyway, sooner or later. For now, we are on the better side of that. Oh, and here’s that poem…………..

Stepping out of Hotel Thirty Thirty.

for publication in ‘We are Bone’ Lagan Press 2013.

In the hotel

I check the phone book for emigres

and lie there flick-flicking the television from The Simpsons to evangelists

and back again.

wed rink hot apple cider for one dollar a cup

and pass the time in the street market;

organic Vermont cheese, handmade candles,

soap, bread from Connecticut, incense, Camolile tea

and lavender pot-pourri –

anti-abortion campaigners’ placard;

a solitary woman in red shorts

roller-skates upstream

into traffic at ten below zero.

You can get anything you want in this city; any time, night or day. Anything

you want.

Boston Clam Chowder, Lobster Bisque,

Chicken Noodle Soup, boardies, a Kink’s T-shirt,

a Jet’s hoodie, whisky, Thai,

Stiff Little Fingers.

Dog owners stoop

to scoop the poop

and pop pooches

into pouches,

but I’m sure dogs

would rather walk anyway.

The Homeless

sleep on vents from the subway all night and ride any train all day.

A gallery on Madison exhibits them in a window display of phot-portraits –

the subjects hold frames, salvaged from skips, to their faces.

Snaps od someone asleep on a sofa with a Labrador scatter down 5th Avenue,

past a cement mixer painted in pastel polka dots.

I drop a note into the empty carton

below a baseball hat tilted at hand height to me;

he is a child who lifts his face.

In the Museum of Radio and Television I punch in ‘CASTRO’ –

the same episode of 60 Minutes from 1979

turns up Crossmaglen,

Narrow Water Castle

Mullaghmore

the Pope

Paisley

and the British Army on red-brick streets in Belfast

with stoops in the manner of Brownstones;

all the things I had forgotten;

my father

stopping the car in disbelief

on the Queen Elizabeth Road

on a blistering hot August day.

Checkpoints.

Check point.

Dylan Thomas ghosts himself into ‘lamb-white days’

‘the streets suck the stars out of sight

                                      out of the sky……….’

‘Do not go gentle…….’ He belonged to his youth.*

A Veronese hangs in the Frick, outside the Enamel Room

‘The Choice of Hercules’,

[HO]NOR ET VIRTUS

[P]OST MORTE FLORET

Honour and virtue flourish after death.

Flourish after death. Flourish after death, but I am screaming, No. No. Now.

A bag lady washes in the ladies’ room of Central Park Zoo

and she cleans the bathroom every day to give something back to the city.

The street choir sings, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus,’ and the frame cuts to the man who drinks from the bottle of ketchup he found in the bin. He says,

I am Jesus. I am Jesus.

and I believe him.

*  denotes a  quote from poet Derek Mahon, speaking of Dylan Thomas.

Inishlacken

ImageStone. There is just stone everywhere on Inishlacken. I felt compelled to walk the periphery of the island as soon as I arrived. It’s a small place, but encircling it can’t be done quickly. The ground is uneven and changes underfoot often. It takes time to pick steps over the boulders and flagstones and to find a path around the boggy places. If it’s green and plushy, beware.

Greenery often gives way to a soft, squelchy and sodden underbelly and while it is tempting to dander among the flag irises, it’s not smart unless of course your intention is to sink into it. It’s better to step out, surefooted onto stone.

On the Atlantic side of the island, even as late as the summer solstice, I watched a sheep drop her newborn lamb onto a sloping slab of solid stone, exposed to the weather coming off the sea – the wind brought mizzly air and, while it wasn’t colder than about 12 degrees that day, it looked an inhospitable cradle. The ewe was practiced and focused. She licked the lamb clean and nuzzled it in a businesslike and systematic way. Eventually, it staggered to its feet.

The lamb stood, fell, propped itself up on its front legs, fell, and did that all over again and again until it managed a few steps………. backwards………. and fell again.

I only stayed a while to watch them. It felt a bit intrusive to do otherwise, though they didn’t seem at all bothered. At one time this tiny island had a population of 200 people or so. They farmed and lived off the sea.

There are plenty of rabbits – another reason to walk slowly and to take care where your feet go. They burrow deep into the shell midden and the dunes on the east side of the island. Catherine Gaston, a gifted visual artist from Belfast who was also on this residency could hear them underground when she pressed her ear to the earth.

On our residency, we were blessed with beautiful though changeable weather. Catherine, myself and another artist Helen “skuldugery tatu’ McDonnell, stayed out in the schoolhouse overnight around the summer solstice.

The school house, with a view to the small harbour of Inishlacken, late at night - the summer solstice

The schoolhouse, with a view to the small harbour of Inishlacken, late at night – the summer solstice

There is no electricity on the island.  We lit the fire and sat and later, we slept, near it, telling stories, watching the light change, drinking wine. It was still and quiet otherwise. We did have a ‘voice’ join the conversation at one point during dinner. It became a bit of a pre-occupation amongst some of the others next day when we talked about it again. It was a man’s voice.

We were there at the invitation of Belfast artist Rosie McGurran. Rosie has organised this residency every year since about 2000. She followed the footsteps of Belfast artist Gerard Dillon who created some of his most famous works on Inishlacken.

The place itself is charged; there is a life-force about it and the gathering of the artists, apart from being a privilege, has, it seems, some reciprocal impact for the better, on the place  – it’s special. The light, the panorama, the raucous, hiving life of it – everything is alive, whether you experience the place up close, or take a long view. You are in the painting – it might be a Gerard Dilllon painting where you are among the stones, the donkeys, or sitting at the fireside. You might, equally, be within a Paul Henry as the colours of the Twelve Bens shift and stretch the definition of the spectrum of blue/grey/lavender.  On the beach, you step into the well-lit searing clarity of a world created by Mick O’Dea, and in the evening, the playful, imaginative,feminine, fantastic feral otherness, of a Rosie McGurran.

The experience will stay with me for some time to come. I had time and space to reflect on all that has changed for me in the past two years in particular. I am grateful to the people and the place. More later.

Lagan Press Launch

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A promotional video for Lagan Press – publishing the creative imagination of the north of Ireland.
I’m in it, as is Matt Kirkham, Francis O’Hare, Paddy Scully and Tony Bailie. Good work Patrick Ramsey & Verbal Arts Centre. It feels good to be part of the team.