This post will feature a triple bill of talented people, doing a variety of talented things.I’m going to try not to gush because I’m awfully fond of all three of them.
It must be almost five years since I first met Manuela Moser and Stephen Connolly. The first thing I noticed about both of them individually, and later collectively, was the very high quality of their hair, (Manuela: French-style bob, Stephen: early-era Dylan mop), also they wore a lot of black which, at the time, having had limited experience with poets, I assumed was a kind of uniform. I remember sitting in the not-yet-defunct coffee shop of the Ulster Hall giving Stephen a, probably very patronising, pep talk about running literary events and everything he’d need to learn if he wanted to make The Lifeboat readings a success. At this stage the readings were still taking place monthly on the Belfast Barge, showcasing one up-and-coming poet beside a more established poet and producing a small pamphlet of new work. This was the era of cramped, sweaty rooms, pounds in a pint glass, Ben Maier and Charlie setting her hair on fire with a tea light. We were all young, (or at least younger). We loved words. We loved arguing about words and we mostly loved being around each other. Sometimes we couldn’t believe how lucky we were, or maybe we hadn’t quite realised yet. I’m pretty sure none of us thought this could last.
Fast forward four, maybe five, years and thanks to the hard work of Stephen and Manuela The Lifeboat is still sailing, albeit in a different, slightly more land-locked venue. We’re mostly all still here. Some people have gone overboard, (I’ve learnt about extended metaphors in the interim), other have joined. The Sunflower has become a kind of second home for great poetry in Belfast and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve stood at the back by the door and thought, “I really wish I could write like that,” as one poet after another devastates me with their ability to place exactly the right words next to each other. Stephen and Manuela have managed to make a good thing last and I want to salute them for all their hard work and enthusiasm. The Lifeboat has been much more than a reading series: it’s become a community for most of us, a rallying point in the midst of some terrible seasons and an unswerving example of what good writing should look like. The night I found out my job was ending I still went to The Lifeboat and mostly cried all night but it was the only place I wanted to be because I knew all the people who hold me together would be there. Anyone can host a reading series, it takes a pretty special pair to drive something this special.
Which brings me to this week’s developments. Manuela and Stephen have been working hard to make The Lifeboat even better than it already is. On Tuesday they launched their first publication as an independent press. They received no funding to do this. They are not beholden to anyone so all the creative decisions will be their own. All the money for this venture was raised by local people who love poetry and want to support new writers. The Lifeboat will fill a massive gap in the publishing industry here in Northern Ireland, providing young poets with an opportunity to see their work professionally published for the first time. It’s a kind of lifeline and also a defiant gesture in an arts scene which has been decimated by recent funding cuts. We’re not only writing great poems here in Belfast, we’re publishing them too and I couldn’t be prouder of Stephen and Manuela for the hard work they’ve put into this so far and the years of hard work, commitment and success I know they have ahead of them.
Last, but never least, I also want to commend Padraig Regan, whose pamphlet, Delicious is the first of The Lifeboat’s publications. Padraig is one of my favourite people in Belfast, for many reasons including fashion inspiration, wit, kindness and intricate knowledge of Holby City plot lines both past and present. He is also a blindingly talented poet. He writes the sort of poems you can actually taste. They’re visceral, wickedly funny and clever in a way which can only be fully understood if you actually know Padraig himself. Yesterday I spent a wonderful hour with a glass of wine in one hand and Delicious in the other and it is testament to Padraig’s writing that my first thought upon finishing the collection was, “I really must go and track down some Stilton.” Marks and Spencer’s should be paying Padraig to run their advertising campaign. These aren’t just poems about food. They’re almost edible poems about food and the sort of people who eat food. Delicious is on sale in No Alibis and online from www.thelifeboatbelfast.co.uk It’s bright pink so you can’t possibly miss it. It’s an amazing collection but more than this, it’s also a testament to what can be achieved with a great deal of talent and hard work. Some people were just born to be brilliant.