When Stephen Gordon calls to say that you are one of the ‘chosen few’, it’s ok to go mental like you have won the ‘Literary Lottery’. You get the feeling he’s heard it all before. You know this place will allow you to be free of responsibility for a while, to explore what’s at your core — the writer. You only realise how lucky you are when the course is over and you’re putting another load into the washing machine from the mountain of washing left by your family, awaiting your return.
The John Hewitt is not any old Summer School. Don’t expect a spa break with 5* accommodation. The basics are covered. It’s clean. If you’re from the North, you will stay in the Royal Grammar School. You will have a bed with clean sheets, pillow and quilt, wardrobe and desk. There’s a shower and toilet down the hall. I was lucky and had a shower in my room that pinned me to the wall each morning. I christened it “beast”. The flights of stairs are not a friend to wheely cases. The large fry and breakfast banter is worth getting up for.
This is not a high brow, chilled-out authors convention where everyone is la-di-dah and dressed to the knockers in all sorts of designer gear. Here, anything goes provided the “essentials” are covered. Comfort is key. Wear layers, a raincoat and comfortable shoes. Each trip between the accommodation and Market Place Theatre is a ten minute walk. There are enough hills to tighten those buttocks better than a Stairmaster.
Armagh in July is the tropics of the North. This year was particularly sultry. Galway poet, Rita Ann Higgins near collapsed with the heat. Paul Maddern wore shorts — I’m jealous of those legs!
Bring a large bag or preferably a backpack for during the day with a notebook, pens, tablet, water, snacks, a credit card and/or plenty of cash. Be nice to the guys at the ‘No Alibis’ stall. Think of them as your “dealers”. You may laugh now, but after poets of the calibre of Jane Yeh, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Sarah Howe, Paul Durcan and Tom French, there will be a stampede. Try as you might to stay away, you will crave that poetic fix. You will keep buying until you end each day like a pack mule. By the end of the week you will need another shelf in your home. Don’t expect sympathy, we all have our load to bear.
I know you’re thinking “What’s she on about? It’s days of sitting around, listening to other people talk about their work. How could that be hard?” Ask any survivor, they will tell you how strenuous it is — if you’re doing it right. Attend all the talks, fiction and panel discussions that you can. Stretch yourself. Go to events you think you have no interest in.
You will be surprised. Mikel Murphi’s “The Man in the Woman’s shoes” brought tears of laughter from a man who spent all week nose deep in books.
Open your mouth — talk to people. You will learn much from fellow inmates about the discipline of writing and how to get yourself heard. You will meet artists from other mediums such as painters and musicians. This is no ordinary group. You are on an intellectual assault course. Think boot camp for the mind.
By midweek there may be fallen comrades, unable to take any more. In any survival course, this is to be expected. If you find a casualty lying on the floor, just nudge them with the toe of your shoe. If they’re alive, they’ll grunt. If they need a bed, throw them into the nearest available empty room. If there’s a problem and you’re not sure what to do, contact Stephen Gordon – MacGyver.
Most writers are bottomless pits for a brew. The John Hewitt panel know this and are well prepared with morning and afternoon tea/coffee and scones laid on. After the breakfast, so big you couldn’t shake hands across, you may think that you won’t eat ever again. You will — having raced out of the lecture hall like a starving pilgrim.
For those taking a break between events, stand back from the auditorium’s main exit door after lectures and panel discussions. The race for the loos is worse than a Black Friday sale. During the day (for the women at least) the main social hub for the Summer School is not the bar— it’s the loo. It’s where you go for feedback and synopsis on an event, to corner a female author for an in-depth discussion or for information on what’s on offer in the salad bar at Sainsbury’s (a short walk from the Market Place Theatre by the way).
Promote the School. Facebook if you can or Tweet. Use the hashtags #hewittrocks and #JHISS. Don’t spend the week (like I did) sending tweets with the hashtag #JHSS – The Japanese Hairset School. They should be pleased, there was some cute hair.
Bring a notebook and pen everywhere. Inspiration strikes in the strangest places. The free writing homework from my Memoir workshop (that I thought I couldn’t do) started to flow onto the notepad app on my phone when Martin Hayes and David Power played their “Unnamed Jig”. My fingers tapped to the beat of fiddle and uileann pipes. I got the makings of two poems.
If you make it through the week, you will get a well earned Certificate of Survival from Northern Ireland’s version of Russell Brand, the Lord Mayor of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council (ABC), Councillor Garath Keating. Some female graduates were so impressed, they went back for a second round.
After five days, and in some cases six (if you stay for the Saturday workshops and I highly recommend you do), it’s time to go home. Despite meeting as strangers on day one, none of us wanted to say goodbye. We were all loitering around, looking at our shoes, not sure if a hug was the right thing. There’s the awkward feeling like leaving a one night stand but wanting more. The words stuck in our heads like the man in Matthew Francis’s “Poem without words”. Eventually, someone charged in — unafraid and we all embraced, exchanged twitter, Facebook and email details. We went our separate ways, loaded up, weighed down and knowing that for once in our lives, we were understood.
When you return home you will find that a good few days are needed to come down, a detox of sorts from your artistic high. Some of my friends and I are experiencing recurrent dreams about still being there.
Will these side effects wear off with time?
Maybe the only cure is to return.