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Why inscribing mini-verses on luggage labels is pure poetry in motion



Hopeful messages: Maria McManus with the small works of art

Hopeful messages: Maria McManus with the small works of art

Printed word: Label Lit creator Maria McManus with poet Olive Broderick and Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council

Printed word: Label Lit creator Maria McManus with poet Olive Broderick and Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council

Dedicated artist: Maria McManus working at home on the art to mark Poetry Day Ireland 2018

Dedicated artist: Maria McManus working at home on the art to mark Poetry Day Ireland 2018

Maria with husband Martin Johnsson

Maria with husband Martin Johnsson


Hopeful messages: Maria McManus with the small works of art

Northern Ireland poet Maria McManus’ novel idea for getting us all hooked on literature goes international tomorrow as 65 poets from Ireland, Europe and beyond pen poems on labels and leave them in unexpected places for the public to find. Stephanie Bell reports.

Maria McManus is determined that everyone can enjoy poetry, which is why she has been bringing verse to the most unexpected places in Northern Ireland.

A passion for sharing the written word has seen her give Belfast a 'Poetry Jukebox' - the first in Ireland - and tomorrow she will again be co-ordinating her now very successful Label Lit event to mark National Poetry Day.

Now in its third year, Label Lit will see Maria (53) joined by a mini army of 65 other poets from around the world who, armed with micro-poems written on luggage tags, will be out and about leaving them in public spaces for people to find and take home.

You might find them on your bus, in your local park or favourite coffee shop or even while leafing through the pages of a new book in your local library.

Maria says: "The aim is to share the written word, so whether it is poetry, a maxim, a gut response, a shout out, the quiet voice, a comfort, a gentle confrontation, or just the plain truth, Label-Lit is intended to be shared and is intended to encourage people in other places to connect in evocative, gentle, human ways through literary art and poetry.

"It is intended to be fun and light and if someone finds a quote which has meaning to them then that would be great.

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"The poets will be out tying their quotes in public places and I have no idea where they will turn up and that's all part of the craic.

"I did it as a project on my own the first year and six months later got into a taxi I had used on Poetry Day and the driver still had the label tied to the front of his cab, which was amazing."

Last year she decided to try and get other poets involved.

She put out a call through Poetry Ireland for 10 others to join her, each taking 20 labels to put in their own local communities.

She was overwhelmed by the response and what started as a small project to bring poetry to people in her own community has now exploded into an international scheme supported by poets across the world.

She says: "Last year I was hoping for 10 poets to take part with me and the response was quick and enthusiastic, and I had 26 poets from as far away as Portugal, Spain, the US, England and all over Ireland.

"This year I decided to try and get 50 poets on board, giving each 20 labels with a total of 1,000 poems being placed in public spaces.

"I have over 60 from as far away this time as Australia, the US, Spain, Portugal and right throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland."

She has countless stories to tell of the joy she hoped people would get from stumbling across a label. Even as she hung labels on willow trees this week in Ormeau Park to promote the event, a school teacher came across them and has decided to make Label Lit a project for the children in her school.

Another of many endearing stories is one of two sisters - one in Dublin and one in Prague on Poetry Day last year - who each found a label.

Maria says: "That was two sisters in two cities in two countries within two days of each other who found two labels."

Maria's passion for coming up with imaginative ways to share the written word saw her presented with an Arts Council NI Artist's International Award last year for The Quotidian Project, which was aimed at exploring ways of putting literature into public space.

Maria came to writing relatively late in life, picking up a pen for the first time in her early 30s.

She just recently published her third poetry collection, Available Light, and has collaborated on a number of plays. She also runs creative workshops.

She says she hadn't given herself time to explore her creative side as she was focused on her career and raising her two girls - Aislin (30), a PhD student at Queen's University, and Orla (25), a law graduate who lives and works in Edinburgh.

She was born in Enniskillen but grew up in a rural community just four miles from the border between Belcoo and Blacklion, a middle child in a family of eight.

Her late father was an electrical contractor who ended up losing his business as a result of the Troubles.

Losing her dad 21 years ago to an illness was, she says, one of the worst moments of her life: "Where we grew up it was a bit of a mixed bag as it was stunningly beautiful countryside, a real natural world against the sinister backdrop of the Troubles and a heavily fortified border just down the road.

"We mainly socialised over the border. My father was an electrical contractor and his business really suffered because of the Troubles and he went bankrupt in the '70s and never really recovered from it, although he did try a couple of times.

"Mum was at home keeping everything together. Dad died from a terminal illness 21 years ago this June and that devastated me.

"It and the breakup of my marriage to my children's father are probably the worst things that ever happened to me. The end of my marriage was a pretty devastating event but on the plus side I have a new marriage and two fantastic daughters who are now grown up and doing their own thing."

After focusing on raising her daughters, Maria decided to study for an MA Degree and also wanted to change her life and do something for herself.

With the support of her second husband, Martin Johnsson, an electronic engineer, she has been able to follow her passion for poetry and the arts.

She says: "I spent many years building my career and bringing my children up and it got to the point when I wanted to do something for me.

"I attended a Writer's Festival in Rathlin Island and that was a life changing experience.

"I then joined writing groups and persisted with it and went on to do a Degree in Creative Writing."

American novelist Toni Morrison is her favourite author and her book Beloved is one of Maria's all time favourite reads.

She says: "That is an astonishing book and has all the dynamics of what we can learn about race, oppression, slavery and poverty."

Yet when it comes to influencing her life and work, she cites the French novelist Georges Perec.

She says: "He really observes the everyday and documents it as something of importance.

"He has been a great influence in terms of showing you how to focus on the here and now, and how to look and listen and how to observe things, which is really vital practice for any artist.

"I think life is very speedy now and we have so much social media that we can so easily be sucked into a virtual world rather than what is happening in the here and now."

Maria is herself a well known figure in the arts world in Northern Ireland and last year was artist in residence along with Deirdre Cartmill for the Belfast International Arts Festival.

It was as part of this festival that the two poets gave the city and the island of Ireland its very first Poetry Jukebox, a permanent installation in the grounds of the Crescent Arts Centre on University Road.

The aim was to give passers-by a chance to pause during their busy day and select a poet to listen to from a list of 20 original works on the jukebox.

All are living Irish writers and most are reading their own works, with each lasting for two minutes.

The idea behind Poetry Jukebox came from Ondrej Kobza & Michaela Heckova as part of the Czech cultural project Piána na ulici (Pianos on the Streets).

Musical installations, especially pianos, are becoming increasingly common on streets across the world.

Belfast's Poetry Jukebox expands the usual auditory offering to spoken word - similar machines are already in use in parks in Czechoslovakia.

The jukebox recently marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement with a special collection of works.

For someone who is passionate about getting poetry to people, giving Ireland its first jukebox was for Maria a real career highlight.

She says: "It is a big deal to me that it is there in a public space for people to use 24 hours a day, every day.

"During the festival itself last year when it was launched, we had 3,400 visitors to it.

"It even has its own Twitter account and people take selfies with it and send a Tweet.

"I was sitting in the Crescent Arts building one day and I saw a child run up to it and press a button. Her mum came along and lifted her up in her arms and they both stood and listened together.

"I feel in our city we have a lot of unsavoury stuff on our walls and in public places, graffiti and bigotry.

"The jukebox offers something really gentle and I have such affection for it."

Like most people in the arts she is concerned about budget cuts and the impact on the wider community in Northern Ireland.

Just this month, it was announced that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has had to cut funding to more than 40 arts organisations, which could force many to close.

The Arts Council said the latest round of cuts amounted to a cumulative reduction of £23m in funding since 2012.

For Maria the cuts spell disaster not just for the arts but for the whole of Northern Ireland. She says: "For me writing is absolutely all-consuming, it is a passion and also extremely hard to make a living at.

"Arts funding has been cut to the bone and at the minute is something like 2p per person per head of the population in Northern Ireland.

"There are 5,500 people in our industry and if that was a factory rather than the creative arts, politicians and the public would be concerned about what's happening.

"The arts do so much at every level in our society, making it a better place for everyone and yet it is so undervalued."

Maria says it is thanks to her supportive husband that she is able to devote her time to her art and says it is the same for the spouses of most people involved in creative careers.

She adds: "It is a precarious life in terms of freelancing but I am doing what I love and want to do, rather than thinking about what wage I could have been on.

"Spouses in the art world are seriously under-talked about and not recognised as they should be. Martin is someone who engages and supports and sees the value of my work. He sees the importance of it."

Maria is the author of three collections of poetry: Reading the Dog, We are Bone and Available Light, and a pamphlet, The Cello Suites. Follow Label Lit on Poetry Day tomorrow on Twitter @labellit

Win a fabulous collection of local poetry

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland in partnership with the Belfast Telegraph is offering one lucky reader a chance to win a collection of books by several of the top poets contributing to this year's Label Lit project.

A total of eight books, including two which are just published this week, are included in the prize. The poets whose work they feature are Maria McManus, Stephanie Conn, Colin Dardis, Olive Broderick, Nessa O'Mahony, Siobhan Campbell and Maureen Boyle. The remaining volume is a collection of work from Northern Ireland poets wryly entitled: "The future always makes me thirsty".

For your chance to win this collection, which is a great introduction to Northern Ireland poetry, simply answer the following question:

What date will this year's Poetry Day Ireland be held?

Email your answer, marked Poetry Day Competition, to info@artscouncil-ni.org

Competition closes Monday, May 7. Winner will be notified on Wednesday, May 9.

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