Stephen James Smith doesn’t like blowing smoke up his own hole even if it’s smoke from the Poolbeg Towers. However, these last two weeks have been somewhat strange for the poet as his poem Dublin You Are – written for the Dublin 2020 capital of culture bid – captured peoples’ imaginations getting over a quarter of a million hits on Facebook and Youtube. It made him into a reluctant viral star as his Dublin resonated with hundreds of thousands of people online.
This collaboration all started when Stephen was approached at the Body & Soul festival back in June and asked would he contribute a piece. He had just come off an impromptu performance at Myles O’Reilly’s Arbutus Yarn Stage where he performed a number of poems including Louis MacNeice’s ‘Dublin’.
That poem starts, “Grey brick upon brick,” and Stephen used it as a stepping stone to his version of Dublin in verse, “Having recited the poem so often at gigs it had become a part of me. The idea of opening with that line is to show that I’m aware of what’s come before me and this is where I’m going with it.”
With a commission like this comes a certain pressure, “I was worried and sceptical at first. Normally writing for me…I’ll just write about what I want to write about. Being commissioned is a different kettle of fish and I haven’t always enjoyed it in the past. But I thought, look-it, it’s my city and I’ve strong feelings about it. And if you’re afraid of something it’s kind of what you should be going towards.”
“Funnily enough, I wrote most of it on a flight to Denmark and the first public reading of it was done in Denmark while on tour with Enda Reilly (Stephen plays bodhrán and recites with the musician).”
The poem captures a modern and multicultural Dublin, “For me, especially in light of the discourse going on around the Abbey this week with #WakingtheFeminists, I was conscious of making sure there was a fair reflection within the poem of all the different voices. Dublin is evolving and it’s important to not just boil it down to a white Dublin man and his experiences.”
The poem calls on people to recognise and welcome the multiculturalism inherent in the city today, but Smith is keen to point out that this diversity is nothing new, “Looking at what is going on in Syria at the moment with the refugee crisis I think we should be, as a society, more open. I mean in Ulysses, look at the main character [Leopold] Bloom, he’s a Hungarian Jew and that’s the most famous novel in the English language and it’s set in Dublin. Joyce was aware of the different cultures in his Dublin and we need to be to aware of the different voices represented in our city.”
As with anything put out there on the internet the reactions weren’t all positive, “Someone said, ‘Ah you didn’t mention any of the drugs or the gangland stuff.’ But I did mention Veronica Guerin. My idea there is that you don’t have to be too verbose. Poetry is a distillation and just by purely mentioning her there’s that loaded context without me having to go – we have this and we have that.”
“Everybody mentioned is mentioned for a specific reason and to bring their story into the overarching narrative of the piece. I don’t think you can say it glorifies Dublin.”
There were a few famous listeners amongst the droves including Roddy Doyle. He has since contacted Smith and commissioned him to write a poem for The Irish Times in 2016. It will look to the Dublin of the future, “I don’t necessarily want to be pigeon holed as the ‘Dublin poet man.’ I’ve met Roddy now and again through volunteering at Fighting Words and running a poetry night out there with Theo Dorgan, so I’d be on his radar. But it is a bit weird having Roddy emailing you asking you to write something.”
In recent years the spoken word scene in Dublin, and around the country, has never been stronger. Stephen is now a co-director on the first dedicated Spoken Word Festival in Ireland, Lingo Fest, which has just finished its second year,
“Who would’ve thought that you’d have people queuing in the rain to get into a poetry gig that was already sold out.” He’s referring to the headline act of the festival, Saul Williams, who played at The Button Factory on October 18th. That success was only possible on the back of a myriad of nights that popped up across the city as a vibrant scene developed.
Stephen ran The Glór Sessions for 160 nights in the International Bar and took it around the country, “I used to go to the open mic music nights and say can I do a poem and I’d be told to, ‘Fuck off’. The Glór Sessions came about one night in Eamon Doran’s when I met Jacqueline Tuck. She had a night in the basement of The International. She’d ran that for seven years. When I took it over I added poetry.”
From that basement he built an audience and took the Glór Sessions to nine festivals including Electric Picnic and Dublin Writers Festival, “Back then festivals weren’t as open to Spoken Word. But if I could email a festival director and go, ‘I have this relatively successful gig. I will programme time on your stage. You give me some bob and I’ll pay the artists.’ That is music to their ears. Festivals were happy to take me in to do that.“
“At that time, to the best of my knowledge, it was the only weekly poetry night in the capital city. Now you have twenty-four regular poetry nights in Dublin [some are monthly]. I’m not saying I pioneered that but it helped having a weekly night going on where collaborations could build. So did the other nights like Nighthawks in Cobalt Cafe and Brownbread Mixed Tape in Stag’s Head and others.” These were all instrumental in building the scene that formed the foundation and audience that allowed Lingo Fest to thrive over the last two years.
Soon enough the artists behind Lingo Fest will get together to look at programming the event for 2016. Lingo’s position in the festival calendar is secure for the foreseeable future. For Stephen James Smith he’s doing the final edits on his first collection of poetry which he hopes will be out by Christmas. It is being published by Arlen House, probably best known to us as the publisher of Eavan Boland.
Illustration by Stray Lines artist Debbie Jenkinson