When I was 12 or 13 (and still kind of friendless) at Coleraine Inst, I would spend most lunchtimes indoors, wandering the shelves of the big library at the school. Like everything else in my first couple of years at that school, the room seemed enormous and complicated to me, with a balcony, and imposing portraits of former headmasters glowering down on damp teenagers hiding from the rain, reading the Daily Mirror.
I didn’t want conversation – I hadn’t found my tongue yet (that would come later). So I had little to say about football or The Clash, and would avoid everyone by hiding out in the baked-dust gloom under the balcony, near the radiator, in the one section nobody else wanted to browse – poetry.
I’d read RL Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verse as a youngster, and craved those rhythms, I suppose. Something soothing and comprehensible and bite-sized. Something I could understand and make my own, in a world that seemed about to overwhelm me with its strange rules and unknowable historical significance. And something you could slip into conversation. A name you could drop that would separate you out from the rest of your world. So I would randomly grab slim volumes of poetry from the school library and take them home, and scratch my head in bafflement at the work of poets like WS Merwin and John Berryman.
By the time I left school and found myself in the big bad world beyond, poetry was something I felt I had to leave behind – a luxury that would have to wait, somehow. But in the late 80s, in some second hand bookshop somewhere, I chanced upon a gorgeous thing: a used copy of A Northern Spring by Frank Ormsby. It had a delicious print of a warplane flying over a rural landscape on the front in blue, and simple lettering. It looked inviting and serious and calm all at the same time, somehow.
The central title ‘suite’ is a series of poems spoken by the dead GIs who landed in Normandy on D-Day, in remembrance of their time spent in Fermanagh, preparing for the invasion. I was completely hooked on the idea that each poem came from a different soul, told a different story, but that all of the stories added up to a larger, enormously sad narrative. It was one of those books you read that you never quite recover from.
When I first started writing songs a few years later, I was conscious that I could inhabit other souls, like Ormsby had done. I loved the idea of putting my arms into the sleeves of someone else’s coat and telling their story. It became – and remains - a big influence on me, and I recommend it constantly to other songwriters, as a personal touchstone.
Over the years, I have returned time and time again to A Northern Spring, and I’ve read Ormsby in a number of anthologies – his recent collection, Fireflies, is also a classic.
On Friday past, as I arrived at No Alibis, I noticed a new Ormsby collection on display – Goat’s Milk: New and Selected Poems, published by Bloodaxe. I immediately told David Torrans I was having a copy of that, and purchased it. And as we were setting up for the concert, I recited a couple of poems and announced that I wanted to read a couple of them during the show, and plug the upcoming launch – at The McMordie Hall in Queens on March 25.
After the soundcheck I went off for a bite to eat, and when I came back, David said: ‘Guess who’s coming to the gig tonight?’ He had called Frank and invited him to the show. And so it was that Frank Ormsby got to be my special guest at No Alibis on Friday evening, reading a couple of poems from the new collection. What a gentleman. What a writer. What an evening – a real high point of my performing life.
Now... If you like what I do, you’ll love what Frank Ormsby does – there’s a direct influence. I urge you to call at No Alibis (on Botanic Avenue in Belfast) and pick up a copy of Goat’s Milk (which has an introduction by Michael Longley, and which contains many of the delightful poems from A Northern Spring - and some glorious new works, too), or even better, come along to the McMordie Hall in the School of Music at Queen’s on Wednesday March 25 at 6.30pm, when No Alibis will host the launch event. I’ll be there, in continuing celebration of this man’s work, which continues to move and delight me.
For more details on the Goat’s Milk launch event, get in touch with No Alibis directly on (028) 9031 9601.