dedicated blogsite to Dave Wood's participatory poetry project in Northern Ireland. Started late August and finishing September 2004, it does a compare and contrast with previous visits 1988 - 1998. Also see

14 Dec 2004

Interview with Zoe from The Verbal Arts Centre - Derry - 1st September 2004

Interview with Zoe at the Verbal Arts Centre, Derry

I have tried to transcribe as much as possible from the tapes interview. At the beginning of the meeting, I discovered that Zoe commutes from Omagh. We talked briefly on this. Discussion on the Verbal Arts Centre follows on.

Tell me what you think about the centre at Omagh

…find it quite difficult to reconcile the idea [of the centre where the Omagh blast took place] . I think it's a good idea to have something there. I think the building itself is nice but it will always be the bombsite. The building doesn't quite fit - it's not vernacular.

Maybe that's why - because it alerts the outside world to the fact that this was something that had been imposed by history or whatever. It's difficult - I've never been into it. It looks quite cold and I don't know what you’d put there instead. It's very strange.

It feels like the people of Omagh are simply getting on…

I think that's maybe an oversimplification. If I'm asked where I'm from and I see their face - the only reason people have heard of Omagh is because of the bomb. I still get very upset talking about it. I feel that most people are the same as myself. I don't thank you'll find anyone in Omagh that wasn't personally affected by it and I think that we aren't actually getting on with it. I think that time has stuck. I don't know how we do move away from it. I don't know how we can get over it. It’s like a little kernel inside. It's hard, cold and it's something I don't feel that I have moved on from. It's heart's gone.

Six months afterwards my daughter was on the train in Central Europe, don’t remember where, but she and a friend were travelling as student representatives and guards came up and took their passports, 'the only thing we can find about you is that you were born in Omagh' and that sort of notoriety is something that sticks.

For the first year afterwards, if I met strangers, I'd say I was from Co Tyrone. I wasn't more specific than that, but I think the reaction's going to be, 'how do you feel.' It’s quite difficult to…

Verbal Arts

We have a neutrality here which we emphasise. The fact that we're sited on the wall, we can see where Seamus Heaney went to school, we can see where Mrs Alexander wrote 'there is a green hill far away', The Fountain, the little sort of Protestant enclave just there and the site of Bloody Sunday just there. And we're, if you like a neutral centre to that.

We tend very much to emphasise that but it's an advantage but also a disadvantage because Bogsiders see us as beside the Fountain, people from across the bridge say 'Oh no, it's over the city side, people from this side say it's walls. We have the difficulty of the street treating resistance to this as a place where verbal arts and it's something that we struggle with. And our siting [is next to] the army barracks. It’s very awkward for all persuasions, it's intimidating to walk into this building and our hope is that when it goes, it will open the space up much more and we'll be able to get on with using language as a tool for all sorts of creativity.

At the minute we do a lot of storytelling, a lot of creative writing, a lot of poetry and puppetry with schools but also with [visitors to] the centre. We would like to think that we could make it a much more thriving place when we do get over people's resistance to coming into us.

Plans for the barracks?

There's a community committee working to develop plans but I don't know what those plans are and we would hope that it would open up the area. There are also sorts of different groupings that work or try to - for the whole benefit - which is fair enough.

The Fountain and the Fountain Project

I've been here three years. I've read it obviously…

Change in the Fountain?

It always amazes me how much resistance there is to progress and in fact the government policy would be for us to address community relations issues not in terms of cultural diversity but in terms of what we would see as being very confrontational, examining problems, Catholic issues per se…, They want us to go for the jugular. They want to in some way pick at the scabs which…is counter productive. But I suppose the rationale behind it is that if everything is out in the open and everything's discussed then we can move on from there, whereas I would be more for bury it underground. And that's probably wrong as it would be there festering away. That would be the sort of policy…

Using the centre

It's used quite a bit. We do quite a lot of work out in schools…

Community Development?

It's not seen as a community centre per se. What we would aim for and this sounds desperately elitist, and I don't mean it to, we would aim for excellence rather than amateur. I think there's room for amateurs but what we would like to feel is bringing excellence of a professional nature as well as amateurs. I think possibly because the fabric of our building is so beautiful we're seen as perhaps a little bit precious. It's not an image that we want to project but it's possible the image that we do project.

I would lie to consider we would impress people by giving them the facility to appreciate the written and spoken. That's desperately pretentious but it's how I really see it.

Creative Writing?

Very little at the moment. We're hoping to develop a much more structured, if that's not a contradiction in terms, creative writing programme. What we're hoping to do is get a couple of traditional creative writing groups going to work towards the publication of work. Not perhaps the community way but by ringing people and getting them published by recognised publishing houses. Again it's concentrating on the excellence rather than the breadth tradition. We've had a writing group which has atrophied. It tends to become a social gathering rather than where writing is a focus. And we want to revolutionise that whole…so we're actually starting again from basics and what we're hoping to do is have several groups with different focus'. One will be the creative writing for the enthusiast of it then we hope to progress to a more stringent kind of creative writing course. We do have an M.A. in verbal and written arts - not a creative writing M.A. We have a very practical focus in it. One of the modules is Creative New Practice were you're given the nuts and bolts of how to put on creative performances of whatever kind, how to do the paperwork and the other legal…all the other things that people don't want to think about but which they actually need to think…It's a slightly different course, there is a creative writing module in it but creative writing isn't the only thing that they do. …(sorry - tape illegible) with the University of Ulster.

Visual Arts

Not very much. We would see the visual arts as not our remit but as something that might be seen in a peripheral way to enhance the verbal arts. We really wanted to focus on language. It's what makes us special. Arts Centres probably handle the visual arts better than we do but we see it as a peripheral to our provision.

Contacts with other centres

We would work with the Nerve Centre but there's obviously rivalry but they have strengths which we don’t and vice versa. And we would obviously recognise their superiority in terms of technology whereas we would feel ourselves to have the edge in terms of language.

(Nice coffee too - Dave)


After the interview, Zoe also asked me to state that Verbal Arts, in conjunction with Fortnight magazine, offers a debating forum.