Eileen Casey – Bringing Live Arts to Secondary School Teachers

Eileen LE Y P&W June 2022

Download PDF Here Live Encounters Poetry & Writing June 2022.

Having a BLAST – Bringing Live Arts to Secondary School Teachers
– Guest Editorial by Eileen Casey.

Sycamore tree seeds. Photograph by Eileen Casey.
Sycamore tree seeds. Photograph by Eileen Casey.

It is indeed a little daunting being faced with a group of young teenagers. Generations apart in age from them, yet at core, my inner child just as lively and willing to be playful. I make no bones in saying that exploring the children’s section in bookshops and toy stores is not beneath me. Theirs is a world of magical transformations, colour and curiosity. At this stage of my life I’ve no intention of going ‘gentle into that good night’ of ‘jaded’ sensibility. No, I’m happy to report, far from it. There’s nothing I like better than creating from clay, paints, pieces of fabric, pipe-cleaners (brightly coloured) and much more. It’s a mighty Empire this. Built from the bricks and mortar of childhood energies, the ‘innocence’ pre the Blakean ‘experience’ and then the combination of both. Balance.

But being faced with a group of young men and women who have little or no experience of poetry is a challenge. Fortunately, I have enough poetic passion to circle the globe. Years of writing and teaching equips me to meet this challenge plus my constant interest in how language works, how it can create its own special form of magic. Language makes magicians of each and everyone. But it’s no harm preparing triggers and prompts, word games and puzzle solvers. Like the snake charmer with his basket, I want to lure poetic creatures from sleepy coverts, to uncoil out into a smooth, clean line. Regardless of age, gender, culture.

Eriú Community College is a brand-new educational establishment. Located in Dublin 15, it’s named for the Goddess Eriú, from whom Ireland (Éire)gets her name. Over the following weeks, we read, wrote, collaborated and some of us even ‘ate a star’ and showed us how to. Structuring a poem is half the battle. Poetry Ireland’s ‘Written in the Stars’ poetry day 2022 theme, ensured we took a close look at the heavens, at nebula star nurseries, shaping and naming constellations, playing ‘what if’ with our imaginations. But first things first.

In the words of Yeats; ‘A symbol is indeed the only possible expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame”. One of the first activities we engaged in was to begin the creation of a personal crest, based on our name. Eileen, means ‘Bringer of Light’ so to symbolise this meaning, I created a crest which had candles to represent light. Also, a story unfolded; as is the way with all generators of narratives, drama and resolution. Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales being the overarching subject of our sessions, it was necessary to create a story themed around ‘balance’, a world where sunlight and darkness could co-exist. Therefore, in the great battle between these two female forces (yes, in my narrative, they were powerful females), a catalyst needed to be invented. During the first session, each student received a tree card and a bird card to feature in their own story. My tree was the Sycamore and my bird, the sparrow (the bird representing forgiveness). And so, an explanation for balance and the necessity for same came from such humble story beginnings. The Sycamore is closely associated with Egyptian myth and is said to represent a reaching out and a burrowing down. Deep roots delve as far as the underworld while healthy, leafy branches hold up the skies.

As luck would have it, during our sessions, the Sycamore shed its tiny helicopters all over our neighbourhoods. At home, I held some leaves to the light and photographed them. Translucence/luminosity became the words of that particular session. Sycamore leaves are glossy yet delicate. Shaped like hands, we looked at similarities between objects and shape and how this translates to poetry i.e. length of line, syllabic count, the long and the short of it. Hands drawn on a sheet of paper provided five lines but also an antler shaped poem and a particular poem too, the cinquain (2/4/6/8/2 syllables).

We looked at various forms; Haiku, taking snapshots through language. American poet Robert Frost once said that writing without form is like playing tennis with the nets down. Having a map is a way forward, a blueprint. But these young men and women were new to poetry writing and were recharging their poetry batteries, a very important part of the process. Technology is a good thing. We all agree on that. However, I couldn’t help thinking back to myself at their age. My hunger for books and reading was insatiable. The sight of my own handwriting on a page gave me such pleasure. But it’s a different age now I remind myself.

Everything wasn’t rosy in my childhood education garden either. Wonderful nuts and bolts (for which I’m ever grateful) but no art. No creative time to play with colour, to capture a night sky or a new dawn. And here I was, in Eriú, in a beautiful state of the art creative space, complete with piano. Darren, the Art Teacher did Trojan work with the individual crests outside of the sessions. A huge amount of work went into them.

Word games proved popular. I looked to Old Norse and Old English poetry. Kennings. A figure of speech where two words are combined in order to form a poetic expression; Couch-potato (lazy person), tree-dweller (bird), book-worm (reader). Smaller groups were made and we kenninged to our hearts content, one side of the room having to guess what the particular kenning referred to. Different coloured dice also generated excitement i.e. roll the green dice, whatever number it fell on i.e. six…so, a six letter ‘green’ word…i.e. leaves. And so on, with red, blue, orange…indeed, any colour you wish. I just happen to have these coloured dice.

‘Devilish Dilemmas’ proved intriguing…making choices between one superpower or another (having a photographic memory v becoming invisible for a day). Having choice in the first place is liberating as is the ability to create whatever universe desired completely from language. That’s a heady prospect. Above all, I wanted to go back to the traditional pen/paper, the connection between these ordinary tools and the thinking process. Flexing the writing muscle is every bit as important as feeding the creative mind. The fantastical is not possible without the humble pen/pencil, sheet of clean paper. Oh yes, text can be typed onto the screen but that’s not such a great idea when writing poetry. The screen fools you into thinking the poem is complete. On a basic level, it’s lovely to look at the drafting process, those crossed out words, small errors which prove gateways to discoveries. As Joyce noted, mistakes are the portals to new discoveries. ‘Mistakes’ while writing poetry are actually very crucial stepping stones. There’s a few lovely photographs included here of handwritten work and yes, work crossed out…lovely.

Being mindful of nature is achievable. Seasons, weather, taking time out to ‘chill’ with trees, to watch a bird building its nest. I spoke about a sighting I’d had in my own neighbourhood recently, how a crow tested a twig, working it through his beak from beginning to end, making sure it was strong from beginning to end.

Everything is connected in this world, from the obvious to the bizarre. The world will never let us down, always giving us surprise, shock, delight, anger but never, ever boring. We talked about the arrival of swallows, their heroic journey across 10,000 miles from Africa. How sometimes they lose their way, that familiar landmarks that signposted their journey disappear, causing them distress. My husband John comes from Muckross, County Killarney. He grew up in a converted stable on the Muckross Estate and when our children were small, we spent our holidays there. Years later, when that house was being refurbished we visited again, seeing a dead swallow on the remnants of a tiled floor once so dear to us. She had lost her way because the ‘map’ of her surroundings had changed. We discussed maps, the reverence of place names, how maps orientate us and keep alive places and settings, mountains and rivers we visit. And that’s it’s always better to be specific rather than vague when using place names in a poem.

We looked at the heavens, mother earth and under the sea. Poseidon and mermaids. We invented a mermaid narrative, whereby Mermaid Pearl wanted to be a dragon and so, she stole the fiery colours from coral. Teacher Valerie, showed some gorgeous images of coral which brought the session alive. Coral and Nebula were strikingly similar. Ocean and sky. We wrote a poem about climate change and how our actions can sometimes cause damage but that we can still aspire to be something that seems unattainable …just to achieve it in a sustainable, respectful way.

Bringer of Light Crest. Photograph by Eileen Casey.
Bringer of Light Crest. Photograph by Eileen Casey.

Part of the structure of the session was to demonstrate the value of women warriors, women from myth, legend and fairytale and ‘ordinary’ women alive today, contributing enormously to science, literature, medicine, sport and art. They are many. The world of animals and their place in narrative was explored. The story of the Cú bird (from Mexico) highlighted how vanity can be our downfall, the white horse that carried Oísin to Tir na Nóg. Werewolves, kelpies, dragons, unicorns, the backbone of the fantastical. Irish mythology, legend and fairy tale is both familiar and yet, unique. There are similarities and cultural differences in other such narratives but at their heart, there are common threads which unite us. My thanks to Eriú for their always warm welcome and to Darren, Valerie, Helen and Siubhan who made everything so pleasant and achievable. Thanks to Michael, headmaster of Eriú, there is much to be proud of.

© Eileen Casey

Originally from the Midlands, based in South Dublin, Casey’s poetry is widely published in anthologies by Dedalus, New Island, Faber & Faber, The Nordic Irish Studies Journal, Jelly Bucket (USA), Orbis (UK), PigHog Press, Abridged, The Ulster Tatler Literary Review, Poetry Ireland Review, among others. Poetry awards include: The Oliver Goldsmith International Poetry Prize, The Hannah Greally Award (Roscommon Libraries), and a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship, among others. Runner up in Poetry Ireland, Trocaire Poetry Competition, 2018. Shortlisted in 2022 Irish Times National Poetry Award. Also received an Arts Council Agility Award, 2021 and a Heinrich Boll residency (Archill Island). She is a regular contributor to poetry journals and magazines. ‘Bog Treasure’ (Arlen House), her sixth poetry collection formed part of an exhibition ‘The Strange Case of The Irish Elk’ in collaboration with Canadian Sculptor, Curator, and Anthropologist Jeanne Cannizzo. Supported by an Arts Council Project Development Award, the exhibition went on show in Vancouver (BC) in September, 2021. ‘Treasure’, a short film featuring Casey’s bog poetry and the photography of County Offaly Photographer Tina Claffey was commissioned by Offaly Arts, for Culture Night, 2021. ‘Bogmen First and Last’ (Fiery Arrow Press poetry) received a Creative Ireland Award, 2021. Casey’s previous collections published by New Island, Arlen House, AltEnts, Rua Red Art Gallery.

One Reply to “Eileen Casey – Bringing Live Arts to Secondary School Teachers”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.