Sometime during the summer of 2012, downstairs in the Twisted Pepper in a little box room where the staff came and went during the show, I performed at my first open mic in Ireland. I remember standing there with a bit of paper in my hand, reading a poem called The Ghost of Fionn MacCumhaill as the words jumped off the page with the nerves and wondering why I put myself through it. The dozen or so others who’d showed up to put themselves through the same thing seemed to enjoy it, but I couldn’t wait to get out of the city and back to Leitrim. I remember thinking afterwards that something had to give; if I was going to put myself out there I owed it to myself more than anyone else to find a way to do it better. So, knowing that the words came from within and were still in there somewhere, I came to be known as a performance poet rather than just a poet, a title, much like Spoken Word Artist, that’s designed to condescend rather than compliment those who take poetry back to its original roots as an oral and aural art form.
I’m not even sure why I’m thinking about that night now, 3 and a half years on, except that the first time I felt as nervous about performing as I did then, was on the Saturday afternoon before the semi-final in Estonia. I’ve shared stages with international superstars, performed to hundreds of thousands of people, and I know it shouldn’t have really mattered, but I guess there’s something about representing your country rather than just yourself that comes with its own pressure, even if nobody really cared besides myself. Maybe it was the nerves, or the nature of the piece I was about to perform about a long-term illness that cleared only after I shared it at the All-Ireland slam for the first time. Such is the transformative nature of the spoken word that in itself should see it as worthy of more respect than it receives from the hierarchy. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have shared it with an audience looking for laughter and finding anything but, but it was worth doing if only for its resonance with the other poets present; those who know and understand the disconnect that can exist between the audience and stage, a bridge that we’re all trying to cross in our own ways. Either way it got me through to the final, but I went from leading the competition after the opening round to fourth place after the semi-final, as the blunt honesty caught a lot of people by surprise and unsure how they should react in the circumstances.
What impressed me most about the event wasn’t the competition itself but the energy surrounding it. There was no major feeling of competition between the contestants, but a broader appreciation of what these events should be; an opportunity to learn from others how they see the world and to take that on board to make ourselves both better poets and better people. In Ireland I’ve all too often found people are so focussed on their own agenda that they feel the need to belittle others to elevate their rank. Maybe it’s natural on such a small island, where the pie itself is so small that those around the table are always on guard to prevent others from potentially eating into their slice, but in Estonia we gave each other the time and the space to live and learn from one another, both on and offstage, and as a result it didn’t really matter who won the competition outright, even if the Portugese contestant Nuno Garcia was a fully worthy champion. Competition has a tendency to consume people here, but the victory could have gone to any one of the poets competing in the final and none of us would have felt aggrieved. That may sound magnanimous but it’s true nonetheless. If I had a regret from the final round it’s only that I did an older untitled poem rather than the Sonnet to a Newborn Baby that I wrote on the day my little man came into the world, but as we had to submit the poems in advance for translation it was too late to change it, even though I knew leaving Dublin airport which I’d rather do if I made it that far.
I’d never really liked slam poetry before Estonia, which may come across as an oxymoron as the outgoing All-Ireland champion, but I’ve revised my thoughts on it after the weekend. There were issues with the organising, (people given maximum points for reading short stories from paper, organisers making up the rules as they went along and all the other issues that are maybe unavoidable at these things), but overall it was an opportunity to come together with ridiculously talented people from across the continent, all speaking of the same basic human needs and desires in different ways and languages.
Last Friday marked the end of my tenure as All-Ireland slam champion, and I’m not sad to part with the title. What saddens me is that I only found out about the opportunity to attend the European slam at the last minute, and was initially told it was already too late in an email that asked why nobody had replied to the request to put forward a representative from Ireland. I don’t know who that email was sent to, but I do know that there’s an unnecessary divide between page and stage poetry in Ireland that we need to transcend and learn to compliment one another to grow as a unit. I also know that Poetry Ireland’s remit should be to promote poetry in and from Ireland, but for whatever reason they declined to do so, leaving it to others who do support what I do to help out with the costs involved in the event. I’m indebted to those who made it possible, but by the same token it shouldn’t have been necessary. The European finals are held in Belgium next year, and I feel it would be a major step in the right direction for all concerned with poetry here if Poetry Ireland got behind Rory Jones on his journey to compete and represent this island on the international stage.
If anything I’ve found that the initial excitement at winning the All-Ireland last November in Kilkenny quickly dissipated into an understanding that at the root of it, it’s just another label in a world that needs less of them. At a time where the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh faces the death sentence in Saudi Arabia, it was a privilege and an honour just to be among fellow poets casting their own light on dark times.
I’ve been invited to Brussels next March to compete at an event alongside the other finalists at the European Parliament Visitor’s Centre. While I’m looking forward to the opportunity, I’m mostly looking forward to the chance to spend a few days with the friends I’ve known for years but only recently had the chance to meet for the first time in Tartu. In the next fortnight I’m releasing the album Of Land and Man as one half of Mac Tire, the other being the gifted musician Finn O’Connor. Our intention is to recapture the spirit of the island that we’ve largely lost touch with and in some respects it’s come full circle, The Ghost of Fionn MacCumhaill has gone from a piece I no longer perform to one of my favourite tracks on the album. It opens another chapter in the book, but to close this one with making it to the final of the European Slam seems a fitting end to the year.