Many moons ago, when I was gigging more frequently and reciting poems and performing sketches, I was lucky enough to be part of a regular night called the Monthly General Meeting, which was a showcase for the most inventive and willdy wonderful creative minds in Ireland. On one of the particular shows, I was on the bill with soon-to-be global musical phenomenon Hozier, as well as Arthur Mathews, the co-writer of Father Ted (possibly the greatest sitcom ever). I recall the gig itself was in the unusual and interesting surroundings of a newly refurbished Georgian building in Merrion Square (it has since become an office building of some sort) For a while Shane (Diet of Worms) and Nial (delorentos) who ran the night, produced a terrific series of podcasts entitled The Weekly General Meeting focused on creativity, and I featured on the debut episode. Take a listen to the episode and I urge you to listen to the entire back catalogue, every one of them a snapshot of a golden age in Irish creativity, amiably hosted and curated by two great artists.
More oddball New York-era paintings of mine from the start of the millennium that I found in the attic. I think I was trying to say something profound about words (palate) and painted visuals (palette).
This is the truth of being a writer. Writing is rewriting.
In 2011, myself, Colm Keegan and Stephen James Smith had an idea. Let’s write something together. We were all involved in the Dublin spoken word and independent arts scene, with each of us running our own nights The Glór Sessions (Stephen), Nighthawks (Colm) and The Brownbread Mixtape (me). We had become friends, and all had huge admiration for one another’s poetry (as well as being fans of the nights that we respectively ran), so, in retrospect it feels like there was an inevitability that we would join forces in some way. This is my version of the journey we took to create that collaborative piece of writing, that would end up becoming our award-nominated spoken word play Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About.
We chatted at length about possible ways to work together on a show of some kind, and I remember those early conversations were just us considering something simpler like a spoken word event, with each of us performing our poems. Essentially a gig by us, for us. Gradually that evolved into a more sophisticated idea of creating a collaborative piece with intertwining poetic monologues, but we still weren’t even clear what that meant.
So, we started to sketch out some initial ideas about what we wanted to tackle in our writing together. We knew that we wanted there to be some kind of link between them, but equally being able to retain our own voices and identities in the piece. So we met for a cup of tea in the Irish Film Institute and hastily sketched out a map of ideas and thoughts on a piece of paper around themes and paths to follow, as well as pondering the structure of the piece. Gradually it started to take shape and we loosely decided that we would write about the big milestones in our life, and how they had shaped us, in three interlinking poems each.
At some point soon afterwards, I think Stephen suggested we take a leap of faith and submit an application to the legendary Dublin Fringe Festival, in the hope that they would take an interest in our idea. While it seems strange to think it now, but the idea of a narrative-driven long-form spoken word poetry show was a relatively rare theatrical phenomenon on Irish stages at the time, so we felt we were proposing something fresh and interesting to the Fringe audience. And the Fringe festival happily agreed. The initial meeting between us and Roise Goan, Director of the Fringe Festival, was a great meeting of creative minds, and she would become one of our biggest supporters for this show well beyond the Fringe festival.
With the imminent deadline of the Fringe festival a few months away, and our own broad outline in place, we each went our separate ways and started writing different long-form poems about big moments in our respective lives. Then, on a weekly basis, we would convene at one of our homes to read out what we had written. It was a moment to air ideas and challenge each other. I remember those moments very well and very fondly (except for the times Colm’s insanely big dog would accost me), where we really pushed each other to rewrite and rework ideas. So often, one of us would read out an unflinching poem that would cause the others to pause for breath, and realise there was a need to dig even deeper and go even further. Those were huge learning periods for me as a writer, and as a critical reader of someone else’s work. All of us striving to make something excellent together.
Over time the poetic monologues began to form into the script as we now know it, with a relatively solid three part structure to each of our respective pieces. It became clear that much of what we were talking about was the idea of being a man. And fathers were a central spine to all of our stories, both our own fathers, as well as myself & Colm’s experiences as fathers too. The title for the show, which seems almost frivolous for a play that went to such deep and emotional territory, was something I said on a whim in that first meeting over a cup of tea in the IFI. But now it almost felt like a perfect disarming title for what was ultimately very lyrical explorations of tough topics like death, love, masculinity, loss, happiness, home, new beginnings…
With the poetic monologues coming together well, we still felt the piece was slightly incomplete, and knew there needed to be a shared piece of writing that bookended the piece. We were struggling to find the right tone and words, so we headed off for one final writing session in my old family home in Waterford. After a meal and a few cans we hit upon the idea of a series of declarative statements about what it means to be a man (that ultimately became the intro and outro to the show). “A man is proud of putting up a shelf“, “A man is two bad mistakes away from having nothing“. And I have very distinct memories of us being fascinated by a pastel drawing my father had done (fittingly of three figures) that hung above the mantelpiece, which almost certainly inspired my line from that section “A ghost in the family home”.
So, at this stage, we had a final script of sorts and we had secured the upstairs of The International Bar for our venue. It was time to embark on the rehearsals. I think we still naively believed we would be able to direct ourselves, and still saw this as something more like a series of poems to be delivered on a mic, versus it being an actual theatrical production so to speak. I recall us having the entire script laid out on the floor in chunks and reshuffling the sections to make them work more effectively in tandem with one another. We definitely had a few different variations until we settled on the final version, which made complete sense and clicked for us all once we performed it aloud. Nevertheless, despite figuring out the structure, it was clear we needed a directorial independent voice to help us bring it to life for the stage. Enter the mighty Sarah Brennan. Sarah was an established actor and director of many years standing, with a rich family history in the Irish acting world. So, we were absolutely delighted to have her on board, and it seemed fitting to have a singular female vision for this text that was written by three men.
It turned out to be one of the best things to happen to the show. Sarah helped us steer clear of maudlin moments and coaxed terrific performances out of all three of us, with both Stephen and Colm never having formally acted onstage prior to this. And my experience was not too extensive in fairness, limited mostly to the Brownbread Mixtape sketches, and, as a kid, a Tom Stoppard show for the theatre company Red Kettle (bizarrely, directed by Sarah’s uncle Paul Brennan!).
My friend and longtime collaborator in The Brownbread Players sketch troupe, Eva Bartley, also jumped on board to help us put together our set. The play was littered with references to photographs and images, so we gathered up several photos of our families and snaps of ourselves from our youth. Eva then deftly wove them together into these simple hanging mobiles of images, that ended up becoming integral to the show.
I still recall the nerves of opening night, not knowing if we would fill the 70 seats upstairs in the International Bar, or if the audience would respond to our deeply personal and lyrical stories. We needn’t have worried, it was sold out (and remained sold out for the remainder of the run) with incredibly moving standing ovations almost every night. Our initial eagerness to get offstage during those ovations, gave way to the fact that this was a unique thing for us all, and we learned to enjoy those moments that the audience gave us. And the critics responded too, with a stunning 4 star review in the Irish Times, which bowled us over.
The show went on to receive a Fringe Award nomination for the Little Gem category, where the winner would receive a monetary prize to restage the show for a week in the legendary Bewley’s Cafe Theatre. It was such a huge buzz to get nominated for our show, and we even dared to dream for a moment, but in the end we didn’t take home the prize. But it didn’t matter, because we had achieved something really special already.
And then all of a sudden the show was done, but there were still loads of people asking us if we would be staging it again, as they hadn’t been able to catch it in the original sold out run. So, we started to explore if that was a possibility and how one would go about doing that. Remember, none of us really knew anything about the world of theatre in Ireland. We reached out to Roise Goan, Director of the Fringe Festival, for advice. As serendipity would have it, she was just about to get in touch with us about a cool new venture Fringe was doing with the legendary Project Arts Centre called Turnaround.
The idea behind Turnaround was to showcase 5 shows from all previous Fringe Festivals that they believed were deserving of another look, and were worthy of being staged on a professional stage. We were one of those shows! We were bowled over by the request and were happy to dive in headlong into the process. And so in April of 2012, with tremendous support teams, we ran the show for three more sold out nights in the Cube theatre space in the Project. It was a really special experience, and far from being over, Turnaround led us to the next part of the Three Men Talking adventure.
On the back of both successful runs of the show, we were lucky enough to partner up with the brilliant producer Jen Coppinger, who helped us take the show on the road to even more audiences. What followed was almost a year of Irish shows around the country (sometimes with a post-show Q&A), including an emotional return to Garter Lane Theatre in my home town of Waterford. I had worked in that very theatre with both my father and mother, and many of the audience were writers, actors and friends who knew them (and me), so it was a unique moment I’ll treasure.
The tour of the show even took us abroad to wonderful rooms (and more sold out shows) at the Centre Culturel d’Irlandais in Paris, the London Irish Centre in London, and the Arnolfini Centre in Bristol (where we had the first sparks of an idea for LINGO festival – but more on that at a later date). We even printed a limited edition run of the script to sell as merch on tour, and that sold out too!
Audiences responded deeply and strongly to it everywhere we went, with each of our specific stories often ringing a bell very pointedly with people. Because of the confessional nature of our stories, audience members were often keen afterwards to share their own tale of losing a loved one with me, or indeed their stories of family that echoed those of Colm or Stephen. The show really meant something to people and that was deeply gratifying.
I seem to recall we did one “last ever final never-performing-it-again” show a couple of times, but after a poetic journey of almost three years, the show had reached a natural conclusion. Our lives had changed quite a lot since the original writing of it, with relationships altered, new children in our lives, and much more besides – so it was time to move on to new creative projects.
It was an incredible journey all told (I didn’t even cover everything here, including an American theatre company asking to stage it Stateside), and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say it was one of the great artistic experiences of my life. But more significantly I formed two great friendships with Stephen and Colm, and we are all still good friends to this day. That is the most remarkable thing of all really. In a strange way, even through we were acquaintances before it started, we really didn’t know each other that well until we embarked upon the writing of the show. But we were honest and vulnerable, and in sharing those stories of our lives, we created a piece of art that brought us together for a period of time. And as a result we got the chance to share a slice of our lives together travelling & performing with the show.
We’ve talked about doing another show together. We even went so far as to do a writing session together, but nothing major came from that. Maybe we weren’t ready yet. Maybe in a few years when the show is ten years old, we could do a sequel… Three Men Still Talking.
Hate writing, love rewriting.
This quote has always resonated deeply with me. As with so many writers, I much prefer rewriting over the act of writing. That first draft of something can be such a tough thing to create, but I love coming back to it and starting to chop away and reshape it into something. Editing is such an artform and if you have trusted friends and fellow artists who you can bounce ideas off in that editing phase, then that is an absolute gift. When it comes to writing, listen carefully to what they say and feel about it. But always keep Neil Gaiman’s words in your mind. If you are hearing regular comments or feedback about a specific section, then clearly there is something going on there that is not connecting with the audience. But only you will have the perfect solution for the thing you are creating. At least that has been my experience.
As a sidenote, many of my friends had been recommending Neil Gaiman to me for ages, and last year I finally took the plunge and read Neverwhere in a few days. I loved his ease with rich details and sharply drawn characters in that quirky fantastical version of London. It was a world I was quickly able to immerse myself in. I found out afterwards it had been written originally as a TV series by Gaiman along with my childhood comedy hero Lenny Henry, so it seemed like the universe was bringing me into a world where many of my heroes congregated in the same corner. I love it when things like that happen.
"Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I’ve been thinking about creative patterns and behaviours a lot recently.
So often we follow tried and trusted paths for our creative pursuits. It’s easier. It’s comfortable. It works.
But sometimes it’s worth taking a chance. A risk. Doing something a bit new. A bit unexpected. Something that might even be a bit scary.
And there is never a right time for that. Do it now. Begin it now.
I love words. It is the world I am most happy in. And poetry is my favourite written form.
Some years ago I was asked to perform some poetry at a spoken word night in Dublin and I decided to play with the very idea of writing itself, and the end result was this poem that toys with ideas of writing and language.
It was a poem I spent many hours crafting and rewriting. The end result is a poem I really love.
the sentence I'm trapped inside this poem, sentenced to burn in here alone. Which means that for the next 30 lines it’s my unwanted home. High time then to plot my escape clause from this overheated verse shaped box, starting by making a ladder from dangling participles and some missing socks; glue it together with predicates deconstructed carefully in their prime, then bind up each end with the finest scented romantic metred rhymes. Then, step by step deconstruct it and hide it under my pillowy upper case, then for a while bide my time, take a beat ... every sentence needs its space. Then as the following few unfolding lines presently grow tense and taut, the next phase of my escape plan begins out in the yard of discarded thoughts. I assume a pseudonym and then flip the silent “P” around like a spoonerism and use it to dig a tunnel down underground. Then with one hand scatter colons carefully to cover up the hole, with the other I dust pocketfuls of unusèd accents that I stole. Then back inside the structure to set in motion this poet’s plans, but first I kneel, dot my eyes and cross my tees with shaking hands. So it begins like this, I divert attention by twisting palindromes inside out, "Name no one man, Madam I'm adam"; I roar out loud and shout. No you're not", says the onrushing guard, pushes me back up 'gainst the margin hard, he grabs an @ symbol, calls for back up, the grammar police are now alarmed. Seizing my moment, I carpet diem, pull the rug from under them all the way, make haste, cast my ladder out, soon running across thoughts faster'n I can say "See you later poem, I'm heading for the margin, Where sweet letters bulge and new ideas barge in! Scrambling letters in my wake now, dashing towards the hyphenated end-goal, In I slide footers first through the peering freedom shaped escape hole. Once free of the poem and outside those lines I'll assume the case to be, that I’m in a position to begin a subjective textually liberated life that’s free. And as memories of the sour sentence fade into a sweet footnoted tome, I will rewrite all my cold first drafts, no longer trapped inside this poem.
[Kalle Ryan – 12 Jan 2010]
This is a poem I started writing when I lived in New York and was starting to forge a really keen interest in poetry, and specifically performance poetry. The poem was supposed to be a snapshot of the punters I saw in a bar in Manhattan called Tom & Jerry’s. But the original draft was a bit too angry and so it remained unfinished until I came back to Ireland, and after a night out in The Stag’s Head pub one night (which would later be the home of The Brownbread Mixtape), I dusted off the poem and finished the thing. It’s probably one of my poems that I am most happy with, as it captures a proper bit of the fire and melancholy I saw in those folks in the bars caught between their dreams and the drink. Some time after I had written it I was approached by Tom and Andy from the truly brilliant Storymap website, who asked me to perform it in The Stags Head so they could film it for inclusion on the site. I was only too happy to oblige and the end result is a lovely document of a poem and a place.
For almost a decade I have curated and hosted The Brownbread Mixtape, a themed variety show that showcases the best in music, spoken word poetry, and sketch comedy. One of the many shows was centred around the the theme of “drinking”. So, in the spirit of mischievousness (and to generate comedy material for the purposes of hosting the show) I fired off a series of letters to the makers of a variety of alcoholic beverages seeking sponsorship for myself and/or The Brownbread Mixtape. Below are the speculative and outlandishly stupid letters that I actually sent to the various companies in question. While the letters were ultimately absurd and silly in tone, at the heart of them lies perhaps a serious point about the lack of funding for many sectors of the arts. Only one of the companies ever came back with a response – Bulmers cider – and they seemed to get it was a joke, thanking me for the opportunity but gracefully declining. I am a Bulmers drinker for life as a result. Guinness sent back a generic response saying they would delete my email immediately as they cannot receive pitches for commercials, as they presumably could get sued for stealing ideas. None of the others ever responded, yet I still hold out hope like a drunken Friday night reveler. I hope that you enjoy reading them and take them in the silly spirit(s) they were written!
#1 Devil’s Bit Cider
Dear Devil’s Bit
I am writing to you first and foremost as a big fan of your cider. It’s gorgeous.
Secondly I am writing to you as curator of a popular Dublin gig called “the brownbread mixtape” and as an award-winning performance poet with a small, dedicated following. In other words, I am a minor celebrity who has been described as quite good looking with a good foothold in “the scene”
Right, lets get down to business. There’s no way of saying this without sounding insensitive, so I’m just going to put it out there unfiltered. Your cider has a bit of a reputation for being drunk by pissheads and wasters. More people have your cider for breakfast than dinner basically.
So, I’ll cut to the chase. I am looking for sponsorship to further my artistic career and in return I am offering you the opportunity to leverage my skills and celebrity status to up your profile in a new segment of the cider consumption market. The arts. I would have no ethical or moral issues with this because your cider is delicious and I am not one of those “I am in it for the art” kind of whingers.
I have loads of ideas on how we could make this sponsorship work but here is one, just off the top of my head. You’ve probably seen Bulmers laughable new ads with celebrity economist David McWilliams. Now, I am a personal friend of the younger, cooler celebrity economist Ronan Lyons and I am sure I could convince him to be a part of a more edgy ad campaign for Devil’s Bit. We could poke fun at those pricks at Bulmers whilst maybe throwing in a few sound financial predictions while we’re at it. I would leave that part up to Ronan.
I would love to work with you to develop an advertising campaign and sign a pact with Devil’s Bit. Failing that, I would love some complimentary bottles of cider.
[Note: The economist Ronan Lyons was even kind enough to share the original link to the letters on his Twitter account, so this still has the potential to happen. Come on Devil’s Bit, do the right thing]
#2 Buckfast Tonic Wine
Dear Buckfast brothers,
I know that you are an order of Benedictine monks so I will try to keep this email quiet.
My name is Brother K and I come from a secret order of Irish monks called “Ar Meisce”. Every month we have a service and gathering in the ancient, sacred chapel upstairs in the “Head of the Stag temple” in Dublin city. As we have fallen on hard times and you seem to be thriving, thanks in no small part to an abundance of students, hipsters and rip-roaring alcoholics who chug your wine like the apocalypse is coming, we are approaching you to be our financial benefactors and patrons for the remainder of our days. We are looking for 10 grand per month to maintain our current standard of praying and serving the Lord.
While we cannot force you to do this, we can only say that it would be what Christ would have done. And failure to do so will most likely condemn you to eternal damnation or some such variation on that theme.
God bless you brothers and may your wine always be fortified
# 3 Cristal Champagne
Yes yes y’all. / Sippin Cristal , you can call me Kal. /
In Dublin 4 they call for more / Pints of Heino, then champers / SCORE! //
The bubbles are nice, the bubbles are nice / The Cristal bubbles at a nice nice price.
This is Kalle Ryan the poet and that is a little sample of some sweet new lyrics I am working on for my upcoming crossover into the hip-hop world. I will go by MC Kalle Greenz . At present I am a Z-grade celebrity in Ireland who performs poetry and hosts a savage night called the brownbread mixtape.
Now, I know you had a strong market share amongst rappers, hip-hop artists and other people who derive their consumer information from lyrics formulated by materialistic celebrities in the past. I also know that your CEO made some silly borderline racist remarks in an interview with The Economist in 2006 which led to a big drop off in your hip-hop purchasing demographic. But I am here today to bring that fizz back to your bubbly sales with a new hip-hop audience. In exchange for a 7 figure sponsorship sum from you, I will drink as much Cristal as is humanly possible. I will even do this at public events such as The Brownbread Mixtape, where we will serve Cristal at every table (you will pick up the tab for this as a separate charge).
I will then write, direct, edit and produce viral videos for Cristal with my posse of trained actors and writers, The Brownbread Players, which includes some serious ballers and hustlers. Their CV reads like a “Best of Irish TV and Film” like Ros na Run, Meteor ads, eMobile, Sky TV, Kilkenny Arts Festival and the voice of directory inquiries. I have a few ideas for the viral video but I won’t pop my creative cork here just yet.
Look, you’re busy people, I’m a busy person. Let’s not yank each others’ chain here. Give me an answer in 24 hours if this is your bag. If not I will pimp my hip-hop credentials to Courvoisier or some other brand that has benefitted from being associated with a thuggish gangster lifestyle
MC Kalle Greenz
#4 Smirnoff Ice
Dear Smirnoff Ice,
This may shock you but your drink is manky. I remember one night I spilt some on the ground and I thought, “the poor ground”. But look, I have an idea that might give you some credibility and make you be the drink choice of people other than gobshites.
How would you feel about sponsoring a bunch of layabout actors, comedians, musicians and arty types? Doesn’t sound that appealing, does it? What if I told you that those people are in fact the wildly talented components in the brownbread mixtape, a monthly indie gig sensation in Dublin city. Between the live show and our award winning web presence you would have literally a hundred people who could be duped into drinking your sugary boozy gargle. Give it some thought. Considering you have a ridiculous amount of money for publicity and marketing, why not shower some of it on this idea?
Get in touch if you’re serious about not being the laughing stock of the drinks fridge
P.S. I’ve seen your vociferous denials about the whole “getting iced” phenomenon but you’re not fooling anyone. Everyone knows you’re behind it. You’re some chancers!
#5 Jose Cuervo Tequila
You know and I know that no one has ever come away from a night drinking your Tequila saying: “That was such a mellow uneventful night full of pacifism and I really feel amazing today”
So, here’s a radical idea. Give me money to run a cool arts night in Dublin where your brand would be prominently featured and in return I will cut out the middle man and pour bottles of your tequila all over the bathroom floor and along the streets of Rathmines and near the Bernard Shaw pub.
Basically, we will also plug the hell out of your tequila and pretend that it isn’t a foul concoction.
I know what you’re thinking. This guy is crazy. But I might just be brilliant.
I am writing to inform you of an amazing opportunity that awaits you… in this very letter.
Can you guess what it is?
Yep, you’re absolutely right, I have an idea for an ad for you.
I am a published poet, so feel free to heighten your expectations at this early stage in our correspondence
Picture it, black & white footage of three barmen, moustaches, white shirts, black slacks, black ties, nice leather shoes. Not slip ons. All of them walking down Exchequer street in slo-mo. Each of them kicking an empty keg that’s rolling in front of them. In turn each one shouts “Bring out your dead!” As they pass pubs they’re joined by more barmen, similarly dressed, each one joining the parade and kicking an empty keg of their own until it becomes a parade of them up O’Connell street. Their backs suddenly and unexpectedly catch fire. The flames are deep orange and reds but the rest of the scene is in black & white. Cut to a pint of Guinness settling in a graveyard. It suddenly catches fire.
Caption: Guinness. It’s deadly.
All of this is beautifully scored by a song by Elder Roche. He is a deadly Dublin musician with a great hat and excellent songwriting skills. Plus I need to include him in this because we kinda came up with the idea together one night after a few scoops in the Stag’s Head. Although if we decide to shaft him we could maybe get a Massive Attack song instead. I love their stuff and anything in slow-mo looks deadly when you have a Massive Attack tune pumping over it. In fact, screw Elder, lets go with that.
If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then I am happy to sit down with you to discuss the possibility of me selling out completely as a poet and accepting sponsorship from you. I have been supporting you for years now, so I would be only delighted to receive your patronage. And cash.
#7 Bulmers Cider
How’s it going? My name is Kalle Ryan. Remember that name, it will become increasingly important as this letter goes on.
Ok, first things first. I love cider. Correction, I love your cider. Clonmel chardonnay we call it.
Second thing. I understand the whole Bulmers / Magners distinction. A few folks I know are still confused by it but they’re idiots, I totally get it. It’s historical and political, like everything in this country.
Ok third thing. I am a poet. Look me up on YouTube for cool samples of my undoubted talent. I have been a bit of an anti-establishment type of writer up until now and all about doing things for the love of it and for art’s sake. But I am basically sick of it. There’s no money in it and let’s face it, I’m not getting any younger.
So, this leads me to my proposition. I, Kalle Ryan, am offering you a once in a lifetime opportunity to partner up with me to be the first ever officially sponsored Irish poet. Loads of poets and writers and other layabouts have drank silly amounts of cider during their life. But how many of them were actually sponsored to drink that cider or write their poems? None of them, that’s how many.
Picture it now. Bulmers presents: Kalle Ryan. How cool does that sound? I’ll tell you. Very cool, that’s how cool. Provided you threw in a bit of extra wedge I would even be willing to change my name to ‘Bulmers presents Kalle Ryan’ and happily wear Bulmers t-shirts, caps and that kind of promotional tat all of the time.
Look I know you have McWilliams doing your ads at the moment, but let me give you some financial advice, he is a prat, a waste of money and people aren’t buying more cider because of him. I can do poems about cider and we can have people dancing in outrageous attire. In an orchard if you like. That’s the kind of shit people who drink cider absolutely love.
Give it some thought and let me know.
Bulmers presents Kalle Ryan
P.S. Is it true that you relaunched the Pear cider because the first version gave people the scutters?