THIS SUNDAY at the Druid Lane Theatre, Salmon Publishing will launch House of Bees, the striking debut collection of poetry by Galway based writer Stephen Murray.
Born in Dublin and raised in London, Murray has had a remarkable life, the details of which he draws on in many of his vivid, arresting poems. His early years were spent with his mother and sister in an Erin Pizzey home for battered wives.
In his poem ‘Memoir of Woman’s Aid’ he writes: “I remember it all in super 8 vision/My very first book and my father’s last look/I remember little or nothing of the rat that shared a cradle/with my baby sister, suckling on her bottle as she slept/in the derelict Palm Court hotel where we sheltered/with the battered wives of Erin Pizzey’s Woman’s Aid.”
Yet as he recalls that time today, his memories of his childhood are largely positive.
“My memories of the home are actually quite good, we had a lot of fun people around us,” Murray tells me. “I was very young when we were in the Erin Pizzey shelter, about two or three. Some of my first memories come from there. There’s a poem with the lines ‘For she was the song on the stairwell/with the wallpaper torn from the wall’ and that’s my most vivid image of the home itself . It was basically a squat in a derelict hotel.
“I don’t remember most of it; I remember the characters, the women and the children. They were some of my first friends in the world, and they kept changing. They were all single women and one by one the kids all got new dads and then eventually we got our own new dad. He was an Egyptian by the name of Aladdin and he had a brother called Sinbad! For the next 10 years we were raised by my mother, my Egyptian stepfather, and his Muslim relations. They were a wonderful family.”
Despite the fact that his mother was in a battered wives shelter, Murray also retains fond recollections of his birth father, whom he describes in one of the poems as ‘dashing, drunken and charming to boot’.
“I don’t have any memories of the violence that went on,” he explains. “My memories of him are very fond. He used to come and collect us every Sunday and take us out on the Thames in rowing boats or to the bookies and pubs.
“Then one day he didn’t come back and we didn’t see him for 13 years. He’s still alive somewhere in the west of Ireland, we’re not really in touch. I was too young to remember the rough parts of my childhood, and my mother made things magical as well.”
It was at the tender age of eight that Murray wrote his first poem.
“I think it was a fluke actually,” he says of his introduction to writing. “We had this amazing teacher called Mr Spark. He was terrifying when crossed but most of the time he was magical. He used to read to us and he had this wonderful theatrical reading voice.
“He read us Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and asked us to write a poem about it so I went home and wrote one. I came back and handed it in and he berated me, he turned purple with rage, and accused me of cheating. I burst into tears and my mother was called and she confirmed it was my own work and Mr Spark knelt down and put his hands on my shoulders and said ‘But it’s brilliant my boy!’
“Then three years later when I was in secondary school I got the exact same assignment, to do a poem inspired by Christmas Carol. So I put in the same poem and they entered it into the WH Smith Young Writer of the Year Awards and it was runner-up.”
From then on, Murray started to write more seriously.
“My English teachers encouraged me to write after that and I did,” he recalls. “Then in my teens things started to go wrong, our family unit broke down. The one thing I had that I could cling to was I was still winning awards, my poetry was still very strong for a teenager.
“I gave up writing for a while because it seemed like every time I started to write everything else in my life fell apart; I started writing when I was 11 and my family unit broke down. I stopped writing when I was 17, I got a job in advertising, I started to write again and I lost the job. I ended up homeless because I was writing and not working. I moved to Galway about eight years ago, it was the first time I had made the decision to concentrate just on writing.”
In recent years Murray has read at many of the world’s most notable poetry venues including Chicago’s Green Mill, The Bowery in New York, and The Prague Fringe Festival, and, fittingly, Cúirt was instrumental in launching him on the reading circuit;
“I saw a Cúirt poetry slam advertised in The King’s Head,” he reveals. “I went into the Cúirt qualifier, and I performed badly and Neil McCarthy beat me. Afterwards though we became friends and he encouraged me, we became partners in rhyme and I subsequently won the Cúirt Slam, then I got a gig in the Green Mill, from that I met a German woman there who got me gigs in Germany. Neil and I started touring together, we got rave reviews, it was great fun.”
Poet on a bicycle
Murray also runs the Youth Speaks All Ireland Poetry Slam, facilitating poetry workshops for teenagers all over the country.
“I go in and I ask them ‘Who likes poetry?’” he says in describing his approach. “If none of them put their hand up great, if they all say they hate it, perfect.
“I tell them whether they think they like it or not, they love it because it’s everywhere they look and everything they enjoy is given to them poetically, whether that be the narration of storylines, in video games, the lyrics of songs, or the dialogue of their favourite movies.
“I tell them they can write whatever they want. The only difference between rap, poetry, and song is presentation. I sit them down and get them having fun writing and writing about stuff that’s of interest to them.”
Murray will also soon undertake an epic cycling tour of the United States to promote House of Bees.
“I have a joke,” he says. “What’s the difference between a pizza and a poet? A pizza will feed a family of four! When I worked in London I sold a million euros worth of timeshares over the phone and it occurred to me that if I could do that then surely I could go to the States with a load of books and create a buzz through readings and interviews and sell a lot of books.
House of Bees is launched at the Druid theatre at 5pm this coming Sunday and admission is free.