Memories of the ‘Word of Mouth Poetry Collective’

In this blog noted members of the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective, namely Gráinne Tobin and Ruth Carr, share experiences of what it was like to be part of the collective. This valued collective brought together a group of peers who shared a love for writing to discuss creating new written work. The Linen Hall Library housed many of these meetings in its Governors Room or Members Room (as it was known then).

Photograph of members of the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective, pictured on the staircase at Linen Hall Library are Ann Zell, Margaret Curran, Anne McKay, Sally Wheeler, Elaine Gaston, Pia Gore, Kate Newman, Joan Newman, Eilish Martin, Mary Twomey, Gráinne Tobin, and Ruth Carr.

Word of Mouth Women’s Poetry Collective was founded in the Autumn of 1991. Urged on by poet Ann Zell, Ruth Carr convened a meeting at the Linen Hall Library, inviting women she knew to be seriously engaged in writing poetry to attend an initial session in the Governor’s Room. Ruth reflects that ‘the aim was to provide space and time for our own work to be aired, where we could give and receive critical feedback and encouragement to develop our skills and confidence. We continued to meet monthly right up to mid 2016, for almost 25 years. Of Mouth (Readings & Publications) continued as an offshoot of the collective.’

The recollection below, by long-standing member Gráinne Tobin, captures the practice and the spirit of the meetings, as well as alluding to the domestic and professional constraints on women which generated the need for such a group. 

When I went to a daytime poetry reading in what was then the Members’ Room at the Linen Hall, the décor gave a hint of sneaking into a gentlemen’s club. I was utterly star-struck by the guest poet, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. My head of department in Lurgan Tech let me go, on the pretext of a fact-finding mission about opportunities for women’s education.  (It did turn out to be genuinely useful for developing creative writing classes.) I stumbled into the beginnings of ‘Word of Mouth’ by adding my name and contact details to a sheet of paper circulating at the end of that event.

That contact list led to a new group for writing poetry. A dozen assorted women, not beginners, all willing to put in the commitment to meet monthly, took turns to lead the sessions, and acted as each other’s first close, critical readers. Our collective was driven by both feminist solidarity and individuals’ self-interest. No need to take on the usual mummying, nurturing, housekeeping responsibilities that were central to my teaching job and my private life then. I had to tell myself: men do this, and it clearly works for them, so why shouldn’t we feel entitled to rent the Governors’ Room for our poetry, without having to host each other at home or organise the tea kitty? The monthly meetings were always invigorating, even at times when I felt my writing was stalling. 

Because their dad was often working on Saturday mornings, I sometimes had to bring my two children with me from Newcastle and install them in the children’s section of the library with instructions to come and get me if necessary. Eventually it emerged that the older one had secretly bribed her little brother with her pocket money when he got bored. She told me she did it “because you always look so happy when you come out of there.”

Every third Saturday, those opinionated, expert, varied female readers pushed my writing forward. The principled ambition of the collective (for example, in its Blackstaff anthology and its Russian projects and public poetry parties) made me demand more from my own work. Together, we made each other stronger.

Long-term and short-term members of Word of Mouth Poetry Collective included:

Ann Zell; Ruth Carr, Gráinne Tobin, Sally Wheeler; Joan Newmann, Margaret Curran; Pia Gore; Mary Twomey; Kate Newmann; Elaine Gaston;  Eilis Martin; Ann McKay; Pamela Acheson; Natasha Cuddington; Judith Thurley; Sonia Abercrombie; Olive Broderick.

Ruth Carr

Ruth Carr was born in Belfast in 1953. Ruth has edited two significant anthologies: The Female Line was published by the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement in 1985 to mark their 10th anniversary. She worked there at the time as an ACE worker. The Female Line was the first anthology of women writers to come out of Northern Ireland at a time when few women were in print. And Her Other Language, Northern Irish Women Writers Address Domestic Violence and Abuse, co-edited with Natasha Cuddington was published by Arlen House in 2020. Her three poetry collections are: There is a House and The Airing Cupboard (Summer Palace Press), Feather and Bone, which reflects on the lives of Mary Ann McCracken and Dorothy Wordsworth (Arlen House). Ruth has worked as a creative writing tutor in community education for nearly 40 years.

Her essay on Word of Mouth Poetry Collective is included in Female Lines (New Island, 2017).

Gráinne Tobin

Gráinne Tobin grew up in Armagh and lives near Newcastle harbour. She spent her working life as a teacher of teenagers and adults, and was a member of Word of Mouth from its first meeting to its last. Her three poetry collections are Banjaxed and The Nervous Flyer’s Companion (Summer Palace Press) and The Uses of Silk (Arlen House). She has work in many magazines, in online archives and on a public sculpture by Kevin Killen in Down Arts Centre. Anthology contributions include Word of Mouth (Blackstaff) When the Neva Rushes Backwards (Lagan Press) On the Grass When I Arrive (Liberties Press) Washing Windows (Arlen House) Something About Home (Geographies Publications) Female Lines (New Island) Metamorphic (Recent Work Press) In Her Own Language (Arlen House) and North Star (Leschenault Press).