The Rhyme Rag Ensemble
Emily Murtagh takes a look at some of the youngest members of Kilkenny’s vibrant creative scene.
Among the Medieval alleyways and crumbling city walls, Kilkenny is home to the Young Irish Film Makers, the Design and Crafts Council, the Heritage Council and the Academy Award nominated animation studio Cartoon Saloon. Amidst ceramicists, jewelry designers and animators, there is a group of young people ensuring poetry’s distinct brushstrokes are not left out of the city’s kaleidoscopic canvas. They are Ari, Orla, Liam, Aobhín, Sarah, Joshua, Maeve and Liv, otherwise known as the Rhyme Rag Ensemble.
The poets are all aged between 14 and 19 and were brought together by the Kilkenny Arts office. Rhyme Rag began in 2005 and has been growing since it started The Ensemble. The current cohort recently launched their first publication under the guidance of their writer in residence, Colm Keegan. The publication, ‘Mark My Words’, as well as their first spoken word video (a collective piece entitled ‘We Are’), came out last October.
Mary Butler, Kilkenny Arts Officer, tells me how the group has developed since 2005. Its first iteration was an annual physical publication of young people’s poetry; “In the very early days, we got loads and loads of poems, we knew we’d captured something”, Butler says. Following a slight hiatus due to funding issues, Rhyme Rag went online in 2015; the teenagers now have a resident editor and illustrator. Each month, two poems are chosen to be published in the online journal by Kathy D’Arcy, alongside Alé Mercado‘s powerful illustrations.
The desire was there to “engage with them throughout the whole year”, Butler says. “Developmentally, we had a solid foundation and a good model to work from”. There was still a sense that there was “something missing”, however, and they were soon looking to see what they could do next to channel this potential while maintaining that space for young people to write “even if they don’t want to be vocal about it”. In February 2017, through the Rhyme Rag online journal, a call-out went out for a group of young people to come to grow together as writers in a more public and ongoing way. Before long there was a core group of six. “The group became really tight so quickly”, Butler says, and they quickly settled into a rhythm of monthly workshops and talks with professional writers, opening up every third workshop to the public. Butler emphasises that the group was holding true to the participation values of community arts; “This was about their voice. This was about them deciding where this would go.”
From this strong foundation, The Rhyme Rag Ensemble decided they wanted to create a publication, and with funding from Creative Ireland, a process was facilitated that took that idea from its genesis to its impressive culmination. Every aspect of the publication was workshopped by The Ensemble. They drew up a design brief and had two designers pitch to them, with Steven Aylin coming out on top. Grainne Clear from Little Island walked them through the publishing process, and Anna Jordan of Modwords gave a performance workshop. They partnered with Ossory Youth, a local youth service. Colm Keegan was both the editor of the publication and their mentor throughout the process.
“I think working and collaborating with other people is really the key to the success of these things”
“I think working and collaborating with other people is really the key to the success of these things”, Butler says, “that the tutor is a good fit for the group is really significant”. Keegan proved the perfect fit for the group, and seeing him in action with them was “quite magical”. Butler commends Keegan’s teaching ability; “[He was able] to draw the best out of people, to supply them with a safe place, and to teach them how to protect themselves.”
‘Mark My Words’ was launched by The Ensemble at the Kilkenny Castle’s Parade Tower in October of last year. That same evening, they were captured by local videographer Shane Hatton in the grounds of the castle at golden hour, performing ‘We Are’, the poem they had written together. This was edited with various scenes of Kilkenny and released later that month. The poem demonstrates The Ensemble’s sense of place and beautifully balances the celebration of and healthy cynicism towards their hometown. “We are an unlikely glimmer in this shithole”.
The grounding in the locality is authentic. “We are the alleyways of Kilkenny/ Undiscovered/ Rich with history/ Waiting”. Butler drew particular attention to those lines; “lines like that make you feel that they really know where they have come from, and know where they are going, as best as any of us can”. This is interwoven with the journey of the group from “voices too quiet at first to even whisper” to where they find themselves now:
“We are young shoots from strong roots
More than what we seem
Soon to outstretch
From the city of Kilkenny
We are changed
We are writers
We are ready.”
Rhyme Rag is available at: www.rhymerag.net/
’Mark My Words’ is available in Kilkenny bookstores
Originally published in BND Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 1.
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