Books

Banbridge poet Colin Hassard conjures up a poetry ready meal

Jenny Lee chats to poet and spoken word artist Colin Hassard about his poetic cookbook, Age of the Microwave Dinner, which stirs together the emotions of love and life, with a blend of thought-provoking social content and a sprinkling of humour

Poet Colin Hassard is appearing at the Belfast Book Festival on Sunday

"I've been working on it for 38 years," says Banbridge poet Colin Hassard about his debut poetry collection, Age of the Microwave Dinner.

Renowned for his thought-provoking work, this cookbook of words explores where we are as a society, along with universal themes of heartbreak, family, relationships, and death.

The book is divided into five sections which are separated like the steps of cooking a microwave dinner: pierce film lid several times (like a heart you no longer cared for); heat for designated time (aware that each minute could be your last); peel back film lid (as if trying to reveal some hidden meaning); stir well before serving (with a cold dish of revenge) and do not reheat (for fear of death or worse).

"Everything in life is transitory - your physical life, your love life, everything we have is going to fade away someday. But I didn't want to categorise my book in those literal terms, so I pondered for a long time and I finally came up with this idea of microwavable dinner," he explains the 38-year-old.

"I guess it harps back to my student days when I more or less survived on microwavable meals. I probably still would if I wasn't married..."

Mixing memories of growing up with reflections of life in his adopted city of Belfast, as well as social commentary, all the poems are infused with the twice Ulster Poetry Slam Champion's unique perspective, humour and insight.

In his opening acrostic poem about the author, Hassard describes himself as a "poet -of-sorts".

I ask if he can elaborate on this definition.

"Many people have these ideas of a poet being a person who sits by candlelight writing about mountains, daffodils and boring stuff, and then they become depressed."

Hassard refers to the clichés of poetry in his poem Short Commercial Break, which says:

You may recall Poetry from your school days

as that dreary part of English class which you wanted to avoid.

"Some people wouldn't class what I do as poetry," adds Hassard, who is keen to challenge the stereotypes of what a poet is and prove it is far from a dying art and reserved for the elite of society.

It was when he moved to Belfast in the mid-noughties that Hassard enjoyed poetry open-mic evenings at Bookfinders Café and his poetry journey started.

"It was like I had found my tribe. It totally changed my perception of what poetry is and what a poet is."

So how does he define a poet?

"A poet is someone who writes poems. And if you write something and you decide to call it a poem, so be it."

Hassard has been writer-in-residence at Duncairn Arts Centre in north Belfast since last October, hosting the successful Duncairn Podcast, facilitating virtual poetry writing workshops and providing creative input on a number of their forthcoming projects.

A poet is someone who writes poems. And if you write something and you decide to call it a poem, so be it

Colin Hassard 

"Part of being a modern writer is getting your work out to a wider audience and using channels of social media," adds Hassard, who has also been inspiring young people to write through BBC Northern Ireland's The Afternoon Club and the Community Arts Partnership's School's Project.

"When you tell young people you're going to do a poetry workshop you can already sense that they think poetry is boring - but when you show them contemporary poems and bring in elements of music, comedy and theatre, their opinions totally change."

Post-pandemic, Hassard believes poetry will play a vital role.

"If people are able to express themselves creatively, through poetry and other art mediums, it would help with a lot of the mental health issues we have, as well as bring communities together," he says.

"Perhaps to change opinion we need to bring poetry to people who wouldn't normally come to poetry. How I actually started performing was in the middle of a music event at Duncairn."

A former poet-in-residence at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival, some of Hassard's poetry explores social and political themes, including Brexit and the refugee crisis.

Colin Hassard has published his debut poetry collection, Age of the Microwave Dinner

Does he consciously try to provoke debate around this area?

"As a writer I have empathy with different groups, no matter where they are from, and I feel I do have to speak out about issues, such as the refugee situation or alcoholism.

"If I want to call myself a writer I need to express those opinions.

"Whilst engaging with the community during my time with Duncairn they have appreciated the topics I cover in my poems about equality, kindness and peace."

Many of these qualities are summed up in his poem New Frequency, which says:

Imagine there was a magic frequency

Where every human being speaks lovingly

and eloquently, 

where kindness is a currency and there is no you and me, 

only a harmony of 'we'

and everything we would ever need is there

in the new frequency.

Hassard also expresses his poetry musically and is vocalist in local band Dirty Words, who combine the energy and passion of spoken-word poetry with melodic rock and jazz influences.

They will launch their next single, Potions & Elixirs, taken from a poem in Age of the Microwave Dinner, at the Eastside Arts Festival this August.

"We're very excited by this and have made an amazing film to accompany the track which encapsulates both my childhood and the city of Belfast, which shaped me.

"Many poets, like myself, are looking for different ways to collaborate and express their work beyond the printed word through visual art, film or music, which is great."

One of Hassard's inspirations is Leonard Cohen, who although more famous for his music, including Hallelujah, was first a poet.

Although he admits that Covid lockdowns have impacted the observations and social interactions which garner much of his inspiration, he doesn't believe in writer's block.

"I'm a real kleptomaniac when it comes to jotting down thoughts and ideas and as long as you're keeping notes you will always have something you can refer back to and jump off from."

Colin Hassard's poetry collection, Age of the Microwave Dinner, is out now and be purchased from Bridge Books, Dromore and No Alibis, Belfast and online at Doirepress.com.

He will be joined by poets Moyra Donaldson and Dimitra Xidous in Poetry Focus via Zoom on Sunday June 13, as part of the Belfast Book Festival. Tickets from Belfastbookfestival.com

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