Edgeworthstown writer, Dani Gill. Photo: Shelley Corcoran
There's a common misconception in Irish cities and bigger towns that the midlands and more rural areas like Longford lack creativity.
In fact, the opposite is true, according to local writer, curator and Creative Writing tutor Dani Gill, who will be launching her book of poetry, 'After Love' in the Longford County Library on Wednesday, February 21 next.
“Sometimes people think that there’s an absence of creativity in the midlands and there really isn’t. That’s definitely a myth I always dispel because I was always encouraged to write,” she adamantly told the Longford Leader.
The Edgeworthstown native has been reading and writing since she was a child - she even won a prize in the Maria Edgeworth Literary Festival when she was a pupil in St Elizabeth's NS.
“So the writing was always there. And there were always people in the community who were also writers and would ask me if I was writing,” Dani explained.
“I was a member of the Edgeworthstown Library. I joined when I was five. I think that had a really big impact on me,” she recalled.
“The libraries are just so invaluable for people who like to read. It was a small library but it had a massive impact on me and I loved it.”
Dani continued to write when she was a student in Mean Scoil Mhuire, and credits her English teacher, Mrs McDonald as one of the people who heavily influenced her writing career.
“She was the first person who said that I could write - who just said that to my face in a class,” Dani fondly recalled.
“It was Leaving Cert cycle, fourth year, and I remember coming up to talk to her about an essay I’d done and she said to me ‘well you can write; you have a flare’.
“And I always remember that and those moments do matter an awful lot.
“I think there’s so much to be said for a good teacher. They’re such landmarks for people. And they’re very humble, really.
“They can live very humble lives teaching all of the people that they teach, but the effect of that goes on for years.”
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Dani's natural flare for writing turned out to be more than that when she went to college in NUI Galway and found herself involved very heavily in the Galway arts scene.
“I was very hungry to be involved in the arts,” she explained.
“By my final year in college, I was very actively seeking opportunities to do things and I wound up volunteering with some events.”
In fact, when Dani left college, she found herself working on the highly successful Volvo Ocean Race in 2009.
“That was really, really big. I got introductions to other people in the arts in the city and I started to work with Decadent Theatre Group and the Galway Arts Centre,” she said, adding that exposure to different disciplines brought her a deeper understanding of the arts.
“There’s a different kind of energy with different art forms. I think the energy of theatre is really different to writing. Sometimes it’s good for your brain to work in both, or switch around - you get different things from them.”
These experiences led her to even bigger and better opportunities and within two years of graduating from NUI Galway, Dani found herself taking on the very senior role of Director for Cúirt International Arts Festival.
“I did well,” she said, recalling this turning point in her career.
“I came out of college in the recession. It wasn’t an easy time for anyone.
“The job came up and I just thought I’d be really silly not to go for it, because it was so in my field, although it was kind of a dream job and I was very aware that I was young.
“But I threw my hat in. It was advertised nationally and a lot of people applied and I got it. But I suppose that was only the start of an uphill battle.”
In fact, being a festival director is nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds, and Dani was quick to point out that it was hard work - but very rewarding.
“I think festivals from the outside can seem very glamorous, but really it’s such hard work behind the scenes to get everything to happen; I was programming this international literary event.”
But she made sure to leave her own mark on the festival.
“I wanted a dedicated outreach programme; there hadn’t been one previous to my time there and I think that was probably my rural background coming into it.
“I felt like it was really important to connect the dots in communities and to link in with libraries and community groups who were doing interesting things and to find pockets of interest like that and tie them into the event,” she explained.
“And then youth and youth programming was my other big thing.
“I developed a literature programme for young people in primary and secondary school and that led to a full day of programming for teenagers, which kind of went on to become a passion of mine outside of the festival as well.”
Currently, Dani is a freelance Creative Writing tutor, helping teenagers and children to express themselves by writing.
In fact, she has two workshops for teenagers starting up in Longford and Ballymahon libraries next week.
“It’s a great privilege, really, to be in a position to work with young people; they’re very smart and they’re open.
“I cover contemporary literature with them and creative writing techniques.
“But it’s fun and very relaxed and I think that people at that age are very vulnerable and they need to be encouraged and supported.
“So I think it’s good for them to find a space to be creative. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to create a space for them to have that freedom,” she said, adding that aspiring writers can sign up for the classes by calling in to either library.
Dani decided to leave her role with Cúirt in 2016 so that she could pursue her own projects, but she feels like she really left her mark on the festival.
“It kind of grew year on year. By the time I left, it had grown to eight days and there was a international visitor programme that had been introduced,” she said.
“So it really went places. It was a great honour to do it. I met loads of amazing people. But it’s a lot of hard work.
“I feel, too, like creative roles in the arts need to switch up and change. So I always intended to leave in 2016. It’s a different identity, so I wanted to step out of it and go into something else.”
In fact, around the same time, Dani had her book of poetry in the pipeline - something she felt she couldn't finish while working in a full-time role.
“When you’re working on an event - especially one that has that kind of a profile - it’s all-consuming. You put aside a lot of other things in your life. So I think I created a little bit more space.
“And writing is a job. If you’re committed to it and you take it seriously, it’s like a job. So I’m hoping to keep a routine where I still get to have it at the forefront of my life.”
It was in 2015 that Dani started to write her book of poetry, and her plan was to work on it at Listowel Writers' Week.
It was around that time that she had decided to end a long-term relationship. She'd been seeing someone for ten years and the break-up was a huge change in her life.
“So I wound up writing poems about that, along with other poems,” she said.
“I still started the book when I intended to.
“And I went to workshop with two other poets in September and I brought these poems that I was referring to as my ‘breakup poems’ and I said ‘I don’t think they’ll see the light of day, but I just need to show them to someone’.
“And they read all the stuff and they said ‘this is brilliant, you have to go with this’.
“So that became the collection, 'After Love', and I suppose it’s really not a book I intended to write.
“It is very personal; it’s not very cloaked. I didn’t really hide from it. I got to a point with it where you either need to keep going or stop. So I kept going.”
The collection includes a lot of love poems and poems about heartbreak, but there's a strong theme of identity running through it too.
“That was something I was interested in - the idea of who are you by yourself? Who are you without the key relationships that often define people? And I think that’s true of everyone - we’re defined often by our friendships, our familial bonds, everything,” Dani explained.
“I wanted to write about that, so there are poems in the book - a series of poems - about the sea and being in the sea, and this idea of coming back to yourself and having a think about where you are in the world.”
Dani's Gran features strongly in the collection too, as she was diagnosed with a very rare degenerative brain disorder the same year.
“She was experiencing a lot of changes in her own identity, so there was a kind of mirroring in the book between a younger woman and an older woman who are both going through a lot of change, and a lot of change in who they are for different reasons.
“There’s a lot of vulnerability in the book and it’s hard to publish something like that.
“But then when I did release it, I realised people always find themselves in the poems. And it’s also a theme that is so human that everyone has experienced. So it kind of became a very accessible book. I think a lot of people would read it and identify with it. And that’s lovely.”
So far, the book has been received positively, following a launch in Dublin and another in Galway.
But, she says, it's nice to be launching her collection of poetry in her home county of Longford.
“I’m really glad to be doing something at home. It’s been years since I did anything here,” she said, before mentioning that Longford County Librarian, Mary Carleton Reynolds approached her last summer, hoping to do something.
As a result, Dani has been working with the Backstage Theatre since September, and giving her input to the Creative Longford programme.
“I’m there on behalf of Words Ireland and the Arts Council and I’m a curator in residence, so I’m working with the venue until midsummer, running a series of literary events. So it’s a programme that was designed to develop or encourage literature,” Dani explained.
The first of Dani's literary events takes place in March and will see authors Patrick McCabe and Alan McMonagle in conversation.
More information about these events can be found on the Backstage Theatre website.
With a book launch coming up, a series of literary events in the Backstage Theatre, and her creative writing classes for teens, you would think she has enough to be getting on with.
But Dani, determined to keep flexing those writing muscles, is also working on a novel, which is based in Longford, about Longford and inspired by Longford.
“It’s about where I grew up, really. I was very affected by the landscape that I grew up in,” Dani explained.
“And it’s about a community and I suppose there are a lot of personalities in it based on real people.
“They say write what you know and I think that’s definitely true - you can feel in your comfort zone with that. And the characters are also much more real.
“So I wrote it for six or seven months and then I put it aside and I’ve gone back into it now and I’m hoping to have a draft ready for the autumn,” she told the Leader.
“And I’m kind of doing that as an exercise for myself to see can I do it and can I put something together that I think is worthwhile or interesting.”
And that's all she's willing to give away in terms of sneak peeks, so, for now, the focus is on her collection of poetry, 'About Love', and the creative events she's organising in the county, to show off just how creative the midlands can be, despite what people might think.
“Nationally, in terms of statistics about the county, they haven’t been emphatically positive in the last five years or since the recession,” Dani admitted.
“But I think that in terms of art and creativity, there’s an energy about it. And if you celebrate art and creativity, it can do a lot for communities and for everyone.
“And that’s regardless of education or background. I think the arts are for everyone and there’s a book for everyone; there’s a play for everyone. It’s a civic thing. It’s something that belongs to everyone.”
Dani Gill will launch her collection of poetry, 'After Love', at the Longford Library on Wednesday, February 21 next at 7.30pm, with special guest speaker, Lorne Patterson.
Anyone interested in signing up to Dani's Creative Writing tutorials can do so by calling in to Longford or Ballymahon Libraries and putting their name down.
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