Poetry Season #6 – Tyrone Guthrie Artists’ Retreat Centre


“The Big House”, Tyrone Guthrie Centre

The sixth and final piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for this week, greatly summarised, is to write a poem about poetry. I spent two weeks at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre last year, and when I started this exercise, memories of how hard it is to sit and write all day, every day for two weeks, came flooding back.

Tyrone Guthrie Artists’ Retreat Centre

Co Monaghan, Ireland, April 2018

From this bay window, the black lough,

the banks of bulrushes, the boathouse, 

the silhouetted swans, the scent of pine

are all perfect and …

…and across the stable yard the artists work away in their high-ceilinged, light-filled studios. I envy them, their brushes and canvases, their jars of water, their tubes of paint, their watercolour sets, their space rich with the scent of oils and turps. They have their easels and their palettes. All I have is a blank page and a pen and my thoughts. I’m sitting here in this beautiful room with an idyllic view, in this stately house. But I can’t write about a lough and a boathouse and a forest. That’s too obvious. I have to make the lough a metaphor for something, and the boathouse a metaphor for something else, but not too something else because that would be mixing my metaphors. The artist can just paint the lough and the boathouse and the swans – job done. And if they paint a unicorn on the hillside nobody will accuse them of mixing their metaphors. They can daub paint onto their canvases and they’re away and they can call the painting the first thing that comes into their heads – “Swans on Lough” or “Composition 8”. My first line has to be stunning, my title has to grab attention. They can say “Oh I just go where the brush takes me” and I think “Wonderful”, but when a poet says “Oh I just go where the pen takes me” I think “Wanker”. They can choose from a varied but limited palette. I have the whole fucking English language to choose from plus foreign words. There are over 200,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary and new ones, like “amazeballs” and “omnishambles” being added all the time. Jesus Christ, how to decide? They can mix and smudge and layer and smear. I can only use strictly defined letter shapes in black on white. The most artistic shape on my page is a sodding semi-colon, and poets sneer at them. Nobody says to artists “Show don’t tell” because they are always bloody showing. “A picture paints a thousand words” proclaimed Captain Obvious. I think he/she was vastly underestimating. And you can tell they’re artists, with their dungarees and their paint-blotched fingers, but who can tell you’re a poet unless you go the full Oscar Wilde with black cloak and lily and if you did that down the village pub here you’d get beaten up before you could recite the first stanza of The Ballad of Reading Jail. They have their art exhibitions, where they hang their works on some fancy gallery wall and people come and drink wine and stand back and cock their heads and stare at the paintings and “ooh” and “ah” and eat those little bits of pineapple, cheese and cocktail onions on sticks and handover more money than a poet makes in a lifetime. Us poets, if we’re lucky, might get a reading at a launch in front of a handful of people who are only there to get drunk on the cask wine and scoff the sausage rolls and try to steal a fucking book on their way out. Everybody can name at least a handful of painters – Van Gogh, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, Picasso – but how many can name more than one or two poets eh? Maybe Famous Seamus and Wordsworth and the daughter of that crashing-bore at work who won the school poetry competition and that’s it. And downstairs the artists are sitting round the breakfast table, waving their arms and talking excitedly about perspective and light and tone and symmetry. Over in the poets’ corner they’re arguing about the correct pronunciation of enjambement and what’s the difference between prose and prose poetry (answer “fuck all”). And when you go to any city there’s always an art gallery but do you ever see a poetry gallery? Hell no! You’d have to search out some sticky-carpet dive to uncover a collection of penniless, broken-arsed poets droning into a cheap mic and none of them listening, just shuffling their papers impatiently waiting their turn. And what about all the fucking constraints poets have to adhere to – bloody fourteen line Petrarchan sonnets which are somehow different from Shakespearean sonnets, and villanelles and haiku and ghazals and mind-numbing sestinas. So many bloody rules that some smartarse will accuse you of breaking if you use a single bloody extra syllable. Jesus, all the painter is constrained by is the canvas and they can make that as big or small as they like and paint it all black if they want and it will still sell. And the further you get away from a painting the more sense it makes – the further you get away from a poem the less sense it makes (though this can also happen when you get closer). And everyone wants to own an original artwork to hang on their wall, but offer somebody the framed piece of paper on which you wrote the first draft of your best poem and they’ll think you’re bonkers. No wonder poets turn to drink and end up as bitter, twisted curmudgeons who’ve lost the ability to rhyme and try to pass off prose as poetry.


© Mike Hopkins 2019

image of Tyrone Guthrie centre taken by Mike Hopkins

Poetry Season #2 – “An Thuong 4”


The second piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. Not very happy with this one. It’s been a record-breaking, stinking hot week in Adelaide and I haven’t felt much like writing.

The prompt for the second poem, greatly summarised, is “place”. This is my response. The An Thuongs are a set of streets near where I lived in Đà Nẵng, full of bars, cafes, burger joints, street vendors, massage parlors, hostels, expats, drunks, drunken expats, Korean tourists, Thuốc Lào smokers (strong pipe tobacco), weed smokers, dogs, the occasional pig, loud music and all sorts of activity, most of which I could never figure out. But I did love the bars there, and a dull night was a rarity.

An Thuong 4

Each day is a riddle

Night is electric black

obscured by grey plumes


A short-circuit cracks the air

Locals make the “I have no fucking idea” sign

The fridge hums with Saigon Specials


A pig hoovers up peanuts

The Wifi password is “thankyou”

Police are midnight knocking


for permits and bribes

It’s Tet : Chúc mừng năm mới

A tattooed man steals a beer


The barman serves enigmas

The hostel is one shipping container

on top of another


The security guard is

like your favourite uncle

but answers no questions


Two white guys swap punches

Weed smoke hovers over the dog

Russian Roulette was a thing


© Mike Hopkins 2019

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #29 The Heart of a Saint


The heart of St Laurence O’Toole has been returned to its home in Christ Church Cathedral, but gardaí are being tight-lipped about how the relic was recovered.”

The Journal.ie April 28th, 2018

The Heart of a Saint

I wandered into Christchurch Cathedral last night. Well, I admit I was drinking all day in the Brazen Head and needed to clear my head. The gate of the Cathedral being open like, I thought I’d sit for a while and ponder the state of the world. I found my way inside, let’s say I may have used an implement to gain access. I was drawn to this wooden box, a reliquary they call it, in one of the alcoves. There it was, just sitting there, so you don’t pass up a chance like that. Could be worth a few bob you know. I stuck it under my jacket and legged it. I just caught the last bus home, sat upstairs on it I did, the reliquary on my knee. Even then it felt a bit strange, like something was ticking inside. So I gets it home, opens up the box, and bejesus there’s this thing, a pumping heart inside. And it was an old heart, I could tell. All grizzled and marbled, a very old man by the look of it. I wondered who the man was, and was he missing his still beating heart. There’s nobody I know would pay money for a thing like that. So next morning, I went for a walk down the high street, took the box with me, looking for somewhere to dump it. I bought the Daily Mirror. There on the front page: “Saint Laurence O’Toole’s heart goes missing”. Jesus Christ Almighty, I had a saint’s heart in my hands. That can’t be good. How was I to get rid of it. I thought of the butcher’s shop, you know, stick it in the bin with the offal and off cuts. But then that might have gone to pet food, and that didn’t seem right for a saint. I thought of the hospital, leave it outside the morgue, but who knows with those guys they might have taken it in for dissection practice. It was still beating away in the box, seemed to be getting a bit agitated. I sat down next to an old fella having a sandwich on a bench. I just left it there by the bench, but the old fella came chasing after me “you’ve left your heart behind”, he says. How did he know it was a heart is what I want to know? Probably heard it beating away I suppose. I couldn’t get rid of it. Everywhere I went, someone would see me and come roaring after me “You’ve left your heart behind”. “I know, I know” says I. So the only way I got rid of it, was by going out at midnight, nobody around, covering it up in a Tesco’s bag, climbing the gates of Phoenix Park, running into the trees and leaving it there. As I ran away I swear I could still hear it beating. I rang the Gardai from a phone box, told them where to look, and next morning, sure enough, I see a patrol car going into the park. So it’s back in the alcove in the Cathedral now, and the priest is happy to have his saint’s heart back, and I’m relieved to be rid of it. Though, you know, I sometimes miss having a beating heart in my hand.

Note to Gardai: This is a work of fiction


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: George Hodan

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #25 The Woman Who Wouldn’t Move Out


The Woman Who Wouldn’t Move Out

Early in his time as a teacher, he made efforts to befriend other teachers. He was still under the illusion that there could be some kind of social life found amongst the teaching staff at the school. Getting onto his motorbike after class one night, an American guy, maybe fiftyish, came out and mounted the bike next to his. They introduced themselves, shook hands, arranged to meet for coffee the next morning.

At the coffee shop, the American guy, Rob, told him that he’d been teaching for more than two years, that the school was a good one, that he’d always been paid on time and correctly, that the management could be trusted. These were all things he wanted to hear. Then Rob said “Have you got involved with any Vietnamese women?”. He was a bit taken aback by the question, said no he hadn’t and why the question. Rob had met a much younger Vietnamese woman online. Things had progressed quickly. Within a few weeks, the woman was staying over at his apartment. A few weeks later, getting home from school one night, he found her at the apartment. She’d got the caretaker, who she knew, to let her in. She’d brought her suitcases. She’d hung her clothes up in his wardrobe. She’d shifted his clothes into one drawer of the dresser, and replaced them with her underwear, blouses, socks, gym gear. Her toothbrush was next to his in the bathroom. Rob was a bit taken aback but decided to go along with it. He didn’t have much choice. At first, she cooked him meals, but soon she insisted they eat out every night. They were both drinking a lot, Rob always picking up the tab. It was fun for a while, but he felt trapped. Their conversation was severely limited by his total lack of Vietnamese and her limited English. There were long, long silences. He’d never made the effort to learn the language, never saw the need for it. This went on for a few months. Rob asked her to leave, said he loved her but needed his own space. She went ballistic, got violent, threw plates and mugs at him. He never raised the subject again. She knew staff at his school. In Vietnam it seemed like everybody knew everybody. He knew she had a brother who was a policeman and a cousin in immigration. They carried on the pretence – eating out, drinking, sleeping together. It affected his teaching. He was turning up late, unprepared, having no time on his own to prepare lesson plans. The students were complaining about him, that his mind wasn’t on the class, that he had lost his touch.

“So what are you going to do?” he asked the American guy.

“I have a plan” said Rob. “I’m leaving the country next week, and never coming back”.


A gift wrapped present

usually comes with

strings attached





Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : By Riza Nugraha  from Utrecht, The Netherlands (Saigon’s BeerUploaded by feydey) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)


NaPoWriMo 2018 – #24 – Phú Quốc


Phú Quốc

He goes to a bar near the beach, orders a tofu and vegetable stir fry and a bottle of Saigon Special. The Saigon arrives with the top off. It tastes weak and watery, like the Bia Hoi you can get for next to nothing in the streets of any Vietnamese city. He suspects the bottle has been refilled with the cheap substitute. He spends the next half hour watching the staff serving beer to other customers, looking for evidence that they were topping up empty bottles behind the bar. He sees no firm evidence, and then wonders if they’ve only done it to him, because he looks like a soft touch; that they wouldn’t dare try it on the hard-faced Russian tourists who frequent Phú Quốc.

He decides not to have another beer there, makes a sign that he wants the bill. They send a five-year-old boy to his table with the bill. It’s a cute thing to do, but in his cynical frame of mind he sees it as a ploy to extract a larger tip. He pays, leaves no tip and goes to the bar next door, called “Andy’s”, where he orders another Saigon. It’s cheaper anyway. The waitress takes the bottle straight from the fridge and makes a point of bringing it to his table and taking the top off in front of him. So maybe it is ‘a thing’ in Phú Quốc and he’s not imagining it.

He’s on his third beer, second if you don’t count the watered down one. Two policemen ride by the bar on motorbikes. In all his time in Da Nang he’d never seen a policeman near any of the bars he used to frequent in the An Thuongs, not even in the ones where weed was openly sold and smoked. He thought of the mural at the Crazy Kat bar: “A friend in need is a friend indeed, but a friend with weed is better”. The boss lady of Andy’s looks concerned about the police. They’ve gone into the bar next door that he’s just left. Perhaps there’s been a complaint about watered down beer.

At the next table is a Russian couple with a child, maybe four years old – a boy, blonde haired, pale skinned. The boy has a smart phone propped up two or three inches from his face, his chin level with the table.  His hands are placed either side of the phone. He is watching a video, the glow of the screen reflected on his face. For the next half-hour or more, the boy does not take his eyes off the screen. The waiter brings food to the table. The parents commence eating. The father interrupts his own eating every few minutes to cut up the boy’s food and spoon it into the boy’s mouth. The boy’s mouth opens automatically when the spoon approaches.  His head remains motionless, his eyes focused on the screen. The boy never lifts his hands from the table, chews the food and swallows it as if on autopilot. The father then picks up a bottle of cola, pushes a straw between the boy’s lips. The boy begins sucking.

He finds it hard to look away from this scene, imagines a future where this boy has grown into an adult unable to feed himself, unable to stand up from his chair, his eyes permanently locked onto a screen displaying a never-ending video, a servant or robot spoon-feeding him, a plastic tube delivering liquid directly into his mouth.


He recalls his childhood:

one video after another

and a vague memory

of spoons and straws





Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : By Riza Nugraha  from Utrecht, The Netherlands (Saigon’s BeerUploaded by feydey) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)


NaPoWriMo 2018 – #23 – Subterranean Battambang Blues


Poetry is not coming to me, but writing up experiences of the past 10 months is. I’ve appended a token few lines to the end of this prose, in an attempt to make it look slightly poetic.

Subterranean Battambang Blues

In Cambodia he feels the absence of Vietnam, a hard ball in his gut. Siem Reap is tourism on steroids. It’s selfie-sticks and climbing over sacred sites for the picture that will get the most likes. He avoids the throng, finds a small restaurant on the wrong side of the river. The wrong side if you’re a young, party going, good time guy looking for action; the wrong side if you want to hear a Led Zeppelin tribute band (admittedly they sound quite good), the right side if you want a quiet, friendly place to eat in unpretentious surroundings. He orders a vegan Amok – a Khmer curry. It’s warming and flavourful. The drinks menu has a simple pricing system – every drink is a dollar. He could work his way through the whole menu – four types of beer, eight types of soft drink, four types of juice and fifteen types of cocktail for $31. He decides against it. After three beers he orders a Margarita.

The next day he gets a small bus to Battambang. His hotel has arranged a tuk-tuk driver to meet him at the bus station. When he arrives, three or four men hold up cards with the name of his hotel. Some have several cards, one for each hotel in Battambang it seems. They are flashing them like Bob Dylan’s in his video of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.  He’s almost inside one of the tuk-tuks when he realises their game, and spots the right driver holding a card with his name on it.

That evening he gets a ride into town and eats at a place where you leave your shoes in the doorway. He nudges his expensive trainers into the shadows. By 9:30 p.m. the town seems almost deserted. Cafes and bars are open, but the only people in them are staff, their faces illuminated by the glow of phones. He finds a pub with a group of expats sitting outside on couches and armchairs around a low table. The owner, a tall Canadian guy, welcomes him. “Come over and sit with these guys and talk. They’re all interesting”, he says. “I don’t want to intrude”. “No, no, sit with them, I’ll introduce you. That’s my shtick.”  He walks over to the group with the owner. “That’s Jack, he’s an Aussie, and that’s Jasmine, his ladyboyfriend….”. He continues with the introductions: a Swiss guy who runs a NGO, three German tourists, an American guy who used to run a school in Saigon. The Aussie, Jack, is an ex-marine. He’s leathery and totally pissed, but in a benign way. He clearly adores his ladyboyfriend and she/he him. The Swiss guy talks to her in fluent Khmer. Most of the talk around the table is about Cambodia, how Sihanoukville has been ruined by the Chinese as has most of the country, they say. “There’s raw sewage running in the streets. They’ve built so many hotels, but no basic infrastructure”. The American guy says “Battambang is the last redoubt”.

He has a few more beers, swaps stories about Da Nang, Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh. Tells them about the silent retreat he’s going on about twenty kilometres away the next day. They tell him to report back in ten days’ time. He says he will. By now it’s gone 11, too late in this town to find a tuk-tuk. He walks back to his hotel. The night is warm, humid. The sky is clear, unpolluted. He follows the Google map directions which, thirty minutes later, lead him down a pitch-black alley where dogs bark from every small house. He’s waking up the whole neighbourhood. He is near the hotel, but at the back of it, which is high-walled with no way in. He turns on the torch on his phone. A figure appears behind him, a young man, he thinks, who says something in Khmer. He can’t tell if it’s friendly or threatening. He keeps the light pointed towards the guy, whilst walking in the opposite direction. The guy keeps his distance but tracks him down the alley. The dogs are in a barking frenzy. He decides he needs to turn around, return to the main road. He walks towards the young guy, hoping that his phone battery doesn’t give out. The guy steps aside, the barking subsides, he finds the right lane to his hotel. The hotel gate is locked. He rings the bell, waking a shirtless security guard who opens up, giving him an accusing glare.

No, I haven’t been chasing women

although I admit to several alcoholic drinks

and the presence of a ladyboy





Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)


NaPoWriMo 2018 – #21 – “Have you seen Mickey Finn?”


The disused Jam Factory / railway station at Newbliss

I did a fair bit of writing today, but nothing interesting would come. So I borrowed the house bicycle and cycled into the nearest town, Newbliss, for a pint of Guinness. I came back with a story.


Have you seen Mickey Finn?

Somebody has dropped a cigarette into the tub, next to the bench where I’m sipping a Guinness outside the pub in Newbliss. The shrub is emitting smoke, threatening to turn into a burning bush. A man in the doorway says “For fuck’s sake” and tells one of the smokers to go in and get a pint of water. After several pints of water, the fire is extinguished. A man recites a list of names which includes “Jimmy the Dog” and “Mickey Finn”. There must be hundreds if not thousands of Mickey Finns around the world, but how did Jimmy get to be called “the dog” I wonder? A white van pulls up, the driver shouts, have you seen Mickey Finn?”. The doorway man says “No”. It drives off. Being close to the border, I’m wary of why someone might be listing names, or enquiring the whereabouts of another. I’ve nearly finished my Guinness when a red Ford Focus pulls up. A man about my age, but much heavier, gets out, comes straight up to me, says “Hello, where are you from, you’re welcome, would you like a pint?”. I accept his offer. He disappears inside and re-appears some time later with two pints of Guinness. He wants my life story and when I mention the Tyrone Guthrie Centre he says “Great man, great man, he paid for my first pair of shoes”. I confess to knowing little about Guthrie and he fills in some of the gaps. Guthrie was a Protestant and had no children. He left his huge estate mostly to the Irish Government to be used to promote the creative arts but also a significant part to his Catholic neighbours. “Where is he buried?” I ask. “Hop in and I’ll show ye” he says. We’re in the red Focus driving to Aghabog Church of Ireland cemetery, where Guthrie and his wife and his ancestors are buried. It’s a large, but not enormous headstone. We then drive back towards the town but he veers off, up a country road. “Do you want some fun?” he says. I’m a bit concerned by the question, but before I have time to answer, he has swerved a hard right into a field and is speeding around it, wheels spinning. He comes to a halt next to hedge with a hole in it. “Come in” he says “Have a cup of tea”. “Is your wife home?” I ask and am relieved when he replies that she is. We duck through the hole in the hedge to a bungalow, with a new Jaguar parked outside. That’s mine” he says “The wee Ford is Sarah’s”.  Inside, his wife Sarah seems unsurprised to see a total stranger following in her husband’s wake. “Will you have a steak sandwich?”. “No thank you, just a cup of tea”. I sit and am presented with a mug of tea, a plate piled high with steak sandwiches and another plate of Swiss Roll. “Ah, Just have one, at least”, she says. I daren’t tell them I’m vegetarian, knowing the disbelief it would cause. I force down a steak sandwich and a piece of Swiss Roll, wash it down with the tea. “Well now, let’s get you back” he says. We jump into the Jaguar this time and speed off. He stops at a bridge over a disused railway line. “That was the railway station”, he says. “Joe Martin and Mr. Guthrie bought it and started a jam factory. Irish Farmhouse Preserves it was called. Mr. Guthrie put a lot of money into it. I’ll say no more. But we used to pick strawberries and blackberries for the jam making. That was my first job. That’s how I got my first pair of shoes.”




Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : Mike Hopkins

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NaPoWriMo 2018 – #13 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

Warning. This post contains disturbing material.


He recognises the structure of the building. It had once been a high school like those he’d  taught at in Vietnam: three or four floors high, each level having a long balcony overlooking a playground. Doors opened off the balcony onto side-by-side classrooms.

But in S-21, the classrooms were sub-divided by roughly built brick walls, making multiple torture chambers out of each classroom. Prisoners were shackled to iron bedsteads, tortured until they confessed to being anti-government subversives working against Pol Pot. The torturer was practiced in the art of taking the prisoner to the brink of death and then pulling back. A death without a confession was a failure, which did not reflect well on the torturer. After the confession had been extracted, the prisoner was taken to the edge of a pit where the playground had been, hit on the head with an iron bar and throat slit. The pit was then covered with DDT, to mask the stench and finish off any unlikely survivors.


Laughter with screams

Skipping ropes with manacles

Desks with racks

Homework with confessions

Rulers with iron bars

Chalk dust with DDT

Innocence with corruption



Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: By Nefelimhg at Dutch Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3218978

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #10 Laos -1


Laos – 1

Evading the spruiking taxi drivers

I find myself on a lonely corner

outside the airport


Out of nowhere

a tuk-tuk appears

the engine sounds of popping bubbles


He spots me before I spot him

pulls over

lifts my bags onto the rear seat


We putter down a riverside lane

the Mekong  black, turquoise, green

a temple or spa on every corner


Overtaken by women motorcyclists

one hand on the bars

the other holding umbrellas

to block the skin-darkening sun


Tailless cats in the hotel driveway

the receptionist chanting “sabai dii

hands pressed together as if in prayer

geckos chase mosquitoes across the walls


over the road, a bar, blasting out Led Zeppelin



Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: Ilya P

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)