2017: Creative adventures

P1060450In the international and local contexts, 2017 has been extremely challenging, full of uncertainties. Closer to home, there have been dark times for many people who are dear to me. I am therefore extra grateful for all of my wonderful creative adventures this year. I share just a few in this post.

I have facilitated well over eighty creativity and creative writing workshops.

I recently began working as writer in residence in a local primary school, and am loving every moment.

I’ve been involved in an intercultural arts project, and in research into the impact of arts participation in prison.

I have continued to sing in Lisburn Harmony Ladies Choir, with all the benefits of making music with 60 wonderful women.

I have helped to organise 10 autism-friendly screenings @QFT, and enhanced my very limited knowledge about autism.

I have discovered new artists, authors and poets, and attended concerts, the opera and the theatre. I was blown away by Winnie Li’s powerful novel, Dark Chapter, a fictionalised account of how she was raped during a visit to Belfast. This novel preceded the Me Too# campaign, identifying many of the issues involved in breaking the silence.

I have visited some inspiring places this year, many of them on the West coast of Ireland.  In the enigmatic spaces of Connemara, I felt a connection to one of my favourite writers, John O’Donohue.

The culmination of my creative year was the publication of my first poetry collection, Elements of Distance, by Lapwing Publications. The creation of this collection was supported by the Arts Council NI, and by a wonderful mentor, the poet Moyra Donaldson. I am looking forward to the official launch of this book early in 2018, and to more creative adventures.

Last night our local park was closed, the gates taped like a crime scene, and potential visitors warned of the violent storm that was imminent. I lay in bed and listened to the symphonic winds, welcoming their energy and hoping that they were blowing away the negativity of 2017. Happy New Year, all.

Random Acts of Finding Poetry

Found poetry is a term which usually refers to a combination of words and phrases from existing printed text. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/found-poem-poetic-form

I am intrigued by the randomness of found poetry, and also by the thought that randomness is integral to creativity.

The photograph which heads this blog was a found image, a random act of noticing and framing experience.  I began with the frying pan, which I was moving from the cooker to the sink after a meaI in a holiday cottage on the Antrim coast. The texture of the globules and the planetary shape of the pan’s surface captured my attention. Then I added the pepper, another layer of reality, suggesting a connection between the objects.

I think of creativity in general and the composition of poetry in particular as a set of processes of making connections – overt or covert, superficial and profound, between familiar and unfamiliar spaces, objects, experiences.  What all of these processes have in common is the joyful surprise that comes in the moment of finding.



Swans swelling on the glossy lake

like bells vibrating.

The sky paints drifting seagulls blue.


I thought I knew this path, but

sunlight reinvents the tree stumps,

makes mystery of the stones.


The poem falls towards me

like an autumn leaf,

clinging to my coat.



Narrative journey,

paragraphed by train lines,

predetermined aim and destination.

But an innocence of sunlight

over town and field and water,

reconfiguring the prose.

Unasked for, found poetry.



iron-slow birds adhering to the sky

lightbulbs disconnected

daffodils unopened

fireside with a wordless flame

waiting for the poem



No explanation for

this blended autumn sky,

no words for shifting colours,

no theory of the moon.


From an unnamed berry

sliding on my palm,

peeling back the layers

of an untasted poem.

© Shelley Tracey 4th November 2017


Finding the Hidden and the Divine in Poetry: notes about a new anthology

Today A New Ulster has published an online anthology, A New Ulster Presents: The Hidden and the Divine. This is an anthology of women’s writing in Ireland, and I am delighted to have four poems included. Here is one of them:


The perfect whiteness of swans

an affront to the eye,

tired of seeking miracles.


You are past


for anything.


Enough for you

small fish rising

to mouth their brief condolences.

This is one of several poems I have written about borderlands, those in-between and thin spaces where we sometimes find ourselves during times of transition.  These times are characterised by brief moments of realisation, the emergence of small images.

For me, one of the challenges of poetry is how much it demands: it takes me into difficult and deep places, offering only temporary insights.

I would love to know how poetry challenges you.








In Imaginary Worlds: Responses and Reflections

22nd October 2017

Yesterday I had the full-of-delights experience of attending a recording of RTE’s Book Show in Dublin. The occasion was a special edition focusing on a recent competition, a Letter to a Character. Readers wrote to an interesting character from fiction. I was thrilled to have my letter shortlisted, a communication with Nora Webster from Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name. 

The event took place in the Smock Alley Theatre. Sinéad Gleeson was in conversation with Lisa McInerney, Anne Enright and Paul Howard. Actors Derbhle Crotty and Dermot Magennis read some of the letters, and Lisa O’Neill sang about two characters in her poignant textured voice.  

The discussion was humorous, inspiring and entertaining. It was amusing to hear two of the panellists saying that they had never read Pride and Prejudice, which had inspired a clatter of letters, but that they felt they knew the characters anyway. 

You can find out more about the show and the shortlisted letters on the RTE Book Show page. 


The show is being broadcast on Saturday 28th October from 7.00 – 8.00 pm: don’t miss it! 

You won’t hear my own letter on it – airspace was reserved for letters to famous characters recognised by a wide audience – but you can read it below.  I love the intimacy of Colm Tóibín’s novels, and his ability to paint such delicate portraits of his characters without invading their personal space. He keeps a respectful distance from them; I tried to honour this in my letter.

My letter was also an opportunity to explore the spaces of the imaginary worlds which we create in poetry as well as in fiction, and how we enter, move around in and exit these spaces. It is never possible to emerge unaltered. 

I came away from The Book Show recording with questions about how and why we connect with particular characters, how they grow beyond the page, and what letters I might write to the characters in my own novel-in-very-slow-progress.

Dear Nora

Please don’t be alarmed by this letter, by this gesture from a stranger. I know how important your privacy is to you, and how much you suffered from the intrusive attentions of others after the premature death of your beloved husband. Living in a small town full of nosy neighbours must have been particularly difficult when you were floored by your grief as a young widow. You became a target for acquaintances such as May Lacey; they came into your house uninvited and told you stories about people you barely know, whereas your own stories about your dear husband have gone untold and unheard.

How it must have challenged you to be the focus of unwanted attention immediately after your bereavement, and then to be the recipient of months of snubbing and sideways glances. It’s difficult for women to stand their ground, to simply to be themselves without someone judging them and finding them wanting. I admire you for how you pushed through your grief and grew in confidence and strength. I applaud your assertiveness at work and your determination to be yourself.

You might take issue with my next comments. Please hear me out, and kindly accept my missive as a temporary encounter with someone who will never contact you again.  Imagine me as a woman from another county who once sat beside you at the bus stop back to Enniscorthy. Think of us as two women with plastic bags at our feet, lost in our thoughts about the day that has passed, and the evening ahead.  I think of you sitting in peace after tea, listening to your classical music records, enjoying your solitude and the companionship of favourite melodies and symphonies.

I hope that you will spare a thought in your solitary moments to your sons Donal and Conor, who suffered so much after their beloved father died. It seems to me that those poor boys lost their connection with you as well at that time; you were so absorbed in your own loss, that they might have been invisible to you. You knew what it was like to suffer the cold indifference of an unmotherly mother; surely you don’t want your sons to have an equally negative experience, which might scar them for the rest of their lives?  Please believe that with willingness and open-heartedness, the pattern of silence and isolation across the generations can be disrupted.

I am not denigrating your sad story, Nora Webster. It touched me deeply. I urge you to shake out the tainted linens of the past, and fold them away into a trunk which you will never need to reopen. Turn your back on the past, and turn towards your sons.

I wish you all the best for the future.

With sincerity and respect,

Shelley Tracey





Finding Spaces for Writing: Reflections 2

Imagine your perfect writing space. Imagine you had the freedom to choose its location, décor, and view. Imagine all the sensory inspirations which you might incorporate into this space – music, the colours, textures, scents, food and drink. Imagine what it might be like with none of these, to be in an enclosed concentrated stillness, an intense fluent relationship between yourself, your pen, your page.

Imagine moving at will between the inner and outer worlds of writing: between experience, inspiration, reflection and imagination itself. What would it take for you to find this freedom of movement, to feel self-sufficient in the creative process?

We talk about needing time and space to write.

I have learned over years of studying, working, child-raising and more working to tuck myself into tiny moments, writing tiny pieces, poring over metaphors, picking them out like minute shell-treasures from heaps of beach-sand.

I have composed hundreds of brief poems on my mobile phone, dozens of short poems in my notebooks. When I give myself permission to research and write longer pieces, I feel daring and greedy. I feel guilty about using up so much time for myself, pursuing my passion for writing, with a life full of obligations and deadlines.

I am learning – slowly – to draw on my identity as an academic writer for my creative work, to lean into the spaciousness of thought and the strictures of rigor offered by the demands of a 5,000-word article or an 80,000-word PhD.  I am also learning, after many years of writing in my journals, that writing simply for the sake of writing, without a goal or structure, is also a valid manifestation of my identity as a writer.

Having an Arts Council NI grant to develop a collection of poetry gives me space and structure for writing.  The word “space” is not simply an equivalent for time; it also means permission to live intensely and freely in the world of writing, to recognise all of those aspects of my life and work which contribute towards my writing.   When I begin to map my writing world, connections and insights emerge.

My writing world is dense, well-populated, with exciting landscapes and many tribes with which I feel affinity. These communities exist in the real world and the virtual world.

They are the writers and artists I hang out with and exchange ideas and inspiration with in real life and online.

They are the writers I will never meet: they are the poets and authors who draw me into their worlds. Their poems and characters live with me, inspire me, make me think about writing and possibility and the power of the imagination.

My writing world is also the world of art and film and music, the spaces which enchant and intrigue me and make me think about creativity.

As a creative writing facilitator, I am responsible for inviting the participants in my workshops and courses to create their own writing worlds, to feel at home in these worlds, and to keep finding new communities to connect with.

I reflect on the spaces I create for others to write in, and how I might draw on this creative process for myself to develop my own collection of poems.  Whether I am designing a course, or series of workshops or a one-off writing event, I begin with an overarching theme.  In my experience, a theme creates a space in which to play with ideas, for the imagination to wander. The theme also creates an overarching structure, a scaffold for ideas.  I never cease to be amazed at the variety of responses to each of the themes; it is as if each is a window into a myriad of perspectives.

We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well with our own .. We demand windows.

My own eyes are not enough for me. I will see through those of others. Reality even seen through the eyes of many is not enough. I will see what others have invented. …Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege of individuality…. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself….  

C. S. Lewis An Experiment in Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961).

Creating a poetry collection: reflections 1

100B7070Earlier this year, I  received a grant from the Arts Council Northern Ireland to develop a collection of poems. Many of my poems have been published, in anthologies, magazines, online and in less conventional places, such as on a glass sculpture. I have printed some of them on poem cards, and they have also been superimposed on my photographs in the Bangor Poetry Festival.  I explore the relationship between poetry and photography in a later blog.

Although many of my poems exist out in the world, in print and in virtual reality, I have never had a lovely slim volume of my own, with my name prominently displayed on the front. My greatest ambition (now that my more realistic ones have been achieved) is to have my own collection published. I don’t have a particular format or cover in mind, but I know that I will really enjoy playing with ideas for it.

I enjoyed applying for the Arts Council grant – I am one those strange people who likes the challenge of application forms. The enjoyment came from the need to think about my writing ambitions, and how I might address them. It was also an opportunity to reflect on my learning from many years of writing, reading poetry, taking part in writing classes, and facilitating poetry workshops.

I came up with a number of ideas about what it might take for me to create my collection, some wishes and dreams. These were some of them:

  • somebody to guide and mentor me
  • a timetable and a plan – my ideas tend to take me off in many directions, and I need structure
  • the time and opportunity to visit lovely places, which would inspire me to write
  • reading poetry collections with an analytical eye – what’s a good title? what’s the best way to sequence the poems? any publication styles I particularly like?
  • attending poetry events for inspiration

Well, the wishes fairy must have been waving her magic wand, because all of my wishes came true. Intrigued? watch out for my next blog.





Paying with a Poem: World Poetry Day 2016

19th March 2016

Celebrating not only coffee shops but a wonderful idea today: some coffee shops are offering free coffees in exchange for a poem. This is my offering, which I will be taking to Belfast today.


Such perfect places for poems to emerge,

Ambience nourishing; new words will surge.

Ground from simmering fragrant dark soils,

Dissolved in pure water, melodiously boils.

Baristas, all focused, in stance reverential,

Skilled at their brewing; their gifts evidential.

Contemplative whiteness of stacked cups and mugs,

Milk in smooth cylinders, pottery jugs.

The music of grinding, harmonious meeting,

The essence will linger, though each taste is fleeting.

Layers of cinnamon, chocolate, oak, sky:

Poetic images gather, lift, fly.



19/3/16 (written for Pay with a Poem, World Poetry Day 2016)

International Women’s Day Creative Writing Event

women aloud logo


TUESDAY 8TH MARCH 2016 6.15-7.45 PM

Lisburn City Library, Linenhall St, Lisburn BT28 1FJ

We are delighted to invite you to celebrate International Women’s Day with us at our March meeting. Women Aloud NI aims to raise the profile of the women’s writing scene in Northern Ireland. We will be celebrating the writing of local women writers, using it as inspiration for our own writing. The event will begin with short readings by local writers:
Clare McWilliams (also known as “Belfast Beatnik” will perform pieces from her new poetic series “Trinity of Woman”)
Joanna Toner will read from her forthcoming book about experiences of sight loss.

All are welcome, but if you are not a regular member of the Lisburn City Library creative writing group, please contact the facilitator, Shelley Tracey, to book your place. Email: shelleyztracey@gmail.com

New poems … featured by Lagan Press


1 February 2016

Posted on 31/01/2016 In: Showcase
In our latest Poetry Originals, Shelley Tracey brings us two extracts from her prose poem, ‘The Company We Keep’, inspired by Ruth Gendler’s ‘Book of Qualities’ (1967) and “contemporary examples of humanity and inhumanity in Northern Ireland and in the wider world”.


Between resists description and classification. Neither inbred nor outcast, inmate nor outsider, it is genderless, homeless. It has long skeins of words which contort and distort when twisted together.

Between walks quietly through the streets, attracting too much attention because everything about it is alien. It plays an instrument which seems familiar, but the tunes it creates taunt you with dissonance, all ending unresolved.


Guilt has enormous energy. She takes on the impossible tasks of being pilot, air traffic controller, tour guide and steward, all at the same time.

Guilt believes her duty is to make everyone else’s journeys lighter. Guilt wears her solemn boots and bears crueller baggage than anyone needs.

She is too suffused with travel-angst to be able to fly.

Guilt keeps turning back from her longed-for journey, castigates herself for wanting to leave, moves in smaller and smaller circles, is coming to a full dead stop.

Picture for blog story Poetry Originals #10: Shelley Tracey
South African poet and educator Shelley Tracey has been living and working in Northern Ireland for over 20 years. Shelley was Artist in the Community in 2015 (an Arts Council NI award), with an intercultural creative writing project. She feels inspired by the arts scene in Northern Ireland, in particular by visual artists, local writers, her intercultural arts colleagues and adventures, and the participants in her creative writing workshops. Her poems have been published in Abridged, North West Words, FourxFour, Artemis Poetry, Community Arts Partnership anthologies Moment and Making Memories, and she has participated in tenx9 storytelling sessions at the Black Box. Shelley has written many articles on creativity and on facilitating creative writing. With Conor Shields, she researched, co-authored and co-edited Between ourselves: exploring interculturalism through intercommunity creative practice (Community Arts Partnership, 2015).

Her blog on creativity, Creating Connections, is at https://journeyspace.wordpress.com/