Ruth O’Callaghan Interview

Ruth O’Callaghan
by Shanta

Ruth O’Callaghan, is a Hawthornden Fellow, competition adjudicator, interviewer and reviewer. A winner in International Poetry competitions, her work is published in many anthologies and magazines and has been translated into Italian, Romanian and German. Her latest collection is Goater’s Alley (Shoestring Press 2010).

Ruth organises the Camden and Lumen Poetry, an innovative project with all proceeds going to help the Cold Weather Shelters in Camden and Kings Cross, London, UK. Regular poetry readings are held in the Camden and Lumen (Kings Cross) venues, with well-known authors appearing alongside new and unpublished poets.

Publishers and magazine editors present their writers, published poets make appearances, and the events include the opportunity for audience members to read at least one poem. Poets from the floor can submit the poems they read to be considered for an annual anthology published each Spring. This gives poets at all levels the chance to appear alongside the famous names in each anthology.

I caught up with Ruth to talk about the Camden and Lumen Poetry Project and her own writing.

Hello Ruth and welcome to The View From Here. So tell me, when did you set up the Camden and Lumen Poetry project and how did it come about?

It originally started about four years ago at the Trinity United Reform Church, Camden, when listening to a one-off poetry event. A lady ( Maggie, who turned out to be the minister) sitting next to me mentioned that the church had joined an initiative whereby seven churches each provided a night's shelter for the homeless during the bitterest month's of the year - January 1st to March 31st. The trouble was this particular church hadn't estimated the total cost of partaking in such a scheme - setting up costs, overheads, as well as providing food, help etc. and was short of funds. The only solution seemed to be to ask internationally famous poets to waive their fees and allow all the money made to go to the Cold Weather Shelter for the Homeless. The response from the poets has been fantastic. Luminaries such as Mimi Khalvati, Fiona Sampson, Elaine Feinstein, the late, great E.A. Markham and Alan Brownjohn, to name but a few have all read for free.

Lumen opened in 2008 and Maggie, being also responsible for this church, invited me to set up a similar scheme to support the Lumen Cold Weather Shelter. Both ventures have proved such a success that we now contribute approximately 65% of the monies necessary for each of the Cold Weather Shelters.

Naturally, I can't do it singlehanded and from the outset have been brilliantly supported by Chris Johnson and Lynn Foote. Recently have also had help from Adele and Annie on an ad hoc basis when illness, family matters etc. have necessitated one or other of us being absent. However, am always looking for more volunteers to call on in an emergency. :)

It's an innovative concept to bring together spoken poetry and homeless people in a place of prayer. Can you tell me a bit about the ethos and aims behind the project?

Initially it began with the dual aim of supporting the Cold Weather Shelter and having another venue where one could listen to poetry. I love the idea of having poetry - which many consider airy-fairy - having a very practical and, in some cases, life-saving, usage. Also, of course, as well as listening to poetry it could also be a place where unknown or relatively unknown poets could also read from the floor and in front of more established poets. From there it seemed natural to invite publishers and magazine editors along. It's a win-win situation. The publishers gain a free venue in London where they can promote their own poets, the poets from the floor read in front of publishers and known poets, known poets get to read and sell their books (they keep that money) and all the other revenue goes to the Cold Weather Shelter.

Sometimes magical things have happened and publishers or known poets have enquired for further details about a poet from the floor.

When we're struggling to become published, publishers can often seem remote beings who simply delight in rejecting our poems. This is not true. Many are approachable and indeed, I've been asked to look out for manuscripts - they know I do workshops and mentoring - but obviously the standard of work has to meet their criteria.

Are there any differences between the events held at the Camden and Lumen venues?

No, each venue supports its own Cold Weather Shelter. The same mixture of poets and publishers read at both and the poets from the floor at both venues are invited to submit their poems for the anthology. The anthology comes out annually and is generously sponsored by different publishing houses. Internationally renowned poets are also asked to donate a poem so the poets from the floor publish alongside the great and good. Any profits go to the Cold Weather Shelter. Again a win-win situation with the publisher being offered first choice of dates for the venues.

How did you go about getting poets involved?

I simply ask them. Only one has refused - he agreed but then when he realised the money went to the Cold Weather Shelter he refused. Let's hope he never falls on hard times! :)

Can you describe the response you have had from publishers and editors?

Wonderful, both in providing good poets for us to listen to, in their interest in the poets from the floor, in donating some of their books to be sold on behalf of the Cold Weather Shelter (I must stress this is purely voluntary and in no way a requisite for them to be given a venue) and, for two of them, by sponsoring an anthology.

How can people get involved and support the project?

They can volunteer to act as relief volunteers, disseminate information i.e. when they receive the information to ensure that everyone on their mailing list, Facebook etc. also receive the information and, above all, come and share their poems.

I note that Carol Ann Duffy became a patron of Camden and Lumen Poetry in January 2010. Can you tell me something about that?

Again, remarkably simple. I e-mailed her asking for her patronage and within a couple of minutes she mailed back simply saying 'Okay'.

What plans do you have for the project in the future?

This I'm reviewing as we speak. Obviously continuing with all our achievements both towards the poets, publishers and Cold Weather Shelter but am open to innovative ideas of how to take the project forward. Your readers' contributions would be carefully considered.

However, should mention that due to the success of the poets’ endeavours the Camden Shelter is now able to begin opening in December instead of waiting until January. I'd definitely like to provide the wherewithal to continue this extended provision.

I wondered if you could also tell me a bit about your own journey as a poet: when and how you started writing, why you write and what inspires you.

I always wanted to be a poet but never had the confidence. I began to seriously think about it some years ago but still was hesitant about doing anything.

I joined a poetry class that ran once a week but between times still blanked my mind from serious commitment. I think now it was a mixture of the old adage if I don't try, I can't fail and also this feeling that if I finally committed to poetry it would take over. One day decided it was useless going on in this manner and plumped to go for it - and it has - taken over. Since then I've been very lucky and have had three collections published - each very different. The second collection, A Lope of Time (Shoestring 2009) has some of the poems I'm most proud of whilst the third collection Goater's Alley (Shoestring 2010) is definitely unique - a one-off.

“Goater’s Alley offers what a strong narrative in the richly rewarding language of good poetry achieves: movement, delight, a mastered shuddering and a sweep of control and energy that is truly marvellous. The language is insinuatingly musical. A readable rush of a story in a warming and gracious embrace; an extraordinary success.”

John F. Deane

How important is publication as a poet?

The most important thing for a serious poet is to achieve the best possible poem - publication must always be secondary to this ambition.

Do you have any advice for new and aspiring poets?

Read, read and read again. Also always seek external advice on your poems - not friends and family but a completely neutral mentor.

What are you working on now?

I've been extremely fortunate to have been awarded a Heinrich Boll residency in Ireland which only requires me to write - bliss! Previously I had also been fortunate enough to have been awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship which resulted in a collection - I'm hoping that this residency will have the same happy outcome and a fourth collection will result. Additionally, the Arts Council sponsored me to visit Mongolia to continue working with Mongolian women poets - we produced a C.D. and a website www.poetrymongolia and so am completing a volume of Mongolian poetry. A further project, as yet untitled, is a book of interviews of influential women poets throughout the world.

Thank you, Ruth, and all the very best with the Camden and Lumen Poetry project and all your writing endeavours.

Thank you, Shanta!

For more information about the Camden and Lumen Poetry project, please visit

Goater’s Alley by Ruth O’Callaghan is available from Shoestring Press for £9.00. Visit

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