what is Poetry Jukebox?

Belfast-based poet and playwright Maria Mc Manus has a passion for bringing literature into the cityscape, so that we can encounter the beauty and imagery of words (sometimes unexpectedly) as we go about our everyday lives; in her own words, ‘putting literature where it belongs, everywhere, for everybody.’  She set up Quotidian – Word on the Street  with poet Deirdre Cartmill in 2017 as a vehicle to breathe life into that ambition. The Poetry Jukebox is an international project founded by Ondřej Kobza, a Prague-based cultural activist focused on the animation of public space and ways of making cities more liveable for the people that live in them: he created a steel structure, deliberately styled to bring to mind a gramophone or speaking trumpet, with a button to press for anyone to hear a poet read their own poem, anytime, free gratis and for nothing.

Quotidian launched the first Poetry Jukebox in Ireland at the the Belfast International Festival in 2017.  ‘In truth, it’s miraculous that we were able to make it happen’, says Maria. ‘But as is the case with these things, it took persistence, support and generosity to bring it into being. Without the impetus of artist’s residencies for myself and Deirdre Cartmill from the Belfast International Festival, a  Lottery Fund small grant via the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and, crucially, the support of the general public through crowdfunding, it just wouldn’t have been possible.’ The debut curation of poems included leading lights of literature  as Eavan Boland , Padraic Fiacc , Paula Meehan, Katie Donovan, Michael Longley and Joan Newmann, in addition to important newer voices such as Mark Granier, Aifric McGlinchey Olive Broderick, Matthew Rice and Seanín Hughes. The Jukebox holds twenty audio files, and a new curations are installed regularly.

Since then, the Jukebox family has grown. Quotidian has a further two ‘touring’ jukeboxes, which can be installed in venues, streetscapes, hospitals, schools and museums. The Poetry Jukebox Czech partner, Ondřej Kobza , worked with Maria McManus as Quotidian’s artistic director to innovate and integrate features which make it more accessible for disabled people. As a former occupational therapist, Maria could clearly see that small changes to Ondřej’s original design would make an impact and improve disabled accessibility. ‘These are small but repeatable innovations which can be replicated elsewhere,’ explains Maria. ‘With the support of Belfast City Council and the Department for Communities we now have the first Jukebox in the world which integrates features for enhanced disabled access.’

‘Every year since we launched at the Belfast Festival, we have been able to contribute something new,’ says Maria McManus.   ‘We had focus on Irish Women poets in 2018, with FIRED!, and then Song of Myself  with D/Deaf and Disabled poets in 2019.  To date we have produced ten international curations of contemporary poetry on themes as diverse as the work of CS Lewis, hunger and migration, the Good Friday Agreement, and poetry from the LGBTQI+ community.  We have worked with fantastic curators such as Moyra Donaldson, Alice McCullough Tade Ipadeola, Stephen Sexton, Jessica Traynor, Lucy Collins and Paul Maddern. We have worked with and toured poetry curations to University College Dublin’s James Joyce Library, and EPIC, the famine museum. Our climate curation, ‘Once Barefoot….’ celebrated a new international collaboration with (CCI) in Paris and the fabulous Tropical Ravine at Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. Centre Culturel Irlandais has invested in a Poetry Jukebox, a first for all France and incorporating yet another innovation, a crank handle design and the ‘green energy’ version. It means that we can tour curations through Paris. We have already agreed  to bring Hungering, which we created with EPIC Museum and Hour by Hour commissioned by Outburst Queer Arts Festival to Paris.  Words matter and words are traveling the distance.’Quotidian – Word on the Street wants to keep working internationally  with the Poetry Jukebox project,  developing links, being outward-focused, connected and progressive.  In Ireland as a whole and particularly in the north of Ireland, poetry is something we do well – we want the world to know that, but we also need to know it and appreciate it here! Together we are celebrating our wonderful poets and finding ways to help more people get access to poetry by bringing it into public space here and internationally. With more people walking and cycling, going to the parks and enjoying the environment, this is one way we can keep the arts accessible and fresh.