ON the first page of my copy of the new Open Door book of poetry, editor Niall MacMonagle has written a note. "The door's open come on in."
It's a metaphor that slips its way through all of the Open Door series.
There is the name, obviously, but here, even in this new stand-alone book of poetry, MacMonagle has chosen first The Door, by Miroslav Holub, to indicate to readers what he hopes they will do. The poem begins: "Go and open the door. Maybe outside there's a tree, or a wood, a garden, or a magic city." And it ends: "Even if nothing is there, go and open the door. At least there'll be a draught."
The Open Door series . . . aimed at adult literacy groups . . . was first conceived by author Patricia Scanlan. Working in Finglas library (before her own success would allow her to leave and concentrate on writing novels), she noted that adults learning to read were badly served. "The material there was very basic, very badly produced. One text was more humiliating than the other."
Scanlan thought she could do better. By now a published writer . . . Apartment 3B had just been released . . . she had done well and wanted to put something back. So she approached New Island publishers with an idea. Ask high-profile authors to write short stories for adults. She would write the first book, as a sort of trial run. After that, they would wait and see.
The most recent statistics suggest that around 25% of adults in Ireland have difficulty both reading and writing. In European league tables, we usually languish near the bottom.
Like most of the most serious issues in this country, the problem was allowed to get worse before it was recognised; real money was finally allocated towards the area when Ireland began clambering out of its recession a decade ago.
The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) has been an energetic recipient of these funds. "I could keep you talking all day, " says Tommy Byrne, the agency's PRO, as he skims apace through reams of statistics: 34,000 learners in literacy schemes, 126 such schemes, 5,000 tutors. The schemes are free, all funded by local Vocational Educational Committees.
Meanwhile, funding is now coming through for major one-off projects such as classes in financial literacy and workplace literacy programmes operated in conjunction with Fas.
But the real stories are those of the ordinary lives Scanlan hoped to impact upon when she sat down to write her first manuscript. The Open Door series was an instant success, gobbled up by literacy groups nationally and internationally; the idea is now being reproduced in Britain. Even so, Scanlan remembers being more nervous handing over her first short book for the series than she had been with her first novel. The "huge feedback" settled her nerves and encouraged her to go knocking on other doors. The first Open Door series included work from Dermot Bolger, Joe O'Connor, and Deirdre Purcell, among others.
Bridie Daly remembers, in particular, a story from the second series, Joe's Wedding by Gareth O'Callaghan. The story, a moralistic tale reminding people to live their dreams, appealed to her because it involved a ghost. Bridie likes ghost stories.
Bridie's own story is a familiar tale of leaving school after sixth class and immediately going to work in a factory. Threeand-a-half years ago, she knew the alphabet and some small words. She could make up some sentences. All her life, she'd devised smart ways of skirting around her difficulty. But now her daughter, herself dyslexic, needed help with her homework.
This was Bridie's third attempt to enrol as an adult literacy student (she had tried first about 15 years ago; the lack of organised, dedicated support drove her away) and now she had the impetus she needed.
Since then, the world has opened up. "It's just great to be able to sit down and read a book, " she says. She's just finished reading The Diary of Anne Frank. She's in the middle of reading The Silver Sword. Her greatest ambition these days is to write a children's book; she's already finished some stories and poetry. "I'm learning new stuff all the time, " she says, "I always did want to write. Even to be able to write a letter is great."
Kevin O'Duffy has had his own revelations. He has realised he is not the only one in the whole of Ireland who has difficulty spelling. "I found out there are hundreds of thousands in the same situation." O'Duffy, a farmer, joined a literacy group six years ago, walking past the door several times before he took up his courage and went in. Like Bridie Daly, he found a supportive, encouraging environment, in which he thrived. Now he reads, and writes, and spells, and if he gets into difficulties he holds his head up and asks for help. "It's given me a whole new way of life. It's completely different. It all makes you think and opens your mind."
Patricia Scanlan wanted people to find a whole new way of life. She wanted them to be able to say they had read a book like The Diary of Anne Frank. The Open Door books adhere to a certain formula: short sentences, simple vocabulary, a rollicking good story, but it's the name on the cover that counts.
"People can say they've read Roddy Doyle. They can say they've read Maeve Binchey, " says Scanlan. Soon they can say they've read Nick Hornby, Julie Parsons, Chris Binchey and others. Scanlan keeps asking and the writers keep agreeing.
Once you meet Scanlan, you can understand why. A bustling, no-nonsense, non-stop talker, she is both charming and determined. On the day we meet, she is dressed in bright pink; her personality is a big one, her cause is a good one. She is clearly a persuasive character. The profits from the books go to a charity of the author's choice (the proceeds from the Open Door book of poetry go to Focus Ireland). How could anyone refuse?
Even great teachers are susceptible to flattery. Sitting opposite Scanlan, Niall MacMonagle is described by her as "one of the greatest teachers of poetry in Ireland". "We are, " she says, "honoured to have Niall editing this book. I would love to have been taught poetry by him."
True, MacMonagle's reputation precedes him. Better known to the layman as an enthusiastic and insightful reviewer of books on RTE Radio One, he also teaches English at Wesley College, a Dublin secondary school. When you hear him talk about poetry, you know what Scanlan means. To have heard a teacher talk in those accessible, yet almost awestruck terms about the value of poetry might well have turned the head of any bored and frustrated student.
"There is a poem for everyone, " he says, "every poem has a different emotion. It can be public or it can be private. I think it is the intimacy of the voice on the page that makes it connect with humanity."
For the Open Door book, MacMonagle chose a range of poems for a range of ages and interests. He chose poems from the contemporary age, and from long ago; the oldest poem was written 500 years ago. He set each one down beside an introductory paragraph: "Here's a poem with a powerful plot, a minidrama in eight lines. The rhythm or movement builds up to create vivid scenes in the reader's mind, " he writes before the anonymous Frankie and Johnny. That paragraph makes a difference. "I think it makes a reader more at ease, " he says, "you get some kind of sense of what the author is writing about.
Poems can be alienating for people."
The Open Door book of poetry does not form part of a series. More than an adult literacy book, it is aimed at all lovers of poetry; it will go on sale at airports. MacMonagle loves the idea of people reading the poems late at night, Scanlan loves the way they are accessible to everyone. "You can think about them, but you don't have to struggle, " she says.
Scanlan has clearly achieved her ambition. The Open Door series, (recently revamped and republished complete with sophisticated dust jacket) has gone a long way towards banishing the stigma of adult illiteracy. The launch of the new series last month was a high-profile affair, filled with movers and shakers and high-fliers. She is proud and she doesn't mind saying so, happy to be involved in something she considers so worthwhile. "This is not about anybody, " she says, "this is not about ego. This is about goodness."
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