The Word from Ireland by Billy Mills
On the 10th of October, the winners of the 1999 Irish Times Literature Prizes were announced. The Poetry award winner, from a shortlist that also included Paul Durcan and Medbh McGuckian, was Seamus Heaney for his Open Ground: Poems 1966 – 1996. This is not the place to discuss the value of Heaney’s work, but the original publication of the shortlist set me thinking again about comments on Irish poetry publishing made by David Kellogg in the course of his review of some Wild Honey Press titles, including a book of mine, in Samizdat Number 3.
In his review, Kellogg wrote: “The most interesting and demanding Irish poetry of this half century, however, is found not on the lists of Faber and Faber, Norton, and FSG, but among the small Irish presses. Presses like Dolmen, Gallery, Peppercanister, and Salmon each changed the course of Irish poetry. Now Wild Honey Press, with its beautiful limited pamphlets, is poised to do the same.”
Now, if we return to the Irish Times’ shortlist, we find that one of these books was publisher by Faber and Faber, one by Harvill, another UK press, and only one by on of Kellogg’s small Irish presses, Gallery. In this, the shortlist pretty well reflects the hierarchy of status in poetry here in Ireland.
The most ‘successful’ Irish poets tend to be published by non-Irish houses and have tenure at non-Irish universities: Heaney and Faber/Harvard; Boland and Carcanet/Stanford; Muldoon and Faber/Princeton. Of the Irish presses Kellogg mentions, Gallery and Salmon, along with Dedalus, which he overlooks, represent what I think of as the solid middle class of Irish poetry publishing: decent, law-abiding and aspiring to better things. These publishers, while superficially ‘small presses,’ do not subscribe to the kind of ethos that this term might lead an American or UK reader with an interest in these things to expect. They certainly did not change the course of Irish poetry, but rather served to confirm it to itself.
Of the other presses Kellogg mentions, the long-defunct Dolmen was the most interesting. Run by Liam Miller, whose primary interest was in visual design, Dolmen published Brian Coffey’s editions of Denis Devlin’s Collected Poems and The Heavenly Foreigner, as well as Coffey’s own Dice Thrown Will Never Annul Chance, a version of Mallarmé’s poem. They also brought out one of Michael Smith’s early books, and were almost single-handedly responsible for keeping Austin Clarke’s poetry in print in something approaching trade editions.
Peppercanister is Thomas Kinsella’s own imprint, and its function in changing Irish poetry is well summed up in a recent notice in Books Ireland of his The Familiar: “It’s as if Moses released the ten commandments in installments on not too elaborate tablets, charging enough shekels for them to keep himself in the reasonable comfort his years and status merit.” It should be pointed out that Peppercanister titles are distributed in Ireland by Dedalus, in the UK by Carcanet and in the USA by Dufour, which information helps to position them with regard to the small press scenes in those countries.
If one wants to look for the Irish antecedents of Wild Honey Press, the direction pointed in Kellogg’s review is not the way to go. Rather, one might begin with New Writers Press and The Lace Curtain magazine, both edited by Michael Smith and Trevor Joyce. Through the late 60s and the 70s, Smith and Joyce were just about the only people in Ireland to show any interest in the publishing (and rediscovery) of alternative voices in Irish verse. In addition to publishing early work by the two editors, NWP was largely responsible for the revival of interest in the work of such earlier poets as Thomas McGreevey and Brian Coffey.
Maurice Scully’s late 70s/early 80s magazine The Beau was the next real outlet for innovative poetry in Ireland. In addition to running the magazine, Scully established The Beau Press, which published Randolph Healy’s important first book, 25 Poems. Scully went on to establish Coelacanth Press, which, amongst other things, published some of the earliest versions of parts of his important five-volume work Livelihood.
The other small press to have impacted on Irish poetry was/is hardPressed Poetry, co-edited by Catherine Walsh and the present writer. In the period 1984 - 90 hardPressed produced nearly 20 items by Irish, UK and US poets. More recently, the press has been responsible for the magazine The Journal, the second issue of which is due by the end of the year.
These four presses, rather than those mentioned by Kellogg, represent the background to the emergence of Wild Honey Press as possibly the most interesting Irish small press poetry publisher of the moment. Unlike the more established medium-sized presses, what these publishers have in common is a willingness to consistently question the assumed givens of what it is that constitutes ‘Irish verse.’ If poetry on this island is to change in ways that are unlikely to impress the judges of the Irish Times awards, the impetus for such change is likely to come from these small presses and the poets for whom they have provided what are often the only available outlets.
Samizdat readers who are interested in following up on alternative Irish poetries can email firstname.lastname@example.org for a free copy of hardPressed Poetry’s distribution list, featuring books published by New Writers Press, the Beau, Wild Honey Press and hardPressed Poetry, as well as work by Irish poets published outside Ireland.