The North at The Irish Literary Society

The Irish Literary Society hosted the London launch of  issue 61 of The North magazine on February 25th. Published by The Poetry Business it is devoted to contemporary Irish poetry:

“119 poems by 106 fantastic poets”.

The Irish Literary Society is a child of the Irish Literary Revival of the late nineteenth century. Among its founders were WB Yeats and Douglas Hyde. Since 1892 it has championed and promoted Irish literature and facilitated discussion of and engagement with it.

Peter Sansom, Director of The Poetry Business, shared his delight at the sales figures for the issue and that a project begun more than three years ago had been realised. What, he had wondered, was going on in Irish poetry, so he and Ann Sansom invited Shirley McClure and Jane Clarke to put together an issue to answer that question. Shirley McClure’s illness and untimely death halted the undertaking. In September 2017 Nessa O’Mahony was brought in to co-edit with Jane.

The result, according to Jane Clarke is

“a snapshot of Irish poetry for a pre-eminently British journal at a rather interesting time for Irish/British relations.”

She said that Irish writers have, for some time, been stressing common space and the lack of a border in North/South relations and to suddenly hear discussion that this could be disrupted is a shock so, she claimed, it is an extraordinary time to be looking at what unites us.

Describing the process of selecting the contents, she and Nessa decided that rather than approaching well-known poets they would hold an open call for submissions. Ireland, they feel is a diverse, new country with lots of different dimensions and they wanted to access these fresh voices and experiences. Both feel that their approach proved to have been the right one because it led them to encounter some poets whose exciting work they hadn’t known about. They cited as a wonderful example of such discovery, Nora Hughes, three of whose poems are included in the collection − a real accolade, as most poets have no more than two.

Following the template of The North – poems, articles, reviews, features – among the issue’s contents are:

  • a consideration of the future of Irish language poetry, curated by Aifric Mac Aodha
  • a conversation between Sinéad Morrissey and Paula Cunningham
  • an appreciation of Edith Sitwell by Damian Smyth
  • a piece on crossing borders by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
  • reviews of dozens of collections by Irish authors.

Jane and Nessa together gave us their impressions of what the experience of editing suggested to them about the state of poetry and Ireland today:

  • a sense of there being a community of artists
  • a thriving publishing scene
  • many possibilities for poets to do readings
  • support from the media via programmes such as RTÉ’s arts show ‘Arena’
  • Poetry Ireland’s acquisition of its own premises in Dublin’s Parnell Square which helps to create ‘a generous community of writers’ in ‘a dynamic, open, welcoming place’
  • a ‘broader church’ of writers

They expanded on the last point by talking about new ‘constituencies of poets’, and certainly in the issue there is a refreshing presence of writers bringing new facets of Ireland to the page. Jane referred also to the fortuitous appearance of Poetry Ireland/Gallery Press’s Calling Cards – Ten Younger Irish Poets, a bilingual Irish-English anthology and to ‘Correspondences’, Poetry Ireland’s request for work by those with experience of Direct Provision.

The editors are in the enviable position of having been in intimate contact with the poetic life of Ireland. I’d love to know even more about their experience. Time was limited on the night and there were no comments from them on two points that I find intriguing. What might poets’ preferred forms tell us (the majority of poems included are in free verse)? I’d love to know whether or not they feel choice of form has any inherent message.

Secondly, which subject-matter (in terms of submissions as a whole as distinct from those selected for publication) had attracted poets and does the choice of subject-matter indicate anything?

One would need to carefully consider the entire contents of the issue: not only the poems included but the contents of the collections reviewed, and the features and also to have an overview of work that was not included.

It must have been quite a task for Jane Clarke and Nessa O’Mahony to compile this edition and, having engaged so generously with the work of other writers, they have their own writing to get on with. Nonetheless, the issue is an important reservoir of the poetry of Ireland today so I hope someone makes it easy for them to plumb and share the experience. Maybe a thorough interview would be productive and enjoyable, for instance.

To date, there has not been a launch in Northern Ireland and, again, that would be a fascinating opportunity to explore how the poetic landscape looks from there.

The event programme included:

  • readings by Judy O’Kane, recent winner of the Charles Causley International Poetry Prize, and Nora Hughes
  • Siobhán Campbell’s account of the passionate work and colourful life of Lola Ridge
  • Derek Coyle on the difference to many people’s lives made by the formation of a community of writers in a small town, in this instance through the Carlow Writers’ Co-operative

There was a tribute to the late Matthew Sweeney and we heard about the context of his writing towards the end of his life from his widow, the poet, Mary Noonan. She went on to read her own work. Her poem, ‘River, Man’ I found a wonderfully intricate weaving together of themes form her late father’s life.

Throughout the evening I was impressed by the hospitable atmosphere. I sometimes attend events which are largely functional or clique-ish but this one was welcoming, open and person-focused. I could feel a true wish to engage, which says something very positive about the Society’s attitude to literature and its readers. This inclusivity even extended to a last-minute invitation to any of the collection’s poets present to read their contribution – that turned out to mean Nicola Heaney and myself.

It was such a generous offer, if scary, to suddenly expose one’s work in public! But it was an honour to read in such company and I was so encouraged by the kind responses to my poem. There had been talk from the platform about poetry being a solitary undertaking and the need for networks of writers to help the individual along. Well, that was put into practice through this invitation and it meant a great deal to this newbie.

The Irish Literary Society’s next event is April 29th with the wonderful Ciaran Carson