Philip Cummins – Freelance Journalist, Writer, Editor and Researcher

Lit News: Poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin to host Where One Starts From: An Introduction to Writing Poetry workshop in Dublin during National Heritage Week

Posted in Books, News, News, Poetry by Philip Cummins on August 8, 2014
Poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin hosts a workshop as part of National Heritage Week in Dublin on 23rd August.

Poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin hosts a workshop as part of National Heritage Week in Dublin on 23rd August.

STUTTGART- based Donegal poet Annemarie Ní Chuirreáin, due to take up an Autumn residency at the Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida, will host a poetry workshop as part of National Heritage Week from 1pm – 3pm on Saturday 23rd August at Dublin’s Inspire Galerie. Currently, Ní Churreáin is Literature Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgard, Germany.

I interviewed Ní Churreáin prior to her reading as part of the 2013 Poetry Ireland Introductions series; read here.

New Poems in Cyphers 77

Posted in Books, News, Poetry by Philip Cummins on May 8, 2014

Poems ‘Bite’ and ‘Aurora’ appear in Cyphers 77, along with new work by John Kinsella, Michael Farry, Clare McCotter, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Peter Sheehan, Gabriel Rosenstock and many, many more.

Cyphers 77: New poems by yours truly appear in the latest issue of Cyphers

Cyphers 77: New poems by yours truly appear in the latest issue of Cyphers

HAVING spent more than my fair share of time wallpapering my home, twice over, with rejection slips,  I felt relieved when an acceptance email from Cyphers arrived in my email inbox, some weeks ago.

Undoubtedly one of the most prestigious poetry magazines / journals in English language poetry and certainly one which has a colourful history, Cyphers is the magazine that all writers of poems hope to see their work published, its reputation sealed by the reliable judgement of the editors as shown by the consistency of the work that Cyphers publishes from issue to issue.

Founded in 1975 by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Macdara Woods, Leland Bardwell and the late Pearse Hutchinson, the editors founded Cyphers- named so after a black cat owned by Eiléan and Macdara which, in turn, Eiléan and Macdara named after a series of poems by Macdara- during a particularly harsh time in our social history. By all accounts, the seventies in Ireland was a harsh, grim time of economic recession in Ireland, making the funding of Cyphers a daunting challenge. On-line publishing wasn’t an option; print was (and is still) costly; quiet, generous spaces in Dublin city centre where the spoken word could be heard faultlessly were hard to find. 

In an excellent piece written for Poetry Ireland’s newsletter, ahead of the launch of Cyphers 71 at the 2011 Strokestown International Poetry festival, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin reflected on how far Cyphers had travelled since 1975:

In 1975 the four editors, Leland Bardwell, Pearse Hutchinson, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Macdara Woods, produced the first number.  When we started up, The Dublin Magazine had closed and The Lace Curtain’s penultimate issue had appeared.  We wanted to be as regular as the first and as open to the wide world as the second.  People assumed we wanted to encourage new writers – nothing was further from our thoughts, though in fact we were to assist with several emergences.  We did want to keep faith with the poets we admired, who might not be, or might not stay, in fashion: we felt strong enough to back our own judgement. Our first Cyphers contained only poetry.  In the second we included fiction (a piece by the late Jimmy Brennan, followed in No. 3 by one from Adrian Kenny who also has a story in No. 70), and for a long time we were the only magazine in Ireland publishing literary fiction.

Our first Cyphers felt like quite an achievement, after struggles to raise funds in a recession, much wondering about the title, and long enjoyable meetings discussing the content.  That was the easy bit – we wrote to our friends, and to the contacts we had made when we had run a series of poetry readings in Sinnott’s pub in South King Street, abetted by the late Justin O’Mahony.  We had admitted defeat there when the price of drink rose, so that the audience came later; also, the noise of a hostile regular inhabitant of the pub and the crash of the cash register combined to make some voices inaudible; also, Pearse left for a stint as Gregory Fellow in the University of Leeds.  His return was the signal for the new project.

I asked the Arts Council for money.  They gave us half of what we wanted for the first two issues.  Some friends, John Buckley, Benedict Ryan and Katherine Kavanagh, helped out, and we decided to go ahead and try our luck.  For years afterwards we depended on the patience and good humour of our printer, Pat Funge of Elo Press, as we struggled to pay off the bills for those first issues. But the Arts Council was impressed with our determination and funded us, so that in the end we got out of debt.  Pat’s old letterpress machines were damaged by vandals, and he used the insurance money to shift to the newer offset litho technology, so we learned about paste-ups and light-boxes; nowadays I make pdfs using Open Office.  After Pat’s death when Elo closed, Christy, Mark and Richard, who had all worked there, started a new firm, and they are our printers today.

More important than the six pounds that Patrick Kavanagh’s widow could afford to donate to the founding, she taught me to keep accounts properly.  It was the beginning of my long career as amateur bookkeeper and administrator.  For fourteen years I took care of the business end of Cyphers, haunted by bundles of invoices, dead chequebooks, and stacks of back numbers and unpublished submissions waiting to be returned.  All four editors would gather for ameitheal of writing rejection letters. I had card-indexes of subscribers and battered concertina files of stamped envelopes.  Then FÁS came to the rescue, with a lovely worker, and we got our first second-hand Amstrad computer (it came with a flowery oilskin dust-cover).  All of the succession of nice clever people who worked for us through FÁS schemes, and the later equally nice and clever ones whom the Arts Council helped us to employ, were frightened by accounts, so I still do that part.  But they were willing to log and list and copy and post the manuscripts and look after subscribers and see that the writers were eventually paid their fees.

In 1975 we swore that we would always pay a fee, however miserable.  Quite often the cheque has arrived so late as to surprise the recipient, but we reckon that, small as it is, a fee is never an unpleasant surprise.  It is also a marker of our opinion of the pieces we publish, that we have considered and weighed them carefully and think them worth money.  (But what of the writers we didn’t publish?  Some of them too have made it, but not all. Our archive is rich with pompous letters of self-introduction from people who wrote a poem about their holiday in Ireland; these contrast with the admirable brevity of the man who began his letter ‘Dear Shits’ …)

The early issues had a masthead with lettering by the late Ruth Brandt.  It was the arrival in early 1975 of her husband, Michael Kane, to get the details for the cover, that pushed us to decide on the title.  We had thought of Landrail, The Blackbird, Waterhouse Clock … Michael liked cats and asked us what our black cat’s name was.  She was called (after a series of poems by Macdara) Cypher, a name derived from, among other things, the Arabic word for zero, but it also means a code.  We thought that would do, though we were annoyed later when some critic thought we were being modest, taking the sense ‘nonentities’ – which it hadn’t occurred to us is one of its meanings too.

When we saw that first issue it was clear we’d got some things wrong.  The card for the cover was a paleish yellow, the format looked like a child’s copybook, and so we realised we must make changes, and a long evolution began.  From the second issue onward we used a stronger, cleaner colour, from the fourth we put the contributors’ names on the cover (all of them – we refused to pick out the bigger names); we moved to glossy card and acquired a spine at issue 5.  The black cat is in her grave in the back garden of Selskar Terrace, but her name lives on.

And live on it does.

Launch of issue 77 at Strokestown International Poetry Festival

Last weekend, at the 2014 Strokestown International Poetry festivalEiléan and Macdara were, again, launching a new issue of Cyphers, featuring a cover designed by Dedalus Press publisher Pat Boran. During the launch, I read the two poems included in the current issue: ‘Bite’ and ‘Aurora’.

Also reading at Strokestown were Doireann Ní Ghríofa, who featured on the Strokestown competition short-list and is due to publish her first collection of poems, in English, with Dedalus Press, next year; Trim based poet and former Boyne Berries editor Michael Farry; Quantum Sofa organiser and QS Press editor Peter Sheehan; Macdara Woods, co- editor and founder of Cyphers.

What became apparent to me at Strokestown is that the DIY ethic and charm of Cyphers is still very much in tact as it is in all small-scale production publications: lugging the boxes into the car; lugging the boxes out of the car; setting up glasses and bottles of prosecco ( juices for designated drivers and teetotallers) ; writing the price of the publication on a folded A4 page next to the stack of freshly pressed copies…

The only comparison that I can make that might make any sense is that the charm of such a publication is on a par with my affection for vinyl records and local record shops over digital downloads and on- line stores such as iTunes and Amazon; there’s a social component to print publications and their accompanying launches that feels as vital as that of vinyl records and local record stores. When you attend a book / magazine launch, as when you attend a Record Store Day event, the audience comprises of people who care as much as you do about the art form and, crucially, its format.  To your surprise, you meet other people out there who feel the same way about it all as you do. You are not alone.

Cyphers is available from the following bookshops:

Dublin

Books Upstairs
Hodges Figgis
The Winding Stair
Ranelagh Arts Centre

Cork

Munster Literature Centre

Galway

Charlie Byrne’s
Kenny’s

For a subscription to Cyphers, contact the editors:

3 Selskar Terrace,
Ranelagh,
Dublin 6

Email: letters@cyphers.ie

Paul Simon pays tribute to Seamus Heaney in Dublin

Posted in Books, Features, Irish Post, Media Comment, Opinion & Analysis, Poetry by Philip Cummins on April 24, 2014
The late Seamus Heaney, whose life's work was celebrated, last night, by his devoted readership and by a cast of poets, musicians and friends.

The late Seamus Heaney, whose devoted readership and long list of fellow poets and friends celebrated his life’s work, last night, at Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

LEGENDARY singer- songwriter Paul Simon was among those paying tribute, last night, to the late Nobel Prize- winning poet Seamus Heaney at a celebratory event in Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

Others who paid tribute on the night, which Dublin City Council’s One City, One Book initiative as well as Poetry Ireland supported, included poets Paul Muldoon, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Michael Longley and Colette Bryce as well as musicians Lisa Hannigan, Martin Hayes and Paul Brady.

To read my piece, which the Irish Post commissionedclick here.

X marks the (black) spot: John McAuliffe’s problematic Irish Times review of Vona Groarke’s ‘X’

Posted in Media Comment, Opinion & Analysis, Poetry by Philip Cummins on March 18, 2014

In his review of Vona Groarke’s X, published in last weekend’s edition of the Irish Times, poet, critic and full- time senior academic John McAuliffe acknowledges that both he and Ms. Groarke work together in Manchester. What Mr. McAuliffe fails to disclose, however, are the possible financial implications that writing such a glowing review could have for himself, his University of Manchester colleague and the academic department in which they both work, writes Philip Cummins

John McAullife: Poet, Irish Times poetry critic and co- director of University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing.

FRIENDS REVIEWING FRIENDS: it’s considered something of a no- no within the notoriously tight- knit literary circles of the arts community. Much as those in the medical profession consider  administering to a friend or family member as unethical, eyebrows are sometimes raised when practice of a similar nature occurs in both the arts and academia.

And so it is with Manchester- based Listowel native John McAuliffe, the Irish Times’ sole poetry critic, whose laudatory review of X- the latest collection of poems by his fellow Gallery Press poet and University of Manchester colleague Vona Groarke, which Ms. Groarke launched last month at their place of work in Manchester- appeared in last week’s weekend edition of the Irish Times.

Though I have yet to read Ms. Groarke’s latest collection of poems, I have followed Ms. Groarke’s immensely enjoyable work with interest since the 2006 publication of Juniper Street, which like 2009’s Spindrift, is a remarkable collection of poems.

Certainly, avid readers of contemporary poetry don’t need me to point out that Ms. Groarke is undoubtedly one of the leading Irish poets of her generation; a poet of genuine heart and originality and a poet who belongs to mid- career Irish poets of a certain generation who are long overdue critical attention and critical revision; those poets that arrived after Paul Muldoon, including Sinéad Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, Caitríona O’Reilly, Peter Sirr, Conor O’Callaghan, David Wheatley, Pat Boran, Patrick Chapman and, indeed, John McAuliffe, to name but a few.

All that said, Mr. McAuliffe’s Irish Times review of X, is problematic, highlighting the reasons why academics should never review nor assess the work or wares of their colleagues, particularly in the national and international press.

X marks the (black) spot

In the fifth paragraph of his glowing review of Ms. Groarke’s book, under the sub- heading Different note, Mr. McAuliffe appropriately declares a degree of interest, however slight, in acknowledging that both he and Ms. Groarke are colleagues in University of Manchester (“Groarke, with whom this reviewer works in Manchester, is much more occupied by time than by places in X.”) where both poets teach an MA course together.

However, Mr. McAuliffe, a full- time senior academic in University of Manchester and co- director of University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing, fails to explore or disclose the possible financial implications for University of Manchester in publishing such a positive and favorable review of Ms. Groarke’s book in a national and international title such as the Irish Times.

Funding implications

Under the Research Excellence Framework (REF), 20% of UK government funding for academic departments depends on impact, the defined assessment criteria of which an online document entitled Panel criteria and working methods. The document expands on “impact” in more detail on page 89 of Part 2D: Main Panel Criteria, which are available to read on-line here.  Panel D defines and assess English Literature and Creative Writing. Read here.

Termed as “indicative range of impacts” on page 89 of the above document, the “indicative range of impacts” include the following:

Civil society: Informing and influencing the form and content of associations between people or groups to
illuminate and challenge cultural values and social assumptions.

Cultural life: Creating and interpreting cultural capital in all of its forms to enrich and expand the lives, imaginations and sensibilities of individuals and groups.

Public discourse: Extending the range and improving the quality of evidence, argument and expression to
enhance public understanding of the major issues and challenges faced by individuals and
society.

The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which the REF is replacing, will assess research that has taken place from 2008 – 2013 inclusive. An Irish Times review published in 2014, then, would contribute towards the next REF, which has a census date of November / December 2018.

The REF assess submissions according to the following criteria:

  • Four star: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • Three star: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
  • Two star: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • One star: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

Suffice to say, then, that positive and favorable reviews in the national and international press of a work published by a practicing academic might, conceivably, constitute as an “indicator of esteem” and may carry “impact” for an academic department, such as the English Language and Literature department in University of Manchester.

August Kleinzahler

In an excellent essay entitled ‘Blurbonic Plague’, featured in The Outnumbered Poet, published posthumously by The Gallery Press, the late Dennis O’Driscoll writes fearlessly of what he perceives as the “insider dealing” within the world of poetry. Friends reviewing friends in a mutual appreciation society. The policy among peers, writes O’Driscoll, is “You blurb me, I’ll review you.”

In the Winter of 2013, the Irish Times published Mr. McAuliffe’s review of The Hotel Oneira by American poet August Kleinzahler. Suffice to say that Mr. McAuliffe laid the praise on thick. Here is an extract from Mr. McAuliffe’s review:

Kleinzahler is a one-off, and this new book is as good as ever, with spiky portraits (and self-portraits) alongside the American landscapes that have become his speciality, moving easily and mysteriously between domestic close-ups of the weather and noodling riffs on the state of the modern world.

Compare the above extract from Mr. McAuliffe’s Irish Times review of August Kleinzahler’s collection with the below extract:

John McAuliffe’s got the gift. Mark the name…This guy’s the total package, as we say over here about our young, star athletes.

The back cover of A Better Life, Mr. McAuliffe’s first collection of poems, features the above quote as a blurb. The author of the blurb? That’s right: August Kleinzahler.

Mr. McAuliffe, as Co- Director of the Centre for New Writing, has also hosted August Kleinzahler at least one reading in University of Manchester’s Martin Harris Centre.

Nowhere in his review of August Kleinzahler’s The Hotel Oneira, printed in the Irish Times, does Mr. McAuliffe declare his interest by stating explicitly that he has previously accepted a glowing endorsement of his own work from Mr. Kleinzahler, as published as a blurb on his first collection, nor does he state that he has hosted a reading of Kleinzahler’s work.

The honest critic

Vona Groarke’s X, which is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

In my honest opinion, Mr. McAuliffe- who is a fine poet and an incisive critic, neither of which yours truly needs to point out- should have refused to review Ms. Groarke’s book on the grounds that a review of Ms. Groarke’s book could, possibly, have financial implications for the academic department in which both he and Ms. Groarke teach on an MA course together. Instead of reviewing X himself, Mr. McAuliffe should have, in my opinion, acted in the interest of editorial transparency and impartiality by outsourcing the review to a critic who is not an academic colleague of Ms. Groarke’s.

Regrettably, Mr. McAuliffe’s review of X is an unfortunate reminder of the level of dishonest reviewing that is endemic in the arts, particularly in the small, cliquish circle of poetry.

Furthermore, Irish Times Arts & Books editor Fintan O’Toole, an outstanding journalist who has written fearlessly about cronyism in Irish society during his long and distinguished career as an Irish Times columnist, doesn’t seem to have any issue with Mr. McAuliffe’s review; like Mr. McAuliffe, Mr. O’Toole doesn’t seem to have considered the possible financial implications for University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing in publishing such a favorable review of the work of an academic colleague of Mr. McAuliffe’s.

Indeed, Mr. O’Toole’s weak editorial decision to commission Mr. McAuliffe as the Irish Times’ sole poetry critic confirms my belief that commissioning a variety of freelance critics, as was the policy under the Irish Times’  late, great and much- missed literary editor Caroline Walsh, is the only way to make sure that books reviewed in the Arts & Books pages are impartial and that the Arts & Books pages carry a broad spectrum of critical analysis.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One some time before his passing, Dennis O’Driscoll wrote of the incestuous nature of Irish poetry and the lack of tough, cold, honest reviewing:

I think that unless people speak the truth about the books that they get for review and they’re not bearing in mind rows they’ve had with people or that the publisher who published the book [for review] rejected a book of theirs or whatever…I think there’s a tremendous amount of dishonest reviewing and it takes a lot of courage and, I think, a lot of integrity and support on behalf of the editor you’re writing for, as well, to do honest reviews. I think it’s a tremendously important activity, but it does cost you friends and a lot of things, really.

X, certainly, marks the spot for the ever- deepening graves of literary criticism and journalistic integrity.

He said / She said: The obsession with gender in literature and the hypocrisies of feminism

Posted in Books, Features, Fiction, Poetry, Publishing by Philip Cummins on March 11, 2014

The obsession that readers, writers and critics have with gender in literature separates the amateur sociologists from the true, indiscriminate readers of literature who are  interested in nothing other than the work itself, writes Philip Cummins

A graphic from Google’s Ngram Viewer, which uses Google Books’ extensive collection of five million texts published over the last two- hundred years to track trends in literature


SOME YEARS AGO, 
I attended a twelve- week night- class in Dublin, which focused on American literature. I had finished my undergraduate degree and, during the summer months, I found myself craving for the intellectual stimulation that was severely lacking in my mundane summer day- job before I returned to university for postgraduate studies.

Effectively a reading group of twelve participants, a tutor led the night class. As a class, we assumed that the tutor knew more about American literature than we did. We read many books of fiction and poetry from various periods of American literature. One book that we had read as part of what was a diverse reading list was Mark Twain’s Great American Novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that I re- read, at least, once a year.

During the class on Twain’s novel, the tutor had diverted away from the core characteristics of the novel that the class were due to discuss: Twain’s brilliant use of American demotic, the colourful characters that Finn encounters on his uniquely American journey and the politics of the age during Twain’s time of writing.

Instead, the tutor indulged in what can only be described as a mildly coherent tirade about gender issues in literature, which the class were not expected to discuss and for which we weren’t instructed to prepare notes. Though it was totally out- of- kilter with the initial discussion of race politics in the novel, our tutor kept charging, despite confused glances by the participants in the room, before rounding off the pseudo- academic, albeit utterly erratic, spiel with a “Columbo moment”:

“…which begs the question (raises and wags finger, inquisitively, turns towards the class to deliver the killer question)...could The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been written…by a woman?”

Only during football matches and occasional editions of TV3’s The Vincent Browne Show or RTÉ‘s Prime Time have I had the impulse to swear profusely at the very top of my voice; believe me, dear reader, when I tell you that I had to resist every impulse in my body to scream profanities out- loud and smash the chair in which I was sitting to smithereens.

Whether or not a woman wrote or didn’t write Twain’s masterpiece- for better or worse- seemed to me totally irrelevant to the novel and, in a broader sense, to literature. Twain’s novel was written by a man, which is a fact that cannot be changed by anyone- not even our learned tutor. Did it matter to me, personally, that a man wrote Huck Finn? No. Would it have changed my opinions or my perspective of Twain’s novel if I had found out that the novel had, in fact, been written by a woman? No. Why? For the simple reason that I do not believe gender to be an influencing or deciding factor in the quality of literature that can be written by any human being nor is it for me, personally, an influencing or deciding factor in the literature that I choose to read. Gender, quite simply, doesn’t figure for me in the books that I choose to read nor does race, creed or sexual orientation. There are great books written by men, there are great books written by women; there are woeful books written by men, there are woeful books written by women. We shouldn’t categorise literature by men and literature by women: we should treat a book based on the contents between the covers, irrespective of whether that book has been written by a man or by a woman.

Gender: why does it really matter to readers, writers and critics?

I have never once understood the obsession- and I mean obsession- that some readers, writers and critics have with gender in literature, specifically the gender of the author. Again, it does not matter to me in the slightest that ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ was written by a man nor would it matter to me if it was written by a woman: it is still a masterpiece that has not been equaled by its author. Similarly, it doesn’t matter to me that ‘The Fish’ was written by a woman nor would it matter to me if it was written by a man: it is still one of the most unique and remarkable poems written in the 20th century. I don’t read Derek Mahon’s work and think “I am reading a male poet” nor do I read Elizabeth Bishop’s work and think “I am reading a female poet”.

If anything, it is interesting that the same people who campaigned- and quite rightly so, in my view- for the gender specific and now- outmoded poetess to be discontinued in usage and, instead, substituted for the gender neutral poet, when referring to male and female poets, are now insisting on a distinction between male and female poets, specifically in their reading habits. In fact, I know an individual who will scan the contents of a poetry anthology and will count the ratio of male authors to female authors; if there is not a sufficiently equal ratio of female poets to male poets, the individual in question will not purchase / borrow the book.

This individual, let me suggest, is not remotely interested in literature; rather, this individual is interested in issues of sociological interest related to literature and publishing. If the individual in question was truly interested in literature, they would judge the contents of the book on its own merit, reading the work irrespective of whether it has been composed by a man or a woman; a heterosexual or a homosexual; a white person or a black person; a believer or a dissenter.

Whatever you say, say nothing

Several months ago, I posted a response on my Facebook account to Canadian writer and academic David Gilmour’s polarizing comments regarding the reading list for his university course, specifically his comments in a print interview that he wasn’t interested in teaching women writers on his course. To quote Gilmour, “I don’t love women writers enough to teach them. What I teach is guys. Serious, heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real- guy guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

I responded to Gilmour’s remarks by stating that while I didn’t agree in the slightest with the nature of his comments, Gilmour’s stance was, ethically, no different to the position that a magazine such as Mslexia has taken on gender in literature and in publishing.

For those who don’t know, Mslexia is a creative magazine “for women who write”; a magazine that only accepts submissions from women. If you are a male author and you submit a work of poetry or fiction to Mslexia, it will not be published by Mslexia. As Mslexia states on its submissions page, “Mslexia welcomes previously unpublished submissions from women for every part of the magazine.”

Now picture this: imagine that yours truly were to set up a creative writing magazine, though not just any creative writing magazine, mind…no, no: a creative writing magazine exclusively by men and exclusively for men; a magazine that only accepts submissions of poetry and fiction by men and does not publish any submissions by women. A magazine that, to paraphrase David Gilmour, doesn’t love women writers enough to publish them. A magazine that publishes guys.

If I were to have the audacity to set up such a magazine, I would be slammed by women, left, right and centre. In fact, I would probably be subjected to the same vitriol which David Gilmour found himself at the wrong end of, and rightly so. Perhaps more severely, I would be labelled a misogynist; a chauvinist; a sexist. If you cannot see the hypocrisy of Mslexia‘s position and those who support their position, then I suggest you make an appointment with your local optician.

Somewhat predictably, after posting the above point on Facebook, I was set upon by what can only be described as a mob, who rather than seeing my side of the argument and arguing their case persuasively against mine, decided to clan together and shout me down in an attempt to close down the discussion. In fact, I had to temporarily deactivate my Facebook account as I had received abusive private messages- the content of which is unrepeatable- and, later, I received death threats through the letterbox of my home and on the windshield of my car, none of which were left by those people who contributed to the initial discussion, but were left by someone I didn’t know who got wind of my comments through a mutual contact on Facebook.

#ReadWomen2014

All of which brings me neatly to #ReadWomen2014. The campaign is, apparently, aimed at encouraging readers to discover women writers who may have been forgotten or overlooked.

While it is undoubtedly true that there are female authors who have been forgotten about and who remain unread, it is also true that there are male authors who have also been forgotten and unread.

The campaign, ultimately, begs the following questions: why does the campaign assume that it is only female authors who have been neglected; that there are no male authors, dead or alive, who have been unjustly overlooked or forgotten by readers, writers and critics? Can the campaign be described as gender neutral and gender balanced?

Now, before you argue that the campaign is aimed at correcting a perceived gender imbalance in literature and in publishing, ask yourself the following: why is such a campaign being driven at a time when

a), women are, undoubtedly, reading more books, more magazines and more newspapers than men;
b), more books are being written and published by women, which is confirmed by even a cursory glance at the most recent bestsellers list;
c), in 2013, three appointments were made for much- sought after positions in Irish poetry: Sinead Morrissey was made Belfast’s first- ever poet laureate; Maureen Kennelly was appointed Director of Poetry Ireland; Dublin poet Paula Meehan was named Ireland Professor of Poetry: all women;
d), the single most powerful books critic in the English speaking world within the last 20 years; the media figure who has influenced sales of fiction more than any other personality who features books as part of their broadcasts has been Oprah Winfrey: a woman;
e), the world’s top- earning author of 2013 was E.L. James, author of the 100million+ copies- selling Fifty Shades of Grey, who earned $95million in 2013 alone: a woman;
f), the most recent winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the most prestigious poetry prize in Ireland and Britain, was awarded to Sinead Morrissey (for her astonishing collection of poems, Parallax) : a woman;
g), the recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature was Alice Munro: a woman;
h), the two most recent winners of The Booker Prize for Fiction- the most prestigious prize for works of fiction on this side of the Atlantic- were Hilary Mantel (2012) and Eleanor Catton (2013): both women.

I am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with any of the above facts: if anything, I think that all of the above facts constitute tremendous progress  given that there was a shameful time in our history when women were forbidden from being educated, let alone being given the opportunity to write and publish books.

The point that I am making is this: if you are a female reader, writer or critic, how could you possibly feel slighted or feel as if you are a victim of bias when you consider any and all of the above facts?

Don’t shoot the editor

Writing in last weekend’s Irish Times, Sinead Gleeson made the point that “One of the most problematic offenders for gender balance was the London Review of Books“, making the point that according to the Vida Count, 82% of the LRB‘s articles were authored by men.

One can assume, then, that Mary- Kay Wilmers- the LRB‘s long- time editor and, yes, a woman- judges the work that she publishes in the LRB by the quality of the work that is submitted to the LRB and the quality of the pitches that she receives from freelance contributors and not by the gender of the authors.

Similarly, I remember a story told to me by Joseph Woods, the former director of Poetry Ireland; a story which illustrated the integrity of one of Poetry Ireland Review‘s rotating editors. The story related to noted poet, editor and academic Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who edited issues 92 – 95 of PIR, some years ago. According to Woods, Professor Ní Chuilleanáin, early in her run as editor of PIR, began to receive letters by, presumably, female readers of Poetry Ireland Review, questioning why Ní Chuilleanáin was not publishing more women poets under her editorship.

Allegedly, Ní Chuilleanáin is said to have responded to each letter by stating that it was an editor’s job to pick the best possible work submitted to the editor and the work that best hangs together in the magazine for that particular issue; it was not the job of an editor to choose work based on the gender of the author.

Both of these stories, if true, reveal the following, undeniable truths: the only responsibility that any editor of a literary magazine or journal has- be they male or female- is to select the highest quality work for the benefit of readers of and subscribers to the magazine or journal in question, irrespective of whether that work is written by a man or a woman: judging the work irrespective of the author’s gender- or any other part of the author’s identity that they cannot change-  amounts to balance, equality and fairness, which is something that we could all learn as readers.

New features: The Saturday Song, The Sunday Poem

Posted in Books, Features, Features, Features, Music, Poetry by Philip Cummins on February 7, 2014

As of this weekend, I’ll be running two regular, weekly features on music and literature: The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem

Keep an eye out for two weekly music and literature features that I’ll be running, as of this weekend: The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem

SO I’m going to start uploading some new, regular features to run along my published work.

Every weekend, I’ll post up The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem on their respective days. These features will consist of a detailed, critical analysis of a song and poem, applying music theory and literary theory / poetic terminology to the song / poem in question, though done so- I hope- in a way that is entertaining, at the very least.

Every song that I feature will have either a Soundcloud or Spotify link embedded in the feature. For copyright reasons, it won’t be possible to post an entire poem on the site, though I will encourage readers to dig out the poem in their libraries and, indeed, from their own bookshelves. Certainly, I will list the collections and anthologies in which the chosen poem is published.

Another feature that I am toying with is The Friday Film, which would be written in the same tone as The Saturday Songs and The Sunday Poem. The Friday Film, however, is a longer term idea that I may develop, depending on the success of the The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem. 

This week’s Saturday Song will be Vampire Weekend’s Obvious Bicycle.

This week’s Sunday Poem will be Simon Armitage’s The Shout. 

If there are songs and / or poems that you would like to see covered, please comment below with your suggestions.

News: Carcanet poets Caoilinn Hughes & Tara Bergin to launch début poetry collections at the Irish Writers Centre onThursday 6th February

Posted in Books, News, News, Poetry, Publishing by Philip Cummins on January 4, 2014

Caoilinn Hughes will launch Gathering Evidence, her début collections of poems, published by Carcanet Press, on Thursday 6th February.

LAUNCHING their début collections back on home turf, New Zealand- based poet Caoilinn Hughes and North Yorkshire- based poet Tara Bergin will read in the Irish Writers Centre on Thursday 6th February at 6:30pm.

Caoilinn Hughes- who yours truly interviewed as part of last year’s Poetry Ireland Introductions series- will read from Gathering Evidence, which netted her the 2012 Patrick Kavanagh Award. According to her publisher, Gathering Evidence “traces the parallels between scientific exploration and poetic venturing: ‘Gathering the data and deciphering / inference is how I stay alive’.”

Dublin native Tara Bergin will read from This Is Yarrow, which poet and critic John McAuliffe described as “…primarily a book of monologues, establishing voices whose skewed attitudes invite an engaged critical response from the reader. The monologues are sometimes reminiscent of Paul Durcan and at other times Sylvia Plath and they can be very cutting and funny at the expense of their speakers.”

Caoilinn Hughes was born in Galway, Ireland. With BA and MA degrees from the Queen’s University of Belfast, she moved to New Zealand and enrolled in a Ph.D. at Victoria University of Wellington. A selection of poems from her first book, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet) won the 2012 Patrick Kavanagh Award, the 2013 Cúirt New Writing Prize, the 2012 STA Travel Writing Prize and the 2013 Trócaire / Poetry Ireland Competition.

Tara Bergin was born and grew up in Dublin. She moved to England in 2002. In 2012 she completed her PhD research at Newcastle University on Ted Hughes’s translations of János Pilinszky. Her poems have appeared in New Poetries V and her début collection This is Yarrow was published by Carcanet Press.

Books 2014: New poetry titles to look out for in the new year

Posted in Books, News, Publishing by Philip Cummins on December 30, 2013

The new year in poetry promises exciting débuts from fresh talents as well as old hands turning in new directions

Vona Groarke’s X will be published by The Gallery Press in February.

THE GALLERY PRESS will publish a rich varied selection of new collections throughout 2014. Manchester- based Longford native Vona Groarke‘s eagerly awaited sixth collection of poems, entitled X, is already generating considerable excitement, not least among the Poetry Book Society, who have made X their Poetry Book Society recommendation for Spring 2014. X is described as “a book of honesty and poise: its lustrous detail and exacting truths make this a groundbreaking publication from a poet hailed in Poetry Ireland Review as ‘among the best Irish poets writing today’.”

Other titles from the Meath publisher include From Elsewhere (March), a new collection of poems from Ciaran Carson, the ever- prolific Belfast poet who doesn’t seem to sleep; the late Pearse Hutchinson‘s poems will be appear in the spring; Gallery Press founder and publisher Peter Fallon will publish Strong, My Love in April, which will be his first collection since 2007’s The Company of Horses

Also returning with new work is Limerick poet Sean Lysaght, whose sixth collection is tentatively titled Carnival Masks. The inspiration for the working title came from a poem in which Lysaght describes a journey back to his home in Co. Mayo, after several months spent in Italy, and tidying away a pair of masks that the poet and his wife bought at the Carnevale di Viareggio, held every February in the Tuscan city of Viareggio, Italy.

According to Lysaght, the collection has “…a calendar structure: many poems with references to the natural world can be connected to a particular time of year. The first poem is called ‘Skylarks in January’, then there’s a February piece, a March piece, and so on. The calendar pattern is not absolutely strict, and there are other poems in the book as well, but it allowed me a way of organising an array of material, and of connecting poems about Mayo with poems set in Italy, where my wife and I spent a winter about four years ago.”

Doire Press

DOIRE PRESS are likely to be still celebrating, following Adam White’s appearance on the shortlist for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, this year. However, the Connemara- based publisher will publish the début collection of poems from Dimitra Xidousthe Dublin- based Greek- Canadian poet and co- founder / co- editor of The Pickled Body. Entitled Keeping Bees, Xidous’ first collection will no doubt feature poems that have featured in the Bridport and Over the Edge Emerging Writer prizes,  as well as work that is due to appear in The New Planet Cabaret and the Spring 2014 edition of The Stinging Fly, in which she will be a featured poet.

BLOODAXE have two Irish poets on their list for 2014: Harry Clifton‘s The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974-2004 will appear in February.

Louis de Paor’s The Brindled Cat and the Nightingale’s Tongue will appear in a bi- lingual edition from Bloodaxe

Interestingly, a bi- lingual selection of Louis de Paor’s poems will feature in The Brindled Cat and the Nightingale’s Tongue, a book which de Paor worked on with a trio translators, consisting of  Kevin Anderson, Biddy Jenkinson and Mary O’Donoghue. According to Bloodaxe, “the translations have eschewed the modern fashion for so-called “versions”, producing English translations which are as close as possible to the original Irish poems without sacrificing their tone, energy, clarity and lightness of touch.”

FABER‘s list of new poetry books for 2014 includes a typical mix of commissioned translations, an opportunity to revise the poetry of authors with considerable work under their belt, as well as new work from emerging talents.

Too often dismissed as too didactic and a political poet in an age of political apathy, Tom Paulin‘s New Selected Poems (May) comes at a time when there is a severe lack of well- written, well- executed political poetry. One only has to read Paulin’s current Selected Poems, 1972 – 1990 to find a poet whose gift for wrapping the demotic tones of his native Ulster around technically skilled, enviably crafted poems. Paulin’s New Selected Poems is a welcome opportunity to revise four decades worth of work, including poems from Walking a Line (1994), The Wind Dog (1999) and last year’s Love’s Bonfire.

American poet August Kleinzahler

Once described by Allen Ginsberg as “A loner, a genius.”, New Jersey- born, San Francisco- based poet August Kleinzahler is undoubtedly one of foremost American poets currently writing. The wider availability of Kleinzahler’s collections on this side of the Atlantic, including 1995’s Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow, 2000’s Green Sees Things in Waves, 2004’s excellent The Strange Hours That Travellers Keep and 2008’s Sleeping it Off in Rapid City: New and Selected Poems, have seen the oft described “pugilist” poet’s stock rise considerably.

Kleinzahler’s latest collection, Hotel Oneira, will no doubt feature the collision course of registers, the unpredictable cadences and the savvy, street poetry that have characterised Kleinzahler’s best work. Writing in the Irish Times, John McAuliffe has described Hotel Oneira as a collection “…with spiky portraits (and self-portraits) alongside the American landscapes that have become his speciality, moving easily and mysteriously between domestic close-ups of the weather and noodling riffs on the state of the modern world.”

At a reading that Kleinzahler was giving and which I attended, a compere- who claimed to be an expert in Kleinzahler’s work and spent more than ten minutes introducing and explaining Kleinzahler’s work to us mere mortals in the audience- made the unfortunate mistake of continually referring to August Kleinzahler as “Awgoooost” Kleinzahler, rather than pronouncing Kleinzahler’s forename as one would pronounce the month of the same name. Perhaps- perhaps- Kleinzahler’s new collection will be appreciated to the point where even experts in his oeuvre can pronounce his name.

While we may have to wait a while for a new collection from Simon Armitage, the Yorkshire poet’s translation of The Last Days of Troy (May), commissioned by the Royal Exchange for performance in April 2014. A retelling of The Iliad, there’s no doubt that Armitage will freshen up the classical text as he has done with his engaging translations of The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and The Death of King Arthur.

Lavinia Greenlaw’s A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde

On the note of translations, versions, imitations and all that, Lavinia Greenlaw‘s A Double Sorrow (February), which takes its title from the opening line of Chaucher’s Troilus and Criseyde- of which A Double Sorrow is a retelling- and which is neither translation nor version; rather, Greenlaw’s retelling takes the form of seven- line vignettes.

Twelve years on from his Collected PoemsHugo Williams returns in April with I Knew the Bride, his first collection of poems since 2006’s excellent West End Final, which, no doubt, will explore his parents’ theatrical vocations and his portraits of London in the 50’s, all shot through with the ironic bite and sardonic humour that we’ve come to expect from Williams.

Due in February, Tony Martinez de las Rivas‘ début collection, Terror (February), promises poems that are “…political, social, theological, historical and personal, the poems in this debut collection work closely with the reader, asking questions of us and encouraging us never to settle for inadequate answers.” Rivas was previously featured in Faber’s New Poets series.

Dedalus Press’ If You Ever Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song

THE BIG WIN for poetry in 2014, however, is undoubtedly Dedalus Press‘ If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song (February), which has been chosen as the One City: One Book title for 2014. Supported by Dublin City Council and led by Dublin City Public libraries,  the award- winning initiative has been a resounding success.

First published in 1969, James Plunkett’s Strumpet City was given a new lease of life, this year. The very fact that Plunkett’s masterpiece topped the Irish bestsellers list, thereby introducing a whole new generation to Plunkett’s great novel, was testament not only to the power of fresh ideas within Dublin City Council (yes, they do exist), but also the willingness to support Irish books of which we as readers have, perhaps, under- appreciated the significance.

Edited by Dedalus Press publisher Pat Boran and Gerard Smyth, the Irish Times’ Poetry Editor, If Ever You Go takes its title from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘If You Ever Go to Dublin Town’ (If ever you go to Dublin town / In a hundred years or so / Inquire for me in Baggot Street 
/ And what I was like to know).

According to Dublin City Libraries, If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song “…includes writing by both historical and contemporary figures, among them Swift, Synge, Yeats, Joyce, Kavanagh and Ó Direáin as well as Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Dermot Bolger, Paula Meehan, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Derek Mahon. There are songs and ballads from the city’s colonial past, verses by leaders of the 1916 Rising, and portraits of the modern city with its Spire and Luas tram, its Celtic Tiger ‘prosperity’ and its post-Celtic Tiger challenges.”

In a country which looks as if it is about to overdose on a lethal concoction short stories and flash fiction, it is finally good to see Irish poetry featured on the same platform as prose.

Forgotten anyone? Please use the contact form below and let me know. Otherwise, you can contact me here. 

Poetry review: Chance by John Saunders

Posted in Books, Poetry, Reviews by Philip Cummins on December 13, 2013

Chance by John Saunders


Chance by John Saunders

New Binary Press, 80pp, €8. ISBN 978-0-9574661-7-3

John Saunders has secrets to tell. The Offaly poet’s second collection, Chance, follows 2010’s After the Accident (Lapwing) and it confirms Saunders’ abilities to zoom- in on seemingly innocuous occurrences from memory and from the present day, probing their significance with lyric intensity. It is Saunders’ balancing of strong, formal control with slow- burning, poignant, public utterance to craft poems that recall the chief influences that shine through in these poems; namely Paul Durcan, Billy Colllins and Philip Larkin.

The title poem of Chance, a beautifully achieved Shakespearean sonnet, flows effortlessly- and somewhat ironically- against the central theme of the poem: repression. The poem reaches beyond “that small scullery” that Saunders describes, probing what progress is and what progress isn’t (“…an afterthought to the old run down house, now rubble, / where we sat each evening without doubt”) and explores temporary satisfaction and reluctant acceptance with a formal symmetry befitting of the sonnet form, playing “…the ever present rain / that slapped the window panes” against “our dinners / that when eaten, made us flush / with warmth”.

Saunders’ observational poems may well begin in “that small scullery” and, like the spider depicted on the front cover of Chance, Saunders weaves webs from the scullery to other places of significance for the poet. Remarkably, hotels recur, again and again, which may be linked to Saunders’ role as Director of Shine: the national organisation for supporting those individuals affected by ill mental health. The poet’s take on hotels, however, is multi- dimensional: in ‘Monday Night, Lawlor’s Hotel’, an unflinching eye is set on a regional hotel (“snuffle of beer stained carpet, the meat and two veg / of provincial life overlaid / by Latte and Lavage”). For Saunders, a hotel is an arena for social commentary.

Conversely, ‘In The Victoria Hotel’ is a poem that celebrates intimacy. The classy and elegant ‘Victoria Hotel’ is in sharp contrast to the provincial, “meat and two veg” of ‘Lawlor’s Hotel’. In ‘…Victoria…’, however, physical intimacy fights against moral harmony; the two lovers “…make love in the company of guilt, / shelter weakness in our hearts, / give safety to dangerous thoughts”. Like ‘Chance’, Saunders creates tension between two things that should, in theory, be in harmony, though it is what is not being said- what is not being expressed by the characters that populate his poems- that creates a lyric intensity that rewards upon repeated readings.

Though Saunders focuses his poetic observations indiscriminately, he does, however, fall prey to jaded clichés that he fails to sidestep (consider “our past, present and future / haunted by the shadow of waste, / the deep scar of regret” from ‘Monday Night, Lawlor’s Hotel’). Similarly, in ‘I Listen to Joni Mitchell on My iPod at a Science Lecture’, “mind- blowing” describes the cosmos.

The hard- won and beautifully crafted intimacy of Saunders’ best poems in Chance are compromised by the length of the book (at 68 poems, it is, perhaps, thirty poems longer than it ought to be) and by po- biz name- dropping (there are dedications to Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Eleanor Hooker and an acknowledgement to Paul Durcan) that creates a distance between the poet and the reader that sacrifices the raw honesty and moral fortitude that Saunders’ poems achieve.

All of which, of course, is not enough to take away from some marvellous poems. The success of the book’s final poem, ‘Score’, is that it feels as if the entire collection is leading up to what can only be described as the raw, poetic utterance promised from early- on in the collection; the poems that precede ‘Score’ are all holding back the deeper truth that are revealed in ‘Score’, a poem full of the intimate observations that characterise Saunders’ best work.

Five Remarkable Poetry Collections from 2013

Posted in Books, Features, Irish Post, Poetry, Reviews by Philip Cummins on December 12, 2013

Originally published in Rí- Rá in The Irish Post, Thursday December 12th, 2013

Loath as I am to pick just five books, here are some collections of original poems from poets writing in the English language that made my 2013

The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan (Faber)

The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan

A long- time resident of south- London and a native of Lisgoold, Co. Cork, Riordan, like James Joyce, never fully left Ireland. In ‘The Cross’, one of the collection’s more remarkable poems, Riordan conjures the image of a hurling match being “broadcast live from Thurles or Birr” from a toy model car in a model village. It is Riordan’s seemingly effortless ability to blend the traditional with the modern that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Similarly, Riordan’s elegy to Michael Donaghy, the late Irish- American poet, is one of the more memorable elegies composed in memory of the much- memorialised and much- missed poet.

Pluto by Glyn Maxwell (Picador)

Pluto by Glyn Maxwell

Narrowly missing out on this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection, Glyn Maxwell’s Pluto confirm’s Maxwell as one of the most original and under- appreciated poets of the current era. Brimming with language of the day and subtle rhetorical flourishes, the rhythm of opening poem ‘The Bye Laws’ is rooted in song, making it feel like an overture for the poems of consistent technical skill and formal versatility to follow. In ‘The Case of After’, the centre- piece of Pluto, Orpheus reaches into the underworld by logging on to a dating site: “She wore dark glasses in the only photo / I could access yet. I was peering at that window / like peter sodding Quint I had the blue glow.”


Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Cape Poetry)

Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts

Described as a “religious poet for a secular age”, poet Michael Symmons Roberts followed good on the peaks of previous collections Corpus and The Half Healed with Drysalter, his sixth collection of poems, which won this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection. A novelist and a librettist as well as a poet, Drysalter finds Symmons Roberts working on a smaller canvas than he is used to; all 150 poems were composed to the formal constraint of 15 lines. Symmons Roberts’ great skill is in reinvigorating the familiar with striking images. Take ‘Hitchcockian’: ‘The birds are taking over. Not in rows on high wires / chittering on rooves at passers- by, fixing a lone child / with their red- ringed, sink hole eyes…”.

The Mining Road by Leanne O’Sullivan (Bloodaxe)

The Mining Road by Leanne O’Sullivan

Cork poet Leeane O’Sullivan aligns herself as closely to the Irish lyric tradition as is possible with The Mining Road. The strong influence of the late Seamus Heaney weighs heavily in O’Sullivan’s fourth collection of poems, but O’Sullivan has the confidence and experience not to allow the great man’s influence overpower her work. The theme of discovery recurs again and again in The Mining Road. In The Boundary Journey, a two-part poem- the first mentioning the Atlantic ocean, the second alluding to the Irish Sea- finds O’Sullivan wedged between two different places, two different zones (‘Not to the boundary waters / that part our two counties’). In these subtle, slow- burning and sensuous poems that reward with successive readings, The Mining Road is a step in the right direction for O’Sullivan and, indeed, for Irish poetry.

Consent by Kimberly Campanello (Doire Press)

Consent by Kimberly Campanello

Dividing her time between both Dublin and London, American poet Kimberly Campanello’s first collection of poems from Galway publisher Doire Press is one of poetry’s most auspicious débuts in recent years. Formally exciting and full of surprises, Campanello is a poet who knows that darkness is a necessity in order to appreciate lightness; her poems veer from humorous observations (opening poem ‘Consent’ contains the nugget “My bowels are bound / by cheese and fear”) as well as poems that pack a powerful emotional punch; in ‘Grandma’, Campanello uses the conversational register so prevalent in her work to devastating effect, when describing a woman’s deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease: “You burn the bottom / of four coffee pots. / You serve your grandchildren / raw sausages on Sunday / When you’re hungry / you eat ice cream.” A stunning début from an exciting talent.

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