Dancing its way into the market of poetry magazines, The Pickled Body– a new, Dublin- based quarterly- launches this Friday, 29th November, in The Back Loft, its first themed issue being ‘The Red Shoes’. This week, I spoke with editors Patrick Chapman and Dimitra Xidous about their perceptions of the culture of poetry in Ireland, their experiences of the editorial process and what books and records might pickle the fancy of their chosen reader…
What finally convinced you both that there was room on the shelves for another quarterly poetry magazine?
The short answer is that it seemed like a good idea – we like each other’s work as poets and it was really done on impulse, in a way. Wouldn’t it be great to forget everything that a poetry magazine should be, and start from first principles? So we didn’t really look at the market. Given that it’s online, there’s room for it anyway, in that sense, and it’s not competing with venerable institutions like Poetry Ireland Review, or exhilarating upstarts such as Bare Hands or The Penny Dreadful. Poetry publishing, with the internet, is not a zero-sum game. We thought: wouldn’t it be fun to do something and make it different, make it about the senses and the surreal, and have a theme every time. There’s enough realism in the world.
Dimitra: you moved to Ireland from Canada, some years ago. What were your first impressions of poetry in Ireland and what surprised you most about the culture of poetry in Ireland? How does the culture of poetry in Ireland compare with back home?
I was struck by how un-shy people were to describe themselves as writers/poets when introducing themselves. I could never do that back in Canada. This isn’t a reflection of the literary scene back home, but rather, my own comfort level in terms of identifying as a poet. I was never really a part of the literary scene back in Ottawa because I hadn’t yet dug my heels into the idea that I could call myself a poet. I wasn’t yet comfortable with what that meant, didn’t know what it meant. Thinking back on it, some element of my coming to Ireland was to give myself space and time to find my feet and what it meant, what it would feel like to be a writer in an active sense – to write every day. It has, for the most part, been a very rewarding experience for me. I am better writer for the move to Ireland. There is a wonderful sense of community and love for the craft of writing – the readings, events, journals are testament to that. The fact that most of it is done on a shoe-string budget of little or no money, speaks to this as well. That said, it hasn’t escaped me that the culture of poetry in Ireland is very much tied up in/concerned/obsessed with the notion of what it is to be an “Irish writer”. With all due respect to the rich literary history that is here, I don’t know what that means, in the same way that I don’t know what it means to be a Canadian writer, or a female writer, or [insert label here]. Or maybe it is better to say that this was never a concern for me. I am concerned with one thing, the only thing that matters and that is writing well. I am reminded of something a poet friend from back home said to me on the eve of my departure: “All poets are 3 parts mad, maybe 4, so don’t worry”. My time in Ireland has strengthened my poet’s resolve to ensure there is method to the madness.
Patrick: you’ve been publishing poetry and prose since the late 80’s/ early 90’s. What significant developments have you noticed most in the culture of poetry in Ireland – for good or ill – since you first arrived with 1991’s Jazztown?
Since I started there has been a flowering of outlets. Back then there were only a few book publishers and a few magazines in this country, though things had started to open up. Poetry nights in pubs were based around workshops, not the social events they are today. The page and stage divide became less of an issue – though in my opinion you need to write a good text whether you put it in a book or speak it aloud from memory – and now you have some very excellent reading series around the country, attended by both kinds of writers. We’ve also become more international in our outlook and open to influences from outside. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the audience is relatively small and sales are, with a few noble exceptions, tiny. Also, the national newspapers, it seems, review fewer volumes of poetry than they used to. Luckily, we have other venues now.
Joe Woods, former Director of Poetry Ireland, once remarked that the most significant development in poetry in Ireland that he had noticed most during his thirteen- year stint as Director of Poetry Ireland was the exchange that was taking place between performance poets and “page poets”, or “established poets”, for want of better expressions; that poets published with established, reputable presses were no longer mumbling through their poems at readings and they were now making more of an effort to present their work to a live audience. Similarly, performance poets who had cut their teeth on the performance / open- mic circuit were entering into publication with established, reputable presses. Discuss!
Yes, I’ve been to some poetry readings over the years where the poet didn’t know how to project, or bring clarity and expression to the performance. That’s one of the reasons Paul Durcan is so popular – he has an actor’s facility with presenting his words. On the other hand, performance poets need to have the words down; if you’ve got something to say, say it as well as you can. The balance is important, I think – a poem has to live on the page, even if it’s not traditional in form – but equally, the poet reading it or performing it needs to remember that there’s an audience listening. So: page poets, stop mumbling; stage poets, make sure your words are great. I love the way that the two streams have started to flow in the same river. Ten or twelve years ago you had the ‘fusion’ movement pioneered by the likes of Todd Swift, bringing page and stage poets together in the same anthology, which was a bold statement at the time. Nowadays we’re all just poets, using whatever medium comes to hand. It’s nice to have a book of your work out, though. I’m a fan of the physical object – a printed book is to a collection of poetry what a good frame is to a painting.
It has often been said by editors and anthologists that the most time and energy of any editor / anthologist is spent on deciding omissions. Has this been your experience of the editorial process and, overall, how have you both found the process to be?
In our experience so far, and we’ve done only one issue, quite a few of the poems immediately said ‘yes’ to us; so indeed, much of our decision-making was about omissions. Each of us independently produced a separate shortlist before comparing them, then we discussed the poems that only one of us had picked, and we went back and forth over quite a few. It goes without saying that as an editor it’s important to consider work carefully, but also to be open to being surprised, and wrong.
The Pickled Body’s issues will be thematic, the first theme being “The Red Shoes”. What influenced this decision to give each issue a strong thematic thread and are there any existing magazines in print that influenced this decision?
There was no one magazine that influenced this decision. It seemed to come naturally out of our discussions. The theme of The Red Shoes brings together several worlds – the film, the music, the fairy tale. The movie especially, spoke to us. It raises the question of what an artist will sacrifice for the sake of being able to create her or his art. How far will you go to be who you need to be? Will it hurt other people and is that something you can live with? What’s the price of the freedom to be a writer or an artist? Having hit upon the idea of The Red Shoes as the theme for the first one, we thought it’d be lovely to do that for every issue. Happily, the theme inspired Ria Czerniak to create some wonderful drawings for us, to go with the poems.
Anyone can caricature a New Yorker reader; a Guardian / Observer reader; a Daily Mail / Telegraph reader; a south Dublin Irish Times reader; a London Review of Books / Times Literary Supplement reader. Though it’s only issue one, you must have had some idea of your reader during the editing and design and reading the chosen poems. Broad and general though it may be, what does a Pickled Body reader look like? What music does he/she listen to? Who are the last five poets he/she have read?
We had an idea of our chosen reader. Us. We had no thought beyond that what might be the profile of the typical reader of The Pickled Body. It’s the principle of making something for yourself, in the hope that others will like it. But we can imagine such a reader, accurately or not. He or she might enjoy the music of Leonard Cohen (before Phil Spector made a record with him), Pixies, Kate Bush, Pere Ubu, Kevin Ayers, Kristin Hersh, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Terry Riley’s Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band. Five poets: Neruda, Patrizia Cavalli, Kate Clanchy, Nuala Ni Choncúir’s Tatoo: Tatú, and e. e. cummings. Bonus poet: Lorca.
Finally, what can readers of The Pickled Body expect at your launch night on 29th November in The Back Lounge and what do you have in store for future issues? Do you plan to launch beyond Dublin in, say, Galway, Limerick, Cork?
It’s going to be a great evening. Several of the poets will read their work, there will be food, and Ria’s art prints will be on display. We’ve produced postcards of each poem too, for sale on the night. This will be the Pickled Body’s physical manifestation. Also, mingling. There will probably be some of that. The next couple of issues have the themes of ‘amuse-bouche’ and ‘bull’. Don’t get them mixed up. Regarding launches in other cities, we will see.