Interview: Patrick Chapman & Dimitra Xidous, editors of The Pickled Body

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.

Patrick and Dimitra will launch the inaugural issue of The Pickled Body in The Back Loft on Friday 29th November, 2013, at 8pm.

Click here to read the The Pickled Body’s inaugural issue. 

Who can now be considered Ireland’s leading poets in the aftermath of Seamus Heaney’s passing? Five contemporary Irish poets everyone should read

Originally published in RÍ- Rá, the entertainment supplement of The Irish Post, Saturday 28th September, 2013. 

There was a sunlit absence.

                                   Seamus Heaney, ‘Mossbawn: 1. Sunlight’

WHEN Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney passed on, some weeks ago, Cork poet Theo Dorgan remarked that “A great oak has fallen.” In the aftermath of the Nobel committee’s decision to award Heaney the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, the Derry poet cast a huge shadow over Irish poetry with many Irish poets struggling to emerge from the shade. True, Heaney can never truly be succeeded, though in the aftermath of the great man’s passing, I look at five Irish contemporary Irish poets who are likely, now, to shine in the sunlight.

Paul Muldoon

Paul Muldoon

Born in 1951, New Jersey- based, Armagh poet Paul Muldoon, a natural successor and protégé to Seamus Heaney, can now be considered the foremost Irish poet of the current era.

Muldoon first met Heaney at a reading in Armagh in 1967 when Muldoon was just 16 years of age and, at the time, writing furiously. A poet blessed with a gift for strong images and lucid endings, Muldoon has been described as a “postmodern master” who has subverted lyric poetry with pop culture references and a formal playfulness that have come to define his style. Muldoon’s poetry is witty, entertaining and full of lyric tenderness.

Having co- written ‘My Ride’s Here’ with Warren Zevon (which, Bruce Springsteen has covered, live) and published two volumes of song lyrics, written his band Wayside Shrines (formerly Rackett), Muldoon has gained a younger readership through his associations with rock music. Muldoon’s stock with music fans has also been boosted by his friendship with Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, to whom he dedicated ‘Word on the Street’, his latest volume of song lyrics.

Signature poem: ‘Quoof’, the title poem from Muldoon’s 1983 collection of poems, is an example of the poet’s formal playfulness, his keen ear for language and his subtle rhetoric.

Where to start: Selected Poems 1968 – 1983 gives an accurate portrait of a prolific, precocious and prodigiously gifted poet.

What he says: “Form is a straightjacket in the way that a straightjacket was a straightjacket for Houdini”

What they say: “Possibly the biggest influence on all original British and Irish poets who began writing after the mid- seventies.” Ruth Padel, The Guardian


Ciaran Carson

Belfast poet Ciaran Carson

Ciaran Carson is, in many senses, the ultimate Belfast poet. Born in 1948 into an Irish- speaking family in Belfast, where the poet still lives, Carson has unparalleled access to the Irish language, to Irish myth and to Irish folklore. Indeed, Carson’s translation of The Táin may very well be the most definitive version of the Irish- language epic that we have in the English language.

Heavily inspired by Louis MacNiece, Carson has an ear for the flow and music of poetry that would easily be the envy of many poets with weightier reputations. Like MacNeice, Carson’s lines are, generally, quite long and Carson sustains the line length with a virtuoso use of punctuation and sound patterns. Through the Irish vernacular and a rare gift for story- telling, Carson’s most memorable poems offer a kaleidoscopic view of the chaos and solace often found in Belfast during the Troubles.

Signature poem: ‘Belfast Confetti’, from 1987’s The Irish for No, is pure Carson: MacNeice’s influence shines through in this postmodern take on urban chaos during the Troubles. It also contains unforgettable opening lines: Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks, / Nuts, bolts, nails, car keys. A fount of broken type.

Where to start: The Ballad of HMS Belfast: A Compendium of Belfast Poems.

What he says: “I write in English, but the ghost of Irish hovers behind it; and English itself is full of ghostly presences,” (‘The Other’)

What they say: “Carson is one of the most original poets now at work in this country…He is the master of the long line; these poems are manic, frightening and funny, and somehow manage to catch the tone of life in modern Belfast.” John Banville, author

Paula Meehan

Paula Meehan

Dublin poet Paula Meehan has been writing some of most beautiful, elegiac and spiritual lyric poems in Irish poetry in recent decades. Born in 1955 and raised into two characteristically working class areas of Dublin (Gardiner Street and Finglas) and expelled from St. Michael’s Holy Faith Covent school in Finglas for leading a protest against the school’s regime, Meehan’s best poems, like those of Paul Durcan, convey the secular attitudes that become prevalent among her generation of Irish people.

But while Meehan might well describe herself as an agnostic, her poems are steeped in spirituality. In ‘Seed’, a poem from ‘Mysteries of the Home’, Meehan writes I am suddenly grateful and would / offer a prayer if I believed in God. / But not believing, I bless the power of seed, / its casual, useful persistence, / and bless the power of sun. Meehan, however, has written poems that, like Heaney’s most memorable poems, ground themselves in nature and, oftentimes, convey unimaginable sadness. In ‘Elegy for a Child’, Meehan shows her ability to craft poems of elegiac weight, opening her poem with It is not that the spring brings / you back. Birds riotous about / the house, fledglings learn to fly.

Signature poem: ‘Child Burial’ is a perfect of example of Meehan’s ability to convey unimaginable sorrow. In its descriptions of private grieving, it is not a million miles away from Seamus Heaney’ ‘Mid-Term Break’

Where to start: Mysteries of the Home

What she says: “The great thing about poetry is that it’s the human voice, the one human voice breaking the silence. And how you make that voice powerful, trustworthy, capable of communicating, capable of changing other people’s energy, I think at the root of that is the manipulation of breath.”

What they say: “She has a keen awareness of how the human and natural worlds interact.” Richard Tillinghast, poet

Conor O’Callaghan

Conor O’Callaghan

Born 1968, Conor O’Callaghan has been writing some of the wittiest, formally challenging and enjoyable work to emerge from Ireland since Paul Muldoon’s arrival in the world of poetry.

Now living in Manchester, O’Callaghan is a native of Dundalk, Co. Louth, the town of which he wrote in Seatown his seminal 1999 collection. O’Callaghan belongs to a generation of Irish poets, which includes Vona Groarke, Paula Meehan, Peter Sirr, Pat Boran, Patrick Chapman, David Wheatley, Justin Quinn and Joseph Woods, who freshened up the Irish lyric poem by bringing in influences from outside of Ireland; from British and American poetry to Japanese and eastern European verse.

There’s a sense of unsettlement in many of O’Callaghan’s poems. A theme that arises again an again in the poet’s work is that of drifting; be it in ‘The Swimming Pool’, ‘Seatown’, ‘Ships’, ‘The Ocean’ or ‘River at Night’. Like Muldoon, O’Callaghan’s more formally challenging and inventive work contrasts with poems that shine with a common touch that likens his work to that of Philip Larkin. Once described by the Irish Times as Simon Armitage’s Irish counterpart- with whom he read as part of the Poetry Now festival some years ago- O’Callaghan makes use of his access to Irish vernacular. O’Callaghan’s common touch, however, is also formal; ‘The Pearl Works’, the final poem in ‘The Sun King’, first appeared on Twitter, whereby O’Callaghan wrote a couplet of approximately 140 characters, every week, over the course of a calendar year.

Poems from O’Callaghan’s most recent collection, The Sun King, such as ‘Swell’ and ‘Tiger Redux’, the latter described by the poet as a “partly tongue- in- cheek elegy to the Celtic Tiger”, demonstrate that the poet’s ability to craft unlabored poems that delight with successive readings shows no sign of slowing down.

Signature poem: From 1999’s Seatown, ‘East’ is one of the finest poems written by an Irish poet in the last 25 years. It’s also a wonderful example of O’Callaghan’s seemingly effortless control of line and his ability to convey a sense of Irish identity in Ireland and Irish identity outside of Ireland. Masterful stuff.

Where to start: Seatown

What he says: “I do write about feeling marooned between cultures. You leave and never fully reach the other side, and there is really no way back…[Leaving Ireland] has made my poems much freer and my line much longer. I think the experience of living abroad has made my poems a fraction more experimental. I honestly believe it’s a question of geography.”

What they say: “One of Ireland’s finest younger poets.” John McAuliffe, poet.


Peter Sirr

Peter Sirr

Born in Waterford in 1960 and moving to Dublin with his family as a child, Peter Sirr is one of the most complete and naturally gifted poets of his generation. Like Derek Mahon before him, Sirr is something of a jack-of-all-trades within poetry: he is, like Mahon, a noted poet, but also a noted translator and critic. Sirr, however- like O’Callaghan and many other post- Muldoon poets- is most heavily influenced by European poetry.

Winning the Patrick Kavanagh award at just 22 years of age, Sirr is very much a city poet in the European tradition, which isn’t all that surprising given that he has lived, for various spells of time, in Italy and Holland, before eventually settling in Dublin, where he now lives with his wife, poet Enda Wyley. Returning to Ireland after his travels gave Sirr, perhaps, a tourist’s eye for how we now live and may have informed his wry, witty observations on Irish life. ‘PPS’, a poem that he wrote after the arrival via post of his young daughter’s social security number is Sirr at his most wry.

Signature poem: Taken from 2000’s Bring Everything , ‘Legacies’ feels like a uniquely Dublin poem and is, in a sense, a pre- millennial celebration of tradition. Sirr’s language is simple and direct, though the spirit of the poem is through the rhythms and the non- intrusive punctuation, allowing the poem to flow as smoothly as pint in a glass.

Where to start: Selected Poems

What he says: “Those who assume the exceptionality of Irish poetry will witter on about the lines of influence from Yeats to Heaney to Muldoon and ignore the fact that Montale, Pessoa, Celan, Bonnefoy and a host of other unacknowledged legislators have long since gate- crashed the party.”

What they say: “Everyone who takes poetry seriously should read him attentively.” Bernard O’Donoghue, poet

Honourable mentions:

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Derek Mahon, Macdara Woods, Michael LongleyPat Boran, Patrick Chapman, Sinéad MorrisseyGreg Delanty, Thomas McCarthy, John Ennis, David Wheatley, Leontia FlynnJustin Quinn, Vona Groarke, Joseph Woods, Andrew Jamison, Eleanor HookerLeeane O’Sullivan.