Feature Articles

THIS IS NOT AN EDITORIAL... BY PETER SIRR

(Poetry Ireland News, November/December 2007)

Hard to believe I’ve handed in my fifteenth issue of Poetry Ireland Review. How did that happen? The initial idea was to do eight issues as the organisation felt that the Review, at this stage of its journey, would benefit from a longer span of editorship. Eight turned to twelve and then I was asked to hold the fort for another three issues as PI went through some changes of its own, and, all pleas for mercy having fallen on deaf ears, this I agreed to do.

Now that it’s over, what will I miss? Editing a magazine is a strange business, hard to quantify, or even to describe exactly. The activity itself lies somewhere between sloth and panic, and between intent and happenstance. Vague ideas slide around the back of the mind, poets who might be encouraged to submit, themes that might be tackled, writers that might be prevailed upon to deliver a think-piece. What about Wales? Afghanistan? What about Mangan, MacNeice, Mandelstam? Some things are there to be dealt with: the massive pile of submissions, for one. For many editors this is the most daunting aspect of the job. A magazine like PIR, with its national and international remit, attracts a dizzying volume of submissions. Many of these are what I’d call routine despatches – little bundles fired off to every journal that appears on a list, where the poet rarely bothers to read the journal and get a sense of what might be acceptable. Most of the submissions are not publishable – they’re just not interesting enough, not well enough written. Reading them can be a dispiriting chore. And yet there are the real finds, bright poems by unfamiliar writers, good work by established ones, and the small pile of definites begins to grow. You cheer up.

You quickly realise that very many good poets, particularly Irish poets, don’t submit work. You also realise that a lot of poems are well enough written to be publishable – and yet they don’t excite. They do not cause the hair on the back on the neck to stand up. The editorial heart doesn’t stop, nor breath shorten. Their language is inert, the subjects are boring. Poets can often seem to be working a narrow little seam of private experience. They don’t seem to get out much. This seems to be particularly the case with poetry in English. An enormous variety of poetry of every possible hue is written in English but only a particular strain of it ends up, for the most part, on the PIR desk. The editor in search of poetic adventure has to labour a little to find it.

PIR is an Irish magazine, but I didn’t take that to mean a magazine of Irish poetry. It’s true that there is a serious effort to assess Irish-published work and to feature work by Irish poets, and these are both built into the fabric of the Review. But – and here comes some good old bias – a large part of me thinks that the whole notion of Irish poetry is fairly boring, a kind of branding exercise for a product few, if put to it, could really define. The currents of poetic influence flow across continents and languages and few poets would seek to confine themselves within national boundaries, or to measure themselves against a set of ‘national’ criteria. The dismaying parochiality of so much of Irish critical and cultural discourse – not least the flawed concept of ‘Irish Studies’ – shouldn’t blind us to the internationalism that is the lifeblood of poetry. 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, Lowell, Murray and a host of other unacknowledged legislators have long since gatecrashed the party. I put a lot of poems in translation into the Review not least because a good part of my everyday reading consists of exactly that, and a magazine may as well be as attentive to the idle browsing of its editor as to his, em, considered interventions. But I actually don’t know any serious practitioners who don’t have an ear cocked to the news from elsewhere, and aren’t excited by what they discover from one end of the planet to the other. We’re at home in our language and necessarily imprisoned in our own little context, but the spices we cook with are as likely to be imported as home-grown. 

‘'Have you no funny stories to entertain us?’ ‘Editing is an exciting and dangerous business, isn’t it?’ ‘Did you never get a clatter on the ears or a box on the jaw for your pains?’ True enough, if you haven’t made enough enemies in life, then you need a spell in an editor’s chair to set the balance right. The stock in trade of editing is disappointment. Back in the eighties we paid doleful visits to what we called the Careers and Disappointments Officer to contemplate the bleakness of our futures, and being an editor is a bit like that in that most of those who knock on the door are not going to walk out smiling. I often had to say no to good work because there simply wasn’t room for it, and found very little pleasure in the god-like decision-making aspect of the job. You’re aware of how idiosyncratic personal taste is – and yet your job is to trust your own instincts and not let too much else get in the way. You need to believe that the final result is important: a magazine that can stand on its feet and not be hobbled by platitude, cosiness or corporatism. And then you need to go away and have a drink and forget about it.

I was lucky to have in the background an organisation and individuals fanatic in their devotion to the persistence of this journal, and an assistant editor, Paul Lenehan, whose eye for detail far exceeded mine, and I was equally blessed to have a range of contributors prepared to risk sending poems and to sit up late perfecting reviews and essays. The survival for more than a year of any literary outlet is miraculous, and maybe it’s only professional organisations that can sustain the effort indefinitely. For me it’s great to be able to go and to know PIR will continue to drop through the letterbox every three months. The editor is dead. Long live the editor.


Peter Sirr is Director of the Strokestown International Poetry Festival. His Selected Poems was published by Gallery Press in 2004.

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