SHOp TALK: CELEBRATING 10 YEARS OF EXCELLENCE by Mary Turley-McGrath
(PI News September/October 2009)
The autumn/winter issue of THE SHOp will celebrate the first decade of this high-calibre, tri-annual magazine of poetry, which continues to have significant impact on Irish publishing. This is the achievement of co-editors, John and Hilary Wakeman, whom I had the pleasure to meet more than a year ago, at THE SHOp HQ, their hundred-year-old stone house at the foot of Mount Gabriel in West Cork.
John Wakeman's career began as a librarian in London, as did Hilary’s. Later, they worked in libraries in Brooklyn before returning to Norwich in 1962. John became a freelance journalist and edited a reference book on contemporary literature; he then completed his MA in Creative Writing, and founded The Rialto, a magazine of poetry, with Michael Mackmin and Jenny Roberts. Hilary, in the meantime, became a deacon in the Church of England, and was in the first group of women to be ordained in 1996. When she was appointed Rector of Kilmoe, they moved from Norwich to West Cork.
While Hilary settled into her new parish duties, John began to investigate the possibility of setting up another poetry magazine. He discovered that at that time there was only one literary magazine being published south of Dublin and saw an opportunity for a new venture. ‘You’d have to be mad!’ was the opinion of one friend about the possible success of his idea. However, after three years of research and preparation, the Issue I of THE SHOp appeared in 1999, its title taken from Yeats's The Circus Animals’ Desertion:
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
If the title recalls another era in Irish poetry, THE SHOp is thoroughly modern in its philosophy and content. Its mission statement, ‘to put good Irish poetry before its foreign readers, and good foreign poetry before its Irish readers,’ was further developed, when John wrote in the editorial of Issue 6: ‘And good poems, or great ones, have more to give than a shared sense of experience. They lift the experience out of the chaos and confusion that suffering brings … They make what Wallace Stevens called, 'a Supreme Fiction', a fabrication that invents its own truth, imposing order on chaos, holding the darkness with steady hands.’
The strength of THE SHOp lies in the excellent balance and interconnectivity between the poems chosen for each eighty-page issue, along with its striking illustrations and photographs (John Minihan, for example, is on an impressive list of visual contributors). Poems in the Irish language, with translations, are welcomed; the late Michael Davitt was the first Irish-language editor. Translations of poems from other languages have also been included over the years.
From the beginning, THE SHOp has published the work of internationally recognised poets, including Seamus Heaney and John Montague, as well as established, emerging, and new voices from all over the world. It is the talent to recognise and the courage to publish new writers that makes its work so invaluable. It provides the impetus to explore and develop new work, instead of consigning pages to the bottom drawer. John and Hilary are proud of having published some poets for the first time, amongst them, Leanne O’Sullivan, the recent recipient of the Ireland Chair of Poetry bursary, and they continue to put emerging and new voices before readers: Laurence O’Dwyer, Mary Rose Callan, Barbara Smith, Karen O’Connor and Peggy Gallagher to name but a few.
The Wakemans have always been reflective practitioners. For one of the early issues, John wrote in the editorial: ‘It’s beyond dispute that women have found their voices. So why do we not hear more from them … Are they more protective of their progeny, more reluctant to expose them to the cold wind of reflection?’ The replies from women readers ranged from ‘lack of time,’ ‘lack of the competitive edge’ and ‘not being known by the people making the decisions.’ John was quick to assure contributors that the latter was certainly not an important criterion for the Wakemans; subsequently the ratio of women-to-men writers in the magazine has improved.
THE SHOp receives about 6,000 poems each year from all over the world, but can only publish around one hundred and eighty of these. Pieces on similar themes often arrive together. At the beginning of 2000, there was, in John’s words, ‘a spate of poems on love and death’. Was this part of the zeitgeist at the birth of the new millennium and the death of the old? However, by the middle of the new decade, the magazine that had started with a strong rural flavour had begun to reflect new social issues, ‘outbreaks of rage against what has become of Ireland …’ Hilary felt that the perception of THE SHOp was ‘middle-of-the-road and cosy’. In the editorial of Issue 26, John invited work on political themes; poems on ‘war, slavery, people-trafficking, child labour, political corruption …’ poured in, as if ‘people were only waiting for permission to offer such work’.
John Montague wrote recently: ‘One wonders where we stand now: are we post-postmodern?’ There is a general feeling that poetry today lacks direction and that at the same time society relies on it more than ever before. The words ‘renewable’ and ‘sustainable’ are used frequently in the media. Perhaps that is what readers expect; but poetry journals such as THE SHOp, like the apparitions in Macbeth, ‘will not be commanded’.
Mary Turley-McGrath’s collection of poetry, New Grass under Snow, was published by Summer Palace Press. She was the recipient of the inaugural Annie Deeny Memorial Prize. In autumn of 2008, she completed the Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin in 2008.