TWENTY-ONE YEARS ON by Jessie Lendennie
(Poetry Ireland News, March/April 2002)
My involvement with Salmon Publishing happens to coincide almost exactly with the number of years I've lived in Ireland; twenty-one next August. Salmon began its run twenty-one years ago, come October. It started life as a photocopied, stapled, 15-page broadsheet named ‘Poetry Galway’; moved into idealistic heights adopting the name The Salmon International Literary Journal in 1982; and as a natural progression of the time began publishing books, reaching a peak of output in 1999 with twenty-six books published that year. Yes, there is a ‘beyond 1999’, but rather than being what is usually implied by the word ‘beyond’ in such a context, our beyond entails a contraction rather than an expansion. A drawing in, that is, if we are interested in receiving continued funding from The Arts Council. I have to say that I am not going to embark on a tirade against The Arts Council. This body has come through at crucial times during Salmon's wild ride. What needs to be examined are the blocks to progress. It's time for all of us who truly care about poetry to look critically at the destructive notions which have been floating around for the past few years.
A good example: ‘There are too many poetry books being published in Ireland’. Is there really no room in Ireland for a publisher who wishes to produce books of, say, experimental poetry, prose-poetry, poetry which reflects real lives of real people? From where I sit it seems not. Not, that is, outside the confines of local jurisdictions. Raise your head above that parapet and get it shot off. Combine a hostile anti-pluralistic establishment with lack of coverage from the national newspapers, whose review capabilities have all but dried up for new Irish poetry, and you get a deadened sensibility. A typical poetry book published in 1988 would get at least ten reviews; a collection published now, perhaps two. Keeping the injuns out by pretending that their culture doesn't exist. Alas, in our case their culture is Ireland's culture.
This leads me to an argument heard in recent years in public discussions of literature: simply put, MORE poetry equals BAD poetry. I would dearly love to know of any detailed study which has furnished us with this conclusion. Is there a quota on good poetry: ‘bag a couple of those- that's our limit this season’? Is everyone who writes poetry in Ireland a potential poacher? Yes, there are more people coming out into the air with their writing and, consequently, wishing to publish. Yet this overt expansion of creativity, which began in the early ‘90s, hasn't lead to more funding for, or an increase in, poetry book publishers. As well as new poets not being served well, established poets still turn to Britain, if they can, and also fight for places with U.S. presses. Is it really a natural progression to move from publishing in Ireland to publishing abroad? Does this really mean that one has finally ‘Made It’? Relic of colonialism? Despising what we have?
There is much talk of support for community arts, yet there is insufficient funding for publishers who are inclined to publish emerging poets. It looks as if the funding powers that be are encouraging creative expression, but denying the end result of that expression, which in the case of literature, is usually publication. The dichotomy can be expressed as wishing to nurture the creative spirit (such a large and special part of the Irish character), while wishing to hold to a tradition which entails ‘genius will out’, and the ‘good’ poet will be elected to the elite in due time. We are to believe that, of the hordes who feel the spark and are moved to expression, one or two true poets will emerge and be recognized by their peers among the select. Yet, to quote some old favourites, heard time and time again: ‘What is poetry’; ‘What is poetry's purpose’; ‘Who sets the standards for admission to the canon?’ These are political questions- they involve the whole of society. Ironically these issues come to the fore because poetry is such an important part of Irish society. That's surely a good thing...can it be that there is so much poetry in our lives that we are confused about the standards we are to adopt? At the very worst the notion of an elite setting aims for a whole society is fascist, with its basis of a loathing and distrust of the masses.
The ‘opposite’ of this is not a lack of ‘standards’, but a willingness to allow many forms of expression, a creative malleability of thought, a recognition of the many ways that poetic expression achieves greatness, a willingness to see value from the ground up, not from the top down. An education which involves examination of poetry and its integral place in society, which examines how poetry, like all other forms of human endeavour, changes over time; reflecting the moods and thoughts of society, from the ground up.