The Future of NI Poetry

Stephen Connolly on compiling a new generation of voices in Irish literature for a landmark anthology with TS Eliot Prize-winner Sinéad Morrissey

It would be easy for young Northern Irish writers to feel somewhat overawed or discouraged by the immense achievements made by recent generations here, particularly, in the field of poetry. But rather than giving themselves a complacent pat on the back, or looking to preserve the illustrious contemporary canon in aspic, the country's current crop seem if anything invigorated by the recent past, and are bringing a considerable energy of their own to the table.

Certainly, this appears to be the main driving force behind a new anthology, titled The Future Always Makes Me So Thirsty: New Poets from the North of Ireland. The editorial duo behind the publication is made up of TS Eliot Prize-winner and inaugural Belfast Poet Laureate, Sinéad Morrissey, and Stephen Connolly who, as a PhD student at the Seamus Heaney Centre, is a considerably newer voice.

This new venture is a biannual affair – a biennial prose equivalent, Blackbird, is being drawn up at the moment by other writers in the Seamus Heaney Centre - which aims to compile and showcase the work of our new breed of bards.

It’s also a document of a thriving and enduring community, which seems to borrow something from The Lifeboat – a monthly series of readings organised by Connolly and Manuela Moser, that sees an unpublished poet read alongside a more established name - as it works to draw attention to a number of emerging, lesser-known writers who prove more often than not that they can hold their own reading with more eminent or esteemed authors.

To mark the collection's release and launch, one of a number of literary events taking place in Belfast as part of the 2016 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, we spoke to its co-editor Stephen Connolly.

Where did the idea for New Poets come from? Had the anthology been in the pipeline for a while, or did the collection take shape in a swifter and more fully-formed way?

Stephen: Sinéad Morrissey invited me for lunch in December of last year. She had been approached by Patsy Horton from Blackstaff about editing an anthology of contemporary poetry from Northern Ireland and wanted me to edit it with her. I said yes immediately.

I think the original plan had been to gather poems by poets who had started publishing around the turn of the century: that would’ve included the likes of Leontia Flynn, Nick Laird, Colette Bryce, Conor O’Callaghan and Alan Gillis. Lots of these poets were extensively represented in substantial recent anthologies, like Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry and Wes Davis’s Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, published by Harvard University Press.

Sinead Morrissey

We started thinking of poets who began publishing a little later and that’s when the fun started. I spent the rest of December and the start of January reading and re-reading books published in the last decade, and I did a substantial trawl through magazines to find people who were yet to publish a book.

It’s quite astonishing to look at the last few issues of Poetry Ireland Review under the editorship of Vona Groarke: a significant chunk of each issue is taken up by poets based in Belfast who are yet to publish a book of poems. So, the anthology came together pretty quickly, but there has been something or other simmering away for a few years that’s led to it.

Did it seem like a natural progression from the work you've been involved in with The Lifeboat, after three years co-running the series?

I think it’s a confluence of a few things: I think that Sinéad asked me to co-edit because of what I’ve been up to with The Lifeboat. There are a decent handful of poets in the book who have been regulars at The Lifeboat, but it’s by no means dominated by them and I certainly can’t take any credit for the work they do. I’ve said elsewhere that Manuela and I often had very little work to do other than set up the microphone and in many ways the thrust of the whole thing was to help facilitate the conversations that happen after the poets have done their thing.

It might sound bizarre, but I’m not the biggest fan of poetry readings––or at least poetry readings that last for an hour after a long introduction. There’s a cynical notion that people only attend readings, book launches and exhibition openings for the wine, which can be looked at a little differently. As much as the stereotype of the solitary figure working away in a garret has pervaded the way our culture thinks of poetry, I find that the conversations that happen in bars or in bookshops, or wherever, can shape reading habits across groups of people.

I think something like this might happen with The Lifeboat: if you get a bunch of poetry readers into the same room once a month, ostensibly to be introduced to work they haven’t read before, you’re going to get conversations that diversify what’s being read once the pub has closed. I care about these conversations happening as much as, if not more than I care about giving poets a space to have their work heard.

If my input into the anthology is in any way a progression from what I’ve been doing with The Lifeboat, I’d hope it’s mostly because I’ve booked the room and helped start a few of these conversations. I hope, in turn, that the book will start a few more conversations.

New Poets

A selection of the featured poets

There's quite a varied mix of contributors - some award-winning, some still students, some English-born but residing and working here, and some who left Northern Ireland a number of years ago. Was there a basic criteria for contributors?

We tried to cover a few things when we put together our criteria. We didn’t want to conflate youth (or age) with what it might mean to be new, so rather than set a year of birth as a cut-off point we decided to only consider poets who had not published a full collection of poems before 2006. This helped us exclude, if that’s the right word, the aforementioned poets (Flynn, Gillis, etc).

We considered poets who were born in Northern Ireland and also considered poets who had lived here for a minimum of three years. In the introduction we write that in ‘a poetic territory that is stereotyped, almost always incorrectly, as parochial and insular at its best and explicitly hostile to those deemed outsiders at its worst, the value of fresh perspectives cannot be underestimated’.

Around a third of the poets we included were born elsewhere and just under a third were born here and currently live elsewhere and one or two others have spent a few years here at some point relatively recently. We’d hope that this might help undermine any nationalistic or essentialist sentiment that could be ascribed to an otherwise disparate group of people nominally selected based on geographical location.

There are two poets who had not yet been published when we were making our selection: Sinéad had read poems by Kiera McGarry and Scott McKendry and passed them on to me. There are a few other postgraduate students who are already gaining a pretty decent readership. As I type this, Stephen Sexton is in New York for a reading with Colm Tóibín to coincide with the publication of the most recent issue of Granta.

What is the original source of the epigraph, 'the future always makes me so thirsty', on the front cover? Does it set the tone for the poems in the anthology, or is it representative of a more general ethos?

It’s from a poem by Stephen Sexton called 'My Second Favourite Locked Room Mystery'. The poem itself is really quite dark: it’s in the voice of someone working in a bowling alley who thinks obsessively about a riddle involving a man in an empty barn who has hanged himself from the rafters with no clues revealing how he got there other than a damp patch on the floor below him. Perhaps it’s a bit incongruous if you’re expecting it to be referring directly to youth or vitality, but I quite like that incongruity.

The poems were chosen long before the title and I was worried that titles that come from poems can be a bit gimmicky. I made a huge list of lines and phrases and read them to anyone who would listen – once the book’s out I’ll probably owe a drink to a few people whose ears I have bent - and 'the future always makes me so thirsty' was the one that got a unanimous positive response. It’s probably representative of some sort of optimism, but I don’t really think I know what it means.

Future Thirsty

Poetry Ireland mentions how the anthology compiles the poetry 'from an exciting generation who have started publishing in the last decade', which might make some people think of the famed Belfast Group or subsequent clusters of emerging poets from Northern Ireland. Is that a problematic or stifling way to think about what's happening, or is it right to link these kinds of publications with the past?

The mythology that surrounds the Belfast Group conflicts with itself and changes depending on who is asked to talk about it, or indeed who’s writing about it. There’s one article that I’ve read about Jack Pakenham where the reader is asked to think about him in Philip Hobsbaum’s flat in 1963, where Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon are reading their earliest poems: the problem here is that the latter was barely out of primary school at that time and, precocious as he was, I don’t think a 12-year-old Muldoon was all that likely to have been there.

What can’t really be argued with is that this tiny part of the world has produced an astonishing number of poets writing very interesting poetry. If we’re still to believe Harold Bloom’s take on things, and I’d hope that we aren’t, then by now we should all be quivering in a corner somewhere, buckled under the weight of the illustrious recent history.

Groups are formed, I think, in some small part of the public imagination after the fact and can have a damaging, homogenising effect on how the poetry itself is read. To suggest too much similarity between any two poets, never mind three or four or more writing in the same period, is usually the mark of a tenuous argument made by someone who hasn’t read all that much by each poet, at best.

Ciaran Carson’s work in the late 1980s is a world apart from Ciaran Carson’s work in the last decade, so to imagine his work to be aesthetically the same as the vast, various work of Medbh McGuckian is problematic. Thankfully, there aren’t too many people who think that way.

That’s probably quite evasive and I haven’t really answered the question, but I don’t think there’s a simple answer to be given. If this book leads to some more people reading the other published work of the poets included or seeking out other poets writing here, then I’ll be happy.

For those readers who don't know, or for those who can't make it to the launch, where can they pick up a copy of New Poets?

There’s always No Alibis on Botanic Avenue. Apart from there, I’m tempted to say ‘all good bookstores’ in the hope that there are plenty of them left.

New Poets from the North of Ireland is published by Blackstaff Press and is out now. The launch takes place tonight (Thursday, May 5) at the John Hewitt Bar, Belfast, as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.