Irish Pages Consider Life After Heaney
Editor Chris Agee on how the poet's absence has already affected the cultural landscape, as the journal for contemporary writing launches its second tribute issue
Two doors down from Ormeau Carpets, on the road of the same name, is the office of Irish Pages, Ireland's premier literary journal. It's a civilised place. There's a sofa, pleasing artwork including a Jeffrey Morgan portrait of Seamus Heaney, and more than a hint of the academic study.
Editor Chris Agee, an energetic, engaging guy who reveals he's turning 60 the day we meet, is celebrating the production of his second Irish Pages about Seamus Heaney. The first, published last year, was a tribute issue that included a selection of Heaney's poems and obituaries by key writers and critics. The four poems Agee selected hadn't appeared in any collection and were chosen to reflect different aspects of Heaney's art.
'They weren't his absolute last poems but four from the last period,' he says. 'They showed how he related to faith and a sense of his coming mortality. The first, 'A Found Poem', is interesting. There's a line in it, 'There was never a scene/when I had it out with myself or with an other', that shows Heaney was reticent. He wasn't a believer but was informed by the Catholic tradition.'
This second Heaney issue of Irish Pages is subtitled 'After Heaney' and deals with what you might call the legacy. When a writer as feted as Seamus Heaney goes – with his Nobel prize, numerous honorary degrees and status as unofficial Irish poet laureate – the cultural landscape unquestionably alters.
Talking to Agee over coffee, he teases out some of the shifts he has noticed. 'Seamus was a good friend to me and to the journal. I'd meet him at dinners with writers and at readings. But it's as if his passing marked an age, like that of JFK. We've lost ten to 20 years of his writing. And after Heaney, you ask where does that literary culture go without the sign-shower?
'Heaney's presence was as an arbiter of sensibility. There's a feeling that Irish literary culture has lost its lustre and is going in different directions. We're looking back at the legacy. He was our cynosure and we've lost a talent and personality that reflected on other people who were influenced by him.'
As Agee, a poet and critic, adds, there is now a feeling of aftermath. 'He was so central we're in the literary aftermath. It's cognate with the loss of Yeats.'
There is a tendency to sanctify the dead, but that is not the case here, although there is a neat metaphor coined in the editor's introduction to the issue. After likening the weight of the poet's loss to that of President Kennedy, Agee imagines Heaney as the strongest case for whom might later be considered a modern equivalent of the 'early Irish saints'.
He goes on to point out that these figures were not necessarily clerics but leaders with social, ethical or imaginative powers whom the Church later branded as its own.
You may think you know what comes after Heaney, that is Longley, Muldoon, Carson, Morrissey, Flynn and the legion of excellent Northern Irish poets. But this journal contains a subtler analysis and not a few surprises.
The After Heaney issue opens with a robust speech given by the poet in 1989 at the Annual Conference of the Ireland Funds. It's called 'Varieties of Irishness' and starts with a cheeky couplet by Bill Cole suggesting Heaney couldn't resist the invitation to address the conference the way others can't resist an erotic itch.
In his persuasive analysis of the question of identity, one of the themes of the whole issue, Heaney considers the 'doubleness of our focus in Ireland' which he goes on to describe as the ability of people on this island to live in two places at one time, and two times in one place.
The concrete example Heaney appends involves a chip shop in Tate's Avenue and an English girl serving the poet who having seen him on telly the night before, describes him as 'the Irish poet' to the irritation of her boss.
Later Heaney writes about an incident driving from Belfast to Waterford. He turns off to follow a memory connected with Boolavogue, the site of an important piece of Irish resistance in the eighteenth century, and the resulting encounter with a near-Wordsworthian local leaves you feeling the power of mythic landscapes. The world of old music, language and stories might exist somewhere past the next drumlin in something approaching Ireland's dreamtime.
As Agee says: 'Heaney's brilliant essay shows him part of the old Ireland but making the transition to the new Ireland.' T.S. Eliot's 'Little Gidding' provides a brisk summing up.
I once heard film studies academic Ian Christie say he was mildly surprised that of the Heaney-Longley-Stewart Parker generation, Seamus Heaney became the superstar as his focus seemed intensely local. Agee immediately points me towards the essay by Manus Charleton that addresses this very question, Heaney and the Moderns.
It's a question of Heaney not sharing the modernists' disillusionment with faith of different kinds, in Charleton's view, while understanding that perspective. He writes: '[Heaney's] engagement with the modern poetic sensibility helped him clarify his relation to his own more traditional sensibility...'
There are other contributions from John F. Deane on faith in poetry to poems by Ruth Carr and a fascinating piece by Neal Ascherson on Scotland's need for independence.
In the centre of the issue is a poignant sequence of photos of refugees by Enri Canaj. These indicate ways in which the world has changed since Seamus Heaney died in 2013, not always pleasantly .
'The world since Seamus Heaney died has developed national, ethnic, sectarian and religious divisions,' says Agee. We are in a fissiparous state and Heaney apparently used a telling phrase, saying the world was becoming 'a big Ulster'.
Syrian Refugees in Greece by Enri Canaj
Irish Pages was founded in 2003 and the title was ambitious from the off as Agee says, he wanted, with Irish language editor Cathal O Searcaigh, to create a serious, all-embracing title.
'I have no taste agenda. We edit to produce a magazine read by people who appreciate very good writing.' He adds that he wanted to cover the island of Ireland because '[they] don't want to be pinned down by the border like Gulliver'. The late Susan Sontag was a fan and early contributor.
Now, with fifty per cent Arts Council funding, the journal makes money. Two thousand, six hundred copies of the first Heaney issue were sold with branches of bookshops like Waterstones rapidly shifting over 100 copies.
The editing process is painstaking with nearly 1000 submissions a year to be sifted through. On contemporary white shelves in the magazine office, the rejects pile up while in a much smaller pile, the selected elect manuscripts wait to be edited.
Contributors are an international bunch and cover all age groups. Agee has encouraged young writers by publication in Irish Pages and mentions 22-year-old fiction writer Juliana Roth, author of the short story Time Away in the current issue, a realistic piece with touches of Anne Tyler.
Agee says he doesn't like multi-tasking but effortlessly fills several roles in his professional life. In terms of poetry, his yet to be published fourth collection, titled Blue Sandbar Moon, follows the micro-poem journey of the collection, Next to Nothing, that came after the death of Chris Agee's young daughter Miriam in 2001.
This time round, Agee has produced what he calls a micro-epic with some beautiful observational, thoughtful work. He is also creating a printing press under the Irish Pages banner. Having printed a couple of books, including the programme to Philip Hammond's Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic, Agee is bringing out a new edition of essays by Hubert Butler and a collection of occasional pieces by Tom MacIntyre.
'Hubert Butler was brilliant, an Anglo-Irish George Orwell. Tom MacIntyre is an Irish Pages contributor and we're producing a book of essays and stories. We asked him what to call it and he said "The Divil Knows What" - and there was our title.'
Agee says his aim is to create a printing press of the standard of Gallery Press and Lilliput Press in the south. 'After all, Ireland is known internationally for a few things, including great whiskey and great writing.'
If he wants to relax, there is the Agee family place in Croatia bought after Chris spent time in the area around the siege of Sarajevo. Finishing with another Heaney reference, Agee says it performs the same function for him that Seamus Heaney's cottage in Wicklow played for the subject of this Irish Pages. 'It's what he called a silence-bunker.'
Irish Pages launches 'After Heaney' at Waterstones, Belfast from 6.30pm on Thursday, February 11 following a soft launch at the Strand Arts Centre, east Belfast on Sunday, February 7 from 3pm. To order a copy or find out more about where it's stocked visit www.irishpages.org/order.