Each month we look at some of the literary publications, zines and websites in the island of Ireland. This month we look at Dublin-based poetry zine FLARE, and speak to its editor Éamon Mag Uidhir.
FLARE derives from the Sunflower Sessions, a monthly open mic poetry, prose, spoken word night at Jack Nealon’s Public House in Capel Street, Dublin. Can you tell us a bit about the sessions first of all?
The Sunflower Sessions—which happen on the last Wednesday of every month except December—are in their third year under the present title. They had a previous existence as the ‘Last Wednesdays’ organised by the Seven Towers group, which was led by Sarah ‘Sunflower’ Lundberg. Her premature death a few years back brought the Last Wednesdays to an abrupt end, but in January 2015 the remaining writers decided to revive the event, renaming it ‘The Sunflower Sessions’ in Sarah’s memory.
The format is open mic, with poets signing up on the night, and a featured guest reader most months. The guest readers usually showcase new work, or a new book. They’ve included bright new poets touting a first collection, and veterans showing off their umpteenth. The atmosphere is good and attentive, with real close listening, and the general quality of the open mic contributors is high, so better known writers have been very happy to appear.
When I was down at one of the sessions, there was five or six other literary events happening on the night (which puts Belfast and Derry/Londonderry to shame!). Yet you still attract a great number and variety of readers. Is it difficult to compete with other events, or is the scene unified and supportive?
Up to the start of this year we were clashing directly on the last Wednesdays with one of the other open mics, Staccato at Toners, but this overlap has been resolved by them graciously changing to the second Wednesday of the month and now both sessions get access to the whole audience and the full floating population of reading poets, instead of splitting them.
You must have hit town during the peak book launch season if there were five or six lit gigs on that night. Now if only that was always the case. Though Dublin can be very vibrant all right—but the size of the audience is limited, and everybody tries to get to everything that’s on if they can. The scene is spread between poetry-plus-prose readings, poetry-and-music events, poetry-and-rap sessions, rap and spoken word sessions, and any or all of the above with some improv thrown in. The Sunflower Sessions are one of the few strictly non-musical events. There are some poets who will appear at all types of events while others will stick to one. I myself am happiest in a strictly poetry or prose environment, though I’ve read at some of the poetry-and-music sessions too. The audiences for the different types of event overlap considerably as well. It’s one big happy family, but as with any extended family you don’t see all the cousins all the time.
The main idea of FLARE is to showcase readers from previous sessions, and you’ve had some great names so far – Alvy Carragher, Michael Farry, Ross Hattaway, Alice Kinsella, Iggy McGovern, Anne Tannam, Breda Wall Ryan, etc. – have you been surprised at the depth of talent you’ve been able to showcase already, only two issues in?
FLARE is designed to extend the open mic concept into print. So anybody who’s read at the Sunflower Sessions is liable to be invited to contribute, preferably a choice of the poems they read there, but not necessarily so. We deliberately keep the length of the poems in the publication shortish to fit more people and poems in. So if somebody spent their whole seven-minute slot reading a 400-line epic we aren’t going to be able to accommodate that and will ask for a selection of their other work. We have a master inventory of everyone who ever read at the Sunflower Sessions and I’m systematically—if randomness is a system—going through them and inviting contributions from just enough people to fill each issue. The idea is to do away with the slush pile and all the anxiety and frustration that can generate. So with no open call for submissions there are no disappointed submitters.
Another innovation is to offer writers not one but two inclusions, over two issues, which hopefully will give completely unpublished writers a good start to their portfolio and also give longstanding writers a useful platform to keep a reputation bubbling between books. Print outlets are few and far between and some young writers can go years before getting their first item published. That’s a terrible situation for a beginner to be in and we want to do our bit to overcome it. I have to fully sympathise: I published my own first poem in 1969 and it took me four years to get a second one published.
All the people you mention have been featured guests promoting books, but have also participated as regular open mic contributors on other occasions so we’ve had a great selection of writers willing to be pestered for poems. Another thing to note is we have no problem with reprinting poems from books or out of print periodicals, to help poets and publishers promote books and sell them, and to give a deserved additional lease of life to good poems no longer available to the print public. We don’t do author biographies or any references, other than ISBN details if a poem is from a book. Saves a lot of space for poems and cuts out a lot of repetitious bumpf about awards, academic records and other publication appearances, and above all puts the readers’ focus entirely on the poem, its title and its author’s name. More egalitarian. It’s all about the poems.
The physical form of the issues – A4 booklet folded in half lengthways – works very well for presenting the poems. How did you decide this style would be best?
It’s funny, we were fully intending to produce a traditional multi-folded single A3 or A2 broadsheet. But in a hurry to cast off the length of the content we had in the can for the first issue, I dumped everything into a two-column A4 portrait template I made. I happened to fold a printout of it vertically to fit in my pocket and realised that if we put our front cover in one column of the outside page and our back cover in the other column, instead of using up two complete A4 pages, we could free two more columns for poetry. I prototyped it as two A3 landscape sheets with four columns of poems, stapled and folded into A4, and then folded again vertically. We liked it and it was easy to make up, so we went off the idea of a broadsheet. Ross Hattaway christened our format the ‘narrowsheet’ and that was that. We’re certainly going to do it that way for the first complete year of FLARE—it’s a quarterly—then we’ll see if there’s any clamour for change. I suspect there won’t.
Do you imagine FLARE might extend in the future to include poets that haven’t been at the Sunflower Sessions (perhaps from abroad, say), or do you wish to keep it rooted to the nights?
As I was saying earlier, the link between FLARE and the Sunflower Sessions open mic platform is paramount. The readings thankfully draw a constant flow of new poets, and also old poets with new work, to the extent that we have no shortage of quality, or of novelty. So introducing worldwide open submissions would heap a lot of extra effort onto the editorial side of things without necessarily adding to the quality of the experience for the print audience, and would also reduce the space available to the poets who actually show up and read, braving Declan’s irreverent intros and entertaining and enthralling the live audience. FLARE exists purely to serve the poets who read and the punters who buy copies, and to raise a few euros for us to get our own mic and amp. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit we’re an open mic that doesn’t have a microphone. With our current venue, Jack Nealon’s, being foreclosed on by a US vulture fund that bought it from NAMA, we may need that mic urgently at our new home, wherever that may be, come the April Sunflower Session.
So far, FLARE’s striking covers have highlighted street art from around Dublin photographed by Declan McLoughlin. To you plan for this to be an ongoing feature?
They are startling, aren’t they? Declan is a natural born flâneur and he’s forever on the prowl for visual interest. Indeed Dublin is a real flâneur town — it’s been half-demolished and half-rebuilt so many times every street is a crazy mishmash of buildings and bits of buildings from all kinds of periods, producing a variety of wall surfaces for guerrilla artists. We’re hoping Declan will continue to find street art shots of the kind we’ve used — something with a dramatic facial expression that can be cropped tight to a vertical half A4 image. If and when that dries up we’ll try something else. The extreme verticality of our narrowsheet format is a nice design challenge.
You built a web site for fans of sonnets a while back (sonnetserver.com); there have been five sonnets so far in FLARE, or various forms. What makes a good sonnet in your opinion?
I’m quite an eclectic reader of sonnets. But it’s a form I don’t pursue myself; I know when I’m beaten. But I admire a whole range of sonnet poets across the canon — the sonnet has travelled well, geographically and across the centuries, probably because it’s such a perfect vehicle for open-heart poetry. My favourites are the French Renaissance writers Louise Labé and Jean Auvray, and of course Ronsard, along with Baudelaire, and in English the greatest sonneteer of all Mr Shakespeare, then Mr Milton, and also the Romantics Keats and Wordsworth. I’m sorry to say I don’t read Italian, Spanish, German or Portuguese sonnets in the original, though sonnetserver.com publishes them that way. The site has about 700 sonnets on it at the moment with the largest contingent of visitors coming from Russia and Brazil, where Shakespeare and Camoëns respectively are at the core of the school curriculum. The site is going to get a big revamp over the next few months, its first for over a decade, and will probably double in size.
Finally, when can we expect the new issue?
Well, we can guarantee more of the same in terms of variety and quality, though not necessarily the same people. The poets who appeared in both FLARE 01 and FLARE 02 will be getting a rest and poets who were in just one of these issues will be making a further appearance. There’ll also be some writers making their first appearance. The plan is that when we’ve gotten around to everyone who’s read, we’ll go back to the list and give it a new random sort and start all over again.
The next Sunflower Sessions is on Wednesday 29th March. Copies of FLARE will be available to purchase, as well as available from Books Upstairs and The Winding Stair in Dublin.