Our Around Ireland series looks at literary publications and websites across Ireland, celebrating the great work being produced across the country, and the contribution being made by the editors. This month, we speak with Chris Murray, founder and editor of Poethead, an online blog promoting historical and contemporary Irish women poets.
Congratulations on Poethead nearing its ninth anniversary – did you imagine the site becoming such a long-term project at the start?
I saw an opportunity to create a space for sharing poetry and poetry translations online some nine years ago. I did not envisage that it would be a long term project at all. I view Poethead as my blog primarily, there just happen to be three indices built into it where I have listed contemporary, translated, experimental and ‘hidden’ poetry. I rarely solicit work from poets, mostly they contact me. In some cases I have had to contact poetry editors for copyright permission. There is always quite an amount of correspondence in my email. As I only publish weekly, in as much as I can. The publication list is rolling (ongoing).
The number of poets listed on the site, essays, links to other resources, etc is hugely impressive, especially the commitment to unearthing past Irish female voices. Running Poethead must feel like a full-time job some days.
Nope! I have two kids, a job, and I am currently studying for my post-grad in UCD School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems. I have set it up so that it will fit in with my life, rather than allowing it dominate my thinking. Poethead took a bit of time to build initially, but the process of adding pages and indices was and is organic. The themes and page titles change regularly. Poetry is not a static form, the blog reflects that. it has not reached its final form quite yet!
Which forgotten women writers have you personally taken the most joy in rediscovering and promoting?
I have enjoyed reading and transcribing Doris Lessing’s poetry, she had absolutely no confidence in it and was quite happy that the limited editions of her poetry were archived and forgotten about. I got written permission to share her work some years ago, her literary agents Jonathan Clowes Ltd, have assured me that there will be no re-issues. Emma Penney (TCD/UCD) sent me work by Freda Laughton, a poet of the early modern era in Ireland whose work has been neglected by the canon-makers. Laughton’s work is highly developed and has elicited an incredible response from readers and poetry lovers, including contacts from professors, poets, a Jacket2 Magazine article (by Walt Hunter) and further discussion on the yawning narrative gap in the mid-century, where women poets of Blanaid Salkeld, Rhoda Coghill, and Laughton’s stature have been sorely neglected in Irish academic studies. I have to be very clear on this issue: Laughton was an essayist, reviewer (The Bell), and a published poet. We do not know when she died or where she is buried because she has been neglected. Way to improve the visibility of women poets are their critical reception and their academic study. Poets can publish and then they simply vanish, if their work is not properly accepted.
You’ve stated that Irish women’s poetry is lacking in the experimental and avant garde, and that too many editors and publishers wanting to play it safe. Do you think with the emergence of more new Irish literary journals, websites and micropresses that this is starting to change?
Yes I do. We underestimate the power of the small and independent press. Small press provides space for poets to experiment with forms and ideas. We have to stop looking at poetry as ‘product’ and viewing it (the book) as just a marketable entity. Some poets and writers have huge gaps between publishing their books, but they are still poets. The creation of a book can be a garnering process, it takes time. The only time the media is interested in poets is in review! This is a falsity. It creates a false impression that poetry is somehow akin to fiction and can be achieved and marketed like fiction. Poetry is more akin to theatre, music and film than to fiction, but poetry editors seem happy to market poetry in a manner that pressures the poet into achieving the next book, rather than examining the process of poetry creation in itself. Websites, micropresses and journals, if they are any good, are about recognising poetry as process. The major difference between media and the dedicated poetry journal or website is that the journals are poet-led, not market-led. The media visibility of the poet is an issue for me. Right now young women poets are highly visible, not one of them has achieved age 40 yet, the generation before them are ignored – what does this say to the poetry reader about women poets and how they are sold to the reading public? In my mind the authority of the poet is being passed to a generation that has just begun and what went before them is ignored, quite what happened to Laughton! If anything we need more journals and websites, else you’d think poetry is a game for the established male poet and the barely experienced young women poet. This seems to suit some editors. I only read poetry journals now as I find media attempts at marketing and review to be tacky and obvious. Read Jacket2, or Harriet, or Pierre Joris to see how poetry should be treated!
Poethead occasionally publishes work by male poets alongside its expansive catalogue. Do you feel there a risk around the debate of promoting female writers becoming too isolated – women taking solely to other women, without male audiences being included?
Nope, I do not. Poethead is a small blog on a vast internet. it takes moments to compress and store its files. It was and always will be a personal site. No-one who has an internet connection and an interest in any subject is being stopped from publishing anything online. I am completely independent and not in the game of events, reviews, marketing etc. Time dependent posts like events etc. are not an issue for me at all. Poethead is entirely self-driven, thus I share what I love. I am not subject to grants, bursaries and other tedious stuff like that, these things kill poetry and make it PR work. A lot of my readers and correspondents are male, who feel also the lack in respect for the achievement of Irish women poets. Most of the hits on the site are to the three indices, they literally never stop hitting them. Most of the site searches are for modern and contemporary Irish women poets. Billy Mills blog ‘Elliptical Movements’ is the only other site dedicated to the Irish woman poet that I am aware of. I am not in the business of defending an interest, a passion, when as far as I can see others have neglected the importance of Irish women’s poetry for generations. I have no plans to change the blog, except maybe how I will break it down when I do archive it. Poethead is finite. I won’t be doing this forever. It is a nine year old window in what is happening poetically here and globally, it will be compressed and archived publicly when I am through with it.
How has managing the site and connecting with other female poets impacted on your own writing?
I have become very interested in contemporary translation work as a result of Poethead. I began the blog with some translations, including Mirjam Tuominen, Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Nelly Sachs, Liliana Ursu and others. I have a small dedicated and wonderful translated poetry category which I will be developing through 2017.
In fifty years’ time, will we still be in danger of forgetting our current commendable contemporary female poets, and relying on sites like Poethead to tell their story?
As I said I will be archiving the three indices, the about page, and some of the essay and other interesting links when I finish with Poethead. I like the idea of a free space where the poet can play and experiment. I would reckon any future readers who stumble upon it will enjoy some of the work. Luckily there are good archiving spaces where this work will be freely available. call it a polaroid of current European and Irish poetry.