Small Poetry Presses in Ireland

1 September 2013

Small poetry presses in Ireland are tricky enough to define. We are tempted to categorise them by volume of production, or by the number of established poets they represent. Poetry presses in Ireland are considered ‘large’ by virtue of three factors: production-volume, how established the press and whether they are in receipt of significant arts funding. Only three houses fit within this purview: The Gallery Press (av. ten titles p.a.) since 1970; Salmon Poetry (ten to 30 titles p.a.) since 1981; and Dedalus Press (av. ten titles p.a.) since 1985. These collectively represent the lion’s share of major and prize-winning English-language Irish poets, a scenario that can tend to overshadow exemplary works emanating from ‘smaller’ presses. Of course, with size comes size of problems, so these ‘larger’ counterparts should be left for another study. Another is Belfast publisher Blackstaff Press (est. 1971), who have published the ilk of Michael Longley and Brendan Kennelly among others, although mostly they work with prose. Even the giant radical Mercier Press (Ireland’s oldest independent publishing house, est. 1944), had no remit for poetry and to this day rarely publishes contemporary verse. When it does – as does The Lilliput Press (est. 1984), they are often as posthumous works or anthologies.

There are other well-established poetry presses such as Arlen House (est. 1975) and Doghouse Books (est. 2003) who continue to receive no funding. Each produces up to ten or more collections each year and are yet considered ‘small’. Others such as New Writers Press (est. 1967) or hardPressed poetry (est. 1997) who represent modernist, experimental, fringe or neo-modernist poetry, publish far fewer volumes and are largely ignored by the funding bodies. Cork publisher/poet James Cummins notes:

Throughout the 20th Century, small press and modernism and the avant-garde have been linked very closely. New Writers Press [for example], whose history plays a pivotal role in Irish poetics not just in terms of modernism but also for poets such as Paul Durcan.

New Writers Press has been at the forefront of publishing modernist works since the ‘60s, and has often been flanked by experimental-focussed micro-presses such as Melmoth Press in the ‘80s. Randolph Healy’s well-respected Wild Honey Press (est. 1997) has been producing four titles p.a. in this area. Cummins himself publishes within ‘innovative/experimental’ poetics, and heads up two Cork city imprints that have been breaking new ground over the past decade: RunAmok and DEFAULT publishing. Most small presses produce fewer than ten volumes p.a. and many others like Three Spires Press (est. 1990) may not produce volumes for two or more years at a stretch. But let’s stretch back into history for a moment.

Thrice, according to the annals, the high king of Ireland banned the entire poetic order, 1300 of whom (at highest count) were sent into exile in the late 6th century AD. That’s roughly about one poet per 750 of the population. Thrice they were restored – on the last occasion, through the pleas of Saint Colmcille, at the very same meeting where High King Diarmuid established the first copyright laws. Kavanagh famously said an army of 10000 poets could be raised in Ireland, and if the bardic rate has somehow survived, that would make over 8000 wordsmiths roaming about the isle today. Many share a poetic grounded in the elemental, the political, the rhythmic, mythical, lyrical and oral. For as long as possible, the bardic order resisted the written word, so as to preserve the sanctity of knowledge. These bards represented the education system of their time. And then arrived Christianity, and with it books and redactions. St. Patrick supposedly introduced the latin alphabet in the late fifth Century, making our love of the written word as much as 1500 years old, from a time when Ireland’s ‘early history’ begins. Today, I’ve heard it said, it has the highest population (per capita) of poets in Europe, next only to Romania. This oral, traditional role of storyteller-poet – like paganism – still itches just beneath the surface of their modern cultural aesthetic

Alan Hayes, publisher at Arlen House in Galway, raises the issue of the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century, when Cuala Press published 70 collections of poetry between 1908 and 1946, including, notably, the works of Yeats and Kavanagh, among others. The Irish ‘poetry renaissance’ followed in the ‘50s, with The Dolmen Press (est. 1951) as leading publisher, until the passing of its founder Liam Miller, in 1987. Gallery Press then succeeded Dolmen as Ireland’s primary poetry press. Before these, there persisted a long period of censorship; most poets had to seek publication abroad.

Since the ‘50s renaissance, there have emerged at least 30 small poetry presses on the island (including micro-presses), with many of these publishing very occasionally, or crossing over into other genres. At least ten to 15 of these small presses publish full collections each year, ranging from one or two up to a dozen or so. Most remain fairly consistent in their volume of output, despite the recent drought, for they have wisely developed a robust non-dependence on official funding in an environment where fortune favours the very lucky few. There are presses worth mentioning who produce the odd volume of poetry, including Abbey Press (est. 1997), Guildhall (est. 1979), wordsonthestreet (est. 1990s) and Carysfort Press (est. 1998), as well as a few Irish-language poetry presses, the two most prolific being Coiscéim (est. 1980) and Cló-Iar-Chonnachta (est. 1985). More online publishers are appearing each year, like the recently established smithereens press who publish free e-chapbooks at www.smithereenspress.com. Despite this relatively recent explosion in both print and online outlets, with scores of talented writers being discovered each year, competition to be published remains as fierce as ever.

This steady emergence of imprints has certainly allowed Irish poets of all styles and persuasions to be more easily accessed both internationally and at home. Thankfully, small presses don’t fall from the map as easily as journals might, though they often need to change names, editors, directions, readerships. They are the literary lunatics of financial paradox, all dependent on sales and inventiveness. In their collective affinity for culture and poetry, they sift and deliver voices we didn’t know we’d needed to hear. Of course, their remit goes far beyond editing and publishing. There is the promotion, setting up of launches, travelling for hundreds of miles on buses with boxes of books underarm (and grateful for a few meagre sales), entrance into competitions, trawling through reams of emerging poets’ work and working closely with poets to make each book as perfect as can be.

In terms of gender-balance, poet-publishers such as Maire Bradshaw, of Bradshaw Books, and Eavan Boland, cofounder of Arlen House, have taken huge strides in counteracting the largely male-dominated arena of the not-too-distant past. Most, but not all contemporary presses have now addressed this while a very small set, who could be seen as more conservative, have not. Between them, nearly thirty ‘small’ poetry presses in Ireland produce up to 100 collections per year, while the ‘big three’ combined produce 30–50.

With thanks to all participating presses, in particular to James Cummins, Alan Hayes and Billy Ramsell for their invaluable time and insights. The next two pages feature the profiles of 10 small presses.

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