Cork is Ireland’s second city with a population just shy of 120,000 people. It has a river, a university, an art collage, a cathedral, some art galleries, community centres, shops, multi-national chains, pubs, cafes, restaurants; all the things you would expect from a city but nonetheless there is no getting around the fact that Cork is a small city. It also suffers, like all second cities, from an inferiority complex which leads to an extreme form of arrogance and self-belief. It is no wonder then that it is known as both the Rebel County and the Real Capitol.
If Cork suffers from second city syndrome then Ireland suffers too. The shared and troubled history of both Britain and Ireland is well documented elsewhere but it is safe to say that since Ireland regained its independence in 1921 is has and continues to be the second nation in the British Isles. I have, in the past, often felt pangs of jealousy when looking across the Irish Sea at all the poetry readings, festivals, reading groups, magazines, publishers and exhibitions which seem to over flow from the various ‘centres’ of the British poetry scene; London, Cambridge, Sussex, Edinburgh, Manchester and to a lesser degree Bristol and Sheffield. Even Cambridge, the smallest of these towns/cities, has a larger population than Cork and that is not taking into account the draw Cambridge has on young poets and academics. The poetic communities in these places can seem so much more diverse and engaged than Cork and it is hard not to feel like our little enclave is somehow inferior.
But it is easy to look wistfully elsewhere. The grass is always greener. It is easy to start to believe that these are the places poetry is ‘happening’, that these are the real centres of influence, that these are the places and the poetries in which we must strive towards and engage with. But truth be told their histories are not the same as ours, their politics are not the same as ours, their concerns do not always match ours and their ‘must read’ poets does not always make the grade. I am not trying to sound dismissive or to imply that our closest neighbour does not have a certain influence. Of course they do! We read! We engage! But this is just one part of a diverse set of influences and concerns. Historical figures are shared; with some Irish writers such as Joyce and Beckett becoming part of the framework of inter/multi/trans/national Modernists. Other figures such as Yeats looms larger in Ireland, for good or ill. There are also poets such as Brian Coffey, Thomas MacGreevy and Denis Devlin. More established Irish writers who are still writing include Trevor Joyce, Maurice Scully, Randolph Healy, Catherine Walsh, Billy Mills, David Lloyd and Mairead Byrne. Each of these writers have played a large role in defining the parameters of what it means to write innovative poetry in or from an Irish context. Other names include Matthew Geden, Sarah Hayden, Rachel Warriner, David Toms, Fergal Gaynor, Robert Kiely and Aodan McCardle. I am sure I am leaving people out but you get the idea. Due to the size of the city, those of us who are engaged in ‘experimental poetics’ cannot isolate ourselves. Poets such as Billy Ramsell, Jennifer Matthews, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Graham Allen, Paul Casey and Mary Noonan, might not share our poetic concerns but all play an integral part in fostering a sense of community in Cork.
For its size Cork has a pretty formidable poetry and art scene. Rachel Warriner and I moved to Cork in 2003 after attending the SoundEye poetry festival, Founded in 1997 by Trevor Joyce, Matthew Geden and Catriona Ryan. This festival over the years has hosted a wide range of Irish, British, American, Australian and non-Anglophone poets and has without a doubt been a defining influence on many poets working in or from Ireland. Currently the festival, now in its 18th year, is suffering from funding cuts but the organising committee which is includes myself, Rachel Warriner, Sarah Hayden, Trevor Joyce and Fergal Gaynor are committed to seeing it continue until its 20 year anniversary after which time we will reassess the situation. Besides this we all, in some combination or another, have been involved in a variety of publications such as DEFAULT, Runamok, Foma and Fontanelles and return to DEFAULT. There have also been reading groups, workshops and conferences organised by the Modernisms Research Centre in UCC which was set up as a way of linking the academic study of Modernism with the artistic practice which happens throughout the city.
It would be a boring life if poets only spoke to poets and because of the size of cork it is easy and essential to interact with other artists and art forms. We have galleries here, the Crawford and the Glucksman are the two big ones. The Black Maria Gallery is small but always has top quality work. Tactic/Sample Studios student type space which is run with enthusiasm but with mixed results. The Guest House is probably Cork’s most important space as it not only has a residency space but also puts on so many high quality events and exhibitions. Oh! and serves the best food. There was also the basement project space, the couch gallery and one more whose name escapes me but was up a few flights of stairs. There are so many important visual artists working in Cork but for me the highlights are Maud Cotter, Stephen Brandes, Angela Fulcher and James McCann. Sound Art is also huge here with the like of Safe, Trace, Wölflinge/Vicky Langan, Danny McCarthy and The Quite Club all playing their part. Blacksun used to hold regular events billed as ‘weirdo music nights’.
Each of these artists and art spaces bring to the table their own set of influences and artistic concerns. Plus with so many collaborations happening throughout the Cork artistic community it starts to get much easier to stop always looking across the pond to our island neighbours for acceptance or validation. Cork has a diverse poetic and artistic community with a set of artistic concerns unique to this place. It is both inward and outward looking, not just focused on a singular national tradition we seek influences from far and wide, in both time and place. Cork might be the second city in the second nation floating off the north east of Europe but we are making things happen.