A Reflection on Poetry & Publishing

(Originally published as a comment on the Facebook of Welsh poet Brett Evans, co-founder and co-editor of independent literary journal, Prole. Also published at the Irish Poetry Blog.


Although he later deleted and blocked me from his Facebook for not agreeing with him that Carol Hughes was somehow awf for not allowing a biographer access to all her dead husband's papers; the best advice I ever got was from Bloodaxe Books founder and Editor, Neil Astley; in Conway's pub on Parnell Street, Dublin, after the joint launch at the Irish Writer's Centre, of the Selina Guinness edited New Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2004) and Leanne O'Sullivan's debut, Waiting for my Clothes (Bloodaxe, 2004).

At that time, I think in September 2004, I had recently graduated in May of the same year, from my home town Edge Hill University (Writing Studies and Drama, 2:1) and had been living in the Iveagh homeless hostel in Dublin for three months.

In a short several minute chat he advised me to get out and recite live in public as much as possible; and that the biggest mistake people make is sending out a collection of poems for consideration before they are ready, and that they should first build up writing experience, publishing credits in magazines, and work work work, write, write, write, and wait, wait, wait until they've enough experience and what not.

At that time I'd been writing for three years and my conception of what poetry and Publishing was all about was very different to what it is now, because I had very little experience of writing or publishing and viewed the process thru the lens of the novice, at best at bardic grade two (of seven) MacFirmid (son of composition) thinking that becoming a published poet was a semi-mystical process similar to that of finding fame as an actor; in that it was all very opaque and mysterious.

My poems would be spotted by a fairy godfather of poetry publishing who'd take me under their wing and do all the hard work and all I'd have to do is show up and star reciting (at that time only from memory) the poetry I'd accumulated on the page up to that time.

I think just meeting and getting the real gen from one of Britain's most knowledgeable independent poetry publishers was in itself a very valuable lesson, because for the first time I'd spoken with someone at the top of the tree and the whole thing had been humanised and I was imparted something no amount of reading about publishing could ever do.

At that point I had been methodically sending out poems for about a year, beginning sending out in the third year of the writing and drama course, and getting published here and there. In that short time what struck me is that you'd never know what an editor would want to publish. Stuff you thought strong was not picked and poems you thought had no chance were published.

In the spring of the following year I lost all interest in seeing my poems published in small magazines, and playing what I increasingly viewed as a psychological game of submit-reject/accept, in which the submitter is seeking affirmation and validation for what can often be a lonely and unrewarded business of writing poems for the purpose of seeing them published by others in the mags they edit.

Though I was having a good publication hit rate I was increasingly bored with the novelty of seeing my poems and name published in small circulation magazines. A short sugar high followed by business as normal and a return to writing and studying the mass of Irish mythology that makes up much of the bardic curriculum.

And that at that point was still a voluminous sprawl of confusion, the skeleton of the poetic that came around year five/six, still yet to firm up and appear in the mind. And so in a very real way, trusting that by just studying the material on the fourteen year course would in itself reveal what I hoped to find.

And because of my thoughts about the future of publishing in the online age, at that time the consensus still very much an old-guard gate-keeper mindset, was beginning to view the process of submit-accept/reject as a redundant one, in which both sides are seeking affirmation in what vision of poetry we have and what we are doing, for the purpose of accumulating and increasing our sense of contemporary poetic relevance and (minor) cultural importance.

This is because some editors would write back rejecting what I'd submitted, not with a simple, thanks but no thanks, but a note that made it plain that, on their part, they were playing a different game with themselves to the one I was, making their intellectual confusion unintentionally comedically plain in pretend pretentious toff voices not their own.

My own thoughts where that in the near future (ie, now) we would all effectively be publishers on an equal footing able to reach anyone in the world with an internet connection, and so, I reasoned, the thing to concentrate on was not getting published by other people, but cleaving to the idea that I was a student with ten years learning the material from the fourteen year writing course that trained forty generation of filidh poets, and trusting in that process to teach and deliver the lessons and experience with which to publish one's own writing on my own terms when the time was right. Knowing I had another ten years as a student, a decade before I'd need to publish anything, meant I felt zero pressure to get published, even though for most this would be a laughingly far too long time to try oneself out having a crack at the aul poetry game.

I was very lucky to have had the first three years of my writing life occur at home in Ormskirk bygone times, in the very best and most supportive place it was possible to evolve creatively and intellectually, and without which I would perhaps not have been laughing at the amadán poetry editors up their own holes we all know and are familiar with from experience, but getting depressed by their exclusionary spirit and sense of being custodians of only the most special and greatest English poetry that appears between the pages of the few hundred copies of their rags.

However this is not the reason I lost all interest in playing the submit-reject/accept game. The final nail in the coffin that sealed the deal and made all interest evaporate, was chancing across online, Washington state Ogham expert Erynn Rowan Laurie's English translation of a 120 line 7C Old Irish text, that states an in-depth and comprehensive definition of what poetry is, where it comes from, and how it works, 'in the body and soul of a person.'

In a druidic voice from the earliest founding mythological bard of literate Ireland, Milesian poet Amergin. It is one of only four attributed to this figure and three times longer than the next longest piece, a riddling roscanna poem he is most well known for, Song of Ireland, that Aul Plumdoon Muldoon made an entire Oxford lecture of punning allusive gobbledegook prose in response to.

 Amergin was the druid of the seventh, and chronologically final, mythological race of 'takers' of the island documented in the 11C Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of the Takings of Ireland, who, with his surviving (of twelve) two brothers, Eber and Eremon, had seized the island from the Tuatha De Danann, in 1300 BC according to Geoffrey Keating's, or 1700 BC according to the Four Masters' version of mythological history, both compiled in the early to middle 17C.

The untitled Old Irish text is found in the medieval Book of Ballymote, and was first translated into English in 1979 by Professor Liam Breatnach of the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, one of Ireland's premier Old and Middle Irish experts, with a deep knowledge of the texts that make up the fourteen year filidh (poets) curriculum, having translated such important pieces as Uraicecht na Ríar: The poetic grades in early Irish law, and numerous other bardic related material.

Though now known, due to the triple-cauldron imagary used as a metaphor to explain how poetry works in a person, as Cauldron of Poesy, the text didn't have or need a title in its original form because, I suspect, it was one of the most widely known and first texts introduced to a grade one foclo turning up on the first day of singing school at Samhain, to begin the six month Samhain to Beltaine winter semester, that over the following twelve to fourteen years led through another five grades, MacFirmid (son of composition), Dos (bushy-tree shelterer), Cano (cub/whelp), Cli (ridgepole), Anruth (great stream), before terminating at the apical grade of Ollamh (ullav) Doctor of Poetry.

At which point they were the equivalent of a secular poet-barrister practicing in the highest forms of strict and straight (dán direach) verse, that they were introduced to only at the sixth grade Anruth, around year six/seven; as it needed six years of study before they'd be competent to tackle the head-wrecking complexity of the fourteen or so dán direch meters and work out if the prophetic, mantric side that set a fully formed fíli poet apart from the lower grades, was there and working.

At that point I was on a roll publishing wise, and was playing the game like everyone else. Living in the Iveagh homeless hostel and centering myself on acquiring experience and a live skin, out two or three times a week on the thriving closed and open-mic scene in Dublin during the height of Bertie Ahern's time in office, when, it has to be noted, the collective Irish cultural mood was right up itself, ostentatious and one of nouveau riche smugly delusional optimism that the economic good times were here forever, and that Irish people generally were a very special sort of precious English language snowflake, and the chosen few blessed with an invincible sort of otherworldly speaking magic, that, as we discovered on the morning Brian Lenihan (rip) made the announcement of the Bank Guarantee he laughably stated would be 'the cheapest in history' - was subsequently proved by events to be a crock of self-delusional sales crap everyone had swallowed hook line and sinker.

At the time of discovering it I was in my 'office', an internet sweet shop at the foot of Ha'penny Bridge on Aston Quay, and I remember thinking at the time that I was reading for the first time one of the most important bardic texts written. A belief that has only deepened in the intervening decade.

I had just had a poem and prose piece about the live poetry scene in Dublin published on the website of the Galway Arts Centre, and it was with this publishing credit that I lost all interest in sending out anymore, buzzing with the belief that my writing needed no more outside validation, just at the very point the untitled 7C Amergin text popped up on my computer screen at Aston Quay.

Reading it for the first time I instinctively knew that this was a textual guide one needed to progress in writing without any input or intellectual validation from others, not least because few, if any, poetry editors are aware of it to know that there exists a holy grail of Gaelic poetry as important as Horace's Ars Poetica.

A suspicion confirmed when I began publicising the find around the English speaking world to a wall of complete ambivalence, disinterest, and non-engagement, confirming what I thought then and now know; that many people are not into writing poetry to write the best poems we can, but to see our name in lights and on longlists.

Only two other people I interacted with have got its importance, Ó Bhéal: Cork's Weekly Poetry Event founder Paul Casey, and American poet Jerome Rothenberg.

After having got on the nerves and displeased a very long list of self-important poetry folk around the English speaking world, always for something very petty (the straw that broke the back of British-Hungarian poet George Szirtes' tolerance, replying to his question of how I knew something, 'because I don't spend all my time on Facebook'), I am in a way unintentionally lucky to have stopped sending out when I did, because though I am sitting on fourteen years of unpublished material, I have observed other people trying to get work out there, usually with something interesting to say on the page in prose, who have got on the wrong side of important editors for displeasing them over something very petty and minor, that the pasha-editors then trash and contextualise as being just bitter failures because they had a manuscript rejected by them.

 Anyway  leave it there, globble di baglady de dye doi dough...(am hearing this as i hit send) KTF!

Desmond Swords