Forty Years of Editing: Some Do’s, Some Don’ts 1978—2018 / Gerald Dawe

My plan is to think aloud about my experiences, stretching over roughly forty years, of editing sixteen or so titles. These books, edited by myself or with co-editors, include collections of essays, poetry anthologies, editions of individual writers’ work and proceedings from conferences and lecture series. But I’d like to begin with some (brief) personal background which I hope will help underpin the narrative of what follows. It also helps me focus as best I can on what kind of ‘lessons’ or recommendations I can offer to those younger colleagues starting, or seeking to expand, their publishing ‘careers’ as scholars, researchers and as writers in their own right.

But first let me take you back to the early 1970s. As a young poet based at what was then UCG, now NUI, Galway, researching the nineteenth-century Irish novelist William Carleton, I had left behind the very troubled city of Belfast where I had grown up. My academic interest in nineteenth-century Irish fiction was fuelled by a fascination with how writers from Ireland had coped imaginatively with the apocalyptic transformation of the Great Famine along with the political challenges of a resurgent nationalism and the moral and cultural issues that flowed from Empire. It was a heavy subject and in the climate of the times raised more questions than answers, particularly when the subject of my thesis — William Carleton — had been effectively forgotten and very little read, outside of a handful of writers such as Thomas Flanagan, Anthony Cronin, Benedict Kiely, Eileen Ibarra-Sullivan of Florida, Maurice Harmon and later on, Barbara Hayley.

But the extent to which Carleton was at the time considered unworthy of academic study was brought home to me when, in an interview for a junior lectureship in the late 1970s, the patrician external examiner asked me why I had wasted my time on such a ‘minor’ figure in a century of minor Irish writers, I piped up and said I thought Carleton’s struggle with political violence and national conflict was well worth examining, before comparing Carleton with the generation of Thirties writers in Britain and, then putting my foot in it, by proposing a parallel with how a poet such as Sylvia Plath had tried to wrestle with the breakdown of civilised society post WW2, the revelations of the Holocaust and the unfolding crisis of Vietnam and American society. I wasn’t offered the position!

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I had, however, been publishing poems here and there, some of which were included in an anthology published by The Blackstaff Press in Belfast in October 1974. The anthology, The Wearing of the Black, subtitled, An Anthology of Contemporary Ulster Poetry was edited by Padraic Fiacc, an Irish-American poet who had relocated from New York in the 1950s and was living in a small urban village called Glengormley, on the northern outskirts of Belfast. In those days books rarely were ‘launched’ and there were precious few ‘readings’; the public face of writing and editing basically stopped at publication and reviews took over. But the publication of this anthology — which would subsequently become ‘controversial’ in the hard-wired politicised climate of the time — was unusually marked by a party in Fiacc’s s Glengormley home in December.

I attended the publishing party with my girlfriend and we met there several of the lesser-known contributors, including one young aspiring poet, a year or so younger myself, who I’d previously met a few times before leaving Belfast. His name was Gerard McLoughlin, though he published as Gerry Locke. The party went off very well. Fiacc had hosted several in earlier years, writers then making their names, such as John McGahern (sacked from his teacher’s job in 1965 after the banning of his novel, The Dark), Derek Mahon — whose parents lived in the area and whose ‘iconic’ poem, ‘Glengormley’ was originally dedicated to Fiacc — and the locally influential short story writer and novelist Michael McLaverty, much praised by Seamus Heaney, among others.

Anyway, after the party we returned to Galway and Christmas 1974. The anthology was out in the world. Four months later in April, sitting in the living room of our tiny flat in Abbeygate Street in Galway, the news brought word of yet another sectarian killing in Belfast. It was Gerard McLoughlin, the young starter we had met in Belfast only a few months previously.

I can see now, looking back over forty years later, that it was as a result of this very early experience, and given such a heavily politicised and lethal environment of the preceding three or four years, that my own scholarly and research interests ended up constantly returning to the role crisis, conflict and war play in the life of the literary imagination, both in Ireland but also further afield, in what used to be known as ‘Eastern Europe’.

With only a very few exceptions, which I’ll come to, my own editorial interventions, such as they are, generally have had some kind of connection to politics and how a poet, or dramatist, or novelist copes with the pressures of history. Maybe the value of hindsight makes this seem as a planned project, but nothing could be further from the truth. So maybe if I turn to some of the earlier books, I might be able to illustrate what I mean here.

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The back cover of Dawe’s first collection Sheltering Places.

In 1978 my first book of poems, Sheltering Places was published by The Blackstaff Press. At the same time I established a literary supplement called ‘Writing in the West’ which appeared every month in The Connacht Tribune. The pre-digital Republic was very Dublin-centric with the majority of broadsheet and broadcast media focused there. ‘Writing in the West’ was an attempt to provide a literary platform for writers and others interested in the arts based in Galway and in the wider west of Ireland region. A few years later, my first serious piece of editing, The Younger Irish Poets was published in 1982. It was the first poetry anthology to concentrate upon a generation of poets who, coming from various parts of Ireland, and not (as was more commonly the case) focusing upon a particular region such as Northern Ireland, attempted to identify a new vibration in the culture; a questioning of the ideological past that had been handed down often uncritically. From the opening poems of Paul Durcan and Eavan Boland the idea was to demonstrate ‘in their search for what makes sense over and against the inherited, given meanings of Irish history, north and south, an independence from any “accredited theme”‘. The somewhat portentous penultimate paragraph, picking up on the Beckett reference, went on:

…the poets presented here are finding ways to liberate themselves, their art, and by implication alone, their readers, from the literary conventions and literal expectations that have been handed down from the past. Present, I feel, in their best work is a need to unburden themselves of the past through whatever means, traditional or experimental, that sustains their own imaginative responsibilities.

So with poems such as Paul Durcan’s ‘Backside to the Wind’ and ‘Making Love outside Aras An Uachtarain’, Richard Ryan’s ‘From My Lai the thunder went west’, Aidan Mathews’ ‘Minding Ruth’ and Medbh McGuckian’s ‘Family Planning’, the anthology brought a fresh sense of the modern world coming into view as well as a contemporary Ireland opening up to it.

That was 1982. The book went on to three reprints and achieved a relatively healthy lifespan, with respectable sales and some degree of critical recognition. But, and here’s my first, somewhat hesitant, ‘Don’t’, it was hampered with my sense of mission and not enough introductory focus on the formal qualities of the twenty-one poets included. While there was an understandable impulse behind the editing of that anthology, it might have served the poets better if it had not been so obvious; better practice is to present the best poems and, after the ground had been prepared, let them speak for themselves. However — and here comes my first ‘Do’ — if the whole point of taking on a particular piece of research or editorial task is to rectify or restore what one considers to be an important or neglected writer or topic, then all that advocacy needs is a clearly stated and well researched case. This idea of advocacy is an often overlooked side of scholarship. To draw critical attention to a writer, or period, or subject, which either languishes on the margins of public acknowledgement and/or academic discourse, is what the novelist and Professor of Contemporary Literature at UEA, Amit Chaudhuri terms ‘Literary Activism’ in a wise and challenging collection of essays, Literary Activism: A Symposium (2016). Alongside academic custodianship, such advocacy requires energy and staying power but it also requires what Rónán McDonald has referred to in his valuable study, The Death of the Critic (2007) as ‘evidence that has an external validity’, a sense of authorising the subject which comes from various and as far as possible, impartial sources.

In the case of three writers to whom I’ll turn, personal experience can be both chastening as much as it can be rewarding. I’m thinking of the efforts of my co-editor, Aodan Mac Poilin and myself, on behalf of the poet, Padraic Fiacc. Aodan who was known to many in the Irish language community as a power-house, sadly died in 2017, so it is appropriate to say how much I owed to him over the five decades of our friendship and collaborations. He was the Irish language editor of Krino: the Review (1986—1996) but he was also my — and many others — first responder when questions of Irish language literary culture needed an answer.

We both thought more highly of Fiacc’s work than most of the critical and academic establishment in Ireland and further afield. With the exception of Terence Brown, who edited for Blackstaff Press in 1979, a volume of Fiacc’s Selected Poems, Fiacc was viewed as a grim and damaged soul whose obsessively fragmented and fragmentary poems were overbearingly predicated upon the northern violence. Fiacc’s reputation had been damaged as a result of that controversial anthology, The Wearing of the Black and subsequent publications and in the decade immediately after its publication, he suffered a breakdown with the collapse of his marriage and the loss of the family home. Throughout much of the 1980s and ‘90s his life turned into a chaotic indigent existence, moving from boarding room to temporary lodging, alcohol-fuelled, marginalised by his unpredictable and self-lacerating lifestyle.

Our first effort to rehabilitate and present an alternative view, Ruined Pages: Selected Poems, clarified and collected Fiacc’s scattered volumes from By the Black Stream (1969), Odour of Blood (1973), Nights in the Bad Place (1977) and Missa Terriblis (1986). Only for the stabilising efforts of close, long standing friends and supporters, such as Aodan, Fiacc would not have survived. Though frail and house-bound he did indeed survive and at the great age of ninety-four is in the good care of a resident home in south Belfast. Our second effort on Fiacc’s behalf, a new selected poems, concentrated solely upon the best of his seventy years of writing, including the texts of two fascinating radio broadcasts produced by Paul Muldoon for BBC. The book was published by Lagan, a small yet dynamic local literary press in 2014 but received little response.

So it has to be said that despite our best efforts, Fiacc’s work remains under-recognised and under-researched although, as we tried to point out in both editions, the life and the work are relevant to a more copious and integrated understanding of the dynamic interchanges of Irish writing — how, for instance, literary and cultural influences such as New York modernism of the post-WW2 period are at play within Fiacc’s poetry alongside the embers of Celtic romanticism which he inherited from his early mentor, Padraic Colum. The emigrant sensibility, the sexual and gender flux and the Catholic spiritual legacies feature throughout Fiacc’s work but these await a new generation’s engagement. As one of the contributors to Literary Activism: A Symposium remarks:

Literary activism is supposed to usurp our comfortable and rigid mainstream opinions, to shake up our literary tastes and standards, to promote unknown writers and neglected literary territories, to bring fresh knowledge about literature.

Undoubtedly true, but ‘to promote unknown’ or little known writers also requires a literary and academic community interested in something beyond the mainstream, and this is not at a premium in Ireland where it is often the case that outside expectations are even more dependent upon ‘mainstream opinions’.

Another writer, originally from the north of Ireland (Co. Tyrone) but whose radical life and writing has received little attention, caught my critical interest as far back as the late 1970s. It took almost thirty years before the poems and selected prose of Charles Donnelly were published in book form, along with his brother Joseph’s memoir, Heroic Heart: A Charles Donnelly Reader, edited by his sister-in-law, Kay.

It was a very special project because of the family’s long-standing belief in Charlie’s achievement as a poet who had died in 1937 aged twenty-two fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. But again, considering the role of critical advocacy and retrieval, the canon has been less than hospitable to Donnelly’s short life and complicated story — a fascinating portrait of radical Thirties Dublin, that still remains largely unchronicled and yet reveals an energetic political and cultural atmosphere of young men and women activists and writers, which cuts across the often drab stereotypes of De Valera’s Ireland. To quote again from Rónán McDonald’s, The Death of the Critic:

Lesser-known writers, perhaps producing vital, innovative work tend to be swamped out in the commercial din, lacking as they do informed apologists with sufficient authority and access to sufficient numbers of readers. Too often in this arena hype and puff pieces do the work of critical judgement and evaluation.

I’m glad to say that one of the successes along this editorial journey has been Stewart Parker, and in particular my collaboration with Maria Johnston, on the publication of Parker’s lithe and hugely readable, High Pop: The Irish Times Column of 19701976 (2008). This was followed by a second collection, edited with Maria and Claire Wallace, of Stewart Parker’s Dramatis Personae and other writings (also 2008). Both books have established the range and verve of the playwright’s artistic and critical imagination and are now integrated into Parker’s overall achievement as one of Ireland’s leading playwrights. It should be pointed out too that most of these titles would not have happened without the commitment and enthusiasm of what was Patrick Ramsey’s small and independent Lagan Press.

This text is an extract from a larger essay published in Issue Nine of The Lonely Crowd. It is based upon a talk given to the Staff and Post Graduate Seminar, School of English, Trinity College Dublin, The Long Room Hub – 27th March 2018.

Gerald Dawe was professor of English and Fellow of Trinity College Dublin until his retirement in 2017. His poetry collection include Points West, Selected Poems and Mickey Finn’s Air. Other publications include In Another World: Van Morrison and Belfast and The Wrong Country: Essays on Modern Irish Writing.

© Gerald Dawe, 2018.