Say hello to Tramp Press, Ireland’s newest publisher of literary fiction

tramp-press-logoIn all the media coverage that surrounded the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist last week, perhaps the most striking was the revelation that Donal Ryan, one of three Irish representatives among the “Booker’s Dozen”, had been rejected 47 times and only succeeded after being championed by a particularly persistent intern at Lilliput Press in Dublin.

For intern then, read publisher now. Sarah Davis-Goff has established her own publishing house, and in a development that is so well-timed one would almost think it was deliberate, the website of Tramp Press went live a fortnight ago, a few days before the Booker longlist was announced.

Quoted in The Sunday Times today, Davis-Goff says, “I got the confidence to do this from having found something on the slush pile and just trusting my judgment on it. I feel like I have the ability to go through manuscripts and know.”

Tramp Press has “about three projects” which they’re really excited about, the first of which is expected arrive on shelves next year.

While the leaning is certainly on literary fiction – the Tramp website’s “Stuff We Like” section includes mentions for Granta, The White Review, Times Literary Supplement, the Dublin Review of Books and The Millions – its homepage nevertheless proclaims that it is “actively seeking brilliant fiction of all genres”.

Best wishes to Sarah & Co. A new independent Irish publisher of quality literature is always something to be welcomed, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who will follow developments at Tramp Press with interest.

Visit the Tramp Press website here

Sarah Davis-Goff and Tramp Press are on Twitter here and here

Perfect opening lines: Joyce, Beckett, McCann, Heaney, Kavanagh and beyond

a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-manMy internet browsing habits are incredibly haphazard. Having been a committed user of Google Reader, I’ve migrated across to Feedly, but with a subscription to maybe 100 RSS feeds, each containing up to 20 stories daily, there’s no avoiding an incompleteness when it comes to reading them all. Getting to scan every headline in my Feedly on any given day is a rare feat.

So for me, finding interesting things effectively comes down to the wisdom of crowds. Devout on Twitter and trying to build on Google+ and Tumblr, I often just go where people suggest I go, which was how I found a piece from The Atlantic on great opening lines in literature this week. I like The Atlantic, but I’m not sure I’ve ever visited its homepage. Deep-linked by social media is the way of the web for me.

Three opening lines from James Joyce were included either in the article itself or in the extensive discussion generated in the comments.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Ulysses, James Joyce

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

– Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

A Portrait of the Artist of Young Man, James Joyce

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman was also suggested by one of the commenters. I am more than a bit ashamed to admit that I have yet to read The Third Policeman; even its opening line had escaped me until this week.

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

So which other Irish novels stand out? Here’s the first line from Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, which a recently auctioned manuscript revealed had gone through nine iterations before the version that stood:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

Murphy, Samuel Beckett

More recently, the first line(s) of Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin succeeded in drawing you into the story immediately:

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful.

Let The Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Away from Irish writing, if I may, and some of my favourite first lines:

Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buenda was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I think it’s fair to say this first line laid down a tone that sustained me days and weeks later as I struggled through some of the denser passages. It remained a memorable experience, mind, but I recall a sense of frustration in the reading.

Charles Dickens specialised in lengthy opening sentences, strewn with clauses, which would possibly have some readers casting aside before the end of Page 1. Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities are both from that school, but my favourite Dickens opening lines come from Great Expectations:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.

… and, a bit obviously, A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead, to begin with.

patrickkavanaghFirst lines are perhaps even more crucial to the success of a poem.

The title of The Atlantic piece is “This did something powerful to me”, and the opening lines of Seamus Heaney’s “Mid Term Break” and Patrick Kavanagh’s “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” certainly had a profound effect on my school-going self:


I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

– “Mid Term Break”, Seamus Heaney

The bicycles go by in twos and threes  –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,

– “Inniskeen Road: July Evening”, Patrick Kavanagh

What all these great opening lines have in common (apart from a great poem or story or entire book beyond them) is in laying down an immediate certainty in the world that to be conveyed. There is no cloudiness, no vague qualifiers, no dearth of confidence. All of which leads me to believe that unshakable confidence is a hallmark of all the best writers (famous or otherwise).

Anyway, please forgive the digression across the Irish Sea and beyond.

Have you got any favourite first lines from Irish (or non-Irish) poems, short stories or novels?

Irish writers comprise a quarter of the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Almost

Man Booker Prize logoWell, if anyone was in any doubt about the health of Irish writing, it should be dispelled by the announcement of the Man Booker Prize yesterday morning, in which three of the 13 authors are Irish.

Colm Tóibín is nominated for a third time for The Testament of Mary, his alternative gospel of the life of the mother of Christ.

Colum McCann, previously an IMPAC winner with Let The Great World Spin, is Booker-nominated for the first time for TransAtlantic, the novel which covers 150 years of transatlantic history, covering three journeys back and forth between the USA and Ireland – of an antislavery campaigner in the 1840s, pioneers of flight Alcock and Brown in 1919 and George Mitchell in 1998.

While Booker nods only help to consolidate an already well established international reputation for Tóibín and McCann, the third Irish writer on the list is at the other end of the scale.

Sales of Donal Ryan’s debut, The Spinning Heart, are sure to get another massive boost from this recognition, and it’s fantastic to see the Limerick-based civil servant on the list.

I’m not sure at this point whether Ryan is still actually on the payroll of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, but if he is, his days there may well be numbered, particularly if he makes the shortlist when it’s announced on September 10th. No doubt his second novel, The Thing About September, will get even more attention now when it hits the shelves later (which should be around about the time the Booker is handed out).

As someone with a keen ear for all things digital, my attention is grabbed by one of the other books on the longlist, namely Richard House’s The Kills, which runs to 1000 pages and has auxiliary audio and video content. The Booker judges, however, will be judging just on the written words, which the digital curmudgeon in me doesn’t have a problem with at all. (This is despite the fact that the multimedia element does hugely appeal to me. I am a blogger of many inconsistencies.)

Another interesting nomination is for Eve Harris. The most striking thing about her novel, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, is not so much that it’s her debut, or that it’s published by a small independent press, Scottish publisher Sandstone, but that it isn’t even on the shelves as yet. A nomination for an as yet unseen (by the wider public at least) debut novel from a small independent publisher? It must really be very good indeed.

The full Man Booker Prize longlist is available here

New online poetry quarterly calls for submissions

The Pickled Body | The Red ShoesNew literary outlets are always to be welcomed, so best wishes to everyone involved in The Pickled Body, an online quarterly poetry journal which is now calling for submissions for its first issue.

The theme is “The Red Shoes”, inspired by a 1993 Kate Bush album, a 1948 movie by The Archers and an 1840s fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

As for what they’re looking for, well, the teaser is so good that I won’t bother excerpting it here.

Just head on over to The Pickled Body website and read it.

On Desmond Hogan, arguably the best and least known Irish writer in history

Desmond Hogan in 2010. Photo: Fran Veale/Writer Pictures

Desmond Hogan in 2010. Photo: Fran Veale/Writer Pictures

I haven’t mentioned this yet – for the undeniable reason that I hadn’t noticed it before today – but it definitely deserves a spot here.

A collection of short stories by Desmond Hogan, “The House of Mourning and Other Stories”, has been published by Dalkey Archive Press and received a favourable mention in a recent edition of The Daily Beast’s weekly literary round-up.

Hogan is someone who had gone entirely unnoticed by me until 2004 when I read an article by Robert McCrum in the Observer. The headline was “The Vanishing Man” and the piece was heavily laden with intrigue.

Hogan published four novels and five short story collections in the ’70s and ’80s. He won several awards. During his time in the limelight, his was the name which dominated any discussion about the future of Irish writing. He was friends with the literary set in London; he was on the books of Faber and shared an agent with Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey and Ian McEwan, all of whom would win the Booker Prize at least once; he was one of only two witnesses at the wedding of Kazuo Ishiguro.

Dinner parties at his basement flat became legendary, as Ishiguro recalled:

He’d produce a series of disgusting-looking but delicious things in large oven trays, and when each tray was done, it would get thrown behind him on to a pile in the sink. The atmosphere was very Irish. Des used to recite poetry. We rarely went home before three in the morning.

Perhaps the most beautifully oxymoronic thing about Hogan is that one of the things that will have made him attractive to publishers – an unpredictable, edgy, even dangerous personality, allied to genius, is a hugely marketable concoction – ultimately saw him withdraw completely from the world in which he had made his name. Years later, McCrum reported, despite living in virtually destitute conditions in the west of Ireland Hogan rebutted a bursary from the Arts Council as it may have impinged upon his artistic freedom.

He was becoming a brand, but he distrusted brands.

Returning to the Dalkey Archive Press collection, the title story is extracted on the website of Dublin Review of Books. Here’s a snippet:

In my girlhood I observed Jamesy as I walked with nuns and other orphans by his garden. I was an orphan in the local convent, our play-fields stretching by the river at the back of elegant houses where we watched the nice children of town, bankers’ children, doc­tors’ children, playing. Maria Mulcahy was my name. My mother, I was told in later years, was a Jean Harlow-type prostitute from the local terraces. 1, however, had hair of red which I admired in the mirror in the empty, virginal-smelling bathroom of the convent hall where we sat with children of doctors and bankers who had to pay three pence into the convent film show to watch people like Joan Crawford marry in bliss.

Jamesy was my first love, a distant love.

To sum up the enigma, it’s almost impossible to ascertain online whether this is a new collection or, as I suspect, a collection of previously published stories. This might be the first sentence you will ever read which includes the terms ‘saturation coverage’ and ‘Desmond Hogan’.

I suspect the whole story of Desmond Hogan will be told in the fullness of time.


Read Robert McCrum’s article “The Vanishing Man”

Read an extract of The House of Mourning on the website of Dublin Review of Books

“The House of Mourning and Other Stories” can be purchased from the Dalkey Archive Press here

Julian Gough and the seriousness of comedy

crash_julian_goughA number of weeks ago, arising from my small support role in the Swift Satire Festival in Trim, Co Meath, I wrote a post about Irish satire, so naturally my attention was grabbed by last week’s interview with Julian Gough on RTE Radio 1’s Arena with Sean Rocks.

Gough is one of modern literature’s most committed satirists. From “The Great Goat Bubble”, the Fishamble play which went down well at both the Galway Arts Festival 12 months ago and the Swift festival last week, to “The iHole”, the short story which caused a bit of a legal ruckus last year, Gough offers a perceptive take on the modern world which should be the envy of many a better known writer.

His most recent offering continues the comic-satirical thread. “CRASH! How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love” is published by DailyLit and on sale as a Kindle Single on Amazon. Gough would no doubt gently ridicule me for clinging to the anachronisms of paper and cardboard, but if there is a mode of literature for which I may, at some undetermined point in the future, see some sense in adopting a digital-first policy, it is in the essays and short stories that have brought the term Kindle Singles to the public consciousness and generated shedloads of additional revenue for a company that really could do with it.

Anyway, back to CRASH! It concerns a character, Jude, who lives in Fripperary in the Republic of Squanderland and gets in trouble with the international markets because of an ill-advised henhouse investment, which prompts the involvement of international lenders, ratings agencies and the Chancellor of Frugalia, Helen Dunkel.

If all of that is about as subtle as a €64bn hole in the economy, Gough’s reasons for going down this particular road again are more striking. Satire is not only alive and well, but still vital to discussions about the world we live in.

Said Gough:

The more serious the subject, the more necessary comedy is as an approach, and the better the comedy is. Comedy that’s about nothing in particular, that’s about fluffy light stuff, is empty and blows away.

The serious comedy is the stuff that endures. The stuff that’s about the really hard problems in life. Comedy is a beautiful way to address it because otherwise it’s too painful.

You have to be tremendously serious and then hide all traces of it. The gap between the two is pleasurable and a rich experience for the reader.

Most of my favourite novels are comedies about desperately bleak subjects.

I hesitate to say that any particular novel is my favourite, but I loved none more than Catch-22, which must surely be the archetype of the “comedy about desperately bleak subjects”.

You can listen to Julian Gough’s interview with Sean Rocks here.

You can buy a digital version of “CRASH! How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love” for £1.49 here. (It’s an Amazon link; I have a heavy heart.)

Julian Gough blogs occasionally over here and tweets voraciously over here.

Events update: The John Hewitt International Summer School

John Hewitt International Summer SchoolThe 26th John Hewitt International Summer School takes place in Armagh from July 22-26, and the theme this year is “Living Among Strangers: The Lost Meaning of Home”.

The theme is inspired by Hewitt’s poem “The Search”, which includes the lines

It is a hard responsibility to be a stranger;
to hear your speech sounding at odds with your neighbours […]
Often you will regret the voyage,
wakening in the dark night to recall that other place…

Hewitt himself experienced the notion of “the stranger”, both in Ireland and the UK, where he took up residence in the 1960s.

Given the migratory nature of modern life in Ireland – whether by those born in foreign lands who have made their home here (a recent RTÉ documentary which followed children’s television presenter Diana Bunici to her native Moldova springs to mind) or the new generation of young Irish men and women forced to emigrate to every corner of the globe in search of a job first, and prosperity second – the theme is well-chosen.

The blurb for the John Hewitt International Summer School includes lines such as

What is the place, ‘the local’ in the twenty-first century? In a world of globalised entertainment and communication, and increasingly migratory labour, is there room for sentiment about place in our art?

Is the ‘living among strangers’ that allowed separate, mutually opposed cultures to develop here over four hundred years to be the norm for future populations? Will diversity reduce conflict, or increase antagonism between hosts and guests? Can those of different backgrounds and histories share increasingly fragmented spaces?

All of which, added to the list of names on the programme, should whet the appetite for a fine five days in Armagh’s Market Place Theatre the week after next.

The lunchtime reading series alone are worth the trip, with Irish writers Pat McCabe, Anne Enright, Deirdre Madden and Gavin Corbett joining English novelist Salley Vickers over the five days.

There is a poetry reading by Simon Armitage, Medbh McGuckian, James Byrne and Conor O’Callaghan (among others), a creative writing workshop with Carlo Gebler (among others), a fascinating talk entitled “Ulster Through Polish Eyes: Reconsidering the Stereotypes” by Professor Jan Jędrzejewski, several art exhibitions and evening theatre performances.

It all promises to be a great few days.

The full John Hewitt International Summer School programme can be downloaded here.

Upcoming events: The Swift Satire Festival, the Ezra Pound International Conference and the Gerard Manley Hopkins Festival

If you are in Ireland and are ludicrously fortunate enough to have both

(a) something more than a passing interest in literature, and
(b) some time to spare

then the next few weeks promise to be hugely productive.

Swift Satire Festival logoThis weekend sees the Swift Satire Festival return to Trim, Co Meath for a sixth year, commemorating the time spent by Jonathan Swift in the town, his works and his enduring legacy three centuries on.

While a lot of the energy goes into some major comedy gigs – the festival will bring around 30 of the country’s favourite comedians and satirists to a big tent in the grounds of Trim Castle – there is plenty for the literature-lover too.

Most notable is a unique event, inspired by the year of the Gathering and some good old-fashioned ambition: The Great Gulliver Gathering, which will aim to bring 302 people together (one page apiece) for the largest ever simultaneous reading ever staged in Ireland.

There is also the “Swift in his Time” exhibition, which will feature objects and documents relating to the Dean’s time in Meath, while the concluding Sunday lunch features a performance of The Great Goat Bubble, written by Julian Gough and directed by Mikel Murfi. The Fishamble production was a success story at last year’s Galway Arts Festival and it marks an impressive lineup on the final day of the festival, which comes to a close with the inaugural Swift Lecture delivered by President Michael D. Higgins.

ezra-pound-conferenceMoving swiftly on – geddit? no? – and I admit that if fate suggested I’d have a few free days in Dublin next week then I’d be a happy bunny indeed.

The 25th Ezra Pound International Conference starts next Tuesday, and there is lots about the American writer’s relationship with Ireland and Irish writers.

While I haven’t spent much time with Pound’s work, the draft programme for the conference, which is titled “Ezra Pound and Modernism”, is nevertheless startlingly promising, with speakers from Turin, Beijing, Pennsylvania, Tokyo, York, Gaziantep in Turkey and elsewhere, plenaries such as “Pound and the Irish Masters: Beckett and Yeats”  and readings from poets Maurice Scully, Nerys Williams (excellent at Hay Festival Kells last weekend), Hugh McFadden and Fred Johnston.

And all that without mentioning that the welcoming address will be delivered by Seamus Heaney next Tuesday morning.

Visit the website for even more.

The other upcoming literature-leaning festival to catch the eye today is the annual Gerard Manley Hopkins festival, which will take place in Newbridge, Co Kildare from July 19-26.

There is a broken link to their programme at the moment but the summary of speakers gives a glimpse of what’s on offer:

James Mackey will deliver the Keynote Address Tuesday 23rd July at 12.00 am. Other lectures by Robert Smart and Richard Murphy from USA; Duc Dau – a Hopkins scholar from Australia; Thomas Berenato; Patrick Murray; William Adamson (Germany); leading Portuguese scholar, Amador Frias Martins; Kevin Mc Eneaney (USA); Francis Fennell; noted Hopkins scholar from Chicago, Michael Raiger; Courtney Dombroski … and others. Special events will include a talk by Graphologist Denis Sexton on Hopkins’s handwriting; and an illustrated talk on the landscape of Hopkins’s Ireland by naturalist Michael Jacob.

Visit the website for more.

Update: In an earlier version of this blog it was incorrectly stated that Ezra Pound was English. I can only think that I got confused by currencies… (Thanks to Susan for pointing it out on Twitter)

Belfast’s Brian Ballard, Ciaran Carson and Michael O’Neill form a sacred artistic trinity

Ciaran Carson, Brian Ballard, Michael O'Neill, Northern Star Books, Happenstance

Ciaran Carson and Brian Ballard (© Irish Times)

Just in case you missed it on Tuesday, and given the ever-expanding (and undoubtedly unsustainable) swathes of media available for free these days at the swipe of a screen, there’s every chance a few of you did, then I’m delighted to point you in the direction of a great piece by Fionola Meredith in the Irish Times.

Happenstance is a literature-art-publishing joint venture to come out of Belfast, by the poet and writer Ciaran Carson, the painter Brian Ballard and the publisher Michael O’Neill, of hugely exciting fledgling press Northern Star Books.

The uncertainty inherent in such a project, and indeed any creative venture, is beautifully captured by Carson:

We believe that we don’t know what we’re doing until it happens. This is what it means to be a writer. You’re doomed to a life of anxiety because, if you know what you’re doing, then it won’t be any good. Each time you do it, it must be fresh.

As someone routinely confounded by grave quantities of uncertainty and doubt, I find that inspirational.

With a print run of just 30 copies, and with an asking price of about €1750 a pop, Happenstance is no ordinary book. It includes 20 of Ballard’s paintings, with corresponding/iterative/reactive writing by Carson.

While I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it in the flesh it sounds like a phenomenal piece of work. Each painting is hand printed and every letter of the accompanying text is individually cast.

As O’Neill says, to much cheering from this quarter:

A book is still a wonderful thing. We are not Luddites but there is something about producing a book slowly and carefully that has a peace and serenity too often missing from our lives.

Slow, careful, peaceful, serene. Like an Olympic slogan for artists in the post-Internet world.

Read Fionola Meredith’s piece here

Update: Thanks to the comment by harryscraps below, here’s a link to the Northern Star Books website. I hadn’t known when writing the blog that Happenstance is the first book to be published by Northern Star.

Hay Festival Kells Reflections: Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s impossible play

The first ever Hay Festival Kells is already a receding memory – but what a memory. Massive congratulations to all involved in putting together a spectacular three days in the Co Meath town.

I live a hen’s race from Kells, but I feel duty-bound to insist that such proximity brings no bias here. By any measure this was a phenomenal success, and one which, I can only hope, will become a regular part of the Irish summer calendar for many a year to come.

This is the first of a couple of posts I’m planning reflecting on last weekend’s events. I also attended the John Banville interview and the poetry reading by Frank McGuinness and Nerys Williams, so I’ll offer my thoughts on those separately.

Lisa Dwan Not I Samuel BeckettIt was a privilege, on the first day of the first ever Hay Festival to take place in Ireland, to share a pitch-black room with a couple of hundred others and the brightly lit mouth of Lisa Dwan.

It’s not often that something this vibrant happens in rural Co Meath. For it to happen before the early evening news, as just one small part of an overall programme, underlines the breadth of the ambition of the Hay Festival on its welcome first foray into Ireland.

“Mouth”, the only character in Samuel Beckett’s play “Not I”, has been described as the most difficult role in all of theatre, and during ten frantic minutes in Kells it was easy to see why.

Not having seen “Not I” before – the extent of my exposure was some pre-performance reading outlining Beckett’s fury when Jessica Tandy, the first actress to perform the role in 1972, took a leisurely 22 minutes to run through the script.

Beckett’s muse Billie Whitelaw subsequently knocked that back to a distinctly more rapidfire 14 minutes, but Dwan has continued the constriction by reducing the time to less than 10 minutes, which increases the verbal dexterity required.

The show included an entertaining and insightful video transmission of Whitelaw’s recollections of working with Beckett. Sample: “He wrote me a note to say, ‘On page eight, six lines down, remove a dot. It should be two dots instead of three.’”

Such was the precision of Beckett’s notes and stage direction that, as Dwan said during the Q&A with Telegraph journalist Liz Hunt which followed this performance, it is extraordinarily difficult for a director to direct Beckett. And that difficulty is magnified to an extreme level in “Not I”, in which the only lit element in an expanse of darkness (Emergency exit lights? Forget it…) is a mouth, a mouth that utters a virtually incomprehensible stream of consciousness. And also a mouth suspended exactly eight feet above the stage.

The speed of expression is so incredibly rapid that it’s almost impossible, on first experience at any rate, to comprehend anything but occasional words and turns of phrase.

It is, as Dwan wrote in the festival-accompanying leaflet published by The Telegraph, as close to unlearnable as any role in theatre can be, and one that leaves her body in spasm throughout the performance as she engages in the unwinnable battle of trying to speak at the speed of thought. All without acting. (Another Beckett note.)

The melody shines through, as does deep admiration for the performance, and while one can’t help regretting that it’s difficult to make any satisfying sense of it all, then life is a bit like that too.

As Whitelaw says about Beckett, he had absolute and unimpeachable integrity. Avoiding cosy characters or setpieces did not go far enough. In treating of the world, he had to go all the way, instilling the inherent ridiculousness of the human experience. Dwan says her ambition is to fulfil this quest. “I’m not there yet,” she says. She admits that it’s unlikely she ever will be, but then again none of this is about success.

She can try again, fail again, fail better, and that’s the best any of us can do.

Indeed, art and failure was another theme in the Banville hour, about which more later…

Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the text of “Not I”, as I was before last Friday, it’s over here.