A Festival of the Arts of the Word
In 2004 we spotted a new face in the audience at the SoundEye festival. It was Anna Khasin, a Russian poet now based in the U.S.A., though briefly then in Dublin to complete some post-grad work on machine translation. She was marvellously informed, intelligent, and generous with her knowledge and enthusiasm. After the festival, she sent us many translations, extracts from 19th century Russian anthropological texts, obscure early twentieth century avant-gardists, contemporary Russian experimentalists. One name recurred: Anna Glazova. We invited AG twice to read in Cork. It turned out that Geoffey Squires, a regular participant in the festival, shared my own enthusiasm for AG’s work, so we both recommended her to Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books, who also has several times attended SoundEye. AG’s Twice Under the Sun, her first volume in English has just appeared from Shearsman, translated by Anna Khasin, and with a preface by Geoffrey.
That story pretty much sums up SoundEye as far as we’re concerned: a festival driven by personal enthusiasms and commitment, by the generosity and energy of our audiences, and ultimately by the desire simply to make good stuff happen. The obverse of that is, sometimes, an impatience with categories, with recognized ‘schools’ of writing and, increasingly, with the traditional divisions between arts disciplines. We provide the occasion for artistic serendipity, and we’ll happily leave it to others to try to vacuum-pack the outcome.
Let me speed through the earlier history of the festival which brought us to this situation. In ’96 I was invited to a huge Assembling Alternatives conference in New Hampshire. There I met a number of Irish poets for the first time, though I did already know some by name. There were Maurice Scully, Catherine Walsh, Billy Mills, Randolph Healy and Geoffrey Squires. I also met Tom Raworth, and learned that he travelled under an Irish passport. These Irish connections, while they might seem trivial to some, were of great importance to me, since I had long given up hope of any new wave of exploratory poetry coming out of Ireland. Their presence in New Hampshire among the hundred-plus poets there from the wider anglophone world indicated the existence of a living meshwork of poets, informed readerships and intelligent critics, which I hadn’t suspected.
The following year I was approached by Catriona Ryan, a post-grad student in Cork. She wanted to talk to me about my work, and how I seemed a lone voice in Ireland. I told her, and Matthew Geden, a fellow post-grad whom she’d enlisted, about the Irish poets I’d heard read in the U.S., but who were almost never invited to read in Ireland. We added in the name of Michael Smith, with whom I’d founded New Writers’ Press in Dublin in ’67, and preparations for the first Cork Alternative Poetry Festival kicked off. I provided names and contact details, Catriona and Matthew did the work. That first year, we started with brief papers by Billy Mills, Alex Davis and myself, and had two sessions of readings. It was small, but seemed already perfectly formed.
Our initial funding was non-existent. Participants that first year paid their own travel expenses, slept on sundry floors, and fed and watered themselves. Things only very slowly improved. The success of the first event suggested strongly that it should be repeated, but also expanded. In the following seven years we added quite a few new readers, of whom Mairéad Byrne, David Lloyd, Fanny Howe, Tom Raworth, Keith Tuma, Alison Croggon, Stephen Rodefer and Fergal Gaynor developed into notable recidivists.
Although the primary intent of the festival was to provide a forum for poets (and, perhaps, as it turned out, certain strains of poetry) overlooked by other poetry events in Ireland, we didn’t see ourselves as a “school” of poetry in any way; neither mainstream nor back-water, more a point of juncture.
Catriona and Matthew had noted in the flyer that the first festival, in ’97, marked the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of New Writers’ Press, and it was in the spirit of NWP that the festival approached contemporary poetry, that is, of openness to anything of quality. We wanted, in the words of J.C.C. Mays, poets with “an impersonal interest in all poetic means available in the world at large, and a corresponding disinclination to settle for less than they might.” New Writers’ Press had provided, before the founding of Gallery, Dedalus and Raven Arts, an outlet for work by many who went on to constitute the Irish poetic “mainstream”, and we attempted in the early years of the Cork festival to draw in names current in other channels. Some accepted, some didn’t. The most intriguing refusal we got was on the grounds that our festival was “too political”. Curious.
The major turn in our fortunes, which changed the festival into something other than a simple ‘poetry event’, occurred in ’05, when Cork was appointed for a year as European Capital of Culture. Prestige events like that bring big money in their tracks. We aimed to waylay some of that, and use it to show what we could do. In the leadup, we began to work with Fergal Gaynor, who had already read at a couple of festivals. For ’05 he was one of the curators involved in setting up the Cork Caucus, a discursive art event which gathered to Cork writers, thinkers. activists and practicioners in many art forms. We worked with the Caucus, sending them, by way of embassy, four poets to discuss experimental literary practices, while they responded by sending us the International Necronautical Society, a contemporary art group interested in filmic modes of presenting lyrical language. We also shared a premises, and some poets, with an art and book-making event, the Vinyl Project, run by Simon Cutts. The extra funds allowed us also to include musicians, along with some fifty poets, thus radically splicing the festival, around its essential core of poetry, with an array of contemporary practices dedicated to exploring new territories of text, sound and performance.
Because of the festival’s expanded field, a new name seemed in order: and so came into being SoundEye: A Festival of the Arts of the Word, a nexus of the aims of New Writers’ Press, the legacy of New Hampshire and our engagement with many other forms of contemporary art. Sustaining SoundEye in the financial desert following 2005 has not been easy, but with new generations helping in the organisation (Jimmy Cummins, the young editor of Default magazine, is now another major contributor), with a constant development of form and scope (SoundEye 2008, along with its readings, included a cabaret, a programmed open-mic event imported from the US by Mairéad Byrne, and an art exhibition) it has always been more than mere survival.
In 2009, SoundEye is snugly socketed into a new ‘meta-festival’ organized by Fergal Gaynor, The Avant: Ten Days of the Progressive Arts. The background to the idea is described by Fergal on the Avant blog, but the basic notion was to maximise and consolidate audiences in Cork for the sort of work SoundEye is interested in. It’s been apparent for some time that our primary overlaps and affiliations are with practicioners in other art-forms who are experimenting and playing with possibilities, rather than with the long-established and well-settled array of purely literary organizations in Ireland, so the Avant is a way for us all to tap into those synergies, and actually to expand cultural activity in Ireland instead of just trying to survive and hold on by our fingernails through rough financial times.
Within this newly formed vortex of artistic energies, SoundEye #13 has been able to focus and develop its own core interests, assured that we’ll gather informed and enthusiastic audences. Highlights this year include distinguished American poet, translator and anthologist Jerome Rothenberg on his first visit to Ireland, Dutch sound-poet Jaap Blonk on his first performance tour in this country, and Australian/U.S. poet, performer and theorist Christine Wertheim, who is a director of the Institute for Figuring, also giving her first performances here. Why would you miss it?
(Much of this history was first published as an introduction to the SoundEye supplement in Poetry Salzburg Review #15)