Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests





Sunday, August 18, 2013

Jennifer Mathews A Question and Answer Session with the Editor of Long Story Short


Thanks for including me. I do work for the Munster Literature Centre, which hosts the Cork Spring Poetry Festival and the Cork International Short Story Festival. I'm technically not an organiser--I'm the administrative assistant here. Things are a bit hectic for me at the moment, so I've only been able to answer some of your questions. I hope that's ok. I do appreciate the interview! Here's a little bio note for my work outside the Munster Literature Centre:

Jennifer Matthews writes poetry and book reviews, and is editor of the Long Story Short literary journal. Her poetry has been published in The Stinging Fly, Mslexia, Revival, Necessary Fiction, Poetry Salzburg, Foma & Fontanelles and Cork Literary Review, and anthologised in Dedalus's collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places (2010). In 2012 she read at Electric Picnic with Poetry Ireland, and had a poem shortlisted by Gwyneth Lewis in the Bridport poetry competition. She is currently working on a collaboration with poet Anamaría Crowe Serrano.
Here are the responses to some of the interview questions.
1. Stories that have stayed with me the longest include 'The Sorrow Acre by Isak Dinesen; 'The White Heron' by Sarah Orne Jewett; 'The Birthmark' by Nathanial Hawthorne; 'The Swimmer' by John Cheever; and 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' by Flannery O'Connor. My favourite up-and-coming short story writers are Danielle McLaughlin (Ireland) and Julia Van Middlesworth (USA). Danielle has a rare blend of sharp humour, spot-on perceptiveness about human foibles, along with an immense reservoir of compassion. Her characters are incredibly well rounded, and you are completely drawn in to their world because of it. For me, Julia a spiritual heir of Flannery O'Connor--she's able to create an atmosphere, a darkness of tone, that immerses the reader completely in the world she's created. I suppose if I were to commit to a favourite author--Flannery O'Connor is the end all, be all. She tackles big themes, is a genius with dialogue and description, and does the important work of showing us that the only things we control in this world are our own actions in the face of darkness. Since we're speaking of Irish writers in particular, I'd recommend anything & everything by Frank O'Connor--'Guests of the Nation' is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. Although it was very specific to Ireland's struggle, I think it could strongly resonate with the current Israeli / Palestinian conflict.

2. To be honest, I can think of scores of important conversations in Irish literature that happen without the presence of drink. Social oppression and the dominance of family and religion are more relevant topics of discussion when considering 'classic' Irish short stories. Think 'Ballroom of Romance' by William Trevor, for example. It's quintessentially Irish. With contemporary stories, themes of concern are changing again to everything from fertility issues to losing money in the economic crash. You also have to consider that Strumpet City was written in the late 60s about the early 1900s. This was a different time--Hemingway, although working a bit earlier than Strumpet City, frequently wrote about boozing. Not to be flippant, but stuff like 'Mad Men' is exploring that drinking culture was more 'acceptable' in the 50s and 60s and not dealt with consciously in the past. Most contemporary and many classic Irish short stories have little to do with drink. To be honest, the whole stereotype of the Irish as a nation of drinkers is a false one in my own experience, having lived here for 10 years. Many Irish would disagree with me, and some participate in perpetuating the stereotype through self-deprecating jokes. Drink is part of the social culture, this is true, but it's true throughout most of northern Europe. I've lived in the UK and they drink at least as much as the Irish. German and Polish friends often chat about the prevalence of drink it their culture. The thing is, meeting in a pub is a social act, not an excuse for getting drunk. As an American, it would be equivalent to meeting friends out for dinner. The real emphasis is on having a decent conversation, in a place that buzzing with social energy. Like any country, there are of course struggles with alcoholism & drink-driving, but it's something contemporary Ireland is very conscious of and working on. Once most folks hit their late 20s they begin to settle down, like everywhere else.  

3. Two contemporary Irish poets I continually return to as 'touchstones' are Mairead Byrne (Lord Nelson and the Huburu Bird) and Anamaría Crowe Serrano (Femispheres and One Colombus Leap). They both are quite masterful at using innovative language and poetic technique, challenging their reader but never abandoning them. They are both emotionally moving in their work, and also provide an aesthetically gorgeous read. As for poets outside of Ireland, I think Ilya Kaminsky is one of the finest living poets. I read his 'Dancing in Odessa' nearly every year, cover to cover. It's rich in imagery, incredibly precise and honed in its phrasing... stunning stuff. Bruce Snider is a new find for me--he writes beautifully about the midwest of the USA, the region I come from. As for my zombie-poet reading, I'd like to bring back Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, and TS Eliot. I'm resisting saying Emily Dickinson as the poor woman clearly needed privacy in her lifetime and I'd say it'd be traumatic for her to not only be resurrected, but also to be forced to read her work in public. Whitman would be massive craic, and I'd love to chat to TS Eliot about leaving St. Louis (the town we both came from) and chosing a life in Europe. Bishop I just worship, it would have been incredible to hear her read.   

4. The Munster Literature Centre hosts two festivals a year: The Cork Spring Poetry Festival and The Cork International Short Story Festival. During these festivals prizes for poetry and short stories are given, and writing workshops are offered. The readings at the festival bring world class writers to the south of Ireland. We also publish a literary journal called 'Southword', which is free to read online. We have two full-time staff: the Artistic Director, Patrick Cotter, and myself (Administrative Assistant). We've been lucky to have a variety of talented interns and volunteers who help us out as well.

5. I know the 'troubled poet' thing is thought to be a stereotype. And working with writers as I do, you meet a variety of folks in truly varied states of existence. Some seem perfectly well adjusted, others seem to have their personal demons hovering around them at all times. I do wonder if those of us who pursue writing are responding to an early developmental experience that encouraged silence. Some writers seem so desperate to be heard/approved of that any small rejection sends them back into the wounding they clearly experienced at some point. Again, this isn't all folks. But if you look at what we do--we sit alone in a room, writing out what we want to say in isolation. Then we send it out in the world, away from us, and hope someone reads and understands it (us). Writers largely enjoy that bit of distance, whereas musicians, actors, comedians seem to crave that direct interaction, face-to-face. Psychologically, I do wonder what that means.

9. This one I agree with. I'd say Ireland has more literary (and musical) geniuses historically (per capita) than most countries. And game changers too. I mean, between Yeats, Joyce and Beckett alone... I really don't know why this is. I can make guesses (ancient history as a centre of learning, rich oral and mythical tradion), but am afraid I'd come across as a romantic. And nothing irritates the Irish more than a yank being romantic about Ireland!    

10. Again, nothing irritates the Irish more than a yank being romantic about Ireland. I don't believe in fairies, and I get annoyed when Irish people make cracks about my fellow Americans going to look for leprechauns on their Irish vacations. But then the American visitors do ask where the fairies are when they get here and I'm back to being cross and embarrassed.

11. Cork has an active and vibrant literary life. There are so many institutions that contribute to this--besides our own work at the Munster Literature Centre the city library and the Triskel Arts Centre run the World Book Festival; there's a crowd called 'The Avant' that promotes work of innovative poetics, and there's are a couple of weekly events--my favourite being O'Bheal Open Mic Night which draws everyone from teenagers rapping, to professors of the Irish language reading work in translation.

12. I'm a 'behind the scenes' person at our festival helping out with the administrative tasks. It's always great getting a chance to chat with the writers. The highlight for me is discovering authors I hadn't read before, who soon become new favourites. To my embarrassment I hadn't read Karen Russell (author of 'Swamplandia!') before she read at the Cork International Short Story Festival, and now I'm a loyal reader.

13. I find this question a bit unnerving, as I'm not sure what publication or interview you're referring to. Unfortunately last year I had an extraordinarily unsatisfactory experience with a local paper, where the journalist was feeding me their 'angle' on the story rather than asking me questions, largely because she seemed to be uninterested in the topic she was writing about and was attempting to make it more 'exciting'. I was misquoted and misrepresented throughout, but didn't complain for fear of discouraging media coverage of our events. I absolutely do not think academics are degrading the quality of poetry. As someone who went through the MA system myself, the advantages are giving fledgling writers connections to the professional world, and time/space to write. Nothing wrong with that. I do think there's a bit of an ethical concern in that the programmes are so expensive, and statistically can offer their graduates very little earning power once they've graduated. That is, unless the students go on to be teachers in the MA programme. I think they do need to be conscious of how they are shaping writers of the future--but one could say publishing houses have the same power. Writers of extraordinary talent and voice will always be the driving force in literature, whether or not they have an academic qualification. 

16. I hope to write an extensive blog post on this soon. The stories that appeal to me the most as a reader are those that do something beautiful with language. Charles Boyle's 'The Rainy Season' incorporates vivid imagery. Julia Van Middlesworth's 'Misbegotten' is rich in atmosphere. Someone who can write strong characters has an instant advantage with me. Valerie Sirr's 'Balan' is spot on with the tensions between mothers and sons, and she resists any going over the line into exaggeration. Every detail is totally sincere and realistic.  

17. American poet Tracy K. Smith read in Cork last week at the Triskel Arts Centre. I hope she'll forgive me for the paraphrasing so loosely, but she answered this exact question in a beautifully optimistic way. She said she believes utterly in the value of poetry, because the skills needed to engage in the reading and writing it creates a depth and awareness in people that can create a better society. I'm a natural pessimist who is forever battling my own cynicism. I'd very much like to believe as Ms. Smith does in the power of poetry. I suppose if I didn't believe in its power on some level, I wouldn't write it. I want to believe it makes a difference. I sent a poem I wrote with a tongue-in-cheek dedication to the Westboro Baptist Church to them in a Christmas card last year (basically a poetic protest of their fear-mongering and fear-worship). Sadly, I received no response!

27. I'm a poet who's working towards a first collection. I'm also working on a collaborative poetry project with Dublin-based poet Anamaría Crowe Serrano. My love for short stories and my love for poetry developed around the same time as a teenager. There's a 'balancing' effect to my life when I keep my writing life to poetry-only, and my editing life to fiction-only. This may change in future, but I'm quite happy having these parts slightly compartmentalised.

28. I don't know how to recommend only five contemporary Irish poets after Yeats! There's a saying that 'you can't throw a rock in Ireland without hitting a poet'. I suppose if we're going for the modern "cannon" (i.e. the most internationally recognised in the poetry world), you've got the likes of Paul Durcan, Medbh McGuckian, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Derek Mahon, Ciarán Carson... I could keep going. If you want to get more adventurous and go beyond the traditional cannon, I'd recommend reading Irish literary journals to discover work by the many contemporary poets publishing here. Publications like Southword Journal, The Stinging Fly, The Penny Dreadful and Cyphers are great places to start. If you're looking for poets who merge performance and 'page' poetry, some strong voices are Maighread Medbh, Dave Lordan and Sarah Clancy.... there are so many more. This is not at all a comprehensive list. Once you start finding your way into Irish poetry, you'll have endless avenues to wander down. 

Well, Mel, I hope this works and very sorry I didn't have time to answer all the questions! Thanks for your support of Irish literature!

Best regards,

Jennifer Matthews

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