Feature Articles

Cyphers: Three Score and Ten by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

(PI News, January/February 2011)

Late September 2010 saw the launch of the seventieth number of Cyphers. The Biblical figure made some of our friends assume this would be our last. The editors preferred to focus on the thirty-five year span since the magazine’s first appearance and to see ourselves in Dantean terms as still in the middle of our journey. Cyphers 71 is in preparation now.
In 1975 the four editors, Leland Bardwell, Pearse Hutchinson, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáinand Macdara Woods, produced the first number. When we started up, The Dublin Magazine had closed and The Lace Curtain’s penultimate issue had appeared. We wanted to be as regular as the first and as open to the wide world as the second. People assumed we wanted to encourage new writers – nothing was further from our thoughts, though in fact we were to assist with several emergences. We did want to keep faith with the poets we admired, who might not be, or might not stay, in fashion: we felt strong enough to back our own judgement. Our first Cyphers contained only poetry. In the second we included fiction (a piece by the late Jimmy Brennan, followed in No. 3 by one from Adrian Kenny who also has a story in No. 70), and for a long time we were the only magazine in Ireland publishing literary fiction.
Our first Cyphers felt like quite an achievement, after struggles to raise funds in a recession, much wondering about the title, and long enjoyable meetings discussing the content. That was the easy bit – we wrote to our friends, and to the contacts we had made when we had run a series of poetry readings in Sinnott’s pub in South King Street, abetted by the late Justin O’Mahony. We had admitted defeat there when the price of drink rose, so that the audience came later; also, the noise of a hostile regular inhabitant of the pub and the crash of the cash register combined to make some voices inaudible; also, Pearse left for a stint as Gregory Fellow in the University of Leeds. His return was the signal for the new project.
I asked the Arts Council for money. They gave us half of what we wanted for the first two issues. Some friends, John Buckley, Benedict Ryan and Katherine Kavanagh, helped out, and we decided to go ahead and try our luck. For years afterwards we depended on the patience and good humour of our printer, Pat Funge of Elo Press, as we struggled to pay off the bills for those first issues. But the Arts Council was impressed with our determination and funded us, so that in the end we got out of debt. Pat’s old letterpress machines were damaged by vandals, and he used the insurance money to shift to the newer offset litho technology, so we learned about paste-ups and light-boxes; nowadays I make pdfs using Open Office. After Pat’s death when Elo closed, Christy, Mark and Richard, who had all worked there, started a new firm, and they are our printers today.
More important than the six pounds that Patrick Kavanagh’s widow could afford to donate to the founding, she taught me to keep accounts properly. It was the beginning of my long career as amateur bookkeeper and administrator. For fourteen years I took care of the business end of Cyphers, haunted by bundles of invoices, dead chequebooks, and stacks of back numbers and unpublished submissions waiting to be returned. All four editors would gather for a meitheal of writing rejection letters. I had card-indexes of subscribers and battered concertina files of stamped envelopes. Then FÁS came to the rescue, with a lovely worker, and we got our first second-hand Amstrad computer (it came with a flowery oilskin dust-cover). All of the succession of nice clever people who worked for us through FÁS schemes, and the later equally nice and clever ones whom the Arts Council helped us to employ, were frightened by accounts, so I still do that part. But they were willing to log and list and copy and post the manuscripts and look after subscribers and see that the writers were eventually paid their fees.
In 1975 we swore that we would always pay a fee, however miserable. Quite often the cheque has arrived so late as to surprise the recipient, but we reckon that, small as it is, a fee is never an unpleasant surprise. It is also a marker of our opinion of the pieces we publish, that we have considered and weighed them carefully and think them worth money. (But what of the writers we didn’t publish? Some of them too have made it, but not all. Our archive is rich with pompous letters of self-introduction from people who wrote a poem about their holiday in Ireland; these contrast with the admirable brevity of the man who began his letter ‘Dear Shits’ ...)
The early issues had a masthead with lettering by the late Ruth Brandt. It was the arrival in early 1975 of her husband, Michael Kane, to get the details for the cover, that pushed us to decide on the title. We had thought of Landrail, The Blackbird, Waterhouse Clock... Michael liked cats and asked us what our black cat’s name was. She was called (after a series of poems by Macdara) Cypher, a name derived from, among other things, the Arabic word for zero, but it also means a code. We thought that would do, though we were annoyed later when some critic thought we were being modest, taking the sense ‘nonentities’ – which it hadn’t occurred to us is one of its meanings too.
When we saw that first issue it was clear we’d got some things wrong. The card for the cover was a paleish yellow, the format looked like a child’s copybook, and so we realised we must make changes, and a long evolution began. From the second issue onward we used a stronger, cleaner colour, from the fourth we put the contributors’ names on the cover (all of them – we refused to pick out the bigger names); we moved to glossy card and acquired a spine at issue 5. Now we have a website: www.cyphers.ie. The black cat is in her grave in the back garden of Selskar Terrace, but her name lives on.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

 

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