TALKING TO OURSELVES (AND HOW TO AVOID IT) by Nessa O'Mahony
(Poetry Ireland News, July/August 2013)
There is a strange paradox in the Irish poetry world: although the standing army of poetry-writers is as numerous as ever, the poetry audience seems to be in decline, if attendance at readings and actual book-sales are any reliable indicator. Poetry reading has never been a pursuit of the masses, and it may merely be agerelated nostalgia that makes me remember the readings in the 1990s at the Winding Stair, the Aula Maxima (Paul Durcan reading to a crowd of 400), and St Anne’s, Dawson St as standing-roomonly affairs. Yet more and more readings today are sparsely populated; with honourable exceptions – I’m thinking of the Poetry Ireland Introductions series, the Mountains to the Sea readings curated by Paul Perry last year, or the successful open mics run at Ó Bhéal,The White House and in Dublin and Galway – fewer people are attending readings regularly and the same familiar faces seem to populate every event.
We know that fewer people are buying poetry books. I don’t have access to Irish data, but a recent Guardian article quoted an 18.5% drop in the volume of UK book sales in 2012, following on from smaller declines in 2011 and 2010. Now I’m not assuming that the Irish book market is identical to the UK; we are a smaller sector and book launches here are perhaps a more important route to book sales for many publishers. However the increasing reluctance of bookshops to take poetry books, or to hang on to them for longer than a few weeks, is making wider distribution a greater challenge, and the closure of more and more independent bookstores makes a bad situation worse.
So how to reverse the decline, or ought we just accept that the audience for poetry will always be small, and that booksales, not to mention audience sizes, are no gauge for the sector’s success or failure? Personally I’m not convinced that the poetry audience is always going to be small: the same 200 to 300 people buying books by the same 200 to 300 people. I believe that poetry uses language in a way that goes straight to the heart; I don’t accept that only a select number of people are capable of sharing that appreciation. If poetry is something that people have recourse to in moments of great joy and sorrow, why wouldn’t they welcome the opportunity for a more regular refuge?
So why shouldn’t we find ways of giving access to a broader audience? Might it not be a question of going beyond the usual places you expect to find poetry – the reading, the festival, the book launch – and sending it (boldly) into newer locales?
The first thing we need to do is to make it easier to access. Your local town may no longer have its own book-store, or that shop may have stopped stocking poetry all together. There may be an annual arts festival, but the poetry reading event rarely attracts more than a dozen attendees. How can we bring poetry into that sort of environment?
I’m borrowing an idea from the first Laureate na nÓg, Siobhán Parkinson, who was interested in the role that books could play in increasingly multicultural classrooms. She devised the idea of the Laureate International Library, a mobile travelling library of 100 children’s books from all over the world, which could go on loan to schools and libraries all over Ireland. Since it was established, LIL has visited schools on the Aran Islands, libraries in Donegal and the Midlands and festivals in Derry. The children who’ve come into contact with LIL have been delighted at the chance to access so many new writers and stories.
Do you see where I am going with this? If a mobile library can be so effective with children, why not consider a model of a touring library that would bring the best of contemporary Irish and international poetry to readers, adult and children, around Ireland? Perhaps it could visit the local library or school, but it could also visit the local shopping centre or furniture outlet, the community centre or active retirement group, the local factory or creamery, hospital or community care setting. Perhaps it could have a stand in a major trade fair, or be book-stall in residence at a musical festival or concert: anywhere where people regularly gather. Maybe it could also have a digital format, for download on portable devices. The Itinerant Poetry Library runs something similar in the UK – so why not an Irish version?
The library could be assembled and maintained reasonably cheaply; I’m sure Irish publishers would be happy to furnish copies of new publications, and, if Poetry Ireland were to take it on, the review copies sent in by international publishers could be recycled for library use. The most expensive element might be the transport, but all you need is a set of wheels, a couple of transport boxes and some light-weight book stands. Poets could do readings or workshops in places where the library was visiting, and local bookshops or retailers could have a special poetry display for the duration. The key is to give people access to poetry in a place they mightn’t expect it, and leave the rest to them. Audiences might grow, and book sales recover.
A final thought: why not name it after the best-read poet of our generation? The Dennis O’Driscoll Library, anyone?
Nessa O’Mahony is a freelance writer and teacher. Her fourth book, Her Father’s Daughter, will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2014.