Questions for Cúirt after middling performance

Competition is fierce on the literary festival circuit and on the evidence of last weekend Cúirt needs to do more to set itself apart

Wed, Apr 16, 2014, 13:19

Galway’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature will mark its 30th anniversary next year, and between now and then, all involved need to consider carefully how best to deliver that landmark event.

Any literary festival that has survived for three decades is doing something right. However, Cúirt’s current difficulty is that it no longer appears to be striving to offer the challenging and thoughtful programming that was once the hallmark of this annual festival.

There is little in the Cúirt programme to distinguish it from any other literary festival in the country. In recent years, several new and exciting literary festivals have started up in Ireland, most notably the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas in Co Carlow, and the Hay Festival in Kells, Co Meath. And they are all competing for a limited – albeit engaged – audience in a small country.

In recent years, the festival has shed the Cúirt Debate, which previously anchored the festival and set an agenda. While all festivals move on, as they should, nothing of equivalent weight has replaced it. Also, there are few festivals that would not benefit from some creative programming to get the best use of its participants, and Cúirt is one: for example, why not get some of the visiting writers together for designated panel discussions?

There are several outreach and ancillary education programmes as part of the Galway festival, but these mainly serve the local community, and don’t form part of the “international festival of literature” that Cúirt proudly describes itself as.

Attention to detail
The details that Cúirt took care with in the past seem not to be visible any more. Take something as simple, yet vital, as the introductions of authors at events. In the past, these introductions, often by local writers and academics or visiting writers, were frequently miniature, 10-minute masterclasses, deftly illuminating the work of an author to waiting audiences in a way that was an invaluable enrichment to what would follow.

At the many events this reporter attended over two days of the festival, on Friday and Saturday, virtually none of those introducing the writers introduced themselves first. This matters. From an audience perspective, spending the opening minutes of a reading wondering who is the unfamiliar person on stage is unhelpfully distracting.

For instance, at an otherwise invigorating poetry reading with Robin Robertson and Harry Clifton on Saturday night, there are not one, but two unidentified people on stage at two different times to introduce the two poets. The listings in the expensive-looking programme are of little help, as there is no information within as to whom these two are.

Credit is due for getting Booker prizewinner Eleanor Catton to Galway, along with other high-profile names such as Rachel Kushner, Patrick deWitt, Eimear McBride, Craig Davidson and Fleur Adcock. Journalist Hadley Freeman is an unreplaced late cancellation.

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