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Chris Agee: ‘I never considered my writing after my daughter’s death as therapeutic. Nor did I find it difficult’

The poet and editor on keeping a loved one’s memory alive, his literary journal Irish Pages and his regard for Seamus Heaney’s work

Why did you set up the literary journal Irish Pages in 2002 and what sets it apart?

Belfast had bid for European Capital of Culture. It was a period of political optimism and considerable cultural support. I pitched the idea Belfast lacked a really good literary journal commensurate with its celebrated writers – and funding began. Our credo: “Outstanding writing from Ireland and overseas.”

How significant is the Scottish connection?

Our Scottish editor for many years has been Kathleen Jamie, now Scotland’s “Makar” (poet laureate).

Your next issue, War in Europe, is out in April. What are the highlights?

It isn’t limited to the war in Ukraine, though that’s by far the prime focus. Much Ukrainian writing is already assembled.

You launched a publishing imprint, The Irish Pages Press, in 2018. What have been the standout titles?

Old Istanbul & Other Essays by Gerard McCarthy; Kilclief & Other Essays by Patricia Craig; and Phantom Gang by Ciarán O’Rourke.


You have lived in Ireland since graduating from Harvard in 1979. What brought and kept you here?

I spent the summers 1977-1978 researching the impact of the Troubles on children for a Harvard professor. I had a small stipend and moved around Dublin, Wicklow and Belfast. After graduation, I’d no plans – so Ireland seemed “unfinished business”. I happened to arrive the same morning as Pope John Paul II and joined the vast crowd in Phoenix Park. Then life took over and I stayed.

The late, great critic Dennis O’Driscoll remarked that Ireland was probably the easiest place in the English-speaking world to publish a book of poems. It’s probably also the easiest anglophone place to be a not-so-good poet

How helpful is it as an editor and a writer to be an insider and an outsider?

Somewhat. You’re on the threshold of the inside, but with the detachment accessed by another form of society behind you. I’d echo the self-description by trilingual novelist Hugo Hamilton: “a stranger at home”.

How would you sum up the current Irish poetry scene?

The late, great critic Dennis O’Driscoll remarked that Ireland was probably the easiest place in the English-speaking world to publish a book of poems. It therefore follows that it’s probably also the easiest anglophone place to be a “not-so-good poet”. And nota bene: “the word ‘poet’ sheds adjectives” (Heaney).

You have close personal and literary links to the Balkans. Your second collection, First Light (2003), includes a suite of Balkan poems, and in 2015 you edited Hubert Butler’s Balkan Essays. Tell me more

I was one of a small groupuscule of Irish writers concerning themselves with Bosnia during its genocidal war; so I was invited to participate in Sarajevo’s Winter Festival just as the siege ended. I subsequently edited the anthology Scar on the Stone: Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia (Bloodaxe, 1998). We then bought a house on Korčula, in Croatia – now my “silence bunker”, where I spend part of each year.

Your daughter Miriam died suddenly aged four in 2001. How difficult and how healing was it to write about this in your poetry collections Next to Nothing (2008) and Blue Sandbar Moon (2018)?

Both books together make for a poetic ensemble: the aftermath, followed by the aftermath of aftermath. I’m often asked your question about “healing” and always answer in the negative: I never considered my writing after Miriam’s death as therapeutic. Nor did I find it difficult. My main aim was a kind of Resistance against Miriam’s Oblivion. For people die again at that moment when there’s nobody left to remember them.

You have used the term ‘the ethical imagination’ in relation to your writing. Can you expand?

A phrase I first used of Hubert Butler, a key early influence. Work informed by high artistic consciousness, but also in the thick of the world and its dilemmas.

Your latest work, Trump Rant (2021), addresses the dire political situation in your native land. What did you hope to achieve? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

It’s “a poetic work of non-fiction” – a historical “open source” about this strange man’s highly complex temperament and life-psychology. He might get re-elected.

Which projects are you working on?

A contemporary Orwellian fable, partly inspired by Animal Farm.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Once to Seamus Heaney’s grave in Bellaghy.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Samuel Beckett: “Fail better.”

Who do you admire the most?

Depends on their sphere of activity. But apropos literature: Seamus Heaney – with Hubert Butler and WG Sebald in close succession.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

Universal basic income.

Which current book, film or podcast would you recommend?

The film The Zone of Interest.

Which public event affected you most?

The clear genocide in Gaza has had a profound impact, especially its slaughter of children. Biden deeply complicit.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

Red Bay, Labrador.

Your most treasured possession?

A large childhood coin collection.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

The Leaves of the Light – a suite of poems by Heaney, screenprints by Jan Hendrix.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Some great 20th-century Moderns, never met: Camus, Orwell, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elizabeth Bowen, Hubert Butler, Susan Sontag, Beckett, Joseph Roth, Elizabeth Bishop.

The best and worst things about where you live?

Highly divided feelings. Try my essay Troubled Belfast.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Always expect the unexpected.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Huckleberry Finn.

A book to make me laugh?

Trump Rant, perchance?

A book that might move me to tears?

Austerlitz by WG Sebald.