Bringing outsiders in: Jessie Lendennie, Salmon and the Irish literary world

Alan Hayes hails a powerhouse of Irish poetry, whose festschrift is launched today

Jessie Lendennie: after moving to Ireland in 1981 she met a poetry world which needed a shake up. She had a vision to make it more relevant and more representative.

Jessie Lendennie: after moving to Ireland in 1981 she met a poetry world which needed a shake up. She had a vision to make it more relevant and more representative.

 

When one examines the Irish poetry world over the past 40 years, it is evident that one individual has done more than any other to channel a more modern Ireland, to develop Irish literature, to move poetry forward, to launch new and diverse voices, and to bring large and appreciative audiences to poetry, locally, nationally and internationally. That person is Jessie Lendennie.

Lendennie is a visionary, an outsider, an American, a woman, a bohemian living on the west coast as far away as is possible from the centres of power in the arts world. Her experience of working in 1970s London in the Poetry Society gave her an insight into the damage that could be done by conservative voices and dysfunctional power structures. After moving to Ireland in 1981 she met a poetry world which needed a shake up. She had a vision to make it more relevant and more representative.

It has been said that Irish poetry has an “inherited male tradition”. That statement – obviously – is incorrect. Women have always written and published, and a little research shows that Irish literature has often been more diverse than generally presumed. Early 20th-century Ireland had a large number of literary presses and, while male authors predominated, there was a significant amount of women also writing poetry, plays, fiction and criticism.

The latter half of the century brought a more traditional and conservative publishing climate. Dolmen Press was the pre-eminent literary publisher of poetry in Ireland from the 1950s until the late 1980s. In the 1960s and 1970s poets could also submit manuscripts to a number of small presses such as New Writers Press, Sáirséal agus Dill and Goldsmith, while mainstream presses such as Blackstaff and Gill occasionally published poetry.

The Festschrift in honour of Jessie Lendennie and in celebration of 40 years of Salmon Poetry

Generally, male poets were chosen (though Mercier did publish Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s debut in 1981). The foundation by Peter Fallon of Tara Telephone and Gallery Press in 1970 was a major development with its distinctive classical, stylish and traditional volumes, though a gender imbalance was there from the beginning – in the 1970s alone over 30 male writers were published, and only one female (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin).

In 1977 Dermot Bolger founded the influential Raven Arts Press, and over the next 15 years published important new, radical and working-class authors, although less than a handful were women. Arlen House published Eavan Boland’s In Her Own Image (1980) and Night Feed (1982) – arguably the most groundbreaking collections from this time – though unfortunately the press’s plans to address the dire situation facing women poets didn’t come to fruition then.

The energetic Irish language publisher Coiscéim, founded in 1980 by Pádraig Ó Snodaigh, published a very small number of women poets in the 1980s. Dedalus Press, founded in 1985 by John F Deane, published a large number of interesting new and traditional voices, though only a tiny number by women; this improved when the press was relaunched by Pat Boran in 2006.

The most diverse list in the mid-1980s came from the tiny, poorly-funded Beaver Row Press (1982-1991) which published Eithne Strong, Leland Bardwell, Anne Hartigan, Lynda Moran, Glenda Cimino and Paula Meehan’s debut and second collections. The evidence shows that the more funding available, the more traditional the publishing choices – the reasons why need to be further interrogated.

Thus when Jessie Lendennie decided in 1985 to start publishing poetry collections alongside The Salmon journal, she had to address an imbalanced Irish literary and publishing world which needed a major shake-up. The first Salmon collection was Eva Bourke’s debut, Gonella (1985), launched by Michael D Higgins in Galway. The following year saw Goddess on the Mervue Bus by Rita Ann Higgins, debut poetry by a working-class writer which sold in thousands, an unheard-of feat in Irish poetry.

Over the following years Salmon published the debut collections by women who have become an integral part of the Irish and international literary world such as Mary O’Malley, Moya Cannon, Mary O’Donnell and Elaine Feeney; in fact over 100 debut authors have been launched to date.

However, Salmon has never focused solely on women writers; indeed they have almost always had a relatively equal gender balance. They published the debut collection by Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland; the debut and second collections by Theo Dorgan, then director of Poetry Ireland; the debut and subsequent collections by Gerard Donovan, the Booker-nominated novelist; the debut collection by John O’Donohue (who later wrote the international bestseller Anam Cara); and the debut and subsequent collections by Eamonn Wall, one of the most prominent Irish Studies academics in the US.

One of their earliest books, Two Women, Two Shores (1989), is an imaginative and experimental cross-Atlantic collaboration between American poet Nuala Archer and Belfast visionary Medbh McGuckian. Indeed, Salmon was the first mainstream Irish press to publish McGuckian, who has subsequently published with Gallery Press and Arlen House.

Salmon also does not only confine its work to poetry; Patricia Forde’s debut young adult novel, Tír faoi Thoinn/The Land Beneath the Sea, first appeared in 1991; Patricia Burke Brogan’s revolutionary play about a Magdalene laundry, Eclipsed, was first published in 1994 and reissued many times; In the Chair, John Brown’s fascinating collection of interviews with poets from the North of Ireland, including Heaney, Longley, Montague, Mahon and McGuckian, appeared in 2002; and Joan McBreen’s anthology, The White Page/An Bhileog Bhán: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets (1999) is a critical and crucial piece of scholarship which has gone into multiple editions.

Lendennie has always been interested in international voices, and Salmon has published world-renowned writers such as Adrienne Rich, Ray Bradbury, Carol Ann Duffy, Robin Skelton, Jean Valentine, Marvin Bell and Eavan Boland. Lendennie has also honoured an older generation of poets such as Eithne Strong, James Liddy, Leland Bardwell and Robert Greacen.

Through The Salmon journal, numerous anthologies and individual collections, Lendennie has also published and supported a number of other publisher/poets including Dermot Bolger, Pat Boran, Seamus Cashman, Glenda Cimino, Patrick Cotter, John F Deane, Peter Fallon, David Gardiner and Knute Skinner.

Jessie Lendennie as a child with her mother
Jessie Lendennie as a child with her mother

In the early 1990s Salmon entered into an association with Poolbeg Press in Dublin which resulted in new editions of crucial titles. Salmon became independent again in 1996 and has enjoyed a happy 25 years based near the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare and, since 2012, at The Salmon Bookshop & Literary Centre in Ennistymon, Co Clare. Jessie works there with Siobhán Hutson, whose imaginative design work has raised Salmon’s profile and reputation as one of the finest poetry publishers in the world.

The Salmon list is truly diverse on grounds of gender, age, race, religion and sexuality (with a wide list of LGBTQ+ writers). Lendennie has always supported poets from throughout the entire island of Ireland, and she has published writers from at least 20 countries worldwide.

For Jessie, it has always been about the poems. She looks beyond egos, tempers, tantrums and betrayals and – by focusing on the poetry – she finds herself always able to work with people (I won’t even try to claim I have that same level of patience!).

In an opinion piece written for Poetry Ireland in 2002, Lendennie gives a succinct analysis of an Irish literary world which was “keeping the injuns out”, while she was trying to integrate the “injuns” with everyone else.

There was criticism of Salmon’s list being too diverse and indeed there was at least one attempt to refuse funding and close down the press due to this. Now, in 2021, diversity is the key buzzword in the arts world, with enormous amounts of funding being offered to “do diversity”. Hopefully, we will come to a stage where there is a better understanding of the concepts and realities of equality, when a balance will be found and true and lasting integration will take place.

At its core, quality of writing is the key. It is ironic that Salmon was the first to embrace diversity in a real and integral sense, and that profound desire to address equality caused damage to the press. However, Jessie Lendennie continues on, and she has done more than anybody else to open up the world of Irish poetry to move it away from its narrow, old, pale, male, stale provincialism. She has literally introduced the world to Irish poetry and us to the world.

The late, much-lamented poet Eavan Boland named Salmon as “one of the most innovative, perceptive and important publishing houses in the UK and Ireland. It has fostered and supported the work of new writers and has established them in the public consciousness.”

And, according to Fintan O’Toole, Salmon “has become unquestionably the most important publisher of poetry in Ireland.

“The publishing of poetry has always been a venture which requires courage, dedication and imagination, since it is very seldom a straightforward commercial enterprise. With very few exceptions, poetry books are unlikely ever to be bestsellers. Yet anyone with an interest in the arts knows that poetry has an influence on many more immediately popular forms. The voices that are given expression in poetry go on to re-echo through fiction, theatre and even popular music, and this has been even more obviously the case in recent years in Ireland.

“In this sense, Salmon has been an essential seed-bed, not alone for Irish poetry, but also for a much wider spread of artistic activity. No one else in Ireland in the last few years has been as prepared as Salmon to publish previously unknown poets. Salmon has not merely accommodated new voices, it has actively sought them out. And the general cultural significance of this work has been made immeasurably more important by Salmon’s innovation in discovering and publishing the work of so many women. Poetry has been arguably the most important mode of expression for a new generation of Irish women writers, and Salmon has been the most important channel of that expression.

“In this light, though it has itself been a small and quiet enterprise, Salmon’s work in recent years has been of large and loud importance. Salmon has done Galway, Irish poetry and Irish women proud, demonstrating the great significance of forces that might have seemed to be outside the mainstream. It is important to Irish culture as a whole that that spirit should not only survive but grow and blossom.”

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jessie Lendennie for all that she has gifted us through her stewardship of Salmon over these past 40 years.

*

Waterways
By Carol Rumens

for Jessie Lendennie

Language is guiltless, even
if its first crossing-places
were excavated by swords.

You found trapped water, clear
and circling in the clutter
of false starts and their memory,

worked it free, a solid
innocence, shaping outwards
like an aquatic mammal

or a fish – a brilliant salmon –
or a poem – since poems, too,
swim in good solutions.

Language climbed out of its rust,
un-riven, un-armed, received
its voices, its listening.

*

Eva Bourke

Dear Jessie, when I think of us, how young we were! If only...

... we could have just another one or even five minutes of those days,
(but let’s not be greedy), when our hair was blond or red or black and our dresses
were loose and light, six of us or more, a circle of friends in the lamp’s glow
inside a lit-up circle of words, the streets in our small town
wet and dark, the day tasting of rain water and salt.
I’d love just one more of those days that weighed light,
with us arguing about nothing less substantial, nothing
of more consequence than a line in a poem –an obscure or jarring line,
or a word picked up on a street corner, or left behind
in a rumpled bed, an appeal stuck to a mirror, a word
birthed by a clammy sea like a bag of sludge, a word
that took to the air like the colourful kites the kids let fly
on the swamp near your house. We sailed
in that rickety boat of language and you’d be the one setting the sails
with the calm assurance of a mariner.
Jessie, forgive me, in a watery city like Galway
where the sea rises a little each year,
the nautical metaphors are as plentiful as flotsam found on the strand.
I remember your loose-fitting dresses you’d cut out from patterns,
fusible, interfacing, wide trim and flap and single fold,
poplin strewn with flowers, lawn, linen, spotted silk;
there was as much finesse and craft in your dresses
as in the complex patterning of a verse,
and I used to imagine a poem that came easy,
a poem I could live in like a favourite dress, something light and loose.
When I think of you now, so many decades later,
mother of poets, up in your clifftop aerie,
where the cliff face below you is patterned white
with the gentle streaks of bird shit left by world-travelling birds,

I see you walking with your trusted sheepdogs,
more a flock than a pack in this wind-swept precipitous place,
with puffins and kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots for company
as well as the odd fiach dubh, the stern priestly raven,
cruising the thermals or winging it back to his nest of sticks.
Dear Jessie, we owe you a life time’s gratitude,
you built your house of poetry with love and persistence over the years,
made from patterns of words, of lines that connect worlds,
a house with room for so many to live in:
welcoming, spacious, airy, light.

The festschrift, Days of Clear Light, has a foreword by President Michael D Higgins (who started his publishing career with Salmon back in 1990 when we published his debut collection, The Betrayal) and is edited by Nessa O’Mahony and Alan Hayes, whose introduction is published above. It has contributions from over 100 Irish and international poets and can be purchased via the Salmon website. On Wednesday, January 6th, at 8pm, Salmon is hosting a Facebook Live launch for the festschrift.

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