I was delighted to be asked by Maria McManus to curate the “Hour by Hour” LGBT edition of her hugely successful Jukebox project in Belfast. Maria, if you’re not aware, is a whirlwind who won’t be satisfied until every person on the island of Ireland has encountered a poem in a public space.
And what I admire about her efforts is that quality is never compromised; Maria is devoted to bringing good poetry to the public. So, I had to maintain the standards. That wasn’t difficult though, as LGBT writers are producing some of the most interesting and challenging work today, both here in Ireland and further afield. And importantly, in relation to those Irish writers we’ve included, this Jukebox project represents the first “anthology” of LGBT writing on this island – albeit one that is very far from being comprehensive. There are significant writers not included here and for that I apologise, but if this begins a discussion about a print anthology that celebrates LGBT contributions to Irish poetry, then those omissions can be corrected.
From the outset, I knew that I wanted to include writers from both North and South of the Border – a Border that has taken on a new and complicated significance since Brexit. The thought of a revived, enforceable Border seems to me abhorrent and dangerous, especially for minority groups on either side of that Border. At a time when the acceptance of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage in the Republic has become a politically weaponised issue in the North, it is especially important to illustrate the very real sense of unity and support across this island that exists among the LGBT community.
And the Jukebox recordings are representative of the top-drawer work produced North and South. It features pioneering poets Mary Dorcey and Colette Bryce and acknowledges the high-profile political activism and literary talents of writers such as Sarah Clancy and Vincent Creelan. And we have a sample of an emerging generation of LGBT writers whose contributions to contemporary Irish poetry are equally significant: Paula Cunningham, whose debut (Heimlich’s Manoeuvre: Smith/Doorstop) was shortlisted for the 2013 Fenton Aldeburgh Best First Collection Prize, the 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for First Collection, and the 2014 Shine/Strong Award; Gail McConnell, a lecturer at Queen’s, and an incredible talent who has recently won two UK-based pamphlet competitions; Erin Halliday, who has two publications with Templar Poetry (Chrysalis and Pharmakon) and is the recipient of an Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary; the astonishing Annemarie Ní Churreáin, whose debut (Bloodroot; Doire Press) was justly praised; Padraig Regan, a Gregory Award winner with highly acclaimed pamphlets from Lifeboat Press and Emma Press; the recent Patrick Kavanagh Award winner Conor Cleary; Anna Loughran, whose debut pamphlet, Chords of Inquiry (Lifeboat Press), confirms that the future is bright; Micheál McCann, who along with Anna studies at the Seamus Heaney Centre and who read at a Lifeboat event alongside Mark Doty; and Rosamund Taylor, winner of the inaugural Mairtín Crawford Award who, along with Toby Buckley, was featured at a recent Poetry Ireland reading designed to acknowledge new LGBT writers.
I was also keen to include poets from across the Irish Sea and even further afield, in order to underscore the sense of unity with LGBT communities outside of Ireland. English poet Andrew McMillan made one of the most dramatic and lauded debuts in recent years with physical (Cape), heralding a heightened interest in emerging LGBT writers. I include in this group Leeds-based Ian Harker, who I heard read in Matlock-Bath and his poem Blue God had to be included in the Jukebox. It is one of the most moving and beautiful poems I know about the burgeoning of (gay) love. Critic and poet Seán Hewitt impressed me greatly at a reading in Armagh and his frank and passionate poems are already creating a stir; a debut collection cannot be far off. Seán is a postdoctoral research fellow at Trinity and let’s hope we see him reading regularly across this island during his time in Ireland.
As much as Irish poetry might be rooted firmly in the island’s rural and urban landscapes, and as much as it is heavily influenced by Irish poetic traditions, it’s my experience that we look to LGBT traditions outside of this island for much of our inspiration – perhaps largely because the LGBT tradition here is not celebrated in the way it is in North America and in England. American writers such as Eileen Myles and Ocean Vuong are having a profound influence on LGBT writers in Ireland and I’m thrilled that both readily agreed to be included in the Jukebox. Ocean is a remarkable talent and his debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape, 2017), has been justly rewarded with critical acclaim and high-profile prizes, including the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the TS Eliot Prize. Eileen, too, has a huge following in Ireland, a place that she has grown to love over the past few years.
Another of those influential Americans is, of course, Mark Doty who is currently the International Visiting Poetry Fellow at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University. When I introduced him at the launch of the Jukebox at the Sunflower, I suggested that he is one of those on whom LGBT writers’ poems are built. I stand by that and to have him read at the launch underscored the sense of occasion felt by many attending the launch.
But if we need inspiration and a reminder that the fight for LGBT rights is ongoing – a fight that regularly involves immense bravery – then we need look no further than the example set by Leen Hashem, who lives openly as queer in Lebanon, where she campaigns for LGBT issues. Leen was recommended to myself and Maria by Ruth McCarty, who heads the Outburst festival, and we are thrilled to have included her work. No one who heard her read her poems in Arabic at the launch could doubt that here was a woman of passion, talent and courage; an immense force for good in the world. And the Jukebox contains voices that are her equal.
Dr Paul Maddern is a former fellow of creative writing at University of Leeds. He owns and runs The River Mill, a writers' retreat in Co Down: the-river-mill.co.uk. His forthcoming collection The Tipping Line will be published by Templar. Poetry Jukebox is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, National Lottery. Enquiries about Poetry Jukebox and the Travelling Poetry Jukebox should be directed to Maria McManus @poetryjukebox