Does Cúirt need to go back to the books?


Ancillary events and arty spin-offs have become as much a part of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature experience as the big-name readings and discussions

WHEN CÚIRT FIRST started in Galway 27 years ago, it’s more than likely at least some of those attending wouldn’t even have had a landline in their homes. The interface between writer and audience, be they readers at home or actually sitting in the same space as each other, as in a festival, has changed totally in the intervening decades. Audiences now attending literary festivals can Google information about writers on their smartphones as they listen; tweet pictures and feedback in real time; and engage with the experience in a radically different way.

It’s obvious any festival has to change and adapt over time in order to retain and grow its audience. Figuring out where to go with a long-established literature festival such as Cúirt, which has been based on a traditional model of readings and panel discussion, is a particular challenge: how do you move forward and retain your core integrity?

In recent years, Cúirt, which ended on Sunday, has started introducing outreach and ancillary elements to its programme. Headed by managing director Páraic Breathnach and programme director Dani Gill, the festival now includes what once would have been considered as fringe events in the main programme.

This year, those fringe events composed roughly half of the entire programme. There were two poetry slams; three theatre shows, a pop-up “poetry studio” that popped up twice; an afternoon tea at the Meyrick Hotel; a visual-art exhibition by Brian Bourke “pertaining to William Blake”; a “history discussion with three young historians”; a “verbal restaurant” where “prices per performance vary according to the menu”; and a number of “music and poetry”, and “song, spoken word and shenanigans” events. “Collaboration” is the conveniently elastic word that appears to link them all.

“Ebook versus real book” was the title of a panel discussion on Thursday. “When people say the book is dead, what they really mean is that the paperback is dead,” declared Matthew Young, a graphic designer at Penguin. “Bespoke books and collectible hardbacks will continue to have a market, but the paperback is dead, or dying.”

Apparently 10 per cent of books sold last year were e-books, although those figures in Ireland were “maybe 1 per cent”, according to Irish publisher Eoin Purcell. Data for the number of e-books sold is much more difficult to access than that for sales of printed books.

An audience member asked the panel what they considered to be the future of bookshops. “Community is what will make certain bookshops survive,” Purcell said. “Engaging with readers, holding events, bringing people in.”

Isolde Roche, from Pan Macmillan’s marketing department, pointed out that the main challenge for the publishing industry was not in fretting about the merits of printed books versus e-books, but of simply “getting people reading. The real battle is converting non-readers to readers.”

In the bar of the Town Hall on Thursday, four poets, Susan Millar DuMars, Sarah Maria Griffin, Lisa Keegan and Dave Rock were fronting a “pop-up collaborative poetry studio”. Members of the public were asked to answer a number of questions, including, “Who/what is the subject of this poem” and “What are the first 10 words that come to mind when you think of your subject?” You then handed over the completed form, a poet wrote a poem on the spot, and read it in front of you.

Twenty minutes after Rock had received my completed form – the subject I chose was the IMF, and among my 10 words were lies, indebted, and humiliated – the 44-line poem was ready. Titled The IMF Men, it included these lines: “Can’t even blame them/ these men who clear the ditch/ we’ve dug through our home/ those mouths crunching/ and chomping over bowls/ of ones and zeros/ were all Irish to begin.”

“Some poems take years to finish, but some can be started in 15 minutes,” Rock explained. “We’re not offering perfection. It’s a draft.”

One of Thursday’s afternoon events featured Louise Stern, an American-born short-story writer, playwright, artist, and performance artist, who is currently working on a novel.

Stern is deaf and cannot speak. Her very short story, Boat, was read by Oliver Pouliot, while Stern occasionally performed a simple physical movement from the story, but out of synch with the narrative. This unfortunately proved more of a distraction from the text than the “spatial perspective to the written word” promised in the programme.

The after-discussion, which was signed via Pouliot, mostly focused not on literature, but on the challenges of being deaf, and if Stern has ever considered getting a cochlear implant (no).

On Friday, there was an Over the Edge showcase reading in the Town Hall. Once a month, for the last nine years, emerging writers from writing groups around the country have been invited to read their work in Galway, with an open-mic session at the end. The organisers are Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar DuMars, who is also involved in the Poetry Depot.

The readers were Sarah Maria Griffin, also of the Poetry Depot, Erin Buttner, Maeve Mulrennan, Eamon Kelly and Kevin O’Shea, who described the experience as “the highlight of my writing life so far” and dedicated poems variously to his two daughters, and his fiancée. The large, supportive and enthusiastic audience – the largest audience this reporter saw at any event – clapped after every poem.

This event was free, but a similar event, the Cúirt Poetry Grand Slam on Saturday in the Róisín Dubh, was charging a flat €6 admission for all.

“Poetry-slam performances are about delivery, energy, and content,” explained performance poet and audience member Seano “Skylark” Braonain. “Someone has to really feel what they’re delivering.” One of the four judges at the Poetry Slam was Maeve Mulrennan, who had read in the Over the Edge showcase the previous day. Again, the place was packed, with people queuing down both sides of Dominick Street before the Róisín Dubh opened its doors.

An assured Rachel Hegarty performed the first poem, which she described as “being about a young one from Finglas who has a love-hate relationship with WB Yeats and goes to Sligo to dance on his grave in red patent leather high heels”. The title was Dancing on the Grave of WB Yeats, and the crowd loved it.

There was a history discussion in the atmospheric Mechanics Institute on Middle Street on Friday evening, which is a building the general public rarely get to see. Michael Davitt spoke there in 1884. Historians Niall Whelehan, Sonja Tiernan and John Borgonovo delivered academic papers in their fields of research; Whelehan’s focused on “The Boys, Youth and Political Violence in 19th-Century Ireland, 1840-1890.”

Again, the venue was packed, but it was a baffling piece of programming, as the event had no connection with literature or even with the arts in its most general form. The event was more the kind of presentation you’d expect to hear at an academic conference or a history society meeting.

These were just some of the local ancillary events that now make up so much of the programme. Cúirt has clearly adapted its programming to include voices from far less established writers. Notwithstanding the fact there were also several writers in Galway this year with international reputations, including Christopher Reid, Ruth Padel, John Banville, Manuel Rivas, Billy Collins, David Mitchell, Amy Bloom and Lydia Davis, it could be argued that Cúirt is thus no longer purely “an international festival of literature”.