Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

Winter Papers 9: handsomely designed and just as eclectic as the first

It must be thrilling for the chosen to see their work knowing it won’t disappear into cyberspace if someone hits the wrong computer key

Winter Papers 9
Author: Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith, editors
ISBN-13: 978-0-9933029-8-5
Publisher: Curlew Editions
Guideline Price: €40

Literary journals tend to be short-lived. They arrive with a burst of energy and a nose thumbed at the status quo, only to fold when the editors bicker or tire or run out of money. Take Wyndham Lewis’s Blast, published to Vorticist fanfare in 1914 and dead in the water after two issues. Countless poetry quarterlies like Big Sky (Bolinas, 1970s) still spring up in far-flung California towns and wither on the vine.

Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith deserve credit for sticking with it. The ninth edition of Winter Papers is as handsomely designed and printed as the first and just as eclectic. Their selections range across various disciplines with more fact-based writing than fiction. Only one poet makes the cut, Dean Browne, whose Octopus is the best of his three poems.

Winter Papers opens with Peter Murphy’s first-rate oral history of the circus in Ireland. He converses with the troupers from legendary outfits like Fossett’s and Duffy’s, who speak an esoteric big-top lingo called Polari when they want to foil the rozzers, or police. They love the work despite the hardships, much worse in the old days when they hauled lions, tigers, llamas, and elephants from site to site in bad weather. Though David Dubby misses the animals, he doesn’t miss “the logistics.” Colin Barron’s intimate photos of performers compliment the piece.

Among the fiction standouts is Jess Raymon’s “Dancing Zombie Squid” about a fisherman hooked on YouTube videos of exotic sea creatures, who becomes an unlikely hero by saving a swimmer in distress. Raymon has a fine comic touch, and her droll dialogue is pitch perfect. David Toms offers an elegiac tribute to his late father, a natty gent who favored Grenson’s brogues polished to a high sheen. “My dad made it [the polishing] a ritual,” says Toms. “Almost a duty. It was part of getting ready to face the world.” He writes simply and clearly, and his sentences punch above their weight.


Kathleen MacMahon turns the familiar story of a failed marriage on its head. The jilted wife in question, Moya, can’t bring herself to be angry when her husband dumps her for his pregnant girlfriend. “Oh, thank God,” she exclaims when he confesses, expecting to hear that he has cancer! “I thought you were going to tell me something awful!” Moya wastes no time feeling sorry for herself. She takes a job teaching lonely men in rural areas how to cook, seducing them one by one.

Vona Groarke’s “Codex” is the most sophisticated and challenging story, a tightly woven account of a traveling scribe for hire. His box with its inkpot, quills and pen knife is “worth more than I am,” and his vellum and pigment don’t come cheap. He’s received graciously at every castle, strong house, or keep because “a wise lord knows a hand cramped with cold writes slowly, and an empty stomach yields a fallow page…” Groarke’s mastery of period detail and the quality of her prose bring the unlikely material to life.

Here, too, is Rob Doyle riffing on The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Michael Ondaatje’s book about the famed editor of such classics as Apocalypse Now and the Godfather trilogy. As ever Doyle is unafraid to digress, so we learn why he hasn’t read Ondaatje’s novels and admires the “diabolic author Curzio Malaparte.” He’s good at Murch’s strategy for cutting movies that seem too long. There’s the “spaghetti sauce” method, the editor mixing different elements and “tasting” the results; and the more brutal “Procrustian” approach, hacking off scenes until the studio’s happy and the director’s heartbroken.

Winter Papers features several photo spreads, but the images are seldom crisp enough to do the photographers justice. The most striking are those of Steve Pyke. They accompany Gareth Evans’ interview with Timothy O’Grady, who speaks incisively about reporting on the conflict in Northern Ireland. O’Grady describes how he became a writer with an honesty instruction to any young person who hopes to be published. “You must fail,” a Zen poet in London advises him. “I took that to heart,” he says. “I would spend ten years writing dead sentences.”

Winter Papers runs to 183 pages, inviting a reader to skip around. Not all the writers are as accomplished as Groarke and Doyle, or as precise as Toms. Some essayists juggle too many themes and wind up dropping the ball. Others are too tentative and unsure of their footing, approaching their subject on tiptoe. They’re learning on the job but full of promise.

Winter Papers continues to be an excellent showcase for both established and emerging Irish talent. It must be thrilling for the chosen to see their work presented in such an elegant, durable format, knowing it won’t disappear into cyberspace if someone hits the wrong computer key.