‘Sing against the storm’: 10 years of The Moth
The directors and 10 contributors reflect on one of Ireland’s best literary magazines
A decade of covers of The Moth
By 2010 my husband Will and I had endured two harsh winters in Ireland – the first in an old farmhouse with a hole in the front door and a “central heating” ystem that meant walking into the living room was like stepping into a different meteorological zone. We wore hats and coats in bed.
Then the spring came, and we had the cheerful idea of publishing an art & literature magazine. Without even a glance at the competition, we went ahead and published the first issue of The Moth, featuring the likes of Dermot Healy, Pat McCabe and Leanne O’Sullivan. It was launched upstairs in the Abbey Bar in Cavan Town, and what a night that was.
We still harp on about the woman in Tralee picking up a copy of the first issue in her local garage, but it really did mean the world to us – that someone who would never dream of buying a literary journal should buy a copy of our little magazine. You want to be able to reach out and say to readers, here, this story is so funny, or, don’t you think that painting is beautiful? That’s all it comes down to really.
Ten years on, we’re grateful to so many people – obviously the writers and artists who have made all 40 magazines, but also the bookshops and libraries and garages which stock it, and of course our readers.
We had planned a series of events – in Ireland and the UK – as well as an exhibition at the Museum of Literature Ireland to celebrate our 10 years. But we can celebrate in other ways – by carrying on, as long as we can, publishing magazines that we hope people genuinely want to pick up. We’re not state funded, so every sale makes a difference to us.
“The answer to the still present threat of a silent spring is for us to sing against the storm.” These are the words of Richard Mabey, one of the UK’s foremost nature writers and, we’re proud to say, the judge of the inaugural Moth Nature Writing Prize, which we launched in the spring issue of The Moth. As long as it is viable we will carry on providing prizes like this, which help to give writers and artists a deadline to aim for, and an opportunity to sing against the storm.
For details of this and all our other prizes see www.themothmagazine.com.
Colour is the word that first comes to mind when I think of The Moth. Inside and out, it’s drenched in glorious colour. At home, if I let it out of my hand, it leaks beauty all over the sofa, or the kitchen worktops. It lifts a room just by lying there! There’s a co-creating, an alchemy, that happens when image and word are placed in close proximity. In The Moth, the visual art and the writing each have their own thing going on, but together, side by side, something extra happens as they infiltrate each other. For example, in the autumn 2018 issue, a painting by Alex Kanevsky, Nurses with Wine, sits between the pages of Caoilinn Hughes’ magnificent short story Psychobabble. That issue opens with Matthew Sweeney’s powerful poem Shadow of the Owl and also contains a fascinating interview with Kit de Waal. It’s a mix that’s simply stunning.
Danielle McLaughlin’s short story collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, was published in 2015 by the Stinging Fly Press. In 2019, she was a Windham-Campbell Prize recipient and won the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award. Her first novel, Retrospective, will be published in 2021.
What I like most about The Moth is its formal elegance – in the Babel that is this digital age suggesting, perhaps, the sensibility and mellifluous tones of the monocle-wielding, butterfly-inspecting top-hatted Eustace Tilly of the New Yorker – but, happily perhaps, not quite so self-consciously urbane. Perhaps, who knows, even just a little bit envious, as this particular genus (Mythimna Unipuncta) goes waltzing by, and we hear him exclaim, in those round even tones synonomous with steam radio and The Walter Kerr Theatre: “Why, I do believe I may now have a rival with which to contend.” An appraisal with which Mr Nabakov would unhesitatingly concur – if the celebrated lepidopterist happened to be fortunate enough to bag this in his net – chock-full, as they say, of the finest belles-lettres: not to mention incisive interviews to equal The Paris Review. Happy birthday, The Moth – it’s a privilege.
Patrick McCabe was twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Irish Times Fiction Award for The Butcher Boy. His other novels include The Dead School, Breakfast on Pluto, Winterwood and Heartland.
My main reason for loving The Moth magazine is an entirely selfish one: it was the first publication to take a chance on me, on merit, by publishing a plotless story about my dead brother that made absolutely no sense, in which I really hadn’t a bog’s arse what I was doing, when no other journal wanted to know.
“I would love to publish Berry Nide in the spring issue of The Moth. Am I too late?!” editor Rebecca emailed in January 2014, and that was it. A peculiar turn in the road when an editor tells you what you write is worth it, and from there you are able to tell yourself … no longer an imposter.
Later that year I was a prizewinner in The Moth Short Story Prize, and a year later I was published in The Long Gaze Back (which led to a book deal for short stories, which led to a book deal for a novel, and so it goes).
The art; the interviews; the poetry; even the contents page, which is always chock with international writers, not just the usual suspects. And the fact that it’s just enough to sit down and gorge on, like a good non-stinky cheese or delicious new-fangled chocolate wine (Dada No. 8!) It is very carefully curated, and there’s no editorial telling you what to think, it sings for itself. An absolute gem.
June Caldwell’s short story collection Room Little Darker was published by New Island Books (2017) and Head of Zeus (2018). Her novel Little Town Moone is forthcoming from John Murray.
Marianne Moore once praised the work of Elizabeth Bishop for its “uninsistence”, for not imposing its riches upon us. That word always comes to mind when the brown A4 envelope with the Cavan postmark flops on our doormat.
I like how The Moth creeps up on you at irregular intervals, just when you’ve forgotten you subscribe, a gorgeous flea-market of poems and stories and artwork. There is never any theme, no presiding ideologies other than the surprise of language and colour and form. I always get something from it. Matthew Sweeney’s last published poem about an owl. Beautiful. The interview with Wendy Erskine, where she recalls celebrating a book deal by sipping tequila and orange in pyjamas at her fire. The Moth, as befits its name, specializes in tiny poems such as Freya by Meabh Ann McCrossan:
Between the two of us,
there’s three of us –
next week she’ll be a lime
I hope she gets my eyes,
and the heart of a fucking lion.
I don’t know who Meabh Ann McCrossan is. I just like her poem and I take hope that a magazine like The Moth exists to publish poems like it.
Conor O’Callaghan has published five collections of poetry with Gallery Press. His first novel, Nothing on Earth, was published in 2016 and shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. His second novel, We Are Not in the World, will now be published early next year.
What I love about The Moth magazine is that it honours the visual arts as well as the written word. Through it, I have discovered many new writers and have re-acquainted myself with others that may have slipped from my mind over the years. And I think too that there is something very sincere about the way it nurtures new work by offering competitions, workshops as well as the use of creative studios.
From a small corner of rural Ireland The Moth has reached out and spread its wings across the country and way beyond, gaining an international audience over the past 10 years. Long may it continue!
Christine Dwyer Hickey is a novelist and short story writer. Her novel Tatty has been chosen as the Dublin One City One Book for 2020. Her latest novel, The Narrow Land, was shortlisted for the Irish Novel of the Year 2019 and has just been shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.
There are numerous high-quality literary journals being published in Ireland, but surely none is more gorgeous in terms of design and illustration than The Moth. They publish fine stories and poems in there but, having a degraded capacity to concentrate on fiction or poetry, coupled with a ravenous appetite for the details of people’s private lives – in particular their failings and misfortunes – I always go straight for the interviews. They’re consistently engrossing.
I’ve just read, in the latest issue, candid and amusing interviews with the short-story writer Wendy Erskine and the poet Simon Armitage. I too once gave a candid and amusing interview to The Moth. I remember reading it afterwards and thinking that Will Govan, my interviewer, had made me seem a likeable and reasonable guy, for which I was grateful. Another thing I remember is that Will is among the few people I’ve ever met who are as tall as I am – in other words, the same height as Osama bin Laden.
Rob Doyle is the author of Here Are the Young Men and This Is the Ritual. His new novel, Threshold, was published by Bloomsbury in January.
Although it feels like a very young magazine, The Moth is a fitting successor to the indispensable THE SHOp. The colour and light in the artwork is warmly attractive, there’s a careful balance of poetry and prose, of established with new writers, of interviews with clear photographs. I enjoy that the back and front cover are the same, that it seems Irish but spreading far, and that it promotes people via competitions, one of which offers the highest prize ever for just one entry.
Medbh McGuckian is the author of over 20 poetry collections including most recently Love, The Magician (2018).
Round about 2011 I had returned to Galway from a stint abroad, ostensibly primed to lash out the great Irish novel, but really, as has been my writerly wont, to while away significant stretches of time toying with various forms – short story, radio drama, doggerel poetry.
It so happened that a handful of these poetic efforts made their errant way to the newly arrived Moth magazine. To my delight, over the next few issues, three of these poems were taken, thus providing an oh-so-timely boost to my dithering aspirations. As a writer I have come up through the pages of literary journals and magazines. My earliest stories and poems found homes in publications such as West47, Crannóg, Southword, THE SHOp, The Penny Dreadful.
I am very glad I can include The Moth in this list. It is beautiful to look at. I love its matte-finish cover; its less-is-more design; the fact that it is put together in its entirety in a private art studio in a Cavan farmhouse. The content is an artistic smorgasbord, an always surprising and right-up-there quality mix of poetry, fiction, interviews and drop-dead gorgeous artwork. It’s a classy and accessible creation, and I am very grateful for its existence.
Alan McMonagle’s first novel, Ithaca, was nominated for the Desmond Elliott Prize, the International Dublin Literary Award and an Irish Book Award. His second novel, Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame, wase published by Picador this month.
I’d always associated The Moth with excellent poetry, short stories and illuminating interviews, but it wasn’t until my story Honey was published in it that I got a fuller sense of the skill with which the images in the publication are handled.
Visual art (particularly painting) when paired with literature can quite often go horribly wrong. Either the image (or image-detail) gets subdued into the role of mere illustration, or the image itself overwhelms the text it is placed nearby. What I admire in The Moth is how the relationship between text and image is balanced. Each publication produces many moments of synthesis between the text and accompanying image that also always allows both works to breathe easily.
An edition of The Moth, I think, is as much a finely weighted collage of text and image as it is a sturdy literary journal of international standing and aspect.
Adrian Duncan’s first novel, Love Notes from a German Building Site, was published by The Lilliput Press and Head of Zeus in 2019. A Sabbatical in Leipzig, was published by The Lilliput Press this month.
It’s always a good day when The Moth wings its way to me in the post. Even before opening its pages, the first thing to enjoy is the exquisite artwork on the front cover. What I particularly admire about the magazine is that space is given over solely to the writing and artwork; contributors’ biographies are not included at the back.
This democratising effect permits work by established poets, authors and artists to sit side by side with the work of developing artists, and with the result that each contribution is read for its merits first, and author second.
The eclectic mix of poems and stories, selected for inclusion by Rebecca O’Connor, are literary standard bearers. The author interviews are varied and enlightening; that so much can be gleaned in such an apparently brief exchange is testament to Will Govan’s interviewing skills. The Moth occupies a special place in my journal reading because, as Keats says, A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness.
Eleanor Hooker’s third poetry collection Mending the Light is completed. She is working on her fourth collection and a novel. Eleanor is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. She is helm on Lough Derg RNLI Lifeboat. She curates the Rowan Tree Readings. Her website is www.eleanorhooker.com