The Moth: from flight of fancy to successful arts magazine
From the unlikely setting of a farmhouse in Cavan comes ‘The Moth’, one of Ireland’s ‘coolest poetry magazines’ that has now gained an international following, and is the work of a husband and wife team
Rebecca O’Connor and Will Govan:“He is the real entrepreneur,” says Rebecca, “whereas I am a big square.I would never have gone down this route without Will.”
Their eyes met over an “outrageous” model in a life drawing class in London in 2006. In a meet-cute worthy of Nora Ephron, they had nowhere else to look but at each other. A few months later, Rebecca O’Connor proposed to Will Govan after a row at a house party. What she didn’t know, was that Will already had a ring in his pocket and was just about to propose. They tied the knot at the end of 2007.
Tired of London life, and with little money in the bank, they returned to Rebecca’s native Cavan with their infant son Bruce in 2008, just as the recession was kicking off.
Seven years later, they are producing an internationally lauded poetry, art and short story magazine from their newly purchased farmhouse in Milltown, Co Cavan. The Moth is distributed to shops, newsagents and filling stations around the country. They came up with the idea one night over dinner.
“An idea evolved to produce a magazine that would feature the things we like. It was no more complicated than that,” says Will who grew up on the outskirts of London. “It was about poetry, stories and visual art . . . But the main point of it was that there would be no criticisms or analysis or commentary. We were determined that it wouldn’t be any kind of journal. It was going to be an artefact that people could pick up and enjoy.”
Their aim was to produce a literary magazine that was accessible to everybody, both in material and in price (€5). The two were a good fit from day one. Rebecca is a published poet and former commissioning editor who knows good copy when she sees it. Will had worked in trade publications before he went to art college and was confident about the advertising aspect of the magazine.
It probably also helped that they balance each other out in character. “He is the real entrepreneur,” says Rebecca, “whereas I am a big square. I would never have gone down this route without Will.”
“I grew up failing academically from a very early age and getting into trouble and that kind of thing,” says Will.
“So I’ve grown used to not being afraid of failing. The only thing I was ever good at was meeting girls really . . . I think that it helps you in business to be fearless. Having said that, unless you have someone to temper that, you’re in trouble, and that’s why Becky and I work as a business.”
He had big plans for the magazine from the beginning, wanting it to be sold in Paris and New York, not just locally, which was what Rebecca had in mind.
The magazine has doubled in size from its first edition in 2010 and has been praised by Cloud Atlas’s David Mitchell and Billy Collins, the New York Times “most popular poet in America”. It has featured well known writers such as Irvine Welsh and Eimear McBride, along with work from a host of unknown first-time writers from around the world.
Rebecca selects, edits, designs and produces the magazine, reading over 400 submissions a month from her home office.
Her contacts in the literary world were useful for the first few issues when they had to seek submissions to the magazine. Now, everything that is published is unsolicited and the quality and integrity of the writing, rather than the reputation of those who penned it, is paramount to the selection process.
“I’m looking for some kind of emotional kernel. It’s got to feel real and convincing as a piece of writing, whether it’s moving or funny, or whatever it is,” says Rebecca. “You have to stick to your guns otherwise the whole quality of the magazine is going to disintegrate.”
Will carries out the two interviews that feature in the quarterly publication and looks after their children, eight-month-old Nancy, three and a half-year-old Ralph, and seven-year-old Bruce. It helps Rebecca keep to the strict deadlines she sets herself, while also letting her work a 10am-5pm day, with plenty of time for a stress-free family life.
From their success with The Moth, the couple was able to approach Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cookery School with their idea of a poetry prize. They wanted a well-known, wholesome Irish brand to support it. Allen, who liked the look of the magazine, has sponsored the Ballymaloe Prize since it launched in 2011.
The prize is now worth €10,000 to the winner, making it the biggest poetry prize in the world for a single poem. It receives an average of 3,000 submissions per year and this year’s competition will be judged by Billy Collins.
The Ballymaloe Prize, along with The Moth short story prize (worth €1,000 and funded by the couple themselves) are effective ways of marketing the magazine, which otherwise has largely grown by word of mouth. While they have social media accounts, Rebecca admits that they probably don’t do enough with them and would love to be in a position to hire somebody to help with the marketing.
Currently they employ one person for six hours a week to help with queries. Everything else, down to sticking the stamps on the magazine’s envelopes, happens from their home in Cavan.
Along with The Moth, the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize and The Moth short story competition they also produce The Caterpillar magazine, a literary and arts magazine for seven to 11-year-olds that was chosen as one of the top 10 children’s poetry books by the Guardian in 2013. As with The Moth, Rebecca single handedly produces the magazine while Will reads from it to schools around Cavan.
For Will, reading to students is more than just a PR exercise.
“I was labelled dyslexic when I was at school. I was kind of like a chronic underachiever and I got some kind of salvation from poetry when I was a youngster. You like to think that maybe one person in all of the schools that you’ve gone to will think, ‘golly I’d like to write poetry’ and it may make a difference to a kid. In my case, to feel you’re quite good at something can help you achieve lots of other things . . . I’m quite attached to The Caterpillar.”
Along with teaching local people to paint in the couples’ art studio in Cavan town, Will also runs Moth Productions. The theatre company was set up after an attempt to publish new drama in the early editions of The Moth fell flat. Will, who had never before produced a play, put on a number of productions including The Pitch and The Quare Land. He secured Calor Gas as a sponsor, linked with local GAA clubs to ensure an audience and toured them around the country to great acclaim.
But when he tried to repeat the success last year, with a different play, a larger cast and no sponsor, it almost crippled the business. “We went to this one place and they considered it racist and anti-church and word got out and suddenly we had these clubs calling to say that the chairman’s had a heart attack or the electricity is gone and the venue has changed and suddenly the whole thing fell apart. And then actors, professional actors, behaved outrageously. I had to draw a line under it. We were massively over budget on the whole thing.”
At the moment the couple is focused on getting their new home set up. Their main aim is to convert an old barn near the house into a residential studio. Next year they plan to run an art prize, which will not only have a monetary value, but a month’s residency, too.
“We only pursue things we are really genuinely excited about because life is too short, frankly,” says Rebecca.
“The best thing we have is time,” says Will. “Time we can spend with the kids and so on. We are making a living that we are happy with. It’s lovely, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”