Jessie Lendennie, Salmon and the Irish literary world

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When one examines the Irish poetry world over the past 40 years, it is evident that one individual has done more than any other to channel a more modern Ireland, to develop Irish literature, to move poetry forward, to launch new and diverse voices, and to bring large and appreciative audiences to poetry, locally, nationally and internationally. That person is Jessie Lendennie.

Lendennie is a visionary, an outsider, an American, a woman, a bohemian living on the west coast as far away as is possible from the centres of power in the arts world. Her experience of working in 1970s London in the Poetry Society gave her an insight into the damage that could be done by conservative voices and dysfunctional power structures. After moving to Ireland in 1981 she met a poetry world which needed a shake up. She had a vision to make it more relevant and more representative.

It has been said that Irish poetry has an “inherited male tradition”. That statement – obviously – is incorrect. Women have always written and published, and a little research shows that Irish literature has often been more diverse than generally presumed. Early 20th-century Ireland had a large number of literary presses and, while male authors predominated, there was a significant amount of women also writing poetry, plays, fiction and criticism.

The latter half of the century brought a more traditional and conservative publishing climate. Dolmen Press was the pre-eminent literary publisher of poetry in Ireland from the 1950s until the late 1980s. In the 1960s and 1970s poets could also submit manuscripts to a number of small presses such as New Writers Press, Sáirséal agus Dill and Goldsmith, while mainstream presses such as Blackstaff and Gill occasionally published poetry.

The Festschrift in honour of Jessie Lendennie and in celebration of 40 years of Salmon Poetry

Generally, male poets were chosen (though Mercier did publish Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s debut in 1981). The foundation by Peter Fallon of Tara Telephone and Gallery Press in 1970 was a major development with its distinctive classical, stylish and traditional volumes, though a gender imbalance was there from the beginning – in the 1970s alone over 30 male writers were published, and only one female (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin).

In 1977 Dermot Bolger founded the influential Raven Arts Press, and over the next 15 years published important new, radical and working-class authors, although less than a handful were women. Arlen House published Eavan Boland’s In Her Own Image (1980) and Night Feed (1982) – arguably the most groundbreaking collections from this time – though unfortunately the press’s plans to address the dire situation facing women poets didn’t come to fruition then.

The energetic Irish language publisher Coiscéim, founded in 1980 by Pádraig Ó Snodaigh, published a very small number of women poets in the 1980s. Dedalus Press, founded in 1985 by John F Deane, published a large number of interesting new and traditional voices, though only a tiny number by women; this improved when the press was relaunched by Pat Boran in 2006.

The most diverse list in the mid-1980s came from the tiny, poorly-funded Beaver Row Press (1982-1991) which published Eithne Strong, Leland Bardwell, Anne Hartigan, Lynda Moran, Glenda Cimino and Paula Meehan’s debut and second collections. The evidence shows that the more funding available, the more traditional the publishing choices – the reasons why need to be further interrogated.

Thus when Jessie Lendennie decided in 1985 to start publishing poetry collections alongside The Salmon journal, she had to address an imbalanced Irish literary and publishing world which needed a major shake-up. The first Salmon collection was Eva Bourke’s debut, Gonella (1985), launched by Michael D Higgins in Galway. The following year saw Goddess on the Mervue Bus by Rita Ann Higgins, debut poetry by a working-class writer which sold in thousands, an unheard-of feat in Irish poetry.

Over the following years Salmon published the debut collections by women who have become an integral part of the Irish and international literary world such as Mary O’Malley, Moya Cannon, Mary O’Donnell and Elaine Feeney; in fact over 100 debut authors have been launched to date.

However, Salmon has never focused solely on women writers; indeed they have almost always had a relatively equal gender balance. They published the debut collection by Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland; the debut and second collections by Theo Dorgan, then director of Poetry Ireland; the debut and subsequent collections by Gerard Donovan, the Booker-nominated novelist; the debut collection by John O’Donohue (who later wrote the international bestseller Anam Cara); and the debut and subsequent collections by Eamonn Wall, one of the most prominent Irish Studies academics in the US.

One of their earliest books, Two Women, Two Shores (1989), is an imaginative and experimental cross-Atlantic collaboration between American poet Nuala Archer and Belfast visionary Medbh McGuckian. Indeed, Salmon was the first mainstream Irish press to publish McGuckian, who has subsequently published with Gallery Press and Arlen House.

Salmon also does not only confine its work to poetry; Patricia Forde’s debut young adult novel, Tír faoi Thoinn/The Land Beneath the Sea, first appeared in 1991; Patricia Burke Brogan’s revolutionary play about a Magdalene laundry, Eclipsed, was first published in 1994 and reissued many times; In the Chair, John Brown’s fascinating collection of interviews with poets from the North of Ireland, including Heaney, Longley, Montague, Mahon and McGuckian, appeared in 2002; and Joan McBreen’s anthology, The White Page/An Bhileog Bhán: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets (1999) is a critical and crucial piece of scholarship which has gone into multiple editions.

Lendennie has always been interested in international voices, and Salmon has published world-renowned writers such as Adrienne Rich, Ray Bradbury, Carol Ann Duffy, Robin Skelton, Jean Valentine, Marvin Bell and Eavan Boland. Lendennie has also honoured an older generation of poets such as Eithne Strong, James Liddy, Leland Bardwell and Robert Greacen.

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