How to Put on a Poetry Festival: Patrick Cotter on the Cork International Poetry Festival 2016

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The Cork International Poetry Festival (10-13 February) kicks off the Irish literary calendar for the year and the poetry aficionados of Ireland and beyond will descend on the city to witness some of the most exciting voices in the world of poetry.

Last year, the festival played host to, among others, Don Share, Jo Shapcott, Lavinia Greenlaw, Peter Fallon, Douglas Dunn and Liz Berry. This year promises to be equally compelling. I recently caught up with the festival’s Artistic Director, Patrick Cotter, to find out what’s on the programme for 2016 and what goes into creating a major literary festival.

Patrick Cotter interviews Liz Berry and Don Share | Headstuff.org

Festival director, Patrick Cotter interviews Liz Berry and Don Share at Cork Spring Poetry Festival 2015.

ANGELA CARR: Patrick, tell us a little bit about how the Cork poetry festival started and how it came it be an annual event.

PATRICK COTTER: I’ve been director of the Munster Literature Centre since 2002. In 2004, I started a general literature festival around themes, War & Politics, Belief & Spirituality, Immigration & Emigration etc., in which I programmed novelists and poets with an emphasis on the poets. Cork has never been without writers of fiction but from the 1970s Cork has been primarily a city of poets, so catering for poetry and poets has always been a central part of the MLC’s mission.

After some years the theme format grew tired and I changed it to an annual non-themed general literature festival. One year, I was a little appalled when two of Europe’s most talented younger poets, whom I had invited to read their poetry, announced that they were instead going to read from their novels and duly did so – one in her native language with no translation available. I wanted to avoid that scenario repeating so I changed our February festival to an exclusive poetry festival the following year. Poetry Now in Dun Laoghaire, as a stand alone festival, came to an end shortly after that (Poetry Now has since been incorporated into the Mountains to Sea Festival programme – Ed.), which left the Cork festival as the best resourced poetry festival in the country with an international dimension. 2016 marks our fifth pure poetry festival.

Cork International Poetry Festival 2015 Festival 2016 | Headstuff.org

James Harpur, Emily Berry and Douglas Dunn at last year’s festival. Photos: John Minihan

Who’s on the team? Who’s responsible for putting it all together?

Belying our massive productivity, with two major annual festivals, three issues a year of the journal Southword, workshops happening at the Centre throughout the year, several annual literary competitions and a small publishing programme, there are only two full-time employees of the Munster Literature Centre: myself and Jennifer Matthews. I do all the programming. Jennifer helps with administration on the festivals, but with Jennifer extremely busy keeping an eye on much of the centre’s communications, websites (we have four) and office admin, I do much of the festival administration too, such as booking venues, hotels, flights, taxis, typesetting the print programme, arranging advertising, writing cheques, etc. We’re lucky to have a small volunteer team at festival time and of course the staff of the Cork Arts Theatre are also crucial.

There’s a lot of poetry packed into four days. What’s on the programme at this year’s festival? Who and what can we expect?

There are two competitions associated with the festival: The Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize for a single poem. We hold the chapbook comp every May but we launch the winning chapbooks with readings during the festival. This year we have two British winners Victor Tapner and Tania Hershman. The O’Donoghue prize deadline is every November and we fly in the winner to read at the festival – this year it’s Leila Chatti from the USA. In six years, the prize has been won by a woman five times. Sometimes, in my more reveried moments, I think we might have to offer a men-only competition to give the boys a chance (not really :-) ).

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Victoria Kennefick and Virginia Astley, winners of The Fool for Poetry Competition 2015. Photo: John Minihan

I believe we have a brilliant line-up this year – we have no headline marquee-famous names like Paul Muldoon, Billy Collins, Carolyn Forche, as in past years, but the quality of the programme remains excellent. One of the things I love doing is introducing brilliant unknown names. I was the first to give Brian Turner, Ilya Kaminsky and Eduardo Corral readings on this side of the Atlantic, they have since gone on to establish massive reputations for themselves, likewise we featured Karen Jolie’s first reading in Ireland. This year I’m bringing over here for the first time the American poets Paisley Rekdal and Kyle Dargan, brilliant readers, strong personalities and fantastic poets but completely unknown on this side of the pond.

I’m excited to see Ailbhe Darcey read with Caitriona O’Reilly – they are two of the best poets born in the 1970s. Gallery Press makes a contribution through the Arts Council Touring Scheme with three of their best poets, including current Poetry Ireland Review editor Vona Groarke. We have other poets from Australia, USA (Thomas Lynch) and Canada and we also have a bigger than average crop of Cork poets who have released new collections in the last six months. Imram is back again this year with a show involving poetry in Irish and English, accompanied by live music and a slide show.

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Cork International Poetry Festival 2016 programme.

We usually programme more poets from Europe than this year but the huge crop of new collections by Cork poets has displaced that element in our programme on this occasion. Yet we have Tomica Bajsic, a Croatian poet of huge significance – one of the most gentle men you could ever meet, who fought as a special forces soldier during the break up of Yugoslavia. We have a reading by Tom Pickard – a British poet I am ashamed to say avoided my radar until I saw him at Aldeburgh in 2014 – he had an audience of 1000 breaking their sides with laughter.

A crucial part of our programme is our workshops – we try to have them presented by poet-editors and poet-publishers – not just because they have an excellent eye for improving a poem but because I believe it’s important to create networking opportunities for Irish poets. Two poets who attended Don Share’s workshop last year were subsequently accepted for POETRY (Chicago). This year we have Irish Times poetry-editor Gerard Smyth and Pavilion Books editor Deryn Rees-Jones presenting workshops – each is an accomplished poet in their own right and has also edited influential anthologies.

The networking aspect of the festival is a priority for us – because our festival is the only one in the country produced by a writers’ resource centre we prioritise the poet’s experience more than other festivals do. Many teaching, publication, translation and foreign festival invitations have resulted for Irish poets after they met some of our foreign guest poets. Our festival club is renowned for its friendliness and egalitarianism – there is no green room for V.I.P’s at our festivals.

Many teaching, publication, translation and foreign festival invitations have resulted for Irish poets after they met some of our foreign guest poets.

Tell us a bit more about putting the festival together. How long does it take to plan and programme each event? Where do you start – from your own reading, recommendations, seeing poets at other events, a theme? How do you narrow it down? What kind of balance are you looking to achieve in the programme?

I spend at least two hours a day, every day, 365 days a year reading poetry – the programme is derived from that. I mostly programme poets whose work I adore. I love more poets than I have space and money to provide chances for at the festival – I’m also mindful of the Arts Council’s requirements regarding growing audiences, so I sometimes have to decide not to include a poet I love because I don’t believe they will work with our audience or gel in with the other poets on a particular year’s programme. I occasionally programme poets whose work I don’t like for the sake of pluralism – I also unashamedly feature Cork poets – either Cork residents, including blow-ins, or emigre Cork poets whether from America, Britain or Dublin. I remember the 1980s, when if you didn’t live in Belfast or Dublin, you were invisible.

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Peter Fallon, Douglas Dunn and John Fitzgerald at the Cork Spring Poetry Festival 2015.

I think it’s highly important to create decentralised canonical centres – a concentration of literary activity in Cork provides a crucial counterweight to Belfast and Dublin. We feature up and coming poets through our Prebooked Introductory Reading and through our periodical showcase readings but otherwise, if you are from outside Cork or Munster you need a prominent national or international reputation to get on the programme.

Other festivals offer many opportunities for new poets or page poets who don’t perform well as readers. With the Cork International Poetry Festival, I feel pressured to offer a programme which is worth somebody’s trouble travelling from afar to attend. We have people coming from all over Ireland, Britain and even America just to participate in the audience.

As to balance – I like to balance Cork poets with other Irish poets, Irish poets with other English language poets, English-language poets with other languages including Irish. I’ve never had to make much effort to balance the programme according to sex – that seems to naturally work itself out each year.

I also unashamedly feature Cork poets – either Cork residents, including blow-ins, or emigre Cork poets whether from America, Britain or Dublin. I remember the 1980s, when if you didn’t live in Belfast or Dublin, you were invisible.

I see this year’s festival has been rebranded as the Cork International Poetry Festival. What was the thinking behind the rebrand? How important is it to engage with the world of poetry outside Ireland? And how does Irish poetry measure up on the international stage? 

Cork International Poetry Festival | Headstuff.org

Poetry Festival Bookshop

The rebrand was to acknowledge a reality – a programme with a reach which stretches around the globe. I believe the points I have made regarding the importance of networking partly answers the question why should we engage with the world of poetry outside Ireland, but a more crucial reason is I believe the more influences we are open to as readers, the better writers of poetry we can be. Also, especially in English, publishing opportunities are now global with the internet.

Irish poetry measures up very strongly on the international stage for two main reasons – the dominance of Irish poets in English in the last half-century has created a high quality bar to reach for and we are also lucky to have access to the world’s major poets through English. Many small nations and their national poetry scenes are cut off from the rest of the world by their language. It’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond. Ireland is a small pond but the great sea of English tidally sweeps over us and we need to achieve on an international level as a result.

…the dominance of Irish poets in English, in the last half-century, has created a high quality bar to reach for and we are also lucky to have access to the world’s major poets through English. Many small nations and their national poetry scenes are cut off from the rest of the world by their language.

Last August, POETRY (Chicago) magazine, the oldest monthly poetry journal in the English-speaking world, published an all-Irish edition – its first since 1995 – featuring the work of 25 Irish poets born since 1970. How did your curation of the Young Irish Poets issue come about?

POETRY Young Irish Issue Poets Aug 2015

POETRY magazine’s Young Irish Poets Issue Aug 2015

The Young Irish Poets issue I edited was a personal project unconnected to my day-job at the Munster Literature Centre. But just as I have created opportunities for other Irish poets through MLC mediated connections I have benefited myself too. I first met Don Share when we were both country editors for the Dutch-based project www.poetryinternationalweb.net. We next met when Don was assistant editor of POETRY and I was invited by Ilya Kaminsky to bring a prominent Irish poet of my choice to the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, to record an ‘International Poets in Conversation’ podcast. Over the years we have corresponded as I sent him poems of mine and he rejected them – shortly after a gracious response from me to one of his rejections, Don asked me to edit a special Irish issue. He wanted new poets – there are at least 150 decent poets at work in Ireland, so to help me narrow down my choice I decided to feature younger Irish poets.

As well as being Artistic Director of the Cork poetry and short story festivals, you’re Director of MLC, editor of Southword, occasional judge of the Gregory O’Donoghue Competition AND a published poet in your own right. That’s a lot of hats! How do you balance being in service to writers and writing with being a writer? Are there sacrifices?

I’m only editor-in-chief of Southword. I do select books for review but all fiction and poetry is chosen by our rotating editors – I believe it’s important to rotate editors to allow for catholicity of taste. There are definitely sacrifices I need to make in my position as a poet and Artistic Director – I can’t ask or canvas for reading opportunities on behalf of myself because I cannot take the chance someone will seek a reciprocal invitation from me for the MLC – I see both roles as completely separate. In the past year, I have discovered a creative process for myself which is more productive and I have been more proactive in sending out poems for publication in journals. Also when you find yourself in a position of influence and patronage you will make enemies of people who believe you are not doing enough for them and that rebounds on your own career as a writer. Also there is the problem where many people cannot perceive a dual role and pigeonhole you solely as a curator. I once answered the phone at work to someone who said ‘I tried googling you but could only find some poet with the same name as you’. I try to limit mentions of my MLC role in my poetry publication bio notes – but inevitably, on occasion others will add the fact.

Cork International Poetry Festival

Looking back over all the past five years of the poetry festival, are there any stand-out performances or personal favourites?

Ilya Kaminsky’s public reading was phenomenal and a revelation – it was his first time reading in Britain and Ireland and nobody expected it to be that good. I had Paul Muldoon read with his wife, Jean Hanf Korelitz, and it was obvious that he enjoyed himself immensely and his own enjoyment of the occasion affected the audience. The US poet Gregory Orr is a personal hero of mine and it was great to bring him over for a reading – there are many other highlights, too many to mention.

Just for a bit of fun, if you were able to pick poets from any period of time, who would be your dream festival line-up (5 max.)?

Emily Dickenson
Ovid
Shakespeare
Pablo Neruda
Sylvia Plath

Finally, who will you be reading / should we be looking out for in 2016?

New books by Paisley Rekdal and Lo Kwa Mei-en

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Patrick Cotter lives in Cork. He works for the Munster Literature Centre. He has published several volumes of poetry. www.patrickcotter.ie


The Cork International Poetry Festival takes place from 10-13 February 2016, and tickets for all events, readings and workshops can be booked online at corkpoetryfest.net.

The January 2016 edition of Southword Journal is now available to read online.

Images: John Minihan and Munster Literature Centre.

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About Author

Angela Carr

Poet and writer, based in Dublin, with work published in literary journals and anthologies in Ireland and the UK. Winner of the Allingham Poetry Prize and the Cork Literary Review Poetry Manuscript Competition, her debut collection, How to Lose Your Home & Save Your Life was published in 2014.