How to be a Child? – a Carmel Benson Exhibition @ The Mermaid (Bray)


Carmel Numbered


“How to be a Child?” is the title of Carmel Benson’s latest exhibition. Themes familiar from the artist’s earlier work recur but in newly explicit forms: here, the solitary, watching figure is that of a young girl who faces the viewer through or from under a veil. Foetuses (sometimes numbered) seem to fall from the sky, or else they dangle from placentas, accompanied by the chilling words Mea Culpa. Words from Catholic prayers and from the Catechism overlie the figures or emerge from the background.

In a programme note, Ciaran Benson observes that ‘the ‘Catechism’ was probably the most important book in the lives of Catholic children’ when the artist was growing up. He also observes that this show marks a shift in her work: for the first time, history and autobiography are apparent. In addition, it seems to me that a critical awareness and challenge are apparent in these paintings, where earlier work was more allusive.


Carmel Mantra


Some of the more striking images include: a representation of a child’s dress in a hopeful shade of innocent blue, marred by the muddy handprints of an adult and overwritten by the words of the ‘Hail Mary’; the miserable face of a young girl, veiled, behind a rain of foetuses; and a triptych of the artist’s grandmother (‘Matriarch’), where a strong, unsmiling female figure is associated with a serpent/rosary beads/missal, a newborn baby, and a newly-killed chicken in turn. Each of the Matriarch paintings is inscribed with the Latin phrase ‘Introibo ad Altare Dei/I will go onto the altar of God’, as if the Matriarch delivers the child into the hands of an institution whose texts will demean, disempower and despise her.

Matriarch (Detail)

Matriarch (Detail)

Themes of sexuality and birth are threaded through the work, along with the oppressive phraseology of Catholic classrooms, dogma and ritual: ‘Through my fault’; ‘Our passions incline us to evil’; ‘Why did God make the world? For his own glory and man’s use and benefit’ – this last chillingly inscribed on blocks of darkening blues that overwhelm two small girls in Communion dresses at the centre of the painting.


Carmel for his own glory

for his own glory

The exhibition is timely, but the work has been in the making since long before the most recent spate of scandals about the religious orders and their treatment of women and children emerged. The juxtaposition of Catholic dogma with images of loneliness, confusion, foetuses and placentas makes a clear statement about the disturbing and distorting effect of such dogma on the psyche of children … Some older images are included in the show, demonstrating a continuity in Carmel Benson’s focus to date but also drawing our attention to the shifting ground and  breaking point at which we’ve arrived.  “How to be a Child?” raises exciting possibilities. What will this artist do next?

The images (reproduced here with permission) can be seen at – but for full impact, go to the exhibition. It runs for another two weeks – until 7th September – in The Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray

(NB: for some reason, the exhibition is not listed on the Mermaid’s home page, but you’ll find it under Exhibitions/Current Exhibition)

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Two poetry competitions from The Moth

This just came in from Claire Mulligan @ The Moth Magazine (

Details of this year’s Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize:
* One overall prize of €10,000 for a single poem
* Three runner-up prizes of €1,000.
The prize is open to everyone, as long as the work is original and previously unpublished. Details are attached.
They are also running an inaugural Caterpillar Poetry Prize:
* €1,000 will be awarded to the best poem written by an adult for children by way of celebrating the first year of The Caterpillar, the junior version of The Moth.
You can read about the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize online here.
You can read about the Caterpillar Poetry Prize online here.
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What’s a copy-editor? What do they do? Why do we need them?

This is an interview with Robert Doran, copy-editor extraordinaire and all-round good bloke.  You’ll find him at Robert Edits.roberteditspic11-copy

Robert, if you were profiling a copy-editor, what characteristics would they have?

A degree of humility is essential. You must be able to keep your ego in check and remember that this is not your book. Any changes you make or suggest should chime with the author’s voice and be true to the message they are trying to communicate. Otherwise you’re writing, and that’s not your job.

You need to have an eye for detail, obviously, and you have to be able to think in a critical manner. By that I mean you should be able to put your taste aside and evaluate the writing on its own merits, considering where it sits within its genre or category and whether it’s doing the job the author wants it to.

You must have an interest in the nitty-gritty of language, too. If you couldn’t care less about the difference between a hyphen and an en-rule, editing might not be the career for you!

Is it what you always wanted to do and be? 

When I was a kid I wanted to design cars. I’d spend weeks drawing whole ranges and compiling them into “brochures” made out of stapled A4 pages. They had price lists and spec sheets and everything! Funnily enough, BMW never discovered me and I ended up studying languages at college, fully expecting to become a teacher or a translator, although I can’t remember ever feeling driven to do either.

How did you get into it?bookshelf 1

I got a job in Fred Hanna’s bookshop (now sadly defunct) when I was at college and I fell in love with the book trade. Bookshop experience is invaluable for anybody who wants to work in publishing – you learn so much, not just about books but about what makes them sell. What a lot of aspiring editors don’t get is that they need to understand the market, and a bookshop really is the perfect place to develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. After that, I worked in sales and marketing for publishers in Ireland and in London, and then I moved into editorial because I wanted a new challenge.

How do you train?

The Publishing Training Centre has some great courses that are well recognised by the industry, and there are master’s degrees in Galway, Stirling and Oxford Brookes, all of which cover editing to a greater or lesser extent. Really, though, most editors do their training on the job and spend their evenings learning and honing their skills. You have to be driven to seek out the information that will help you to view a project at both a macro and a micro level. There’s a lot of hard work in the beginning but if it’s something that interests you, you’ll enjoy the process.

What’s sexy about editing?

Seriously? I wish I could give you something here but I can’t!

What’s a typical working day like for you?

I usually spend between one and two hours on e-mails, phone calls and admin and about seven hours editing, writing cover copy or checking proofs. Meetings probably take up three or four days a month. Within that there’s a lot of variation. I might start work at 7 a.m or 11 a.m. It just depends on the day. The freedom is great but you have to make sure you hit your deadlines and that you keep your clients happy. That means there are long hours and late nights sometimes. I often work weekends too, but it’s swings and roundabouts, and working from home makes it manageable.

What’s the biggest professional disaster you’ve had?

I’m lucky in that I’ve never done (or failed to do) something that resulted in a print run having to be pulped, but I shouldn’t boast about that, because it happens to the best editors. The most embarrassing oversight I can remember is allowing “faithful” to go through for “fateful”. I’m still mortified about that. (The author never noticed, so let’s keep that just between us!)

What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve done?

Rewriting a book from scratch, which is a lot more than an editor is usually called upon to do, and it’s a last resort, really. You’d never do it for fiction, but there are occasions when non-fiction books need a lot of intensive work. It was the first time I felt I could make a book happen even if the material was very challenging. For various reasons, publishers often commit to projects before they know exactly what they’re going to get from the author, and it helps if you’re prepared to do whatever it takes to make a book work for the reader.

Are there perks/hidden benefits? What are they?

I get to do a job I love doing. I frequently meet talented, creative people and I work with them to make something great. It’s a real buzz to hold in your hands a book that you helped to produce. Another big one for me, as a freelancer, is not having to commute and being able to choose my own hours. Also, you can work in your pyjamas if you like, but I would never do that. Never.

Can you break your approach to a manuscript into simple steps?  Is there a pattern to follow?

It depends on whether I’m doing a structural edit, copy-edit or proofread. With a copy-edit, I’ll usually skim through for gist and to get a sense of the structure or story arc. Then I’ll do the serious stuff: rephrasing, correcting errors, applying consistency, checking facts, eliminating repetition, making sure a character doesn’t have blue eyes in chapter 1 and brown eyes in chapter 6. I raise queries where necessary and comment on structural issues if they arise. After that I run a few macros and clean up the file before it goes back to the author. When the author has reviewed all the corrections and changes and answered my queries, I edit in any new material, do another tidy-up and code the file for the typesetter.

Have you ever refused to take on a manuscript? Why?

I turn down anything that doesn’t fit with my skills and experience. Also, I’m often approached by authors who have just completed the first draft of a book and want me to give it a quick polish before they send it off into the world to become a best seller. It rarely works like that, unfortunately. Most books go through several drafts before they’re even ready for a structural edit.

Does it ever make you wish you were writing things of your own, or is that the rudest, most intrusively personal question you’ve ever been asked?

I do write, but nothing that I’d let anyone see yet. Writing and editing are different skills, and one doesn’t necessarily support the other. There’s a degree of conflict involved. I’m continually impressed by the commitment and resilience of my clients. But yes, I do hope to write something really good some day.

You can contact Robert via his website, Robert Edits.

He is also Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services.

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Nothing’s Simple: making the case for an ebook

Nothing Simple New CoverSeveral months ago, I decided to publish my second novel, Nothing Simple, as an ebook. Why? The first and most obvious reason was that the novel was out of print and the rights had reverted to me.

There was a stronger reason. When I wrote the novel (2002-2005), Ireland was booming. We had net inward migration, people were speaking out of the sides of their mouths about furriners coming in looking for Irish jobs. Some of these furriners were economic migrants. Shock! Horror! This all left me scratching my head. When I was growing up, every family in the country had someone living and working abroad, legally or otherwise. I’d done it myself: lived in London for two years and in America for ten. Was the nation in the grip of collective amnesia?

Writing Nothing Simple was fun. I played with inverting some of the things that were being said in Ireland at the time, directing them at a fictional Irish couple who emigrate to America in the early 80s. My family and I had lived that experience, so I knew what I was writing about – although I hasten to add that the novel is fiction. The places and the atmosphere are real, but the characters and what they get up to are another matter.

The novel was shortlisted for the Novel of the Year award, but it went out of print. In time the rights reverted to me. And along came the next wave of emigration, making it relevant all over again, to a new generation.

So: why NOT make it an ebook and give it a second chance?

Here are some of the reservations I had:

  • A kind of internal snobbery about self-publication
  • A fear that if I went back to the novel I would want to change everything – it’s 9 years since it was published: what would I do: ignore any flaws I came across and just put it out as it was? Try to fix minor flaws as I came across them? Rewrite the whole damn thing? (what would you do?)
  • What if, having been back in Ireland too long, I edited the tones and atmosphere of Texas (where most of the novel is set) out of it?
  • Certain unflattering reviews niggled – what if they were right?
  • The title. This has always been an issue. It’s not a good title, no one can ever remember it. But if I changed it, would that give the misleading impression that it’s a new novel? I didn’t want to cheat anyone.

This is how I settled them:

  • Because the novel was published in the traditional way first time around, it has already been curated. I can live with that.
  • When I looked at it I saw small errors and tics that I couldn’t live with now, but they were on a level that didn’t change the structure or the mood or anything that happens. Cosmetic, I suppose – so I decided to do some copy-editing of my own and then to ask a professional copyeditor to come on board. (I was lucky to find Robert – the genius – Doran. I’ll be posting an interview with him very soon)
  • There are other vast areas of expertise I lack, but I live in a place where I’m surrounded by lovely talented professionals who are more than able to help, such as typesetting (Clodagh Moynan), developing social media skills (Elizabeth Rose Murray)
  • I opted for fully professional cover design from Chris Hamilton-Emery at The Cover Factory
  • I went to Texas (any excuse ….)  and brought the novel with me, did my preliminary edits there, within earshot of that very particular humour-inflected drawl. Then I handed it over to Robert for copy-editing. I swear, you think a manuscript is perfect  …

There are other ways to do it.  You can hand over your file to a professional outfit who will steer it through the entire process.  This can be an expensive option, though, so shop around. OR:

  • CRH coverYou can do everything yourself if you follow the advice of helpful books like: Self Printed by Catherine Ryan Howard: definitely go to her website and read her posts on self-publishing
  • I’d strenuously advise everyone to find a copy-editor you trust and enjoy working with. And before you go to them, develop some editing skills for yourself. I’d recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne & Dave King – Actually, I’d recommend that book for all writers, my copy is never far from my keyboard.
  • When the novel was ready, I went to the ebookpartnership

The eBook Partnership handle admin for you: money, distribution and so on. They can take you through the entire process – or just the bits you want help with. They were very helpful, and they’ll talk to you on the phone if, like me, you’re a bit of a wreck when it comes to technicalities. See their website for services, prices etc.

There are other books to consult, other websites, other companies to use, this just happens to be the route I took. It took longer than I expected and turned out to be more complicated this way – but hey, I was busy doing other things (launching Fallen, for instance)…

To buy the ebook: (iTunes) or (Kindle)

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Flash Fiction or Prose Poem?

lightning imageThis is what’s exercising my sluggish, rain-soaked brain at the minute: what is the difference between flash fiction and a prose poem? Narrative, you might suggest – as Nessa O’Mahony did, very helpfully, when I posted the question on Twitter (Thanks, Nessa). You might think this is stating the obvious, but in fact I’ve seen many instances of flash that could be described otherwise: as vivid impressions, or wordplay, or even a single arresting image sustained for the length of the (very short) story. And I’ve read prose poems that use brilliant language to carry a narrative thread through a closely held idea to a conclusion. I can think of many poems that answer that description – but the difference between a poem and a prose poem seems clearer, at least to me: A prose poem doesn’t use line breaks.

Surely a form that prides itself on brevity, like flash, should be easy to define. Well, okay, a very short short story: how’s that? But I want more. I think the most helpful working definition I found was by Nuala Ní Chonchúir. In her guest editor’s slot at the Stinging Fly (Issue 27 Volume 2) she says ‘A flash can be a sparkling slice of the surreal, or a language-driven poem/story hybrid, or an eccentric Cutleresque riff on something banal that turns out to be truly insightful and often funny.’
double room journal imageTripping around the internet, as you do, I stumbled on this website: The Double Room Journal, ‘a literary and arts publication founded in 2002 to explore the intersection of poetry and fiction.’ Here’s Tony Leuzi, talking about his approach to writing both: with flash fiction, he’s conscious of the traditional ‘ingredients’ that make up a story, but with a prose poem ‘I am able to violate the creative laws in any way I see fit and accept the unexpected results’

Jonathan Carr goes further: ‘Flash fiction is a compact distilled piece of writing that follows all of the dictates (or lack thereof) that one would place on a work of fiction. It is an act of distillation. Of sparseness. Minimal strokes. A prose poem is often the very opposite. Where Flash fiction is a working down of a form prose poetry is an exploding up of a form, a release from structure, a star erupting, a channel run straight from the brain stem to the pen.’

I think I’ll hang out on this website for a while – it’s a delight, and there are nine whole issues to look through.

Posted in Commentary, Fiction, On Writing, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Our silence is not ours to keep”: Nirbhaya, the play.

Sometimes I sleepwalk into things. I knew that the play Nirbhaya was based on the real rape of a real young woman in Delhi in December 2012 and its aftermath, but I didn’t know that the stories told and enacted in the play were the real, lived experience of the actors until that fact became clear in the post-show discussion.  

The young woman died of horrific internal injuries after thirteen agonising days. She was named Nirbhaya or Fearless in the press but her real name was Jyoti Singh Pandey. The assault ignited a storm of protest in India. Women began to speak out about their own experience. The conversation got louder and attitudes to sexual assault began to shift until eventually even the law changed.

Poorna Jagannathan is the originating producer of the play as well as one of the actors/survivors. In the programme note, she says “I raise my hand because silences are what make us complicit in the violence. So our silence is not ours to keep.” After Jyoti Singh Pandey/Nirbhaya’s death, it didn’t take long for Jagannathan and Yael Farber to decide on producing a play. They set about finding actors who had experience of sexual violence and before long they had their cast and began to develop the script. Nirbhaya was first performed with enormous success in Edinburgh (2013).

In the post-show discussion, Jagannathan said that part of her motivation for producing the play was that she felt that if her own silence had even the tiniest part of complicity in the attack on Jyoti/Nirbhaya she wanted to break it. The play is, in effect, an act of articulation, a breaking of silence, a demonstration of and protest against the prevalence of violence against women. We see repeated instances of ‘Eve-teasing’ – a phenomenon most women will recognise, of being mauled and harassed on crowded public transport – a fact of modern urban life. Each woman in turn enacts her own story of damage, control, abuse, rape. The figure of Jyoti/Nirbhaya moves through and around the stories. Sometimes she watches. She sings throughout. The scenes involving her own assault are unbearable to witness, while the preparation of her body for cremation is heartbreaking. The tension in the theatre is palpable.

Good plays achieve catharsis in an audience, and Nirbhaya certainly does that, but the play itself is only part of the experience. The post-show discussion is, I think, essential to the full impact of the play. During that discussion we realize the extent to which the actors have put themselves on the line and we hear why.

Some lines of dialogue – which would otherwise have gone over my head – are explained. For example, after the rendition of the sexual abuse of a child: “We are half the nation’s children, cleaning other people’s secrets from our selves.” To explain this, we were told that one in two children in India are sexually abused. But more boys are abused than girls, which begs a question about the absence of male stories in the play. I did worry about the single male actor, who had to perform many chilling roles. Women don’t escape blame, however: mothers, mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law are all implicated, either as perpetrators of violence or at the very least, guilty of collusion through their silence or enabling behaviour.

The most powerful message of the play is expressed in that simple line in the programme note: ‘Our silence is not ours to keep’; but in my view, the post-show discussion is necessary to fully tease that out.  For a proper appreciation of the dramatic impact and staging of the play, see Mary O’Donnell’s excellent blog review:

Nirbhaya runs until 2nd August at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire:

Participants in the post-show discussion included: Colm O’Gorman (Amnesty International Ireland), Elaine Mears (Rape Crisis Network), Alan O’Neill (Men’s Development Network) Poorna Jagannathan and Sapna Bhavnani



Posted in Commentary, Rape, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Israel & Gaza: stop. Please stop.

Every now and again I come upon a situation that compels me to silence, being so crucial and sensitive it demands that the right words be spoken in the right way to the right people. Because I don’t know what or who those are, or what right I have to comment, I say nothing.

It seems a small, simple, unobjectionable thing to want to say to everyone discharging weapons in and against both Israel and Gaza: stop. To the Israeli government and to Hamas, equally: please, stop. To the people and governments who finance the distribution of arms and weaponry to both sides, stop. To the people who design and manufacture weapons calculated to destroy life and the fabric and supports of life, stop.

If you were to combine your collective energy, commitment, wealth, and strategic intelligence towards constructive ends, there’s no knowing how much good you might achieve, how many of the world’s problems you might solve. But could you please, first of all, stop?

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