Sara Baume & Claire-Louise Bennett at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios

The excellent Susan Tomaselli (ST), editor of Gorse, introduced the two writers as part of what she describes as TBG&S’s ‘unique and exploratory’ programme supporting different kinds of writing. TBG&S’s own blurb for the event says that their New Writing Commission aims to expand ideas around writing about art.   Sara Baume (SB) was their first writer-in-residence (2015). Claire-Louise Bennett (CLB) is the second, current, writer-in-residence.

ST started proceedings by remarking on how both writers chose to convey solitude in their novels.

SB said that her entire novel (Spill Simmer Falter Wither) is written as a monologue addressed to a dog. Partly, she said, because she’s bad at dialogue; she decided to use her weakness – and, when you talk to yourself, you’re unself-conscious; when you talk to someone else, you’re self-conscious; but if you talk to an animal or a thing that can’t respond, that becomes something else again.

CLB talked about an editor’s negative response to the manuscript of her book (Pond) – he wanted a book that had more things happening in it plus characters that those events could happen to. In other words, she said, he wanted plot and characters and a story. But her book is about being alone and not knowing what to do. It might not be about very much (she said), but sometimes life is like that. It’s still lived. It’s still life. ( I can’t help wondering how that editor feels now that her book has been such a runaway success).

ST’s next question was about how both novels represent houses, what houses come to mean in each. CLB referred to Bachillard’s The Poetics of Space.  She made the interesting point that if you live alone, you come to ask what all these different rooms are for, they are based on a model of domesticity. Animals build nests that are discarded when the young have moved on. She talked about rented houses and the sense of other people moving through the space.

SB also has a thing about rented rooms, that sense of other people there before you. You always worry, she says, about who has the keys. As a child, she used to worry about who might have died there. In SSFW the house is very much a character; it takes on a sinister aspect. She referred to Gregor Shcneider’s Totes Haus u r.

ST invited them to talk about objects in both novels: One of the jobs of literature being to defamiliarise the familiar and open up the possibility of new meanings. She referred to Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (which happens to be a particular interest of mine at the minute, as contributors to the Farmleigh/Pieces of Mind project will know) and asked if that’s what the writers were trying to achieve?

CLB said, No. She likes to introduce poetic language to enhance the reading experience but her aim is not to make the world strange but to make the self strange in the world. She talked about how we vanish inside our heads and things around us recede but e.g. when we travel, nothing is automatic. When you’re on your own things acquire significance, it gives the world an opportunity to reassert itself.

SB said the dog (in SSFW) was a way to get the reader and the character in the novel to look at objects differently; while writing, she herself looked at things  as if she didn’t know them. When everyone is gone, she suggested, we sometimes transfer our affections to a worthy object. The character in her novel has only objects at first but when the dog arrives, they recede; he sees them differently.

CLB said you want people to orient you and when they’re not there, things come to the fore. Moving furniture, she said – in the kind of segue you learn to adapt to when listening to her speak – is a lovely thing to do.

Both writers read. SB read from SSFW and from one of her TBG&S essays. One that freaked her out at first, she said (#4 “Stoneymollan Trail”). She worked so hard to get that one, it ended up being her favourite. She said her essays for TBG&S were stories of her experience of the exhibitions. Because they were read on Arena, she had to describe them for people who didn’t see them. CLB read from two TBG&S pieces – the second is a response to the current exhibition My Brilliant Friend (featuring work by Michelle Brown, Avril Corroon, Ella de Búrca, Lisamarie Johnson, Laugh a Defiance. (CLB’s essay is entitled “How We Spend Our Days”). Tantalisingly, she read on – past the end of the printed version, which refers sagely to Annie Dillard’s maxim: ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’

ST asked if the commissions had changed their writing or their approach to writing.

SB said that she started as a visual artist. She did a very influential internship at the Douglas Hyde Gallery and started to write reviews for Circa magazine and elsewhere but the art world is small and it became problematic to try to make and show art and write about it at the same time so she began to write fiction.

CLB spoke about being at a disadvantage because visual art is not her area of expertise – but writing is her way of coping with not knowing what’s going on (I think this is what she said – it made absolute sense to me, at any rate, so I’ll leave this stand – I’m open to correction by anyone else who was there.) Her essays/stories as current TBG&S writer-in-residence work with her experience of having neither the language, the skills or a background in visual art. She’s sure she’s representative of many people who come into a gallery, wondering What’s this? What’s happening here? She pays attention, and attempts to abolish her state of ignorance without knowing what’s going on around her – like life, she supposes.

CLB’s Essay #2 is available to read here

Sara Baume can be heard reading her essay here

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Who owns your work? (Thought for the Day)

Here’s something I’ve wondered about in an idle sort of way, suddenly made real; it’s seriously scary stuff:
Who controls our online content and where/how it’s stored? Look what happened to Dennis Cooper, who had 14 years’ worth of blogs and email deleted without warning, according to the Guardian today.
Read the small print, people.  (I include myself in that warning. I know I should know better … )
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Honorary Degree from Dublin University/Mouth Cancer Awareness

Thanks to everyone who’s written to me about the honorary doctorate conferred by Trinity last week. I don’t usually write about the Mouth Cancer awareness campaign on this blog but I’ll make an exception now.

The doctorate was awarded in recognition of work I’ve done with others in raising public awareness about the signs, symptoms and effects of mouth, head and neck cancers in Ireland. The key phrase there is ‘with others’. I felt many hands on that scroll when I accepted it. I’ve been privileged to work with many people who, like me, have been diagnosed with and treated for those diseases and have had to adapt to startling and often difficult after-effects. Some of us are lucky enough to be still here. Others are not. Every one of us has played a part in raising awareness.

The campaign began in the Dublin Dental Hospital (DDUH), which is part of Dublin University (i.e.Trinity College), but it soon extended to include Cork University Dental Hospital (CUDH), the Irish Dental Association, the Dental Health Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society. All of the people from those organizations who have worked on the campaign had a hand on the scroll too.



In 2013 we published Word of Mouth, a guide to surviving and coping with oral cancers written by people who have been through treatment and the professionals involved in their care. The book is available free to download here

Since the first national Mouth Cancer Awareness Day (MCAD) in 2010, thousands of people have been checked for signs of cancer and many cancers have been detected, along with many more pre-cancerous conditions which, once recognised, can be monitored.

This year, MCAD will be Wednesday, 21st September.

Check the Dental Hospital, ICS, DHF and IDA websites for information closer to the date.

The IDA has a MCAD facebook page.

More information here





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Thought for the week: Indie Magazines

The latest issue of Mslexia features a thought-provoking article “Who Killed The Alarmist? Life and Death Among Literary Magazines.” In it, Debbie Taylor points out that while thousands of writers submit work to literary magazines every year, only a fraction of that number actually buy (let alone subscribe) to them.  It’s an impossible situation for lit mags to survive let alone thrive in.

Don’t you find that interesting?  Is it true of you?  Do you try to support the mags and journals you want your work to feature in?  And if not, why not?

Who DO you subscribe to, and why?

Last question: do you read the magazines and journals you subscribe to?


BTW: the latest issue of the Stinging Fly will be launched in BOOKS UPSTAIRS (Dublin) on 28th June.


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Quote for today

Festival season is here. I was trawling through notes and wishing I could be more organised when I came across this quote from George Orwell, so brilliant I had to post it:

‘Ready-made phrases are the prefabricated strips of words that come crowding in when you do not want to take the trouble to think through what you are saying. They will construct your sentences for you– even think your thoughts for you – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.’

George Orwell

It’s an entire workshop in a single paragraph.

Thanks, Mr Orwell.

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Glimmer Train  Short Story Award for New Writers

This competition is open only to emerging writers whose fiction has not appeared in any print publication with a circulation over 5,000.

First prize: $2,500 and publication in Glimmer Train.

Deadline: 30th June

Enter here

Writers’ Guidelines here

Glimmer Train says: “Most submissions run 1,500 – 6,000 words, but stories as long as 12,000 words are fine.

“The 1st-place winner will be published in Glimmer Train and will receive 10 copies of that issue. Second-and 3rd-place win $500/$300, respectively, or, if accepted for publication, $700. Winners and finalists will be announced in the September bulletin, and contacted directly the previous week.”




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Svetlana Alexievich @ ILF Dublin

Svetlana Alexievich was in conversation with Conor O’Cleirigh in the Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity College Dublin. The interpreter was Alexander Kan. What follows is an attempt to summarise what was said during an enthralling event. 

images Alexievich was here to publicise her new book Secondhand Time, an oral history of post-Soviet Russia, which has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She was born and grew up in a family of rural village teachers. She told us that the early post-war (WWII) years were difficult in Russia, where every 4th man had been killed.

‘Women’s conversations formed me.  Our home was full of books but the streets were always more interesting to me because of the stories the women told.’

So when she graduated from Minsk University School of Journalism, she didn’t have to look far for her subject. Starting to write, she understood that both life and literature were changing really fast. She needed a new form to express what she wanted to say. ‘We didn’t have the luxury that Tolstoy & Joyce had, writing their novels over years.’

Her first book was about the war – a subject that was impossible to deny.

‘Women never talk about war as a heroic act, women talked about acts of murder. They never talked about the enemy but about the destruction of human life … I made the decision to write the book when a woman sniper talked about how hard it was for her to kill someone the first time… They call it hunting … she described looking through the optic and seeing a German officer. She knew her job was to kill him but she couldn’t do it, all she could see was a young, handsome man.’

She told another story about two freight trains in a station, one with people in it one with horses … when German planes came and bombed the station, everyone rushed to save the horses, not the people. Why? 1. Horses are not guilty of anything, and 2. their screams are more horrible and frightening. ‘That was the war that I was most interested in. Since childhood I’d been curious: How do people hold onto their sanity when they have to kill each other? Three books later I still don’t know the answer.’


Being in conflict with authority is a tradition for the Russian writer, going back 1000s of years. ‘Lots of things happened to me as a journalist – I was fired, I was taken to court – that’s not newsworthy, it’s to be expected. What is harder to take is that the times we live in now mean that we are in conflict, not with the authorities, but with our own people. When I wrote in support of Ukraine, I lost friends in Russia.’


‘We were naïve in the 90s when we believed that freedom could come overnight. People who live in a camp all their life can’t just step out through a gate and be instantly free – they need preparation, education.’


Russian culture and literature are all permeated by a reverential attitude to the Russian people – but we didn’t really know our people. I realised that we worshipped the idea rather than the actual people around us. We were building bridges over rivers but the rivers went another way.’

‘I want to understand why the people I live with and love are so divided, why they are prepared to return to the position of slaves.’

Important questions:

Why does our suffering not convert to freedom?

Why can people living under a dictatorship not come together?

Why did we seem to gain freedom in the 90s and let it go so easily?

‘Looking for those answers is more important to me than wondering why people reacted to my award the way they did.’ (She has been accused of being a traitor)

‘Being accused of being a traitor is unsurprising, it’s a return to old rhetoric.’



‘I first went to Chernobyl two weeks after the disaster. Few people understood the scope of what had happened. There was a crimson glow over the reactor. People came to look, they even brought their children, to see how beautiful it was. But I was also struck by the number of military – people with guns, helicopters. ‘Who are you going to shoot?’ I asked them. Their first instinct was to treat it as a military incident. Talking to the military … they were thinking about Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But this was supposed to be a peaceful site – they/we couldn’t understand this as being the same. We didn’t understand why fresh food had to be dumped. There were surreal scenes – soldiers washing rooftops or wood for burning – like scenes from a sci fi movie.’

‘It would be quite easy to write a book about how people were deceived and misinformed but at first no one understood what had happened and believed it was nothing too serious, you’d be okay if you only drank red wine … I wanted to look deeper into the essence of what happened. I remember feeling that I – a person of culture – didn’t know how to begin to find answers. Overnight, our culture became a chest of (useless) old manuscripts. (…) People looked for answers in Tolstoy but couldn’t find any. We had no previous experience to help us understand the nature of what happened. We couldn’t see, smell or touch it – this was a different perspective, a different reality. We had no instruments to perceive it. So people turned to religion. The churches filled.’

‘Writing that book was a most challenging experience. War is as old as history; the Soviet Union was not the first empire to collapse; but this was new, unprecedented.


COC: There was a tremendous sense of excitement towards the end of the Soviet Union, everyone excited by the promise of reform Can you talk about the sense of disillusionment in your book?

‘The 1990s was a beautiful time. Hope – there was a sense of being on the brink of a new, bright future. Now, looking back, we understand we were not prepared for democracy. It turned out there was no real free people. Everyone wanted a tsar to come and bring democracy to us.’

Now people feel deceived, robbed. Everything has been taken away from them.

‘7% of the population now own what everyone used to own. Everyone else is very poor. There are two outcomes from this. People either idealise the past, or a new fascism rises, called ‘new patriotism’.’


‘We shouldn’t demonise Putin; there is a collective Putin.’

‘People now read memoirs of Germany in 1930s or Russia before the revolution, looking for parallels, answers to what’s happening today.’

‘The only thing to do is to work for the future and not give in to despair.’




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