Interview with gorse
gorse, Susan Tomaselli’s Dublin-based literary journal, takes a wide view of literature. At a time when other outlets are narrowing their respective views, this outlook is not merely exciting, it is crucial. To quote from their website, “gorse is an exploration of the art of words. gorse is interested in the potential of literature, in literature where lines between fiction, memoir and history blur, in the unconventional and the under recognised.” After producing two issues annually since its launch in January 2014, Tomaselli and contributor turned co-editor, Christodoulos Makris, are scaling up – moving to three issues a year and also starting a small press. We talk to gorse‘s editors about their objectives, the challenges of running a print journal with an interest in radical literature, and the potential they are finding in that literature.
– Tristan Foster
3:AM Magazine: By way of introduction, tell me about the goals of gorse. Are its goals of today the same that the journal started out with?
Susan Tomaselli: The original goal was to produce a smart looking journal, to publish strange and innovative writing, writing that not only intersects forms – be that visual poetry, creative non-fiction pieces, autobiographical fiction – but also work that perhaps wasn’t getting a look-in elsewhere, at least not in print in Ireland. And I think – I hope – we’ve achieved that. And the original idea was to publish twice-yearly for eighteen issues, to mirror the episodes in Joyce’s Ulysses, then fold. But those goals have broadened already: we’re moving from two to three issues a year, and we’re also launching a publishing imprint in 2017. Though we’re in the very early stages of that imprint, we’ve got an exciting essayistic anthology on the horizon that will be edited by Joanna Walsh, as well as a collaborative poetry project, and there’s a few other works that we’re talking with writers about developing.
Christodoulos Makris: It’s inevitable, not to say necessary, that with time the objectives of the journal shift. It remains the case that the now thrice-yearly issues are at the core of our activities – supported by initiatives such as a series of public conversation events in partnership with a visual arts journal currently in the pipeline, and a special issue planned for 2017 – but the launch of the publishing imprint is a significant step forward. I’m very pleased to say that the imprint’s first poetry title will be the collaboration Subcritical Tests by Ailbhe Darcy and SJ Fowler, an excerpt from which appeared in gorse No. 3.
3:AM: Not long ago, The New Yorker ran an article on the “persistence” of literary magazines. It implies that, like the combustion engine, landline telephones and test match cricket, the literary magazine is a thing of a by-gone era. But the author argues that the idea a journal can survive today is less of a surprise as long as it is bringing something new with it. What do you make of these claims?
ST: The author of that article asked, why on earth would you start a literary magazine? Why indeed? It’s certainly not for the money. I’m giving away all my secrets here, but issue one of gorse was funded with money I saved when I quit smoking. gorse is expensive to produce – the printing costs, plus we’ve been paying contributors from the beginning (but we certainly wouldn’t wish to compromise on either of those) – and so we rely on sales of the current issue to pay for the next one. While we wouldn’t go so far as to say gorse was an intervention, I think we created a gap that wasn’t necessarily there. It’s very important to bring something new to the scene: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but why bother copying something that’s already successful and doing a fine job? Or, to play with Ezra Pound’s mantra, what’s the point in remaking it new? (But as Darran Anderson pointed out in his essay in issue one, Pound’s call-to-arms wasn’t even new, he borrowed it from an inscription on an ancient Chinese washbasin.) That said, issue one isn’t strictly ‘new,’ it was almost entirely commissioned from writers I’d either worked with before or people whose work I admired – apart from Rob Doyle, who hustled his way into the issue with an essay on Houellebecq that was too good to turn down – but I think it worked to create an original space in the Irish literary scene. And while I like to think we have a particular overall aesthetic, we don’t have a strict house style – I’m certainly no Gordon Lish – gorse just wants to promote good, imaginative writing.
CM: Issue 1 of gorse was a stunning introduction – and I think I’m entitled to say that as at the time I wasn’t involved with the journal. Whether or not that was because it was entirely commissioned (Rob Doyle’s hustling abilities notwithstanding) and hence benefited from clear vision and off-the-beaten-track editorial expertise, it delivered a minor jolt to Ireland’s literary landscape. In its insistence on respecting the avant-garde tradition with a view to repurposing it, its outwardness and exploration of spaces between forms and genres, its high production values and artwork – in the context of recent times it certainly felt new. And vital.
3:AM: Why print?
ST: Print may seem a little archaic, but given the impermanence of the internet, it offers a sense of permanence. It’s also an opportunity to be super-analogue, to produce elegant publications, because of course print journals and periodicals aren’t supposed to be kept – much like those original Penguin paperbacks, they’re designed to be disposable – and our intention was to make something people might want to hold on to. It’s a tried and tested form of off-line curation if you like, a resistance against short attention spans, not so much a reframing rather a refocusing of how we read in the digital age. Much like Edmund de Waal’s installations, it’s to do with slowing down.
CM: It’s also an opportunity to examine what happens to reading – and in extension to writing – when it migrates back and forth between the online/digital and offline/analogue environments. It’s a form of translation that happens constantly and imperceptibly, and another form of border-crossing that we wish to probe and encourage. It’s also crucial to note we’re part of a narrow generation that grew up and was educated in analogue, pre-internet forms, but whose subsequent development happened in a digital and connectivity-enabled environment. This generation is afforded a brief vantage point informed by this two-dimensional experience, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that in terms of determining issues related to the control of information and communication – which in turn influence artistic approach, production, presentation and dissemination.
3:AM: gorse has fashioned itself as an Irish literary journal that takes a global view. Can you tell me a little about the rationale behind this approach – do you see gorse as extending the legacy of Irish writing?
ST: There is a wealth of journals in Ireland, an embarrassment of literary riches, really. There always has been. One of the main inspirations for gorse was a journal called The Bell, a journal that was conceived as a break from a stagnation caused by de Valera. Those early issues were a ground zero for new kind of ‘Irish’ writing – publishing Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh – and also a deliberate move away from the narrow view of Irishness. It was pretty global in its interest and content, and I’m consciously drawing from that legacy. I’ve talked about this before, how nebulous an idea I find the notion of ‘Irish Literature’. I’m not sure there is such a thing as national literature any longer, and I’m thinking here in particular of not only Camus who said he loved his country too much to be a nationalist, but also of Joyce and Beckett who transcended their Irishness, and more recently this new batch of ‘Irish’ writers who take more inspiration and nourishment from post-national, global sources. I know I certainly do: I read a lot of fiction in translation, and this has no doubt formed my approach to editorial direction. Having said all that, gorse is deeply rooted in Ireland. It’s as Hubert Butler said, local history is more important than a national one, and his essays on Russia, Spain and Yugoslavia and were really essays on Ireland.
CM: The current tendency towards nationalism throughout Europe and elsewhere is unmistakable, with its populist promotion a diversionary tactic and a distraction from real issues of power and control. Not everyone has the opportunity – or is forced – to live in a range of locations and cultures, but as John Holten remarked in a conversation with Karl Whitney on 3:AM in 2011, “translation is the lifeblood that sustains the conversations crucial not only to literary creation, but cultural understanding and development.” Reading literature through a national lens not only limits possibilities in engagement, interpretation and response, but encourages divisive and exclusionary thought.
3:AM: One of my interests is the Modernist “little magazines” of the early twentieth century – magazines and pamphlets that were written and edited and published by a small collective tied together by a movement or an idea. Of course, print runs were often tiny, issues were passed around like samizdat and the collectives usually disappeared as quickly as they were assembled. What do you think about the idea that the modern day literary journal – both in print and online – runs in a direct line from these magazines produced by the DIY avant-garde? Do you think acknowledging the legacy is useful?
ST: I think we went through that DIY avant-garde revolution at the start of the millennium, but online, and it’s best exemplified in the urgency and relevance of magazines like 3:AM who embraced that punk ethos of here’s a guitar, here a some chords, now play. I would say there’s very much a direct line with the likes of Lewis’ BLAST! and Bataille’s Documents. I spent a little time immersed in some of those modernist little magazines when I was deciding what gorse might look like – Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, Harriet Shaw Weaver’s The Egoist, but especially Eugene and Maria Jolas’ transition, that idea of collaboration, the intersection of words and art. But I’m certainly not nostalgic about a hazy past. Thinking of legacy reminds me of what Anselm Kiefer has said about being a ‘history painter,’ that to capture special moments in history is plain boring. He considers his work less of a linear evolution and more circular, everything comes around again and again and again. While I think it’s fine to acknowledge legacy – there’s no shirking it really – it goes back to what that New Yorker article said, that you had better be trying something different. And that’s what we’re trying to do with gorse in terms of playfulness and the potential of what literature might be.
CM: How the DIY publishing ethos, with its focus on harnessing contemporary energies and with pluralism, temporariness and a collaborative spirit at its core, feeds into compositional approaches, seems to me a crucial avenue to explore. Certainly in poetry there’s plenty being published that’s akin to what Kiefer has found unsatisfying in painting. Exploring its potential with respect to how it can communicate with other forms of writing as well as art, (pop) culture, politics, technology and science, a conflation of which lies at the heart of early 21st century life, is I think well worth focusing on.
3:AM: All of gorse’s covers have been designed by Irish graphic designer Niall McCormack, which has worked to give the journal a distinct style. McCormack, both recognising the journal’s “little magazine” influences and engaging with its contents, has been clear about his objectives to place gorse in that lineage. How does gorse‘s styling influence how the journal is received?
ST: I had been aware of Niall McCormack through his record sleeves and gig posters. He has a unique style, and there was no other designer I wanted to work on the gorse cover. He understood what I was trying to do with the journal straightaway, and captures its essence quite brilliantly, I think. He has talked about his process in designing issue one, where he wanted to place the journal in that ‘little magazine’ tradition, but he has managed to accelerate gorse into the twenty-first century too. He’s given the scantest information to work with – usually because the journal is nowhere near finished when I approach him – but has worked in the snake-charmer element of Artaud for issue two, references to playing cards in Alice in Wonderland and Finnegans Wake for issue four, and, using the cover as a canvas, encapsulates the idea of death and art for issue five. It helps that he’s a voracious reader as well.
3:AM: “The plain reader be damned.” This, from ‘Manifesto for the Revolution of the Word’ from transition no.16-17, is quoted in the Editorial of Issue 1. I imagine that damning the plain reader at any point in history is a bold move, but is it any riskier for a literary journal in the twenty-first century?
ST: I love manifestos, both writers’ and artists’. In fact, I toyed with the idea of writing a manifesto for gorse, but didn’t in the end. Manifestos are designed to provoke and to self-promote, but we have Twitter for that now. (A digression: the editorial for issue five partly looks at Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, and Valentine de Saint-Point and Mina Loy’s responses, and in the same issue Nathan Hugh O’Donnell goes deeper into manifestos and Jean Badovici’s unbuilt proposals for lifeboats.) But to go back to your question, I’m not sure it is any riskier, and besides, though it was extreme, the Jolas’ proclamation for a revolution in writing was essentially demanding the expression of the imagination should not be hampered by conventions.
CM: The problem with manifestos, particularly in an age when technological and cultural conditions change so rapidly, is that they can tie you to a specific agenda that can quickly slip into irrelevance or that soon ceases to define your concerns. Capturing change is an essential aspect of what a journal does: it’s a dynamic form of publishing as it encompasses the element of time. In this sense the ‘plain’ reader is one that remains stuck in an idealised and unchangeable conception of art and literature. Calling it out is both a provocation and a challenge.
3:AM: Correct me if I’m wrong but gorse is Susan Tomaselli’s project. How does the rest of your life, and your own creative pursuits, fit around the journal?
ST: Well, I used to freelance, first as writer, then as an editor, but I don’t write as much for other venues, unless I’m asked to. TS Eliot said some editors are failed writers, but that so are most writers, and I exercise my right as a failed writer in my editorials. I write in notebooks and, when I fail to remember to bring one, I’ll scribble on scraps of paper, tap lines into my phone – any surface really – and I’ll gather these into some semblance of meaning which I may, or may not, use at a future stage. The editorials are usually tracings of what I’ve been reading – or thinking – about recently, they reflect my current fits and obsessions. But I do hope my free associations (Freud would have a field day with me) make some sort of sense, especially to tie a particular issue together. It was very much my project, but I now have a poetry editor in Christodoulos Makris, whose energy has enriched gorse enormously.
3:AM: I want to pay some attention to the writers you’ve published. “We champion the unconventional and the under-recognised, writers exiled in their own country,” you wrote, also in the Editorial of Issue 1: gorse gives a voice to writers who may not fit in a more mainstream publication. Needless to say, the reasons for not fitting are varied – there’s something unorthodox about their approach, they are eschewing traditional forms, the text doesn’t have mass appeal, and so forth. I’m thinking here of the concrete poetry of Kimberly Campanello, SJ Fowler’s rune poetry, the sound writing of Daniela Cascella, interviews with Evan Lavender-Smith, Deborah Levy and Adam Thirlwell – these are writers who occupy the borderlands of literature, exiles in their own country. How important is it for gorse to find and nurture and publish these writers?
ST: Those writers you mention aren’t on everybody’s reading list, there’s something quite unorthodox about their approach to writing, and that’s the appeal for gorse. Nabokov said that the ideal novel would be about an idea, so the journal is not necessarily interested in conventional forms of writing, rather the idea (or, as Edna O’Brien said – and I discussed this with Claire-Louise Bennett and Joanna Walsh at out salon event last year – ‘Well, fuck the plot! That is for precocious schoolboys’), or style, or tone. When you enlarge the definition of ‘literature’, ignore traditional modes of writing, interesting things start to happen, ‘literature’ can take unusual forms.
CM: We’re back to a discussion of the potential of literature. Apart from concrete poetry and rune poems there have also been graphic poems, erasures, collaborations, fractured prose and other material that lies between forms and genres and therefore maps relatively unchartered territories. Rather than printing the usual one or two single-page poems, I’m keen to allow space for exploring form and process. Hence few poets are published in each issue – but typically several pages are allocated to each. The vast majority of what we publish comes from open submissions, and it’s been interesting to note a slight general shift in approach from potential contributors, presumably as a consequence of the conversations we are trying to have.
3:AM: Implicit in a number of the questions above is that editing and publishing a journal – of any sort, but a print journal, and one that has avant-garde leanings, in particular – is no easy feat. What are some of the challenges faced by gorse?
ST: Mayakovsky said that art should not be concentrated in dead shrines called museums, it must be spread everywhere, and that’s one of the biggest challenges facing gorse, transgressing boundaries, and disseminating bold writing to as many readers as possible.
CM: I want to emphasise the “transgressing boundaries” aspect as an extension to a resistance against closing up into the apparently familiar and the singular. Also, the term avant-garde has had some bad press, either dismissed as old hat or claimed by people comfortable trading on being marginal but eschewing attempts to share widely what they do or invite ‘outside’ readership and engagement. A redefinition and renewed popular understanding of the term is perhaps due.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEES
Susan Tomaselli is founder and editor of gorse journal. She is former co-editor of 3:AM Magazine and editor at 3:AM Press. She has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, Bookmunch, CultureNI, and contributed to Little Black Book of Books (Cassell, 2007) and The Beat Anthology (Blackheath Books, 2010). She lives in Dublin.
Christodoulos Makris is a poet, editor and independent curator. His work has appeared widely in Irish and international journals and anthologies, and he performed in many venues and festivals including the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. His most recent book The Architecture of Chance (Wurm Press, 2015) was chosen as a poetry book of the year by RTÉ Arena and 3:AM Magazine. He is the poetry editor of gorse, and co-edited the bilingual exchange anthology Centrifugal: Contemporary Poetry of Guadalajara and Dublin (EBL-Cielo Abierto / CONACULTA, 2014).
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 16th, 2016.