Claire Hennessy in Conversation with Tracy Gaughan

Claire Hennessy in Conversation with Tracy Gaughan

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy is a writer of YA novels, short fiction and poetry, as well as one of three editors and founders of Banshee (along with Laura Cassidy and Eimear Ryan). Banshee has run as a literary journal since 2015, and published its first book, Paris Syndrome (short stories by Lucy Sweeney Byrne) in 2019. A poetry collection will be published in late 2020, and another short story collection is forthcoming in 2021. 

Banshee is a bi-annual print journal of contemporary writing from Ireland and around the world that launched in 2015 at a time when conversations about gender inequality in the arts were to the fore.  Can you talk to me a little about the genesis of Banshee and your vision for the journal at that time?  

Those discussions were still in the early stages when we launched.  In fact, Banshee began as a project in December 2014, before many of the gender-related imbalances in the arts in Ireland came to light – for example, we were working on this before the Waking The Feminists movement around Irish theatre emerged. It was something we supported and noted, but our impetus in starting this journal wasn’t to collect data or to draw attention to a particular institutional imbalance (as opposed to the broader societal pattern). We wanted to have a literary space that wasn’t curated by men or by mostly-male teams. 

We were also interested in the blurry line between ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’, and how that’s often gendered, and how there can be such absurd snobbery over what people read. Our original goal was, and still is, to offer up a selection of smart writing that could be read by a general audience. To have a literary journal that never compromised on talent but was nevertheless accessible to the general reader – and that’s as much about the ‘feel’ of a publication as it is the contents. And the look – it was important that, having committed to a print publication rather than online, it was something visually pleasing. Eimear Ryan does our journal design in addition to being one of our editors and always does a superb job. 

What do you think sets your publication apart from others that publish similar material?

This is an interesting question, because certainly in Ireland there’s a lot of solidarity between lit journal editors – we don’t think of ourselves as in competition. We’re perhaps more likely to publish a female writer than other Irish lit journals, but it still depends on quality. 

Who, in your opinion, are the most important contemporary poets writing in Ireland?

Do you know what?  I started making a list and then had the absolute terror of leaving people out and having awkward conversations with poets when we’re allowed to have book launches again. But it occurred to me, as I made the list, that it was skewing towards the younger/newer end of the spectrum rather than more established writers – because that’s where we tend to be looking. ‘Importance’ is a question for people who are anthologizing ‘the great Irish poets’, rather than people curating ‘exciting new stuff to read’. 

As poetry editors, what do you think most well-written poems have in common?  

A playfulness with language.  Care taken with words. A sense of control. Considered line breaks. Something surprising. (That’s all very vague, isn’t it? A real ‘know it when you see it’ answer!)

Do some poets require more editing than others?  Are there common flaws in terms of technique that poets have?

Didacticism is a common flaw – particularly in the last few lines of a poem. Often poets make their case through metaphor, simile, etc. and then hammer home the point in a closing stanza in a way that is unnecessary. All writers deal with this, though – it’s really common for a short-story writer to include a bit of a lecture in their closing paragraph just to be sure the reader’s got the point. 

How do you select poetry for Banshee?  Do poems resonate with you emotionally or is it more analytical? Do you have a working definition or philosophy about what ‘good’ poetry is?

When we’re looking at poetry submissions we respond the same way we do with other work – the first question is always about whether we liked the piece or not, if it impressed us in some way. We’re likely to get as excited about something that does something clever as a piece that moves us emotionally (not that the two can’t coexist). There’s no definitive checklist of what makes ‘good’ poetry but we do often discuss whether a piece feels like a great ‘stage’ piece but not quite for the ‘page’ (again, not that a poem can’t be both), or whether it might work better as flash fiction. 

What types of submissions excite you?  Which ones make your eyes roll?

We get excited about all our submissions and only start rolling our eyes when the ‘clearly haven’t read the submissions guidelines’ or ‘haven’t checked out the journal’ emails are opened up. Well, I eye-roll; Laura and Eimear are far too civilized and decent for that. 

Have you ever regretted a rejection?  Or an acceptance?

Never. We tend to have a lot of discussion around pieces that are ‘almost’ there, so that by the time a decision’s made, we’ve all had our say. There’s no such thing as an overall ‘right decision’ with this stuff – all you can ever get is the right decision for you at that particular time. If it’s not a fit, it’s not a fit. You can send a nice note along with the ‘no’, and we sometimes do that, but you have to trust your editorial taste, and the people you work with. 

How do you think the idiom of poetry has changed over the years?  Have academic writing programs had an impact on the type of poetry being written?  What would you like to see more of?

Both the internet and the academy have certainly made their mark on poetry in recent times, though the extent to which that impacts on individual poets is incredibly variable. We do see masters’ degrees in writing mentioned fairly frequently in the biographical notes of our contributors, but it turns up so often that it doesn’t really make an impact on what we expect to see, good or bad. Having been through an academic programme isn’t a guarantee of brilliant writing, but it’s not a prediction of formulaic work either. Poetry-wise we have noticed that there’s some great stuff coming out of Queens University Belfast, but then again with a specialist poetry MA, one might expect that. 

In terms of what we’d like to see more of – we’re really open to anything, which sounds like a cop-out but it’s also true. Poetry that touches on modern life – the internet, social media, popular culture – is very welcome (and our first poetry collection, coming at the end of this year, very much looks at this slice of life). It often feels like people are afraid to go near these topics because the work they’re used to reading is about the nineteenth-century countryside, or classical myths, or whatever it might be. That feels like ‘acceptable poetic material’ – but anything is acceptable poetic material. It’s what you do with it, how you shape it, how you make us view it in new and surprising ways that yet feel familiar. 

Poetry book sales are soaring and almost half of the poetry books sold in America last year were written by Instapoets.  The rise of insta-poetry is dividing the purists and the modernists. What are your thoughts on digital age poets like Rupi Kaur and Warsan Shire?  Are they vandals of intellectual engagement, as some critics suggest, or fresh new literary voices?

It’s one extreme or the other, isn’t it? But from a publishing perspective, this isn’t new – in fiction, the big bestsellers, the books that are picked up by those who aren’t compulsive readers, are the ones that make it possible to take chances on smaller books. (In theory, at least.) When celebrities write, or ghost-write books, they bring in the cash. And that cash wouldn’t have necessarily been going to another book – that’s the mistake we make when we get grumpy about this. Those of us who write and edit and curate and devour literature like there’s no tomorrow can forget that there’s plenty of people out there who don’t read books, or who don’t read that many of them. Those are the people the heavy-hitters will sell to. And it may well be their gateway drug to poetry.

If you ask most people, even people in a creative writing workshop, their experiences of poetry are often negative – even if they like it, they’re not quite sure that they ‘get’ it, that they know what it’s ‘about’. They were taught in school that it was like a riddle to decipher, with one correct answer (that the examiner would give them marks for), and that was it. When you’ve had that experience, poetic language on its own can feel intimidating. But if there’s something else with it – if it’s spoken word, so it’s an earnest or electric performance – or if it’s got illustrations with it and fits in the square of an Instagram post and it’s coming not in the context of a textbook but a block of pretty words amidst what people have had for their lunch or their outfit of the day – or if it’s set to music – then it’s a way in. (Not everything online has the ‘something else’ with it, but it’s an important context to keep in mind.)

And if social media is making us more stupid, I don’t think it’s the poetry there that’s doing it, regardless of what Rebecca Watts had to say in that gloriously hyperbolic essay back in 2018. Poetry is emotionally true but not necessarily factually true; the problem with social media is the uncritical sharing of ‘facts’ and figures that feel true but are everything from misrepresentations to out-and-out lies. 

What have been some of your happiest moments at the journal? 

Anytime we get to give writers good news – whether that’s a yes for a story or poem, or the offer of a book deal – is something we get a kick out of, because we’re all writers ourselves, as well as working on Banshee, and we’re all-too-aware of the ratio of bad-to-good writerly news. 

Seeing the support from the rest of the Irish and international writer/arts world – from the Arts Council grants programme (for which we are immensely grateful) and bookshops stocking the journal, to people sharing pictures of their copy of the journal on social media and/or recommending particular pieces from it – is always wonderful. 

And the launches – hearing work being read aloud, getting to meet some of the contributors in person, and just the sense of having ‘finished’ that particular issue by the end of the night – are brilliant. 

Lest this all sound painfully sunshine-y and chirpy, there are plenty of stressful moments too. As with any big project, there are times when it feels overwhelming and exhausting – it would be weird and inhuman if there weren’t. 

What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to The Banshee Literary Journal?

Revise and edit your work – don’t send off a first draft. Often work comes in that’s good but ‘not quite there’, and while we (and many other editorial teams, though not all) do work with the writers we’ve selected to fine-tune their pieces, that’s a last-stage sort of edit rather than a critique. 

And have some familiarity with the journal – if you haven’t read a copy of it before, there are excerpts available on the website and at the very least, take a look at those. Every publication has its own particular style and taste – it’s a waste of everyone’s time to send on work that’s obviously not a fit. 

Finally, and I know this is something everyone says, but there’s a reason everyone says it: read the submissions guidelines. They’re not there to trick you or to stifle your creativity. Pay attention to word count guidelines, subject lines to use, what kind of attachment to send. And ‘Dear editors’ is a good default if you haven’t bothered personalizing your cover note – ‘Dear sir’ is, well, less so. 

Visit Banshee at www.bansheelit.com  for more information and to read their free online issue (Issue 9.5) published during the covid-19 crisis. 

Writer and editor at Banshee Literary Journal, Claire Hennessy, offers advice to writers and speaks to Tracy Gaughan about the changing face of contemporary poetry, the perils of didacticism and shares some of her happiest moments at the journal

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