Interview by Simmons B. Buntin
About Jessie Lendennie
Jessie Lendennie is the founder and Managing Director of Salmon Publishing, Ltd. Her prose poem “Daughter” was published in 1988, followed in 1990 by The Salmon Guide to Poetry Publishing and in 1992 by The Salmon Guide to Creative Writing in Ireland. She is currently working on a book which examines the past 50 years of poetry publishing in Ireland. Jessie is the facilitator of regular weekend creative writing workshops which are held at the Salmon premises. She has conducted workshops all over Ireland and the United States, for many years.
About Salmon Poetry
Taking its name from the Salmon of Knowledge in Celtic mythology, Salmon Poetry was established in 1982 with the publication of The Salmon International Literary Journal, a journal of poetry and prose, as an alternative voice in Irish literature. Since then over 150 volumes of poetry have been produced, and Salmon has become one of the most important publishers in the Irish literary world. By specializing in the promotion of new poets, Salmon has enriched Irish literary publishing and now has the most representative list of women poets in Ireland.
The Salmon catalogue includes initial works by now-established poets Rita Ann Higgins, Theo Dorgan, Moya Cannon, Mary O’Donnell, Eamonn Wall, Mary O’Malley, Eva Bourke, Janice Fitzpatrick-Simmons, and Gerard Donovan. Another strong element in Salmon’s ethos has been its eagerness to look beyond cultural boundaries and to broaden the parameters of Irish literature by opening up to other cultures. It has published a range of international poets including Adrienne Rich, Marvin Bell, Richard Tillinghast, and Carol Ann Duffy.
Terrain.org: Salmon Publishing began 19 years ago with the publication of The Salmon, a journal of poetry and prose serving as an alternative voice in Irish poetry. Since then, over 150 volumes of poetry-both Irish and international-have been published. What was the spark that lit the first fire of Salmon Publishing, and how has Salmon Poetry, and you as small press publisher, matured in those two decades?
Jessie Lendennie: Salmon will be 20 years old in October this year. It originated, in 1981, as a workshop broadsheet, from the Galway Writing Workshop, which was loosely based around University College, Galway. At the time there was very little being published outside Dublin. I, and the other founders of what became The Salmon International Literary Journal, had a clear mission to promote the work of poets and prose writers who would not be fairly represented. It ran from 1982 to 1992 and many of the U.S. poets we published in the Journal went on to publish books with us, including R.T. Smith, Paul Genega, Michael Hefferman, Jerah Chadwick, Richard Tillinghast, Ethna McKiernan, and Kathryn Machan—the last two with books out this year and next.
The 1970s had seen some new poets and one new press (which took over from another), but nothing adequately representing the voices which were coming from outside the capital, Dublin; particularly those of women poets. Only three or four women had books out in the 1970s and early 80s. By the mid-1980s I was on the lookout for women poets and there were many excellent and unusual talents in Galway at that time,such as Rita Ann Higgins, Moya Cannon, Eva Bourke, Anne Kennedy. I did a lot of workshops around the country and actively sought out talented women who had not been inclined to try publication because of lack of confidence, and unwillingness to ‘take on’ the prevalent establishment. It would take pages and hours for me to go into the ins and outs of the Irish literary canon, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
I’ve run Salmon as the managing director and commissioning editor since 1986. In 1990 I was joined by Siobhan Hutson, who set up and maintains our website and deals with all aspects of production. Salmon’s central mission has changed little over the years. Some adjustments have had to be made as we got bigger (we can no longer take as many new poets as I’d like).
The pressure to conform is always present when one is dealing with a marginal art form and dependent on state funding (in our case, the Arts Council of Ireland). I think, at this stage, I’ve been through everything one could possibly go through with small press publishing. When Salmon began to be recognized as a force in publishing we received a lot attention and, consequently, a lot of pressure to keep producing. By 1992, we were doing 15 books a year, but as it happens that was a bad year for many businesses, and we were simply doing too much for the costs. Bad times and many concrete changes followed; but Salmon emerged from it all with a stronger list. Along the way,we’ve produced ‘new age’ books, and even a thriller—attempts to broaden our commercial base on the assumption that this would help our poetry list; but I’ve learned for good and all that this is false reasoning. In order to profit from commercial books, one must have a commercial network—and the consciousness which sees books as commodities. I can’t do that. Salmon is now firmly re-attached to its roots—poetry and literary non-fiction. This is our focus and our success.
Terrain.org: Salmon Publishing has been called “one of the most innovative, perceptive and important publishing houses in the U.K. or Ireland.” What has been the challenge in attaining this lofty and deserving praise, especially given Salmon’s aim to publish poetry collections from poets who have not previously published full-length books?
Jessie Lendennie: This again, goes back to our original intent. There was no press that adequately represented new poets. In fact, it seems to me that it would have been impossible for us to avoid innovation! Perhaps it’s also part of my nature—I thrive on originality and creative revolution. Sociologically, Salmon came to the fore at a time when many talented people were still leaving Ireland to find work abroad. There was a ‘sameness’ about literary activity and a feeling of despair over what could be achieved. Salmon ‘happened along’ and made the effort to present an alternative. I say “happened along” because my ex-husband and I had moved to Galway from London with the intention of totally devoting ourselves to our writing; we knew little of the ins and outs of contemporary Irish writing. This ‘ignorance’ meant that we had fresh eyes and what we both saw was a wonderful wealth of talent—Salmon simply had to develop. It was time.
Terrain.org: Your “Publisher’s Diary” on SalmonPoetry.com speaks directly to the poet, but from the matter-of-factness of a publisher’s perspective. In a recent edition you write that the Internet is “a chance to reach people who are interested in poetry, but would never know of us without our website.” Many publishing houses fear that the World Wide Web and e-zines/e-books may actually reduce sales, leaving out publishing houses altogether. What can the Internet mean for Salmon Poetry, and Irish poetry in general? Does the Internet offer more for small presses like Salmon Poetry than it does for large publishing houses? What is the role of e-zines and online publishing sources for promoting Salmon’s print publications?
Jessie Lendennie: We sold 3,000 books on the Internet last year. We give a 20 percent discount and make special offers all the time. We have a mailing list of 1,500 and about the same number for our “Poem of the Week”. Online sales are a crucial boon to our cash flow (cash flow is the bane of many small business, never mind poetry publishers!). Altogether last year we sold 12,298 books. With distribution fees, bookshop discounts, postage, packing, etc., we receive less than 40 percent of the retail price from those bookshop sales—and we can be waiting a long time for payment. What I’m getting at is that the Internet can infuse life blood into poetry presses by selling directly to the public. Most of our sales are to the U.S., but we get orders from all over the world including places which would most likely never find us without our website (Turkey, Russia, South Africa). We have physical distribution in the U.S. with Dufour Editions and in Britain and Europe with Central Books. Of course, we all want to see poetry books in shops. There’s no basis for any fear that Internet sales would preclude bookshop sales. That would be counter-productive. What’s necessary is a balance; a complement. In fact there’s the possibility that more poetry readers will develop from Internet access and they, of course, will be able to browse bookshops.
I’ve been told that the poetry market in the U.S. is drying up. However, if poetry websites are anything to go by—the interest in poetry is incredibly vibrant. We’ve found fabulous interest through our website. The wonderful Poetry Daily has hits in the multiple thousands every day. The Internet allows each person to be her/his own judge of current trends—I’d say that the perceived ‘death of poetry’ simply means a shift in buyer trends. Since bookshops are notoriously bad at stocking and displaying contemporary poetry; book buyers may increasingly turn with relief to the Internet.
This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy—the bookshops believe they are justified in not stocking more poetry and round and round. To avoid that I think that it’s crucially important that poetry presses include bookshops constantly in promotion. As we know, independent bookshops are having a difficult time and in difficult times, art and literature have low priority. Choice is the real issue. We still have to push for sales in every direction!!!!
Okay—let me distinguish between website sales and e-publishing. Big difference. e-publishers do charge a fee to access their books online. As we know, some of the bigger houses are trying out the Internet. What they’re doing is moving into a niche, cautiously, to see what’s actually there. It really is anyone’s guess whether this will put small presses out of business—my guess is that it will not. Not in any foreseeable future. One mustn’t confuse technology which is intellectually driven, with the deeper ‘gut’ changes in society which move very, very slowly. It’s never an immediate ‘either/or.’
Terrain.org: Let’s talk a bit about the state of poetry in Ireland and abroad. Given the advent of computers and electronic publishing, and more recently the Internet, has Salmon Publishing seen an increase in the number of manuscript submissions from Irish and international writers? Has the quality of poetry risen, perhaps because of poets’ access to a world of poetry? Or has the quality of poetry actually declined, maybe because it’s easier than ever to “write” a poem, or a collection of poems, and then quickly—too quickly—ship it out to a publisher for review?
Jessie Lendennie: Yes, overseas submissions have increased. Salmon already had a strong U.S. list before our website really took off. The website has brought poets from wider afield; but most of our submissions are from poets who know of Salmon in other ways. E-mail has certainly, certainly made it easier to deal with poets abroad and therefore to take on more non-Irish poets. The list is about one-third non-Irish and that’s growing. We are aiming very much toward being an international publisher based in Ireland. Of course the commitment to Irish contemporary poetry is still very much part of Salmon, but Salmon as an Irish entity has its place in global contemporary poetry.
Standards? The debate is always hot and heavy. The question of what makes good poetry is still one of the first issues discussed in writing workshops and looms LARGE in literary circles. There are so many issues involved that this is a very difficult question to answer in a straightforward manner. Well,simply, in the case of Salmon, I, along with every other poetry editor in the world, receive a majority of mediocre poetry. That certainly hasn’t changed in the 20 years of Salmon. I don’t see the Internet making this worse. What these writers must develop is their own critical intelligence, and, it certainly seems to me, one is much more likely now to find such help on the Internet. With such a resource, one has far more choices. This means taking the responsibility to learn how to discriminate and I do believe that most serious writers will do so. Sure, it may seem easy to dash off a ms., but I don’t see that being a new, online-related issue.
I receive more manuscripts through the ordinary post, than online. There may be a cultural thing at work here, too. There are many Irish poets who don’t have Internet access, and, in fact, probably distrust it.
I’m waging a campaign on the website to give people as much information as possible about the realities of writing poetry, and publishing. I’ve written books on Irish poetry publishing and am working on another now.
Terrain.org: Salmon Poetry prides itself on publishing new and emerging poets, and has published more Irish women poets than any other publisher. Is the number of unsolicited manuscripts from Irish women increasing, or have you made a deliberate effort to seek out female Irish poets?
Jessie Lendennie: I have been concerned that younger women weren’t being represented in the last couple of years (this became apparent when we researched our anthology The White Page: An Bhileog Bhan – 20th Century Irish Women Poets), but I’m delighted to say that we have four excellent poets (one is the winner of our Salmon First Publication Award) on the list for this year and 2002. Salmon has been thought of as a “women’s press” in the past—even though our list has always been 50/50. This underlines what I’ve said about the literary climate here. The Irish canon is still very male-centered.
Terrain.org: Salmon Poetry has published a wide array of Irish and international (especially American) poets. What is the main difference between Irish and American writing styles—for those poets that Salmon publishes? Do you seek international poets who have some relationship to Ireland, whether ancestry, travels, or other? Is Salmon striving to increase the number of books it publishes from any particular region, country, or geography of the globe?
Jessie Lendennie: Initially all the U.S. poets we published, such as Ben Howard, Richard Tillinghast, Knute Skinner, John Hildebidle, Jerah Chadwick, and others, had strong Irish connections. In 1996 we published a selection of 40 years of the poetry of Adrienne Rich. I met Adrienne here through Jean Valentine who was living in County Sligo in the early 90s. We published Jean’s Selected in 1994 and a selection of Marvin Bell’s poetry in 1998; Marvin was the first poet we published who had not been to Ireland. Of recent manuscripts, Kelly Cherry, Sarah Fox, Joyce Wilson, Jean Pedrick, Marck Beggs and several others have no previous connection with Ireland. We have several Australian poets on the list for publication in the next couple of years, some who have been here and others who have not. We have always published British poets (and we have a strong Northern Irish list). The number of Canadian poets in noteworthy, too.
We also have an excellent books out from Irish poets living in the States, including Eamonn Wall, James Liddy, Angela Patten, Gerard Donovan.
I guess the question goes back to what I said earlier about Salmon as an Irish publisher with an international list. This year I’ll be traveling from Little Rock, Arkansas to Whitehorse, Yukon and lots of places in between. In the autumn I’ll be in Australia. I must admit to being partial to rugged landscapes and Northern climates and the type of poetry which that inspires (e.g., Jerah Chadwick’s Story Hunger, Tom Sexton’s Autumn in the Alaska Range, and Erling Friis-Baastad’s The Exile House). Salmon does have something of a base in Alaska, and, in fact, I’m aiming to develop a writing centre on land which has been given to Salmon on Spruce Island, off Kodiak in southeast Alaska.
We have a marvelous poetry collection (his fourth) coming out this year from one of my very favorite American writers, Ray Bradbury. Next year we will bring out a collection of Caitlin Thomas’s poetry—never before published. It’s raw and powerful and puts a bright light on her own creativity; so welcome after her years in Dylan’s shadow.
Terrain.org: Rather than ask what advice you have for aspiring young poets—a question you receive quite regularly, and answer through an “Advice for Writers” section on SalmonPoetry.com—let’s take a bit of a different slant. What advice would you have for someone who wishes to start a small literary press, especially in an area of the world that has historically not had many publishing outlets?
Jessie Lendennie: I was considering earlier this year that since the Yukon doesn’t have a poetry press, I might just have to go over and set one up! I think, for a start, that one needs to have a sense of adventure. Certainly one must be motivated by considerations other than financial gain! It is a very, very difficult road and the best advice I can give is to start small and proceed carefully. We published one book in 1985; one in 1986, and I believe that my biggest mistake was in allowing Salmon to grow too quickly in the late ’80s. There was so much to publish! I rather rushed at it, and it cost. I still have difficulties restraining myself, but bitter experience (not to mention Arts Council policy!) has taught me that I must keep the number of books to a reasonable level—not more than seven per year.
Okay: Look around, see what the literary climate is like, identify very definitely what you’d like to achieve, understand your own motives. Start small and keep your integrity intact!
Terrain.org: The poetry published by Salmon Poetry is strong in its sense of place, in its source of energy. R.T. Smith’s poem “Illumination,” in Split the Lark published by Salmon Poetry in 1999 (read Terrain.org’s review), provides just one fine example (below). Describe Salmon Publishing’s sense of place: its place in the Cliffs of Moher, its place in Jessie Lendennie, its place in the future of Irish poetry. What keeps the fire going?
As if some monk bored
in the cold scriptorium
had let his quill
wander from the morning
Gospel, two tendrils
their green fervour
into the weave of a wicker
deck chair to whisper
with each spiral,
every sweet leaf
and dew sparkle,
with us, come home.
Jessie Lendennie: My immediate response is that poetry’s place is everywhere. We have more and more opportunity to be unlimited in our kinships; to find like minds and make new places. Physically, Salmon’s base is on a windy hill overlooking the Atlantic. Psychically, that wind takes us everywhere.
I continue because poetry is the highest calling of literature; the mystical essence of language… and I continue because I’m stubborn.
Header photo of Cliffs of Moher, Ireland, by Patryk Kosmider, courtesy Shutterstock.