Honest Ulsterman: What do you see as the legacy or impact of the Honest Ulsterman?
Damian Smyth: The HU was an important magazine, for poetry, prose, criticism, reviews; it was a magazine of record. And it lasted a considerable length of time. It was never a ‘handbook for revolution’; that was a fiction despite the either true or apocryphal (or both) story of the RUC demanding that particular strapline be removed. It was the end of the 1960s and there was ferment here and elsewhere. The name, the Honest Ulsterman was very significant also; it was a magazine that rose out of a particular cultural perspective: Ulster, Ireland and Britain
HU: Do you think it had a Northern sensibility?
DS: It had an Ulster sensibility with all the connotations accompanying that. Though it had a wide readership base it was the Honest Ulsterman - a brusque, red-faced Ulster farmer would have been the characterisation, with perhaps a Protestant sensibility in those cultural terms.
HU: Would it have been seen as a challenge to Dublin and the prevailing aristocracy of the literary world then?
DS: Yes, a challenge to whatever the ‘literary aristocracy’ meant. Though there was an Ulster presence in Dublin literary circles, Belfast was, far more than now, a very foreign city to the Dublin literati and would become even more so as violence kicked in. But even at the turn of the 20th century Belfast’s overtures to the Dublin scene were rebuffed, if you think of the Ulster Literary Theatre’s overtures to Yeats and the Abbey. Though there were publications that ran in Belfast and Dublin that had an all-island and beyond perspective and weren’t mutually exclusive, there was a particular Ulster and Belfast context that needed to be articulated and that was partially a catalyst for the creation of the Honest Ulsterman. There was already Threshold based in the Lyric and, almost at the same time, Fortnight magazine and others publishing through the 1970s. The HU was not just a Belfast or Northern Magazine. It was read outside of Ireland and published many English poets. If you did a headcount comparing the number of English poets to Northern Irish poets you’d be surprised at the numbers. It could maybe have been called the Honest Yorkshireman! The caricature as a totally Northern or Irish magazine isn’t correct. Emphasis and quality of content, of course, varied but, by and large, it was a very open and generous magazine. It must also be said that it wouldn’t have existed at all without its founder, James Simmons. He was the guiding spirit, right through to the late 70s. His aesthetic was broad and he was perhaps more open to the influences of various aspects of popular culture than the other significant Ulster poets might’ve been at that time. There was an anarchic spirit that he imbued the magazine with…
HU: Punk Rock before Punk Rock…
DS: Punk rock before punk rock. Though that’s not to downplay Simmons’s own considerable aesthetic skills.
HU: Having the punk spirit is always a compliment in my book. The concept of local, locale and the global is interesting in the context of the HU being now an internet magazine. Maybe that terrible word, glocal, is apposite?
DS: The journey of the HU is a salutary lesson for the printed magazine. Economic forces come into play. Subscription bases aren’t what they used to be. The distribution costs increase, the number of outlets decrease. The pressure on one mad, sad individual who’s usually doing it all becomes too great and eventually exhaustion takes over. I think that’s what partly happened to the Honest Ulsterman. If you’re writing poetry these days, for instance, your audience is generally going to be very low so the idea that some publisher is going to produce 7,000 copies of your book is a fantasy; maybe even 1000 copies is a fantasy. This is where the Internet comes in useful. In the counter-intuitive environment that is the Internet, it’s often the case that the more niche you are, the more popular you become if you can communicate the quality of that niche to a particular audience but a worldwide one. If there are 50 people in Northern Ireland that share your aesthetics, there will be very likely be many more through the Internet. The Internet can also afford a response to your work as can festivals, readings etc., where you can receive feedback. Most writers never get asked to read in public, even those with two or three novels behind them. If the opportunities for quality writers are there they will come to the fore. As I see it, my role in the Arts Council is not to get in the way, nor prevent opportunities or openings. There’s a tendency for institutions to do this because they have to set parameters and criteria but you have to be careful that you’re not actually blocking up opportunities to be heard.
HU: It’s funny, when we started the Chancer [precursor of the Abridged] we saw it as if not opposition to the HU, certainly it’s far less well behaved second cousin. Things always change…
DS: The HU is coming back I assume because there a need for something credible that is more than a costly publication. It’s interesting that there is also a re-emergence of the poetry pamphlet.
HU: Do you think that’s because of the financial climate, the cuts?
DS: No, not necessarily. I think it’s more to do with how people write. The days when you spent four years writing your forty-five poems, wrapping them up and sending them to your publisher have largely gone. There is more opportunity to publish poetry individually or a few poems together for smaller cost in a form somewhere between the magazine and book that has an integrity of its own. In terms of the publisher and the people who facilitate pamphlets, it’s another way to get people to buy the damn things. People who may not pay £8.99 for a glossy book by an unknown quantity might risk a couple of quid for a pamphlet.
HU: Would you say the Northern Irish literary sector is healthy right now?
DS: I’m bowled over by how much quality activity is going on here at the moment. Not just your novel and your poem, there’s flash fiction, even the revival of the haiku. The short story has returned with a vengeance, and there’s a market for it. Seven or eight years ago it was difficult to publish a book of short stories that would sell. Short stories have been renewed by the Internet and the many ways now you can encounter prose. I could give you a list, off the top of my head, of 20 or so people under or around 30 who will become permanent features of the national publishing landscape for the next 50 years and they’re in Northern Ireland right now, both in prose and poetry. And I could probably double that, if I thought about it. It’s a healthy scene, supportive in the main but not complacent.
HU: And to come full circle, do you think there is still a particular Northern voice, given the collapse of borders that the internet encourages?
DS: Because of the character of the age, the up-coming centenaries, there is a discussion about ‘a poem for Ireland’ or ‘what is an Irish poem?’ I don’t know what those questions mean, honestly. Sitting in Belfast we’re more attuned to the fissures and chasms in words or terms like these than maybe if you’re sitting in Dublin or London and looking at that thing called ‘Ireland’. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, for instance, can give a grant to anyone who is living here and doing quality work: poetry, prose or whatever. In fact, as a writer or publisher, you don’t even have to be living here if you can demonstrate benefit to the people of Northern Ireland. The racial overtones that come into play with the ‘national voice’ or ‘national poem’ doesn’t apply with the Arts Council in Belfast so if you are writing something that can be described of benefit to the culture here, or how we perceive ourselves, you are eligible for support. I think that’s the way it should be. Once people start assembling a list of great Irish poets, or bad Irish poets, I get nervous. In Northern Ireland we’ve been off the beaten path in terms of cultural power. Financially that’s been the case and certainly we don’t have the big global publishing houses operating from here. What we do have though is quality work produced. You could put forward several reasons for this but it’s partly I think because of the conflicting world views we have. That’s not something easily replicated in other parts of the British Isles. Here, 50 yards walk will bring you from one worldview to a radically different worldview. There are of course overlaps, points of contact, similarities, but people encounter different worldviews daily. This can create a sensitivity to the ‘Other’ and that’s one of the things literature is – an openness or sensitivity to the Other, whatever that might mean. Often the ‘Other’ is oneself and other people allow you to see that. We also still consider that it’s a good thing to be a writer here; it might be more embattled and not as precious as it used to be but it’s still there. I know this for a fact because I meet writers every day – from people with multi-volumed careers behind them to people going to creative writing classes wanting to become that thing they most admire – a writer.