Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Burning Bush

I thought I would give a sketch of The Burning Bush literary magazine, of which I was editor – a brief rundown in lieu of a comprehensive history (perhaps someone will write one in the future). TBB was begun in 1999 in Galway, initially co-edited by myself and Kevin Higgins. It was A5 in size, stapled, photocopied, with full-color covers (usually), ISSN 1393-8312. Issue 1 of the magazine (Spring ’99) featured Louis de Paor, Fred Johnston, John Thomas Menesini, and Steve Earle (the famous musician, contributing two poems) among others, as well as then-unknowns like Alan Jude Moore (who went on to appear in every issue). TBB1 was quite favorably received, getting good reviews and a positive mention in the Irish Times’ anonymous “Loose Leaves” column (which quoted my Editorial Note: “Where is the experimentalism? Is there an Irish underground?”). Higgins’ article on 20th c. Irish poetry (spread over the first two issues) also set the tone: “There is a far more progressive, more alive poetry to which Irish poets could be looking.” The journal continued to progress for the next few issues, including work by the likes of James Liddy, Pat Jourdan, Deirdre Carr, Mary O’Donoghue. Other poets associated with TBB at this time included Manny Blacksher, Alex Leonard, and Daniel Ball.

At issue 4 (Autumn 2000), Kevin Higgins resigned as co-editor. This development caused a minor stir in the Irish literary scene, and it was assumed that there had been some kind of falling out between us. Fred Johnston penned articles about it in the Cork Examiner and the Galway Advertiser. Kevin has given his own version of his motivations for leaving in an article in The Red Lamp titled “Here I am, back where I started.” While Kevin’s piece is undoubtedly sincere from his subjective point of view, I personally was never aware of any of these conflicts, political or otherwise, which he mentions. Nothing was ever said about a difference of opinion at the time that he split from the magazine. Nor, for that matter, was there was ever any instance of my attempting to vaunt the merits of “Nietzsche” contra “Trotsky.” And though we did have some sparring matches in print later on, Kevin and I remain friends. In retrospect, I think that he probably felt the need to forge a separate identity, and that he knew I wasn’t enthusiastic about the cause of socialism the way he was, and so I was a useful foil for a time. Funnily enough, TBB continued to publish political poetry to the end, even while I was being criticized by some people for not doing so!

My editorial piece in issue 5 (Spring 2001) was, however, certainly an attempt to focus the magazine on poetics (though not to particularly exclude any possible political subject matter). A review and description of that issue (followed by reviews of issues 8-11) can be found here. My article on “the Wild Honey Poets” (specifically Randolph Healy, Trevor Joyce, Maurice Scully and Billy Mills) can be read on the Wild Honey Press site, and it gives you a pretty good idea of what I was getting interested in at that point. Most of these poets contributed to subsequent issues of The Burning Bush. It is no accident that the two major poets I interviewed for the magazine were Trevor Joyce (issue 7) and James Liddy (issue 8). By this time (2002), TBB was consciously attempting in its own shambolic way (possibly naïvely) to be a catalyst for a “Revolution of the Word” in contemporary Irish and international poetry. I was partially influenced by issues of the earlier journal, The Lace Curtain, a 70’s Irish late-modernist literary magazine edited by Michael Smith and Trevor Joyce. David Butler also appeared in TBB’s pages then, as did Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, and American poet David Stone. But by issue 8 I was getting a little disillusioned at the prospect of single-handedly effecting major change. There is a certain insularity in Irish poetry, and there probably always will be. Reaction to my editorial in that issue can again be found here, and perhaps still elsewhere on the internet. I was also later criticized by Marxist poet Maureen Gallagher in the pages of the Cork Literary Review 10, once again for supposedly promulgating “Art for Art’s sake.” (A later take on the poetry/politics argument can be found in an opinion piece I wrote for Poetry Ireland News entitled “Art and Revolution”.)

Despite all this, the following issue (9, Spring 2003) (reviewed here) was one of the best in my opinion, including some really good poetry contributions, an amazing (I think) poetic-prose story by Liam Mac Sheóinín entitled “George Bush Buys Coke in the Irish Riviera,” criticism, and a great cover. I was attempting to draw back from some of my grandiose notions of the historical avant-garde, and simply produce what I considered to be a solid literary magazine. But it was always crucial, to my mind, to have a particular critical viewpoint. The Burning Bush continued on to issue 11 (Spring 2004), at which point I decided it was better to go out on top than to linger on fulfilling the audience’s expectations. An interesting and pretty apt obituary of the magazine was given by Andrew Jordan in his journal 10th Muse:

The paradigm at the heart of this publication stretched from realism to good old fashioned romanticism. Temporally, the paradigm ranged from the now of today to the now of the past, casting a backwards glance at Modernism. Spatially, The Burning Bush came out of Ireland and - as far as I can recall - every issue included some poetry in Irish. Thus there was also a national/international paradigm at work. They did the sublime to the ridiculous as well: "'Roy Orbison calls from a Burning Bush' / Portions of sense occur, but soon get lost…" Pat Jourdan (from "At the reading", BB 8). All this meant the magazine had a lively instability which was, in effect, its style.

Though I sometimes felt that the magazine fell short of the ambitions I had as editor, looking back it certainly did play a role in the general broadening of Irish poetry’s collective mind. Copies are probably getting harder to find now, but perhaps Kenny’s or Charlie Byrne’s in Galway are worth a try. Amazon claims to have at least one issue available. It would be worthwhile to do a Burning Bush anthology, I have thought, but that of course depends on finding a willing publisher. Preferably an Irish publisher, since TBB was always primarily, as a starting point, an Irish magazine.

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