This week I spoke with Celeste Augé and Aoife Casby about Scrutable, Galway’s new literary salon, which is curated in the Black Gate Cultural Centre.
Celeste Augé is the author of Skip Diving (Salmon Poetry, 2014), The Essential Guide to Flight (Salmon Poetry, 2009) and the collection of short stories ‘Fireproof and Other Stories’ (Doire Press, 2012). She has moderated literary events at Cúirt and she teaches the poetry module on NUIG’s BA in Creative Writing. Her poetry has been shortlisted for a Hennessy Award and in 2011 she won the Cúirt New Writing Prize for fiction. She is based in Connemara.
Aoife Casby is a writer, editor and visual artist, currently studying towards a PhD at Goldsmiths University and completing her first collection of short stories. Her writing has been published in The Stinging Fly, Banshee, The Cork Literary Review, Stand Magazine, Poetry Ireland, The Sunday Tribune and others. She was the winner of the Doolin Short Story Prize 2018 and has been longlisted for the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Award and shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. Aoife exhibits widely as a visual artist, and works as a freelance editor. She lives in the Connemara Gaeltacht.
Hi Aoife and Celeste. Congrats on curating Scrutable, Galway’s new literary salon. You’ve had two events so far. The first one, featuring Alan McMonagle and Moya Roddy, discussed imagination. The second edition, featuring Elaine Feeney and Órfhlaith Foyle, discussed writer’s and reader’s block.
For the first event, Alan referred to a list of prompts in a recent article in The Irish Times, when questions were posed about the imagination and what feeds it. Suggestions for sources of inspiration included the following: ‘the part of the Claddagh where the Corrib meets Galway Bay, being outside when no one else is, Flannery O’Connor’s sentences, Tí Neachtains, and A Streetcar Named Desire’. Can you recall other suggestions made by the audience on what triggers imagination?
Aoife – Alan’s and Moya’s responses from the first event show how varied and personal triggers can be – from using movies to going on a walk you know will nourish you – what is common is that the sources, those triggers, are deliberate, chosen, known – both Alan and Moya gave a terrific insight into how those sources of imagination worked in their writing lives – I have a load of scribbles – some from Moya, some for Alan and some from the audience – all unattributed in my notes! But what seemed to be universal was the idea that imagination is far from suddenly being taken on a dance with the muse and more of a thing that is cultivated, prepared for, encouraged through routine – ‘I turn up 6 days a week’, ‘It’s important to create an environment’, ‘Imagination is a hopeful thing; you put yourself in its way’, ‘Be with yourself’, ‘Imagination is a way of interpreting silence’. The triggers are being prepared and it’s about being open and humble. Humble, trust, control: those words were used a lot.
Alan referred to imagination as ‘something that’s intrinsic…something that provides a way of dealing with the world, of entering into the world, of receiving the world…not something neat and tidy, ordered or pre-ordained’, and concluded that it’s ‘more of a river than a canal’. What other definitions on imagination were offered by participants on the night?
Aoife – From my scribbles I have: ‘imagination is an organism; imagination is something you make yourself available to; imagination is something which requires trust; other people are very imaginative; imagination is mishearing; imagination is a happy accident (but you have to put yourself in the place / space to have the accident, be open to it, be aware); imagination is leaving the room’.
For the second event, Elaine and Órfhlaith discussed writer’s and reader’s block. Were there strategies suggested for overcoming writer’s block? What observations were made about reader’s block, i.e. the reader’s struggle to engage with a piece of writing?
Celeste – These are the highlights from my fat notebook: I was left with the image of Órfhlaith Foyle googling ‘how to overcome writer’s block’ – which for her, meant writing out a Katherine Mansfield story when she couldn’t write her own. For Elaine Feeney, listening to other people sets her writing – people, out in the world, inspire her. In terms of reader’s block, Elaine observed that sometimes she thought ‘I should be able to read this better’. I think that’s an interesting way to think about reading, that sometimes we have to work harder, or differently, in terms of meeting the material as readers. But also, if it isn’t the right book at the right time, we’re unlikely to ever get what all the fuss is about.
Aoife – Unlike Celeste in Scrutable#1, I didn’t take notes so now I’m relying on my malleable memory – it is possible that I will make some of this up! It was fabulous listening to the backwards and forwards between Elaine and Órfhlaith – one idea that I was taken with was when they talked about those feelings a writer may encounter when faced with writing from the canon that you are not necessarily interested in (but are told you ought to read), and then learning to be courageous enough to put it down, to not engage. Sometimes overcoming reader’s block is not about overcoming it – it is a choice not to read. But mostly what I took away was that both reading and writing is work, work, work and overcoming a block is work, work, work. That old idea of reading for pleasure was mentioned a few times – I think the consensus was that in order to read for pleasure you have to leave your writer-self behind, to stop the over-analysis – and that is not always possible.
What topics will be discussed in the third and fourth events, and when will they take place?
Aoife – Shhhhh! Secrets! I’m putting on my Inscrutable face! Keep an eye on @Sscrutabl3E in the next while for topic and guest announcements – we have an event (Scrutable#3) at INISH: Island Conversations Festival on Inishbofin on the June Bank Holiday Weekend – a brilliant festival with the fabulous Peadar King of TheBlack Gate – and then Scrutable#4 back in The Black Gate in September…we aim to have four seasonal Scrutable events annually at The Black Gate… and then we’d like to take Scrutable to festivals, libraries, supermarkets, wherever you expect to find writers, as the opportunity arises. All details will be announced on our Twitter account…
Literary salons have become very popular, and they are important platforms for sparking debates and discussions about writing. Scrutable, of course, is particularly useful for writers and writers’ facilities in the west of Ireland. What inspired you to set up Scrutable? What specifically, in your opinion, are the benefits of this type of literary event for aspiring writers in Galway and the west?
Celeste – To be honest Scrutable was an accident. Myself and Aoife met up one evening in The Black Gate and were having some lovely writerly chat about books and craft and all the difficult nonsense around writing. We got to chatting with Peadar King (co-imaginer of The Black Gate) and next thing you know we’re organizing a series of bookish/writerish gatherings. This was the kind of event we wanted to go to, and nobody else was organizing it locally that we knew of, so we thought, why not give it a go? The benefits for writers (aspiring, confused, established or otherwise) in Galway and surrounds are to do with collegiality. There is a strange power in gathering to think about, talk about, laugh about writing and the audacious act of putting words on a page that lifts my writing, makes it somehow less lonely. This is obvious, but still difficult: most of the work writers do (whether they are experienced, beginners, hobbyists or professionals) is of a solitary nature and in our own minds. This is the main attraction for a lot of us, but we’re human; and sharing the experience of putting words in the best order helps writing seem as though it’s something sensible to do. Like golfing. Or playing football. Who would do that on their own? It’s good to get together in a friendly environment and speak openly about the work of writing, the grist and the gristle.
Aoife – yeah – for me it’s about meeting people, listening and hearing. Celeste said it – we are solitary creatures usually – in our writing and reading – I’m interested in hearing other writers talk about the nuts and bolts, the madness, the fear, the lack of understanding. It’s not just great to share, it’s necessary to share – and not just the work, but the long hours behind the work, the inspiration, the mistakes, the successes. And I like a good laugh!
Wonderful! Will you be attending events at Cúirt this week?
Celeste – Yes! Back in the olden days I used to circle my TV highlights for Christmas in the RTÉ Guide. Anyone remember the bumper two-week edition? So many years later, yet still the same… Check out the day-by-day page of my copy of the Cúirt brochure below.
In an ideal world, I would like to attend everything. Literally every event. And have someone supply nourishment (and cake), and somewhere to take a nap so I could recharge the batteries between readings. I could fall asleep somewhere in a corner of the festival club until a literary fairy woke me up from my slumber the next morning just in time to catch the next poetry reading. (With a stack of pancakes.) Seriously, though, my non-writing commitments and stamina are the only thing that dictate my Cúirt timetable. I’m especially looking forward to the events that feature up-and-coming writers / new voices – I always enjoy this breath of fresh air through a festival programme.
Aoife – I’ll get to as much as I can – it’s impossible to go to everything but Moya Roddy, one of our first guests, is having her book launch so that’s a must – I’d like to borrow Celeste’s literary fairy to help me with the time thing – time, the biggest problem. I like the ‘Far From Literature We Were Reared’ event – it’s for a good cause and you get to hear a lot of different work, comedy and music. Elaine Feeney, Órfhlaith Foyle and Alan McMonagle are all participating, and it will take place in the Roisín Dubh at 8pm on Sunday the 29th of April. I have promised myself that I am definitely going to get to all the Cúirt exhibitions – for me the text has a very visual life; I am very interested in approaches that explore what’s going on in that wonderful place between the image and the text.
What is your own typical daily writing routine like, and do you have any maxims for your work?
Celeste – There is no typical in my writing routine. I squeeze it in wherever it fits: parked cars, the sofa while I ignore my son / husband / the TV, on scrap bits of paper at the kitchen table, occasionally at my desk when no one has noticed I’m home. As far as maxims go, here’s a photo of the sign I have next to my desk (phrase courtesy of Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers)…
Aoife – I am a ‘squeezer’ as well but that said, there are particular types of writing that I will do in particular places – I am loco-dependent that way – my own creative work can be done in cafés, in bed, at the kitchen table – I carry a notebook everywhere and usually hand-write first. If I am editing, it’s generally the car. I love my car – I have a portable office in a plastic box and it sits on the front seat beside me. No distractions. No internet. I generally park somewhere on the Seanadh Féistín Road out near Casla with nothing but the changing colours – and the various wind – the sound of the wind from inside a car is a glorious thing. I am trying to complete a PhD and that writing is done at the desk. Reading is a necessary part of my day and I will do that anywhere. As far as maxims go: Do.
Fantastic! Do you have a favourite Irish author?
Celeste – I’ve got three. In no particular order… Marian Keyes. She’s a comic genius. And her use of structure, how she unfolds each story in a different way to fit the demands of a particular narrative, is complex enough to carry the story beyond the limits of the commercial format. Rita Ann Higgins and Paula Meehan. For Rita Ann’s wicked humour and subversive use of poetic tropes, and Paula’s sharp lyrical truths. I think we should canonise all three.
Aoife – hmmm, no! – that’s a difficult one and I’m going to go with Celeste’s expansion to three (or more) and expand it further to include writers living and working in Ireland! Favourites change on a monthly basis at least and then…I would have to choose both poets and fiction writers – so perhaps rather than favourites, there are those to whom I return – recently I have been returning to Claire-Louise Bennett, Maeve Brennan, Alan McMonagle, Alice Lyons, Sinéad Morrissey, Thomas Kinsella, Samuel Beckett and Kevin Barry – all different but it’s their use of language, the technical brilliance, the fearlessness that I go back for. Mostly the fearlessness. I have also been lucky enough to work with the poet Geraldine Mitchell on a visual response to her work (see details of exhibition below) and as a result have returned to and engaged with her work in a way I can’t do with everything I read. I have to say I love her words.
Super! Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Celeste will be chairing a short story event at Cúirt with Kelly Creighton and June Caldwell at 4pm on Saturday the 28th April in the Town Hall Theatre. It promises to be a very interesting reading with two distinctive Irish writers.
Aoife’s poetry-art appears in the exhibition ‘Mind Has Mountains’, which will be on display in the Town Hall Theatre throughout the week of Cúirt. In this exhibition artists Aoife Casby, Mags Duffy, Lisa Molina and Jane Williams respond, each in her own idiom, to Mayo poet Geraldine Mitchell’s latest collection, ‘Mountains for Breakfast’.
Keep an eye out for Scrutable’s next two events, at INISH: Island Conversations on Inishbofin on the June bank holiday weekend and at The Black Gate Cultural Centre in Francis Street, Galway in early September.