Liz McSkeane doesn’t look like she is leaving the country. The poet-turned-publisher and founder of Dublin’s newest independent press seems bright and present, without the harried air that people get before heading to the airport. She’s just packed her bag, she tells me, full of books from her company — the aptly named Turas Press, which means ‘journey’ — for their maiden voyage out of Ireland, to land on new bookstore shelves. No stranger to poetry, McSkeane launched Turas in May with her own third collection of work, So Long Calypso. Ross Hattaway’s How to Sleep with Strangers followed in September and with a third book out in 2018 (Anamaria Crowe Serrano’s Tart), Turas is already off to a running start.
The plane is heading for Glasgow, a place McSkeane calls home. You can still hear the generous Glaswegian vowels in her voice, too, though they’re gentler after years of living in Dublin. She begins by telling me about another journey, and asking me where I’m from originally.
New York! Did the accent give it away?
Oh, lucky you. I was only in New York once. Actually, I was over in Philadelphia visiting friends and it coincided with a reading — a journal that was published here had a sister publication in Red Hook. It was magnificent, a beautiful trip across the river and bay, and you could see the Statue of Liberty shining in the distance.
And you’re from Glasgow originally, right? Why set up a press in Dublin?
My mother is from Dublin, actually, just up the road. I came over for a year back in 1981, and I just called it home and never left. Then my parents retired here. I had a cousin, and I knew people so it wasn’t so isolating.
I wonder if that has to do with what you do. You’re involved in the open mic scene and that seems quite friendly.
Oh, yes, we’re very open. I met Ross Hattaway and Anamaria at a writer’s group and I’m part of the Sunflower Sessions, as well. It’s so important to have spaces and places where writers can meet talk about their work. A long time ago we started a little journal and we called it The Acorn, because we met in the Oak Pub. This was pre-digital days, so physical printing was done up in Phibsborough.
How did you go from that to creating your own publishing company?
Throughout the years, whenever anyone’s said “oh, I don’t know how I’ll get my novel published!” or something, I’d say, “when I set up my publishing company, I’ll publish it for you.” I suppose you never know quite how serious you are until you decide to do it.
So Long, Calypso is my third collection, and was meant to be with another publisher, but the deal fell through in a series of unfortunate events. I had just started sending it round again, which is a very long, slow process, and a funny thing happens when you leave a collection too long — you lose the connection with what you’ve written, you lose the integrity. So I decided, I’m just going to publish it myself, and do it properly. It was only when I got into the actual mechanics of the press and the production phase that I realised I really enjoyed doing this.
There are not many, not enough, outlets for writers, especially writers who aren’t mainstream. So many people want to publish, and there is a lot of good poetry — I mean, there’s a lot of writing, and some of it is not so good, which is fine too. Everyone deserves to write, if maybe not get published. But it doesn’t work vice versa — the fact that someone doesn’t get published doesn’t mean their work isn’t good; it can be for any number of reasons. And yet there is a certain amount of baggage about self-publishing, of wanting to be validated. But I thought if I do this for myself, maybe I can clear space for other people too.
What was it about the production process that you enjoyed so much?
When you don’t know anything about something, you think it’s dead easy. Typesetting, I thought, “Gosh, how hard can it be? I could do that, but maybe I’ll give the first one to a professional.” I really hadn’t realised how intricate a job it could be. I found it really fascinating to sit beside the typesetter and see the kind of things that, if you were not in the business, you wouldn’t know were wrong, but as a reader you would unconsciously notice something off. If the spacing weren’t right, or the weight of the paper, you’d know. It was like working on a poem, getting the lines right.
Some people hate it; I had a friend who published a book himself and he said, “you might like it, but at least, I’d never do it again.” But I found it good fun. Not that I knew what I was doing at all. I googled the Yellow Pages! The first printer I called corrected me: “we are not just printers who publish books,” he said, “we are books printers.” I had to learn that was quite a different thing. About the third or fourth typesetter down the page was a cooperative in North Wall, and he said “oh, poetry, so,” and he wanted to know all about it, and he got interested. So that’s if you like the production team – with whom I just got lucky.
You and Ross are both adopted Dubliners – Ross is from New Zealand – and travelling and home seem to be common themes in both of these collections.
You don’t see your own themes when you write, the way you do when you edit, and I really didn’t edit Ross’ work. It does feel like Dublin is home to me, though; maybe because I used to come here as a child. One of my earliest memories is standing in an old ice cream shop on O’Connell Street, and reaching up and pulling one of these levers and just seeing all of the ice cream pour out, and the woman in the shop just screaming! And I’ve been here for years now, so the memories have deepened. Maybe there’s a threshold that you pass after two years or so, and nowhere ever completely feels like home again. Or you have several homes, and a part of your identity gets tied up in each place. Even if you go back, there’s a reverse homesickness for the home you’ve made.
There is a thread about home and the wanderer in the hints of Odysseus through So Long, Calypso; aging, too. Calypso offers Odysseus the gift of eternal youth, which sounds like a great idea at the time, but maybe isn’t. Of course he chooses to age properly; but he does have a good old time first, before he goes.
I might be part of the last generation that had a ‘classical’ education. We were taught Latin, the Greek myths. I was a teacher of languages, which is one of the reasons I did Latin, as well. Those stories run so deep; they are embedded in our culture, our art, in iconography, we are imbued with it.
You’re a translator, as well, right?
I’m not a professional! But I have translated. Anamaria is a professional literary translator, and I’ve worked with her. Her mother was Spanish, and she speaks Spanish and Italian and French. The Colombian embassy was putting out a Colombian-Irish poetry book and they needed it done in a big hurry. Anamaria asked if I could work with her on it. I really enjoyed it, and I translated some other poems by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish poet and mystic in the late 16th century, who ended up as the principle character in my novel Canticle. Plus, Spanish helps when you’re tango dancing in Buenos Aires, which I was a few years ago.
Yes! Turas took up all my practicing time, though.
Can you tell me a bit about the name Turas?
It took a long time to find the right title; names are important. A good friend of mine gave me this necklace. The inscription reads, mo thuras, mo shaol, which translates to, ‘my journey, my life’ in Irish, and in Scottish Gaelic as well. It just dropped in, it felt right. I like that it ties the two countries together, and Turas trips off the tongue in English, too. When it gets out and off the islands, it’ll be easy to — well, not translate — but say, and remember.
Turas is one of a growing number independent presses that have sprouted up in Dublin in the last decade. In the gruelling world of publishing, small companies like Tramp Press and New Dublin Press are turning their size into an asset by mining local talent and producing fewer books, chosen and crafted with care. Each has a niche, from beautiful and experimental novels (like Tramp’s recent publication of Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones) to New Dublin Press’s cross-genre pieces that connect design, music and writing.
Sara Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen decided to set their own terms in 2014, armed with two laptops, an open submission policy, and commitment to publishing selective works of fiction each year. Their gamble paid dividends. Their 2015 pick, Sara Baume’s debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither, garnered attention and acclaim, while Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones took home the Goldmiths Prize in 2016. Baume’s second novel was also nominated for the Goldsmiths Prize in September, and Tramp’s latest publication is The Unforeseen by Dorothy Macardle. Coen and Davis-Goff have used their platform to combat sexism in the publishing industry, as well, writing about their own experiences and refusing to publish writers who address them as “Dear Sirs.” With triumphs and candour, Tramp Press has edged itself into the heart of Dublin publishing in three short years.
Doire Press publishes poetry and literary fiction in the West of Ireland. The way Lisa Frank tells it, “we started the press without really planning to.” Lisa met John Walsh in Galway on her last day in the country, and they ended up on a twelve-hour date. Four years later, they worked together to publish his first poetry collection, and just continued, though “it wasn’t until 2010 that we started to think of ourselves as a real press.” Though they are very much dependent on grants, they tend to side with a work they believe in, like Adam White’s Accurate Measurements or William Wall’s Hearing Voices/Seeing Things. Their latest project is a “cross-border reading tour” called Bodies, Belongings, and Borders, combining fiction and poetry writers across Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Galway.
Founded in 1984, Lilliput clocks in at the oldest indie on this list, but it is also one of the most prestigious. Their premises in Stoneybatter are worth the trek; ring the bell of the strange corner building and enter a bright, well-organised bookshop complete with new titles, carpet-covered couches, and a glimpse into the inner workings (it doubles as their offices as well). Lilliput’s books are mostly Irish interest with a touch to the erudite side; forthcoming titles include Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland as well as a collection of correspondence from Tyrone Gutherie, a midcentury Shakespeare interpreter from Annaghmakerrig. But never fear if you won’t read other people’s post, as Lilliput curates a wide range of genre, from classics to current affairs and essays to new Irish fiction.
The New Dublin Press identifies as an “independent publisher, media production house, and performance organiser,” curating genre-bending work from experimental scholars, poets, musicians, visual artists… you name it. But instead of pandaemonium — incidentally, the name of their online journal — each piece comes together to create a stylish, intriguing portfolio. Imagines, for example, is a “bespoke book” combining musical scores, viola performance, poetry, and commentary; designer Rossi McAuley created a unique “musical typography” to capture the music and handwritten scores. Started in 2012, New Dublin Press continues to produce books and events alike, creating a space for arts and collaboration in Dublin and beyond.
Words: Madeleine Saidenberg
Photo: Killian Broderick