Farewell to The SHOp

Tuesday 2 December 2014 11:01

The SHOp has closed. When a shop closes in a small village it leaves an empty space in the heart and so it is with this magazine. The community of writers and readers of poetry in Ireland and around the world is no more than a village and at the heart of this village are the ‘little’ magazines in which poets see their own work published and get to read what other poets are writing and where readers find echoes of their own experience rendered in form and words that they would not have used themselves. A ‘little’ magazine is a meeting place where all kinds of emotional and aesthetic transactions and interactions happen. In what sense they are ‘little’ has always puzzled me. Are they ‘littler’ than magazines with huge print-runs and complete emptiness between the covers?

The SHOp was not little in its scope, i
ts commitment, its intellectual and aesthetic  space. Its first issue was Autumn/Winter 1999 and in the fifteen years between then and now (the double issue 46 & 47 will be the last) it probably published everyone who writes poetry in Ireland as well as many poets from around the world. The SHOpkeepers, Hilary and John Wakeman were severe critics. Any poet at any stage of her or his career could expect to have a poem rejected. But they were also warm enthusiasts for poetry in general – and for illustrators.
The photograph above was taken some years ago in the dining room of their cottage in West Cork. It is rather surprising, it seems to me, that an international publishing venture should begin close to the tree-line of a mountainside (Skeagh, their address, means a bush!) in a remote part of Ireland where, at the time, technology was a problem and where broadband was a distant dream. However, the postal system in Ireland is excellent and
human (no postcodes means postmen always know where everyone is) and, more importantly, there is no centre where poetry is concerned and therefore no edge so nothing is ever remote.

The success of the magazine was in large part due to the SHOpkeepers themselves. Hilary was one of the first female rectors of the Church of Ireland, and had a deep interest in theology and church reform, and John, as well as being a poet himself, had edited for WW Norton their definitive encyclopaedia of film, and these interests and accomplishments were signposts to a larger apprehension of the world, a breadth of vision and understanding and a difference. They were not career poetry magazine editors (if such an unlikely creature exists), but cognoscenti in the true sense of people who knew things out of the ordinary.

My own relationship with them began with Issue 13 (2003) and thereafter I never really bothered to send my poems anywhere else (I am a lazy sender-outer). I loved the format (square rather than rectangular) and the fact that it was illustrated and only ever published one poem by each poet. And I loved the company I kept there between the covers, many of them friends but many people I had never met but whose work always interested, intrigued and delighted me.

Despite their commitment to singularity they published two of my longest poems (‘Q’ and ‘Job At Heathrow’) both of which took up many pages. I do not think any other magazine would have accepted either of those poems, especially ‘Q’, which is both long and surreal. ‘Job at Heathrow’, with its multiple voices and triple layer of reference would probably not have been regarded as ‘Irish’ enough anywhere else. They also published two of my essays ‘To Hell With All Mature Quiet Patient Poetry’ and ‘Riding Against The Lizard’, both of which criticised Irish poets and writers for their lack of political commitment, although the criticism could have applied to much of the work in the magazine. They wanted, they said, to set people thinking. It was not surprising; at that time Hilary had just published her controversial book on the church, Saving Christianity and was embroiled in her own controversies. I have often wondered how a West Cork C of I parish felt about a left-wing and theologically radical rector. She once urged me (a lifelong atheist) to ‘rejoin the church as a heretic’, and I believe she would have rebaptised me as such, had I shown half an inclination to accept the offer.

I will the miss SHOp, but the friendship will endure. When This Is the Country was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2005, Liz and I were holidaying in the area. The first thing we did was buy a bottle of wine and drive up the mountain to Skeagh to celebrate with them. It was a beautiful summer’s evening and we sat on the lawn and watched the sun go down slowly behind the mountain. Gracious hosts of poetry and people, I wish you ten thousand such evenings and then ten thousand more, and may we celebrate some of them together.

Nára laige Dia sibh!


Middle: Image of the cover of the first issue of The SHOp

Lower: Drawing of the cottage at Skeagh from which the magazine was produced (Teo Wakeman)