This month marks the commencement of the 11th year of the Over The Edge series of monthly literary readings run by poets Susan Millar DuMars and Kevin Higgins. Founded as a platform for emergent writers, OTE has showcased the work of some 300 authors since its inception. An impressive statistic in itself, no less impressive is the fact that more than 40 of the OTE readers have gone on to have their work published in book form. The high quality and lively diversity of their writing is much to the fore in the recently published Over The Edge, the First Ten Years, An Anthology of Fiction and Poetry from Salmon Poetry.
The collection is edited by Susan Millar DuMars and her introduction recalls how the initial impetus for OTE’s founding came from the lull in literary activity that afflicted Galway back around 2002; “It was frustrating. Here we were in Galway, a small city on the west coast of Ireland that had already given the world Salmon, Macnas, and the Druid Theatre; three internationally recognised arts institutions. We had come here, we remained here, because we’d been promised another artistic flourishing. Of course, no individual had made any such promise. But we heard it anyway, in the rub of rain on stone. In the trad music that escaped like steam from the windows of the Crane Bar. In the echoes inside St Nicholas Church. Local author Mike McCormack had published Crowe’s Requiem (1999), a novel set in a youthful, Gothic, slightly mad Galway we recognised and embraced. There were many of us happy to stay up all night writing crazy modern masterpieces. But once we had written them, what then? I remember feeling that published authors existed on the other side of a pane of glass. I had no idea how to break the glass, to get through to where they were.”
Her intro continues; “I thought about this lack a lot, and one winter’s morning as I walked into town I decided I could see how to challenge it. I phoned Kevin; by the time I’d made it into work, he and I had created the format for the Over the Edge Readings. In 10 years, very little about the readings has changed. We’ve kept the project focused by remembering its purpose; to provide a showcase for writers who’ve not yet published a book. Fifteen minutes for each of three readers (poetry or prose), followed by an open mic where absolutely anyone can get in on the act. It was discipline and joyful chaos walking hand in hand. The only modulation we’ve seen has been the increased ability of OTE to attract well-known authors as its popularity has spread. A tweak to the format resulted – we started putting one established writer on the bill with two unpublished. The juxtaposition upped everyone’s game, and boosted the already high attendance as well.”
The anthology is a delight to read from first page to last and bears eloquent testimony to the pedigree of OTE’s featured authors. Among the many pleasures to be found within its covers is Brendan Murphy’s hilarious word-play poem ‘Slum Pottery’; ‘Hello everybottle / I do ippiligise / Because at the moment /I seem to be surfing from a rare contradiction / Leaving me willfully unable to pronouns my werbs probly./ It's obviously a dammaged nerve correction between my monde and my vice, / So consequently my spach buttons are up fuct /And all my weirds come outwrung.’
Dave Lordan’s poem ‘Fearless’ crackles with the immediacy of a vivid voice; ‘I’m the likes that spreads myself out on a bench / Above in the square of a summer’s day / Suckin a flagon with me shirt tore off an’ me pot belly out / Fuckin an’ blindin anywan who’d be passin / Tellin dem I’m fearless fuckin fearless.’
Alongside the poetry there are also very fine stories from the likes of John Walsh, Aileen Armstrong, Jim Mullarkey and Órfhlaith Foyle, whose ‘Dead People’ is both powerful and unsettling.
It all adds up to a collection that would grace any bookshelf, and over a Saturday lunchtime chat Susan Millar DuMars shared her reflections on the 10 years of readings that went into its creation. I began by asking her memories of the very first Over The Edge event, in January 2003. “Caoilinn Hughes, Jim Mullarkey and Maureen Gallagher read at our very first Over The Edge,” she recalls. “I remember being really nervous about having to introduce them and then being relieved that it went so well. Our audiences increased over time. They were always healthy though it took a couple years before it broke the 50 barrier, initially it was more of a gathering with maybe 20/25 people, these days we usually get over 70.”
An interesting aspect of OTE is that featured writers only appear once. “We decided that from the beginning, that writers would only read once at Over The Edge,” DuMars explains. “We didn’t want to have the same old faces over and over again. The whole idea has always been that we are supporting emerging writers. We support them in other ways as well, we run readings on Friday nights and we help people with their book-launches. It keeps the thing fresh for the people who are coming to hear it, they know it is going to be different every time. We have a lot of people now wanting to be featured readers at Over The Edge. Initially it was the other way round where we would be actively seeking out people to read and now we have so many applicants, sometimes we feel bad because we might have to tell them it will be several months before they can be scheduled. But it’s great that we have so many writers getting in touch.”
Born in Philadelphia, DuMars first came to Galway for the Arts Festival in 1997 and, like many another ‘blow-in’, she settled here. Her introduction to the anthology recalls how she first met Kevin Higgins after submitting poems to his magazine The Burning Bush and the couple subsequently married. As well as writing poetry both she and Higgins teach creative writing in colleges and workshops throughout Galway. DuMars herself has never read at Over The Edge. To quote her introduction again; “I’ve watched other arts ventures collapse because they turned into vanity projects for a small group of people. We avoid this by not featuring ourselves, and never having anyone else as a featured reader twice. This is why you hear writers refer to “my Over the Edge”. You only get one. So it becomes a real marker, a singular moment in a career.”
I ask her about the OTE dynamic of having well known writers alongside unpublished ones; “After the first couple of years we started featuring established writers alongside the emergent ones. It’s lovely to see that interaction and often audiences in the bar afterward will go ‘oh so-and-so [the established writer] was very good but you know who was really good was…and it will be someone who has hardly published anything yet but they stole the show. It’s really exciting to see that and also to see the big name writers talking with the newbies in the pub afterward.”
The Over The Edge anthology is available from all good bookshops. The next OTE reading is on Thursday January 23 at Galway City Library. It will also see the launch of the next issue of Skylight 47 poetry magazine. Mary O’Donnell is launching the magazine and she will read alongside Breda Wall Ryan and Breege Bogusia Wardein. The event commences at 6.30pm.