I recently sat down with the Director of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature, Dani Gill (picture above). The Cúirt festival is in its 29th year here in Galway, and they have gone from strength to strength as one of the premier literature festivals in all the world. Writers and literature enthusiasts converge from all over the globe to celebrate and promote modern literature and poetry. As always, this year's festival features writers and poets from around the world, but there is always a special emphasis on both established and budding writers from Ireland.
The Wild Geese: Dani, thanks for sitting down with us on the eve of the 2014 Cúirt International Festival of Literature. We know you have a "full plate" at the moment, but you've carved out a bit of your valuable time to speak with The Wild Geese community about Cúirt.
Please explain the name of the festival -- "Cúirt" -- for those who aren't familiar with this term from the Irish language.
Dani Gill: I would say "KOO-urtch," but some people say "KOO-uhrt." Both are correct, really, and the word itself, Cúirt, actually means "visit." That would be my most common association with the word. But it also comes from "cúirt na filíocht," which has to do with the bards and the poets. That's how the would have originally been names, because it began as a poetry event.
The Wild Geese: Tell us a bit about the history of the festival.
Dani Gill: The festival started in 1985. This is the 29th year of Cúirt, so next year is the 30th anniversary. It began as a three-day poetry event. Obviously, it's more diverse and dynamic now. It grew into a fiction, poetry, theatre, and even music. From the mid-90s, it evolved and began to attain an international reputation. It would cater now for a far more diverse range of interests. We now have an outreach program, which I introduced. It was something I felt the festival really needed. We're reaching a strong maturity, hopefully, where a lot of the traditions of the festival are still there, and we are able to host some of the best writers from around the world.
The Wild Geese: We've noticed the international flavor of the writers featured in the Cúirt festival, but also a strong emphasis on highlighting some of the most talented authors in Ireland. Tell us about the selection process.
Dani Gill: I always try to include a lot of Irish writers and international writers. It is an international festival, so there's an expectation there because of our reputation to be able to bring in authors and writers from other places. A festival like Cúirt would have a budget for things like that, whereas others might not. In saying that, though, we're extremely lucky that we live in Ireland, because some of the world's best writers are Irish. Being a literary programmer in Ireland makes my job a bit easier. There's been some really amazing Irish fiction. Donal Ryan is one of the writers at the festival this year, and he's been called "a Magnus of a writer" by Sebastian Barry who is one of our opening night writers. Donal Ryan's book, "Spinning Heart," and also "The Thing About December" are very well known now, and he's been one of the hottest tickets at the festival this year. Anakana Schofield, the other half of that pairing, is technically Irish. She has been living in Vancouver for the past 13 years, but her book, "Malarky," is very much an Irish novel. It was published in 2013 on this side of the Atlantic. Colin Barrett, Eimear McBride -- who is a Goldsmith Prize winner for "A Girl is a Half-formed Thing." There have been some really interesting novels and short story collections over the last year or two in Ireland, so it's great to be able to have these writers at the festival. I definitely think Cúirt should be responding to new voices, and as a programer myself, I've always had a focus on new and debut writers. It's always been a theme that we would include both Irish and international writers, but I'm very interested in new voices. I think for "bookish" people, we're always looking for new things to read, and that's one thing Cúirt has become known for -- people going to the festival to see people they know, and then being introduced to another writer that they weren't aware of. There's magic in that ... being able to meet someone and get a sense of what their book is about; and then when you take the book home, it's different than the experience you would have if you pick the book up but never meet the person.
The Wild Geese: I haven't noticed any overriding theme in the festival from year to year. Is there a reasoning behind that?
Dani Gill: No, there isn't an overarching theme. With particular events, there are specific themes. So, within the program you might notice a title associated with different events ... like Craig Davidson's "Rust and Bone," and "Young Skins," by Colin Barrett. The event theme is "Periphery, Karma, and Violence," which are things that link their works together.
The Wild Geese: Having mentioned the names of some of the writers featured in this year's festival already, do you have any suggestions as to who the members of The Wild Geese community should look out for in the days ahead?
Dani Gill: I'm excited about the Holly McNish and Patrick deWitt event. That should be a really good event ... a poet and a fiction writer, and it should be interesting to see what they have to say to each other. Joanne Harris is a big deal. She's very well read, but she's never been to Galway before this year. She's never been to the west of Ireland, so that's a brilliant treat as well.
The Wild Geese: You talked a bit about those "new voices," so who would the up-and-comers be in this year's festival?
Dani Gill: Eimear McBride would definitely be an up-and-comer. Now, in saying that, I kind of feel strange about calling her that, because in many ways she seems like a very seasoned writer. She's been referred to as a genius. I think she's going to be a very big writer. I also think Donal Ryan is going to be a very big voice in Ireland. He's very much sought-after at the moment. He's definitely one to watch. Anakana Schofield, I'm curious to see what she's going to come out with next. "Malarky" has received interesting reviews, and there's been an interesting response to it. I read it before it was published in Ireland. She tracked me down in a "green room" in Toronto and gave me the book and said, "An Irish person hasn't read this yet. Will you read it and tell me what you think?" So when I brought it home and read it, I thought, "Wow ... this is great," and I also thought, "What are people going to say about this book?", because you could call it a bit sensationalist because of some of the topics and things that are in it. She's a very brave woman to write the book, and she keeps referring to the Q&A part of our upcoming event as "tin helmet time." So I promised to catch bullets and eject loons if they're there. But she's really great to write something like that. She has really interesting things to say about being a female writer and her experience in being published, so I feel like she is someone who would be a great mentor for other female Irish writers. She's very generous in that sense, and I think she will be a real mentor for a lot of female Irish writers.
The Wild Geese: What role do you see Irish writers playing on the world stage of contemporary literature?
Dani Gill: In 2013, sadly, one of our biggest Irish poets, Seamus Heaney passed away. One of his last engagements was Cúirt. He was featured on opening night of our festival in 2013. I think the death of Seamus Heaney said something important about Ireland and Irish people. We have such a relationship with literature and with poetry. I think it's really something in Irish culture that's helped us relate to ourselves. That might sound strange, but I think Irish people are very much that way. They're very socially intelligent and sensitive; but in our culture, we also have a lot of banter and hardiness, and maybe a willingness to survive. I think, maybe, you see that in our literary traditions. So, in terms of poetry specifically, we're still seeing new voices in poetry and still seeing new books doing really well. Billy Ramsell is at the festival this year, and he has a new book called "The Architect's Dream of Winter." It's an amazing collection, and he is one of the up-and-coming male poets in Ireland. It's really nice to see those traditions continuing. One of the things you might notice in Ireland -- and I'm not sure if it would be the case in the U.K. or in America, or other countries -- is a want to help younger writers ... a want to bring them up through the ranks. I'm a custodian of Cúirt, and I acknowledge all the people who were custodians of the festival before me. The event doesn't belong to anyone; it belongs to a community, and I think that's very reflective of books and Irish literature ... they belong to a community. There's always been a sense of that. There's always been a sense of togetherness. Now, if you look to the international stage, a lot of our best writers have been exported. A lot of them are popping up all over campuses in Ivy League colleges in America. I think that says something about where we are internationally. I think we are really "punching above our weight" in terms of our size, and I think that tradition is very healthy and very much alive in poetry and in fiction.
The Wild Geese: We were happy to see the continued inclusion of Irish language events in the festival program this year. Tell us about your take on Irish language literature in relation to the Cúirt festival.
Dani Gill: I'm very proud of the outreach events that we do for children, which are Irish language events. We do these events in the Carraroe library. The great thing about those events is that a lot of the schools out there (in Connemara) are very small. You have the islands, and they wouldn't have ever attended literary events before 2011. So, I began the outreach program in 2011, and consistently every year we've done two or three events there in the Carraroe library, and they're brilliant. You're talking about 12 or 15 schools out there that are coming to events that would otherwise have no access to these things. So this year we're working again with Futa Fata, and Irish language publisher out there (in Connemara). There's a great event on Friday night of this year's festival in the Taibhdhearc Theatre focusing on the sean nós singing tradition. The event will highlight "Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán" (Big Book of Songs). That's really going to be a fascinating event. There will be another Irish language event on Thursday, so we'll see bits of theatre, monologue, and music. Actually, a lot of our visitors at the festival -- even some of the writers themselves -- are choosing those Irish language events. When I ask them what they want to see, a lot of them are choosing those events, and that's nice to see.
The Wild Geese: Dani, thank you so very much for your time. Best of luck with this year's festival.
Dani Gill: My pleasure. Thanks very much.