When Icarus soars

Jayna Rohslau chats with editors Charlotte Moore and Eloise Rodger on their plans for Trinity’s premier literary & arts magazine

When the poet William Carlos Williams said: “When Icarus fell / it was spring”, he was dead wrong. In fact, Ireland’s oldest literary magazine drops their first issue in the autumn. Meeting the editors of Icarus for our conversation, we discuss their publication’s future and the irritating fact that it rains in Dublin. As English students, it seems suitable that the landscape where I meet the editors is a coffee shop titled after a trademark of literary success and where drinks are ordered with the promise of cream. Over hot chocolate, they marvel at how their poetry has moulted feathers while I marvel at my ability to moult my rain-drenched jacket.

Citing a rich and thick literary history, Eloise Rodger emphasises that the magazine’s priority is to maintain this lineage. Both editors are cognisant of a “legacy of talent” that includes publishing Eavan Boland and being edited by Brendan Kennelly. That said, both are focused on the future, “searing with new voices… a community of writers propelling one another forward.” Events will include panels and poetry readings that aim to be accessible to all. In other words, even if you haven’t submitted to Icarus in the past, don’t let the heights intimidate you; maybe you’ll soar.

“We want Icarus to propel writers forward in their trajectories… it’s a real feat to get into the magazine”

Although writing may be a solitary practice, Icarus fosters a literary community supporting a flock of writers. Learning to fly is not a solo endeavour. For writers published in the magazine, Icarus offers a launching point to new destinations where their talent continues to receive credit. “We want Icarus to propel writers forward in their trajectories, and not just be a one-off publication. It’s a real feat to get into the magazine, as we get so many submissions, and so we want opportunities to come of that: that people involved meet writers, publishers and academics as a result”, Rodger says: “We’re hoping to inspire a sense of comradery between artists on campus.” Considering Trinity doesn’t have many classes dedicated to creative writing opportunities, the wings of Icarus offer an enticing path for creative expression – out of the clouds and into a writing career. 

Speculating on reasons for the magazine’s success, the editors note the democratic process of Icarus in contrast to regular classes in which social anxieties of perception permeate the potential for a creative atmosphere. Charlotte Moore says: “I think it’s interesting to be like, come [with] no name, no prompts, give us what you have…It’s definitely more free.” To write for Icarus is to unburden yourself from academic strictures and discover places that only your imagination can reach.

Rodger and Moore take a multimedia approach. They are excited to see a visual art aspect come to life as the magazine this year will include a featured artist in addition to their famous featured poets and writers. Many powerful poems interpret what we see in the world from the unique lens of the writer. For instance, poets like Williams and Auden wrote different poems in response to the painting attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. It is worth noting that Moore has expertise as a keen visual artist. By emphasising visual achievement, the editors illustrate they have an acute understanding of how art and writing inform each other, confidantes, one form teaching the other how to become airborne.

“We’re just going to let the work inform our vision and create a united body of work”

While most literary magazines dictate the theme, Icarus favours a less authoritarian approach and lets writers flow to their desired locale or subject. Rodger says: “we’re just going to let the work inform our vision… it’s about asking writers to come to us with what they are interested in and then our job as editors to look at what we have and create a united body of work.” They aim to approach the process without “preconceived notions”. Instead, they believe the issue’s highest point can be reached only when contributors are free to chart its natural course.

For editors Rodger and Moore, Icarus has been a sun guiding their poetry’s development. Still, that doesn’t mean the trajectory was a linear arc. Moore recalls: “I think I submitted first in my second year or maybe at the end of my first year. Either way, the first time I submitted, I was told that my work was strong but needed a few revisions.” Instilled with the determination to prove herself, she then succeeded blazingly, to the extent of having two poems accepted for the second issue. 

Rodger had a similar experience: “I’ve been published in it since first year…I think at some point, I got rejected…I reread the poems that I sent, and I was like, ‘I also want to reject these.’” Their poetical journeys mirror each other in many ways, which they appreciate as joint editors-in-chief. 

The process of editing other people’s poems has been “really helpful and exciting and interesting.” For students interested in becoming writers, reading and workshopping poems is vital for progress. Both editors say that seeing what they liked and didn’t like in Icarus gave them the knowledge they wanted to include in their writing. Ultimately, there is no substitution for the process of workshopping your own material. Rodger says poetry requires “reading, studying literature, and writing more things that are awful than anything that’s good.”

How has the composition of Icarus changed over the years? His or helmed by two female editors, her flight is more timeless than you might expect. The editors expect poems that reflect current issues surrounding internet discourse, the pandemic (and corresponding mental health impacts), gender anxieties and climate change. Overall, though the human condition has remained the same for millennia, poetry continues to address similar concerns. As Rodger notes, there is something fundamentally unchanging about literature, about the human condition: a 14th century middle English poem will resonate or evoke the same feelings of grief that an Icarus contributor might write about. Maybe then, some part of writing never changes.

“Poetry goes beyond the bounds of recording truth.. it is a practice of empathy for yourself and others”

Despite this progression, there is something comforting about the similarity, or as Rodger aptly puts it: “It’s kind of nice to think that there was some man in the Middle Ages who was feeling the same way that me, a teenage girl, feels now.” People are still grieving, falling ill, falling in and out of love. Perhaps that is why we read poetry, to find catharsis in seeing that others have also experienced a nosedive or a sudden strong gust of wind that threatens to blow you off course that, from time to time, we all find ourselves subjected to. Poetry also goes beyond the bounds of recording truth. Knowing that people in the Middle Ages grieved is to dimly see across the impasse of history, but to experience the grief through poetry is to realise the barriers are unimportant. For all intents and purposes, you are a crying man in the Middle Ages. It is a practice of empathy for yourself and others.

Regarding submissions, neither poet holds back in describing what they treasure and, conversely, what they want to get lost. For the latter, they note that it is easy for writers nowadays to simulate flight. Moore says: “There’s a tendency for people to write a poem that sounds like a poem, a derivation or mimicry of other poems they read and assimilated.” The editors dismiss this tendency towards laziness. Inadvertently, Rodger says, due to the democratisation of the internet, there is an “abundance of totally meaningless work that exists in an echo chamber. And it’s rare that you come across something that feels necessary…something that feels like there’s a reason it exists, and it’s not just a fluffy tweet on the internet.” Like birds stealing your sandwich, snatching and regurgitating ideas on the internet has become normalised; however, social media can be a productive asset, and most Twitter poets are about as thoughtful as a Dublin seagull.

Although it is difficult to formulate what the exact opposite of a Dublin seagull writing poetry would be, I ask the editors what they are excited to read. Skilled deployment of language is a given for determining what work to include in an issue. Moore also cites their love for “something that’s inventive, creative…has a spark of originality” although their ultimate inclusion of a piece has  “a lot to do with instinct and a gut feeling.” Rodger believes “there’s a slower pace when it comes to art [than social media], we’re looking for craft…intentionality and honesty.” 

“You’ll know if it’s good writing because it’ll hit you in the stomach and you’ll feel it”

When asked about judging the merits of prose as poets, the editors agree that good writing transcends genre. Moore says: “I think ideas that feel necessary, fresh, a voice that feels sincere and intentional transcends the form or genre, and we will be looking to recognize that…good writing exists in its own scenes outside of form.” Rodger also says quite vividly: “you’ll know if it’s good writing because it’ll hit you in the stomach and you’ll feel it.” In other words, they welcome submissions irrespective of genre, provided you do not take the example of the publication’s namesake and think through your process – and provided it gives the editors a pleasant sort of stomach pain.

As the editors finish their hot chocolate, I still have yet to finish my coffee so I can’t let them fly away just yet. Clearing my throat, I ask them if they believe writing has a responsibility to be political. It’s sort of a labyrinthine question to ask at the conclusion of an interview; Minos would be proud. 

Consider the Icarus poem of Auden, Musee de Beaux Arts. On one hand, it is about the boy who falls from the sky, but the message about suffering was situated within the rising threat of totalitarianism – and world war – situated amongst the general population’s indifference. That said, the poem’s layers of meaning can be interpreted differently depending on your perspective.

Conceding it is a hard question, Moore goes first. She says that although she hopes to address prescient concerns in her work, “nobody cares… one of my great reliefs as I write is this literally doesn’t matter… I think that frees me because as soon as I have a kind of sociological critic in my head trying to argue with the aesthetic critic, I can’t produce a single thing.” Simultaneously, she does not deny the significant power of the written word. “I think that there’s just no doubt that art is very, very powerful and it’s one of the most influential things that human beings have made, and there’s a reason why it exists and changes the world.”

“I think as an absolute baseline, stories are one of the most powerful weapons in the world”

Rodger also acknowledges she actively grapples with the weight of the question, stating this debate causes turmoil as writers are struggling with the question of writing from different perspectives. On the political front, she says: “I mean, I think as an absolute baseline, stories are one of the most powerful weapons in the world since words obviously make up the crux of society. It’s how we communicate, how we interact with each other, which is ultimately something that can bind or separate us. And stories ultimately, whether that’s in religion, whether that’s politics, whether it’s stories we tell ourselves, they come to form how we live our lives, the decisions we make…So, I’m very cautious that art is a deeply important thing.”

She sees it from both sides now: “In my own writing, I have a particular affinity for honesty. I’m always drawn to how story-telling allows you to indulge in thoughts you would be too frightened to say aloud or might be unable to articulate otherwise. Even if something is completely out there and surreal, I think you can tell when something has come from an unflinching truth and in turn, that’ll be the work that resonates [with me.]”

Work that is honest matters, and if that registers within a political context it can be a wonderful thing, so in that sense, regardless of who the person is, there is always political potential in something that connects to the world and communicates within it, even if there isn’t a direct political intention behind the work.” This makes sense to me. After all, the figure of Icarus is only one component in a lively scene. Contrary to the myths, these magazines ‘being woke BS’ or ‘run by literary snobs’: “We (Charlotte and Eloise) would quite earnestly just like to read your poems. So, be brave, whoever you are. We’re listening.”

Jayna Rohslau

Jayna Rohslau is the Arts and Culture Editor and is currently in her Senior Fresh year studying English in the Dual BA