Interview – Tolka Journal

A journal of formally promiscuous non-fiction.

There is a new literary journal on the scene in Ireland and, since the launch of its inaugural issue at the end of May, the internet has been buzzing. Tolka is a new biannual literary journal, seeking to give a platform without parameters to non-fiction writing.

The founding editors are Liam Harrison, Seán Hayes and Catherine Hearn, who are all bringing an abundance of literary and creative experience to the venture. The contributing writers to Issue One include some very familiar names; in order of appearance these include Liadan Ní Chuinn, Brian Dillon, Doireann Ní Ghríofa with Molly Hennigan, Dimitra Xidous, Eva O’Connor, Rob Doyle, Dearbhaile Houston, Dasom Yang, Liam Bishop, Jessica Traynor, Kevin Brazil and Ana Kinsella. 

From a starting point of non-fiction, the writers have free rein to pour their creativity into essays, reportage, travel writing, auto-fiction, individual stories, and whatever other form of written piece may emerge in between; the only unifying element is writing which is sharp, engaging, fluid and straight-talking. Most of the pieces are formatted with spaces between paragraphs, or into different sections altogether, creating a sense of immediacy to the writing, a sense that we are being given a glimpse of moments in time, which warrant closer inspection. Simple, everyday occurrences give rise to passages of deeper contemplation and investigation, creating a layered experience for the reader, as is the nature of non-fiction writing. That’s the beauty of it, and of the pieces found in Issue One of Tolka.

The journal is beautifully produced, with subtle but sophisticated print details on the inner flaps of the cover, and with an abstract cover design by Ori Gersht aptly named Blow Up 07 –  the face of a literary journal intent on facilitating a surge of new writing in an already vibrant literary journal scene. 

Literary journals, by their nature, always embody a sense of having started from something small but of being fueled by a real passion, and with the potential to grow exponentially in reach and support. Following a successful launch night for Issue One, and great excitement since the issue has started making its way out in the world, I caught up with Liam to find out a little more.

Tolka literary journal

Yourself, Seán and Catherine are clearly already involved in the literary and creative scene in Ireland in a big way. Can you tell us more about how this venture was born?

We have all worked in and around the Dublin literary scene for a while, where we attended book launches and festival talks, often making half-baked plans to start our own journal.

I worked in distribution at Gill Books before starting my PhD in Birmingham; Seán interned at Lilliput, New Island, before moving into editorial at Faber and now works in commissioning at Gill; and Catherine had worked at Lilliput, too, and now works in fundraising. Between the three of us and our individual niches, we’re not bad at calling each other out on our more terrible ideas!

In terms of how things started, I remember going to a Publishing Ireland event with Seán at MOMA a few years ago. We sat in the courtyard, drinking free bottles of Kinnegar, and talked for ages about starting our own journal. (I also remember Seán telling me I needed to drop everything and read Anne Enright’s The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch immediately). Seán said that he had similar drunken, aspirational chats with his pal Catherine, and the three of us eventually came up with the idea for Tolka.

Over similar sessions we realised that we all shared an interest in formally innovative non-fiction, and that we enjoyed writing that blurs the boundaries between neat categories and genres. We also loved reading a lot of similar journals – The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Banshee, gorse, The Tangerine, The White Review, Granta, N+1 – and we wanted to find our own place within that world of new writing.

Our vague plans remained vague plans until lockdown hit and, over a series of Zoom calls, we gathered the courage to submit an Arts Council Literature Project Award, which we are eternally grateful for receiving. Once the funding was granted we realised that we actually had to do the thing!

There was a beautifully fluid phrase in your website’s statement, outlining part of the vision for Tolka, that really stuck with me. Can you talk to us about your drive to publish work that ‘emphasises the luminous aesthetic of ordinary experiences’?

Oh, I’m glad that resonated with you! I think our emphasis on ‘ordinary experiences’ comes from a few places, and speaks to the kind of writing we would like to publish.

There’s a beautiful essay by Claire-Louise Bennett in Frieze on still-life painting and I often return to the last paragraph which acutely captures the ‘luminous aesthetic’ of everyday experience, as she describes the act of chopping vegetables. Bennett concludes the essay by dwelling on certain moments, ‘when the inner, the outer and the beyond are caused by simple things to somehow merge, that one briefly feels at home’. It’s an impossible essay to summarise, just as Bennett’s writing can’t be reduced to neat categories, but I would strongly recommend reading it!

I’m also reminded of an interview with the poet Derek Mahon, where he quotes Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, discussing ‘that real sense of beauty which has far less to do with art than with the constant readiness to discern the halo round a frying pan’. There’s something in these extreme acts of noticing that is both deeply personal and particular, while also being outward-looking and attuned to an external environment. I think the writing we publish in Tolka all falls somewhere along this spectrum of interiority/exteriority, and it’s all grounded in some kind of quotidian experience that tries to trace ‘the halo round a frying pan’.

Seeing the excitement unfolding online in the lead up to the launch, and as the issue has begun to make its way out into the world, what struck me was the real sense of community and support there seems to be here amongst writers, and those generally involved in the literary scene. What would be your experience of this, in relation to Tolka and your other literary endeavours to date?

We have been overwhelmed by the support from across the literary scene in Ireland. The amount of time, advice, collaboration and friendship from the community of journal-makers, writers, publishers and editors has been incredible, and we would not have been able to make Tolka without them.

We have never felt like we were in competition with other journals, but that we’re trying to carve our own niche in the existing literary space, which other publications have done such amazing work to create. The editors of The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Banshee, The Tangerine, gorse, Sonder and others have done so much to support and welcome us, from social-media shout-outs to lengthy Zoom calls.

Writers, of course, have also been integral to Tolka coming together. Established authors like Brian Dillon and Rob Doyle have not only contributed to the issue but have also been incredibly supportive along the way. Brian spoke with Catherine about Tolka on RTÉ’s Arena at very short notice, while Rob, alongside Thomas Morris at The Stinging Fly, has been incredibly encouraging at every turn.

And it is the writers that make Tolka what it is. We decided against including an editorial as we wanted the writing to speak for itself. Issue One opens with Liadan Ní Chuinn’s first lines ‘When I was at University I had to cut up a body (I’m sorry, I’m sorry)’, from their incredibly powerful piece ‘twenty twenty’. The issue concludes (spoiler) with a beautiful fragment from Ana Kinsella’s ‘Wayfinding’: ‘The best bit of any ballet, to me, is the break in the music, during a dancer’s solo, when all you can hear is the furious scuffling of pointe shoes along the wood of the stage and the collective hush of a whole auditorium holding its breath.’

What was the selection process for this group of writers featured in your inaugural issue?

We deliberately did not set a specific theme in an attempt to attract the widest array of writing and styles. We also had no idea how many submissions we would receive and decided to commission several pieces alongside our open submissions window. We were then overwhelmed with how many submissions we did receive! We read so many great pieces that we knew would find a home elsewhere. We found ourselves in that strange position of turning down writing that we loved but was not the right fit for Tolka, or turning away writers whose work we’ve long admired. The submissions process was both the most enjoyable and most difficult part of making Tolka.

Going forward, we plan to keep the blend of commissions and submissions, to both solicit work that we’re stylistically interested in and to invite work from underrepresented writers in Ireland, while also keeping an open and free submissions window so that Tolka is accessible to everyone.

Have you any message or words of advice for writers starting out, or who have not yet been published, who have been inspired by Issue One and are contemplating making a submission for Issue Two?

This is such a great but difficult question, as it is so hard to give broad advice to something that is so particular. I think that asking someone you trust to read your writing before submitting can often be very helpful, and can give another perspective to how finished a piece of writing is. Similarly, I think closely attending to your own writing, asking yourself: is this as finished, polished and meticulously edited as it can be? Am I ready to let this out into the world?

Having said that, we really love the collaborative editorial process, and we enjoyed working on pieces after we had accepted them for publication. So the question of how ‘finished’ a piece of writing is will always be up for debate!

Also, submitting your writing is often a very brave thing to do, and we give each piece care and attention. We appreciate the labour and emotional energy that goes into writing, and we strive to meet every piece on its own terms.

It’s important for anyone contemplating submitting to appreciate that, as editors, we’re fallible! We come with our own tastes, preferences and biases and will undoubtedly make many decisions which end up feeling like wrong ones. Finally, reading our first issue will naturally give an indication of the kind of writing we like, but we are also always up for new ventures! 

***

A huge thank you to Liam for this generous and insightful view into where Tolka has come from, and where it is headed.

If you missed the Issue One launch, or enjoyed it so much that you want to come back for seconds, don’t miss their second event on this evening. Entitled ‘Narratives of Place’, this event will feature readings from Kevin Brazil, Dearbhaile Houston and Ana Kinsella. If the first launch is anything to go by, this promises to be an engaging affair.

You can register for the event here and order your copy of Issue One from the Tolka website.

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