A new anthology features literary responses to Ireland’s tallest building, writes Marjorie Brennan.
The Elysian tower has loomed large over Ireland’s second city for almost a decade. While the tallest building in the Republic became a symbol of the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger, its
impact on the city’s culture and imagination, is not something that has been explored at a deeper level.
Aiming to address this is The Elysian: Creative Responses, an anthology featuring work from a roll call of Cork’s finest writing talent, established and emerging.
The collection is published by New Binary Press and edited by poets Graham Allen and Billy Ramsell, who say the book’s goal was to focus writers’ attention on a single, unmoving symbol and encourage an artistic circumnavigation of the building.
The resulting responses include poems by the likes of Thomas McCarthy and Doireann Ní Ghriofa, as well as prose pieces by such writers as Cónal Creedon and Mary Morrissy.
Allen, a professor of English at UCC, has a particular interest in the building, having witnessed its rise from his home on the north side of the city.
“I watched it being built; it was always in my mind. I suppose we felt as it was such an imposing building, it was something Cork artists should respond to. The idea appealed to me and Billy because it was unusual. You get anthologies of poetry and short stories but rarely do you get something where everyone has been asked to focus on the one thing,” says Allen.
The anthology is an engaging mix of essays, poems and short stories, inviting the reader to consider how we can integrate the artistic, civic and political spheres.
“It is an attempt to publish a book that takes something everyone can see in Cork and show the power of literature’s ability to respond. A good portion of people live in cities. We are trying to suggest to writers in publishing this book that they should be more directly involved in commenting on what is going on in the cities in which they live and work,” says Allen.
Nature is an evergreen theme in literature but the built environment attracts less attention, something which Allen feels needs to be addressed.
“There is a place for poems about nature but it can’t just be that, surely. I was born in London, I’m a city dweller, have been all my life and I write about what I know — and I know the city. I always joke with my students that the city is a place of safety for me, and nature is a place of great danger.
The idea that art should be about nature all the time goes hand in hand with the idea that art shouldn’t be political. I have no time for that whatsoever.
“You shouldn’t write poetry, or literature, from a card-carrying point of view but you should write them about what is happening. Politics is just what is happening, what is in front of you.”
While it is perhaps simplistic to view the Elysian as a folly to the greed and excesses of the boom, Allen says the book features many positive reactions to the building. As the apartments within the complex have become fully occupied in recent months, its impact and the way in which it is viewed is also changing.
“It has had an interesting history so far. When we started the book, it was almost empty. One of the reasons artists should be responding to buildings like that is they do change and they do have a cultural significance. The Elysian has changed considerably in its short lifetime.”
The anthology’s focus on a single building may be a novel one but Allen says the thinking behind the project crystallises when people read the book as a whole.
“I think people get it when it is presented to them. I would like to see more of this kind of project. It is like an anthology the other way around — instead of collecting people who are like each other, you get people who are not necessarily like each other to focus on one thing, I think that’s a nice way of doing it.”
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