WFU press celebrates 25 years of publishing Irish poetry

When Wake Forest University English Professor Dillon Johnston founded Wake Forest University Press in 1976, the work of many major contemporary Irish poets-much of it inspired by the ancient legends and current political turmoil of the Emerald Isle-was not available in the United States. Now, the press is celebrating 25 years of bringing the words of Irish poets to American audiences.

During its first year, the press published works by Austin Clarke, Ciaran Carson and John Montague. Since then, the press has become the premier publisher of Irish poetry in North America.

The varied fabric of Irish society is represented by the poets the press publishes. Poetry by men and women, Catholics and Protestants, residents of Dublin and Belfast, is now in print.

By publishing poetry exclusively, the press brings as many volumes of poetry to American readers as major publishers. To date, that includes some 90 books by poets such as Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, John Montague, Michael Longley and Nuala NÌ Dhomhnaill. The press also published the first-ever anthology of Irish women’s work, “The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry, 1967-2000.”

“Wake Forest University Press has played a vital role in the growing awareness of Irish poetry,” said Paul Muldoon, Oxford University Professor of Poetry, and the G.B. Clark Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University. Muldoon’s poetry has also been published by the Wake Forest Press. “It is the only press to have published Irish poetry almost exclusively.”

At least once a year, Johnston travels to Ireland and Northern Ireland, seeking new poets to publish. On one of his first trips, he discovered Ciaran Carson, a Northern Irish poet whose book, “Belfast Confetti,” a collection of poems about his turbulent home, won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize for Poetry in 1991. Wake Forest Press also published Carson’s “Selected Poems” in early March 2001.

Johnston was drawn to Ireland by the Irish people’s “valuing of human exchanges, and of talk, that leads to the production of poetry there.” Poetry is very much a part of the popular culture. In late night talk shows in Ireland, poets often appear with rock stars and other celebrities, Johnston said.

The press has published two volumes of poetry by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, who writes in Gaelic, the traditional language of Ireland.

“It would be a shame to lose the language, because it can express things other languages cannot,” Johnston said.

As a small independent publisher and two-person office, the press has experienced small but steady increases in sales over the years. Retail giants Barnes & Noble and Borders now carry its titles. The books are also available through on-line booksellers and through the Wake Forest Press Web site,

Through the work of manager Candide Jones, Wake Forest Press also coordinates reading tours, bringing not only the written words, but living Irish poets to this side of the Atlantic. Irish poets published by the press frequently launch their books with appearances at Wake Forest and also travel throughout the United States.

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