A journal has landed. ECHTRAI is, in the words of its editorial team, “a journal of writing and visual art, dedicated to bringing together the work of a diverse cross-section of writers and artists with an interest in landscapes lost, abandoned, forgotten, and mythic. Written works will include a wide variety of essays, poetry, poetic prose, short fiction, experimental hybrids, academic papers, and republished works on a bi-annual basis”.
The publication features work by an impressive array of artists and writers, several of whom may be familiar to readers of The Learned Pig: people like Angus Carlyle, Alec Finlay and one of our editorial advisors, Camilla Nelson.
The publication is a series of rich encounters with landscape – explorations, musings, wanderings, slow, dedicated scratchings at the surface of the world in order to find – or imagine – what might be there below. Ian Grosz sees symbols as kinds of fossils. Emily Hesse sees each body as a kind of landscape: comprised of “billions of fragments”, “both cellular and scarred”. Jon Woolcott writes that there is “something to be said for letting ruins speak for themselves” – but how will we know what they are trying to say?
I’m reminded, not for the first time, of that 1896 paper, The Aetiology of Hysteria, in which Sigmund Freud likened the role of the psychoanalyst to that of the explorer or archaeologist, digging into the past of each unconscious / city. “Saxa loquuntur,” Freud reminded us. The stones speak.
As much as there is an archaological ethos to many of the contributions, there is also something intrinsically forward-looking too. Many of the narratives revolve around journeys – by bike, by bus, on foot. In each case, ECHTRAI takes us along for the walk / ride.
We caught up with its founder, Baz Nichols, whose beautiful texts we’ve previously published on the Pig, to find out more.
Echtrai is, as I understand it, your thing – you’re the editorial and creative director, but I also know that it has bubbled up from a growing group of contributors – artists, writers, academics and others. Could you say a little about who has been involved most closely and the nature of the early conversations that led to the setting up of the journal?
I had been writing about lost and marginalised landscapes for more than 10 years, (a couple of which were published with The Learned Pig) and produced short-run editioned works of my incantation pieces, alongside short essays and images, often in collaboration with visual artists whose works I admired, and that I felt chimed with my words. The arrival of the pandemic, I think, caused a seismic upheaval in consciousness for many of us, and being furloughed from a very demanding day job, it brought about both the time and mental space for me to re-evaluate my life and work, and figure out a way into this new future that was slowly emerging, post-Covid.
During the course of my time as the writer and producer of small works, I had the good fortune to have my work on the Helm wind mentioned in a book by Martyn Hudson – ‘Ghosts, Landscapes and Social Memory’ (Routledge, 2017). I had admired Martyn’s work from afar, and was delighted and honoured to have even this briefest of mentions in his book. We began to correspond via email and became friends as a result. During the course of 2020, I had also met and connected with Jon Woolcott of Little Toller Books, and Belinda Guerriero, an Italian artist, writer and curator.
I had decided long ago that my voice alone was not going to change or impact upon the world in any significant way, and after several online conversations and emails, I quickly realised that I knew quite a lot of literary folk with overlapping interests in these marginalised places. Initially, I contacted Martyn to ask if he would like to be involved in setting up a journal, to create a space for other writers to have a voice, and speak about these landscapes collectively. At the time, I was almost expecting him to be too busy to respond, but he got back to me with a resounding ‘yes’ , and an introduction to his partner Emily Hesse, with whom, again, I felt I had resonated with creatively.
Jon Woolcott was massively helpful in advising me with what at the time appeared to be a crazy, naive, and potentially fruitless venture, generously and completely unselfishly using his experience and knowledge with Little Toller to advise in the initial stages of setting up the journal, and also, more importantly connecting me with other writers such as Jeff Young, Alex Woodcock, and Pam Petro, all of whom contributed to the Pilot Edition. Martyn and Emily had also recently set up and published their written works on their own press – Te-Me-No, and were able to bring their editorial and curatorial skills to this burgeoning journal. From there, they too assisted me in connecting with other academics and writers, and I had got to know, and befriended the author, Dominic Cooper – it became obvious at that point, that we had the makings of something quite unique and special, and after several online editorial meetings, the bare bones of the Pilot Edition came together, alongside a mutual interest in prolonging and expanding the project into something bigger and more sustainable.
From this, AnMór Studio was established as an independent publishing venture, and Echtrai became a kind of test bed for a broad variety of written and visual works relating to marginalised landcapes. As an Editorial team, Martyn, Emily and myself had decided very early on, that we wanted to be open to, and inclusive of new and more experimental or challenging writing , that to a large extent avoided many of the tropes and motifs of what has become known as ‘place writing’ , and so the Pilot Edition was literally a toe in the water, a way to get established and start to find and engage with our audience – it sold out in less than two months, which gave me the impetus and the confidence to continue.
Echtrai is a very intriguing name. Please tell us where it comes from!
I had been searching for an appropriate and somewhat ambiguous single-word name for the journal, and had been researching certain Celtic and Pagan myths and symbolism – one of my enduring passions. I inadvertently stumbled across the concept of the Echtrai [also spelled Echtra, or Echtrae] of ancient Irish mythology.
Broadly speaking, an Echtrai is a mythic journey into The Otherworld. There are various categories of Echtrai that encompass journeys undersea, inside hills, inside lakes etc. Literally translated it generally refers to a ‘journey’ , a ‘tale’ or a ‘historic record’ , and some Echtrae involve not just a journey, but also encounters with phantoms or otherworldly beings. All of these associations with the word seemed to answer at least some of the questions I was asking about what the journal should be, and where it was going. It is possibly too soon to say, but I hope our Echtrai is all-encompassing and takes us all on a journey into places hitherto unknown.
The journal’s focus is “landscapes lost, abandoned, forgotten, mythic”. What is it about the relationship between landscape and these kinds of narratives that interests you and your contributors?
Well, I can’t speak for all of the contributors, but being true to my own motivations, I think many of these marginalised landscapes are the residual fragments of what is perhaps an untold story, threads of an oblique, discursive narrative. My own work in the main, focusses on ancestral landscapes – places that have somehow slipped through the cracks of history; or because of their geographic, environmental, political or historic disadvantages, have become forgotten or lost in time. Some of these places may have at one time enjoyed great status or significance, either socially or spiritually, but have somehow been subsumed or ignored.
In terms of any kind of narrative, we only have to look at where we are currently – our world is in crisis on many levels. The landscape is shifting beneath our feet, quite literally. Our coastlines are eroding, whilst at the same time, glaciers and ice caps are in retreat, revealing elements of human history and culture previously unknown. This dynamic of change will perhaps play out over several hundred years, but when we are able right now, to see our nurturing world in the process of rapid decline and transformation – the effects of climate change, destabilised ecosystems, and the erosion and wilful erasure of crucial tracts of land – it is not difficult to realise that we need to not only start to act, but also to start recalibrating people’s consciousness, and their perceptions of the landscape.
We are at risk of creating and inhabiting an ever more reductive, homogenised environment, and we, more-often-than-not, massively undervalue the places that have helped to shape us as a species. We have, to a great extent, become estranged from the land, and immersed and consumed by the virtual. The food chain is one exemplar – the increasing lack of plant biodiversity is putting us more at risk of susceptibility to crop failure, famine and disease. In many ways, the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ has largely been ignored. The earth’s delicate systems of equilibrium have been ruptured, and we have largely become complicit in our own demise. Huge areas of ecologically and historically important land are being decimated to provide space for monoculture . In Australia only recently, many significant and sacred Aboriginal sites have been destroyed to make way for industry in the pursuit of profit. It is a tragedy of epic proportions. Even our maps now largely focus on roads and cities, with important places of historic or cultural interest now relegated to the realms of the specialists. Something in our quest for progress is deeply and possibly irretrievably broken.
I believe that the true wealth lies in how we treat our remembered earth – how we value, respect, interact with, and record our history, and acknowledge the wisdom of our ancestors. In my own work, and in many of the pieces that we choose to include in Echtrai, there is a concerted attempt to salvage or revivify some of the unspoken or under-recorded past; to re-enchant or re-mythologise places that were once significant, and give them new life. We try to bring a fresh perspective to places that do not immediately have mass appeal. In doing so, I hope that we can, in some small way, engage with a new, and perhaps more diverse audience, and alongside it, bring about a renewed motivation to celebrate what we have lost, and help to preserve those significant places that are at risk of being lost. Gustav Mahler said ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire’
With the journal’s avowed interests, there is an understandable focus on histories. How does the journal avoid becoming simply nostalgic? Or to put that question differently, what role do you feel nostalgia plays in the journal? And how do the journal’s interests relate to contemporary discussions around identity, home and belonging?
Nostalgia is such a difficult word, it implies so much, but it has been mentioned before with reference to my own work, as well as the journal. I think to some degree Echtrai is nostalgic, but not in a willowy, overly-sentimental way. I believe the journal and AnMór as a newly born publishing venture will slowly develop and find its identity, its own path as it grows and matures. Only time will tell.
We are really only as good as the content that is submitted to us by writers, and it is the job of myself and the editorial team to shape that, and present it in a way that that is engaging, visually appealing, and far-reaching, whilst at the same time addressing some of the themes and cross-currents of our times with as little bias as possible.. I am hoping that we can open up serious discussions around marginalised landscapes and our place in them, with as broad a spectrum as we can. We want to excite, innovate, enlighten, and challenge expectations as long as it is not offensive or overly contentious.
Only very recently, technology has opened up huge vistas of possibility for us as observers of our deep past in particular. The refinement of LIDAR scanning for instance, has revealed vast areas in Mesoamerica that were once inhabited by indigenous peoples. It has forced Western archaeologists and historians alike to revise, and reconsider everything that we previously knew or assumed about this place. This will happen all over the world I’m sure, and we can only guess at what other elements of our past might be uncovered. The long hot summer and droughts of 2018 dried the land considerably, and crop-mark evidence of previously unknown or unseen features such as ancient settlements, monuments, pathways, ceremonial sites, stately homes etc. appeared like ghosts materialising in the landscape. We now live in an age where aerial drone photography, deep scanning technology, and the combined effects of climate can slowly start to unravel fragments of our past that we had not previously known, or not considered. This is where our work comes in, in documenting and recording these marginalised places academically, poetically, and creatively, and bringing them to a wider audience, in the hope that we can all view our planet, human history, and our often complex interactions with the landscape from fresh new perspectives, or a different frame of reference.
I’m really interested in the way the journal brings together text and image. The aesthetics so far feel dark, earthy, like we’re reading it in an underground cavern. It’s quite different to other places that explore some overlapping ideas – say, Reliquiae from Corbel Stone Press or Caught by the River or even The Learned Pig. Please could you say a little about how you approach the aesthetics – art and design – side of the publication?
I was a visual artist and photographer first and foremost, well before I began writing seriously, so my eye for such things is perhaps coloured by my own personal tastes, my own dark aesthetic, combined with the desire to present the journal visually apart from the other publications you mentioned. All great publications by the way!
I have generally had long standing relationships and/or collaborations with the artists and photographers I commission to submit work. Guy Dickinson is perhaps my most recent friend, and his photographic composites are truly exceptional. Tracy Hill too, and Pam Petro and Chat Robinson in the Pilot Edition – all have a unique eye for the landscape, and all have systematically taken a very oblique and abstracted approach to their visual work – this was deliberate. I wanted us to begin to interrogate and summon these landscapes in ways that were not immediately obvious. At first, Guy’s monochrome images interleaving the pieces in Edition 1 simply appear as superb shots of rock patterning – so I felt the need to explain in my introduction something of their story and context, alongside Guy’s personal impressions – this helps to lead the audience into the images, with a deeper appreciation of where they were sourced, and why we used them. As for the general layout, I have chosen a pretty clean, classic minimal approach, using the layout to completely focus on great writing, and intelligent imagery, rather than the designerly ‘clutter’ that happens in so many publications (none of those that you mentioned by the way) where form precedes substance. I am always a little wary of publications that over-design, or over-illustrate, as sometimes this can be an indicator of substandard content. I am also really keen not to create a publication that is too formulaic, or too predictable in terms of layout and content especially – it is important for me to remain open to fresh perspectives, and not get complacent – to remain fluid, flexible and not easily pigeon-holed.
Going forwards I am looking for top quality imagery that is at once startling, elegant, and not immediately obvious, but which represents the landscapes we are focussing upon, and helps to convey some sense of narrative.
What have you learned from the pilot edition and now from issue 1? What advice would you give somebody considering doing something similar?
Again, I can only speak from a personal perspective, and based on some of the conversations and meetings with the editorial team and other writers. Our team has grown, and now includes a few more voices and opinions, all of them valid, but equally I have the unenviable task of shaping and channeling that passion and energy, and creating an’identity’ for the journal that will resonate with as wide and diverse an audience as possible . I was in no doubt that we would reach intelligent, critical, and wide-ranging readers, and long may that continue. I have learned to keep the quality control as high as possible, within a very limited budget,(my own money) and how to organise and format the visuals to best effect. I have a fantastic duo of Editors in Martyn and Emily, and they have become an invaluable sounding board for me as a very inexperienced independent publisher. In short, we know what we like, and if we like it, unanimously, we publish it. Sometimes we have haggled over certain pieces, but in general we agree.
I would say for anyone about to embark on an independent publishing venture – it is a difficult journey, and the reviewers and literary world at large will almost certainly be indifferent, even hostile to you, or else will largely ignore you. And nothing happens quickly. That said, I think there is a public hunger for independent publications – it is in many ways a democratic economy, very much governed by the recipients – you have the freedom to do what you like, tap into a specialised audience and create your own world, with its own boundaries and limits – you can create interesting and challenging things – your target audience will let you know what works and what doesn’t – listen, and keep them happy! Also, take advice from experts, or at least, those with some knowledge and experience in publishing.
What are you hoping for from potential future contributors?
In short, more of the same, but different. We all engage with the landscape in many and varied ways, and at differing levels of intensity. I think all the team agree that we want to be challenged, we want to see different perspectives that subvert our sensibilities and assumptions, whilst at the same time educating, enlightening, challenging, and innovating – I still love straightforward, but great quality place writing, but I also love those that take a wider approach, see the landscape from unique and odd, or unlikely perspectives. Different forms and hybrids. I would love to see work submitted from writers and artists from other races and cultures, or those like myself who are less able-bodied or impaired, more professionals, specialists and academics, – basically anyone that has a passion and writes well is invited to join us on our journey.
What does the future hold for you and for Echtrai?
From a personal perspective, I am focussing on trying to get my book, possibly my ONLY book, The Land Incanted [Earth+Memory] completed before I shuffle off this mortal coil. Fragments of it have been published all over, but I need to now start to organise and shape it into something half coherent. It is a difficult task as I have a divergent, holotropic mind that is easily distracted, and long-form doesn’t generally work for me – I prefer glimpses and flashes of imagery, something more akin to the incantatory, or (dare I say it) poetic or aphoristic- that is what excites me. Newly relocated to Aberdeenshire, I am loving my new home, new friends, and fresh inspiration.
As for the journal, we aim to have Echtrai, Edition 2 out by the Summer of 2022 and will send out an open call soon. I am hoping the name of AnMór as a publishing entity becomes synonymous with landscapes of loss, and Echtrai is the window into our world, if you like. That said, I would love to publish other works by writers, artists, and poets, possibly even musicians, as long as their work fits our remit of marginalised landscapes, or landscapes of loss. We are launching a new project this year called AnMór 10×10 – that will be 10 publications / prints / chapbooks etc by 10 creators. I am hoping that opens the door and provides opportunities for us to publish both established and new, possibly younger writers. I am hopeful that eventually, we will be able to obtain funding in order to take the journal to a larger format, and with colour plates, better paper stock etc, and that we can finally pay our team and contributors a decent rate for their valuable work.
We are also currently having discussions about expanding into other media – art exhibitions / installations, online discussions, podcasts, seminars, radio etc, but it is very early days as yet. I was fortunate to be interviewed last summer with Helen Needham for BBC Radio Scotland, so definitely want to do more of that. Firstly – we have to broaden our audience, and make the whole project sustainable and financially viable. I hope this, above all else, will be my legacy, my love letter to the world.
You can find out more information and purchase a copy of ECHTRAI via AnMór Studio. You can also see more of Baz’s own work at The Land Incanted. And there is also a wonderful interview over on BBC Radio Scotland.
Image credits (from top):
Guy Dickinson, Peripheral 18
Guy Dickinson, Interleaves, Whitby Coast
Echtrai Journal, edition 1 (cover)
Guy Dickinson, Interleaves, Whitby Coast
Tracy Hill, Fractured
Tracy Hill, Palimpsest
Echtrai Journal, edition 1 (interior)
Guy Dickinson, Peripheral 11
This is part of ROT, a section of The Learned Pig exploring multispecies creativity through modest tales of collaboration and coexistence amidst world-ending violence and disorder. ROT is conceived and edited by Julia Cavicchi.