Dani Gill – Director at Cúirt International Festival of Literature
The Cúirt Festival runs from 19th - 25th April, 2016
Can you tell us a bit about how you've gotten to where you are today?
I was born in Galway; my mum's from the city but I grew up in the midlands. One thing that was definitely there in my childhood and growing up was the presence of writing and books, and there was a terrific openness to that, where I'm from. People were very interested in what you were doing - in your private life in general, as is the case with small communities in Ireland, but with writing and creativity. That was a nice thing, because sometimes people assume that if you're from a rural place, there's no sense of what we would describe as being possible in an urban environment. But in that rural place, there was an awful lot of stuff that made me who I am and gave me the space to be who I am, so I think growing up where I did definitely influenced me, and the people around me definitely had an effect on me.
I've always had a real love for Galway; it's my second home and now is home really. I came here for college; I studied English. I worked in theatre and events promotion, marketing and some PR. I worked on Cúirt before I became director and got a really good sense of the event. Then I became director and things changed; that was a very different role and a different setup for me.
"I've always followed my gut; I’m a big believer in instinct and that often dictated what direction I would take at different points of my life. I know and I'll do it then."
How would you describe yourself?
Open, curious, a daydreamer. I live in my head quite a lot. I think that might be necessary though to do what we do. I think everybody has a touch of that ability/illness - whatever way you want to look at it. I've always been very thirsty for knowledge. I'm a Sagittarius in the Zodiac; we're meant to be interested in knowledge and I've always wanted to learn and wanted to be challenged. I very rarely feel challenged, to be honest. I'm still trying to work on that and find new things. Sometimes that's physical pursuits. I was surfing recently and I jump in the sea. I love big waves, stuff like that. Wherever there's a sense of danger or a sense of, ‘I may not be able to do this', I love that. Which is maybe why I got thrown in the deep end with something like Cúirt. I like getting thrown into something and seeing what happens; and I think the best things often come out of that situation - for you and for other people. Everybody wants to know what happens in those kind of situations. I think it might still be the slightly primitive or sadistic side of us that we still have from Colosseum, Gladiator times. People love seeing somebody thrown in and want to see a bit of battle. I know I can fight my way out, so I'll be grand.
Do you find that you make sacrifices or your work?
I would have in the early part of my career. I made sacrifices with my time, and I had to. When you're committed to something like the Arts, which I think a lot of people are, you're very fortunate if you have support structures in your life; that is an important thing to have there to feed off of. Creative people who work in the Arts are socialites; we really buy into that. We like that we have social capital, which is maybe slightly egotistical, but when you think about it, like any programme director, what you're getting a lot of your satisfaction from is you're putting something out into the world and you need people to like it or at least have people attend it or participate. So we rely all the time on other people interacting with us and participating. We're all super needy in that sense, so I think it can be quite draining emotionally, mentally, creatively. Then you boot up and you get a lot of energy out of a festival or something you're running. It's a curious way to live. So I would have made more sacrifices earlier in my career; I don't really think that that's positive. I like to think that I've learnt from that and changed that around, because I do think you need balance in your life and you do need to create some distinction. For some people it works in different ways, but for myself, a lot of what I do is going to be embedded with me, embedded with my day-to-day life. As far as sacrifices go, I don't mind if it's hours at certain times of the year to finesse something so I'm happy with it. But I wouldn't want it to be someone who loves me waiting on the street for me and I'm late. That kind of thing doesn't really happen any more, which I'm pleased about. That's progress.
You are young. The majority of people I would imagine would work for many years and wouldn't' even expect to get to where you are until middle age.
Well, when you say wouldn't expect, I'd say that's true but I don't think it's necessarily right. I could have done law; I could be a solicitor now. I could be a teacher. Many people working in professions such as law, medicine, IT even, earn good salaries, have pension schemes set up - all those kinds of things. But a lot of those things are still lacking in the infrastructure of the arts, so I think that to a large extent with the arts, it's taken for granted that people will slog for 15 years and then you should be delighted to get a part-time job. I think that's really wrong; we shouldn't have that view. It's lessening what we put into the work because for anyone working in the Arts, it is part-vocation, so if anything, you need to be compensated for that, not made feel privileged. For most people who work in the Arts or events, you do feel a tremendous amount of honour in it in the sense that you're getting to serve an audience. It's humbling to present a programme that's for thousands of people, and trying to communicate that with many people.
With regard my age, I think I'm the youngest International director in the country. Sometimes people are a little taken aback when they meet me. Not so much now, because I've been in my directorship five years, and I've met a lot of people. Occasionally, someone will say it, but when they do, I find it says a lot about them. Because I've found in my career so far that anyone I've met that had no reaction to it at all, they were all people who were creative entrepreneurs from when they were the age I was. Garry Hynes was in her 20s when she started directing for Druid. Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books founded Bloodaxe when he was 22, so there's a lot of these kinds of people that wouldn't bat an eyelid. It often says something about where people are in their lives. I've never passed any heed on what age people are. I've never thought about it and to be honest, it is often irrelevant, because I know people who are older than me and younger than me with varying degrees of maturity and intelligence and everything else. I really don't think it's much of a consideration. And I think obviously, because I'm young and a woman, you do have to prove yourself. But at this point, I've five years behind me, and Cúirt is the top funded literary event in Ireland now. So I guess you get to a point where your work is there and you don't feel like you need to account for yourself.
You don't come across as the type of person who suffers from self-doubt, which a lot of creatives do...
I do. I think everybody does. I'm definitely not exempt from that. But I suppose for what I do, I always think that having a vision is important. If you have a vision, you're automatically driving towards the vision so there's a certain amount of confidence in that. I do have moments and certainly, for me, the programme launch of Cúirt is such a big deal. I'm always nervous on the day of the launch and the team know. There could be people in there who I've been hunting for years. So then handing that over, making it public after working on it by myself is a really strange thing. I've learnt that my relationship with each programme is completely distinct from the festival itself and from other people's relationship to it. When you accept that, it makes it easier. But I have my moments, and when you're doing something like Cúirt, you're in competition with the rest of the world. The landscape of literature has changed an awful lot. There are several new festivals that exist now that wouldn't have existed even ten years ago and then commercially, different corporate entities are becoming involved. There's a lot of different layers politically and financially in festivals and events now. I think Cúirt is lucky in the sense that it's got a really strong reputation in the States and North America and has a reputation for being warm and intelligent, so we have those thing going for us but at the same time, you absolutely can't take it for granted that people are going to come to the festival. In terms of parts of the job, it's definitely the trickiest area and the area where I'm over a barrel every year with my programme. You live and die by your programme. That's not a nice feeling for anyone to have. So I do need a pat on the shoulder or a cake at different times. I'm lucky I have people I can show my vulnerability to and they'll give me sugar fixes and we'll move on.
What drives you?
I want to do more. Not to say that what I have isn't enough, but I suppose I always feel like there's more and I'm really interested in human potential - the potential of the body, the potential of the mind. That's what I like about being in the sea. I know other people are afraid of the sea, its enormity. But I love it. I love being a tiny thing in an enormous thing, and feeling the power of it and knowing that you're at the mercy of it. That's an amazing thing. In life, I feel like that. I feel like you can be safe in your bubble, and sometimes you might need to harbour in a port but I'd like to think that most of the time I'm swimming out, and looking for new things. I'm hungry for that; always wanting to see what's next, what the next level is and what the world looks like from there. And I think that maybe the people that you have in your life affect that process. It's not always possible to go a level up. This year, I'm going a few levels up. I'm doing a few things at the moment curatorially and creatively that are bringing me into a new place; that's very exciting. Sometimes things click. It's like lego. You can kind of get into a new place higher up and then things look different and I like that. I like that idea of building things up, taking them apart and doing it again. Maybe other people would find that tedious, but I think it's interesting. I'll always find something new in it.
Do you work on instinct or do you think things through?
Thinking things through is important to realise certain goals, there is always practical elements of things that have to come together, but I've always followed my gut; I'm a big believer in instinct and that often dictated what direction I would take at different points of my life. I know and I'll do it then. I don't know if I know how to do it any other way.
That's a really comfortable place to be...
Well, it is, but it's also something that you need to grow into. If you have that capacity, it's like getting used to it becomes the task then and finding ways to evolve in that. I'm definitely interested in that at the point that I'm at now, in terms of creatively and professionally the next level and I suppose I've always been like that. I'm very driven, I'm very ambitious and I'm always looking for what's coming next. And with interest, watching with interest. Not necessarily barrelling towards it - I might have done that when I was younger. I've learnt to not do that as much now. I kind of feel things out and I'm a big believer in that. There's always doors opening; there's always opportunities. I didn't realise that until the last couple of years of my life that some people can't spot opportunities, which I thought was odd. I think everyone's given them. I don't really think there's such a thing as some people are lucky, other people aren't. I think everybody gets opportunities. I think then you've got to decide whether you're going to capitalise on them or not. That's the difference between people who go places and people who don't. And when I say people that go places, I don't mean progress as in there's people left behind. I don't think it's an echelon thing, but I think it's your life path and how you choose to go down it. You can kind of move in a horizontal or a linear fashion. Some people like to grab it more than others.
Do you think that people are just too busy in their heads to spot opportunity?
Some people just don't want them. They say they do but they don't. If something comes along and you have to seize it, you have to be a bit brave and you have to take a leap. Alot of people don't want that. They might say they do but they don't. Work ethic is so important; I don't think anything sort of falls into your lap. And I think sometimes that's a combination of real world work, but it's also an energy thing - pulling things towards yourself. Sometimes people might have an attitude of, ‘This should happen for me' or ‘This should come to be', but that's not really how it works. Whatever you believe in, even if you have an interest in karma. I like that idea because there's balance in it; it's active, it's not a passive activity. If you do something, something will happen somewhere else. Thats a nice idea and it means that everyone can do it. It's not a matter of ability, it's a matter of choice.
Who or what has been your greatest influence?
I love kind people. Maya Angelou would have been a really big one for me. Definitely for a few years there I was just throwing out Maya Angelou quotes all over the place, and putting them in my speeches. But Maya Angelou said, even about public speaking, which I think is lovely: ‘Before you go out on stage to speak, you should think about anyone who was ever kind to you'. I think we have to remind ourselves about kindness. For me, with the festival, I introduced the dedicated outreach programme that wasn't there before, I've developed the youth programme a lot, and they were really important things to me because I grew up with books. I like kind people because I think they have a lot of grace; they can remind us of our humility and the need to give and not to be focused on ourselves. Usually those people too have overcome a lot in their lives and have found a way to give back. I think that's amazing; that's probably the track we should all be on. And I'm a big believer in real life heros. There's often people very close to home who are worthy of distinction. They know who they are, I don't think I need to name them.
At a hospitality level and a corporate level, there's a lot of engagement in Galway with the Arts and I think that that makes us quite strong in a way that other cities or other parts of the country are not strong
"If something comes along and you have to seize it, you have to be a bit brave and you have to take a leap. Alot of people don't want that. They might say they do but they don't."
How much of a role does literature play in your life?
Massive. I mean, I don't distinguish my life from literature, in a way. It's literally all around me all of the time. I have books everywhere; in my car, in the office, in the house, in my bag. I like poetry, I like fiction. I read like a lot of different genres. I do really believe in books and writing being there for times in your life when you need it. There's times in your life when you might need inspiration or a push or you want to escape the world or be in another place and they're great for that. I also find sometimes with loneliness or bereavement, it's an amazing time to read good poetry. I do see books as being my friends. I like having them around me. I've always been interested in language and I say that even about writing. The challenge of writing sometimes, especially with poetry, is rejecting language, rejecting everything you want to say for about half an hour before you find what you actually want to say. Because when you think about it, between email and conversion and slang, it devalued, changed and adapted language so very few words really mean anything. The way in which you deliver certain phrases can be meaningful, but we say words really casually and words that we shouldn't necessarily use. I've always been acutely aware of that, so my love of words and books has just been consistent and prevailing. I think it will always be there - I hope it will always be there. I've always thought I'd like to die reading the Heathcliff Catherine love scene on a chair somewhere. That'd be a nice way to die. Maybe that will happen - having a romantic end to my literary life. Such a literati thing to say.
In your opinion, what has the Arts and culture done for Galway City and what role has literature played in that?
I'm very aware of the legacy in Galway, the history of Galway as a cultural place. I'm very lucky to work with Padraic Breathnach. I feel like there's a lot to be learnt from that generation of practitioners who started up so many vibrant things in the 80s and everything grew out of that. I have a tremendous respect for those people and what they've done and I still think we need to have conversations with them to fully understand, not just what they did, but their own origins, and what they brought to things. When you meet certain people in the Arts, you realise that they're talented or formidable, not because of what they've achieved alone, but whatever it is that they have or whatever it is that's propelled them on; that can be a very unique personal thing. But I'm in favour of that. We need to acknowledge that.
I think Galway is culture, people refer to Galway as the cultural heart of Ireland, and it is. I know I could be accused of being biased because I work here and I work in the Arts here, but the city is so integrally based on the Arts. There's the core artistic community, people who work in the industry and the wide community of artists, writers, musicians who are based here. Then all of the hospitality trade in the city are really well connected with the Arts; everybody knows about the festivals and a lot of people are involved in the festivals. So at a hospitality and a corporate level, there's a lot of engagement in Galway with the Arts, that makes us quite strong in a way that other cities or other parts of the country are not strong. Galway has always been synonymous with culture. I don't think that means we need to be complacent about it, like anywhere, you need to be continually growing and going forward. There's a certain amount of regeneration and progress happening at the moment that needs to happen, so we need to keep moving on. But you know, I think you can feel it in the streets of Galway; everybody says that. I think anyone I've ever met says, ‘I love Galway', and whether it's because of Salthill or Quay Street, there's an energy in the city. For me, it's always made sense, the link between the Arts and that energy, because there's something in it that makes people feel that they belong. A large portion of the population of Galway are blow-ins or people who've migrated here; we are the most multicultural city in Ireland. There's something about Galway too - people come here for a weekend and don't go away. There's a magnetism in the place, a creative magnetism.
Your favourite cultural city or place in the world?
I think I want to say Galway. The standard of food in Galway is really strong - it's so amazing. Artistically, we're producing a lot of good work. Alot of amazing things premier in Galway.
What's your vision for Galway as a cultural utopia?
Everyone reading books everywhere you go. I also think harnessing the talent that we have, because a lot of people living in Galway who are artists or involved in the Arts are really committed. They want to be here, they want to invest in the West. There aren't enough opportunities insofar as jobs, full time jobs are concerned - we need to solve that. We also need to give people reasons to stay other than the abundance of reasons that are here already. Practically speaking, it would be nice if Galway became not just artist-friendly, but the epicentre of where you want to live and where you can live if you're an artist or a writer and for there to be the same number of opportunities as there is talent, which I know is vast.
Are you familiar with anywhere that does that particularly well?
I think New York seems to be a big hub of that. You need to be on your toes, a lot of movement, vibrancy. I think there's something quite appealing about that. But to be honest, there's no city in the world that is like anywhere else. I felt like putting that in vinyl on my walls when I first started doing Cúirt - ‘This is not London. This is not New York.', because you have to understand where you are to appreciate it, and also to be able to give to it. It's like gardening, if you plant the wrong things in the wrong places, they'll die, they won't grow. I think you have to respect nature in that sense and know how to give back to a place. Galway will keep you very safe but it also is able for anything that we want to throw at it. That's the next stage with the Arts in Galway to - throw more stuff in the mix, be bold and see what we can take, because our way of life on the west coast is definitely more easygoing than, say, Dublin. That rat race energy of London, New York and even to a lesser extent Dublin - we don't have that here. But I think if you can work at a similar level, but work here, we can all be head and shoulders above those people because we don't have to be in our offices until 8pm and 9pm at night, we don't have to be up at 5am. We can be sitting out on the prom at 5.30pm stretching our legs. There's enormous potential here to capitalise on the energy of the place and to become stronger than alot of those places, because one of the things you don't have to do in Galway to the extent of some of the other locations is sacrifice. You can have it all here. The standard of life you can have in Galway, certainly for what you pay for it, is amazing compared to a lot of other places in the world. We need to celebrate that and realise that we can go up a few levels without ruining our sense of ease. That might be a terrific possibility.