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by Rosemary Neil

It took Alan Wearne 13 years to write his verse novel, The Lovemakers, which explored “all the great, sexy things” (love, betrayal, home renovation) about life in the suburbs. In 2002, The Lovemakers took out the poetry prize and book of the year in the NSW Premier’s Awards, an extraordinary achievement for a 359-page poem written in a kind of exalted Strine.

Yet even as Wearne stepped up to the podium to collect his gongs from then NSW premier Bob Carr, The Lovemakers was doomed. “At the same time they were congratulating me, they (his publisher, Penguin) were planning to dump me,” the poet says, still incredulous five years later. In spite of the prizes and high praise this verse novel garnered, Penguin spurned the second volume. ABC Books eventually accepted The Lovemakers II, but although it earned excellent reviews, “any promotional campaign was non-existent”, Wearne complains. In the end, both volumes of The Lovemakers were pulped.

Behind the pulverising of Wearne’s two-volume epic lies a bigger yet rarely told story of the near-abandonment of poetry by many powerful publishers. Reflecting this, a new study by University of Queensland Press poetry editor, Bronwyn Lea, has uncovered a fall of more than 40 per cent in the number of poetry books being published.

Lea’s study finds that ‘in the years between 1993 and 1996, more than 250 books of poems were published in Australia each year. By 2006, this figure had been reduced by about 100 titles.’

Today, Lea says, the vast majority of local poetry titles come from small, independent presses. Some, such as Giramondo and Black Inc, punch above their weight, winning prestigious literary prizes or attracting big names.

According to Lea, however, many independent poetry presses “do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Under these conditions, the thus far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling.”

Lea, a poet and academic, believes UQP is the only large, mainstream publisher that still maintains a formal poetry list. UQP publishes five or six poetry titles a year and has on its list eminent poets such as John Tranter and David Malouf. Malouf’s first poetry collection in 26 years, Typewriter Music, was released in hardback at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last month. Within three days, its print run of 3,000 had all but sold out.

Lea says this shows that – contrary to popular belief – if poetry is properly marketed, it will connect with readers.

Her study, published in the new UQP title, Making Books, retraces how “the 1990s heralded a new ethos in Australian book publishing: poetry was no longer presumed to be a prestigious staple on the list of a serious publishing house.

“With mergers and takeovers happening left and right in the commercial publishing sector, poetry, for all its ‘cultural worth’ was told to pay its way in dollars or be gone. But with characteristically small print runs and booksellers hesitant to stock specialty books, this was a big ask.”

By the close of the decade, Lea found that publishers such as Angus&Robertson, Penguin, Picador and Heinemann had axed or radically cut their poetry output, leaving canonical poets such as Judith Wright and Les Murray temporarily publisherless.

The antipodean retreat was part of an international trend. Oxford University Press caused a furore in 1999 when it dumped 28 of its poets, including expatriate Australian Peter Porter, and closed down its poetry series.

It is telling that Murray – commonly ranked with the world’s top handful of poets – has signed up with Black Inc. (His previous publisher was the small, stylish but now defunct Duffy&Snellgrove.) Murray says of the majors backing away from poetry: “Their philosophy now is sales at any cost and quick turnover, so we are better off in some ways without them. The only escape routes at the moment for poetry are the net and performance.”

Wearne believes most of the majors are “scared of poetry and don’t understand it”. Now “a poet in exile” teaching creative writing at the University of Wollonging (he’s from Melbourne), he wonders why his earlier verse novel, The Nightmarkets (1986), enjoyed several reprintings and what he calls a crazy level of media attention, while 15 years later, The Lovemakers bombed.

The poet, who considers himself an entertainer and an elitist, believes the decline has been caused by dumbing down within the media, universities and publishing houses, a resurgent cultural cringe and a lack of nous about how to market poetry.

Wearne compares today’s poetry scene with the Australian film scene in the 1950s, when questions were asked about whether it had a future. Murray concurs, sort of. He tells Review “we are now back to exactly where we were in the early ’60s” when he started out as a poet. Back then, he says, few big publishers were interested in publishing local poetry as they were convinced it wouldn’t sell.

Interestingly, when Murray edited Best Australian Poems for Black Inc in 2004 and 2005, roughly half the poems he chose were by writers he had never heard of. He says this reflects the dearth of commercial publishing outlets for poets, but adds: “We always have had highly talented amateurs and I don’t think it matters that much.” Even so, deprived of mainstream publishing outlets, it’s hard to imagine our emerging poets attracting the same level of national and international recognition our senior poets (Murray, Malouf, Tranter, Wright, Peter Porter) have enjoyed.

At 39, Peter Minter has been writing poetry for 15 years, and has won significant prizes. He says of the scant opportunities for poets at bigger publishers: “It does grate. There is frustration that poetry doesn’t have the same kind of profile that prose does. The flip side is that in an almost up-yours kind of way, younger poets are stimulated into setting up their own presses and magazines.”

In spite of the grim outlook, Minter, Lea and others are adamant a poetry revival is under way on the web, at independent presses and in cafes, pubs and school halls. They say online poetry journals and performance poetry are reanimating the art form, and that the revival has so much grassroots support it exposes poetry-shunning publishers and bookshops as being out of touch.

Certainly, Miles Merrill is one of very few poets in Australia who can say: “I make an excellent living as a poet.” For the past two years, this charismatic African-American has performed for students around the country, from outback schools of 50 pupils to elite private schools with panoramic views of Sydney Harbour. Using little more than a mike, sunglasses and his sonorous voice, Merrill performs his own poetry and Coleridge, to a hip-hop beat.”If kids aren’t yelling for more when I leave the room, I feel that I’ve failed somehow,” he says.

Merrill, who moved to Australia 10 years ago, is also director of the NSW State Library’s poetry slam, which is about to go national. Poetry slams resemble a cross between hip-hop and Australian Idol, and the library is holding nationwide heats for its Grand Slam in December. Contestants get an audience and two minutes to impress judges who are plucked from the audience. At stake this year is $10,000 prizemoney.

The talent is nothing if not eclectic. According to Merrill, last year’s NSW finalists included a 12-year-old from Broken Hill and a 70-year-old from Armidale in northern NSW.

Melbourne, meanwhile, is warming up for Poetry Idol, another word wrestle that will culminate with a grand final at the Melbourne Writers Festival in September. Poetry Idol organiser Michael Crane is a mid-career poet who has had 350 poems published over the past decade, mostly in journals such as Meanjin and Overland. He agrees performance poetry is a growth area. But he also admits that in the present publishing climate, “if it hadn’t been for the magazines, I probably would have given up”.

While we like to profess reverence for dead poets from Shakespeare to Paterson, could it be that readers have little time for living poets? Ron Pretty has run Five Islands Press, Australia’s biggest independent publisher of poetry, for 20 years. He has never broken even and admits that without Australia Council subsidies “I probably would have gone under a long time ago”. A typical FIP poetry title has a print run of 500 or 600, “which is part of the reason the major publishers don’t want to know”.

Penguin boss Bob Sessions says the country’s biggest commercial publisher ditched its poetry list in the late ’90s because it wasn’t selling: “We had a poetry list at one time, until we realised that the maximum sales of the average volume we put out was between 200 and 400 copies, and that was unsustainable … We had a poetry list that was losing us money hand over fist, year after year.” He feels small, subsidised presses such as Black Pepper, Giramondo and Brandl&Schlesinger are the natural home for poetry (lower overheads can make it more feasible for them to publish books with small print runs). Given the rise of small presses and online poetry, Sessions says the obsession with poets being published by big publishers “is kind of irrelevant now”.

Sessions reveals Penguin is looking at producing a new anthology of local poetry “to show that modern poetry is alive and well in Australia”. Yet when asked about a release date and editor, he is vague. (Penguin’s previous anthology of Australian poetry was published 16 years ago.)

Clearly, some big publishers are still interested in verse novels. Dorothy Porter and young adult novelist Steven Herrick recently published such novels with Picador and Allen & Unwin respectively. A spokeswoman for Picador says Porter’s new verse novel, El Dorado, about a serial killer, “is doing fantastically” selling 4000 copies in its first month. The spokeswoman says while Picador doesn’t produce as much poetry as it used to, it has inhouse poets such as Porter and Lily Brett. (In Britain, Picador publishes Clive James and Peter Porter.)

Lea concedes some commercial publishers are still producing poetry, “but generally speaking, I haven’t seen a major act of re-engagement”.

Now in his early 60s, John Tranter is a poet of the printed page and of the cyber age. He believes “digital publishing will help save poetry from extinction. Online publishing is definitely the way of the future for poetry, mainly because it does away with the bugbear of distribution.”

While it is difficult and costly to ship poetry books overseas or get them into bookshops, Tranter’s web journal, Jacket, publishes poets from all over the world. British newspaper The Guardian has called it “the prince of online magazines”, and it has had 500,000 visits since Tranter set it up 10 years ago. Yet for all its prestige, Jacket remains a labour of love, Tranter is unpaid for the work he puts into it.

Last month, Nicholas Manning, an Australian academic working at the University of Strasbourg, helped launch The Continental Review, the web’s first video-only forum for contemporary poetry.

According to Manning, the review is a continuously updated poetry collection of video readings, reviews and interviews, integrated with YouTube. Manning hopes the Review will signal “a new approach in the communication and reception of contemporary poetry and poetics”.

But have our reading habits kept pace with technology? Are readers as seduced by a poem on a computer screen as they are by beautifully presented anthology of poems?

Lea concedes “there is no vetting system on the internet. It embraces the full range. To be published in Jacket would be an accomplishment, while at the democratic sites it’s just a matter of uploading your poem.”

Nevertheless, the mission to preserve our poetic heritage is turning to cyberspace. Tranter and others have secured a $500,000 grant to archive Australian poetry on the net; eventually, it is hoped poets will receive a fee whenever their poetry is downloaded.

Western Australia’s arts department is putting up $60,000 during a three-year period to encourage low-budget poetry publishing, while the Copyright Agency Limited is funding the Australian Poetry Centre, which opened in Melbourne this month.

The centre aims to lift the profile of homegrown poetry. Director Teresa Bell says the key to achieving this is to market poets more effectively. Poets, she says, should be marketed as celebrities, much as some novelists are.

“It is a scandal that we can’t have access to poetry in many of the bookshops of Australia and that it isn’t being supported by many of the larger publishers,” she says.

But she also sees a need for greater unity among our famously fractious poets. New to her job, she has already noticed divisions between Sydney and Melbourne poets, bush and city poets, performance and academic poets. “In order to flourish, there should be room for more diversity,” she says diplomatically.

Wearne retorts “that there were factions in the poetry world for about half an hour 30 years ago”.

Yet Murray claims that when he edited Best Australian Poems, “the great rivals of Australian poetry said. ‘Oh, Murray’s taking over the poetry world. He’s monopolising it.”‘ He accuses his rivals of “calling down the great Australian spirit that is called jealousy”.

In spite of the pulping of The Lovemakers, Wearne is working on another verse novel. He acknowledges poetry “is written by a minority and read by a minority”.

He is quick to add: “That does not mean it shouldn’t be on the shelves as it was years ago.”

Rosemary Neil investigates the findings in Bronwyn Lea’s book chapter, ‘Australian Poetry’ in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: UQP,2007: 247–54. This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian 7–8 July 2007, Review: 4–5.

Full text available online.