Poetry publishing in australia

Making BooksThe 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 decade’s end, Angus & Robertson, Heinemann, Penguin and Picador had abandoned poetry almost entirely, leaving a slew of canonical Australian poets – including Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Les Murray and many others – without a publisher.[1] Of course it was part of a larger trend: in 1999 Oxford University Press also terminated its poetry list and dropped expatriate-Australian poet Peter Porter, along with his British colleagues. For a brief moment, verse novels caused a flurry of excitement but this soon settled into fad. Dorothy Porter’s Monkey’s Mask (Hyland House, 1994) and Murray’s Fredy Neptune (Duffy & Snellgrove, 1998) seemed hopeful crossovers into relatively larger fiction markets.[2] A few years later Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers, Book One (Penguin, 2001) won the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry (as well as Book of the Year) and the Arts Queensland Judith Wright Calanthe Award, but this didn’t stop Penguin from pulping their unsold stock and declining publication of the completed second volume. During this time only the University of Queensland (UQP), as David McCooey points out, remained a significant publisher of poetry.[3]

Since its first poetry title in 1968, UQP has published at one stage or another just about all of Australia’s important contemporary poets, including David Malouf, John Tranter, Judith Beveridge and Anthony Lawrence. Its impressive backlist, relatively large infrastructure, and its access to national distribution meant that competition was tight for its annual two or three poetry titles (which was intermittently topped up with books, such as Sam Wagan Watson’s award-winning Smoke Encrypted Whispers from the Black Australian Writing list, or Jennifer Strauss’s The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore 18871929 from the Academy Editions of Australian Literature and published by UQP in association with the Australian Academy of the Humanities). [4] In 2002, pre-figuring a review of operations, the Press decided to outsource its poetry editorship in order to trim overheads on poetry titles, which with few exceptions – Peter Skrzynecki’s wildly successful Immigrant Chronicle among them – required financial buoying from income-generating fiction titles. To the resounding relief of poets around the country, following a 2005 restructure the Press formally announced a renewed commitment to poetry and increased its list to five or six poetry titles per year. The new list included the annual Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for a manuscript from an emerging Queensland poet – which despite its regional catchment enjoyed national success with award-winning titles by Lidija Cvetkovic and Jaya Savige; a selected or collected volume of poems by a senior Australian poet; and The Best Australian Poetry series established in 2003.

As publishing opportunities for poets grew increasingly rare Five Islands Press (FIP), founded by Ron Pretty in 1987, increased in prominence. As part of its Mainstream Program, FIP published about ten poetry titles per year, while its annual New Poets Program published 32-page chapbooks by six emerging poets. From time to time, the series was criticised for being too large to maintain a consistently high quality, nevertheless it launched the careers of a number of 1990s poets who went on to enjoy critical success – Peter Minter and MTC Cronin among them – in much the same way as Martin Duwell’s Gargoyle Poets series did for Australian poets in the 1970s. In 2002 FIP moved from the University of Wollongong to the University of Melbourne and was made integral to the newly established Poetry Australia Foundation.[5] In 2006, the Foundation scored a major coup when the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) promised an initial sum of $140,800 to assist in establishing the Australian Poetry Centre in East St Kilda. Shortly thereafter, however, FIP announced on its website that Ron Pretty would pass the leadership of the imprint to Kevin Brophy and others in mid 2007, and that FIP would not only reduce its annual titles but also cease the New Poets Series for the foreseeable future.

During this time there were also some newcomers. In 1999 John Kinsella, Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery formed a partnership to develop Salt Publishing. Salt, which then moved to the UK in 2002 and set up offices at Cambridge, put print-on-demand technology to good use to produce a significant list of attractive (if often difficult to find) books by Australian poets such as Pam Brown, Jill Jones, Kate Lilley, Peter Rose and many others. In the same year Ivor Indyk opened a new arm to his publishing house and began publishing poetry titles under the Giramondo book imprint, which got off to a fine start with prize-winning books by Emma Lew, Judith Beveridge and Jennifer Maiden. Other small but noteworthy presses include Brandl & Schlesinger and Black Pepper, as well as Vagabond, Picaro Press and PressPress which all specialise in chapbooks.[6] David Musgrave started Puncher & Wattmann in 2005 and Paul Hardacre’s papertiger media launched its Soi 3 Modern Poets imprint in 2006. Unfortunately there also were some departures from the ranks of independent publishing. Robert Adamson and Juno Geme’s Paperbark Press closed in 2002 after seventeen years of publishing some of Australia’s best poets; and Duffy & Snellgrove closed shop in 2004, leaving Murray once again without a publisher (fortunately Black Inc. was to inaugurate a poetry list with Murray’s Biplane Houses as its first title). Pandanus Books, based at the Australian National University, ended its poetry publishing days in 2006 with Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry, an anthology comprising poems that offer perspectives on Asia by eighty-six Australian poets.

As might be expected during these lean years, poetry anthologies increased in importance. In 1998, Thomas Shapcott edited his sixth poetry anthology, The Moment Made Marvellous, which was made up of poems by 70 UQP poets. Paperbark Press’s Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets anthology, edited by Michael Brennan and Peter Minter, came out in 2000 with a selection of poems by poets who first came to prominence in the 1990s. A year later Five Islands Press also came out with a ‘new poets’ anthology: New Music: An Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry edited by John Leonard. 2003 saw an embarrassment of poetry anthologies with UQP releasing the inaugural issue of its Best Australian Poetry series in September and Black Inc. releasing its inaugural Best Australian Poems a month later. Despite their similarity of titles, the anthologies came with different briefs. UQP’s anthology changes its guest editor annually, selects exactly forty poems that have been previously published in print journals and includes biographical information and author notes, whereas the Black Inc. anthology changes editors arbitrarily, includes more poems and poems from a variety of sources but does not include information about its contributors. Both publishers have reported healthy (by poetry standards) sales.

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Many would expect that poetry book numbers would decline during this period of contraction and indeed they did. In the years between 1993 and 1999, over 250 books of poems were published in Australia each year; by 2006 this figure had been reduced by about 100 titles. Although comparable to figures from the 1970s – the decade lauded by many for fashioning a resurgence of poetry – a thirty-five per cent increase in the Australian population during the same interval summons sobriety. What’s more, the total number of poetry books published during this period makes the sector appear healthier than it might in fact be, in large part due to FIP’s New Poets Series which offered abundant publishing opportunities for emerging poets while the situation at large for developing and established poets remained impoverished. It is also important to note that the majority of poetry books are presently being published by small presses (including self-publishers) that often 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 prophesy.

Despite continued problems associated with distribution, marketing and sales, many poets and critics have observed that interest in poetry, oddly enough, is booming.[7] Poetry festivals have sprung up around the country – there’s even a National Poetry Week – poetry readings are held in cafés, pubs and libraries, and poetry ezines, blogs and discussion boards are burgeoning on the Internet. Writers’ centres and university creative writing programs around the country have been quick to respond to the increased demand for poetry  workshops and classes. Poetry’s increased profile in high school curricula, particularly in New South Wales, has led not only to new generations of young readers interested in reading and writing poetry, but also to soaring sales for the poets lucky enough to be set on the compulsory reading lists. Poets in this enviable position – including Peter Skrzynecki, Bruce Dawe and John Tranter – can often compete on sales figures with fiction authors.[8] As an overall trend, poetry’s rising popularity is perhaps more noticeable in the US where a Billy Collins title can approach a print run of 100 000 copies; nevertheless poetry readership in Australia looks comparatively good when figures are adjusted for population. As Les Murray has pointed out, poetry in Australia enjoys a much larger readership in proportion to population than in most Western countries.[9] Whereas a typical US poetry title (Billy Collins aside) runs to about 1 500 copies, a poetry title by a reasonably well-known poet in Australia (at about one-fifteenth of the US population) runs to about half the US number. While these are only break-even figures – a ‘slim volume’ of poems costs about $5 000–7 000 in editorial, design and production costs – it is interesting to speculate as to what the figures might look like if Australian poetry titles were afforded the same publishing and marketing opportunities that other genres often enjoy. The extraordinary renewal of interest in Auden, for instance, after his poem appeared on screen in Four Weddings and a Funeral would seem to indicate that advertising works, even for poetry. But film options aside, the Australian market remains wide open to publishers who seek to make the most of the current poetry revival.

In the meantime, there are a number of things publishers can do raise the profile of their poetry titles. In addition to keeping a tight list of well-known and respected names that help carry titles by new poets, publishers can also avail themselves of state and federal publishing subsidies. While funding varies from state to state, the Literature Board of the Australia Council offers assistance to publishers with subsidies to support up to four poetry titles (including selected and collected editions) a year. The subsidy on offer for poetry is set at about half the rate for prose titles due to the assumption that it is less expensive to produce a book of poems than a book of prose (perhaps it is but it remains difficult to prove as poetry publishers have long survived by cutting corners). While the subsidy is helpful to poetry presses, it offers little incentive for publishers of mixed genres to put forth poetry titles over prose. Further complicating matters is the proviso that the titles must have a minimum print run and prove national distribution in order to qualify for funding – requirements that with the growth of print-on-demand technology have become increasingly difficult for small poetry publishers to fulfill as well as for the Board to monitor. Even so, the Council’s logo on the imprint pages of almost every Australian poetry title one encounters would seem to indicate that the initiative is keeping a good number of independent poetry publishers in business.

Many publishers like to see that individual poems have been published in literary journals prior to appearing in book format. This serves not only as a means of developing a readership for a poet’s work, but it also verifies that the poems have been vetted by independent editors. As a general observation, however, Australian presses have not insisted upon this practice with the same rigor as have their overseas counterparts, who frequently require that all (or nearly all) poems from a collection have first appeared in journals. It might well be in the interest of all to step up this practice. The so-called ‘big-eight’ of Australian literary journals – those that receive regular funding from the Literature Board – continue to publish a smattering of poetry and (usually bundled) reviews of poetry titles: Southerly, Meanjin, Overland, Quadrant, Island, Westerly, Hecate and Heat. Other journals of note include Westerly, Going Down Swinging, Tirra Lirra and Famous Reporter. Blast Magazine, Space: New Writing, Griffith Review and Wet Ink all began in the early part of the new century, while Salt-lick: New Writing disappeared soon after launching and Imago closed shop in 2001. Another birth worth noting was Ron Pretty’s revival of Poetry Australia, in this incarnation entitled Blue Dog: Australian Poetry, in 2003. Taking off in the late nineties, online poetry journals offer a new world of opportunity for editors not wanting (or unable) to finance expensive print journals. John Tranter’s Jacket, launched in 1997, was one of the earliest and has become the most eminent, bringing into conversation poets and critics from around the world. At reportedly over half-a-million hits since its inception, it is difficult to imagine a poetry journal in print format attracting a comparable amount of traffic. A short list of online poetry magazines that have steadily grown in profile might include Cordite, Stylus Poetry Journal, Divan, Retort, hutt and foame:e. There are also a number of online poetry resources, including the Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library project which presents poems and biographical information for Australian poets. In coming years the project plans to employ Digital Object Identifier (DOI) technology to allow poets the possibility of charging a reading fee to access copyrighted material. Eventually, the project will publish print-on-demand poetry books, particularly for titles that have gone out of print.[10]

These days a growing number of poets are not only using online technology to distribute and promote their work, they are also exploring digital media as an central part of the poetic experience. A small number of publications – including Les Murray’s Collected Poems (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002) and literary journals Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and others – have experimented with audio CD attachments to books. Discarding the book entirely, the CD ROM journal papertiger: new world poetry published annually by Paul Hardacre, Brett Dionysius and Marissa Newell is one of Australia’s chief forums for digital poems. Not only does it publish poems that employ conventional textual layouts, it also incorporates to great effect audio, flash and video poems. Especially popular with younger audiences, the trend is likely to continue to develop new territories that reach new audiences. But it is not by any means unidirectional: the Newcastle Poetry Prize issued its 2003 anthology on CD ROM but reverted to print the following year; and papertiger media expanded its operations in 2006 to add print to its CD ROM and Internet formats, suggesting that the poetry book, while somewhat harder to find, has not entirely disappeared from fashion.

Notes


[1] See Pam Brown, ‘Nobody Wants Our Poems…’. The Sydney Morning Herald 26 February 2000 Spectrum: 10.

[2] See Christopher Pollnitz’s ‘Australian Verse Novels’, Heat 7 NS, 2004: 229-52.

[3] David McCooey, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: The New Lyricism’. Agenda 41.1-2, 2005: 22.

[4] The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore: Volume 2 edited by Jennifer Strauss is scheduled for release by UQP in July 2007.

[5] PAF also publishes the annual PAF Poetry Catalogue. The 2006 issue lists the 94 poetry titles by 20 Australian presses.

[6] Regional publishers of poetry include Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Western Australia; Spinifex Press in Victoria; Interactive Press in Queensland; Walleah Press in Tasmania; Ginninderra’s Indigo imprint in Canberra. Little Esther Books: Feral, Boffin + Distingué in South Australia focuses on avant garde poetry.

[7] See David McCooey, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: The New Lyricism’. Agenda 41.1-2, 2005: 22-36.

[8] Sales figures for poetry books are notoriously difficult to verfiy. BookTrack keeps a record of sales but as most bookshops do not stock poetry books (most poetry books are sold at poetry readings and festivals and through online outlets) the figures are effectively meaningless. The 2001 AC Nielsen National Survey of Reading, Buying and Borrowing Books for Pleasure avoids poetry altogether.

[9] See Les Murray’s ‘On Being Subject Matter’ in A Working Forest: Selected Prose, Potts Point: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1997 (30-44).

[10] A similar project, Classic Australian Works (another CAL initiative), already provides print-on-demand re-releases of classic Australian books, with Bruce Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets as its first poetry title. For a detailed discussion of poetry and POD technology, see David Prater’s ‘Poetry Publishing Today’ in New Markets for Printed Books: Emerging Markets for Books, from Creator to Consumer. Ed. Bill Cope and Dean Mason. Altona, Vic: Common Ground Publishing, 2002.

This chapter was first published as ‘Poetry Publishing’ in Making Books: Studies in Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: UQP, 2007: 247–54.

It was the focus of Rosemary Neill’s ‘Pulping Our Poetry’. The Weekend Australian 7–8 July 2007, Review: 4–5.

The Vogel: what’s age got to do with it?

Most writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday. As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”. At least that’s the message the Vogel Award – which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin – delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.

4857101224_614d21aecdMost writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award.

To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday.

As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”.

At least that’s the message the Vogel Award – which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin – delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.

Happily that’s not something Paul D. Carter needs to worry about now that John Birmingham has declared Carter’s novel, Eleven Seasons, this year’s Vogel winner. Although at 32 years of age, he must have felt his “authorial clock” ticking.

Fortunately an author’s clock is a social contruction, not a deadline set in DNA. Literature is one of the few arts in which its practitioners regularly improve with age, and it’s also one of the few to permit a late beginning.

Annie Proulx – of Shipping News fame – was 57 when her first novel, Postcards, came out in 1992. Frank McCourt didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was 66. David Malouf was 44 when Johnno appeared in 1975, although he was a published poet by that time.

Other late bloomers include Anthony Burgess, 39, for Time for a Tiger (A Clockwork Orange appeared when he was 45); William Burroughs, 39, for Junky; and Henry Miller, 44, for Tropic of Cancer. Raymond Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, at 51 years of age.

And so the list of great authors who would have been unable to satisfy the Vogel’s eligibility requirements (era and citizenship notwithstanding) goes on.

To be fair, a good number of Australia’s leading novelists did manage to meet the deadline and kick-start their career with a Vogel win: Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Mandy Sayer, Andrew McGahan, to name just a few.

And two of Australia’s greatest novelists, Patrick White and Christina Stead, both would have been contenders for a Vogel win (had it existed in their time), with their first novels appearing at ages 27 and 32 respectively.

The problem with the Vogel age-limit is not that it’s ageist, but that it’s arbitrary. And that’s what makes it meaningless.

Why 35? The cut-off in the early years of the award was 30, but it was raised in 1982, presumably to attract better quality entries. But why didn’t the executors raise the cut-off to, say, 34 years?

Or perhaps 36 so that this year’s shortlisted writer, Clare Carlin – who has since turned 35 – could have been eligible to enter in 2013. A manuscript, if it’s any good, doesn’t it become irrelevant overnight.

The Vogel is the 1980 brainchild of Niels Stevns, the owner of Vogel’s Bread in Australia, who had a passion for literature. Since he put up the idea and the money, he rightly got to decide the rules.

(Conceivably a benefactor could establish an award for writers whose last names start with F, and if it’s not our money at stake we’d all have to live with the idiosyncrasy.)

But if the intent behind the Vogel is to grant aspiring authors entry into the publishing industry, then a 51-year-old writer (the age of the Marquis de Sade when he published his infamous first novel, Justine) is just as in need of assistance as a 31-year-old.

The rules of the Vogel have changed over the years: due dates, prize money, number of judges, publishing schedules and so on. Why not keep spirit of the prize by retaining the criterion that a writer be unpublished, but cross out the barrier of age?

There’s a famous anecdote – possibly apocryphal – that has Canadian author Margaret Atwood at a cocktail party. A brain surgeon tells her he’s going to write a novel when he retires.

“That’s interesting,” Atwood is purported to say, “when I retire I’m going to take up brain surgery.”

Atwood’s point is that writing a novel is a specialty art that requires skill and years of training to perfect. Good novels rarely just appear but are earned by hard work over a long period of time.

But what the anecdote fails to acknowledge is that most of us are more skilled with a keyboard than a scalpel – and a good story can be told at any age.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Pulping our poetry

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.

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.

Behind the toilet door: poetry and space

"Occupation" by Lisa Gorton. Illustration by Art is not found only in the painter’s studio or in the halls of a museum, it also has its place in the store, the shop, the factory and the home. In fact, when art is reserved as the province of professional artists, a dangerous gulf develops between the fine arts and the everyday arts. The fine arts are elevated and set apart from life, becoming too precious and therefore irrelevant. Having banished art to the museum, we fail to give it a place in ordinary life. One of the most effective forms of repression is to give a thing excessive honour — Thomas Moore, ‘The Sacred Arts of Life’

I want to repeat the last of these sentences by Thomas Moore because it interests me: “One of the most effective forms of repression is to give a thing excessive honour”. And also because it confronts me. There exists in my mind—and likely the minds of others who’ve cared to dwell on such things—a contest between art, or more specific to this conversation, poetry, as something special, something heightened, something that holds within it a promise of the sublime, and poetry as something quotidian, ordinary, an essential part of our everyday culture: a way of communicating and recording things that matter to us. Nowhere is this distinction more conspicuous, perhaps, than when poetry is made manifest in print. As for me, I am in love with the letterpress, with creamy linen paper, with section-sewn books printed in fonts shaped by a fifteen-century monk who knew that ascenders and serifs could make the human heart, properly attuned, swoon. I am taken with books that carry within them some sign that a human hand was involved. Like many, I mourn the disappearance of the hand in the objects of our everyday. The pleasure that comes from touching and reading a fine, hand-made book is akin to that of preparing and eating a gourmet meal. Poets have long felt that words—or at least the right words in the right order—deserve more than a stack of cheap paper in a stapled cover.

But I’m also a believer in the idea that poems shouldn’t only be available in expensive and hard-to-get-hold-of book format. More than thirty years after the fact, I am persuaded by the premise underpinning David Malouf’s Paperback Poets proposal to University of Queensland Press: poetry books, he argued, should not be unnecessarily luxurious; they should be affordable and readily available. When Malouf offered his first collection—Bicycle and Other Poems—to UQP, it came with the stipulation that the book not be released in hardback and that it sell for no more than a dollar. To his surprise, UQP agreed to his terms. And why not? It was a terrific and timely idea. It helped make poetry accessible to young people in the sixties and seventies, who wanted to read the poems of their peers, and print runs for these books ran in the thousands.

Since those days, we’ve witnessed the burgeoning of poetry in cyberspace. This is, arguably, a more democratic space than ever before imagined, and readership—or “traffic” as we’ve now come to call readers—is measured not in print runs but page hits, which for some sites count in the tens of thousands (or more) every month (just think of John Tranter’s Jacket). In the classless world of cyberspace, there is no such thing as an original: digital files can be replicated relentlessly and flicked around the world without any threat to the quality of reproduction. What we lose in aesthetics—tangibility, the mark of the human hand—we make up for in accessibility, convenience and speed. While books may go out of print after only a couple of years, cyberspace evolves at a dizzy rate (Darwin on speed) and websites are deleted at the whim of webmasters and content rewritten, replaced, deleted overnight. Already, libraries, cognizant that much of popular culture documentation now exists only on the net with no print counterpart—and is therefore at risk of being lost forever—have set about archiving websites as fast as their staff and budgets can manage. In all likelihood, and not too far into the future, archival libraries, such as the Fryer at the University of Queensland, will be stacked not with pencilled and coffee-stained manuscripts, but with memory sticks and computer hard drives, complete with an author’s web surfing patterns (which may or may not include porn sites), their search histories, and e-mail correspondence.

But the solution to this contest is not a pitting of the extraordinary against the ordinary. Neither is it some kind of happy medium—some sort of in-between space where the strength of each position is retained but only at the sacrifice of flavour and quirk. Of course there’s a lot to be said for pragmatism, but I think a better answer lies in stretching the space of the extraordinary so that it ropes in the ordinary. I want to see poetry in museums—I’m thinking of Gilgamesh on cuneiform tablets and illuminated books in glass cases—in libraries and university classrooms. I want to read poetry typeset in hardcover books, but I also want to find it on websites in san-serif fonts, on buses, on television, radio, in shops, airports, and cinema toilets.

We now occupy a space that is infiltrated by global multimedia to a point where our mental environment is one of the last stands of private space. People need poetry to help them resist the onslaught. People need poetry, as the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky says, to stop us becoming robots. “Poems let us enter a private space in which time slows down and possibilities expand. In that space, we’re allowed to be tentative, instead of being asked to sign on the line, answer the phone or pick up a weapon”, as David Orr says. Poetry’s greatest task, I think, is to foster a necessary privacy in which the imagination can flourish. And here, I’d like to spin on the word “privacy” to introduce the toilet cubicle into the conversation.

Like the mind, the toilet cubicle can serve as a sanctuary from the encroachments of the modern world. It is presumed, for instance, to be a camera-free zone. Toilets are a place to do something in private. But toilets are not always used for conventional purposes. Toilets can also function as displaced versions of the spy’s secret rooms. American anthropologist Alan Dundes, in his essay “Here I Sit—A Study of American Latrinalia” (a coinage referring to markings including art, drawings and poetry made by humans on bathroom walls—a joke on the internet said Dundes prefers this coinage to “shithouse poetry”, which I will let stand as the one and only instance of bathroom punning to be heard in this discussion), saw the public bathroom (which houses the toilet cubicle) as a bastion of taboo-breaking expression. There is a sense, albeit coded, that the toilet cubicle is a site for the return of the repressed (or at least the suppressed): people enter a bathroom and buried truths emerge.

But what happens when a poem enters a toilet cubicle? What does this context add to the reading of the poem? These are things that interest me. I imagine, for one, that there might be surprise on behalf of the sitting reader, and possibly bemusement. Hopefully amusement. There would be less pressure on the poem for it to be understood, I would think, as most people would need to be on their way soon enough. People owho don’t like poetry tend to fear nonsense, but this context, I think, might lend a necessary levity to language. I would also like to think that in the private space of the toilet cubicle, the reader in his or her semi-nakedness might hear something real—something more than just information, something real about life and about dreams.

  • As in the poem “Occupation” by Lisa Gorton, which takes us inside an airport toilet cubicle—an upright casket—where we can sit like a buried Vestal, blank as a shiny white tile. Here there is space for us—there’s no one else to be but yourself—we are offered a freedom from intention, an empty space in which to talk and to listen.
  • Or in “Before Tomorrow” by Elizabeth Allen, which would seem to point to today—now—a moment in time, wherein “a thin space between breath and thought” is suspended only long enough for a drop of rain to run down a woman’s left ankle. It’s pure existence, no rationale. The poem has us enter the mind of night, which is the radical freedom of comparing ourselves to nothing.
  • Then there is “Small Days” by Liam Ferney, where our sense of significance is radically destabilised. Life’s marginalia swallows up the centre and we wake alone and lonely on a Sunday to see the morning sun lap over the linoleum, we see ourselves through toothpaste smudges on a mirror, and shower while surreal toddlers scramble in the streets.
  • “Hanami” by Ed Wright is as good a guide as any to elegant living. We are in Japan. It is spring. Cherry blossoms are a beautiful reminder of death. They drift and pirouette like pink snowflakes, and are stacked by the wind while students drink sake and disappear into a love hotel.
  • “Subtle Plague” by Keri Glastonbury carries more of a sting. Its lack of punctuation causes a slippage where sense and sentences charge into one another to create an ambiguous grammar, in much the same way as cities spill into countryside causing the ambiguous syntax of suburban sprawl. Here there’s a nostalgia for quiet paddocks, something more stellar, we’re told, than even late night shopping.
  • And finally, “The Glacier” by Andrew Slattery puts us in a small boat at one of the poles, where a marble-like glacier veined with the dirt of creation rises out of flat water, fractures, and a column slides into the water, causing the boat to rise a little bit as you feel the arctic weather cool on your arms. Time, we sense, is both particle and wave and the instance echoes through history.

When we are in the poetic space we could be anywhere, out in nature, in someone else’s house or at work, in an airport or cinema toilet, and still we can feel at home. All that is required is to truly inhabit the space. The word inhabit comes from a root that means to give and to receive. We inhabit a place when we give something to it and when we open ourselves to receive what it has to offer. Some places don’t seem to have much to give, or what they have is not something we’re inclined to receive, and so it may be difficult to inhabit them. But this project—which gives space to poetry so that poetry might give us space—goes some way toward rectifying this. The poems that will soon dignify the toilet doors of airports and cinemas across the country do all the things poems should do. They please as they do as they please. They deliver what we hadn’t thought to ask for. They confront and confound and inspire. They announce and protect the private territory of self, exercise parts of the mind and memory petering out for want of use. They are humble, unpretentious, make no claims beyond themselves. For their ordinariness I am inclined to praise them. But not too much. Each poem makes a little space in the imagination from which we might love the world— splendour, foibles, all—a little bit more. Or at least we might look at it, ourselves, our lives, a little more attentively.

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On April 1st 2006, a live event was held at Customs House, Circular Quay, featuring the six poets reading their poems and a cubicled reading space built for the occasion. The event also featured the inaugural Mineslec, Red Room’s annual mini-essay-lecture to be commissioned annually from a poet and delivered to a live audience. Poet and critic Bronwyn Lea presented her thoughts on the topic of poetry and space. The live recording of the poets was broadcast by the Community Radio Satellite in May 2006, and the poem posters were displayed at the following venues: Qantas domestic terminals – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth; Greater Union and Village cinemas – Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast & Sunshine Coast, Perth and Adelaide.