Australian Print Poetry and the Small Press: Who’s Doing the Books?

By | 24 February 2012

Poets as Publishers

Nunn typifies the phenomenon of poet-as-publisher, which is certainly not a new one. But there is an important and growing group of poets in Australia who have opted to start their own small presses (or are planning to do so) instead of relying on the vagaries and whims of an extant press with established or entrenched tastes. David Musgrave, poet and novelist, has in the space of just a few years guided Puncher & Wattmann from a press offering only a few titles of passable production quality (but well-selected literary quality) to a formidable list of attractive, high-quality titles (its website notwithstanding). Passion and tenacity have gone a long way in so doing, but P&W’s deft ability of obtaining funding from national bodies in the first and subsequent instances was critical in making that happen. That can be said of many small presses.

Grants and funding cultures in Australia are as generous as they are maddening: if you have ‘quality’ to show in your titles published as proof that you have successfully produced, the financial teat of national bodies is more likely (though it’s never a given) to keep right on giving. It’s extremely difficult – and it is with cutthroat competition – for a new press to overcome the inertia and be awarded a first grant, ergo the chance to produce the representative quality to attract future funding. But that’s only one approach. And many personal life savings get put on the line.

Paul Hardacre’s outfit, Papertiger.Media, puts out the SOI3 Modern Poets and SOI3 Gold series; the apparent distinction is that the Gold series features very well established writers, while the Modern Poets series comprises discerning first-book selections from emerging poets. I mention this division because it’s important to remember that publishing poetry requires a far more critical engagement of the author with the publisher to form a final product than any other published form allows for. That lions such as Shapcott and Kinsella are happy to publish with small, even micro-publishers bodes extremely well. Then again, biggies like Penguin Australia and Allen & Unwin are not actively pursuing poetry lists even from Australia’s internationally known poets. The ‘space’ is being astutely filled.

As a slight aside, I’ll note here that at the larger end of the small-press scale, you have Black Inc. holding its fort with the popular Best of … series, Les Murray, Dorothy Porter among a few others. Text Publishing has a small but intriguing stable of poetry offerings – including the terrific Canadian poet Christian Bök – but this list does not appear to be growing. Recently, Scribe has tiptoed into publishing poetry by releasing a collection from Cate Kennedy, an obvious move to capitalise on her growing popularity as a novelist (and if she had recipes, I’m sure they’d go for them too). Publishing is a business, and this was a both a good move for Scribe and a bone-toss to their author – shrewd if nothing else. But passion erodes, often enough, ceding space to that which is deemed commercially viable (read: not necessarily any good but will sell), when budgets, expectations and author personalities-as-commodities become larger.

Susan Hawthorne, poet, editor and co-founder of Spinifex Press in North Melbourne – an independent Australian feminist press – has been publishing poetry collections, novels and non-fiction since 1991. I put a question to her as poet and publisher: ‘How difficult is it for you to sustain releases of poetry deemed commercially viable? Or does this commercialism come into the picture at all?’

Hawthorne: Commercialism is not the primary reason for publishing poetry, passion is. I also believe that good poetry lasts. It is work that will be read in fifty years and say something about our times. Poetry is the oldest literary form and a reader can connect to work that is thousands of years old just as she can connect to contemporary work.

And so here we have a clear nod to that passion I mention earlier. More than any other human creation, poetry – given its scant economic demand – relies upon the goodwill of its appreciators and it creators to move from somebody’s mind onto a medium – in this case, paper – and into others’ hands and heads to ruminate upon. (For me, bandying around the term ‘passion’ skirts dangerously close to a greeting-card ilk … and so, for the sake of this essay, I want to expound on the definition of passion to engage with one that assumes an overt willingness to do all the administrative and developmental duties – including not a few dull realities – that a poetry collection requires to get it into print.)

In 2011, Alan Wearne donned the fedora of businessman for the first time. His essay An Accidental Publisher: Alan Wearne on Grand Parade Poets and Christopher Bantick addresses some of his reasoning to do so. He has started Grand Parade Poets under a manifesto as he describes here:

Wearne: We believe there are plenty of readers who don’t want Australian literature, let alone its poetry, to be turned into a sideshow booth at some 365-days-a-year writers’ festival, or a dingy, cramped branch office of Cultural Studies. Poetry is too serious an occupation to be beholden to such ephemera, though with a wonderful perversity there is no section of the arts better suited to not taking itself seriously. Poetry must be elitist and democratic since it brings high-powered, imaginative entertainment and intellectual pleasure to those willing enough to meet it at least part of the way. Grand Parade Poets wishes to publish poets of music, passion and intelligence. We trust you will enjoy the results.

There’s that word again: passion.

The commendable goal of Grand Parade Poets is to train its disco spotlight on poets who are not part of (or have chosen not to be part of) the mainstream poetry scene in Australia … although what the benchmarks of mainstream Australian poetry are remains murky. Grand Parade is two publications into its life, and has designs on at least six more titles and an anthology of ‘the overlooked’ in the works. It’s interesting to note that Wearne considers himself ‘an accidental publisher’ given the catalytic event that took him from armchair publisher to a practising one, hinged upon a once-off tide of income. ‘Money, of course, helped,’ Wearne says. ‘As did my desire to try and ease frustrations with certain (though not all) aspects of contemporary Australian poetry. We all know that cliché re: money-and-mouth, don’t we?’

Yes. Yes, we do. There is no escaping the financial realities of small-press publishing and that it takes a few oranges and pineapples to shout.

Barry Scott, poet, essayist and director of Transit Lounge Press, has been releasing a steady procession of novels, non-fiction and, yes, a trickle of poetry collections from the press’s Yarraville office for years now – many to acclaim and major awards. I wanted to learn, directly from a successful small press, what some of those realties are.

‘Poetry is my first love’, says Scott.

Scott: But, as a publisher, it’s easy to marginalise poetry, to develop a mindset that says this is too small (in sales, in readership), we can’t afford to do this, to blame the bookshops and the distributors who are increasingly focused on the bottom line. We don’t publish a lot of poetry titles, but are constantly thinking about how we might continue to publish poetry. Digital printing, printing off-shore, etc., are increasingly effective ways of making poetry possible in the smaller print runs that are required for it.

It’s true. TL’s most recent two poetry titles were published at the end of 2008. It is only now in 2012 that it has another two on its schedule. It has knocked back many MSes for reasons that had nothing to do with passion or the quality of the work submitted.

Scott: Much rides on writers who are keen to read and reach out with their work. Books that have a thematic quality have appealed beyond the local market and have secured a festival presence. For Transit Lounge, publishing in other, more lucrative genres such as travel narrative and obtaining Australia Council funding have also supported the small amount of poetry publishing we have undertaken. The critical thing is that each book that Transit Lounge takes on needs to be given the editing and presentation it deserves. Poetry, in particular, requires to be regarded as an art form that beautifully anchors the spirit of any publishing house.

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