Michael Brennan: A Short History of Vagabond Press and Poetry International Australia

27 June 2005

Chance and community might best describe how I edit and publish poetry. Chance in the unlikely alignment of latching onto good poems available for publication and that suit the nature of whatever I'm editing at the time. Community in the sense of a desire that whatever I am editing works toward allowing the formation of an integrated network of disparate voices, however temporary and transient.

I don't look at publishing poetry as anything more than a working of impermanence, in the way that a conversation moves smoothly through arising differences and allows for anything, takes a subject, like a poem, picks it up for a moment and then sets it back down. In some ways, what I do editing or publishing is geared to the same sense of detachment that arises when I'm writing, each piece is a moment marked in time and set aside for the next moment.

thumb_riemer.jpgIn publishing, I am thrilled by each work I have the chance to come into contact with, no matter if the poetic is similar or in conflict with my own sense of poetry, but seek nothing more than to share in it for a moment, learn from it, and move on. The idea of a 'good' poem to me, of what leaves me happy to publish it, is most often if it represents a passage in the development of a writer whose work I respect generally, whether they are ten books into their career or just starting out. This process is undertaken with care and respect for the writer and his or her shadow the reader and I try to make that care and respect evident in the production qualities of the publication, be it a chapbook, a book or a web-page.

On-line and on-demand publishing, easy to use design and typesetting programs, have allowed for a massive expansion of poetry publishing. Greater accessibility to literature in translation and a greater ability for writers from various cultures to make direct contact with each other directly via the internet, to share ideas, work together seems to be eroding the claims of Nation on literature. This combination sets an almost unprecedented scene for new writing not limited by parochial concerns or limited by economic constraints. Without question it is a good time to be writing and involved in publishing. As an editor or publisher, my interest has been to build platforms to get writers' work out into the public sphere without presuming too much more than the pleasure of seeing new writing reach a readership.

Understanding seems to me best when multiple, based on an openness to different, often layered, epistemological, as much as poetic, political and cultural, models and modes. Reading about the Australian poetry wars of the 1970s and 1980s often seems much the same as watching a Sunday afternoon Western, where the good and the bad are easily divided by the colour of their hats, or in the case of the poets whose anthology they appeared in. Inevitably, there's a subjective component to editing, though I try to avoid simply publishing work that appeals directly to me on aesthetic, poetic or political levels. It would be numbing if not corrupting only to stay close to what you know, feel comfortable with or like. I do not have a complex theoretical model or agenda behind my work as an editor and I don't allow personal bias to stop me publishing a particular writer's work. I work intuitively, preferring inclusion and difference to exclusion, cliques or elitism.

Over the last ten years, from first efforts in Avernus, Hermes, Southerly and Calyx, to longer ongoing work with Vagabond Press and the Australian pages of Poetry International Web, my guiding principles have been to publish work from as broad a range of new writing as possible; to publish work from emerging and established poets equally; and to try to create spaces where the vitality, difference, depths and surfaces of poetry can be opened to a readership.

Vagabond Press

thumb_brooks.jpgI started editing poetry with Avernus, which was an overzealous attempt in my third-year of undergraduate studies to get out of writing an essay on the Bulletin. In my Australian Studies course, we had looked at the little magazines of the 1970s and I thought it would be more interesting to muck about with something similar than research the old raging bull of 'Australia for the White Man'. Professor Elizabeth Webby let me have a go, thereby opening the door to the last ten years of conversations variously with printers, designers, writers and readers about the next project. The first two issues of Avernus were hideous at least as far as the covers. With the third and final Avernus, I started working with an artist friend Kay Orchison, and it was with the idea of doing more work together that Vagabond Press got off the ground.

When I was in Paris working on my PhD, I came across some old chapbooks published by Fourbis and Fata Morgana, and thought their design wouldn't be too hard to replicate. I knew David Brooks and Nick Riemer each had some writing that would be suited to the format of a chapbook. Kay had a stock of uncoated Hanemuehle 300gsm etching paper and a clunky Epson Photo EX, and suggested adapting the French design with the idea of hand ripping and sticking images on the covers. The combination of the Hanemuehle and the Epson and the hand-ripping made for a striking combination when coupled with Kay's gifts as a photographer. With the production side underway and the manuscripts secured, I approached Jane Gibian and Liz Allen to get involved with the launches. Liz subsequently took over running the subscriptions as well. That was more than five years ago, and since then we've had the good fortune of Chris Edwards taking over the layout of the pamphlets, lifting the overall quality of production significantly. We've so far produced about sixty different titles from chapbooks to full-length collections, of poetry and prose, several of which have won awards along the way. All in all, Vagabond Press has operated out of a shared interest in being a part of seeing poetry published and the joy each of us shares in seeing the finished work and the hopefully happy author and readers.

Vagabond Press has worked over the years on a limited-edition basis primarily due to economic constraints. We started with $500 and have basically built from there, each chapbook paying for the next. Economic constraints aside, it's always had a good feeling to know that each chapbook we release, limited by number, only represents a small mark and will reach a small community of readers, different for each chapbook we produce. The ambitions behind the press have never been too grandiose, operating as it does out of a fairly simple working friendship. Basically, Vagabond Press operates as a bit of a transit lounge for poets between books or just starting out.

As for the selection of material that we publish for the most part it is solicited. I have tried to use the press to work outside of cliques and to publish as broad a range of poetry as possible. At present, Vagabond Press has predominately published Australian poetry, though we have had the good fortune of publishing a number of writers from France, England and America. As more opportunities to publish writers from beyond Australia and to bring that writing back to Australia appear, the more the press will do it.

As for editing manuscripts, this differs from poet to poet. Some poets ask for advice, some don't, some find any editing intrusive while others enjoy the process. It would be difficult to state a general rule but to say that I try to get the best work out of each poet we approach. Most simply I want to provide a space for the poet's work, where they can be as free as possible. I see my task more in editing the list so that it includes as diverse and interesting a collection of writers as possible, rather than interfering too much with manuscripts. I've previously asked in guest editors from time to time to try and amplify that desire. Kevin Hart, Pam Brown, Michael Farrell and MTC Cronin have all contributed as editors and the press is infinitely better for it.

Besides the chapbooks, we have published one or two full-length collections of Australian poetry, such as J.S.Harry's Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow and Noel Rowe's Next to Nothing. Hopefully, we'll be able to do more of those in the future.

Poetry International Web Australia

thumb_cronin.jpgUnlike Vagabond Press, Poetry International Web comes with one or two guidelines that must be followed and so effect what I am able to do issue to issue. The most basic of these is related to the volume of content. In the first issue, I submitted a reasonably large selection of work from ten poets and was consequently given set limits for each subsequent issue: no more than twenty-five poems or a total of 10,000 words. In the three issues since I've put up approximately three new poets each time, so that at present there are twenty-two Australian poets with pages on the site. Some poets' pages are still offering only samples of one or two poems, while others have longer selections. Among the PIW guidelines is that each poet's page must come with an introduction, photo, relevant links and where possible additional critical material.

The introductions are supposed to offer some critical engagement with the poet's work while also being light-handed enough (or not excessively academic) not to lose the potential reader's interest; basically, a mixture of biography, spruiking and analysis. Each issue must also come with an overall introduction specific to the country. The Poetry International Website is itself organized according to the seventeen different countries represented. The site's common language is English. These last points have obvious implicit problems, not least the emphasis on English. That said, the site is without question a valuable example of what the web can offer literature and cross-cultural exchange generally. Its structure is purely pragmatic and so far does not disallow the opening up of the very questions of imperialism and nation the choice of structure as a whole might suggest.

My basic conception of the Australian site is as both an online quarterly journal and as an archive of Australian poetry. With four issues completed, the site is only now gaining a discernable form. I try to make each issue expand on the sense of poetry so far presented on the Australian site. As with Vagabond Press, I want to present the establishment alongside the emerging; to give a representative sense of the vast and vital range of poetic interests, tendencies, influences and engagements in Australia; the political and cultural differences at play or war; the shifts between urban, pastoral, suburban, fabulist, linguistic and conceptual landscapes; and the very real sense of the formidability of poetry written by 'Australian' poets. Over the issues so far I have attempted to engage the determination of 'Australia' and 'Australian poetry' in the introduction of each issue. In each introduction I've tended to try to show how the poetry in the issue operates in proximity to, or directly engages, broader issues concerning Australian identity and our dismal government.

In the future, I would like to keep building the site so that it becomes more inclusive, better able to show the sheer breadth of difference available in poetry stemming from Australia. Looking at the proliferation of anthologies of Australian poetry over the last three or so years, it's apparent that Australian poetry is in a fine state and that there is a daunting supply of interesting and challenging work being published by many hands. While the Australian site's scope is at present small, it is my intention that it steadily grows to include as many of those voices as possible. Equally, I would like, once the site is firmly established, to open it up to the very strong critical engagements with Australian poetry happening within Australia.

It is my aim to try to open these engagements to the international space the site as a whole presents. Last year at the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, the editors of the various country domains discussed the possibility of getting more engagement across the domains, so that, for example, a Ukranian critic might offer a reading of work by Robert Adamson, or an Australian critic (say Martin Harrison) might publish something on one of the Columbian poets. This seems to me to be one of the most exciting aspects of the Poetry International Website, the ability to move beyond the pragmatic boundaries of nation, and support engagements that might otherwise not happen but that would be unquestionably profitable. While English is the lingua franca of the site, the site itself is a polyglot space bringing with it an already vast range and depth of cultural wealth. At present, England and America are noticeable absences on the site. It was a very positive experience last year at the Festival to find that Australia was generally considered one of the minority literatures, rather than a deputy of the two 'main' English literatures.

At the end of it, it's simply satisfying to think that someone in Cherkassy might this minute be reading a poem by MTC Cronin, or someone in Mumbai has just followed Peter Henri Lepus as he wrestled with A.J.Ayer in Iraq. Equally, it's great to imagine someone flipping over from their desktop in Dapto or Brunswick to read Julius Chingono, Shuijing Zhulian, Efrat Mishori, Andriy Bondar or Mallika Sengupta or any of the other hundred and more poets from the various countries represented.

A transient community

Mostly, publishing poetry is what I do 'on the side' of whatever it is I do to pay the rent. I do it out of a love of literature. It always seems like a strange thing to be doing: gluing on cover images as tanks role into Iraq, or chasing up a missing comma as North Korea launches missiles into the Sea of Japan, or trying to get the scripting right on a bit of copyright when Howard wins another election. Vagabond Press runs along in many ways due to the friendships between the five of us who are always working on it and the poets who pass through; out of the love of that transient community. The Australian pages of Poetry International is a small part of a much bigger project I am fortunate to contribute to, a project I hope will survive and prosper. Its value isn't simply that it offers an international readership or context for Australian poetry, but that it takes part in multiple and accelerated channels of communication that have never existed in quite the same way before, and forms part of a space where an increasingly diverse range of literatures meet. These ventures in publishing and editing poetry basically come down to a love of literature, a belief in the relevance and importance of poetry in the present day, and a desire shared with friends to help it along and enjoy the process.

Postscript on Australian Pages of Poetry International

At present, the Poetry International Website is undergoing a bit of a funding crisis. The Australia Council for the Arts has generously funded the payment of contributors to the site, but at present we need assistance in the additional running costs back in the Netherlands. With recent changes to funding for the site as a whole from the European Union, the central office of the Poetry International Web is no longer able to cover the Australian site's running costs. At present, it is very uncertain whether the site will continue. If anyone, or any institution, is interested in contributing assistance so that the site can continue to grow, please contact me at michael.brennan@nucba.ac.jp.

Contact Vagabond Press at vagabond_press@yahoo.com.au. Unfortunately, Vagabond Press is unable to accept unsolicited manuscripts. Images are from three Vagabond titles, by Nick Riemer, David Brooks and MTC Cronin respectively.

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