Big pub­lish­ers are not in­ter­ested in Aus­tralia’s po­ets, but other op­por­tu­ni­ties are emerg­ing, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

T 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 nonex­is­tent’’, Wearne com­plains. In the end, both vol­umes of The Love­mak­ers were pulped.

Be­hind the pul­veris­ing of Wearne’s two­vol­ume 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 3000 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,

Iroughly 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.’’

Turn from the verse: Clock­wise from top left, po­ets Miles Mer­rill, Alan Wearne, Dorothy Porter, Les Murray, Steven Her­rick, David Malouf, Bron­wyn Lea and John Tran­ter

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