The more things change…..small presses and magazines then and now.

One of the tasks we have set ourselves at Rochford Street Review is to discover and review the material being produced by the small literary and cultural presses around Australia. This means not only the established literary and cultural journals, such as Southerly, Meanjin, Island, Overland and the like, but the new and emerging magazines and websites which, we believe, are critical to the strength and vibrancy of Australian writing. We will attempt to do this by regularly, at least once a quarter, undertaking a detailed of review of what has been published – picking out the highlights and shining a light into as many corners as we can.

In this first article we will attempt to look at some of the current issues facing small literary publishers and have a look over the last thirty years to try and create some kind of context with which to begin our journey.

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There have been a number of articles on the literary website Cordite over recent months which have thrown the spotlight on small literary presses, both in Australia and overseas. A glance through these articles provides us with a useful opportunity to analyse where small literary presses in Australia have been, where they are now and where they might go in the future.

In one of his first feature posts as new Managing Editor of Cordite Poetry Review, Kent MacCarter examined the state of small publishers currently publishing contemporary Australian poetry in a piece called ‘Australian Print Poetry and the Small Press: Who’s Doing the Books?’ While his article concentrates, in the main on the publishing of poetry books, many of his points can also be applied to the publishing of literary journals and magazines. In his opening paragraph MacCarter poses a number of questions:

  • Are Creative Writing programs creating a glut of writers and, in tandem, small presses to accommodate the ambition of that growth?
  • What is the quality of that which is being written, then published?
  • Can a small press sustain a viable publishing schedule with today’s technology based on points one and two

MacCarter uses these questions as the starting point of his subsequent examination of the current state of small literary press publication in Australia. While I would have liked the question of writing programs creating a ‘glut’ or writers (are there more writers now than there were ten, fifteen twenty years ago?) and a analysis of the question of ‘quality’ addressed a little more, for MacCarter the bottom line is funding/money/liquidity/viability:

“Throughout this article, I’ll interject look-ins at what a few small presses are doing in the realm of business liquidity – a term about as far from poetry as you can march – but any perceived “perfidy” of this pragmatism will get no apology from me”.

Though fortunately he does temper this with the understanding that those running the presses and reading the poetry are motivated by something far more exciting than money.

“The passion for literature, pulp, poetry, criticism, whatever the form this passionate wont may assume, is both arresting and rigorous in Australia. Without that, there is next to nothing to write about in this space”.

In ‘To Anthologize the Now Perpetually: The Literary Situation of the Small Press and the Archive’ (Cordite Features 23 February 2012) and ‘Little Magazines Exemplars: A Companion Piece to ‘To Anthologize the Now Perpetually’’ (Cordite Features 8 March 2012) Edric Mesmer writes from the perspective from the archivist – what can be collected and learned from the small presses. He writes from an international point of view and covers a vast history of modernist writing and small press publishing, but he does provide an expansive background for an analysis of the history and importance of small magazines and presses in Australia

Reading these articles got me thinking about how small literary publishing has developed and changed over my lifetime. In particular it made me recall an article by Marcus Breen “Writing for Readers: The new, small magazines” which appeared in The Age Monthly Review in May 1985. I also recalled a monthly column I wrote for Editions  in the late 1980’s which attempted to look at the sub culture of small press literary publishing. It occurred to me that a reading of the recent and not so recent articles might assist us to start to come to an understanding of the way the small literary press landscape has changed in Australia over the last quarter of a century – and how it might continue to develop over the coming years.

The most obvious change is technology. Back in 1985 Adam Aitiken and I were riding the last wave of the ‘gestner revolution’ with P76 magazine. I was also using the gestner machine to produce a number booklets for  Rochford Street Press. By producing a roneoed journal we were following a long and proud tradition in Australian small press publishing including such publications as Free Poetry,Your Friendly FascistMagic Sam, Kris Hemensley’s Ear in a Wheatfield and many others. There was no internet so we wrote and received lots of letters, we networked through writers groups, other magazines, band venues, political meetings and anything else we could think of. But most of all we fought the good battle to distribute our publications through bookshops who were nervous of stocking books that looked ‘different’.

Cut to 2012 and the landscape seems to have changed considerably at first glance. One can ‘Google’ poetry journals or use the website of numerous writing organisations to find list of journals and presses. The ability to order and pay for books over the web has meant that the critical dependence of small publishers on distribution has, to some extent, been broken (that is not to say, however, that it still not important for small presses to get onto bookshop shelves – it is perhaps not quite as critical today as it once was). But small press publishers are still networking and trying to distribute their publications just as hard – they are just using some different tools.

That is not to say that it is easier for small magazines and presses as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century. They face some different challenges – and some challengers which would be very familiar to the small literary presses of thirty years ago. MacCarter, in his Cordite article, for example, mentions the current funding issues facing the Tasmanian based journal Island, who last year lost a substantial funding source. It was a similar issue which drove much of the ‘literary activism’ that Marcus Breen  refers to in his 1985 article. Breen opens his article with a dispute. In 1984 two relatively well established and important journals, Compass and Imprint, lost their Literature Board Funding. These journals had began as small journals run on a shoe-string like most literary journals and had slowly built up contributions, reputation and circulation until they were able to successfully apply for Literature Board Funding. Among other things this allowed them to pay contributors. Unfortunately the funding landscape for literature in Australia has never been secure and suddenly, like other magazines before and after, they had their next funding grant denied. The resulting anger, frustration, shock etc resulted in the Literature Board setting up a meeting to discuss the situation with the funded magazines and journals. For many this was the final nail in the coffin. The funding authority looked to explain why it had effectively killed off two established and respected journals, and to outline its publishing subsidy scheme moving forward, to those ‘favoured journals’ who had retained their funding. At the very least those journals that had lost their funding deserved to be represented. Indeed the feeling among many writers and small publishers was that the Literature Board was indeed answerable to the wider writing and publishing community – and so a small press lobby group was formed in Sydney – SMAP (Small Magazines and Presses).

(I must declare a interest here. AS an editor of P76 I was involved in setting up SMAP and was eventually one of the SMAP delegates invited to the meeting with the Australia Council)

Writing a number of years after the 1985 meeting in Editions Review in 1989 I reflected on the outcomes of the meeting and indeed of the whole SMAP episode. On one level SMAP did achieve some positive outcomes:

“A number of articles on small literary presses appeared in the arts pages of the major dailies and the ABC radio pro­gram Books and Writing produced a special report on small presses. In Sydney Neil Whitfield, former editor of Neos (a maga­zine devoted to publishing creative writing by writers under 25) set up a small press stand at Harkers Bookshop in Glebe………was it worthwhile? Well there were some spin-offs. Contacts were made, a net­work was set up between magazine editors in different regions and, for a period, liter­ary magazines and journals gained at least a little of the literary spotlight”

But by 1989 Tom Shapcott was once again speaking at the Word Festival and one of his concerns was outlining when and how the Lit Board determined it was time to ‘kill’ off a journal….. Things had come almost full circle in four years.

As we can see by the Island incident, where the Tasmanian State Government cut funding for 2012, the established, funded magazines are only as secure as their next grant application. Indeed, while it might seem alarmist to suggest that old established journals like Southerly, Meanjin or Overland could have their funding cut and their future thrown into turmoil, one only has to look at the actions of the new conservative government in Queensland  (the axing of the Premier’s Literary Award within days of coming to power), to realise that a decision to kill off a literary institution can be made at the stroke of a pen by a new government with a symbolic point to make.

Given the apparent dependency of our writing culture on government subsidies, and the likelihood that these government subsidies may become more difficult to obtain as the political landscape across Australia changes, MacCarter’s concentration on the economic bottom line of poetry publishing becomes a little more important.

In coming months Rochford Street Review will attempt to examine how Australia’s literary presses and journals are responding to these challenges. We will look at individual issues to understand who is publishing what, provide a platform for new and emerging magazines and journals (both printed and web-based) to announce their arrival as well as documenting their battles to publish, distribute and be read.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

A new ‘lost’ issue of P76 has recently been published. For details, and a listing of all issues of P76, go to http://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/p76-literary-magazine/

References:

Cordite Poetry Review

Age Monthly Review

Editions

6 thoughts on “The more things change…..small presses and magazines then and now.

  1. Great to see this conversation will continue. Indeed, the ‘quality’ of writing in which I only touch deserves a thorough exploration on its own (in my research, I got the impression from publishers that quality could still be amply found). Although there were a few places where I touched upon it, I actively tried to leave the quality of writing aspect for another piece, quality of printed publication was fair game.

    We will soon be running an interview with Pam Brown re: Magic Sam and other publications that flourished in the 70s … which provides a superb window to what was going on then, why, how, etc.

    • Hi Kent, Great to hear you will be doing a piece with Pam on Magic Sam, Sea Cruise and poetry publishing in the 70’s. There was some amazing stuff published that deserves to be revisited. I still have every copy (I think) of Magic Sam – it was a wonderful inspiration publication. Full of great writing, homour and excitement. It was also a very obvious inspiration for P76 and Rochford Street Press. Perhaps we should look for a way to put some of those wonderful publications from the 70’s online – Magic Sam, the early issues of New Poetry etc….so much history

      • Kent

        Just came across an old interview John Kinsella did with Ken Bolton (not sure of the date) where he briefly discusses Ken’s publishing ventures:

        http://www.johnkinsella.org/interviews/bolton.html

        “JK: Could you outline your history re Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and small press publications—Why & How?

        I’ve published magazines and books on and off for quite a while now. Magic Sam was my first magazine. The first writers I knew were Joanne Burns, Rae Jones, Gary Oliver, Carol Novack and later Anna Couani and John Jenkins. Rae and Gary published small, very ‘fugitive’ things: Rae published Your Friendly Fascist and Gary Oliver did Ploughman’s Lunch and Victoria Bitter. The Lunch did not achieve much speed, but Vic Bitter I liked. It was just a pamphlet. The Fascist was amusing because it was so perversely terrible—sort of Berlin Dada meets Benny Hill. What I loved best was the artwork in the early issues. It was all mimeographed and was usually hand-drawn onto the stencil with a biro or a pin! The result was terrible—and the drawings were of a sort of cartoon pig in Nazi uniform, very crudely drawn, covered in slogans, and obtuse, staggeringly. Infantile. I still wasn’t writing anything very interesting back then (in ’73, ’74). But when I began to there was nowhere I could publish it where it would fit: the magazines I did want to be in seemed closed to me, and I knew a few writers I’d like to publish and would want my work to appear with. So, Magic Sam. I favoured self-reflexive and self-conscious writing—opposed to the New Romanticism (the Merwin/Duncan mix) of Adamson’s New Poetry magazine, and of course it was uninterested in the High Church-and-Akubra poetry of Canberra and Les Murray’s acolytes. It was also more literalist and nominalist I’d guess, in orientation, than allied Melbourne publications like The Ear in a Wheatfield and etymspheres which were in part Olsonist and also more informed by European (French and German) traditions. Of course Magic Sam was ‘watered down’ or made ‘healthily broader’, depending on your view, by the inclusion of much else: not everyone writes as you think they should and, as an editor, you take what you get. And sometimes you learn something. I favoured poetry of process with an epistemological anxiety, or tic, as its engine. I published a lot of Anna Couani, who also became co-editor, and Laurie Duggan, Pam Brown, Robert Kenny; together with John Jenkins, Carol Novack, Sal Brereton, Noel Sheridan, John Forbes, Steve Kelen, Denis Gallagher—now there’s an overlooked figure: get your hands on his book Country Country—and many others, including people quite removed from the magazine’s central thrust—Vicki Viidikas, Rae Jones, others. That was 1976-1980. Six issues, all large, some overlarge.

        Soon after Magic Sam was underway I began Sea Cruise Books. Anna played such a large part in that that when the partnership broke up she took Sea Cruise with her and has continued publishing under that name.

        I started publishing Otis after I’d been in Adelaide a few years (in 1987). I did it for the same reason as before. There still weren’t mags for me to appear in and I thought I’d like to publish somewhere. Some of my friends were getting published—but the mags they published in didn’t seem to be able to tell that they were far and away the best thing in their pages. Well, Adelaide’s a long way from the publishing action and is not taken too seriously as an artistic centre by the east coast. And I was getting bored. So I started a new magazine. It’s a continuation of Magic Sam in most ways—a bit more savvy, a little less youthful, with a lot more visual arts critical material. And there were a few Adelaide writers worth showing to the world who couldn’t publish here and couldn’t—from Adelaide—easily crack Melbourne or Sydney. You know the story, I imagine, in Perth. People like Linda Marie Walker and Jyanni Steffensen. As well, it’s slightly more national in range of publication and distribution. Production standards have risen. And it publishes more overseas work than Magic Sam used to. It faces the same problems too—very little money, so that issues are consequently too far apart. Along with Otis I publish Little Esther books: four so far with more in the pipeline—a quite large one next up, by the New Zealand writer Gregory O’Brien, that’s going to be terrific. It’s called Malachi. You should watch for it.”

  2. It’s good to see the issue of small presses discussed in your forum.
    One of the most cogent reasons for the establishment of small presses is that the editors find that they or the writers they know cannot get published easily because of the inaccessibility of existing publications. It has probably changed with the advent of blogging, e-zines, social spaces that kind of disrupt the stigma of vanity publishing but I imagine that people getting into digital publishing are propelled by the same reasoning. I see small press publishing along with the new digital forms as a democratising process. The idea of ‘quality’ writing, as you rightly suggest, is a highly contentious and subjective thing, an ideology that requires explanation and justification. It entails a presumption of ‘quality’ that has mostly defined itself by excluding women, non-Anglo writers and gay people.
    In the 70’s-80’s, mags like Ear in a Wheatfield and Magic Sam sought to declare their particular orientations up front – editorial honesty. However, more recently Kris Hemensley has been referring to the broad church of poetry and moved away from the kind of limited editorial program (not meant perjoratively) he used to have. He has transferred his enterprise to a blog: http://collectedworks-poetryideas.blogspot.com.au/ and publishes his own and other people’s work as he once did in gestetner form decades ago.
    I was also a member of SMAP in the 80’s and remember its purpose being to promote cooperation between small presses, to distribute each other’s publications, not only to discuss funding. The NSW Poets Union set up a book box in the 80’s that we took everywhere, often selling quite a lot. I think that the funding issue is a huge bugbear for small presses, can make or break them if they depend on it. For that reason, I never pursued it.
    The big problems always are, funding or no funding, that small press publishing in non-digital form requires huge effort, is difficult on the distribution level, engenders constant criticism and burns out the people who do it.
    It seems like blogging is very much the way to go with small press publishing now. Individuals can blog as often or as rarely as they wish and it doesn’t cost anything. There’s no storage of boxes of unsold publications, no worry about distribution. So bravo to everyone who is doing it and continuing the democratisation of the unfortunately stratified Australian literary scene. In fact the multitudes of people coming out of all the creative writing courses are already active and have joined in the opening up of writing and reading to everyone, have broken down the narrow prejudices of the literary world. There are whole other literatures out there that the Anglo-Australian male Establishment seems unaware of.

  3. Pingback: Issue 3: March – April (and a bit of May) 2012 Contents. | Rochford Street Review

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