Island Press: the Story Continues

island logo

After we republished Phil Robert’s memoir of the origins of Island Press (, in conjunction with the celebration of Island’s 45th Birthday Party, we received a number of inquiries from readers wanting to know the history of the press post Phil Roberts. The following is a brief note on the story since then: 

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC xxxx at the microphone during Island Press' 45 birthday celebrations.Picture ....

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC Roberta Lowing at the microphone during Island Press’ 45 birthday celebrations. Photograph by Michele Seminara.

Fortunately, the actual physical production of the book has become a lot easier since the first days. The problems around poetry receiving an audience remotely commensurate with the skill and vision that go into it, however, remain as intractable as ever.

After Phil Roberts returned to Canada, leaving his work as a lecturer at Sydney University to freelance, as poet, and writer about poetry, in Nova Scotiaproducing many more poetry collections, and achieving renown as the author of How Poetry Works (Penguin, 1986) – Phil Hammial continued the work of the press, overseeing the publication of titles such as John Tranter’s Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979) and J.S. Harry’s A Dandelion for Van Gogh (1985). Hammial consolidated the press’s original policy of being prepared to take risks with younger poets, publishing titles such as Adam Aitken’s Letter to Marco Polo (1985), and, if anything, increased the extent to which it was prepared to publish work which would not be acceptable to mainstream presses. Examples of the latter include Anthony Mannix’s Erotomania (1984), and Hammial’s own Vehicles (1985).

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Running a press by oneself is a big responsibility, and there was a hiatus in Island activities between 1985 and 1992; when Hammial decided to get things moving again by inviting a small group of fellow poets Jutta Sieverding, Les Wicks and Martin Langford to join him in turning Island into a co-operative. In this, Island was fortunate to have access to the skills of Phil’s partner, Anne, whose expertise in the newly-legislated format was ideal for the press. Anne has been an essential element in the success of Island: each year she has reviewed the accounts and prepared the annual returns. Having someone who has been willing to offer us her knowledge about co-operative accounting pro bono has been a huge asset, and the press is extremely grateful to her for her generosity. Island’s aim had always been to provide an outlet for new poetry, to make a contribution to the artistic world first and foremost. So the new structure, which minimised business and governance costs, and which allowed it to get on with the job of providing an outlet for its poets with as little distraction as possible, was just what was needed.

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

The period since Island was incorporated as a co-operative has turned out be its most productive time – 37 books in 22 years: a little less than two a year (readers interested in the complete list should consult the Island website). It hasn’t published every year: it has not always been possible to obtain funding, and sometimes the directors have been caught up in other activities.

The nineties were to prove a busy little period, with publications from Lizz Murphy (Pearls and Bullets), Marcel Freiman (Monkey’s Wedding), Jutta Seiverding (Uneasy Weather) and Leith Morton (The Flower Ornament), amongst others. And then, as has sometimes happened, there was a break for a couple of years, while the press struggled to obtain funding.

The 21st Century

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Be Straight with Me from Langford saw the millennium in; this was a departure from our normal audience and focus as it sought to address and speak to the often neglected teenage male. Lizz Murphy, Leith Morton and Carolyn Gerrish rejoined the Island tribe with dynamic new titles and Philip Hammial’s exploration of the more lawless boundaries of language continued with several titles including In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children and Voodoo Realities.

Australian poetry occupies a tiny niche market. The secret to longevity in the editors’ minds was to retain a tight focus, to keep our output manageable. Australia Council support was fundamental to our decision each year to commit to the next one. The process of obtaining that support was never simple and had some substantial on-costs related to our corporate structure etc. But support did come most years and it was frankly this input that was the deciding factor in the press’ ability to continue.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

The editors have had the honour of performing in countries where our artform is somewhere near the core of those nation’s culture, even self-identity. Poetry in Australia is not a “popular” public entertainment; it needs support. One supposes one can make the choice that we will be a society without poetry and withdraw that infrastructure. But this will have long-term implications on what we are as a people. In New South Wales there will be billions spent in the years ahead on stadium upgrades. Poetry asks for just a trickle of tightly focused help.

With small presses, every corner that can be cut is cut. Working collaboratively with the chosen poets each year we reduce the burden at “head office”. Copies of the books are kept with the individual poets thereby circumventing the need for warehousing. We work closely with printers to obtain not just the best quality product but also a reasonably priced one. Often, book design is done in-house.

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993. Her final book, A Dangerous Place, was published by Island in 2005.

In 2005, we were proud to publish the final book from Jutta Sieverding, one of the original four in our incorporated entity stage. The loss of her editorial and production expertise was felt deeply both by her fellow Island editors and the literary community generally. Her A Dangerous Place was a moving reflection on life lived and losing. A pinnacle of the first years of the 21st century was the publication of David Brooks’ Urban Elegies. David went on to provide strategic assistance for a number of years. There was somewhat of a history of Island publishing revered poets coming back to their practice after a hiatus, we jumped at the chance to put out Rae Desmond Jones’ Blow Out. David Musgrave, after spending so much effort publishing others, was a welcome addition to the Island stable with Concrete Tuesday. Roberta Lowing’s The Searchers is an important step in her development as a poet as well as a real contribution to the community generally.

ticket to ride

Ticket to Ride by Philip Hammial. Island Press 2015

Whilst tending to have Sydney focus for purely practical reasons of organisation, we felt it was important to have a regional or non-capital city component in our lists. Barbara Petrie, John Watson, Barbara de Franceschi and Rob Reil were invaluable additions to our catalogue from that grouping.

Publishing someone’s first book of poetry is a unique honour. Some of those we published in the 70s and 80s have gone on to be major figures in the canon. More recently, we were proud to be midwives to some fine titles in this category – Barbara de Franceschi’s Strands was a superb book. Christine Townend’s Walking with Elephants has had critical acclaim in the months since its launch and Susan Adams’ Beside Rivers was commended in the Anne Elder prize. We plan to continue with this as part of our selection criteria.

The Future?

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island's 45th Birthday party

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island’s 45th Birthday party

More recently, we have sought to include books from interstate poets both to better reflect the community’s output as a whole and to expand the Island Press footprint. Jeltje Fanoy’s Princes by Night is a glorious postcolonial exploration.

All three of the current editors “get around a lot” and are always on the lookout for potential additions to our list. Invitations are extended on the basis of obvious literary strength, a diversity of voice, mix of regional/capital city, gender balance, at least one first book and a proven track record of professional activism in the art form (i.e. giving something back). Our tentative 2016 program reflects this. Michele Seminara is a relative newcomer to poetry but already has an impressive following due to her energetic work within the community. Mark Roberts has been an engine for the dissemination of poetry for decades and is long overdue a book of his own. David Gilbey is of incalculable benefit to literature, particularly in regional Australia. Lauren Williams continues to be a loved voice over four decades and she also comes from regional Victoria. Les Wicks makes up the fifth title.

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island's 45th birthday celebrations

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island’s 45th birthday celebrations

We cannot say with certainty whether any or all of these titles will emerge. Like so much of the literature community, cuts to government funding have made the future profoundly uncertain. At a time in this press’ life when we would ordinarily be discussing expansion and bringing in younger blood to the editorial process we can’t with any certainty plan towards our 50th year of operation. As the oldest still functioning poetry press in Australia this is not an enviable position. After all these decades of Quixotic optimism, strategic promotion, pennypinching, thankless pursuit of funding et cetera will Island be nearing its end?

 – Martin Langford & Les Wicks




Martin Langford’s recent publications are The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (P&W, 2009) and Ground (P&W, 2015). He is the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (ed., P&W 2009). He is the poetry reviewer at Meanjin.

Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 23 countries in 11 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford Street Press, 2015).

For the full list of books from Island and to order titles see


The Accumulation of Instances: Martin Langford launches ‘Peony’ by Eileen Chong

Peony by Eileen Chong was launched by Martin Langford, at the Tilbury Hotel in Woolloomooloo on Sunday 30th March 2014
chongI first came across Eileen’s poetry when she submitted samples of it for the old Poets Union’s Young Poets’ Fellowships. The work picked itself, and despite the delay occasioned by the transition from that organisation to Australian Poetry, the poems she produced under the Fellowship were eventually published in the first of Australian Poetry’s New Voices series in 2012, in the chapbook, burning rice – a collection which, it is pleasing to see, has been re-issued by the publisher of the present collection, Pitt Street Poets.

Many poets make bright starts and then struggle to kick on, so it is gratifying to see Eileen producing her second collection: I say second collection because, as chapbooks go, burning rice was a remarkably substantial effort – shortlisted as it was for the Prime Minister’s Poetry Prize.

And now we have Peony.

If one loves the idea that a country is a space in which one never quite knows what is going to happen next: that – ideally, at least – a country is a cultural space in which new possibilities keep emerging, then I suggest you have a look at Peony. Because it is precisely the sort of book which allows one to believe in such a thing: a little left-field, the surprising and satisfying product of what must be an ongoing interior dialogue between cultures, and – alongside the work of other Asian-Australian poets – a real contribution to the ways of doing poetry in Australia.

Even though Eileen’s principal language is English, and even though she grew up in a country which shares many customs and traditions with Australia, when she entered this slightly different space, she brought with her enough difference to collectively shape an edge against the usages she found here. It is precisely this edge – subtle, various, but distinctive – that constitutes the nature of the gift she brings here.

A literary tradition is never an homogenous entity: if it is, it’s dead. Rather, it is an accumulation of fracture zones and areas of tension – of differences – that its authors variously attempt to resolve: tensions, say, between city and country, between differently gendered perspectives, between Indigenous and settler. Difficult as they can sometimes to be to manage, they are also stimulating: it is these confrontations which keep traditions vital. Most originality, after all, is largely a product of having one set of perspectives in one’s head, and a slightly different reality to deal with.

I would like to note two elements which Eileen brings to the range of possibilities in this country: one deeply embedded, one suspects, in her imagination, and the other, quite incidental.

The first is the development of emotion through what one might call the accumulation of instances. I missed it at first in these poems: mostly, they are continuous with the tones of conversation, handling the development of their ideas lightly and easily. In fact, when I compared them with what I knew, from translations, of classical Chinese poetry – thinking, also, of the work of another Singaporean-Australian poet, Kim Cheng Boey – it struck me as remarkable that poets who had been brought up in a tradition which seemed so dense and allusive, should be writing an English that was so clean-lined and accessible. The accessible surface, however, was deceptive: just because the manner was different didn’t mean that the thought hadn’t been developed in time-honoured ways. Perhaps the clearest example is the beautifully taut first poem:

Chinese Singing

after Li-Young Lee

My grandmother cannot read
the words dancing across the screen,
lighting up in time with the music.

She sings from memory,
in the dialect of her youth:
the two of us walk in the rain

sharing a single small umbrella.
If my grandfather were alive
he would light a cigarette and draw

breath until the end glowed
into a fiery red, saying nothing.
It is my father’s turn, and he handles

the microphone as if it’s an old friend.
Beside the road, beneath the banyan tree
is a place I think of often. My mother smiles

and mouths the words in Mandarin,
soundlessly. She too cannot read Chinese.
The tranquil skies and the balmy breezes,

the sweet scent of the grass. I hear only
snatches of meaning in the few words
I understand. Meanwhile, I think on

the puzzle of my grandparents, fertile
and warm, lying together in the dark.
Of my parents, young, newly-burdened

and afraid, whispering each other to sleep.
The rain falls around us with great intensity.
We must walk with care, under the one small umbrella.

It is my turn to sing. I don’t know
any Chinese songs, so I sing in English.
My family is listening.

Each member of the family reveals something different about themselves – by what they understand, by what they sing, by the way in which they enter into the event. Collectively these differences constitute a portrait of the family, as it migrates across geography and cultures, building and shifting, until its complex and disconcerting gaze comes to rest on the author. The point is that this hasn’t been done with commentary and explanation, or with verbs of contrast or similarity. This multi-faceted and quietly emotional situation – the author, after all, has to deal with each of these expectations differently – has simply been allowed to develop through the accumulation of individual voices. I am not suggesting that juxtaposition is not used by Australian poets, it is. But it seems to me to be a starting point in Asian writing, whereas in Australia it has often been an end-point: a minimalist sophistication. To approach one’s material like this brings a slightly different pressure to the creative process to the one we are mostly used to. One can’t predict what effect this may have on Eileen’s work over the long term – if any – but it is clearly an important and effective component now.
A slightly different example can be found in the one really dark poem in Peony:

Morning, Kookaburra Song

i.m. E.M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

It was dark this morning, Mister,
when I heard you, alone and keening,
laughing at the world with its funerals
and deaths, at its four presidents
in the one room.

You laughed at the priests in their unblemished
cassocks shot through with gold. You laughed
at the woman with the strong throat
from which issued a song practised
in chambers as hollow as our hearts.

You even laughed at the son who limped,
laughed at the memory of the child
who’d forgotten the mystery of walking
on two whole limbs. Mocked his false leg
smothered under fine, grey wool.

You picked out the woman so elegant
in her black grief. The pearls on her live skin
gleaming like teeth. The years she’d watched
her husband with one eye, both hands
cupping the fabric of their lives.

It was dark this morning, Mister,
but I heard you. I was awake in bed,
waiting. The man next to me lay deep
in sleep. But I knew your laughter
would come. I knew it would come.

It is a poem about how there is something in the world that laughs at everything we are moved by or find valuable, everything we strive to achieve. One of the things that makes it distinctive is its use of the kookaburra. Traditionally, the kookaburra’s laugh has been viewed as benign, as not breaking the communion of good fellowship. But this laughter does.This bird takes no prisoners: it has no respect, and no pity. I must admit, I have listened to kookaburras myself, and thought that their laughter was of a heavier character than was indicated, say, by a Lindsay cartoon. I never used it: no doubt I was a captive of the conventions. But Eileen has. And although, in itself, it’s a relatively small thing, it has added to the way in which we see the creatures around us, to the range of possibility they represent. Possibly, the fact that Eileen has been marginally less subject to customary Australian perspectives has been an advantage, allowing her to see something that people who have lived here all their lives may not have. Creative misreading, however, is one thing, but you have to be able to use it: this slight adjustment would have meant nothing if it hadn’t been accompanied by her sense of such an unforgiving perspective, by the dry and economical survey of the Kennedys, by the way the whole poem is grounded in her silent address to the bird. Out of it, she has produced a strong and disturbing poem – a poem that sticks in the mind precisely because the use to which the kookaburra’s laughter is put is just that one step away from conventional usage.

Sometimes, when a person goes to live in another culture, their head remains in the place from which they have come. Sometimes, their affiliations and perspectives realign with those of their new world. And sometimes, and most creatively, the act of entering a new land is like stepping onto a tightrope of the imagination, in which neither past nor present has been deleted – because good imaginations pay their respects wherever it needs to be paid. These poems, it seems to me, walk such a tightrope. On the one hand, there are the memories of Singapore, of family – and on the other, poems of the new life – of preparing food with friends, of Europe and of love.

The tightrope is a creative place, and I hope that Eileen continues to walk it. It has given us the poems of Peony; we will watch in anticipation to see where it may take her to next.
Congratulations to all involved, to the publishers, and above all, to the author.

May this peony flower for a long to come.


Martin Langford is the author of The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (Puncher and Wattmann, 2009) and the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (P&W, 2009). His new collection, Ground, will be published later in 2014.

Peony is available from

Mark Roberts’ review of burning rice can be found here:


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