Island Press: the Story Continues

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After we republished Phil Robert’s memoir of the origins of Island Press (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/10/01/ten-year-on-an-island-by-philip-roberts-the-beginnings-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.
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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.

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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

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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). http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

For the full list of books from Island and to order titles see  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

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“Let There Be War Between Us”: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Decline and Fall’ by Rae Desmond Jones

Decline and Fall by Rae Desmond Jones, Flying Island Books. 2011

Decline and fall098When I got a hold of Rae Desmond Jones’ pocket-sized collection Decline and Fall I knew from the moment I opened it and began reading I was in for an interesting and affecting ride. Yes, I’m a fan, and I was excited at the prospect of a small gathering of his previously published works (this was, of course, prior to his recent New and Selected Poems, It Comes from All Direction Grand Parade Poets, 2013).

To those who read Australian poetry, Jones is a fascinating presence, who has carved out his place in our literature as a unique, important and challenging voice, simultaneously relevant and visionary, often writing outside of the usual subjects or taking them from an obscure angle, and addressing those that are so often shied away from. Just look at Jones’ infamous poem “The Deadshits”, for example, which narrates a gang rape through the eyes of one of the perpetrators. Not Wordworth’s usual choice of subject, that’s for sure, but this is what distances Jones from the pack and makes him increasingly special, if that’s the right word. Although this poem is not included in Decline and Fall, there are plenty of others that address the unaddressable in a way that is intelligent, beautiful, humorous and more often than not, haunting.

Jones has a few bones to pick within these pages, and he wages these wars through his words very convincingly. “i hate them/the truth is out! & they hate me.” begins the title poem of Decline and Fall. The poet directs this piece at the youth of today and the decline and fall of our society. Jones, born in 1941, isn’t a young poet anymore, and his view is one shared by many older generations (and those with brains from the younger) observing the changed attitudes, self-destructive and anti-social behaviours of newer generations, while also being conscious of how these views are seen by those in question. The poem goes on to address the lack of interest in history and education, which contrasts with Jones’ own generation:

do you know why the roman empire fell? i ask.
who cares? A boy giggles.
that is the reason, i say

Jones’ lines are evocative and powerful, and his signature style is original and startling. The work showcased here is dark and doesn’t stray from controversial topics, which has always been Jones’ approach to poetry. I’ve learnt since reading this that Jones was at one stage a secondary school teacher, which could explain how he built these clear views.

Released by Flying Island Books, Decline and Fall is a beautifully presented pocketbook that gathers a collection of work written over a number of years, some of the pieces previously collected in Jones’ 2008 book Blow Out and his earlier collections Orpheus with a Tuba and The Palace of Art. Each poem is accompanied by a Chinese translation on the opposite page, and the message in the poem is universal, spoken directly to the youth who’s behaviour Jones despises:

go back to your bad videos & your hopeless dreams.
be unemployable.
daub graffiti on trains
& put as many needles in your arms as you want.
die if it seems romantic.

An important wakeup call from a voice well worth listening to, it’s tragic to realise this message will more than likely never reach the generation Rae Desmond Jones is calling out to, which just so happens to be my own. Our culture really does appear to be on the decline, and the fall depicted here is truly devastating.

Even with the recent publication of Jones’ New and Selected Poems at last in print, Decline and Fall is still a fine introduction to the work of one of our finest poets, consistent and filled with standouts.

Another of the strongest poems is “The Poets”, exploring the niche audience modern poetry attracts, mainly made up of other poets, and alluding to the fact that those who do not read poems are worse off for it. Jones believes that poetry understands us, a notion I can get behind wholeheartedly. The use of deceivingly simple language is raw and confronting, and as a reader of poetry, you begin to further appreciate the art form as Jones so obviously does:

they speak to a vast audience
consisting mainly of one another
all of whom nervously shuffle
manuscripts and wait their turn
meantime the masses who are
as usual blind deaf & stupid
just keep walking to the bus or
into the office reading newspapers
& quite obviously don’t give a fuck.

Despite the dark reflections that make up some of Decline and Fall’s contents, Jones also presents us with his unique take on natural imagery in poems such as “Ice & Fire”: ‘When the moon drops/Like a biscuit/It might be time/To dab your lips/With a napkin of cloud’.

But the bleak is never far away, such as in another of Jones’ best poems “We are in a Mess (O Lord)”. Although he’s always had a great sense of humour, Jones’ most important poems are the ones that reach into the darkness and pull out something that speaks for the masses, even if the majority of them sadly don’t read it.

Even the artwork of Decline and Fall is bleak, showing a skeleton in ancient armour waving to a man of a future civilisation on a beach. This pretty much sums up what the future looks like through Jones’ poetry.

So who is Jones declaring war on, really? Youth, a society gone wrong as a whole, or is he simply writing about that which we prefer to leave in the dark, because it is important for poetry to say something?

I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand what makes Rae Desmond Jones tick, but I do understand that he is one of the most important poets writing today, one of my favourites, and one that should be a permanent staple in the reading of Australian poetry.

– Robbie Coburn

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Robbie Coburn lives in the small farming district of Woodstock in country Victoria. His first full collection of poetry Rain Season was published by Picaro Press in 2013. Find him online at http://robbiecoburn.wordpress.com/

Decline and Fall is available from Flying Island Books: flyingislands.org/books/flyling…/rae-desmond-jones-decline-and-fall/

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