Ten Years on an Island by Philip Roberts – The Beginnings of Island Press

Island Press was founded by by Canadian poet, musician and (then) Sydney University lecturer Philip Roberts in 1970. In 1979 Roberts returned to Canada and gave Island Press to Philip Hammial who ran it by himself until  1993 when it was transferred into a Co-operative. This year the Press celebrates 45 years as an active poetry publisher – probably making it the longest running poetry press in Australia. It is celebrating its birthday on Saturday 3rd October at 3.30pm at the Harold Park Hotel in Sydney with with readings from Island Press poets, & the launch of the latest poetry books from Philip Hammial, Christine Townend and Roberta Lowing.

The following account of Island Press’ first ten years was written by Philip Roberts after he left Australia and was originally published in Poetry Australia Issue 74-75, 1980. Rochord Street Review thanks Philip Roberts for permission to republish this article

The Island Press Co-operative website can be found at  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

**…..**…..**

island logoI started Island Press in 1970. It was an act of defiance, in a way. I had been ordered back to bed for a month after a relapse of suspected incipient multiple sclerosis, but instead set out from the neurologist’s rooms to Dolphin and Hannan on the outskirts of Parramatta and bought a Jewel treadle platen press and six fonts of Garamong type. During that month, not only did symptoms of my supposed ailment disappear, never to return, but I became a printer, a traveller of the Gutenberg galaxy, with all its miraculous reality.

I had always been fascinated by print and printing. When I was two I picked up an “error” of spelling in my own name (on the label of a bottle of Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia). Not many years later I was “printing” books on an ancient typewriter, and “binding” them on my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine. (This is not good for the needle, I was later informed.) I recall that the magic of the transformation from flat sheet to openable book was my principle source of pleasure. At high school I was editor of the annual Retropect’s first printed (as opposed to mimeographed) edition, and went on to become the editor of two undergraduate student publications (one, The Acadia Athenaeum in Nova Scotia in 1959, and the other the Jesus College, Oxford, Dragon a few years later). I became a professional, so to speak, during a couple of frustrating, and, ultimately, dull, years as a sub-editor in the chaos of Reuter’s Central Desk in Fleet Street. I also sub-edited and ghosted on the side. Correcting printer’s proofs was a common task for me.

Moreover, I had friends with an active interest in printing. An undergraduate friend at Oxford, David Bridges, had a small Adana Press, on which he planned to print (but only got as far as proof stage) my renderings of four Anglo-Saxon poems (these ultimately appeared in Crux, my third book). Also at Oxford I met Robert Graves, then Professor of Poetry. Early in our Friendship he presented me with three books he had printed with Laura Riding at their Seizin Press. The first, the smallest, was An Acquaintance with Descriptions by Gertrude Stein. They had printed this in Hammersmith, and Gertrude had had to sign bits of numbered paper in Paris and then post it back to Hammersmith to be stuck into the books. The second and third had been printed in Deya, Mallorca, where Robert still lives. They were To Whom Else by Robert himslef (he was very apologetic about the quality of the poetry in this) and Laura and Francesca by Laura herself.

ADVERTISEMENT

island 45

Finally, in 1969 my first book of poems, Just Passing Through, had been handset and printed by a young couple of poets in Canada, Sean Haldane and Marnie Pomeroy. Their Ladysmith Press was on their farm in Ladysmith, Quebec, near Ottawa. Their interest in printing was entirely coinci dental, but it was a boost to my own—redoubled when I discovered in later correspondence from Canada that both Sean and Marnie had known Robert well. This led to a lively exchange of correspondence between Ladysmith, Sydney, and Deya, the main topic of which was printing.

Having edged the new Jewel into our laundry up by the road at 9 Bayview Street, Lavender Bay, in Sydney (an act for which I was later—over a year later—to be evicted), I now had no clear idea of how to proceed. I had a few books, including a rat-gnawed Victorian manual given to me by Mr Edwards of Edwards & Shaw, Sydney, publishers of many fine collections of Australian poetry, and was able to distribute my founts into their respective cases, but I still was unable to print even a single line. One day, a stranger, a bass guitarist on his way to a session in a neighbouring flat, stuck his head into the laundry where I was wallowing in despair. It turned out that he was also an apprentice in printing at Sydney Tech. In an hour and a half he had taught me virtually everything I have ever needed to know about basic printing (I have to assume that I am still ignorant of many of the finer points), enough to think of doing a small book of poetry. I never thought of printing anything other than poetry.

I already knew a few Sydney poets and one or two others in the other cities of Australia, and the idea came to me of doing a small booklet, with one poem from each poet, the copies to be sold or else given away, and the proceeds to be equally split between us. One of these poets was David Malouf, a colleague at Sydney University, where I taught. He suggested a few more names. Eventually I ended up with 22.(These were Robert Adamson, David Campbell, J. M. Couper, Bruce Dawe, Robert D. FitzGerald, Rodney Hall, J. S. Harry, Gwen Harwood, Martin Johnston, Geoffrey Lehmann, David Malouf, James McAuley, Roger McDonald, Les A. Murray, Geoff Page, Philip Roberts, Thomas W. Shapcott, Vivian Smith, Andrew Taylor, John E. Tranter, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and Judith Wright, for the record). The guiding principle was that each poet had to choose his or her best poem written during the previous year. Hence the significance of the position of the apostrophe in the title chosen for the anthology: Poet’s Choice — many choices, perhaps, but each of them singular.

This new enterprise needed a name, especially if we (by now I had taken up referring to Island Press and myself together as “we” rather grandly) were planning to sell books and open a bank account. I had a block of land on Scotland Island, and had been planning to build and move over there in a year or two: “Island Press” seemed the right name. The fact that I ended up instead in Bundeena, in the Royal National Park south of Sydney, did not seem significant enough to cause me to change the name later, especially as it so well fitted my personal picture of myself as isolationist. I even drew a printer’s device, waves surrounding a book: the book as island.

So I set out, armed with my new name and a sheaf of contributors’ mss., with a pile of brown-paper parcels of newly cut paper from B. J. Ball, each sheet the size of a two-page spread of the finished book. Then the fun began. I cannot possibly go into the minute and painstaking attention to detail that printing demands. One thing, however, the bass guitarist had told me, and the most important: be ready to resort to anything to achieve the best. Arm yourself with talcum powder, chewing gum, hairpins and rubber cement. Even the newest and most sophisticated Japanese offset press won’t give perfect results without a lot of prior fiddling-around and even witchery-pokery. The tao of printing is attained during the make-ready stage if it is to be attained at all.

The cover of Crux by Philip Roberts. Island Press 1973

The cover of Crux by Philip Roberts. Island Press 1973

The business of typesetting is printing’s most time-consuming aspect. You stand there, hour upon hour, holding a metal composing-stick in your left hand, your right fingers fumbling endlessly among the 89 compartments of the case, picking up the desired piece of type, turning the character end around to face you, and then checking the face itself to make sure it’s the right way up, three operations to be repeated for each letter. It is gratifying to discover your fingers becoming quite used to this new routine, to the point where you no longer have to consciously consider the whereabouts of any particular piece of type. Next, each line of set type must be adjusted for spacing (happily, this is not a major problem in poetry, where the right print margin is seldom justified, or lined up evenly), then a one-point lead is dropped in and a new line begun. After five or six lines are set (this could take up to 15 or 20 minutes) the whole load is manoeuvred gingerly out of the stick and onto the “stone” (a sheet of thick glass, in my case) to sit level until the whole two-page spread is complete and in place, surrounded by other pieces of metal and wood (“furniture”) and locked up tightly with two expanding clamps (“quoins”). (By now I also had a whole new vocabulary to play with.) After the whole thing is clamped into the press, with all errors of typography and spacing now in the past, the process begins. A spin of the flywheel, a stomp on the treadle, and away she goes, with stops only to replenish ink or paper. Each sheet is placed on the platen by the right hand, and removed after printing by the left hand as the right is on its way over with a new sheet. You have to keep your eyes open to make sure none of the type is clogged, or that the rollers don’t need more ink.

For me, the printing was the most enjoyable and relaxing part of the process. Friends used to call and marvel at my furious energy as I treadled away, clang-clang went the ratchet escapement of the circular ink plate, kerthwoosh went the two ink-sticky rollers across the plate then down over the type itself and back, just instants before the mighty jaws of the platen and bed crunched shut on the paper. One summer afternoon I cracked the knuckle of my right middle finger while diving for a piece of paper that had slipped down while the press was closing. I should have known better. I came to later with a lump on my head (the cement floor of the laundry) and a finger that has never been quite the same.

It used to amuse me, at these times, that so many of my university and other literary acquaintances, who prided themselves on their knowledge of books and even gave WEA courses on communication, had never thought about the final part of the printing process—the distribution, or putting-away, of the type afterwards. They often appeared amazed, watching me at work, to see that once you take a piece of type out of its compartment and use it, you must clean it and put it back before you can take it out and use it again. But in fact, this was the easiest, and fastest, part of the process: with a copy of the newly-printed sheet before you, you don’t actually have to look at the type at all while you distribute.

I have no idea how long Poet’s Choice 1970 took me—many weeks longer than I had first imagined, I’m sure. I used to spend all my free hours at the press, on the weekends, in the evenings, and whenever else I could find time. What makes Phil print? people were wondering. The flexibility of my time table at the university was a great advantage, though I did encounter some negative reaction over this from my immediate superior, and in general felt rather unsupported by the upper levels of the English Department, whose fodder is, after all, books, and particularly books of poetry. In 1976, when I gave up handsetting, I offered my press and type to the English Department but was told they had no interest in acquiring a press. Presumably they feel that students interested in bibliography should travel to Oxford to study letterpress printing, as generations have already done.

A detail from Crux by Philip Roberts, drawings by Margo Lewers. Island Press 1973

A detail from Crux by Philip Roberts, drawings by Margo Lewers. Island Press 1973

From this beginning the Press just grew. Poet’s Choice 1970 was the first and only book from the Jewel press under my operations: I sold it to Michael Dransfield the following year (1971), and replaced it with a somewhat more sophisticated machine, an Arab treadle with adjustable platen. (The Jewel’s adjustments were made by adding or subtracting single sheets of the news paper I used for platen packing.) Michael got some Times Roman type (I think because it was more workable than my own Garamond, where founts are pretty limited), and printed a small book of poems for his father. I never saw the book, but I have a commemorative sheet we printed the afternoon we moved it over to his place in Paddington and got it working.

From then until the end of my hand-setting days I produced nine further books, a total of 10 in all. Aside from the annual Poet’s Choice, which went on selling well each year, chiefly by mail order, I did four individual collections: End of Dreamtime by Kevin Gilbert in 1971; Ithaka by Martin Johnston and Crux by myself in 1973; and Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson in 1974.

The use of artwork introduced a theme that became common to many of the Island Press collections. Martin Johnston’s perceptive translations from modern Greek poetry, Ithaka, included drawings by himself and Nevill Drury, now a high prophet of extrasensory phenomena and sci-fi. My book, Crux, had drawings by the late Sydney artist Margo Lewers, a good friend from my first days in Australia; she also designed the cover. And Robert Adamson’s Swamp Riddles, which I would now submit as my best piece of printing, had a cover by Robert Finlayson. This cover was a real headache—Adamson had asked for Efanta cover board for the paperback covers. I had never printed on paper with this finish, and, much to my consternation, discovered that my usual black ink (regular jobbing variety) refused to sink into the paper or to dry. We even baked some of the sheets all night in the kitchen oven, to no avail. I finally had to buy a whole new order of cover stock and have a professional printer do the job. So my best book is not wholly mine, at that.

Poet’s Choice 1975 was my last hand-set effort. By now the press itself had become physical drudgery. I hate to think of how many hours during those six years I spent balancing on my left foot while my right treadled up and down, four times for each impression, multiplied by 25, 30, or even 50 for each two-page spread in the book, multiplied (again) by 250, 500, or even 1000 for each copy of the final run. I was developing curvature of the spine and varicose veins in the left leg. It was getting to be a drag. I grumbled and threatened to chuck it all in, but in the end continued to allow myself to be persuaded (by other poets, mainly) to continue publishing even if I gave up printing the books myself. The deciding factor was the IBM typesetter, a kind of glorified “golfball” typewriter which produces pages of print ready, via photographic plates, for an offset press. So I could continue to do the typesetting, at vastly increased speed and comfort, while a commercial printer did the less exciting work of mass production. I soon hit upon Southwood Press in Marrickville, Sydney, a small, sympathetic, and generally competent printer and binder, and found that life as a publisher could be bearable.

The first of the IBM jobs was Poet’s Choice 1976 (its cover is disingenuously a crude facsimile of the old Poet’s Choice cover, done just before I dismantled the press forever, and looking more rustic than anything I had ever printed myself). The move into mechanisation which this represented was a big step. It meant losing a number of bibliophiles and rare-book collectors as standing-order customers. On the other hand, I was now able to print, in a relatively short time, a range and diversity of poetry which I could never have managed in the old handset days—books by Philip Hammial (since July 1979, with his wife Karen,, joint owner of Island Press), Ken Bolton (a past editor), Andrew Taylor, Michael Witts, Keith Shadwick, Andrew Huntley, Denis Gallagher, Kris Hemensley, and Jan Harry.

Cover of Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974

Cover of Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974

Running a Press this way means you can decide on a book and have it out in as little as six weeks—impossible for a large publisher. Moreover, you can give your poets and artists encouragement to plan all aspects of the book themselves—cover design, page layout, page area, illustrations, decorative typefaces, and so forth. I feel that Island Press poets have been, on the whole, happy with their books (though one of Brandon Cavalier’s memorable ink drawings for Michael Witts’s Sirens got printed upside down, a fact not too many readers seemed to pick up).

Most of my other energies in running Island Press (aside from the continual chores of correspondence, order-filling, and account-keeping) have been devoted to running negotiations with two agencies: the Book Bounty Section of the Business and Consumer Affairs Department, which, up to the end of this year (1979), refunded one-third of the actual cost of production of any book in Australia, provided it fell within certain guidelines of length, print run, etc. Unfortunately, this bounty is now being phased out, and small presses will now find it harder and harder to survive. The other was the Literature Board of the Australia Council, formerly the Commonwealth (of Australia, that is) Literary Fund.

The Literature Board scarcely needs introduction here. Its function is to apportion allocated funds from federal revenue to poets and other writers so they can continue their labours without starving (even though, as has been known since Larkin, “no one actually starves”), and to publishers so they can continue the otherwise financially unrewarding job of publishing the above-mentioned Australian poets and writers. In the C.L.F. days, the tricky bit was getting onto the official list of approved publishers. Usually this meant showing proof that you were capable of producing books which would elicit some (preferably favourable) critical attention. In spite of a great deal of reluctance on the part of the C.L.F. to consider an Island Press application seriously, I got nowhere in four years. I had a strong ally in this struggle in Alec Hope, and I remain grateful to him for his support, which culminated in our recognition just prior to the death of the C.L.F. and the rise of the newly-created Literature Board (Australia Council).

Although my relations with the Board have at times been less than cordial, I nevertheless look upon its participation in Australian writing and publishing as a good thing. All correspondence with the Literature Board, along with all other Island Press letters, mss., printers’ proofs, and other papers, is now housed in the archives of the National Library of Australia.

So far I have written as though I had been mainly alone in my labours. This is not true. From the earliest I had the strong support of a number of friends, of whom the chief of these, may her name live forever, was Norma Crinion of Sydney. Norma, long a behind-the-scenes worker in Sydney’s “alternative” publishing scene, had secretarial and accounting experience, and was so enthusiastic over the inception of Island Press that she volunteered to become its full-time secretary, accountant, and public relations manager. Unpaid for any of this, she continued her work for five years, on two different periods handling all the business affairs of the Press for many months while I was overseas. I occasionally later used to come upon a carbon copy of some letter she had written to an enquiring customer or to one of our contributors. They are invariably full of warmth and wit, and often elicited paragraphs of appreciation from her correspondents in return. I can never thank her enough for her help and support during the early years.

Other friends aided during certain periods of the Press’s history. My old friend Robert Brakspear, colleagues Stephen Knight and Don Anderson, Ken Bolton and Anna Couani (who edited the Gallagher and the Hemensley books respectively) gave freely of their time and energies. Poet John Millett, a trained lawyer and accountant, was always available for legal and financial advice when it was needed. Encouragement has come from every quarter, including from my dog Jason, who was just a pup on the day I first printed, is still with me now, a printer’s devil of ten years’ standing.

I can hardly conclude this reminiscence without mentioning that band upon whose very existence Island Press has -depended for its survival—the poets, contributors of poems and of whole collections. In general, I think I have been lucky in hitting it off rather well with most poets in Australia, usually being an observer rather than a participant in the frequent feuds and other hostilities that characterise the scene, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. (The Canadian poet Margaret Atwood was told it was just a way Australian writers had of enjoying themselves.) That old war-dog, Roland Robinson, had bad feelings towards me, so I had been told for years by other poets who knew him. One day, at a function organised by Walter Stone in the city, I met Roland face to face for the first time and told him my name. He stared at me in amazement for about five seconds, then said in tones of deepest sincerity: “What a difference it makes to meet a person!” Other poets have shown bad feelings at not being “invited” to contribute to Poet’s Choice, even though the “invitation only” rule was dropped after 1975 when I stopped hand-setting. (In 1976 and 1977 I advertised nationally for poems, on the understanding that I would make the final choice of the “best” poems submitted. Since then, poems have reached me chiefly through word of mouth, or through the efforts of previous contributors.) Moreover, and this must always be the fate of any editor, I am continually being taken to task for my final selection for Poet’s Choice—one poet likes only poem A and rejects the rest of the book, another likes only poem B, and so forth. It seems pointless to suggest (particularly to another poet) that one is after something representative, some thing catholic even, as far as possible, something for everyone—and that any one reader will probably not warm to more than a few of the total chosen. Of all the poems in the ten editions of Poet’s Choice which have appeared since 1970, I have been entranced by only five or six at the most (Purely as a matter of record I could name David Campbell’s “Hotel Marine” (the complete version, which only we printed), Robert Adamson’s “Action would kill it/ A Gamble”, Roger McDonald’s “Incident in Transylvania”, Michael Dransfield’s “Saying Grace”, J. S. Harry’s “what if the big blue day”, and Judith Rodriguez’s “Eskimo Occasion”).The other poems were chosen for other readers, and just as no single one of them has been universally praised, so no single one of them, as far as I know, has been universally deprecated. Perhaps what has surprised critics most is the large proportion of “unknowns” being published for the first time, particularly in 1977 and after.

A detail from Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974.

A detail from Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974.

The poetry scene during the past 10 years in Australia has been particularly lively and exciting. The period of the birth and development of Island Press has paralleled such notable events as the launching of UQP’s Paper back Poets series, the opting-out of establishment publishers Angus & Robertson and others from all but the “safest” poets, the burgeoning of a plethora of small magazines and presses, and even the founding of a Poets’ Union. I also recall with pleasure such events as the annual Balmain Reading (a whole chapter could be written on this movable feast, first held in 1967 and going on to the early 70s) and innumerable other poetry readings —in the city, in the country, everywhere.

It occurs to me at times that the poet is undoubtedly reading the particular poem aloud for the first time ever, that the actual sound of the poem comes as a surprise, even to the poet. There is a widespread ignorance of the fact that the primary appeal of poetry is its sound. Poets growing up under the Olsen-Creeley-Duncan aegis of Australian verse in the mid-70s often tended to overlook this.

This might also seem an opportune time to unload a few remarks on the general divisiveness of poets. As an immigrant, a creature of another (and I think gentler) culture, I was spared much of this misplaced energy. At times, keeping track of the feuding and fighting, who was in and who was out, the Melbourne-Sydney axis, the various personal animosities (sometimes resulting in physical violence) called for more time and attention than I was able to give, particularly with my foot on the treadle and my hand in a type case. Consequently, while I was often the last to find out about such things, I was also pretty safe from direct attack. At one stage I remember gazing at some passing clouds (we were meeting on a lawn) and praying to be delivered from the poets of Australia. I pictured myself lying in a small boat five miles offshore. Who anywhere else but here could have the slightest interest in these people and their problems?

In the second half of the 70s we have witnessed an ever-increasing willingness, on the part of Australian poets, to ape all that is supposedly trendy and fashionable overseas. More and more, “overseas” comes to mean the United States, and, even then, only selected pockets of that vast and polyglot population. The rise to importance, in the Australian poetic consciousness, of any particular American poet will almost certainly be the result of a British publisher’s decision to distribute this American poet in the UK and the old Commonwealth (including Australia). In this way, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan came to light here only after London publishers had already “pipped” them. The recent rise of the late Frank O’Hara and the New York/ Bolinas school of the 50s and 60s as a supposedly viable inspiration for the 70s in Australia (the time lag is expectable) may be attributed to the same process. I complained to Phil Hammial (by birth an American) about this recent trend. “Did you ever look at Francis Webb?” he asked. “Pure Hart Crane.”

My interest as a publisher has always been in the poem, not the poet, in the continual search for that so-rare piece of work that makes you see the world, or a part of it, in a radically new way. Without the actual, tangible success, the birth of some real poem, the words “poetry” and “poet” are like clapperless bells. The publisher’s staying power is directly proportional to his optimism and faith that new work of power and originality will con tinue to be written. His object is to bring that work to its readers as efficiently and effectively as possible. A perfect poem with no readers, like Waller’s rose, is of small worth. Bestowing the regularity of print upon it, like putting a frame around a painting, shows that it is at least to be taken seriously.

– Philip Roberts 1979

————————————————————————————————-

Canadian Philip Roberts studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, taught English in Spain and worked for two years as a sub-editor for Reuters. He moved to Australia in 1967, taught English at the University of Sydney between 1967 and 1979, when he returned to Canada. Roberts was poetry editor for the Sydney Morning Herald from 1970 to 1974. Roberts founded Island Press in 1970.

Reviews of Island Press books on Rochford Street Review:

The Island Press Co-operative website can be found at  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

Donate Ad2

Rochford Street Review Previews the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival

Sydney-Writers-Festival-logoIt looks like being a busy month in Sydney with the Sydney Writers’ Festival officially kicking off next Tuesday with Mohsin Hamid’s Opening Address, followed by the Sydney Film Festival which opens with Ruben Guthrie on 3 June (http://www.sff.org.au/).

There is something of a tradition in the weeks leading up to these festivals for various people and organisations to make their selections/predictions on what will be the”must see events of the festival. As we don’t want to be left out, Rochford Street Review has decided to join this tradition and make our selection of the “must see” events of the festivals. Today we start with the Sydney Writers’ Festival and next week we will cover the Sydney Film Festival.

While the SWF doesn’t officially kick off until next week a number of events have crept outside of the official festival time frame of 18 to 24 May. One of the highlights, for example, took place on 1 May when former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was ‘in conversation’ with Jamila Rizvi. Editor in Chief of the Mamamia Women’s Network websites,  on the theme of “Standing for Something (Standing for Something – the raison d’etre of Julia Gillard: Linda Adair & Lucinda Adair-Roberts reflect on a conversation). This was followed on 8 May by another sold out event – James Patterson on The Rise and Rise of the World’s Biggest Author.

This weekend Rochford Street Review will be heading up to the mountains to Varuna, The National Writers House in Katoomba for a weekend of events leading into Festival week. We are looking forward to Whispering Trees, which is described as an “atmospheric sound installation created by local artists Solange Kershaw and Damian Castaldi in collaboration with local poets Mark O’Flynn, Vanessa Kirkpatrick, Emma Brazil and Craig Billingham, and micro fiction author Amanda Kaye”. The installation is set in Varuna’s gardens and we will be checking the weekend weather forecasts with fingers crossed. At 2pm on 16th there is a session where the poets and sound artists who took part in the installation will discuss the work and the process which brought it together.

Staying at Varuna, Sunday afternoon sees the storytellers of Yamakarra! take centre stage with a discussion about their history followed by the telling of their stories. Yamakarra! is built on the memories of Liza Kennedy (1902-1996) and it celebrates a group of Aboriginal people whose country lies between Cobar and Ivanhoe in far western NSW. Lack of water in this region meant that the grazing industry did not take hold until the second half of the 19th century, so Aunty Liza (Liza Kennedy) grew up with people who had been born before that industry took over their country. Full details of SWF activities in Katoomba are available from http://www.varuna.com.au/varuna/index.php/varuna-sydney-writers-festival.

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid

The next entry in our diary is Mohsin Hamid’s Opening Address ‘Life in the Time of Permawar’ on 19th May (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay). Hamid, who is the author of three novels, Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, as well as a book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations, will speak on how do we live in era of growing uncertainty and incessant conflict and what role does fiction play in such a world.

While there is amazing line up of international writers at this year’s festival, we will, for the most part, be concentrating on the local talent. In particular we are looking forward to:

  • Daniel Mendelsohn and David Malouf in Writers on Writers: Malouf and Mendelsohn on the Classics –  American memoirist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn and Australian writer and poet David Malouf discuss their appreciation for the classics. Malouf’s novel Ransom is an elegant riff on the Iliad, and was described as ‘profound and successful’ by Mendelsohn in The New Yorker. Mendelsohn’s newest book is an intimate portrait of him and his father as they follow in the footsteps of Homer’s Odyssey. They will both consider on why ancient narratives hold such power today. Thursday 21 May. 11.30am. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.
  • Kate Grenville: One Life. In conversation with Tegan Bennett Daylight. Grenville’s latest book is based on fragments of memoirs left by her mother. One Life is a daughter’s intimate account of a mother who mixed ambition with domesticity at a time of great change for women. Thursday 21 May. 1.30pm. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.
  • Helen Garner: How Can We Write About Darkness? Garner will share a few of the many sources that have inspired her non-fiction writing, from crime-scene photo archives to the poetry of Charles Reznikoff and the writings of Janet Malcolm. She will talk to Cath Keenan following the talk. Thursday 21 May. 8.30pm. City Recital Hall.
  • Writing Family: Kate Grenville, Romona Koval and Barrie Cassidy. Caroline Overington talks to three Australian writers about the delicacies, drawbacks and rewards of writing about family. Friday 22 May. 11.30pm. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.
  • Give Me Back My Mother’s Heart a performance of Aborignal Poetry featuring Ali Cobby Eckermann (Aboriginal Writers Retreat) with Lionel Fogarty, Maggie Walsh, Ken Canning, Lorna Munro, Elizabeth Wymarra and the Redfern Writers Group. Saturday May 23 Wharf Theatre 2, Walsh Bay 11.30am

one lifeAlso on the agenda will be the MCA Zine Fair which will run from Friday 22 May 5pm through to Sunday 24 at 4.30pm at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

In addition to the central Sydney locations there are a range of activities and workshops across Sydney from Auburn to Sutherland. A highlight for anyone interested in writing and publishing poetry would have to be  ‘Get Your Poetry Up and Out There’ at Parramatta Artists Studios, Level Two, 68 Macquarie St, Parramatta on Thursday 21 May. This panel discussion is designed to cover all the ways of getting your poetry noticed from magazine and book publishing to performing, blogging and YouTubing and features Elizabeth Allen (Vagabond Press), Fiona Wright (Giramondo Publishing), Michelle Cahill (Mascara Literary Review) and Ahmad Al Rady (Bankstown Poetry Slam).

For complete details on the festival go to the official website http://www.swf.org.au/. Rochford Street Review would be interested to get your views on festival events – feel free to connect with us on Twitter or Facebook or email your comments to us  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/contact-rochford-street-review/

-Mark Roberts

——————————————————————————————————-

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is currently editor of Rochford Street Review and is Poetry Editor for Social Alternatives journal.

Rochford Street Review is anxious to cover writing, film and cultural festivals across Ausatralia and internationally. If you are involved in running a festival pleasemake sure we are on your publicity list and get in contact https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/contact-rochford-street-review/

subscriber01

Savouring the Undertow: Mark Roberts reviews ‘Body Language’ by Elizabeth Allen

Body Language by Elizabeth Allen. Vagabond Press 2012

I have been carrying Elizabeth Allen’s first major collection, Body Language, around with me for a number of months. After you have been reviewing for a while you expect to be able to make a decision of a book on a first reading – you can usually make a call on what the direction the review will go in. This was not the case with Body Language. That is not to say I disliked the collection on a first read – far from it. It is that the collection asked a number of questions, opened up a number of possibilities that needed to be explored before I could set pen to paper (or fingers to keys).

One of my first reactions was that I felt there was a ‘confessional’ tone to the collection. This was probably driven by Allen’s use of the first person, the ‘I’, in many poems – and at times it is a very personal I:

I am weaving my life
though all these other lives,

Leaving

It is an ‘I’ that made me recall Plath and Sexton and sent me to my bookshelf to reread them in the context of Body Language. And so I carried Body Language with me for another week as I dipped into it Ariel and The Awful Rowing Toward God.

Allen is no Plath or Sexton (which is probably a good thing for her poetry). While there is a confessional edge to this collection it is, in the end, understated and assists in her analysis of her identity as a poet and her analysis of her relationship with those around her. This analysis is a detailed one and one which she hints at by her choice of a David Malouf quote at the beginning of the collection:

The place you come from is always the most exotic place
you’ll ever encounter because it is the only place where
you recognise how many secrets and mysteries there are in
people’s lives

Allen has perhaps given us a key here – the personal, confessional nature of much of the poetry in Body Language is, in fact, outward looking. Her analysis then is not as deeply personal as it might first appear. At its best her poetry reaches beyond the personal to the social, to the lives that surround her:

You are reminded again of how many people there are,
how strange a collision of factors determines what we are,
how small this corner of consciousness you keep defending
with each breath.

At Winton

This poem opens the collection and raises many of the issues that are explored throughout the book. At Winton is written, for the most part, in the second person

Here your body learns the seasons.
She brings you a home-grown pear, slightly bruised.

While there is nothing earth breaking here in the use of the second person in this poem, there is a hint of a little more ambiguity than one expect. Allen’s ‘you’’ is an external observation of the ‘I’, in the context of the collection the ‘you’ is the poet, standing outside of herself, observing, analysising. Suddenly, however,  listening to the sound the car engine makes labouring up a hill there is a brief shift:

Underneath the engine runs a clichéd tune:
I miss you I miss you I miss you

The next line moves back to the second person but the intrusion of the ‘I’ in this line centres the poem. This sense of loss – for a relationship, a lover or perhaps a death – provides the driver for the poem, and makes the use of the second person so successful.

This combination of seemingly simple descriptions of everyday events with this undercurrent of loss runs through much of the poems in Body Language. In ‘Venice’, for example, it is death that cuts through the everyday:

the internet-café-man
lectures about coyotes in Australia
and how one jumped his brother’s fence
snakes
wildlife
the latest kind of mac

We soon sense the undercurrent draining any humour from the opening lines:

the cold drips
into me
like acid rain

Until we learn the reason:

his death has arrived in an email
sent over a week ago

Once again we are not sure whose death – it is enough that there has been a death, a loss felt more keenly due to distance and time.

While ‘Venice’ approaches death slowly, only announcing its presence in the last third of the poem, in other poems it is far more central. ‘Forgetful hands’ opens with a funeral:

Eyes watch your coffin
through delicate patterns

of fire and ash,

But the public sense of loss retreats as the mourners disperse from the funeral. While neighbours might bring food:

After weeks it is just the three of us
with strange food to eat.

Forgetful hands
still set a place for you at the table.

The strength of this poem is perhaps its understatement. It is full of simple descriptions of everyday things – a funeral, scuffed shoes, a family meal, worn stairs – but Allen builds an intensity of feeling which sustains the poem.

While not all the poems in Body Language deal with death or loss, I did feel that these poems did underpin the success of the collection.There are other poems in this collection which stand out -‘Bent Street, interior’ for example details two people moving around a house. ‘She’ inhabits the first stanza, ‘he’ inhabits the second. There is no connection between them apart form the fact they inhabit the same space – so perhaps there is, even here, a sense of a future loss.

When thinking about Allen’s poetry I keep returning to the term ‘understated’. At her best, however, there is an intensity to her understatement which creeps up on the reader – a loss is hinted at, but the everyday continues for a little longer, or there is an edge to a description that makes you wonder what lies below the surface. This is probably why I carried Body Language around with me for so long – to savour that undertow and wonder at the possibilities.

– Mark Roberts

________________________________________________________________

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine.

Body language is available from http://vagabondpress.net/collections/poetry/products/elizabeth-allen-body-language

 

 

           

Carol Novack – A life remembered. Tributes from John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones

Carol Novack, ca. 1974 / 1975, Adelaide, Australia (photo: Terry Bennett). Source Mad Hatters' Review

Carol Novack, writer, poet, editor and luminary publisher of the alternative and edgy Mad Hatters’ Review, MadHat Press and the MadHat Arts Foundation,  died on 29 December last year. Although she was born in the USA, and spent much of her life there, she spent a number of years in Australia during the 1970’s and made a major contribution to the development of Australian poetry during those years. During these years she worked as an editor for the Cosmopolitan, and began publishing her poetry.  Makar Press published her collection, Living Alone Without a Dictionary, as part of the Gargoyle Poets Series in 1974, and her work was included in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets.  She was the recipient of an Australian Council of the Arts writer’s grant. She left Australia in 1977.

After a traveling in India and Europe, Carol returned to New York City where she completed a law degree. As an attorney, she worked first in the Criminal Appeals Bureau of the New York Legal Aid Society and later as a solo practitioner, championing the causes of artists and the underprivileged.

She went on to receive her master’s degree in social work (community organizing), and teach lyrical fiction writing at The Women’s Studio Center in NYC, returning to the serious pursuit of her own writing in 2004.  “The muse just suddenly reared her jerky head again,” she said.

From the mid-2000s, she began publishing her gender-bending hybrid metafiction— “her little aliens,” as she called them—in many journals and anthologies, including: American Letters & Commentaries, Exquisite Corpse, La Petite Zine, LIT, Missippi Review, Notre Dame Review and Caketrain.

In 2005 she founded the Mad Hatters’ Review, one of the first online journals with a true multimedia approach, marrying literature, film, art and music in an annual collage of some of the most explosive arts on the web.“

Carol curated the successful Mad Hatters’ Review reading series at KGB Bar in New York, and performed herself at many venues in New York City and elsewhere.  After re-settling in Asheville, North Carolina in 2010, she began a new reading series at The Black College Museum & Arts Center and founded a non-profit arts organization, MadHat, Inc., which now includes the Review; MadHat Press, a print publisher; and an artist’s retreat at her mountain home in Asheville.

Before her death,  Carol was working several new projects, including the novella Felicia’s Nose, in collaboration with Tom Bradley.  Both Felicia’s Nose and a collection of  Carol’s shorter works are anticipated for publication in the near future.

Thanks to Marc Vincenz for allow Rochford Street Review to run an edited version of his tribute to Carol which was original posted on Mad Hatters’ Blog on January 5 2012

Carol’s impact on Australian poetry can be measured by the number of moving tributes posted on the Mad Hatter Review following her death. John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones have given Rochford Street Review permission to republish their tributes.

Tribute to Carol Novack by John Jenkins

I first met Carol Novack in 1974 in Melbourne, at a literary party hosted by Meanjin magazine, an Australian literary institution published by Melbourne University. The new editor wanted to refresh and revitalize it by including new talent and directions. I had recently had a short story published, and was introduced to Carol by the novelist, Finola Morehead.

I remember leaning beside a settee, drinks poised; people chatting intelligently around us, as Carol and I hit it off from the first word: the attraction immediate and mutual, our conversation bright and animated. I was delighted by Carol’s effortless style: her quick intelligence, zany humor and ready smile. She was indeed a New Yorker and pure oxygen to me. Her urbanity was polished and real, yet refreshingly free of anything po-faced or ponderous. Indeed, there was always a hint of something wicked and unexpected: together with an infectious relish and enjoyment of people, life, conversation, everything.

She was on a visit to Melbourne, down from Sydney for just a few days. So I invited her to dinner, to discover if the attraction wasn’t something I had imagined, or just the sort from a wine glass. A few days later, we agreed that I should accompany Carol back to Sydney. Everything was moving very fast: but such throw-the-dice impulsiveness was often the badge of our relationship.

We set off in my old car, which nearly ended the story at the very start. At one point, I became fatigued, and asked Carol to take the wheel. She readily agreed, then struck something on the next bend. We ended flying through space and emerged, somehow, by the side of the road, as my car span slowly around on its roof in the middle of the highway, and a truck blared down upon us. The world might have stopped shunting into eerie slow motion by then, but—miraculously—neither of us was hurt.

We just sat by the roadside, wide-eyed, in utter disbelief to still be alive. It seemed we sat there forever, and might still be there today, but it was really only minutes. There was a pub nearby, with a tow truck parked outside. Almost casually, as if it happened every day—and maybe it did—the tow truck driver put up some barriers, righted our car and towed it back to his workshop somewhere. ‘It’s a total right-off mate’, he said, ‘but I won’t charge you if you let me strip it down for parts.’ I agreed, and the driver of the truck that nearly ran us down offered us a lift to Sydney.

Carol had been living in the palmy suburb of Woollahra, in a comfortable house she co-rented with the poet Joanne Burns, but the lease was almost up, so Carol and I moved into a small and comfortable place not far away, in the fashionable suburb of Paddington. We lived together there for about a year, and Carol told me how she came to Australia. Apparently, not long before we met, she had married an Australian academic in New York. Her husband then took a senior post at an Australian university. Carol said he was a terrific person, but she soon realised the path marriage paved for her was not the one she really, ultimately, wanted. The domestic life of housewife was not to be her destiny. She was much more artistically inclined; and very adventurous: so had parted from her husband after mutual agreement.

Our life together in Paddington was certainly never dull, as it happened, and not very domestic either. There were many parties, which we either hosted or attended; ferry voyages around Sydney harbor to meet poets and writers; always lively discussions of art, politics and writing – and it was sometimes hard to say whether the arguments or agreements were the more heated. A heady round of restaurant and café meetings where the wine and conversation flowed freely, and spirits were often high. Generally, the mid to late ‘70s were sunny and exciting years in Sydney literary life. Even when we moved from Paddington, after finding lower-rent places in down-market Ultimo then Glebe, the excitement continued.

We met, and often socialized and partied with, some of the most talented and interesting people connected with poetry and writing of those years: Frank Moorhouse, Joanne Burns, Michael Wilding, Rae Desmond Jones, Ken Bolton, Pat Woolley, David Malouf, Bob Adamson, Clive Evatt, Nigel Roberts, Anna Couani, Dorothy Porter, Kerry Leves, Bruce Beaver, Dorothy Hewett, Merv Lilley, Rudi Krausmann, John Tranter, Mike Parr, Dave Marsh, Vicki Viidikas, Dennis Gallagher, Laurie Duggan, Alex Danko…far too many to list here…but collectively creating an effervescent milieu both absorbing and upbeat.

Of course, Carol and I had also to earn a living. This proved relatively easy for Carol, who had always been an academic high-achiever, and proved an equally fast learner when moving from one profession to another. Her research skills were considerable, and she put them to work for Lachlan Vintage Village, a re-created historical attraction in Forbes, New South Wales, built according to historically accurate specifications Carol supplied to the architects. Meanwhile, I worked as a book distributor; before we somehow hit on the idea of writing (or sometimes co-writing) articles for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Cosmo liked Carol so much, they happily hired her, as staff writer and sub-editor; and she then arranged full-time work for me in the mag’s umbrella company, Sungravure, which had a big stable of magazines; and was further owned by the Fairfax group of magazine, newspaper and radio media. And this, effectively, is how we both entered well-paid commercial journalism. In parallel with this, we both continued writing poems, articles, stories and whatever took our fancy.

I remain forever grateful to Carol for opening this new career door for me, as I was rather directionless at the time, never quite knowing how to balance means and ends, or make the latter meet. It was only in the last few months of our time together, that things got really rocky. One of Carol’s favorite movies was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and we would sometimes have hilarious mock arguments in a parody style of Albee’s famous play. But it was sometimes too real, too close to the bone; such as one night Carol’s dramatic finale was to throw all my clothes out a second-storey window, down into the street. No doubt I had committed some misdemeanor or other, and thoroughly deserved it. I was often ‘a handful’, and emotionally unpredictable. Such as the night I splashed Vodka over dumbstruck friends, while staggering into an incoherent and feverish tirade against the world, with Carol chuckling wildly to one side.

Eventually, we decided neither of us was ready to settle down, into even a casually de-facto version of married life, as we both had wild oats to sow, if not so carefully nurture or cultivate. Besides this, I wanted to travel to Indonesia, while Carol began longing for family, and familiarity, in New York. Eventually, we sat down together, and after a long, sober and rather melancholy conversation, agreed to part; but it was in a spirit of true friendship, and without bitterness.

Carol always had a wonderful sense of humor. She was also naturally kind-hearted and had a great capacity for joy and happiness. She was generous to a fault, both in spirit and materially when people needed help. Though always a ‘straight talker’, very frank and to the point when she needed to be, she was also a fiercely loyal friend. Once she liked and trusted you, you were there for life. All these fine qualities in her nature, and many more beyond listing here, were always evident to me, as they were to all who knew her well. And Carol had a talent for attracting friends to her warm and generous and outgoing nature, which always illuminated her wonderfully buoyant and creative life.

I saw Carol on two occasions after we had split up, and she had returned to New York. The first time was at her West 13th Street apartment in New York, when Carol introduced me to her (decidedly zany) friends, then took me around town to see the sights. At that time Carol was a member of ‘The Party Line’: nothing political, but a group of amusing ‘party animals’, who rang each other to pass on addresses of the best gigs in town.

I went along for the ride, ending up at a ‘do’ thrown by novelist Joseph Heller, at the swank Four Seasons Hotel; and another bash for friends of Lou Reed in some ratty, black-painted room downtown where the amplified sound of smashing bottles rang from the walls as one-time Velvet Underground singer Nico wailed into a frenzied, feeding-back microphone.

The very last time I saw Carol was in Ireland, in 2004. A quiet meeting. We both happened to be in Dublin at the time, and our paths crossed almost by chance. It was a happy reunion; and we took a coach tour, on a rare sunny day in Ireland, to some interesting historical sites. We were clearly both older and wiser by then, and spent a gentle afternoon reminiscing about good times and bad, about what had come to both of us, and friends past and present. Carol studied Asian culture, and even spoke a little Mandarin. She often quoted one of her favorite poems, I think it was by the Chinese poet Ouyang Xiu: ‘Life is best like a drunk falling off the back of a wagon, who rolls to the roadside, and by chance sees only the star-filled sky.’ I can’t remember the exact quote, but this might be close: and I always think of it when I think of Carol.

—John Jenkins, Melbourne, Jan 2012

Memories of Carol Novack – Rae Desmond Jones

I set eyes on Carol Novack one warm evening late in 1972. My first chapbook had been published, and I was invited to read at a forthcoming Adelaide Festival of Arts. I had never read out loud before, and needed practice. This took place in a semi derelict Protestant Church in one of Sydney’s less desirable suburbs (things have changed). I was sitting in the front pew shuffling poems when a striking woman draped in flowing clothes with long raven hair walked onto the stage and began to read. Her poem was a tapestry of chthonian images, showers of light and darkness.

Our friendship proved deep and enduring. Through 1976 she shared a small white terrace house near Bondi Junction with the poet Joanne Burns, where the conversation and the wine flowed well into the early hours. The house was a vibrant centre of literary and cultural ferment. Carol loved the company of poets and artists and frequently encouraged others before fully developing her own considerable talent. The late poet Vicki Viidikas heard her read in a small studio and asked her pointedly why she had not written and published more of her truly astonishing poems. Carol was unable to respond, a rare event.

Carol had courage. After she returned to the United States she contacted me from New York. On 9/11 I phoned her. She was calm and controlled, despite ash and dust and smoke in the air. She also was able to know and accept individual weaknesses and failings with humour and sensitivity. Once you were Carol’s friend, it was for life. This may have been linked with her literary gift, in which she examined and sought to reconcile her own complexity and ambiguities. Like her personality, her writing is complex and demanding: it lives.

– Rae Desmond Jones, Sydney, 2012

Other tributes from Australian writers have also been published on the Mad Hatters’ Review Blog:

Link to Mad Hatters' Blog

Link to Mad Hatters' Review