Island Press: the Story Continues

island logo

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.
.

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). 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

subscriber01

“There is history, but it won’t tell”: Rae Desmond Jones Launches Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) by Les Wicks

Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) by Les Wicks, Puncher & Wattman, 2013 was launched at the Friend in Hand Hotel Glebe on 22nd June this year. Rae Desmond Jones wrote the speech but as he was unwell it was delivered by David Musgrave.

Photo by Susan Adams

Les Wicks – Photo by Susan Adams

I have never before been asked to launch a volume. It is an honour because of the nature and quality of the volume and the long ongoing creative relationship I can claim with the author. I also deeply regret not being able to deliver the address in person, and would gladly forego the ease and attention of a sickbed to attend, simply to support the author, one of the most generous and selfless supporters of the cause of poetry in this country.

Be that as it may, this occasion is about Les, or more specifically the achievement of his book. Les’ poems are demanding, and don’t reveal their intricate layers on a first reading. Even the simpler poems are dense with imagery so that they require a second and even a third reading, but the effort is well worthwhile. For example, the first poem in the book is conversational and superficially casual in tone:

Girilan

This dozen amused tourists
surround a dead dragon on the sand.

Its last ferocity
is the stench that armours each ending.
Already delicate fins are trimmed to lace
by the scission of crabs.

Beneath a corona of flies
spirit is urged to shuck flesh.

Harp of teeth
reach out to voice.
A roadmap of spine leads to the spume.

Hygienically cleansed
under flash-bulb asepticism.

Any shift in the tide will send this
crashing to the tale.
There is history,
but it won’t tell.

Each line in this casual sounding poem contains an image of great weight, with the possible exception of the first, which sets the scene of the dozen tourists: however they are amused. One interpretation of the deep seriousness of the rest of the poem is that it is a comment on this amusement. It is a dead dragon, a warrior … ferocious, when alive. I check out dragon: the biblical reference is to “a large serpent, a crocodile, a great marine animal, or a jackal” then “A name for Satan”. Immediately the image of the great whale in Moby Dick arises … “Hygienically cleaned / under flash bulb asepticism”, free from the living germs of disease, fungus or putrefaction. But what is being described but a process of putrefaction? It is the flash bulbs of the ‘amused’ tourists that are censoring the process of death, & the dignity of this great animal. When looked at with this level of detail, this poem yields up much more than the casual tone would suggest. Then there is history … but the real great whale, not entirely distinct from Herman Melville’s prophetic version, isn’t history. At least, not yet.

The contrasts and conjunctions between animals, the environment and the human mind & body is a recurring theme through these poems. In ‘Tuart’,

It is said elephants & crows share
This knowledge of death it
Is the crown of our intellect
“Things are happening” are all
In slow resolve.

In launching these poems, I can think of no better tactic than allow the poetry to speak for itself. It does this so excellently that it makes any speech focused on the halcyon days of the poets union in 1978 or a long friendship seem facile. This poetry is serious and addresses significant issues that should be of concern to all of us. Underlying issues which appear regularly on the news or in the papers which are too often described in terms of party politics and sectional self-interest are described in this poetry with unflinching moral courage:

Only humans play all their years, biologists think maybe
something about efficiency.
Do we take to the air
while refusing to look beneath?

‘Tuart’

Sea Of Heartbeak is determined to take the reader on a dive beneath. It took me on a voyage which I found bracing and stimulating at the same time as it did not turn away from the discomforting reality of the costs our lives inflict on our futures.

What I have said so far does not do justice to the other aspects of this volume. Just in case some of you may be thinking that to read this volume is to be immersed in some of the more obscure philosophy of Mr. Heidegger, Les Wicks also has a lively and irreverent sense of humour on display. He indulges in some lighter relief with a series of aphorisms under the tongue in cheek title of “Secret Saids (everything I know)” where he displays his gift for whimsy:

“people in glass houses enjoy the view.” (pause)

“Britney’s sister is gluttony.” (I won’t repeat this one to my daughter)

“Love hurts but it can be cured” (How, I ask… don’t torment me Les. Tell me the secret…

“Hair is the window of the brain..” (where are the curtains?)

“Sex would never reach minimum / occupational health and safety standards.” (Nor should it. The human race would die of boredom…)

There is also a poem I must mention, not only because it is a poem around my hometown, Broken Hill. It is an area where the environment and colour attracts painters and film makers but not often poets, but it is attractive to Les Wicks. In ‘Aeolus at the Mulga’:

The desert wind wears a blunt dust
Cantankerous yap
lifts sheetmetal
from the deaths
of the snub nosed Silverton buses all
cut like raw opal
pressed into a humiliating servitude
windbreaks for camels.
Punctuation of crows
affixed on air.

The description of wind lifting the iron is something familiar which Les has caught in a way that is unexpected for anyone who has not grown up with it. The old buses I rode in as a schoolboy are now dumped to rust in a paddock on the border of the town where Les has spent some time as a writer in residence, and he catches the pathos of those ancient clapped out machines perfectly.

Les’ tone is terse and he concentrates a complex web of simple seeming words, through narratives that are complex and demand intense concentration. Links and breaks between images, puns and dual meanings demand close attentive reading. The way he solders each image to the last brings to mind the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. It is my business to launch this excellent volume, not to review it: I recommend it and declare this volume duly launched.

– Rae Desmond Jones

——————————————————————————————————-

Rae Desmond Jones is a major Australian poet. His first book was Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973.  His Selected Poems has just been published from Grand Parade Poets and was launched by Kit Kelen in August . He is also the editor of The Selected Your Friendly Fascist (Rochford Street Press) 2012.

Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/sea-of-heartbeak

I say AU, you say UA…..Mark Roberts reviews ‘AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia / Сучасна поезія України та Австралії’

AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia / Сучасна поезія України та Австралії  Edited by Les Wicks, Yury Zavadsky and Grigory Semenchuk. Published as ebook by Krok (Ternopil, Ukraine) in association with Meuse Press (Sydney, Australia). 2011.

Yury Zavadsky one of the editors of AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia

The past few months have not been the best time to release an anthology of poetry in Australia – that is if you want to get some mainstream attention in the literary press. That large anthology by Gray and Lehmann seems to have been sucking up all the reviews and interviews and not leaving much oxygen for anyone else. But things have been happening under the radar. One of the most interesting being the publication of an ebook anthology of contemporary poetry from Australia and the Ukraine. While the Gray/Lehmann anthology is bending bookcases in Libraries and bookshops this collection of Australian and Ukraine poets exists as a free downloadable ebook.

So why an anthology of contemporary Ukrainian and Australian poetry and why now? Unfortunately we don’t learn very much about the reasons why this anthology was put together. We have a list of editors (Les Wicks, Yury Zavadsky and Grigory Semenchuk), and a brief statement “UA/AU is an invitation to explore the contemporary poetries of the Ukraine and Australia”. I would have liked a little more information from the editors, an introduction for example, setting out how the connection between poets in the Ukraine and Australia came about, how the poets and poems were selected, a little background on the state of poetry in both countries and what the future might hold.

So we are left with the actual poems. Each poet, in both the Australian and Ukrainian section, is given a single poem – presented first in the original language and then in translation. While a single poem isn’t enough to get a sense of a poets’ work, it does allow the anthology to present a wider range of poetic styles from each country without creating a book of overwhelming proportions,

For an Australian reader the poets in the AU section are familiar names – Judith Beveridge, Susan Bradley-Smith, Pam Brown, Joanne Burns, Michelle Cahill, Michael Farrell, Phillip Hammial, Susan Hampton, Andy Jackson, Jill Jones, Christpopher Kelen, Cath Kenneally, Karen Knight, Mike Ladd, Anthony Lawrence, Myron Lysenko, Chris Mansell, Peter Minter, David Musgrave and Les Wicks.

But the importance of this anthology is that it makes us move out of our poetic comfort zone. For an Australian reader that means becoming acquainted with the Ukrainian poets and poems. But, as with any translation, it is not just the poets and poems, for the role of the translator is made very clear in this anthology. For example, in the translation of Pavlo Hirnyk’s ‘It Dawns, It Leaks, Its Light…’ (translation by Yury Zavadsky and Les Wicks) there is a very strong rhythm and rhyme:

Aloft the darken raven flies,

The colding home beyond my way.

The tiny tear imbibed by eyes –

My tired family in wait.

Without being able to read the original poem it is difficult to fully appreciate how much of this English poem is in the original and how much it depends on the translation. For instance, in order to maintain the rhyme has the meaning of the poem changed in a subtle way.? Was there another English word that would have conveyed the meaning of the original poem better, but would have broken the rhyme? For most of the readers of this anthology these are questions which we cannot answer.

Sometimes, however, a poem seemingly transcends the translation. In Yuri Andrukhovych’s ‘And Everybody Fucks You’ (translated by Sarah Luczaj), it is possible to forget that this is a translation:

A hundred bucks a month – I thought to myself.

And everybody fucks you.

Is it a plus or a minus, how to understand it? I wondered.

And it what sense, I thought to myself, in the literal

or maybe the metaphorical?

There are probably a number of reasons why this poem ‘works’ in the context of this anthology. It maybe that the orignal poem is written a style familiar to Australian readers, influenced by the same poets and poems that many Australian poets and poems have been. Or maybe the translator has found that fine balance between being honest to the original and creating a poem which stands in its own right.

Other Ukrainian poems which stand out in this anthology include Myhailo Hryhoriv’s ‘Renegrade Blizzards’ (translated by Yury Zavadsky, Les Wicks, Catalina Girona and Andrii Antonovskyi) and Victor Neborak’s ‘The Writer’ (translated by Mark Andryczk).

Iryna Shuvalova’s “You Are Black as Winter” (translated by Michael M. Naydan) is a particularly striking poem. It’s opening seems almost familiar and probably wouldn’t look out of place in an Australian literary journal:

…..you are black as winter

your palms shut

you clenched your treasure

of unspent lives

and angels rush

in the air –

In the end AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia is more of an appertiser than a main course. While most Australian readers will feel comfortable with the choice of Australian poems, I couldn’t help but feel that the anthology would have been more successful if there was a little more context to the poems. After reading the Ukrainian poems, for example, I would have liked to have been able to understand a little more about where these poems came from. Questions such as how has poetry in the Ukraine changed since the fall of the Soviet Union would seem to be an obvious starting point. I’m sure Ukrainian readers of the Australian poems would have similar questions about how Australian poetry has developed over recent decades.

In the final instance the value of this anthology is an introduction to poets and poems that many of us would not have come across before. In the long term its success will be measured by how many readers make the effort to chase down other translated poems by some the poets they first discovered in AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia.

AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia. can be downloaded freely at:

_______________________________________________________________________

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