“Getting Excited by the Writing & Wanting More of It”: Ralph Wessman recalls 25 years as editor and publisher of ‘famous reporter’.

Shortly before the launch of famous reporter 43 in late May I asked Ralph Wessman, the founder and long time editor of the magazine, for some background information on the magazine. At the time my intention was to include this in a review of the final issue of famous reporter that he was going edit (the very final issue, No. 44, will be edited by Michael Sharkey and Dael Allison). What he sent me, however, was a detailed personal account of the history of famous reporter. In my view it would be a crime not to publish his account in full – so here (with a few minor edits) is Ralph Wessman on the 25 years he has spent publishing and editing the famous reporter…..

The cover of issue 1 of the famous reporter.

I remember a conversation with Philip Mead some years ago where I tried to explain to him that my magazine was like an extension of myself – like being blessed with another arm if you want to put it in a physical context though that’s not what I meant – and Philip nodded in agreement and more importantly, understanding. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised but I’d forgotten at the time that Philip had been an editor himself – of Meanjin.

At other times I used to say that with my magazine I’d found a place to park my head.

The beginning

I had no idea what I was doing when I began The Famous Reporter, although I’d taken a small publishing step with a small newsletter distributed free throughout St Kilda – St Kilda Beat – for three years. Then a friend established a literary journal, On the Off Beat, a magazine of women’s short stories. The editor had the advantage of working with a printer, so it was a case of satisfying an aesthetic urge while on the job. I liked the results, I was both interested, and encouraged, I have to admit, to have a go at it too.

So I did …and began with my ex wife a short story magazine. In 1986 I sent off letters to writing groups and universities around the country seeking material and early in 1987 we had enough material for an issue that we typed up on our old typewriter at home. Ambitious, we had no idea of the practicalities of producing a magazine.

We had problems finding a name, famous reporter as a name doesn’t do much for me these days but it’s too late to change it. Shane McCauley – a West Australian poet I’m in touch with – once said that he didn’t bother submitting to famous reporter for years and years because he was under the impression it was a magazine publishing material in the crime genre.

We began by publishing 500 copies for the first couple of issues; I guess a lack of knowledge is a dangerous thing, offset by possibility of making the thing work. I’ve never sold 500 copies of an issue of famous reporter, a couple of hundred copies is the norm.

Issue 2.

I had little knowledge of Australian literature other than as a general reader, so for the first three issues the magazine we published only short stories. It wasn’t until the fourth issue that we began experimenting with other material – in that issue there were not one but three interviews – with John Tranter (http://www.the-write-stuff.com.au/archives/vol-8/tranter.html), Mary Blackwood (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR4Blackwood.html) and Georgia Savage (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR4Savage.html). Issue five saw a further three interviews this time with Hilarie Lindsay, Chris Mansell (http://walleahpress.com.au/Int-Mansell.html) and Garry Disher (http://walleahpress.com.au/Int-Disher.html). Issue 5 also contained the first couple of poems appeared in the magazine, the first by Sue Moss (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR5Moss.html), something I’d heard her reading in at an event Battery Point & the first piece of poetry I actively sought out. ‘I’ve’ dined out on that story’, Sue’s told me since. The other came courtesy of a wonderful public talk that Libby Hathorn gave in 1990 which she allowed me to use – and illustrating her conversation was a poem.

Of course more poetry – more poetry contributors – appear in the magazine now than anything else. I’m interested in poetry, fiction, essays, reviews and haiku. Arts Tasmania has funded the magazine since 1994, so we’ve been able to offer a little money to contributors

The launch for FR43 was held on Wednesday 30th May in Hobart. Usually a decent crowd turns up to famous reporter launches in Hobart, anything from thirty to ninety – but it’s different on the mainland. We’ve had launches in places including Melbourne, Adelaide – twice – Sydney, Newcastle [that was lovely] and the Blue Mountains. But the first time in Adelaide, when I took my son Jazz along with me, he was twelve at the time was interesting. I remember how Graham Rowlands and I tried lots of promotion, but on the night there were seventeen of us who turned up, including Jazz and me. However I tried Adelaide several years later, and had a great time, taking my other son Noah with me, a mad keen Aussie Rules supporter so holding a launch & taking my son to the footy was killing two birds with the one stone. We had an audience of thirty-five or so that night in Adelaide, and I managed to put to rest something that had been holding me back for years – my awe of Jan Owen. I’d been in awe of her poetry for years and I’d often think when a poetry submission turned up in the mail from Jan, why me? Why am I blessed? But I invited her along to the launch and she turned up and put me at ease so quickly, from memory it was along the lines of: “like your magazine Ralph, enjoying your launch, don’t particularly care one way or the other about your footy team tomorrow night but if that’s your bent so be it “… yes it was a very good launch for more reasons than one.

But you never know how they will go, which is why it’s not a bad thing to do to have a launch as part of a reading programme put on by local writer’s groups, which is what [haiku editor] Lyn Reeves and I did with the magazine in Byron Bay some years ago. It was the Christmas function for the writing group Dangerously Poetic, at Bangalow just a little outside of Byron Bay. And we had a dozen readers, people we’ve met along the way as both Lyn and I have strong links with the area, and we had an audience of over eighty people and we had a fine time.

The reasons for one’s involvement with a literary magazine.

I am somewhat moved by Ken Bolton’s argument, the premise that a magazine renews itself, its vitality, by finding a course and sticking with it through thick and thin on a particular aesthetic, political [whatever] direction. This is the opposite of the eclectic magazine, the opposite of something like famous reporter. I’m somewhat persuaded by Ken’s arguments, I admit. But then I look at what is possible with a magazine such as Meanjin which often used to focus on thematic pieces … This is a danger, of course, if you take on a topic which has little appeal. But over the years, in my opion, Meanjin has managed to publish exciting writers speaking on a range of issues, resulting in eminently readable and successful issues of the magazine. So yes, I feel the eclectic magazine has something to offer.

I don’t see that FR set out to ‘change anything’, it’s a case of simply getting excited by the writing and wanting more of it. There are various styles of magazine, some accept contributions only by invitation. I’ve gone the other way and accept through submissions and seek out the occasional article that I seek out, I do this particularly with reviews. The result is an eclectic magazine. That’s not to say that I don’t seek to question, what would be the point of writing if it didn’t?

Mistakes

Invariably you make mistakes. Would the process be worthwhile if there wasn’t the possibility for making mistakes, the possibility of scaring yourself silly by what you’re about to write or publish next….

  • interviewing Mary Blackwood for the magazine and losing the tape I’d made of it and having to return to interview Mary for the second time.
  • issue three, I typed it up in a computer software package but for some reason experienced difficulty getting the magazine to do exactly what I wanted so reinstalled the software package, thinking it would reinstall alongside the old one and I could copy my files across, I was horrified to find it installed over the old one and I lost my complete magazine, had to start again. I hadn’t saved any of the stories into word, simply typed them straight into the package.
  • Another terrible moment was the day Kris Hemensley, of Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne, telephoned to say that he’d just received his copy of famous reporter in which I’d published a launch speech he’d made in Melbourne some weeks before for a Melbourne literary magazine, Salt-Lick. I’d sent Kris a proof copy of the speech before publication, he’d duly made a few changes only to find to his dismay that, on publication, the mistakes remained. I’d made the changes, but used the wrong version of the speech. This was compounded by the fact I’d be meeting Kris face to face in a week’s time when he was due to launch my own magazine.

The lovely moments

  • One of the lovely things is that every six months Lyn Reeves sends me the pages of haiku to go into the next issue, with the bio details of each contributor. I don’t have to lift a finger throughout the whole process, I think it says something for the possibilities for literary and publishing collaborations.
  • The time I interviewed Richard Flanagan and Pete Hay in my small South Hobart flat. Towards the end of the end of the interview I had to leave for the gents, when I returned I found Pete and Richard  still chatting, the tape recorder still rolling. I didn’t transcribe the tape till two weeks later to hear Richard telling Pete he’d won the 1995 Victorian Premier’s Award for his novel Death of a River Guide. ‘But you’re sworn to secrecy till October 20th Pete’, Flanagan went on. I suppose by implication I was sworn to secrecy too, it was a special moment.
  • Anna Bianke: one of the interesting things for me was that when I began the magazine I’d get a rush of excitement when a piece of writing came in from someone whose name I knew, and particularly, of course, if they were someone whose writing I respected. Well one day in the mailbox arrived a short story manuscript from Anna Bianke, of Launceston, and I was familiar with Anna’s work because I’d read several of her pieces in Overland. In fact her name was emblazoned across the front cover of Overland 101. You might remember, if you enjoy your magazines, that Stephen Murray-Smith who was editor of Overland at the time published a 100th commemorative issue, but found himself with so much exciting material that he the 101st issue became a commemorative issue as well, big and fat with lots of good reading. So the arrival of Anna’s manuscript meant quite a lot to me, and her story read with a delicate light touch, it was a beautiful piece of writing and I felt so proud to be able to publish and I suppose to some extent, to feel as if I really was some part of that great fraternity of Australian writing. It wasn’t until some years and perhaps some pieces of writing later, that Anna dropped me a line with an apology and an admission that for years she’d hid behind a pseudonym and that she wasn’t Anna Bianke of Launceston at all, but Stella Kent – playwright and fiction writer – of Launceston. And I’m pleased to say that my publishing relationship with Stella continues … only two or three weeks ago, she sent me an unpublished manuscript she’d come across, a poetry manuscript written by two young Northern Tasmanian students that simply blew her away … she wondered if any might interest me. ‘And if not,’ she added, ‘simply throw it away’. How wonderful is that, when someone with an eye for good writing takes the time to mail along something that moves them, how much simpler does an editor’s job become?
  • I think one of my highlights was to publish Pete Hay’s collection of essays some years back, Vandiemonian Essays. I’m a strong admirer of Pete and his work and it was an honour to be able to publish his book, just as it was to follow up with a collection of his poems three years later. There were 180 to 190 people at the launch of his book of essays – and what a launch it was! We sold 90 copies of the book at $20 each, I’d known there’d too many people in attendance to be able to cater for normally as I do with a famous reporter launch –  that is spend a couple of hundred dollars on light food, softdrink and wine – so I bought about five hundred dollars of various drinks – stubbies of beer, stout, softdrink – and sold them for cost price – and it was just so phenomenally successful.

And to the present?

I like the idea of continuing to publish. I’ve been using Lightning Source in Melbourne, a company with offices in the US, France and the UK and which set up in Melbourne last year. If you do the set up yourself, and provide your book in Indesign and with a cover that’s been Photoshopped – you can manage to publish relatively cheaply, so I’m giving it a go.

I’ve let my enthusiasm carry me away again and taken on probably a bit too much to chew, nevertheless I’m looking at producing several books later in the year, individual poetry books by four local writers – Philomena van Rijswijk, Anne Kellas, Susan Austin, and Cameron Hindrum. A book by Jill Jones, and a joint effort from Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow The Jones and Curnow/Brophy books are planned for August and to be available at the Queensland Poetry Festival where both Jill and Nathan are on the programme.

And once I’ve managed to fulfil the promises and half promises of my initial enthusiasm, I might slow down a bit and look a little more closely at the possibilities of wider publishing, of essays for instance.  And try to come to grips a little more with Dreamweaver and cascading style sheets so I can better promote and present the work of the writers I’m dealing with.

 – Ralph Wessman

A letter from Ralph I found inside my copy of issue 3.

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Ralph Wessman was the founding editor of the famous reporter and has been editor or co-editor of the last 43 issues of the magazine. He also runs Walleah Press whose latest publications include Fairweather’s Raft by Dael Allison and Undercover of Lightness by Andrew Burke. http://walleahpress.com.au.

The 44th and final issue of FR will appear late in 2012, edited by Michael Sharkey and Dael Allison. Unsolicited material (with the exception of haiku, which will not appear in FR44) is welcome, to:

PO Box 368
North Hobart
Tasmania 7002 Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Mark Roberts

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

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

References:

Cordite Poetry Review

Age Monthly Review

Editions

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