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

The Long Haul – Pat Woolley Responds to Michael Wilding’s ‘A Publishing Memoir’

Following the publication of my review of Michael Wilding’s Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir in Issue 1 of Rochford Street Review I received an email from Pat Woolley correcting a couple of points in my review and disputing some of the observations Wilding made in his book. I invited Pat to respond to Michael’s memoir of Wild and Woolley. The article which follows is a slightly edited version of that response.

Mark Roberts January 2012

*******

Michael Wilding titled his book ‘Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir’ yet it only covers the first five years of a publishing company that lasted for 37 years. It is a matter of record that he and I co-founded W&W in 1974, but he had nothing to do with the company after 1979. After 1979 he cut off all contact with me and W&W, while I continued to manage the company publishing new and exciting authors despite the difficult market for avant garde literature.

Michael always saw himself as the creative one while I had the business acumen. That’s what he said to a National Times journalist who interviewed us early on. He knew little about the finances and didn’t want to take part in any of the day-to-day management of the business. The closest he’d get to this was addressing and stamping media releases.

Michael had a tenured position at Sydney University, and all the perks of travel and sabbaticals that came with it. He had his own office, light glowing through the stained glass windows. In contrast, for the first couple of years after Wild & Woolley began, I made my living typesetting ads, magazines and junk mailers, on nights and at weekends, so that I’d have enough hours in the day to run W&W, visiting bookshops and taking orders, talking to reviewers as well as carrying boxes of books to the post office, and doing the bookkeeping, selling, promoting, typesetting, proof-reading, pasting-up galleys and packing of orders. In 1976 the company was doing well enough for me to hire Shar Adams to help with the office work, and Laurie Duggan to pack orders. They were paid. I wasn’t.

Early in 1978, W&W had outgrown its premises in Chippendale. The floor boards and bearers were dry-rotted and white-anted. Every day, Shar and I moved 15 or 20 boxes of books onto the footpath to give us enough space to run the business. If it rained, we put plastic sheets over them. I found new premises in the city and the lease required signatures from  both Michael and me. Michael refused to sign.

I found a lawyer who came up with a resolution: we’d adopt new articles and memoranda for the company that would make me governing director and after that, I could run Wild & Woolley without the Wild. Maybe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, perhaps yes, probably no. He left behind a stack of manuscripts that he’d committed us to publish, and with very little money, I did my best.

In 1978, Michael received a one year grant from the Literature Board and left Australia for Britain and the US. In the next years, I managed to launch all the books he’d taken on. There were many, including Polemics for a New Cinema by Albie Thoms, a collection of articles from film magazines. I read the book in proof after it was typeset. It appeared that Michael hadn’t read through any of the articles. He just passed over the file of newspaper cuttings and said it was ready to be set. I was left to pick up the pieces.

1980 was W&W’s lowest point. The city premises had a fire,   destroying all our stock. Three years after the fire, I sent Michael a royalty statement after I managed to reconstruct the accounts, counting up sales from mouldy, torn and water-damaged invoices. He was sure that I was mistaken about the very low numbers of copies of his various volumes that we’d sold, but his books just weren’t selling, not even at Gleebooks.

In 1983, I co-founded ‘Women’s Redress Press’, established ‘Australia In Print Inc’ in 1986 to wholesale Australian books to the United States, and under the Wild & Woolley imprint between 1983 and 1990, I published many books of fiction, poetry, rock and roll, art, and politics. Between 1983 and 1991, I also studied law part time and gained an LLB at UNSW. In 1990, predicting the impacts of technology on publishing, I bought a high-speed photocopier to print short run quantities of books for self-publishing authors. In the next two decades, I produced books for more than 1500 writers, usually under the Fast Books imprint, but occasionally bannered Book House or for the highest quality literature, Wild & Woolley.

Michael Wilding’s book with the misleading title is not a history of Wild & Woolley. It is his narrow view of some exciting times we shared in the seventies. A true and honest Wild & Woolley memoir should be written, but not by Michael. He just wasn’t there.

Pat Woolley

MICHAEL WILDING – THE WOOLLEY YEARS

Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir. Michael Wilding. Giramando Shorts. 2011

Michael Wilding’s account of how he meet Pat Woolley and how Wild & Woolley began: “Pat and I went back to my place in Balmain where the poets had already entered through the bathroom window and were sitting around writing poems on my typewriter and eating and drinking what ever they could find…” immediately made me recall a Nigel Roberts poem from his first collection In Casablanca for the Waters (published, of course, by Wild & Woolley):

.

sometime / during 67
i read his poems /& he read
mine / & that we knew of someone
up the road / who wrote
that we should visit
& did / &
he read ours / & we read his / then
had a smoke
talked of why
& where……………………………….
          to publish
& then……………………….
of OUR OWN MAGAZINE
that / we would publish
who / or whatever
we dug.

                    – ‘For the Little Magazines’

While there may have been a world of difference between Nigel Roberts’ Free Poetry and the vastly more ‘professional’ looking publishing venture Wild and Woolley eventually became, there is a hint of a shared experience here, a creative spontaneity driven by a belief that Australian literature was changing and the old methods of publishing were not going to cut it anymore.

Before I go much further I have a confession to make….I was an undergraduate student majoring in English and Australian Literature at Sydney University between 1978 and 1981. From memory I also took Wildings Utopian and Anti-Utopian fiction class in either 1979 or 1980 (though if you can remember a Michael Wilding class you probably weren’t really there…). While at Sydney Uni I slowly became involved in the local poetry scene so I knew many of the writers documented in Wilding’s memoir. So while I enjoyed Wilding’s account of the Sydney writing scene of the mid to late 1970’s I suspect that at least some of my enjoyment was because I knew many of the poets and writers he was writing about.

Wilding’s account of his time at Wild & Woolley is, obviously, a very personal account. I had the feeling at times, that WIlding was like a child in a chocolate factory. He was involved in bringing some of the most important contemporary writing to Australia “…our project was to bring the margins to the centre and for a while we succeeded. We got these important books around. It was a major intervention into the cultural map of the nation…”. Reading between the lines, however, I got the impression that, at least at a commercial level, Wilding must have been a little difficult at times to work with. At times for example he seemed to treat the Wild & Woolley warehouse as almost his personal library. Soon after they established their first warehouse he talks of walking “along the shelves picking up a sample copy here, another there. My library swelled as I added the new arrivals week by week”. At another point he talks about raiding the rubbish bin in the warehouse to retrieve damaged copies of books that could not be sold “One day I noticed the entire staff, all two of them, were sitting laughing at me. Knowing my obsession, they had been deliberately putting books into the garbage bin when they heard me arrive”. He was billed for all these books however, and when he left the business he was faced with a considerable bill.

At times I did feel a little sorry for Pat Woolley. While Wilding obviously understood the cultural and political aspects of their grand publishing adventure, it was Pat Woolley, one suspects that kept the books moving, the dollars circulating and the Press afloat “The financial details, as ever, I shied away from. As Pat put it, ‘You didn’t have anything to do with the finance’. Wilding eventually leaves the business and I had the sense that there were some things that maybe he felt didn’t need to be raised again.

What I found more interesting was Wilding’s view on how Wild & Woolley slotted into the cultural and social history of the time. He talks of the “considerable cultural optimism’ of the early 70’s – the Lady Chatterley’s trial was in the past, censorship was being relaxed and of course young poets and writers in Australia had started to look to the US for ‘inspiration’. Wilding also adds another important mix into the equation, the ending of the Vietnam War “And a release from all the anti-war protests that had taken up so much time and energy and emotion…..They had been a necessary activity, but now we could return to what life should properly be about: writing, reading, and the arithmetic of publishing”. This is a theme he returns to a number of times during the book. I found his thoughts on the rise and fall of the Sydney Association for the Studies in Society and Culture particular interesting. He places the publishing activities of the Association in the context of the general attack on humanities in Australian Universities as “the new world order directed the young into economics, law, business studies and computer science”. In this context the Association’s publications were run very much on an amateur basis – making whatever use they could of the University’s resources until “it all came to an end. The reforms in tax laws, the introduction of the GST, and the ABN, made it all unfeasible”. Wilding sees this as part of the “law of unintended consequences”. There wasn’t a direct attack on the small press ethos it was just collateral damage “Voluntarism was now to be replaced by professionalism; except that in many cases it was not replaced, it simply ceased to exist.”

Another strength of this book is in the individual portraits Wilding paints of some of the different people he encounters during the Wild & Woolley years. In particular the sections on Vicki Viidikas, Christina Stead and Jack Lindsay stood out for me – indeed I was sent scurrying to my bookshelf to confirm that, yes my copy of Decay and Renewal was indeed a Wild and Woolley edition.

In the final instance it is probably important to understand why Wilding has called this book a “Memoir”. Probably the best description of a memoir I have come across was from Gore Vidal “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” (Palimpsest). As I have noted previously, Wilding’s account of the adventures of Wild and Woolley are a very personal account and I am sure that other players in the drama may very well have a different view of some of the incidents captured in this book. But given the constraints of the genre, Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir is a fascinating account of a critical period of Australian Literature from the perspective of one of the more cutting edge publishers. What made it an important book, in my opinion, however, was Wilding’s ability to trace the social and political impacts on writing and publishing from the mid seventies through to event of the GST and the moves to subject writing and publishing to forces of the free market.

Mark Roberts