Island Press: the Story Continues

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After we republished Phil Robert’s memoir of the origins of Island Press (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/10/01/ten-year-on-an-island-by-philip-roberts-the-beginnings-of-island-press/), in conjunction with the celebration of Island’s 45th Birthday Party, we received a number of inquiries from readers wanting to know the history of the press post Phil Roberts. The following is a brief note on the story since then: 

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC xxxx at the microphone during Island Press' 45 birthday celebrations.Picture ....

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC Roberta Lowing at the microphone during Island Press’ 45 birthday celebrations. Photograph by Michele Seminara.

Fortunately, the actual physical production of the book has become a lot easier since the first days. The problems around poetry receiving an audience remotely commensurate with the skill and vision that go into it, however, remain as intractable as ever.

After Phil Roberts returned to Canada, leaving his work as a lecturer at Sydney University to freelance, as poet, and writer about poetry, in Nova Scotiaproducing many more poetry collections, and achieving renown as the author of How Poetry Works (Penguin, 1986) – Phil Hammial continued the work of the press, overseeing the publication of titles such as John Tranter’s Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979) and J.S. Harry’s A Dandelion for Van Gogh (1985). Hammial consolidated the press’s original policy of being prepared to take risks with younger poets, publishing titles such as Adam Aitken’s Letter to Marco Polo (1985), and, if anything, increased the extent to which it was prepared to publish work which would not be acceptable to mainstream presses. Examples of the latter include Anthony Mannix’s Erotomania (1984), and Hammial’s own Vehicles (1985).

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Running a press by oneself is a big responsibility, and there was a hiatus in Island activities between 1985 and 1992; when Hammial decided to get things moving again by inviting a small group of fellow poets Jutta Sieverding, Les Wicks and Martin Langford to join him in turning Island into a co-operative. In this, Island was fortunate to have access to the skills of Phil’s partner, Anne, whose expertise in the newly-legislated format was ideal for the press. Anne has been an essential element in the success of Island: each year she has reviewed the accounts and prepared the annual returns. Having someone who has been willing to offer us her knowledge about co-operative accounting pro bono has been a huge asset, and the press is extremely grateful to her for her generosity. Island’s aim had always been to provide an outlet for new poetry, to make a contribution to the artistic world first and foremost. So the new structure, which minimised business and governance costs, and which allowed it to get on with the job of providing an outlet for its poets with as little distraction as possible, was just what was needed.

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

The period since Island was incorporated as a co-operative has turned out be its most productive time – 37 books in 22 years: a little less than two a year (readers interested in the complete list should consult the Island website). It hasn’t published every year: it has not always been possible to obtain funding, and sometimes the directors have been caught up in other activities.

The nineties were to prove a busy little period, with publications from Lizz Murphy (Pearls and Bullets), Marcel Freiman (Monkey’s Wedding), Jutta Seiverding (Uneasy Weather) and Leith Morton (The Flower Ornament), amongst others. And then, as has sometimes happened, there was a break for a couple of years, while the press struggled to obtain funding.
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The 21st Century

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Be Straight with Me from Langford saw the millennium in; this was a departure from our normal audience and focus as it sought to address and speak to the often neglected teenage male. Lizz Murphy, Leith Morton and Carolyn Gerrish rejoined the Island tribe with dynamic new titles and Philip Hammial’s exploration of the more lawless boundaries of language continued with several titles including In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children and Voodoo Realities.

Australian poetry occupies a tiny niche market. The secret to longevity in the editors’ minds was to retain a tight focus, to keep our output manageable. Australia Council support was fundamental to our decision each year to commit to the next one. The process of obtaining that support was never simple and had some substantial on-costs related to our corporate structure etc. But support did come most years and it was frankly this input that was the deciding factor in the press’ ability to continue.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

The editors have had the honour of performing in countries where our artform is somewhere near the core of those nation’s culture, even self-identity. Poetry in Australia is not a “popular” public entertainment; it needs support. One supposes one can make the choice that we will be a society without poetry and withdraw that infrastructure. But this will have long-term implications on what we are as a people. In New South Wales there will be billions spent in the years ahead on stadium upgrades. Poetry asks for just a trickle of tightly focused help.

With small presses, every corner that can be cut is cut. Working collaboratively with the chosen poets each year we reduce the burden at “head office”. Copies of the books are kept with the individual poets thereby circumventing the need for warehousing. We work closely with printers to obtain not just the best quality product but also a reasonably priced one. Often, book design is done in-house.

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993. Her final book, A Dangerous Place, was published by Island in 2005.

In 2005, we were proud to publish the final book from Jutta Sieverding, one of the original four in our incorporated entity stage. The loss of her editorial and production expertise was felt deeply both by her fellow Island editors and the literary community generally. Her A Dangerous Place was a moving reflection on life lived and losing. A pinnacle of the first years of the 21st century was the publication of David Brooks’ Urban Elegies. David went on to provide strategic assistance for a number of years. There was somewhat of a history of Island publishing revered poets coming back to their practice after a hiatus, we jumped at the chance to put out Rae Desmond Jones’ Blow Out. David Musgrave, after spending so much effort publishing others, was a welcome addition to the Island stable with Concrete Tuesday. Roberta Lowing’s The Searchers is an important step in her development as a poet as well as a real contribution to the community generally.

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Ticket to Ride by Philip Hammial. Island Press 2015

Whilst tending to have Sydney focus for purely practical reasons of organisation, we felt it was important to have a regional or non-capital city component in our lists. Barbara Petrie, John Watson, Barbara de Franceschi and Rob Reil were invaluable additions to our catalogue from that grouping.

Publishing someone’s first book of poetry is a unique honour. Some of those we published in the 70s and 80s have gone on to be major figures in the canon. More recently, we were proud to be midwives to some fine titles in this category – Barbara de Franceschi’s Strands was a superb book. Christine Townend’s Walking with Elephants has had critical acclaim in the months since its launch and Susan Adams’ Beside Rivers was commended in the Anne Elder prize. We plan to continue with this as part of our selection criteria.

The Future?

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island's 45th Birthday party

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island’s 45th Birthday party

More recently, we have sought to include books from interstate poets both to better reflect the community’s output as a whole and to expand the Island Press footprint. Jeltje Fanoy’s Princes by Night is a glorious postcolonial exploration.

All three of the current editors “get around a lot” and are always on the lookout for potential additions to our list. Invitations are extended on the basis of obvious literary strength, a diversity of voice, mix of regional/capital city, gender balance, at least one first book and a proven track record of professional activism in the art form (i.e. giving something back). Our tentative 2016 program reflects this. Michele Seminara is a relative newcomer to poetry but already has an impressive following due to her energetic work within the community. Mark Roberts has been an engine for the dissemination of poetry for decades and is long overdue a book of his own. David Gilbey is of incalculable benefit to literature, particularly in regional Australia. Lauren Williams continues to be a loved voice over four decades and she also comes from regional Victoria. Les Wicks makes up the fifth title.

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island's 45th birthday celebrations

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island’s 45th birthday celebrations

We cannot say with certainty whether any or all of these titles will emerge. Like so much of the literature community, cuts to government funding have made the future profoundly uncertain. At a time in this press’ life when we would ordinarily be discussing expansion and bringing in younger blood to the editorial process we can’t with any certainty plan towards our 50th year of operation. As the oldest still functioning poetry press in Australia this is not an enviable position. After all these decades of Quixotic optimism, strategic promotion, pennypinching, thankless pursuit of funding et cetera will Island be nearing its end?

 – Martin Langford & Les Wicks

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Martin Langford’s recent publications are The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (P&W, 2009) and Ground (P&W, 2015). He is the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (ed., P&W 2009). He is the poetry reviewer at Meanjin.

Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 23 countries in 11 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford Street Press, 2015). http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

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

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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