MacCarter essay
Type
Essay
Category
Micro-presses
Poetry

They will oxidise before you even finish reading

Einstein’s theory of general relativity states that matter can cataclysmically implode, creating a state where a given density and the space-time curvature split towards infinite values. This is referred to as a singularity, or – as it is known to ordinary folk – a black hole. Extending out from a black hole’s unfathomably dense centre and extraordinary gravitational pull is a finite volume of space that ends in an event horizon: a demarcation – a line in the cosmic sands – from which nothing inside can escape: not rock, metal, Judas Priest, photons, alliteration or anything else. The closer that matter gets to a singularity, the more the laws of physics fail, eventually collapsing entirely.

Now, to superimpose my rudimentary take on astrophysics onto the heavens of Australian poetry, where there have been a number of singularities – literary black holes, dense with the churning storms of career prestige and literary recognition – of late: John Kinsella’s The turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry; Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson and David Musgrave’s Contemporary Australian Poetry; John Leonard’s The Puncher and Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry; Tracy Ryan and John Kinsella’s The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry; the perplexingly unsung Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, edited by Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson; and the annual tractor beams of Best Australian Poetry. These tomes are widely regarded as benchmarks, both by producers and consumers of trade publishing, even if some of their editorial choices may be hypermetropic or myopic. Their commonality is that they are zeitgeist end zones that attempt to plot the meandering trajectory of our national poetic at qualified intervals. Make no mistake, the gravity of these anthologies is required and important. How does their power pull on creative intention and professional function? Where does that begin, and in what format?

It is from this point that I will attempt to calculate what and where Australian poetry’s 2017 event horizon is located. To do so, I will chart a sample of contemporary micro-publishing activities. My proposed event horizon is one I mark where the trajectory of a careerist path in literature, its relative expanding audience and, most importantly, the types of publications the work is travelling on, irresistibly gravitate toward the singularity.

We must also avoid fixating on who is appearing where and in what publisher’s singularities and for how many pages. I will mention author names, but will make no judgements on the quality of writing being produced. I want to further constrain my focus to standalone typeset publications, whether they eventuate on paper or in portable document format. Once I cut into and explore the ensuing projects, they will oxidise before you even finish reading this. That is what makes micro-press publishing, specifically of poetry, exciting.

Lightening up and moving on, then, to Canberra. Here we have the burgeoning presence of the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI), keeper of Axon: Creative Explorations. The institute is the brainchild of Jen Webb and Paul Hetherington, with UK poet Paul Munden, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Canberra, in a directorial role. It is clear that this triumvirate has been up to a great deal of welcome barnstorming through Australian poetics, and, outwardly, they appear to enjoy a comparatively generous budget to do so.

Nearby is Recent Work Press, a (mostly) poetry-focused outfit with a publisher, the indefatigable Shane Strange, committed to pushing Canberra and its stock of poets to our literary fore. It began with, and continues to produce, a line of well-made, smart-looking chapbooks that roam effortlessly between prominent international writers – Simon Armitage, Tusiata Avia – and selected Australian writers who call ACT home, such as Niloofar Fanaiyan. A newer line of full-length collections takes care of its regional own: Subhash Jaireth and Owen Bullock, as examples.

Further, a new line of artist poetry books was announced in May 2017. This is a collaborative effort with handset letterpress outfit Ampersand Duck, aka Caren Florance, who is also responsible for the rather fetching haircut of the aforementioned chapbook series. Florance’s interests and considerable talents place her in step with Alan Loney’s Electio Editions in Melbourne and Angela Gardner and Kerry Kilner’s (deliberately lower-case) light-trap press. There in Canberra, from the primordial bath of ‘local community’ and more recent arrivals, a unique mix of talent has converged to jump-start an active poetry publishing scene, and the joie de vivre of it all keeps the current goings-on parked closer to our event horizon than what a singularity portends. I get a stronger sense of a regional literary scene – moored in the ACT yet wise to the world – absolutely going off. Here, for now, the right poetry champions and dedicated producers have coincided to foster this fecund bastion. This is not unique to Canberra, but it is having its moment, and I hope it remains.

Moving west to Adelaide, home to a newish outfit named Little Windows Press. With this project, publisher Jill Jones has commandeered the ‘little’ from neighbour Little Esther Books – a Ken Bolton project that is currently dormant, indicative of the hibernation periods that micro presses crawl into and awake from – and has created a series of little books of her own. LW1 – the press’ debut offering – is a collection of four handmade ‘handsome chappies’ (Jones’ words) that feature work by Jones herself, Andy Jackson, John Glenday and Alison Flett, a Scottish poet who is hanging out in South Australia for a spell. (Those flukes are what build local scenes.) The chapbooks – while not as commercially slick at Recent Work Press’ publications – are solid and well considered. They are because they can be – ‘little books, big horizons’ is the press’ tagline – and they succeed as the instrument of a well-established poet who has been around the traps, has taught umpteen students, has a considerable oeuvre and who wants to create a space to get work out there in craft scale. It is as likely as not that the poetry presented here has not won a prize, that it won’t be appearing in future full-length collections or Best Australian Poems, and that it enjoys a decent chance of never appearing in a 500-page 2025 singularity. These publications provide a space for poetry to be published without further expectancy; no other form of literature has this pressure-valve release the way poetry does.

Adelaide has another active chapbook producer in Gary MacRae and Sharon Kernot’s Garron Publishing, which, like Little Windows, is keeping the attention close to home. These chapbooks remind me a great deal of the former Picaro Press’ Wagtail series, a chapbook subscription service that covered an extensive array of work in a solid, template-driven production (the remnants of which are now with Ginninderra Press). At Garron, we have offerings from established poets like Steve Brock, Rachael Mead, Mike Ladd and Aidan Coleman, as well as from less-known figures like Jelena Dinić, Judy Dally and series editor Sharon Kernot. Of all the micro presses operating in 2017, Garron taps into the greatest breadth of writers, publishing works by economists, archaeologists, social workers and, yes, academics who also write poetry. It features transplants from the UK, the US, the former Yugoslavia and Scotland (once again, Alison Flett). It is a motley list, organic and sans the thunderstrike of Recent Work Press’ near-vertical trajectory of ambition. There is nothing else quite like it happening in Australia right now.

The closest would be Dangerously Poetic Press, which is ‘seeking to encourage, publish and promote poetry from the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales’. (For me, one of the more flummoxing oddities of the Australian idiom is a claim to be ‘seeking’ to do something that is, quite clearly, already being accomplished by the claimer.) The other contender is Perth’s dormant, but by no means defunct, Black Rider Press. Founded by busy father-of-five Jeremy Balius, Black Rider has published an array of writers, predominantly Western Australians, in a succession of chapbooks, broadsheets, full collections, pop-up shindigs and the 2013 anthology Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land. Its manifesto perhaps best describes the ethos of micro-press publishing: ‘We’re the cats backed into a corner, banding together, publishing like thieves in the night. We’re wild bleary-eyed. We were funded from the sale of two drum machines and some other stuff. We’re the Black Riders. And we suspect you are too.’ May the press reawaken when the publisher has a nanosecond of spare time.

Now to Melbourne, where there is always a critical intensity of publishing activity. Venerable institutions like Express Media always have a presence near the event horizon, largely through their publishing of emerging writers. Likewise, the Wheeler Centre hot desks incubate projects that orbit freely outside of the event horizon – efforts that sometimes come to fruition in printed poetries – while established small presses like John Leonard Press morph into new houses like GloriaSMH (although JLP still exists on paper). The Rereaders is actively redefining the media of literature … Is it a poem? A short story? A podcast? Yes, yes and thrice yes. Or, none of these. That is the unfettered beauty of new explorations happening in Melbourne now.

The Incendium Radical Library in Footscray posits itself as a ‘collective started because we wanted to challenge the commodification of libraries, whether government, university or council based. We see a mass production of a certain type of thinking which reproduces the structures of oppression that we live under.’ Through its collections (zines and books) and events, the library electrifies the voices of under-represented writers. It even has a mobile library. IRL Press, a new extension to the library, has its first publication just out, a mélange of poetry, experimental writing and critical thought by Chi Tran. May it be the first of many more.

Near IRL, albeit less overtly political, is the Slow Canoe, a series of live journal events that began a few years ago, stopped and then re-emerged with gusto under the direction of Oliver Driscoll, Angus Keech and Bella Li. A chapbook press is now part of the mix. While the publishing tentacle of Slow Canoe has only begun to unfurl, the three chapbooks that have been produced slot seamlessly into Australia’s chapbook canon. What makes Slow Canoe’s publications distinctive is that each features five authors, a minority of whom primarily identify as poets (contributions have come from novelists, editors, journalists and musicians). Yet the text bundles pleasingly into a mini art book/journal dressed up for Halloween as a fetching chapbook, and directly reflects the tastes and interests of the crowd at the live events. This is a terrific live/print-publishing hybrid model. Writers include Miles Allinson, Jo Case, Will Cox, André Dao, Zoe Dzunko, Erik Jensen, Laura Maitland, Paddy O’Reilly, Lucy Van and Fiona Wright.

Fitzroy-based Flash Cove, edited by Michael Farrell, is a classic ‘little magazine’ that is five issues into life. The journal’s contact is Gmail; the website is nonexistent. Production is a DIY staple-and-stationery affair, and copies can be had from the editor, Collected Works Bookshop or poet Leah Muddle’s clothing shop. This is the type of hand-to-hand, on-the-ground dispersal of poetry that is altogether too rare in Australia, but not without recent (Pete Spence) and storied (Pam Brown) activity. Recent Flash Cove contributors include Alison Coppe, Chris Edwards, Jahan Khajavi, Alice Savona, Corey Wakeling and Mark Young. Spence’s Donnithorne Street Press has used a similar DIY approach for years, and his current effort, Have Your Chill, is now on issue two. More, please. Consult Nicholas Pounder Rare Books to mine the available publishing history therein. Too, John Hand continues reprints of the current dormant Bulky News Press. All of this activity is on the event horizon, and oftentimes feels refreshingly – because if its ephemeral nature – gravity-proof vis-a-vis the singularity.

Lurching over to Western Australia now, I need to mention Shed Under the Mountain Press, run by activist-naturalists John Kinsella and James Quinton. Like Flash Cove’s most recent issue, the publications coming out from this project are not zines as such; they are cleanly typeset, run about fifteen to twenty-five pages, and showcase the work of one poet or one collaborative effort. Title, cover image, front matter, poems, a pull quote here and there – even ISBNs. Says Kinsella:

Shed Under the Mountain Press is an anti-capitalist venture. No cash changes hands outside the printing bill covered by us. One hundred to two hundred copies are printed – the publisher retaining thirty to give away, and with some kept in our archive – over time, but with seventy going to the author to distribute as they see fit. The author can sell or give away copies, but the publisher makes nothing from it. Our chapbooks are printed on recycled paper. PDFs are also made available – there are no limitations on their being shared.

The titles I have seen are more formal than I had anticipated, though not at odds with the press’ anti-commercial direction.

I will end this grand celestial tour in Sydney, by way of AJ Carruthers and Amelia Dale’s Stale Objects dePress, also known as SOd press, an experiment in radical poetics. That it is, and unique in the band of Australian publishing I have looked at here. Like its clear influence, Gauss PDF of Oakland, California, SOd Press is a Tumblr page that offers free downloads to anybody interested in accessing them. Publications range from fifteen to 240 pages. It is refreshing to see a press unconcerned with publishing’s conventions; their books are as long as they need to be, an author’s paradise and a conduit for experimental works to enter the public sphere without twenty laps through editorial development and compromise. As publisher of Cordite Books, I very much engage in the editorial process and I am a strong supporter of it, but I also acknowledge that a national publishing galaxy requires operations like SOd Press. Plenty of decisions are happening here, but they are focused on the curatorial. Although the Tumblr page’s sponsored pop-ups are annoying and seemingly antithetical to the press’s values, one can argue that this model has allowed SOd, like Shed Under the Mountain, to diffuse the ‘noise’ and allow a more raw vein of poetry to enter into the world. All up, SOd straddles the event horizon, and the byproducts of doing so just are. Its publications from Holly Isemonger, Catherine Vidler, Dave Drayton and Amelia Dale have attracted international attention, aided by content being free and online. Like most of the publishing concerns I have noted, Sod’s author stable is predominantly regional, in this case Sydney, but the press is internationally minded and read, and is morphing into more of an international affair.

Sydney is also home to the venerable Red Room Poetry, which publishes work that ranges from bullseye singularity, such as The Disappearing, to the outer reaches of the event horizon, such as Candy Royalle’s work produced with the Wollongong Illawarra Roller Derby or Jane Williams’ poetry with the Hobart Bell Ringers.

I will conclude in Woolloomooloo, where Firstdraft, an artist-organised space and program that ‘creates an environment for artists to imagine the expanded possibilities of visual art practices’ is in an extended purple patch. Firstdraft is not a publisher, but I include it here because it is an arts organisation and clever in including written works in its purview, such as the recent collaborative output with poet and editor Emily Stewart. It is within environments like Firstdraft that the definition of ‘poem’, ‘poetry’ and a ‘national poetic’ can expand and expand, and new work of this genesis could well appear in a great many of the aforementioned press’ publications and, hopefully, singularities of the future.

Have I located the 2017 event horizon for Australian poetry publishing? Inexactly, perhaps. There is clear evidence that there could be one, if you are willing to consider this astrophysical-literary conceit. I have referred to an assortment of publishers producing creative works that travel from zero to … something (let’s assign it an integer: 1, say), whatever that thing may be, and whomever that thing may include. It is a primal and critical astronomical unit in the space that Australian poetry publishing is, a finite band of activity frequently ignored outside of the minuscule population of poetry readers, writers and publishers like you and me.

There exists a bounty of poetry appearing in publications that orbit just within or outside the event horizon, and this is evidence that poetry writing in Australia – that first triggering motivation to write a poem and its subsequent first, oftentimes only, publication – is happening at an exciting velocity. The speed and direction in which a poem forms and exits this band of activity – or not – in part because of the vehicle it was printed on, varies greatly. (Too, there exists a range of cultural biases that will expedite or retard that speed, and as a white, English-speaking male, I am not best placed to emote these strictures, though I can publish against their presence. Please see Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement’s The Big Black Thing, Chapter 1.) Were each poem written today and tomorrow a charge, then we have a mighty and ever-morphing cumulus building. Yet this system of ambiguity blasts along in the slipstream of our literary modernity. Who can say what will happen next, or what new dimensions and publication formats will form to take the shape our future poetry demands.

 

 

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Kent MacCarter is a writer and editor who lives in Castlemaine, with his wife and son. He is the author of three poetry collections: In the Hungry Middle of Here (Transit Lounge, 2009), Sputnik’s Cousin (Transit Lounge, 2014) and California Sweet (Five Islands Press, 2018). He is managing editor of Cordite Poetry Review and publisher of Cordite Books.

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