ON AUSTRALIAN PUBLISHING / ELIZABETH CAMPBELL
Quite frequently, some well-meaning civilian congratulates me on ‘being published’. It is, they understand, very hard to ‘get published’ in poetry?
‘Not at all!’ I reply, with a vehemence surprising to the civilian.
Of course, what is hard is to ‘get published’ by a large publisher, with money, distribution and a public profile. We hear about the terrible situation of literary fiction, but to us, Sleepers looks like a pretty enormous outfit, with a saliva-quickeningly wide market reach.
What we have in poetry is a proliferation of small presses, pumping out the titles, with little distribution, and a smaller readership.
In September 2010, I went to the British and Irish Poetry Conference at Queens University, Belfast. One of the more interesting sessions was a poetry publishers’ panel. Present were Michael Schmidt from Carcanet, Don Paterson from Picador and Peter Fallon from Gallery Press. At the outset, they passed quickly in agreement over the manifest truth that there is far too much poetry being published in the UK. Everyone nodded and smiled regretfully. Having established this context of over-publishing, they moved on to discuss more immediate issues of editing, distribution, marketing etc.
About two years ago, at an open forum about publishing, organised by the Australian Poetry Centre, I put up my hand and asked cautiously whether anyone among the fifty or so people in the room, representing various small presses, journals, and other ‘stakeholders’, thought that perhaps we were publishing too much poetry in Australia? And that the good stuff was being lost in the slew of poor quality work? People looked at me as if I had committed an indecent act, and the subject was quickly changed. Important and useful things were said at that forum, but this central problem of Australian poetry was ignored.
I request that we consider Exhibit A, the general intelligent reader: let’s call her Gemma. Gemma walks into a bookshop, looking for something interesting, and somehow finds herself in the poetry section. She doesn’t read poetry, but she does read a lot of literary fiction. She rarely sees reviews of poetry, except occasionally of Les Murray, but she knows she’s not meant to read him because of his politics. Gemma studied Gwen Harwood, or Seamus Heaney, years ago at school, and enjoyed the poems. Gemma has recently started thinking about poetry again, after years, because a creepy friend of her housemate keeps inviting her to slams, and because she read some of the publicity and tribute in the general press after the death of Dorothy Porter.
So she stands in front of the shelf marked ‘Australian Poetry’ and surveys the titles. She has not heard of any of the names. She pulls out an attractive, slim, matte volume, and reads the back cover, on which multiple people of whom she has never heard praise the poet and the poetry. She notices a large gold seal on the book – it has won a prize. She opens it, begins to read, and suffers a strange sensation. The book must be good, because of the prize, etc, but the words on the page seem both confusing and dull. Perhaps poetry is confusing and dull? Perhaps it’s Just Not For Her? Gemma quietly replaces the book and returns to her diet of literary fiction.
Well, at least she never went to the slam.
The Australia Council appears to have responded to the glut. In recent funding rounds, it would seem they have supported fewer poetry titles. That general idea is right, but let us hope that if this is a policy which continues, they choose the right books not to fund.
In the meantime, would three or four small presses put their hands up please and offer to cease and desist from the publication of poetry?