Kent MacCarter, The 2018 Event Horizon of Micro Press Poetry Publishing in Australia

An abridged version of this report,‘They will oxidise before you even finish reading’, first appeared in Overland 227. It is reproduced here with kind permission from the editor. It is an ur-follow-up to ‘Australian Print Poetry and the Small Press: Who’s Doing the Books?’ published in this journal in 2012.

I begin with cosmic censorship conjecture, a formally observed tête-à-tête that coils between astrophysicists whenever they get worked up over space and matter. Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts that matter can cataclysmically implode to a state where a given density and the space-time curvature split towards infinite values. This is referred to as a singularity, and is, for our purposes, a distillation of how a black hole forms. If our sun were compressed to have a radius of 3 km, instead of its roomier 695,700 km, yet sporting the same oomph, then here we’d be. Extending out from a black hole’s near-unfathomably dense centre and extraordinary gravity 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: rock, metal, Judas Priest, photons, alliteration, and so on. The closer that matter gets to a singularity, the more the laws of physics (as humans have defined them) fail, no longer compute, or completely dissipate. It has been proposed that a grip of physical governance must be afoot, defining how much this volume is and why it’s there at all. Hence … the conjecture.

Now, to superimpose my rudimentary take on astrophysics onto the heavens of Australian poetry, there have been a number of singularities – literary black holes, far from vacuous, and dense with the churning storms of career prestige and literary recognition – of late: John Kinsella’s The turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry; the Langford, Beveridge, Johnson and Musgrave firm’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; annual tractor beams of Best Australian Poetry; the perplexingly unsung Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, edited by Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson; and Cordite Publishing Inc.’s own 20 Poets. These are the tomes that Australia’s trade market masses will assume as benchmarks. No set of publishing laws govern them. Their commonality is that they are zeitgeist end zones – even if some of these publications suffer from hyperopia or are plainly myopic, their recent creation still necessitated creators to reverse engineer who were the special young poets in 1993, what was best-of in 2007, who was Wheat Belt – worthy and, ostensibly, why – that attempt to plot the wending trajectory of our national poetic at qualified intervals. They are the literary apotheoses – tumbling batteries of black holes and resultant event horizons – proffered by small press publishers. These anthologies have one lever of (literary) physics that matter does not: editors. Yes, this is an important variable. Yet, blithely, I set aside this distinction henceforth. To keep things simpler, I aggregate these anthologies into one meta-singularity, a cluster of literary black holes, for a primary reference point. 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 2018 event horizon is / will be: two markers in the firmament of our language, and what is going on near the more diffuse end. To do so, I will chart a sample of micro-publishing activities, occurring now, and with elements representative of what could have coordinates inside or beyond my proposed event horizon. This delineation 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. Alternatively, this exploration identifies a few instances where these physics have a more tenuous hold, if any at all.

We must also abate the charley horse of panic in regards to who is appearing where and in what publisher’s singularities and for how many pages – this detail will fully compute to a publisher / editor only, no matter what their coordinates. I will mention author names, but will make no judgements on the quality of writing being produced. The distance between the event horizon and the singularity – hypocenter of the generative black hole – is absolutely not a representative scale of literary quality. It is my proposed calibration of a literary work’s big bang moment and subsequent potential – not unfettered from a writer’s (or writers’) peers’ expectations of that work – for its ‘mass’, warranted or purported, to increase from accolades bestowed upon it, transmogrifying it from writing identified simply as a creative act into a national literature-defining touchstone. Regarding pages, I want to further constrain my focus to stand alone, offline capable, 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’s 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. It’s the brainchild of Jenn Webb and Paul Hetherington, with UK poet Paul Munden, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow there at University of Canberra in a directorial role. It offers disclaimers such as, ‘IPSI is a scholarly and non-commercial institute of poetry and research into poetry under the auspices of the University of Canberra. Use of the acronym IPSI does not imply any connection with or endorsement by products, services or organisations that use the same acronym.’ This obfuscates an organisational chain of command, ensures that university machinations grind in there, somewhere, both leaving a reader flummoxed. Perhaps this is simply to avoid association with the International Peace & Security Institute, Independent Packing Services, Inc. or the International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative. But it is clear that this triumvirate has been up to a great deal of welcome barnstorming through Australian poetics through this facility, and, outwardly, they appear to enjoy a comparatively generous budget to do so.

The association between IPSI and Canberra-based Recent Work Press is also a little murky, and whether this small press enjoys the connections of IPSI’s programming nous by proximity or not. I pose this question here as this is the only example I’ll explore where the gravity of a university looms large. Recent Work Press is a 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, sharp-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. Where the chapbook series eschews ACT, 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 a hand-letterpress outfit named Ampersand Duck, aka Caren Florance, who is also responsible for the rather fetching haircut of the aforementioned chapbook series. Florance’s considerable talents, interests and projects place her in-step with Alan Loney’s Electio Editions in Melbourne and Angela Gardner’s deliberately lower-cased 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. That may come and, with no truck against ambition, I get a stronger sense of a regional literary scene – moored in 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 is a newish outfit named Little Windows Press. With this project, Jill Jones and Alison Flett, the publishers, have commandeered the ‘little’ from neighbour Little Esther Books – a Ken Bolton project that is currently dormant, although its resuscitation is always a possibility, and indicative of the hibernation periods that chapbook-producing micro presses crawl into and awake from – and has created a series of little books of her own. LW1 is four ‘handsome chappies’ (Jones’s words) that feature work by Andy Jackson, John Glenday, Jill Jones herself and Alison Flett, the Scottish poet who is hanging out in South Australia for a spell. (Those flukes are what build local scenes.) LW2, the next four chapbooks are handsomer still, and feature writing from Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kathryn Hummel, Jen Hadfield and Adam Aitken. I agree with Jones; the chapbooks – while not as commercially slick at Recent Work Press’s publications – have a solid and well-considered handmade genesis. They are because they can be – ‘little books, big horizons’ is the press’s tagline – and succeed as the instrument of a well-established poet who’s been around the traps, has taught umpteen students, has a considerable oeuvre and wants to create a space to get work out there in craft scale. It’s as likely as not that the poetry presented here has not won a prize, won’t be appearing in the authors’ future full-length collections, likely not BAPped (Best Australian Poem-ed), and 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 Garron Publishing, which, like Little Windows Press, is keeping the attention close to home. These chapbooks remind me a great deal of the former Picaro Press’s 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). Here we have offerings by established poets like Steve Brock, Rachael Mead, Mike Ladd and Aidan Coleman, hometown stalwarts that get out and about beyond the SA borders, and also writers like Jelena Dinić, Judy Dally and series publisher Sharon Kernot, who also get out and about but with perhaps not with as high an author profile. But that’s a good thing. Of all the micro presses I know operating in 2017, Garron Publishing taps into the greatest breadth of writers from its front and back yards, publishing, as it does, economists, archaeologists, social workers and, yes, academics who also write poetry. It features transplants from the Britain, the States, the former Yugoslavia and Scotland (once again, Alison Flett). It’s a motley list, organic and sans the thunder strike of Recent Work Press’s near-vertical trajectory of ambition. There is nothing else 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, Australia’. (For me, one of the more flummoxing oddments of the Australian idiom is a claim to be ‘seeking’ to do something that is, quite clearly, already being accomplished by the claimer.) Too – while not defunct, but certainly in dormancy – is Perth’s Black Rider Press. Its father-of-five publisher, Jeremy Balius, has published an array of writers, predominantly Western Australians, but not strictly, in a succession of chapbooks, broadsheets, full collections, pop-up shindigs and Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land in 2013. May it reawaken when the publisher has a nanosecond of time to do so, but perhaps by pruning off its publishing mantra as a reopening volley, ‘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.’
There is always a critical intensity of publishing activity in Melbourne, and the density of a black hole – anything but vacuous – is an apt analogy. Venerable institutions like Express Media always have a presence near the event horizon, and largely in the form of first-time publications of any ilk. Too, the Wheeler Centre hot desks incubate projects that orbit freely outside of the event horizon – efforts that sometimes come to fruition in printed poetries – and 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 cast? Yes, yes and thrice yes. Or, none of these. That’s 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.’ With this manifesto, its zine and book holdings, along with events, combine to electrify the voices of under-represented writers to overcome the din of flaccid citizen blog journalism, the ever-threatening glaciation period of post-consumerism kept in phony check à la wispily veiled NGOs and their carpetbagging prospectuses peppered with do-gooding talking points. Right. 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 thesis from Chi Tran. May it be the first of many to follow.
Near IRL, albeit less overtly political, is The Slow Canoe, a series of events that began a few years ago, stopped, and 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 into the ether, the two chapbooks that do exist seamlessly slot into poetry’s canon of Australian chapbookery. What makes Slow Canoe’s publications distinctive is that each features five authors, a minority of whom would identify as poets first. Yet the curation of text found within, written by novelists, editors, journalists and musicians, bundles pleasingly into a mini art book/journal dressed up for Halloween as a fetching chapbook, and directly reflects the readers programmed at their events. This is a terrific live/print-publishing hybrid model. To date, writers include Miles Allinson, Jo Case, Will Cox, André Dao, Zoe Dzunko, Erik Jensen, Laura Maitland, Paddy O’Reilly, Lucy Van and Fiona Wright.

Flash Cove, edited by Fitzroy’s Michael Farrell, is a classic ‘little magazine’ that is seven issues into life. The 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. Speaking of the irascible Mr. Spence, his Donnithorne Street Press has traversed this DIY vector 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 recently resuscitated Bulky News Press, with new works by Marty Hiatt, Chris Brown and Andrew Pasco. All of this activity is on the event horizon, and oftentimes feels, refreshingly – because if its ephemeral nature – gravity-proof vis-à-vis the singularity.

Lurching over to Western Australia now, I need to mention Shed Under the Mountain Press run by activist, naturalist poets 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’re cleanly typeset, run about fifteen to twenty-five pages, and showcase the work of one poet or one collaborative effort. Title, cover image, poems, some front matter, a pull quote here and there – even ISBNs are registered for these. Says Kinsella on the press’s intent, ‘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 publications that I have seen are more formal than I first anticipated, though not at odds with the anti-commercial and alternative distribution direction: together, publications I’ve read and the press’s intent, plant these publications just beyond the event horizon.

I will end this grand celestial tour in Sydney, by way of A J Carruthers’s and Amelia Dale’s Stale Objects dePress, also known as SOd press: Experiments in radical poetics. That it is, and unique in the band of Australian publishing I’ve looked at here. Like its clear influence, Gauss PDF of Oakland, California, SOd Press is a Tumblr. website that delivers free publications to anybody interested in accessing them. Publications range from fifteen to 240 pages. It’s refreshing to see a press agnostic to extent concerns; 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 do very much engage in the editorial process and I’m 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’re founded in the curatorial. Although the site’s sponsored ad pop-ups are annoying and seemingly antithetical to the press’s values, one can argue that a publisher like SOd reflects a publisher that has wiped out nearly all overhead costs and, like Shed Under the Mountain, has diffused the ‘noise’ to allow a more raw vein of poetry out into the world and nothing more. All up, SOd Press 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, which being free and online fosters so well. Like most of the publishing concerns I’ve noted, SOd Press’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, The Disappearing, to the outer reaches of the event horizon, with Candy Royalle’s work produced with the Wollongong Illawarra Roller Derby or Jane Williams’s poetry with the Hobart Bell Ringers as examples. Here, too, flickering on and off, is Potts Point Press with a series of broadsides, most recently a Judith Beveridge poem. The Australian poetry broadside is not extinct, but it’s damned rare.

Although I am not sure what literary organisation in Australia is not independent (minded, at least), Subbed In, a new outfit run by Dan Hogan and Stacey Teague, touts itself as an ‘independent literary organisation which produces regular readings, workshops and associated publications’ with ‘aims to provide grassroots support for new and underrepresented voices’. The first three chapbooks from Subbed In – collections from Emily Crocker, Allison Gallagher and Aisyah Shah Idil – also sport a template driven text and cover design that is clean, approachable and smart. Revisiting the first line of this paragraph, and goings on in Victoria, Owl Publishing – quite possibly Australia’s only true independent chapbook publisher with an established history (like Cordite, Owl describes itself as ‘not commercially driven’, though unlike Cordite, very much dependent on government monies, Owl is not) – has been going for nearly 20 years thanks to its indefatigable (there’s that word again, equally as deserved as Shane Strange) champion, Helen Nikas, and her unwavering support of Greek Australian literature. True, Nikas has done more full length books than other formats, but she has a fecund nous for chapbooks. Hers are replete with template driven text and cover design – sound familiar? It’s a sturdy model – and fill a critical niche in Australian literature by presenting work from writers like Dina Amantides, Anna Couani, Zeny Giles, George Vassilacopoulos, Erma Vassiliou and Dimitris Troaditis. I very much hope that Subbed In can continue to produce more of what they have, and for many years to come.

I’ll 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 gallery wisened to the inclusion of written works in its purview, recently by 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’s publications, and, hopefully, singularities of the future.

Regarding the attributes of the publishing sample group noted – proximities to the meta-singularity proposed, have I located the 2017 event horizon for Australian poetry publishing? Not exactly, no. But, inexactly, perhaps. There is clear evidence that there could be one, if you’re 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’s 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 shape-changing cumulus building. Yet this system of ambiguity blasts along in the slipstream of our literary modernity. I don’t know what will happen next? or what new dimensions and publication formats will form to take the shape our future poetry demands.

*Kent MacCarter is a writer and editor in Castlemaine, with his wife and son. He’s 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 also editor of Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home (Affirm Press, 2013), a non-fiction collection of diasporic memoir. He is managing editor of Cordite Poetry Review and publisher of Cordite Books.

**Taken from Cordite Poetry Review at http://cordite.org.au/guncotton/2018-event-horizon/

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