The present of books
Just recently, I found myself receiving a number of books from different sources over a matter of a couple of days. They are all, of course, poetry books. Despite the fact that poetry publishing is not a best-seller type of enterprise, there’s plenty of us who buy or acquire and are interested in books of poetry. I’ve even noticed a welcome increase in poetry reviews in the newspapers. Not all the reviews are terribly well done, or maybe they were savaged by sub-editors (who knows?), but at least they are providing space for dialogues about poems, poetry and poets.
I don’t intend to in this post to critique the standard of reviewing in Australian newspapers, though I look, often in vain, for reviews that that get beyond opinion and personal taste or lists of themes or good and bad lines, that rather make connections and take readers into the text at hand and, ideally, into other texts that inform or connect to the text.
Nor do I intend to review in any way the books I want to talk about, though they are all terrific in their own ways. That’s not a review but a recommendation, or a ‘like’ if you want to speak in facebookish. I simply want to talk about books, the physical fact of them, given that ‘the future of the book’ is a constant topic these days, and this small effusion of volumes I’ve recently acquired gives me a space to do that.
The books were both bought by me or were sent to me as gifts and/or thank yous. In fact, poetry runs for the most part on a gift economy. And not one of these books came from a bricks and mortar shop (though I have in the last few months bought poetry books in various shops in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, and try to support local businesses when I can). The fact that poetry books are moving around the country and the world so readily, actual physical books, is a continuing and welcome experience, given the lengths I once used to go to scour poetry bookshelves, such as they were even way back then.
OK, the books, and they are truly a sample of a moment, are Resinations by Javant Biarujia from Otoliths Press, Ladylike by Kate Lilley from UWA Press, Undercover of Lightness: New and Selected Poems by Andrew Burke from Walleah Press, Lollyology by Derek Motion and Midwest Ritual Burning by Morgan Harlow from Eyewear Press. All, bar one, are by Australian poets. They all represented to me in that brief moment a picture of what’s happening in poetry book land.
For a start, the Lilley volume is the only one produced by a company, a corporate entity, a medium-sized Australian publisher, UWA Press. I’m not aware of UWA’s business model and, thus, how much the University of Western Australia supports (or not) the press’s infrastructure, but Australian university presses in general as commercial entities have done quite well in marketing and distributing books, including poetry. This book, the actual physical object, is obviously the product of a design team; you can see this by its size, its typesetting, its look.
The size, particularly, I love. I have a fondness for the older small and neat paperback size, not the larger trade paperbacks which are often unwieldy and overpackaged. And I’m in two minds about the standard size of most Australian poetry books, A5 and sometimes slightly larger, that seems popular among small presses. Presumably, this is partly dictated by the requirements of the printers the publishers and poets are using to produce the books. And obviously, as any poet would know, poetry uses the space of the page in ways that can’t be as confined or managed as prose text so the slightly larger format is mostly a necessity, for my own work included. So, let’s say this niggle is just a personal and unreasonable tick. But the personal is a factor in book buying. An electronic file confined by the parameters of an e-reader does not allow for this variation in size and shape at all.
The other books all come from publishers or individuals who are poets themselves, or in the case of the Burke book, whose publisher is an editor very much involved in the magazine and small press scene.
Take Lollyology. Great title and brilliant, bright cover. Derek Motion lives and writes in Wagga. He’s well-published on line and in print, a younger poet of note, one to watch for if you’re not already watching. The book is produced through a print-on-demand process; it’s not available in bookshops. It’s designed and typeset by Derek who, I am glad to note, loves Garamond as I do. Derek is the publisher and I presume he was the editor. It is in the great tradition of literary self-publishing. Long may it run. Because sometimes you need to do it for yourself and get it out there for readers.
The Biarujia book (another terrific image on the cover) and the Harlow book (strong fresh typographical design) come from dedicated enterprises started up by poets. Resinations is published by Mark Young who is the presiding genius of Otoliths, which began and continues to this day as an online magazine as well. Mark is New Zealand-born but has lived in Australia for many many years. He currently lives in Rockhampton and he lives in the whole wide world via the internet. Most of the Otoliths books are not by Australian poets, but this one is. Javant kindly sent this book to me as a gift, inscribed. You can’t inscribe ebooks, so far as I know, not yet. The cover uses an image by US poet, Sheila Murphy, with some cover preparation work from another US poet, harry k stammer. And here it is with me in Adelaide.
Both Resinations and Lollyology have been produced through the online print on demand system, Lulu. My experiences with Lulu, both as a purchaser and as a once-only (so far) dabbler in seeing what the process involves, have been mixed. Quality control can be an issue, depending sometimes on where in the world the book is printed and shipped from. Sometimes the printed pages have been badly rendered, even smudged. Perhaps that was the old days. Both these books are fine: decent paper though different stock in each, and decent binding, better than some non-POD books I have on my shelves. One was printed in the USA and the other, I assume, was printed in Australia, though I can’t be certain.
Eyewear Publishing is a new and ambitious publishing project from Canadian-born poet, Todd Swift, who now lives in London, and whom I met there late last year. His list will include books by poets from many different countries, including works in translation, and I see that he intends to publish a book by Jan Owen. The first book he has produced is by Morgan Harlow, a US poet. Midwest Ritual Burning is her first book. Like Mark Young, Swift isn’t thinking along nationalist lines. This seems sensible. There is a readership for poetry. It isn’t huge, poetry books rarely if ever blip onto book selling charts, as we all know, but it’s there, all around the world which can be reached, quite obviously, via the virtual marketplace and personal connections that may be virtual or in person.
The Harlow book is a hardback yet definitely a slim volume, 64 pages. Therefore, despite so few pages, not uncommon for British poetry publishing, it has substance as an artifact and has an appeal, even fetish appeal, due to that. I am sure this is intended. It’s not that common for poetry books to be produced as hardbacks these days. Salt Publishing in the UK was doing it for a while, and may still be doing so in some instances. UQP did a lovely hard cover edition of David Malouf’s Typewriter Music a few years ago. But my poetry bookshelves are filled mostly with paperback volumes unless they are larger or older, for instance, when Angus and Robertson was publishing Australian poets in the middle of the 20th century and earlier.
And, finally, Andrew Burke’s book, and I should declare an interest here. Ralph Wessman, dedicated and untiring editor of the long-running The Famous Reporter magazine, is now publishing books, which in fact he had done from time-to-time before but this time using print-on-demand (POD) technology via Lightning Source, one of the world’s largest printers of POD books and now operating in Australia. My interest? Ralph will be publishing my next book and I wrote a blurb for Andrew’s book. This is one instance of those dedicated literary editors who support writers through long years of publishing them in magazines and journals and then moving into doing the same via books. POD has moved on from where it began – as I noted above, the printing, binding standards are not a lot different from books run off a standard offset printing press. There is a difference to those who look closely, but not that much of a one.
I’ve felt all these books, I’ve read them, browsed them back and forth (now, that’s a lot harder to do with an e-book) and they all have their pleasures: the Walleah Press book is smooth, the Eyewear dust jacket is textured, the UWA book fits well in the hand. I’m not intending to be down on e-books in this post, I’m no Luddite, I’ve been using computers for longer than I care to admit to (decades, actually) and I have an e-reader (definitely not a Kindle) but poetry and coding for e-publishing formats is not yet a happy marriage. I wrote about this problem in 2010 and, so far as I can see, it has not really been solved apart from a few partial and laborious work arounds. Until it is sorted, I won’t be wasting money on poetry e-books. The free and legal ones I own (it sounds odd to put it like that) – Dickinson, Whitman, Lawrence, H.D., Eliot, et al – are useful to have but are a nightmare to read for pleasure as line and stanza breaks fall apart before your very eyes. It gives skewiff a whole new meaning.
To get back to reviews, briefly. I’ve noted that Kate Lilley’s book has been reviewed more than once in the press (and online) but none of the others, so far as I know, at the time of writing. It may be too early to draw a conclusion such that a book from a well-established publishing company will be more likely to be acceptable to newspaper literary editors for review than a self-published book or a book published by very small presses. It may just be a matter of timing.
It is all a matter of timing. A recent Pricewaterhouse Coopers report predicts that e-books will make up 50 percent of the U.S. trade book market by 2016, with a lesser but still significant increase in other markets, including Australia. It’s yet another prediction which may or may not come to pass. In fact, it seems commonly agreed that no-one really knows what the future of the book is other than, gosh, it’s changing.
In the meantime, I have a bundle of poetry books to add to my library, lovingly produced by various people. They are individual things I can touch and feel, browse or get stuck into. I’m not an annotator but I’m free to scribble on the text, on the paper, if I like. The lines and stanzas are in places the poet intended them to be, more or less.
This seems right to me but one day it won’t. One day this may seem quaint, just as unrolling a papyrus scroll may seem odd and unwieldy today unless you are an archaeologist or historian. One day there will be a way of reading that is probably not yet imagined – some kind of flexible, foldable e-paper strikes me as being a nice bit of kit. Or, if it all goes pear-shaped, it may be back to chiselling rocks or marking clay tablets, to grinding up some carbon black for ink, or collecting and macerating plant fibres for papermaking. I am enjoying the presence of books while I can. And the poetry books, I suspect, will be around for a while, given the persistent energy that is going into making them and why we need them.