Remembering John Tranter

Jacket founder John Tranter in 2011. Photo by Sean Hartnett.

We here at Jacket2 are mourning the loss of John Tranter, founder, publisher, and editor of Jacket magazine. 

In 1997, John Tranter began publishing Jacket, one of the earliest all-online journals of poetry and poetics. Launched in what was still a field saturated with print, the original quarterly Jacket offered something different. Free, open-access, and impervious to the constraints of page count or paper bindings or subscription income, Jacket taught its readers how to engage with what was then a relatively new medium. As Tranter wrote on the site in its early days, “You can’t actually subscribe to the magazine — just drop by every few weeks. All the past issues will always be there, and the current number will be posted piece by piece until it’s full. You can also read future issues as they are posted piece by piece.” The journal’s first issue, in October 1997, included Philip Mead’s interview with Black Australian surrealist poet Lionel Fogarty, Susan M. Schultz’s essay on the Buffalo poetics program, and Kurt Brereton’s feature on “CyberPoetics of Typography,” which declared, “The page is no longer a flat surface but a virtual field unfolding in time. Words, sounds, images and graphics are now all part of the poetics of the web.”

In an essay called “The Left Hand of Capitalism,” which he originally published in 1999 in London’s Poetry Review, Tranter writes about how this paradigm-shifting moment in online publishing combined the sheer scope of the internet with the niche qualities of a poetry magazine to offer a different kind of economic model: radically accessible with seemingly infinite distribution. “Here’s an example of the reach of the Internet,” Tranter wrote. “In the first issue of Jacket, I published an interview I had recorded with the British poet Roy Fisher, and received an enthusiastic email from a fan. The fellow was grateful for the chance to read an interview with his favourite poet, he said, and went on to explain: ‘It’s hard to find material on Roy Fisher, up here in Nome, Alaska.’”

Jacket quickly grew in reputation not in spite of its DIY roots but by virtue of them. The Guardian lavished praise on the magazine’s aesthetic: “The design is beautiful, the contents awesomely voluminous, the slant international modernist and experimental.” Time called it “an Internet café for postmodernists.” And Lisa Gorton wrote in the Australian Book Review: “People often speak of poetry as a solitary undertaking. Tranter’s Jacket shows how it derives from conversations, allegiances and betrayals — from the human work of inheritance and innovation. Jacket is often playful but it is serious in this purpose: to serve as an archive not just for poems but for those poems’ particular worlds.” 

Tranter himself was always forthrightly modest about the undertaking. In a 2013 PennSound podcast, Tranter told Jacket2 publisher Al Filreis: “My background is in book production and magazine production, and in a sense I see Jacket really as just a way of typesetting a magazine and distributing it instantly and cheaply all around the world. […] It solves completely and instantaneously the big problem of poetry, and that is distribution. How do you get copies of a litle book of poetry into a little bookstore in East London? It’s impossible; you can’t do it. But Jacket can do it.” Indeed, Filreis concurs: Jacket simply changed the way poetry could be distributed worldwide.

Tranter, who grew up on a farm and had a background in offset lithography book printing, told Filreis that baling wire was a fitting metaphor for the tools he used to launch Jacket single-handedly from his home office in Balmain, in the inner west of Sydney: “I found I had all these talents: I was an editor, I read widely, I was interested in literature, I was interested in photographic images, I was interested in the layout of the page, how you stuck bits together and got it to work properly, how to navigate from the contents page to the rest of the book, and so on. And when I realized I also had HTML skills, I thought, I happen to have all the skills you needed to tie together a whole lot of stuff you might need to make an issue of a poetry magazine.”

For forty monumental issues — each one archived at Jacket2 — Tranter assiduously curated thousands and thousands of pieces of poetry, essays, interviews, features, and commentary on modern and contemporary poetry and poetics. Pam Brown joined Tranter as an associate editor in 2004; in her Commentary series for Jacket2, Brown revisits a number of highlights from Jacket, including Maged Zaher’s feature on Egyptian poetry, Carolyn Burke’s “featurette” on Mina Loy, and “the mis-translations, mis-quotations and bricolage poetry of Sydneysider Chris Edwards.”

In 2011, Tranter retired from his intense daily work on Jacket. The complete archive of the magazine moved intact here to Penn, where it remains open and available to all readers. And then Jacket2 launched. 

One of the first conversations we had about launching Jacket2 was how to honor the core of Tranter’s original aesthetic and material vision for Jacket: modernist, international, and published on a rolling schedule. We inherited the notion of a “feature” as a category or department that would collate a huge variety of content on a single topic or figure — often the equivalent of more than three hundred printed pages. We used our own baling wire, as it were, to expand the site by adding podcasts, streaming video, and galleries. And we hosted Tranter’s own Jacket2 Commentary series, in which he reflected on the forty issues of Jacket he edited.

Tranter, who was seventy-nine at the time of his death, published twenty-two collections of poetry and also worked as a radio producer with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, producing programs on history, archaeology, a documentary on carnival sideshow workers, interviews with poets and critics, and radio anthologies of poetry from Thomas Malory to Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. He edited a number of significant print anthologies, including The New Australian Poetry, The Tin Wash Dish, and The Penguin Anthology of Modern Australian Poetry (coedited with Philip Mead), and his many honors and awards included a Queensland Premier’s Award for Poetry. He founded the Australian Poetry Library, and he was an honorary member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. 

But Jacket is surely Tranter’s biggest legacy. As Tranter’s daughter Kirsten recently wrote to us here in Philadelphia, “Jacket was something he was incredibly proud of — it was a culmination of his love of bringing people and poetry together, and his love of the creative potential of technology — and he was delighted when it went on to have another life at Penn.” We couldn’t have been more honored to offer Jacket its new home here.

We will miss you, John. — Julia Bloch, for the Jacket2 editors