'Small' poetry publishers and publications
'Small' poetry publishers and publications
Kia ora ano.
It is important, I believe, to feature the myriad of ‘smaller’ poetry publishers and publications per se in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Why? Because these are at the forefront of pushing and placing poetry in front of the people; all-too-often without any Creative New Zealand funding, sometimes without selling enough copies/issues to recoup finances deployed. If there is a poetic spine running the looooong length of New Zealand, it is these presses and periodicals that provide resonance, flexibility, alternative therapy.
I asked several poet-publishers their frank views as regards the ‘overall’ poetry scene(s) within New Zealand, as well as — of course — something about their respective presses and/or poetry publications. I highlight some of their comments below, stressing right here and now that it is sheer LOVE of poetry that keeps many of them going, thus enabling places for many poets to be seen/read/heard and appreciated. Places that university presses, their proxies or the few ‘mainstream’ publishers who do promote poems, won’t ever frequent.
I also here note that in at least one case I have earlier highlighted one such small press, established by the ubiquitous Kiri Piahana-Wong, namely Anahera Press, another ‘fighting the good fight,’ as Dean Harvard of Kilmog Press wrote to me. Dean, by the way, also stresses that, ‘I’m not publishing much these days, so perhaps your focus might be of more use to those other small presses in New Zealand’ — all of which is a great pity. Kilmog Press had published one of my own earlier collections, namely China as Kafka. Such are the vagueries, primarily fiscal, that beset smaller poetry publishers here.
Mark Pirie is a busy man. As well as his own full-time employment he is heavily involved in publishing New Zealand poetry under the auspices of HeadworX (a publisher of poetry collections) and broadsheet (a poetry periodical). He inaugurated the now annual anthology JAAM — which I will write about soon. He — with Niel Wright and Michael O’Leary induced the very valuable Poetry Archive of New Zealand, more of which in a later post also. He also writes his own poetry. He is sitting to the left of this text, just after meeting with the late and great Alistair Te Ariki Campbell.
Mark points out, ‘I think New Zealand poetry still has distinctive qualities in the world just like our sports exports … Aotearoa flora and fauna and our landscape is unique, as is our Māori culture. However, many of our urban poets are fairly cosmopolitan these days, no longer inclined to focus on the New Zealand landscape and scene as much as they used to. It’s difficult to define any kind of ‘Aotearoa poetic’ as such. There are more multicultural strands emerging now … I used to apply to Creative NZ, the government arts council, from 1998 until 2007, and it was always a struggle … Nowadays, there are a number of new print-on-demand outlets for publishers to use which keeps your costs down, and you no longer need to warehouse stock with a distributor. Distributors can now exist online (these are really printers but act as distributors too). They just store your book files online and print off a copy of your book when they receive an order online. Publishers can also get books printed cheaply in Asia … Other printers have new technology and machinery which means a small run book is very economical and affordable now. Anyone can be a publisher and print copies these days. It’s a lot easier to publish poetry than it used to be.’ Mark’s employment goes towards his financing his publications; not always the case for other ‘smaller’ publishers.
Mark adds, ‘I haven’t applied to Creative NZ since 2007, because I no longer have to do a big print run of 500–1000 copies, and can easily pay for HeadworX books and broadsheet by using a print-on-demand printer to run off 50 copies at a time, depending on how well the book sells … I would say it is much more of a struggle to sell your book in any significant number and get publicity for it, than to publish it. Libraries aren’t buying as many titles as they used to. You can’t guarantee a lot of libraries will take your title anymore …’ It is time for a Mark Pirie poem — as below left —
Reading American poetry, and thinking of myths of country, and two women poets
on the Orizaba
about to leap
beside the Golden Gate
ready to disappear
two myths, mysteries, voyages
painted as emblem
there’s R A K Mason disposing
of his books from Princes Wharf
James K Baxter with crucifix
heart failing him
barefoot and sinking,
we too know
What the Light Was Like [Amy Clampitt]
feel a wild patience [Adrienne Rich]
I am a child
of the fifties
product of the baby
not generation X
not generation Y
Where is generation Z
have they been named
or is that too scary
Will the last letter of the alphabet be
the letter of the last generation ever
the generation that will
to reach the end
of this century
before earth’s temperature soars
4 - 6 per cent
Don’t panic, generation Z
has the key :
but buy artificial
Keep on keeping on until
the avoidable End
Finally here, Mark adds, ‘I think the New Zealand poetry scene is very diverse, nothing wrong with the wide variety of poetry on offer from rhyming poets to language poets … At present, we are getting an almost ‘censored,’ selective view of New Zealand poetry from editors of academic anthologies and the media that tend to just support the university presses. As long as public interest remains little, I’d expect this narrow, academic view of New Zealand poets and poetry to continue … we do hear a lot about university press books, and smaller press books seldom find review outlets or media coverage. It would be good if poetry presses worked together for the general good of the scene and encouraged public interest in the art.’ I agree, Mark.
Tony Chad, pictured right, self-publishes the indomitable Valley Micropress [no website]. He too is a poet-publisher, who receives no extraneous funding to finance the monthly issue. Indeed, notes Tony — another especially busy man — ‘I have had somesupport when I have requested it for Valley Micropress — in the early days of publication I received a small grant from Creative Communities for some office equipment to help publication … Nothing for a long time now though — VM operates entirely through subscriptions and my own efforts … I would like to see more local poets writing from the heart about local affairs that concern them. I would like to see more of a voice of protest as is taken for granted in Latin-American countries for example. This is not to say of course that poetry can’t be entertaining as well. It just seems sometimes that the local poetry scene is saturated with courses and workshops helping people to write when they have writer’s block, when they have nothing much to say, when they are just playing with words.’ There is a Tony Chad poem above right too.
It would seem ‘small’ press publication is this country is replete with idiosyncratic and ever-busy male battlers. This is by no means the case, of course, given that further on, I will return to that notion.
Because of course both poetry book publishers Seraph Press and Makaro Press (and here) are run by indefatigable women poet-publishers, namely Helen Rickerby (who is also a publisher of CNZ-funded JAAM and has her own blog) and Mary McCallum (who also is behind the Tuesday Poem blogspot — more on which in a further commentary.) And both are far more expansive than most of the male publishers!
Mary, pictured left, when asked about the mythological beast — the Aotearoa poetic — replies, ‘I can’t answer this one easily. There is a range of poetry out there in Aotearoa, as you’d expect. However, it appears to me to be dominated by poetry with a colloquial, dispassionate voice that writes of a captured personal moment or observation, and there is often, but not always, a relationship with landscape and nature. Such poems are usually small in size too, fitting on one or two pages, with short irregularly sized stanzas of two to six lines … However, there is more happening in the rare and shifting air at the literary end of poetry publishing … a hotel fire drill sign can set off a string of words that become a raging poem about the tragedies of our modern world, and the stories of the men on death row in the US can become a lyrical poetry sequence … [and]there is another form muscling its way in … poems with long lines that require a broad-backed book to hold them, and those difficult beasts: prose poems, which stand square on the page eschewing the usual limber stuff of poetry form … There are also some longer narrative poems coming through … Less common for some reason are the ‘language’ poems, which dwell on the sound and shape of the words over the experience or observation.’
She continues cogently, ‘Into a poetry scene that was largely pākeha, and for a long time male, there are now many women poets in New Zealand, and poets of both sexes bringing their Pacific and Asian heritage to printed page, often using the poetic form as way to tell the story of their people and the reality of their lives and history in this country. With that comes different rhythms and language — and, especially in the case of Pacifica poetry, work that performs brilliantly on stage. Poetry created for performance including that wonderfully named thing the poetry slam appears to be a growing thing across the board, especially amongst the young. And they make zines, too, these young people: poems on photocopied pages held with staples or string and blithely sold at zine events or online … At the same time the internet is wonderful for poets, opening them up to a range of work worldwide and no doubt influencing what they go on to write — high level poetry blogs … So is there an Aotearoa poetic? I’d say it is as various and as changeable as the people who inhabit this country, and as exciting.’
Helen Rickerby (pictured right), when questioned about a poetic in New Zealand, answers, ‘I imagine there are probably some characteristics that are typical of an Aotearoa poetic, but with a bunch of caveats: not everyone’s work will have the typical characteristics, and there are definitely different communities within our poetic community, with different voices, different concerns and different poetics … having said there probably is an Aotearoa poetic, I’m too cowardly and ensconced to suggest what it might be, though I will hazard that irony is a fairly common characteristic. I also feel that if we do get a sense of a poetic, we should try to push against it, to avoid becoming parodies of ourselves.’ That said, she has produced some fine poetry of her own, as on the NZETC site.
When asked about what she would like to see re: poetry in New Zealand, Helen responds, ‘I think in general I want to see more of people doing their own stuff, in their own way, without permission, which of course lots of people are doing already. And I’m always looking for more of what I enjoy reading, which is work that is satisfying intellectually and emotionally, which is ambitious, uses interesting forms, and beautiful and rich language, which is meaningful and un-ephemeral and which stays with me and makes me want to read it again and again … I would also like to see more critical writing about contemporary New Zealand poetry, and contemporary New Zealand literature more generally — what we write is as worth studying as literature from anywhere else. I would love to see writers and readers getting together with academics to create that culture.’ Mary McCallum would, ‘ … like to see more mainstream newspapers and magazines returning to the time when they published a poem a week, and committing to publishing more poetry reviews … However, on the positive side there are excellent online journals and blogs doing regular reviews of poetry books … Radio does a pretty good job of poetry reviewing … [however] I would love to see still more time given to poetry on air, with poetry recordings available for presenters to use to fill air time.’
For both Helen and Mary, funding for poetry is an ongoing issue. Mary notes accordingly that, ‘It isn’t easy for poets to get their work published by traditional publishers using the model where the press supports the book fully financially and pays royalties on sales. This is because there aren’t enough presses doing this, and those that do it seem to be publishing less of it for financial reasons. Poetry doesn’t sell well and the print runs are small … However there are a number of smaller presses around the country that publish only poetry, often without making a profit, and most — but not all — use a variation on the author contribution model. The contribution can be for the whole cost of the book or just for the printing. The press and the poets then either share any profit or it goes to the poet. This means the poet has to work hard to sell the book through web or email sales and poetry readings … [yet] poetry published by the smaller presses is less likely to be widely distributed around the bookshops or have a presence in the national book awards as both are expensive to fund … [More] There is government funding for poetry via Creative New Zealand grants, but this tends to go to high profile poets and established publishers. We [Makaro Press] haven’t applied for a CNZ grant for our poetry yet, but we hope to at some stage.’
She summarises, ‘So I guess publishing poetry is both hard and easy at the same time. The truth is a number of poetry books are published every year, and there are a number of excellent poetry journals that get poetry out there, so a poet who is determined to publish will do so.’ For Helen, ‘In terms of financial support, Seraph Press has never had any (to date, and though I did apply for some once, I really hate filling in forms and I hate doing budgets even more, and those are understandably necessary when applying for funding) … I … have been able to afford to get books printed (due to usually working full-time at a day job), and I have a very understanding and supportive life partner. The books make enough back to at least pay for the printing and the royalties to the authors … This is why I only publish very little (an average of about one book a year).’ Helen Rickerby concludes, ‘In terms of the difficulty of getting books published in New Zealand, I guess there are a couple of different struggles — for poets it is to find a publisher who is willing to publish their work, which is hard because there are only a few publishing poetry in New Zealand. And for publishers it’s being able to afford to publish it … No one publishes poetry for economic reasons — at least not in New Zealand. Even more commercial publishers must be doing it for love!’
This overall sense of battling to get poetry out into the public arena is further voiced by another intrepid male publisher-poet, Roger Hickin, of Cold Hub Press (and here) which publishes poetry collections. For Roger, ‘In a small country with a very small poetry-buying public, & these days a burgeoning multitude of publishing poets produced by the creative writing schools, it is almost impossible to sell more than 250 copies of a poetry book. More often than not it’s considerably fewer … Chapbooks can be put together without too much expense & published at a small profit. But this is not true of full books (especially if one is determined to support local printers, as Cold Hub Press is), which can only be sustainably produced with funding, of which, with an ever-expanding array of contenders to lick the gravy dish, there is just not enough to go around. By my count, out of a total of 104 grants in the last Creative New Zealand Quick Response Grant funding round (this is the grant that includes the individual publishing subsidy that small publishers who don’t qualify for bulk funding must apply for), only 4 were made to small publishers & of these only one was for a poetry collection.’
Having checked out the latest Quick Response Grants recipients, I [Rapatahana] can confirm that Roger Hickin is 100% correct: it’s not only hard enough getting sufficient finance for poetry publishing per se in Aotearoa, for the smaller presses and publishers it is often virtually impossible, especially when any funding that is granted is apportioned primarily to the gatekeepers based disproportionately in Wellington.
Roger (pictured left and with his poem down under here; like his press, a further South Island entity) adds, by the way, that as far as he is concerned, 'There may have been an “Aotearoa poetic” back in the days of so-called “cultural nationalism,” though I suspect that wasn’t so even then. Scenes and “sub-scenes” have come and gone. Cold Hub Press certainly isn’t yoked to any school or poetic, unless it’s that of maverick independence … Along with Robert Graves all I’d ask for is the occasional poem that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. And perhaps a little less of everything else.’
This maverick independence, of course, pervades many pores in many Kiwis. Which is why proportionately — and this is not statistically verifiable, of course and never will be either — the nation has (had) so many wonderful poets of whatever ethnicity and kaupapa. Perhaps, then, it is this characteristic which makes for great poets and poems, and is the magic ingredient of any ‘true’ Aotearoa poetic?
Doug Poole is yet another maverick. The instigator of the often experimental and always open-to-include online journal Blackmail Press, Doug is somewhat beset by a range of issues right now, and I will get back to him and his invaluable contribution to Aotearoa and its poetry, but suffice to say that, for him, ‘Blackmail Press is what it is and I am not really qualified to respond to. … the Aotearoa Poetic … I started it [BMP] to open a space in NZ for poets and it struggles along with no funding. That’s it really. I don't really think a lot about the NZ literati. I challenge it by producing BMP.’ Good on you bro’. Ka nui te pai tau kaha kei konei. [Your strong drive here is excellent.]
Another of these Crumpian good keen men out there hewing away alone at the scree and slate and shingle of the New Zealand independent poetry cliff-face is Brett Cross of Titus Books (and also Atuanui Press, who published my own novel Toa.) Brett is not exactly voluble, but does state upfront that, ‘Poetry publishing doesn’t get much support, the occasional grant, I think we’ve had two for poetry in the ten years we’ve been publishing at Titus Books, so it comes down to support from enthusiasts of poetry and accepting that you’re not going to get paid for the time you put into a book, which is fine most of the time, poetry publishers are obviously in it for love not money, but that said it would make life easier if it generated some return some of the time, there are bills to pay too, and there’s only so much time you can afford to donate for free. I don’t expect that poetry publishing will change anytime soon though … What would I like to see more of? I guess adventurous poetry in whatever form that takes. It’s impossible to prescribe what form good poetry would take, everybody has their own set of references and obsessions — personally I’m intrigued by the private world of the artist made public, all the anxieties and tensions that involves, I’m not particularly interested in writers exploring theories of writing, or only to the degree they manage to involve themselves in their work. It’s difficult to describe, but good poetry when you read it is usually unmistakeable …’ Here Brett references the sui generis Richard Taylor, whom he feels deserves more critical attention, I concur. It is now time for some poetry from Brett and Roger Hickin, as below —
Receiving a box of mandarins
on a cold midwinter day
Whakaraupō dark under cloud
my paintings look bleak
how good that an old friend
has sent me a hundred orange
he homai ana rongo kia kō mai atu au
wept to redeem
in rank peat
the slab buttresses
in swamp fertile
as the tide
Brett Cross (pictured left, by the way. Doing what he does well …)
Now I know, I know that there are several other fine smaller poetry presses (Steele-Roberts, for example, is a poet-as-self-financing publisher) and publications in Aotearoa-New Zealand (Ika and Minarets being two of the latter, while I am not certain of the current status of Typewriter or Hue and Cry Journal. Of Trout, Brian Flaherty writes, ‘Trout is in a state of decay at the moment — we are deciding whether to resurrect or close.’) But room and space and time creep up on me quite cunningly from behind and abnegate coverage of them and also of those excellent poetry publications which quite recently went into stasis, presumably for financial reasons — Enamel and Bravado being just two of them. Then there is the international Percutio, which we will encounter soon. So I will culminate with a further quick discussion of Potroast and then an interesting new kid on the online block, Sweet Mammalian … (NB. Sadly no press, other than — refreshingly — Anahera, focuses on publishing Indigenous poets: Huia Books for example pleads that publishing poetry is not economically viable, or in their very recent words to me, ‘The market for poetry is small …’)
You may well recall that Potroast is rather dedicated to ‘experimental’ poetry in its irregular jaunt through the calendar year. The trio of editors maintain that, ‘Although it’d be hard to say there was a clear New Zealand poetry, there’s often underlying cultural and social elements that make work feel distinctly ours — even if sometimes those elements are hard to dissect … We’ve had backing from Creative NZ in [the] past, which by some standards is a pretty rare privilege. That being said, there’s not many avenues to get small independent work out to new people. The community of people who are aware of Potroast have been really supportive though’ — this latter point Helen Rickerby also stressed with reference to her Seraph Press.
Sweet Mammalian has posted two x issues online. A third is soon to be launched. The trio of editors there has a refreshing and clear manifesto too. Namely that the editors feel that, ‘New Zealand poetry publishing has typically favoured a very aloof, analytical tone, which none of us three, as writers, felt that we were able to emulate. And, as readers of that poetry we were feeling disengaged. Sweet Mammalian was founded simply out of the desire (need) to create a space for other kinds of poetry that might come from a place that is a bit more emotionally turbulent, or complex, or messy, and that represented the people and lives that we knew were out there writing.’ I could not agree more.
The trio of Hannah Mettner, Magnolia Wilson and Morgan Bach also believe that, ‘There are so many divergent sub-scenes, that it would be reductive to put them all into one basket and give them all one name. However, there does seem to be an “Aotearoa poetic” that we don’t necessarily like or want to publish. New Zealand poems that overtly reference ideas and use symbols of ‘New Zealandness’ and what it means to identify as a ‘New Zealander’ feel simplistic, and often come from people who have one, very easy way of identifying as a ‘New Zealander.’
So good on them for their refreshing candidness, eh. Sweet Mammalians all, they also reveal, ‘We get a lot of support from poets and from the general literary community here [Wellington] … Most people want to be involved and are happy for your successes. We don’t struggle too much in getting our journal out as we do it all. It takes time, thought, and a bit of our own money. One of the great things about being an online journal is that we are accessible, and widely so, and it means that our little journal can be read and enjoyed by a much wider audience than it could ever receive as a print journal … Being a newer journal has also made it perhaps less scary for budding writers to submit stuff to us, and we’re really proud of being the first to recognise and publish really exciting new writers … We never know what we're going to get, and each issue is shaped by how the pieces we receive work together and talk to each other.’ Here is a recent photo of one of their recent readers, by the way —
I think also that the final words — and consequent ironies — regarding ‘smaller’ press publishing in Aotearoa-New Zealand — should be left with these editors. They all want,’ More of a connection between the literary people in different parts of the country … we find it really challenging editing Sweet Mammalian. The Aotearoa literary community is a highly politicised one, which is a truly excellent thing. It continues to evolve and change. This means that we are constantly second-guessing ourselves, questioning our choices and decisions, which is necessary, but at times this almost stops us from being able to function at all … we get the irony here, that we have created a journal with the aim of providing a space for new and different voices, but that we in turn accept some people and reject others.’
Further ironies abound and reflect the often internecine intricacies and twists of trying to get published as a poet — anywhere, I guess — and the concomitant necessity of having independent and courageous and divergent-from-the-norm ‘smaller’ publishers and publications. For the editors of Sweet Mammalian profess to their being ignored as regards their own poetry submissions in that,’ the more established, long-running NZ and Australian journals tend not to accept [our] work. [Our] work doesn’t fit with their aesthetic or something.’ Which is why they, ‘love the online poetry journal http://www.rejectamenta.nz/ " target="_blank">Rejectamenta run by Emma Barnes and Pip Adam as it offers comment on the exclusive nature of poetry in NZ.’ Of course, another of the ironies is that Rapatahana has yet to be published in Sweet Mammalian. [Logo below. Photo credit — Matt Bialostocki]
There is, then, a very definite need for all of the ‘smaller’ poetry publications and presses lurking inside this commentary post. Without commercial gain and with considerable ‘labours of love,’ they continue to channel their poetries to the public. Kia ora ki katoa (Let all thrive.)
The more variegation and vim in Aotearoa poetry, the better.