Alan Loney photographBiography

Alan Loney
The Falling
The printing of a masterpiece
Anne of the Iron Door

Alan Loney’s work has always been at the cutting edge of New Zealand’s place in world literature. He is a poet of international stature, whose mastery has become a resource for us all.
Robert Creeley

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Longey Otago 2008

Alan Loney at the University of Otago, 2008

Alan Loney was born in 1940 in Lower Hutt in New Zealand. His first book of poems The bare re-membrance was published in 1971 and he printed his first book in 1974. Since then he has gained an inter-national reputation as a poet, critic, writer, publisher and printer. 

He has been a book and magazine editor (including Parallax and New Zealand Crafts) and a publisher at Hawk Press (1975-1983), Black Light Press (1987-1991) and The Holloway Press at the University of Auckland (1994-1998). He has also been published by fine presses such as Granary Books (New York), The Janus Press (Vermont), Ink-A! Press (Oregon) and Barbarian Press (British Columbia) as well as Five Islands Press and Auckland University Press.

He was Auckland University Literary Fellow 1992, Honorary Fellow at The Australian Centre, University of Melbourne 2002-2006 and Printer in Residence at University of Otago 2008. Alan Loney lives in Melbourne, Australia with his partner, musician and painter Miriam Morris. He is the recipient of the 2011 Janet Frame Award.

Recent books include Fragmenta nova (poetry, Five Islands Press, Melbourne), The Falling (a memoir of his childhood, Auckland University Press), and Searchings, the Journals of Max Gimblett (The Holloway Press, Auckland). Black Pepper published his most recent memoir, The printing of a masterpiece, in 2008.

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Janet Frame Award Press Release

Janet Frame Prize for Kiwi Expat Author
Sally Blundell
6 May 2011

Poet, printer and editor Alan Loney has been named as the 2011 recipient of a Janet Frame Literary Trust Award worth $10,000. Alan Loney is a New Zealander who has lived in Melbourne, Australia in recent years, although retaining strong literary ties on both sides of the Tasman. Born in 1940, Loney’s first book of poetry was published in 1971. He won a NZ Book Award for his 1976 collection dear Mondrian. US poet Robert Creeley said of the collection Sidetracks: Notebooks 1976-1991, that “Alan Loney’s work has always been at the cutting edge of world literature. His mastery has become a resource for us all.”

Alongside an influential career as printer, editor and publisher, Loney has an extensive bibliography of his own poetry and prose published in many countries. He has four titles forthcoming in 2011: Anne of the Iron Door (a novella from Black Pepper Press, Melbourne) as well as three new poetry volumes with Rubicon Press (Canada), Ninja Press (California) and Chax Press (Arizona). The Falling: A Memoir was released by Auckland University Press in 2001.

Chair of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Pamela Gordon said, ‘These awards are made possible by Janet Frame’s generous bequest of an endowment fund, and they’re offered in her spirit of wanting to give encouragement and financial support to established writers of proven merit, who may be overdue for some recognition or reward.”

Alan Loney declared himself “astonished, delighted, honoured and somewhat moved” to receive the prize, and he also said “how nourishing the news about the Award is, and how confirming it seems for such a life’s work that I have had.”

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True to Type
Sally Blundell
The Listener (New Zealand), 2 August 2008

Denis Glover said he had ‘the real feel for print.’ Robert Creeley believed him worthy of ‘a small monument.’ Now, legendary New Zealand poet and printer Alan Loney has told his life story. But it’s a characteristically evasive version.

Self-definition, writes Alan Loney, is a ‘creaky business.’ It is, he says, a question that remains a question ‘in spite of the plethora of answers, examples, anecdotes and epic narratives we often lend to our short lives.’

Speaking from his home in the suburbs of south-east Melbourne, where he has lived for the past five years, the poet, printer, essayist, book designer, typographer, one-time stutterer and unconvinced autobiographer has little faith in the successful translation of memory into narrative.

‘If you were to put down on paper all the words you saw in a day – in newspapers, in signs seen from the car or the bus – you would end up with a record of your readerly experience, but it would not be a narrative. Our own experience is like that. That is why autobiography is a lie. And biography is even worse.’

Loney’s new memoir, The Printing of a Masterpiece, is more an account of his work as a printer and maker of books than a straightforward autobiography.

He has tried previously to put his life story in some semblance of order. In 1994, his slim collection of prose and poetry entitled The Erasure Tapes was described by the writer as ‘an autobiography in which I refuse to tell the story of my life.’ As one of these poems explains:

We cannot rearrange
our past. We rearrange our past
all the time. We have fashioned
a garden where the flowers
have always now come out

Then, in 2001, came The Falling: A Memoir – a remarkable tribute to a childhood acquaintance killed in the Tangiwai train disaster of 1953. Here the book-long plunge of Locomotive Ka 949 into the Whangaehu River, the gruelling twist and tumble of the carriage in free fall, serves as an oblique exploration of his childhood.

‘My name is Robert Hale,’ the book begins, ‘or, if you’d prefer, my name is Alan Loney. Or, my name could be any that any of us could choose. If all of us die, and if kings and paupers are the same in death, as the wisdom goes, then what’s in a name?’

Pure Loney – self-exploratory, philosophical, circumspect.

The author then gives a responding voice to the young Hale: ‘Why this interest in me? What a trip to ‘lay on a kid’ one could say, and on a dead one at that...’

Pure Loney again – self-reflective in a manner that is fragmented, erudite, novel.

Yet it is through the deaths of Hale and his mother, Eileen, that we see shreds of a painful childhood. Loney was born in Lower Hutt in 1940, the eldest of eight children, coping as well as a child can cope with the unremitting violence of his father and the enduring shame of being ‘that poor stutterer.’ He played the drum for the Boys’ Brigade, he didn’t enjoy books (he came to reading, he says, after he came to -writing), he didn’t like Elvis Presley.

The same year that 151 passengers were killed as the first six carriages of the Main Trunk express train dropped into the river below, Loney led his mother, bruised and despairing, away from the edge of the flooded Hutt River. As he says now: ‘I knew that if my mother jumped into the river I would follow her. I was 13, in my first year at high school, and experiencing fully a sort of bewilderment at being alive, and having no clue at what might be in store for me and ‘waiting for the next blow’ as Beckett put it somewhere.’

There were times, he writes in The Falling, that he wanted to sail down the Hutt River and go on out to sea. ‘I had a raft of wooden planks over a couple of 44 gal oil drums.’

The river was too fast, too dangerous for a boy on his own, but Loney did not stay in his hometown for long. He left school at 14 – beginning what he calls his long and ragged path into adulthood. ‘I found it hard to make my way in the world – relationships, jobs, living in places. Some of my friends have very smooth paths – good family, good schools, good education and on to good jobs. I didn’t start printing until 1974-75, and the path to that was a rather jagged affair. But it was all grist to the mill, lots of different experiences to draw on and that’s very fruitful.’

He considered a monastery, took instead an office job. He was a jazz musician; he played in Wellington’s dance halls in a Maori rock and blues band. ‘[Then] the jazz scene I was involved in folded in 1963 and people went back to university or to journalism careers or just stopped playing. There was nowhere for me to play.’

It was during this time, working as a proofreader on the Dominion, that Loney began writing poetry, inspired initially by English poets (Robert Graves, Edwin Muir, Alun Lewis), then later largely by the work of new American poets such as Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder and Charles Olson. Loney’s discovery of Olson’s The Maximus Poems, he later wrote, ‘extended by a long margin my sense of the ‘poetically possible’.’

Seven years later, in Dunedin, he approached Dunedin’s fledgling Caveman Press. A deal was made by which Loney set the poems in type while editor and publisher Trevor Reeves printed them on a treadle platen press. The result – The Bare Remembrance (1974), the first of 10 books of poetry by Loney.

The following year, with money saved, borrowed and gifted, he bought a 60-year-old treadle platen press for $100 and established Hawk Press, a one-man printing and publishing operation based initially in a draughty garage in Christchurch’s Taylor’s Mistake. Its aim? To publish those poets ignored by the mainstream literary publications – poets such as Ian Wedde, Joanna Paul, Bill Manhire and Elizabeth Smither – in typographic form ‘appropriate to its content.’

Loney explains. ‘The poets of the 30s – Curnow, Glover, critics like E.H. -McCormack – did a full-frontal attack on those poets writing about the bonnie banks of Otago, that whole pastoral tradition. At that point, New Zealand poetry was largely informed by an English set of traditions – Pound, Eliot, Auden, Spender. Then in the late 60s, a new generation discovered European and American poetry. Their poetry was more urbanised – they didn’t want to know about brooding hills. It looked different. Sounded different. It was shaped differently. It broke away from the production values of Caxton Press and Landfall. It was poetry as ephemeral as human life and you didn’t have to carve the letters in stone. A new energy entered New Zealand poetry and it was ferociously resisted by the mainstream of the time. It still is.’

These odd-shaped, open-form poems (Loney takes task with this term – all content has form, he argues, words in a straight line have form) were having a hard time being printed in mainstream magazines. Although some appeared in print – on sheets of A4 stapled together or in experimental journals such as Alan Brunton’s Freed – small presses such as Hawk Press provided a new outlet in what has since been described as a poetic and typographical challenge to the literary publishers of the time.

Not content to ‘muck about in the shed with an old printing press,’ Loney chose the harder road, spending long hours at considerable cost, and at ‘some risk to one’s emotional stability,’ hand-inking the type and pulling the handle of the press in what he calls his ‘dance around the press.’ The end result is a fine-press limited-edition publication designed and printed to maintain utter fidelity to the text as it came from the author.

‘The poem arrives in an intended shape. My job is to preserve as close as humanly possible that shape and those margins. It’s not hard. All you have to do is follow what’s in front of your eyes. If poems have long lines, for example, you don’t do a narrow book with turnover lines that would destroy the integrity of the poems, that disfigure the poems.’

And if a publisher changes that shape? ‘That’s called rewriting. It’s as simple as that – any messing around is editorial stupidity and ignorance.’

This is Loney’s commitment to accuracy, to being faithful to within a hair’s breadth to the spacing on the page, to make decisions as to the arrangement of the letters, the type, the margins, the page size, the line length, the format of the book itself in order to provide the necessary visual clues required by the poem.

There is also an archival role – an attempt to preserve that moment of creativity from which a poem is made. In printing a previously unpublished poem by Robin Hyde, Loney and poet-scholar Michele Leggott produced a book revealing the author’s many versions of the poem.

‘We had to find a way of signalling these things with complete accuracy, so we had this massive variational thing with the 14 lines that were in common to all versions in blue.’

Such fidelity to the pedigree of the poem is best described by Charles Olson in a quote included in the preface to Loney’s second poetry collection, dear Mondrian:

whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
And the dirt
just to make clear
where they came from

Assisting this process was the increasing availability of letterpress equipment as the publishing industry turned to more high-tech printing processes. Within a few years of venturing into publishing, Loney had moved from treadle to hand presses, from machine-made to handmade paper, drawing on methods and materials used from the time of Gutenberg’s first cast type in 1440 until the advent of the linotype machine in 1884.

Despite the small print runs, the limited market, the onerous work, Hawk Press succeeded in printing 25 volumes of poetry, two essays and three books of illustrated texts in a mere eight years. In 1976, dear Mondrian won the New Zealand Book Award as well as the admiration of Robert Creeley, who described the work as complex and significant, revealing a mastery of the book for which ‘at least a small monument in some unused public square would seem an entirely just reward.’

As Denis Glover once wrote about Loney, he has ‘the real feel for print.’

Loney’s commitment to literature went beyond writing and publishing. In Dunedin, he opened the Poetry Shop. In the early 80s, he edited Parallax, a journal of postmodern literature and art. He edited New Zealand Crafts magazine; he founded the Book Arts Society; in 1991, he founded the arts journal A Brief Description of the Whole World.

After Hawk Press folded in 1983, Loney set up Black Light Press in Wellington, then the Holloway Press with Peter Simpson at the University of Auckland, and now Electio Editions in Melbourne.

He has worked with a wide number of artists – Ralph Hotere, Marilyn Webb, Andrew Drummond, Julia Morison, Robin Neate, Max Gimblett. The collaborative Loney-Gimblett Mondrian’s flowers, published by New York’s Granary Books, is a beautiful annihilation of the boundaries between poem, art and the Mondrian-inspired fact of the book itself.

Loney has now printed 50 books. Some have been written by others (most recently, Dante Alighieri’s The Flowery Meadow, with drawings by Bruno Leti); some are his own work – essays, poems, questions, paradoxes, further oblique stabs at self-definition.

And he is still published by others – his latest collection of poems, Nowhere to go (Five Islands), was published last year in Australia. But he has one stipulation.

‘Sometimes I think my sensibility is so weird no one else has it, but I do tend to send material to publishers I trust and respect. The only thing I want is an asymmetrical design from cover to cover. How you do it, I say, is up to you.’

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