Where Do Poems Come From?

Jennifer Harrison
poam (Melbourne Poets Union), No. 327, Oct-Nov 2010

I have always admired the way artists speak so interestingly about their work. I enjoy reading the poets’ comments on their work in the USA’s Best American Poetry series, and in Australia’s own UQP’s Best Australian Poetry. It’s been harder for me to articulate the sources of my own creativity. I agree with Wislawa Szymborska, who in her 1996 Nobel Prize Address said that inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists: doctors, teachers, gardeners - a thousand other occupations - are as creative. Her caveat was that this is only true as long as one is challenged and energized by one’s choices. As long as curiosity persists. Again, to quote Szymborska: poetic inspiration is born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’... ‘I don’t know is small but flies on mighty wings’.

I feel I’ve always written by instinct, tending to follow rather mysterious inclinations as they arise. I had little interest in thinking about my own creativity until 2007/2008 when Canberra poet and academic Paul Magee included me in the group of poets he interviewed across Australia on the topic of creativity. Through his careful and thoughtful questionings I discovered some ways to think about my poetry and its relationship to work practice and community.

Poetry investigates the relationship between real and virtual worlds. In any particular poem images are plagarised from experience. In ‘Hand, Chainsaw, Head’, a poem I wrote about Mortlake Busker’s Festival, the initial images of the poem contain an accurate account of a performance I witnessed at the festival. With virtuoso competence a street-performer juggled a kicked chainsaw, a rubber hand and a plastic head (which happened to be Pauline Hansen’s head, a detail I left out of the poem - it’s also interesting why details are omitted from a poem). The performance was violent, political and skillful - but my poem digressed to become a poem about mothering children, about keeping them safe from danger and from the dark superstitions of the psyche.

Children learn to ‘pretend play’ in the domain of experience. They tag the real world and welcome it, sometimes with anger, into play worlds. Some say we are genetically wired in evolutionary terms to pretend play. That literature rises out of our story instinct.

Peter Porter once called memory ‘...the little stone of unhappiness / which I keep with me. I had it as a child / and put it in a drawer.’ One of my childhood memories is of being pushed from a jetty into weedy water to learn to swim. A very Aussie experience I imagine. I notice this image returning in my poems and I feel like a curious observer watching themes or airs of my childhood appear in my poems. The poems seem to be perfect forgeries of a kind.

I keep returning to Octavio Paz’s Nobel Address 1990 in which he says that the consciousness of being separate is a constant feature of our spiritual history and it is experienced as a wound, an internal division that invites self-examination. As we are wrenched from the childhood’s ‘forever future’, we fall into an alien land. It is the unfathomable depth of all human beings. Paz indicated that being a Mexican artist meant listening to the voice of Mexican history: from the temples and gods of pre-Columbian ruins though to the hermetic languages of myth, legend, coexistence, popular art and customs. Poetry is a temporal and cultural art form. In my poetry there are poems about travel, place (Cudmirrah, Cabramatta), my father’s motor cycle shop, my cousin’s CB radio, the Australian coast, the desert. I don’t think good poetry is in love with nostalgia but with Paz’s ‘instant’; i.e. the attempt to relive the momentary past and fix it permanently into the present.

Jennifer Harrison, Mebourne Writers’ Festival 2010

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Mind, Phrase and Fable
Jennifer Harrison 
Lecture transcript - Melbourne University;  May 2006

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
How difficult it is to remain just one person,
For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
Czeslaw Milosz [1]

When reading these famous lines of ‘Ars Poetica?’ by Czeslaw Milosz, I’m attracted to two concepts: the poet’s sense of  continual diversification within his psyche as a source of writing, and the idea of creativity as a receptivity, or an openness to the guests of the imagination. What matters is not whether the poem is true to actual identity or life but whether the poem is true to the many stories, the many possible imaginings—true to the guests who take up in residence in the poet’s mind. In this essay, I want to focus on my perception of the poem as a type of fable—and of the poet as a fabulist, or mythopoetic-maker, almost as a kind of inevitability. Seeing the poem in this light, I believe, creates a large and expansive imaginative space in which both writers and readers of poetry can explore new social, political and cultural perspectives.

I chose this topic when I noticed myself writing a number of poems that resembled fables. Many of these are now collected into the collection Folly & Grief (Black Pepper, 2006). These poems were unlike earlier work and they puzzled me. In 2000, I had received a writing grant from the Literary Board of the Australia Council to write a collection about street theatre traditions in Australia. At that time, I was intending to explore objectivity as a way of moving away from the subjectivity of personal biographical poems. I felt that by using the street theatre theme, I might be able to write a series of poems in the manner of Rainer Maria Rilke’s New Poems, many of which are, of course, famous poetry classics (‘The Panther’, ‘Washing the Corpse’, ‘The Flamingos’, ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Residing in Paris, and strongly influenced by the sculptor Rodin, Rilke deliberately set out to explore impressionism by rendering his spontaneous impressions of Paris (animals in the zoo, art works, etc.) into sonnets.

Derailed from this ‘planned’ acolyte’s path, I found myself writing strange poems characterised by a surreal logic which tracked an unusual, seemingly subconscious symbology and I began to ponder the idea of the poem as a magical story, a fable polished in the mind by language. Most writers agree that despite its tubercular romantic image, poetry requires extreme lucidity and an alert sensorium to write. It requires the poet to sort through perceptions, memories, ideas, and to organise them. Writers who have experienced bouts of mental illness are the first to say that illness sets back their work, even when it provides them with insights for later work. And yet, what flows onto the page when writing a poem, in that first creative flush, is what is most essential; it is what flows most purely and primevally from the mind. When I speak of the mind, I’m thinking of it as an imaginative terrain and a process: a terrain that has not been fully explored and a process that is still mysterious despite functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques and other marvellous scientific neuro-investigative advances. In addition to human genome mapping and development of stem cell technologies, the science of correlating cognitive activity with measurement of neurological function is one of the most exciting areas of enquiry for the future. Poetry has not be spared from this. In April 2005, psychologists from Scotland's Dundee and St. Andrews Universities, using a measurement of saccadic eye-movements, which they believed correlated in a quantitative way with deeper thought, demonstrated that poetry (Lord Byron’s) exercises the mind more than a novel (Jane Austen’s) [2]. The researchers suggested that poetry may stir complex latent preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop during childhood. To judge by the flurry of ensuing media reports, this research was greeted with tremendous, though transitory, interest. And there are plans underway to scan the brains of people reading poetry to see what parts of the brain light up during those revelatory moments when we hear an apt image or sense that lingering pleasure at the end of a well-read poem.

We can surmise that a connection between the prefrontal cortex, the language areas of the brain and the hippocampus (or some other site of emotional-sound-sense integration and recognition), will throb with activity during such experiments. But what would it be like to see one’s own MRI scanned brain, a functional neon map of what happens when we read something as complex as Lorca’s definition of poetry?

The black sounds—behind which there abide, in tenderest intimacy, the volcanoes, the ants, the zephyrs, and the enormous night, straining its waist against the Milky Way. [3]

Might it take something away from poetry? Was the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstram, right when he snarkily said:

These days in sacred frenzy, poets speak the language of all times, all cultures. Nothing is impossible. Just as a room where a man is dying is opened to all, so the door of the old world is flung wide before the crowd. Suddenly everything has become common property. Come in and help yourself. Everything’s available: all the labyrinths, all the hiding places, all the forbidden paths. [4]

Biodiversity is good for a healthy poetry planet, but here Mandelstram seems to be suggesting that something is lost when the fabulous, mythic or sacred aspects of poetry are devalued. Perhaps it is through the ritualistic structures of myth and fable that we are able to explore both reverent and irreverent subjects without appropriating all the labyrinths and hiding places.

Having digressed a little, here’s a good place for some field definitions. A perusal of the web indicates more than 20 definitions of fable from ‘an action role-playing game published by Microsoft’ to ‘a short story with a moral, often one in which the characters are animals’. In many dictionaries, a fable is defined as ‘a story or narrative not founded on fact’ and includes myths, legendary tales, true and false statements, ‘things only supposed to exist’. It is this quality of magic, of bending the rules of the real, that Milosz captures so beautifully in his ‘Ars Poetica?’ poem. The Wordnet Online Dictionary provides four definitions of fable: 1) a feigned story or tale, intended to instruct, amuse or impart some useful truth; 2) the plot or story of an epic or dramatic poem; 3) any story told to excite wonder or foreboding (as in an old wives tale) and 4) an untruth, or falsehood. I like the mix of these delineations, which may resolve, perhaps, into one single definition, i.e. to write a fable is to write what is untrue in order to speak a useful truth.

The boundaries between fables and related literary forms can be unclear. In his book Fables in Classical and Hellenic Greek Literature, Gert-Jan Van Dijk defines the Aesopic fable as ‘a fictitious, metaphorical narrative’. Interestingly, to my ear, this sounds like the definition of a poem. The word fable comes from the Latin fabula and shares a root with faber or ‘artificer’. Thus, from its outset, the fable, like a poem, is understood to be an invention, a created fiction. Dr Samuel Johnson’s definition of fable, taken from the Classic Encyclopaedia, also stands the test of time:

A narrative in which beings irrational and sometimes inanimate are, for the purposes of moral instruction, feigned to act and speak with human interests and passions.

Or as La Fontaine said:

Fables in sooth are not what they appear; our moralists are mice and such small deer.

Fables can include stories or poems with a mythical or legendary aspect but myth and fable are not synonymous. Myth grows over time and as it arises from a context of cultural and religious belief and practice, it is closely aligned to ritual. A myth is the spontaneous, unconscious product of primitive fancy as it plays, like a breeze in leaves, with phenomena of historical or natural fact. Legends are strongly rooted in historical fact, whereas myths embrace the fictional, the supernatural as they seek to explain some aspect of the origin or manner of our being. The authorship of a myth is communally shared, attributable to no single person. Therefore, a myth usually has more than one version. A fable, on the other hand, is consciously made, is less often self-interpreting, and is closer in form to the parable and allegory and, perhaps, to proverbs, which are often thought of as condensed fables.

Aesop is thought to be the father of fable but he might or might not have existed. Supposedly a Greek slave who lived around 600 BC, he is credited with the animal fable tradition. Yet the fable appeared much earlier in human history. Fable scholars believe that the form grew out of the primitive beast narratives of Paleolithic and Neolithic times. In their original form, the animals were not interested in the moral dilemmas that characterise fables today. The Sanskrit apologues, the Panchatantra, were thought to have travelled from Hindustan to ancient Greece quite early and as Aesop’s fables are often identical to those of the East (which have the earlier documentation), it appears that they were antecedent. Fables were originally part of an oral tradition but were written into verse in Greece from about the 3rd century AD when Babrias scribed his versions. A Latin edition of verse written by Phaedrus, a slave of Thracian origin, reached Rome in the time of Augustus.

Like many others, I have clear childhood memories of fable stories: the fox gobbling his passenger, the tortoise plodding towards an endless finish line and, somewhat creepily, as I recall it, a grandmother emerging unscathed from Red Riding Hood’s dead wolf. In memory, the text is difficult to differentiate from the picture books’ illustrations. I have most of my childhood books, including one titled Best-Known and Best-Loved Tales from Around the World; A Child’s Book of Stories, in which the principal illustrator, Jessica Willcox Smith, depicts the child heroes as fraught innocents yet, without exception, they were plump, well-fed, well-dressed and vigorously healthy.

It is likely that fables are so strongly ingrained into our psyche that we are unaware of their power and it is also probable that poets tap into the fable tradition intuitively. Wallace Stevens once said that ‘poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully’. He was implying that poets are engaged in a dynamic struggle between the intellect and more ‘undigested’ or intuitive impulses, and that the balance or tension is important. This idea seems to confirm something of the process I experience when writing. There can be a fine line between creativity and a feeling of ‘stuckness’. When writing the Folly & Grief fable poems, I felt as though a door had been opened, beyond which there lay an airy wilderness. I noticed subtle (and not so subtle) ethical dilemmas embedded in the poems and I felt free to explore strange sceneries, experiences and characters. To use Pessoa’s term, I was liberated to explore other ‘selves’ or heteronymies [4]. The poems seemed illogical and irrational, yet were also mannered, traditional rational stories. Here is an example from Folly & Grief:

The Biologist

After we lost the road, we found rocks
so sharp they shredded our hands and feet

We climbed all day and sheltered in a cave
overlooking a valley, thin and dark as a pencil

Smiling a little, she settled her small jars and
ornate grasses and wiped the dust from her tools

The sea exists in sublime isolation she remarked
offering us corn hot as chipped asphalt

Do you understand how I’m forced to defend myself
in dreams of rabbits and ferris-wheel rats?

I dream, too, of larkspur, pretty flowers
but I smell the path ahead like a dog

As she spoke, she looked to the side of us—
over and through us—and because we were tired

We laughed behind her back, resenting her trust—
we understood that she perceived all our errors

As errata—and so we camped with her
in the crooked elbows of granite

The next day we followed her
through waist-high forests, past fecund glades where

Giant ferns swayed over copper hermetic mosses
their touch soft in the rain-green shadows

And we lost ourselves in a maze of cruel and
dazzling mica, as all day we walked and all day the salt

Ignored us, the earth cracking beneath the weight
of a sunset that glowered like a necrosis

Of inconsolable honey—and we did not sleep
even though we might have, even though she promised

This might not be the best poem in Folly & Grief and rarely would a poet wish to consider themselves a didactic moralist but when examined closely the poem does contain inherent moral elements and questionings. As La Fontaine put it, ‘a fable has a body and a soul’.

I wrote ‘The Biologist’ instinctively and discovered the ethics afterwards as a slippery slope, the handholds difficult. The biologist, a woman, seems tortured by the cruelty of animal experimentation but the true strangeness of the poem rests with the passive narrator who follows the biologist wherever she goes. The journey through an unreal cinematic landscape ends imprecisely in an unknown place, where there is a sense of disappointment and disillusionment. Why did the narrator, though derisive of the scientist, follow her? I like to think that the poem can be read as an allegory of our contemporary journey with biological science. Our relationship with science is often ambivalent. The astounding possibilities of gene manipulation and the woes of an increasingly fragile planet are terrifying. In the poem, we follow the biologist somewhat blindly, as we do in life, because in a technocracy few of us have the expertise to really understand and influence the orthodoxies of genetic and molecular sciences. I did not intend to write a fable on this subject but a fable form emerged from contemporary concerns; and it emerged with all the characteristics of a fable by Aesop or La Fontaine: an animal protagonist, a journey, an ethical dilemma or moral tension.

‘The Biologist’ could have been written as a lyric, a prose poem or a short story with a laboratory setting, but it’s interesting to think about what is gained by the poem as fable form. As noted earlier, Osip Mandelstram lamented the breaking down of the boundaries between ancient myth and modern literature. Critiquing the writer’s freedom to appropriate whatever they need or want, he was suggesting that the sacred had lost its meaning. In a way, he was predicting the advent of post-modernist culture and practice and, indeed, the internet, with its vast smorgasbord of information labyrinths. This plenty has resulted in a blossoming of poetry publications. There is renewed interest in experimentation in form and fragmentation of language. We have more cross-fertilisation between poetry and prose and between poetry and other art forms, such as painting, music, video and photography, than ever before. In such a context, the fable can be seen as a rather quaint folkloric changeling, one that might have retained literary strength in France but has receded from other traditions to inhabit solely the realm of children’s stories and fairy tales. But what can the fable do well?

Firstly, in its function as allegory or parable, the fable lends itself to political satire. As a subversive form, it allows the poet to explore unconventional social perspectives, and to challenge the arrogance or certainties of the status quo.

Secondly, in the Aesopian fable, there is a respect for animals and for what they can teach us about ourselves. As I’ve noted, the animal motif can be traced back to the primitive spirituality of early humans, cultures in which the animal was sacred. Karen Armstrong discusses this lucidly in A Short History of Myth (2005). In shamanistic societies, animals were not seen as inferior beings but as possessing superior wisdom. To kill an animal was to kill a friend. This respect for the non-human world is a recurring motif in the poetry of all cultures.

Thirdly, fables are full of fun and sly humour. Rhetorical devices such as hyperbole and absurdity are effective unguents. In the fable, one can satirise without wounding.

Fourthly, the folkloric aspect of the fable brings it close to common language and to accessible concerns. Dialogue between characters, animal or otherwise, sits comfortably in the form. The fabulist is an observer of the times, of human relations. The focus is on the society, as opposed to the interior world of the self or abstract metaphysics.

Finally, the fable in its mythic guise gestures towards the numinous, or the spiritual. Myths about flight, ascent, descent and journeys have also appeared in all cultures and seem to express a desire for transcendence of the everyday. It’s the discourse we need in extremity. As an antidote for anxiety about human mortality, myths are therapeutically reassuring and regenerative. If they lose purpose, they fade from us. They remain strong as long as they are meaningful to us. Unless encountered within a process of regeneration, time and ritual, they make no sense. The fable, too, can be seen as a vehicle for making the old new. ‘The Biologist’, for example, can be read as a rewriting of the failed hero myth, in which the hero biologist, who is self-preoccupied and obsessive, goes nowhere.

With differing intent and effect, many writers have used poetry to retell fables, fairy tales, myths and historic legends. To reiterate old archetypes can be comforting, like slippers, which may be why fables are so popular as bedtime stories for children. To make a fable newly original, however, can be a more challenging task for a writer.

A favourite poem of mine by the wonderful Australian poet, Judith Wright (1915-2000), is ‘Halfway’, an Aesopian story about a tadpole. Wright was fond of the fable and folklore informs much of her work (see ‘The Traveller and the Angel’ from The Gateway (1953) and ‘The Harp and the King’ from The Two Fires (1955) as examples). ‘Halfway’ was a late period poem of Wright’s. It appeared in Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s 1971 Anthology of Australian Poetry, and was later collected into Wright’s Collected Poems 1942-1970 (1971). Wright begins by describing her experience of encountering a tadpole caught in a sheet of ice and the poem plays out as an elegant fable about entrapment. Here is the poem:


I saw a tadpole once in a sheet of ice
(a freakish joke played by my country’s weather).
He hung at arrest, displayed as it were in glass,
an illustration of neither one thing nor the other.

His head was a frog’s, and his hinder legs had grown
ready to climb and jump to his promised land;
but his bladed tail in the ice-pane weighed him down.
He seemed to accost my eye with his budding hand.

“I am neither one thing nor the other, not here nor there.
I saw great lights in the place where I would be,
but rose too soon, half made for water, half air,
and they have gripped and stilled and enchanted me.

“Is that world real or a dream I cannot reach?
Beneath me the dark familiar waters flow
and my fellows huddle and nuzzle each to each
while motionless here I stare where I cannot go.”

The comic O of his mouth, his gold-rimmed eyes,
looked in that lustrous glaze as though they’d ask
my vague divinity, looming in stooped surprise,
for death or rescue. But neither was my task.

Waking halfway from a dream one winter night
I remembered him as a poem I had to write.

I love the symmetry of this poem: how it is halfway through a poem called ‘Halfway’ that the tadpole begins to speak—just as it is halfway through a dream that the poet wakes to write the poem. Wright presents us with a fable that is forever open to interpretation and reinterpretation. Like most fables, the poem works on many levels and includes a comment on the poet’s task—the fable maker within the fable. The poet’s task is not that of diviner or divinity. The poet has no power to rescue or solve the tadpole’s predicament. In the moral of the fable, the poet’s task is an ordinary one: to record memories. Of course, the poet does much more than that. The tadpole becomes a metaphor for the many possibilities of entrapment and lost freedom; for death and potential resurrection and for the ultimate asymmetry of chance.

At the beginning of this essay, I indicated that all poetry can be perceived as fabulist. Drawing the longest bow, one can say that all poems are fabrications and, so, fables. It is interesting to trace the relationship between the poem and the fable. They share their origins in oral traditions. Aristotle saw the Aesopian fable as a form of rhetoric, not poetry. Many fables have appeared and reappeared, recast from prose into poetry. Reynard the Fox, for example, is a beast epic about a fox, an ass, a bear, a cat and a she-wolf. In Europe, this cycle of stories (initially collected around Reynard the Fox and Isengrim the Wolf in the 12th century), probably began in Latin and found its way into German, Dutch, French and English (appearing also in Chaucer’s ‘Nonne Preestes Tale’). Reynard (or Renart) became a popular epic used to parody feudal institutions and has been called by some “the fable bible”. Goethe translated the stories into modern German hexameters in 1794. In France, the poet/fabler tradition was also strong with the influential Marie de France writing in the 13th Century and, later, Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), became known as ‘le fablier’, in the 17th century.

A writer of exquisite verse and a nature lover, La Fontaine was revered as much for his prowess as a poet as a fabler. Some fables such as ‘The Two Pigeons and Death’ and ‘The Woodcutter’ are highly compassionate and tender whilst others, ‘The Cicada and the Ants’, are more brutal. La Fontaine saw the soul of the fable as the moral—the rule of behaviour—and he set out to satirise the court, the church, and the rising bourgeoisie. Following La Fontaine and his numerous emulators, a French school of anti-fabulists developed their own movement. Nevertheless, it is since La Fontaine that the familiar moral element in fables has become almost pathognomic of the form.

In contemporary Australia, the poet who writes consistently and originally in this tradition is J.S. Harry. The fable form enables Harry to powerfully critique contemporary society. Her wickedly funny rabbit character, Peter Henry Lepus, travels to Iraq as an embedded reporter where his mediaspeak provincialism and naivety wreak absurd and poignant havoc. The long sequence poem of Lepus’ reportage, ‘Iraq’ was first published in Heat in 2004 and, again, in Peter Porter’s Best Australian Poetry in 2005. Harry’s work highlights another attribute of the fable/poem: its internationalism.

In the past, fables provided stories for versifying, but are there commonalities between fables and poems apart from the fact that they both arose from oral traditions and are influenced by each other? Perhaps because of this history, both reflect a culture’s efforts to retain, through memory, knowledge of itself. Rhyme evolved as a musical mnemonic device and much of children’s pleasure in a fable lies in their anticipation of its repetitiveness. Both are porous and over time accretive, in that they soak up the influences of the times. Poems and fables are reinterpreted continually in order to illuminate social challenges. In addition, both poems and fables absorb influences coming into a culture or society from elsewhere even as they stay relatively stable in form over time. Fables cross between cultures and although neither fable nor poem is an accurate record of history, they both possess, and process, meaning. Both have the ability to travel through time and to be regarded as valuable by future societies—or to lose their significance. Both die away from the culture if they lack vitality.

So, how has the Australian fable/poem changed since Judith Wright’s ‘Halfway’? There is much diversity in the poems published in Australia, but I want to concentrate on a particular kind of contemporary poem that is often published in journals and e-zines, both here and internationally. An example is the poem ‘Blonde on Blonde’ by Liam Ferney, whose first collection Popular Mechanics was published in 2004. ‘Blonde on Blonde’ appeared in The Age, Melbourne, December 2005, and in Jacket (30) 2006:

Blonde on Blonde

enchanted by fisherman/the sun
accelerates through sky/we dream
of villas & rearrange abandoned netting/
coarse cords/trailed along the beach/
like human tissue/boys throw Frisbees
&footballs with doosra wrists/
seagulls ignore economies/dive bombs
shattering jade panes/nickel
& dime moments/where you’re singing
for your supper/or dancing to
amphetamine tunes/psychosis takes over/
like a souvenir store novel/grains of sand
edged between the pages/the big kahunas
who rule our waves/the duke turns up
on our shores/rough & ready/ like an auteur’s
first rape revenge nasty/ formulas can’t
advise it/nine out of ten dentists don’t
recommend it/the visionary writes/his first novel
on postcards/scratches haiku in taut sand/motorcycles
chainsaw along the ridge/rituals of holiday
& tide/ain’t it hard to stumble/when you’re
riffing like keith richards/rejoice in the ocean/
when the junk blows across some driftwood/
or an errant seagull/lifting on an updraught

It’s interesting how this poem tells a story that requires decoding at the phrase rather than the metaphor level. The poet has used the slash to take back control of the line ending, almost like the caesura pause in the middle of a traditional Alexandrine. Other characteristics: a fragmentary logic; the bower-birding of ‘trash’ culture images; lines drawn from song lyrics; neologisms; non-sequituers; riffs of cliché; scraps of high heroic romanticism and a refusal to round out the poem with a ‘summing up’ kind of conclusion—so that the poem works against its own cohesion.

Is this poem a fable? I think so. Many contemporary poems have become crowded in their language, as though the spaces for thinking between the images have become narrower as the time for contemplation has lessened. These poems are making a comment on the push and pressure of our information age with its battering of media images and its loss of spacious time. We have multiple information technologies and the rhythm of our thinking, and our image-making, is different because of them.

Since the work of the semiotician Saussure, our understanding of the structure and function of language has changed. We have come to re-evaluate our representational aesthetic or the way we locate values in what is represented to us. Our truths exist only in the language we choose to use and in the ways we use it. For example, when Gwen Harwood says in her poem, ‘Winter Quarters’ (a meditation on old age): “Rejoice in this unwounded night/ The young are beautiful”, these lines acquire very different in meaning in the mouth of a business executive developing an advertisement for Nike shoes. We are more aware of the manipulative qualities of language.

From these enquiries, we have come to think of language as a formal set of relations. A word can be replaced by any other. The phrase—that pollen of words defining a poet’s linguistic identity more than any other—is now a powerful decontextualising tool. The poet’s ‘turn of phrase’, their idiom, their style—what do these characteristics mean? The poem, for instance, can be seen as a flat board upon which we play with metaphors, thoughts and ideas. This has liberated a sense of playfulness and fun. The cliché has been revitalised and takes its place in the poem along with a number of other regenerated devices, such as the extended metaphor, the mixed metaphor. Rhetoric has been revitalised also. Poets are questioning the contemporary codes of poetry and are challenging them. ‘Blonde on Blonde’ seems to be asking questions: Does sincerity matter? Who do phrases and lines belong to? In such context, ‘Blonde on Blonde’ can be seen as possessing fabulist qualities. The fable’s characteristics of pointedness, playfulness, social commentary are present. The poem also possesses apologue qualities, in which animals are imbued with human interests and passions: “seagulls ignore economies”. Threaded though the self-consciously ‘new’ poetry theatrics are old rhetorical devices.

Such fabulist qualities are present in the Australian poet Philip Salom’s book-length poem The Well-Mouth published in 2006. A woman who has been murdered, and dumped by corrupt police in an abandoned well, drifts beneath the earth bearing witness to the voices of the newly dead. She channels their voices and we, too, hear them speak their poems of “disintegrating consciousness and filmic memory”. The Well Mouth, based on an unsolved criminal case, is an astonishingly imaginative poem and in it Salom challenges the boundaries between lyric, dramatic monologue and mythic fable. Like most good poetry, The Well Mouth is many things, but it is also a fable, and an ‘Australian Book of the Dead’. Salom sets up a satirical dialogue with our perceptions of what a classical poem should be and what a new fable can tell us about mortality. As Salman Rushdie once wrote:

The real risks for any artist are taken in pushing the work to the limits of what is possible, in the attempt to increase the sum of what it is possible to think

A similar sentiment appears in Literature and the Gods by the Italian critic, Robert Calasso:

The gods are fugitive guests of literature. They cross it with the trail of their names and are soon gone. Every time a writer sets down a word, he must fight to win them back.

Wooing back the gods is not easy. In an essay about the writing of his poem ‘Faustus and Helen’, Hart Crane indicated that it was his intention to embody, in modern terms, a retelling of the Helen of Troy myth because, in his opinion, the myth had been obscured rather than illumined by the frequency of poetic allusions made to it during the previous century. Contemporising his ‘Helen’, he found her sitting in a streetcar and her seduction was transferred to a Metropolitan roof garden with a jazz orchestra. But, as Hart Crane himself noted, it is not enough to sit Helen of Troy on a streetcar—(or Reynard the Fox in Iraq—or Snow White in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy). Fable/ poems become relevant, and shining, only though a truly imaginative immersion in the present.

In this brief essay, I’ve sketched an outline of both the poetics of the fable and the fabulist characteristics of the poem. It is interesting to critique poems from this point of view and to contemplate the remnants of ancient forms that persist in modern poems like animal ghosts in a mirror. Poem and fable, both, are contracts between the imagination and the society—and it is a rich time for fable making. As Milosz said in an earlier stanza of ‘Ars Poetica?’:

I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.

When I was writing Folly & Grief, the poem/fable felt rich and full of creative possibility as a process. Poets often strive to release themselves from the narcissistic self and, in a wonderful way, the fable/poem allowed me to step outside my usual suit of imaginary clothes. Van Dijk once said, “Fable scholars must resist the temptation to look for a fable behind every fox”: a cautionary tale, perhaps, about poets not looking for an apologue behind every seagull. On the other hand, we need poems to rethink what might happen in the future to our houses of sticks, our houses of bricks, and our houses of straw. As Chesterton said:

Fairy tales are more than true—
not because they tell us dragons exist,
but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.



1. Milosz Czeslaw, Collected Poems.

2. Fischer Martin, “Comparison of eye movements during poetry and prose reading”, 13th European Conference on Eye Movements (Dundee, Scotland 20-24th August, 2003).

3. Lorca, The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, ed. Reginald Gibbons, Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 1979

4. Mandelstram Osip, The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, ed. Reginald Gibbons, Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

5. Pessoa Fernando, Toward Explaining Heteronymy, The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, ed. Reginald Gibbons, Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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The Other Way
Wayne Macauley
Meanjin, Vol. 67, No. 2, 2008

‘It’s very hard to make a definite assessment of this book.’ In the course of rejecting novels they probably should have published, big publishers will sometimes, kindly, enclose with your rejection letter a copy of their reader’s report, should your particular manuscript have got that far in the rejection process. The day after receiving this particular rejection, I took a copy of the reader’s report down to the local library where I used the photocopy machine to photocopy this phrase then enlarge it to ten times its original size. I then took this enlarged phrase home and glued it to the wall above my desk. It’s still there now: ‘It’s very hard to make a definite assessment of this book.’

So what did the reader mean by this, and in what way did this form part of the argument for the book’s rejection? Because no matter which way you hold it up and look at it, the reader clearly intended it to be taken as a negative comment. The reader, basically, was not able easily to sum up the book, identify its genre and therefore its market—and if they, the reader doing the reader’s report, were unable to sum it up and package it succinctly then how on earth would the marketing department? The book was rejected, in part, because the book could not easily be explained.

Why is this a negative? What is it about the state of our current literary culture that says a work must be easily explained? What’s wrong with not being able easily to explain or assess something? Isn’t that the way it should be?

After a few more such misunderstandings (seven in all), my book was published. My eventual publisher, the Melbourne independent, Black Pepper, thank goodness, had no such concerns. They saw difficulty of assessment as a cause for celebration, allowed its oddity to stand, even advertised it as ‘eccentric and original’ on the cover. On release I got a rave review in The Age and was stamped their ‘Pick of the Week’. More good reviews followed. The book was put on the VCE English recommended reading list (alongside Dickens, Greene and Camus) and quickly went to a second edition.

So I didn’t fall through the cracks, as it turned out, but I easily could have. There, down at the bottom of the publishing pecking order, was Black Pepper, picking through the tailings, finding the gems. Black Pepper is a cottage publisher, literally, working out of an old house in North Fitzroy. Kevin Pearson and Gail Hannah made their reputations initially as poetry publishers but have now also built an impressive fiction list. They operate on a shoestring. Every March they submit a list of proposed new titles to the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the $4000 per work of Australian fiction subsidy on offer ($2500 for poetry). This allows them to typeset and print the book, but little else. They do the cover design in-house, as well as all editing and proofreading. They have no marketing department or publicist, no budget for either. They send out copies to reviewers at all the major dailies and journals and do a general mail-out to bookshops but promotion of the book is left pretty much to the author—or if they decline, to the lap of the gods.

So is it good to get your book up with an independent publisher, instead of with one of the big ones? It depends what your expectations are. It is sometimes frustrating not having a full-time editor with plenty of paid time to help prepare your book for publication—but it can also be a blessing in disguise. I’m quite sure my book wouldn’t be so ‘eccentric and original’ if a tribe of mainstream publisher’s editors had got hold of it—they would have knocked that sort of crap out of it quick smart. A small publisher’s editor is much more likely to accommodate an author’s intentions, no matter how commercially misguided those intentions are. An original voice is not just allowed but actively encouraged. Limited editorial intervention (as is blessedly the case with Black Pepper) also puts the onus back on the writer to think about their work beforehand, to self-edit in other words; to not hand over a rag-bag of material and expect the publishing house to pull it together and ‘make it work’.

As for the marketing side of things, with no publicity and marketing department, any book published by a small independent publisher is at an obvious disadvantage in terms of sales. But equally, for the writer who has not thought about ‘marketability’ when writing their book (me, for example) this is an advantage. The book is not accepted (or subsequently packaged) because of its perceived ability to cater to the whims of a fickle buying public but because the publisher actually thinks it’s good.

I wrote my first novel when I was thirty-three and didn’t see it published till I was forty-six: it takes a lot of faith and good humour to keep hanging in there for that long. But over that time, as articles about the state of the post-1980s Australian publishing industry started to proliferate, I couldn’t help wondering if what I was doing—putting my manuscript in an envelope and sending it off to Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins—might not be a complete waste of time. Throughout those years my other life was as an independent theatre-maker, working in the alternative Melbourne theatre scene, writing grant applications, scratching together the money (public and private), developing the project, finding the venue, helping with publicity, getting the thing on. In theatre I was making art entirely outside the mainstream, but with my novel I was desperately seeking mainstream approval. It took me a long time to figure it out: approval from whom? Not Sylvia Beech and Adrienne Monnier, that’s for sure. I was seeking approval from nerdy bean-counters and gadfly publicists, most of whom worked out of Sydney. I was waiting on the big Yes from editors who with all the best will in the world couldn’t say Yes anyway—they were at the mercy of forces much greater than them, that is to say, marketing.

I work casual hours in a bookshop (that’s what happens when you don’t get published till you’re forty-six), in Receivals and Despatch; I see them come and I see them go. One moment we are taking them freshly baked out of their boxes and putting their shiny new price stickers on them, the next we are taking those barely scuffed price stickers off and packing them up as ‘Returns’, the unsold and unwanteds, sending them back whence they came. The shelf life of a book these days is short, too short. When the relevant staff member checks the system and notes that this thing (it is a ‘thing’, unlikely to have been read by the person doing the checking) hasn’t racked up the required sales to justify its shelf-space, off it goes to the knacker’s yard.

So is there another way of doing things, a better way of building a conduit between writer and reader, something that will give us both a more satisfying, longer lasting and ultimately more enriching experience? I’ve become convinced that there is.

Very little art survives in this country without some kind of government funding. As unpalatable as it is, we all need to get our snouts in the trough at some stage, if not directly then indirectly through government support to organisations higher up the food chain from whose table we then collect the crumbs. Many if not most books of literary fiction will have received some government support at some stage. But you’ve got to wonder whether this money is being spent wisely.

The principal source of funding for the production of Australian literature is the Literature Board of the Australia Council—any freelance writer trying to scratch a living will be very familiar with their booklets, their application forms and their closing dates. So too the Theatre Board for a person working in the performing arts. Let’s compare for a moment how these two bodies work—the comparison, I think, is instructive.

At the Theatre Board, as with the Literature Board, the main area of funding from which a freelance artist such as myself could benefit is the New Work category, funding grants to individuals and/or small performance companies. If I want to make a piece of theatre, for example, from the ground up—write it, develop it with a director and actors, put it on, promote it—this is where I go. All these stages (and my ability to justify the money for them) become the criteria against which my proposal is assessed. At the Literature Board, on the other hand, under their New Work category the story is quite different. What you are applying for there is ‘time to write’, not ‘funds to produce’. That is, you can’t apply to self-publish, nor demonstrate publisher support for your project from any other than one with ‘effective national distribution’. There is a distinct difference between the two boards’ definitions of new work: at the Literature Board the creation of new work is the writing of it, at the Theatre Board it is its writing, development, production and presentation. At the Theatre Board you can apply for money to write, workshop, develop, rehearse, present and publicise your new work—in literary terms, to write, edit, typeset, print, publish, market and distribute your book. That is, to do precisely what you can’t do under the Literature Board’s current rules. They’ll give you money to write, and will give money to a reputable publisher to help publish what you’ve written, but they won’t let you do it all yourself because—well, I don’t really know why.

Let’s say the Literature Board gives you an Emerging Writers grant of $15,000 (twelve months of toasted cheese sandwiches) to write a book which a major publisher—let’s call them X—has said they are interested in publishing. When it comes time to publish (assuming they’ve been able to ‘make it work’), X will then go back to the Literature Board for a publishing subsidy of $4000. The question has to be asked: why should a major commercial publisher get a $4000 subsidy to publish a new work of Australian literary fiction that the taxpayer has already paid to have written? If commercial publishers want to publish new literature (do they? really?), then why don’t they put their own money into it? Why don’t they pay for the writing of the book they are supposedly so enamoured of? Yes, that’s right, they won’t, it’s new literary fiction, they’ll run a mile. And this is a good thing. Let them run. Let them publish no more Australian fiction but the lowest-common-denominator guaranteed bestsellers. Instead of spending our precious arts-funding dollars helping out these massive global businesses, encouraging them to do something they couldn’t give a rat’s about anyway, let’s invest the money in new Australian literary fiction.

There are two ways of doing this. The first, obviously, is to better fund the infrastructure of small independent publishers, to help them deal with the massive quantities of fiction manuscripts they are now receiving and to help them better promote, market and distribute the books they select. (We’re not talking big dollars here: the weekly wine-and-canapés budget of your average big publisher will do.) The second, and more problematic, is to fund new publishing ventures, including self-publishing.

Self-publishing: the hyphenated horror word that makes most literati reach for their revolvers. Family histories, bad story collections, worse poetry. But why not something else besides? Brilliant poetry by front-line poets, innovative fiction by the best going round, new unclassifiable genres of writing that might reach a whole new readership. It happens every day in the film and music businesses: as these industries become more corporatised and money-driven there is a definite move on the part of artists and arts consumers towards more independent, self-promoted art. The world of independent publishing, of which innovative self-publishing is a legitimate part, can do pretty well everything everyone is whingeing about not being done, if it just had a little bit of money to do it.

The physical production of a book (with all due respect) is not rocket science. The big commercial publishers no longer hold copyright over the mysteries of book-making. With digital technology for the layout and money for the printing costs anyone can ‘make’ a book—that is, wrap a couple of hundred printed pages into a sheet of thin cardboard with a picture on the front. The challenge is to make a good book. A bigger challenge is to find your readers. But let’s imagine that Literature Board policy has been overhauled and that I’m going to ask for money to write and publish my own book, or write and publish it through a small independent publisher that doesn’t (yet) have ‘effective national distribution’. The checks and balances are already there in the system. In any Literature Board grant application you already have to jump through a lot of hoops to prove the worthiness of your project: the same deal applies here. If the supporting material is bad, the project won’t get funded. If the marketing strategy outlined is poor, the project won’t get funded. If real thought hasn’t been put into distribution, the project won’t get funded. If the thing hasn’t been properly costed, the project won’t get funded. It happens every funding round over at the Theatre Board: your project proposal has to show artistic merit, but just as importantly, if you can’t show realistic box-office returns and how you will achieve them, the project won’t get funded. If independently published and self-published literature is subjected to the same quality control as independent and self-produced theatre, then I don’t see what the problem is. Sure you can’t quality-control everything, sure there’ll be some bad work produced (had a look at what the commercial publishers are putting out lately?)—but at least something is happening.

For about the same amount we taxpayers ‘gave’ X to get their book written and published ($15,000 for the writer to write it, $4000 for the publishing subsidy), a new, innovative work of Australian fiction will be independently written, published, marketed and distributed. It will not have passed through the commercially biased filter of a big commercial publisher but through a peer assessment process that is committed to risk and innovation. With the Literature Board’s financial leg-up, the writer and/or small publisher (the ones who believe in it most) will get out there and promote it, get it into the bookshops (which are now far more receptive to it since the Australia Council will also have overhauled its promotion of Australian literature strategies and will no longer waste money on pointless Books Alive promotions to the tune of $2 million a year but instead will encourage promotion of new independent Australian fiction). On a self-published title at $24.95 RRP with a 60 per cent return after the 40 per cent bookshop discount on 100 per cent of sales on a print run of 1000 the writer pockets $15,000—which they will now use to write their next book ...

I, like everyone else, I suspect, am sick to death of stories and articles decrying the state of Australian fiction. The trouble is, too many people have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo—it is only by giving power back to those who don’t, those whose interest is in subverting if not overturning the status quo, that any kind of change can be effected. This takes money, government money preferably, money with strings but not rope-and-tackle attached: a small investment for a massive return. Forget the big publishers, they don’t care. If they did they would have done something about it by now. Put the money where it matters, where it will actually make a difference.

I didn’t fall through the cracks. I’m a bit greyer around the temples, but I didn’t fall through the cracks. My second novel is out, again through Black Pepper. I sometimes resent the time lost but there’s no point whingeing about it now. And above my desk, edifyingly, are two bits of paper. One is an extract from my first review: ‘If more Australian literature was of this calibre, we’d be laughing.’ The other, the phrase from that reader’s report: ‘It’s very hard to make a definite assessment of this book.’ They sit very comfortably together.

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The Perils of Publishing Eccentric Fiction
Wayne Macauley interviewed by Peter Mares
The Book Show : ABC Radio National. 17 June 2008

Peter Mares: What would you do if you received a rejection letter for your novel that said, ‘It’s very hard to make a definite assessment of this book’? Wayne Macauley went down to the local library, photocopied it, enlarged it and stuck the phrase on his wall as a source of inspiration.

It took Wayne Macauley 13 years to get his first novel into print. After countless rejections by the big publishing houses Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe was finally accepted by a small independent outfit called Black Pepper. The novel then made it on to the reading list for Year 12 English, and quickly went to a second edition.

Wayne Macauley has written up this experience in the journal Meanjin, and he joins me now to tell about the heartache and what he’s learned along the way. Wayne Macauley, welcome to The Book Show.

Wayne Macauley: Hello.

Peter Mares: You must have had plenty of rejection letters over 13 years, I guess, so why did you enlarge and put on your wall that particular phrase from that rejection; ‘It’s very hard to make a definite assessment of this book’?

Wayne Macauley: Perhaps in some ways because that is what I’m aiming for and I think a lot of artists are aiming for in a work of art.

Peter Mares: That is you’re aiming not to be rejected but you’re aiming to not fit into a neat category.

Wayne Macauley: Yes, I think from a very early age what I strongly felt about myself as a writer is even if I stumbled a lot along the way, what I was aiming for was my own voice, and I believe a lot of writers would say the same thing, and in a sense I’m looking for an original self, an original writer, someone who takes inspiration from all the books I’ve read but speaks with their own voice. So clearly the concept of originality is something that we all want to cling to, but perhaps is a hard one to fit into the paradigm of the current mainstream publishing industry.

Peter Mares: So it’s not originality...that unique voice is not necessarily what the big publishing houses are looking for.

Wayne Macauley: Look, in some instances, yes. Broad sweeping statements are always dangerous, but I do think that marketing in the big publishing houses has had an effect on both the quality and kind of Australian literary fiction, and by that I mean that marketing does have a large influence on the selection of manuscripts.

Peter Mares: Because a publisher needs to be able to tag a book; this is crime fiction, this is autobiography, this is memoir...

Wayne Macauley: Absolutely. Or if it’s not genre fiction as such, that they can compare it to something else that’s come before and sold well, and that will often be a good reason for them to publish. In other words, it’s like something that sold well last year. Clearly in my case that’s not something that I’m going to be able to fit if, as a writer, I’m aiming for originality, eccentricity, uniqueness...

Peter Mares: If you want to break the mould.

Wayne Macauley: Precisely. And I think over a number of years the mainstream publishing industry has firmed up a little like that, and the likes of myself and many others do tend to be banging on the door trying to get in.

Peter Mares: Is that to do with the consolidation of the industry, do you think, that they’re becoming less flexible?

Wayne Macauley: Most certainly, and I don’t think I’d be the only one to say that the publication, for example, of first novels, the publication of, let’s say, eccentric novels, the publications of novels outside the given Australian literature paradigm (talking about locally produced fiction), I think a lot of people would agree that that stuff has fallen off over the last few years.

Peter Mares: You were eventually successful with a small publisher, Black Pepper, you describe it as cottage publishing house. They do everything themselves, which I guess includes the editing, the design of book covers, all that sort of stuff. Is that what you mean by ‘cottage publishing’?

Wayne Macauley: Absolutely, yes, everything themselves and by themselves, there’s two people.

Peter Mares: Working out of their back room.

Wayne Macauley: Absolutely, working out of their house, and they’re not the only one doing this, particularly here in Melbourne, they’re not the only one doing this. And certainly profit-making is not a part of Black Pepper’s game, God help them if they were looking for profit.

Peter Mares: Have they got an independent income or something?

Wayne Macauley: I can’t give you the details of their tax returns but I can say that there is still available through the literature board of the Australia Council a grant to help subsidise locally produced fiction, and to this board they will go each funding round to hopefully pick up the meagre amount of money available which will offset their costs to publish.

Peter Mares: I want to come back to the question of funding because you’ve got some ideas about how things might be done differently. Going back to this idea of the cottage publisher, one of the things about that is they don’t have a lot of budget and they don’t have a lot of money to pay an editor and they’re not going to meddle much with your text, but that can be a double-edged sword, can’t it?

Wayne Macauley: Well, yes, clearly. In my case... and I must emphasise in this that I’m neither a businessman nor a publisher, I am a humble writer, and certainly in my particular instance and with my first book, I believe there’s no question that that ended up, for me, being an advantage. It took me some years to realise what path I was on and that the course of rejection was bringing me to this place.

Peter Mares: Pushing you in the right direction...

Wayne Macauley: In a sense yes, absolutely, I totally feel that now, that that book should always have been with a small independent publisher and I should have been able to work with an editor who respected precisely these concepts of originality and eccentricity and so on.

Peter Mares: But by that do you mean that if you hadn’t got that original rejection letter saying ‘this book couldn’t be classified’, if you’d ended up with one of the big publishing houses in Australia they would have massaged your book into something much blander and less successful?

Wayne Macauley: I wonder. Look, I can only say based on a couple of readers’ reports that were generously sent back to me, a couple of comments over the telephone that I had with the mainstream editors that had rejected it, I’d have to say that yes, most likely that would have been the case, that I would have had to make changes and I would have had to compromise on that book. There was something essential about a quite common theme in the rejection of that book which is that ‘Macauley is a very good writer, this is a very well-written book, but we don’t get it’, and I had a strong sense that until I could reposition it so that people would ‘get it’ it was very unlikely to get up.

Peter Mares: You were going to get more rejection letters. You propose in your article in Meanjin a different model for Australia Council funding for literature that really is more like how the Australia Council funds theatre. Explain how that would work and what the difference is now.

Wayne Macauley: The difference... and again, I am speaking from my own experience because I have also worked in the theatre as a writer and dramaturge... basically the difference is quite simple. At the theatre board when you apply for a new work grant, what you’re applying for and clearly laid out in your budget is the idea that you will write, produce and publicise this piece of work.

Peter Mares: It will go all the way through, it’s not just the writing but it’s actually getting it to an audience.

Wayne Macauley: And a very strong part of your justification or otherwise for this money that you might get will be to show box office returns.

Peter Mares: Bums on seats.

Wayne Macauley: To show exactly how you will get an audience and you must budget for that.

Peter Mares: And how is that different to getting a literature grant?

Wayne Macauley: This is simply not the case with a literature board grant. A literature board grant gives you time to write. We all want time to write, clearly that’s what we want, and to be paid for doing so. But in the particular instance that I’m talking about... and please let’s make it clear that I’m not talking about challenging the big publishers on this, I’m talking about creating a side alley to the mainstream publishing industry...that if that changed... for example, if instead of the current literature board model we used the current theatre board model and I was to go to the literature board and apply for a grant to write, edit my book with the assistance of a professional editor, print my book, design the cover or get a friend to do so, publicise, market and distribute my book, which is pretty much what we do over at the theatre board, I wonder if it’s possible... this is actually a self-publishing model, which sends the horrors up everyone’s spine; self-publishing, don’t go near there, all that sort of thing, vanity publishing. But I kind of wonder, because in the situation that the current Australian literary fiction business is in, that I wonder if it’s worth thinking about whether we could change the paradigm.

Peter Mares: And there’d certainly be failures, just as there are failures with new theatre work.

Wayne Macauley: Precisely, and failure is actually built into it. I must say that’s the other thing, is that this idea of risk is really what a government funding body is there for...

Peter Mares: It’s not there to prop up the big publishers.

Wayne Macauley: It is to underwrite risk. Risk is absolutely critical to the growth of any culture. It will stagnate without risk, and I believe that that’s what’s beginning to happen with Australian publishing, and I think a few risks could be taken. Yes, you’re absolutely right, there might be some very bad books published, there might be some terrible, terrible marketing strategies implemented, and some of these books might fail...

Peter Mares: But we might also just hear a few more voices, get a few more people published how...

Wayne Macauley: And it’s not only the self-publishing too. Again, my experience with a small publisher, quite frankly they do it very hard. They’re doing it even harder every year because what’s happening is there are more and more writers writing. This is a fact.

Peter Mares: Publishing a book is not the hard part, in a way. It’s quite easy to put your words on paper and get them printed. I have a friend who funds his own book publishing, he publishes his own books, gives them to his friends. The problem is distribution, it’s getting the presenters of book shows on national radio to actually open the cover and start reading.

Wayne Macauley: Most certainly it is, Peter. Yes, it’s about marketing distribution. If you asked any of the small, tiny independent publishers currently working in Australia, they’re prepared to make financial sacrifices, time sacrifices, but the biggest problem they all come up against of course is marketing and distribution. How do you get yourself noticed in the media and how do you get your book into a bookshop? Not just in a bookshop, spine out only, in the back corner, but in a bookshop, cover out, on the front table. That clearly is a massive problem, and the way I see it is, well, isn’t that precisely the kind of problem that a government funding body should be helping us with? And by ‘us’ I mean the writers who are with small publishers, small publishers, and writers who may be interested in self-publishing.

Why can’t there be some money or energy put in that direction to change the mentality, for example, of bookshops themselves. Many of them are good hearted, some of them are not, some of them are just massive chains that want to make a lot of money, but many of them are good hearted. It’s just...what small publisher, how do I get their book, how do I get it into my system, how do I do their invoice, where do I put it and how do I sell it? So these sorts of things, I think...with a bit of assistance, these things start to happen. So instead of it being spine out down the back of the shop, perhaps we could have it cover out at the front.

Peter Mares: Wayne Macauley, thank you for joining me on The Book Show.

Wayne Macauley: Thanks for having me.

Peter Mares: Wayne Macauley is the author of two novels, both published by Black Pepper; Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and most recently Caravan Story. He also worked in theatre as a writer, director and dramaturge, and his essay on publishing called ‘The Other Way’ is in Meanjin, Vol. 67, the first edition of the literary magazine under new editor Sophie Cunningham.