Friday, 25 April 2008


Reading David Caddy’s most recent piece on literary celebrity had me reflecting on my own brief moment in the spotlight. It is probably an unfamiliar experience for British poets unless, that is, you’ve been published by Faber, but partly because Australia has a smaller population, partly because for long periods there hasn’t been a single dominant (and financial) poetry publisher, it is possible for a poet in certain circumstances to be widely publicised. It happened to me in 1987 when my book The Ash Range was published by Pan/Picador. Four earlier books had appeared from small publishers to mixed reviews and I would have been lucky to have sold as many as 100 copies of any of them. The Picador book came out in a modest (for them) edition of 1000 and was shortly after reprinted.

The Ash Range was a documentary poem, an ‘epic’ perhaps in the Poundian sense of the term (‘a poem containing history’) about a region called Gippsland. It consisted largely of edited down letters, news accounts and other materials together with some bridging work of my own (in all it was about 90% from outside sources) and it contained some old photographs and a couple of maps. I had embarked upon it with no clear sense of how it could be published or of who might be able to do it and want to do it. It would probably have been too expensive an exercise for a small publisher and I felt it was too eccentric for a large publisher to be interested. Some sections meanwhile had appeared in Scripsi magazine and one of the readers at the time also worked as an editor with Pan Books. She suggested that Picador could do it but I was sure that once the project reached the suits they would take it no further. To my amazement it went ahead and the problems I felt that the text would occasion were easily dealt with (I’d thought, for example, that the book would have to be done in a large format - like The Maximus Poems – just to be legible, but the designers fitted it with ease into the standard format).

Then came the media blitz.

I can’t remember how many radio interviews I did but I do remember that the first one was the most prestigious: ten to fifteen minutes on Terry Lane’s ABC program. I was pleasantly enough surprised that Lane had clearly read the book himself. His questions and quotations were well informed. Unfortunately for both of us I didn’t understand that the point of chat shows is chat. I gave the kind of monosyllabic answers that must have had the producer groaning (I did gradually become better at this kind of thing, even as the occasions for it diminished). In January 1988, the national journal The Bulletin had as its cover story an article entitled ‘High Flyers of 88’. My photograph appeared alongside, I’m now amused to note, figures like John Hewson, Alexander Downer, Warwick Fairfax, and Debbie Flintoff-King (two politicians, a media magnate and an athlete).

In the course of all this the book was often misrepresented. Some reviewers wrote of it as though it was a unique phenomenon, though I had never concealed my debt to earlier twentieth-century writers (Pound, John Dos Passos, Charles Reznikoff, Williams). The world of publicity has no time for fine distinctions or non-Australian writing (and it was amusing to note that when another poet, Geoff Page, brought out a book utilising documentary techniques a couple of years later it too was seen as a totally original production).

After 1988 it was downhill all the way. The editors at Picador thought I might do another book like The Ash Range and there was vague talk about releasing it in the UK. Even better, I might write a travel book. What they didn’t realise was that The Ash Range was strictly a one-off. It wasn’t just the result of two years research and writing, it was the result of the concern with a region held since I was old enough to think about it (my father’s family came from Gippsland and I had visited the area frequently since I was four or five years old). After a further book (a volume of poems), my experience with the big end of publishing was at an end.

When I was still at school I had naively thought that fame and money were things that would happen if you simply persisted as a writer. Acclaim was like the gold watch the automobile factory gave my father when he retired (they don’t do that anymore!). But the sudden increase in status (and its equally rapid decay) illustrated only too graphically that this wasn’t really the kind of career curve I was after. Now, as an older writer, my books do get reviewed in the Australian print media, usually sympathetically. I have also received the odd literary award, and for the last two years my work has been funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. I feel fortunate that this is so though I am also sure that if the average Australian poetry reader was asked to name ten poets my name would probably not appear on the list. Since 1990 all my books have appeared with small to middling publishers. Ken Bolton’s Little Esther press did one of my favourite volumes, Memorials, in the mid nineties. University of Queensland press have stuck with me through three books of poems (including another favourite, Mangroves) as well as a work of cultural history. And Tony Frazer’s Shearsman Press published a selection, Compared to What, in 2006 as well as (bless his boots) a new edition of The Ash Range.


Bonny said...

Dear Laurie,

Thank goodness Picador did get The Ash Range out so that, by and by, an old copy arrived my grubby hands this year. I write from Gippsland as we speak, working on an adaptation of Eve Langley's The Pea-Pickers to opera. The Ash Range continues to be an important companion on this project: being that ideal combination of the obsessive's guide, and a significant literary object.

Bonny Cassidy

Mark Roberts said...

Hi Laurie I've just posted an old review of The Ash Range (from The Phoenix Review No3. 1988) on Printed Shadows

Hope you like it.