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Chains of Flashing Images – an interview with Max Ryan (part 1)

Max Ryan is a poet whose ‘words sift deep into life, and are full of power and insight.’ (Judith Beveridge) Max is also renowed for his work with musician Cleis Pearce, their CD ‘White Cow’, winning several music industry awards. This Lost Shark caught up with Max recently to discuss the good things in life… poetry & music. Here is part #1 of the interview: 

Max Ryan

The importance of landscape and place is something that is evident in your work. In your first collection, Rainswayed Night, you conjure feverish images of India (The Dancer, Burning Ghat, Varanasi); the sensuality of the ocean (all night the sea) and the rain that seeps into so many of these poems. You currently split your time between the ocean and the desert. How do each of these vastly different landscapes impact on your writing?


Firstly the Indian poems: well, anyone who’s ventured to the sub-continent will testify that India confounds any ideas of order and predictability so maybe my India poems are an attempt at some sort of disentropy. Interestingly, ‘The Dancer’ came from something I saw on a very early trip to India: a man dancing on the ghats (steps) at Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi, in an almost drunken, totally self-absorbed way; his eyes were bloodshot and his mouth smeared with betel juice and he looked like he’d been up all night. I wasn’t even aware of what the actual situation was but the overall effect was an energetic jolt to my being, very strong, and I knew it would turn to a poem one day. Of course there are other benign, deeply peaceful poems about India in Rainswayed (‘A White Cow’, ‘Shepherd’s Hut, Triund’ for example).

A friend, the poet Judy Johnson, pointed out to me the strong presence in the original manuscript of water generally and it was she who suggested I call the book Rainswayed Night. The water element certainly runs through the poems but not in any defined way. In ‘The Hexham Flood’, water, in terms of the river and the dampness or pneumonia that settles on the child’s chest, is a highly malevolent, totemic force that acts as a nemesis in the child’s imagination. In the actual Rainswayed Night sequence, ‘the rain’s soft sheath’ is a source of elemental comfort and solace amidst the horror of the car accident and nightmare of the hospital. In ‘Evening Storm’, the tropical storm and rhythm of the sea-tide flows into the commingling of the two lovers. The rain in ‘rainy day paper boy’ erases all sense of time and space and merges into the boy’s early morning dream. ‘all night the sea’, which is a series of tanka, is probably the closest poem I’ve written so far in describing the place where I lay my head at night. The sound of the sea is the trigger here, a constant presence at my beach house. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) in another poem to describe just what that sound is. So the sea features in many of my poems even the new ones; sometimes, I feel, overly so. Which is where the desert comes in I guess. Yes, it is very different out there (the centre, the country around Alice Springs) and I’ve come to love the vastness and wildness of the place. Very different, dry and hard, endless, a roaring silence; it’s quite confronting in a way, humbling too somehow. So far though, beside some haiku, I’ve written very little about it (‘A White Cow’ was totally about a sort of epiphany in the desert albeit the Rajasthan one). Last time I was in Alice I was sitting in a car in the car park outside Woolies while my friend was picking up a few groceries and there was something on the radio about some sort of scientific probe on Mars, checking for water, signs of life etc. Meanwhile a group of old Aborigine women, dressed in the most colourful array of raggedy clothes, were taking in the winter sun and then an old uncle wheeled up in a chair wanting a cigarette…I was just struck by the contrast between the radio show and the scene outside, there’s probably a poem there…

But the words for the poems may not come in a direct and immediate way; the India poems, for example, were formed after a very long gestation. As it is for most poets, I suspect, the actual poem can come from many sources. Ultimately, I think, poetry is about words and some weird alchemy of sound as much as any specific experience.


You mention that ‘all night the sea’ is a series of tanka. You also write in the shorter, haiku form. What initially attracted you to these disciplined forms of writing?


Hard to say but right from when I was in my late teens, I’ve been reading books on Zen and writers like Alan Watts who had a deep understanding of the old Chinese poets and the Japanese art of haiku. There’s a favourite ku of mine by Ryokan, I’ve seen various translations, but this is it essentially:

the thief left it behind:
the moon
at the window

The first time I read this, I was blown away and I still marvel at how much Ryokan manages to say here: the overall picture is of a burglary but right at the centre is the moon, inviolate and beyond any human conniving. There’s a marvellous sense of freedom in this haiku: ‘the window’ (I’ve seen it described as ‘the open window’) turned into a portal to the unlimited and there’s an implied sympathy for the thief who misses out on the most precious thing there. So yes, I’m very drawn to the essential nature of haiku and the sense of the poet’s disappearing into the poem. I still feel very much a novice though. My friend, the poet John Bird, and I have sat together out the back of a country pub we go to near here and written haiku about the things around us…while I’m still struggling to describe a crow perched on the rickety paling fence, John will have a half dozen fully formed haiku, it just seems to come naturally.

Tanka are different again; the five lines allow for a more expansive description and generally more subjective and personal voice. (It’s a great vehicle for the theme of lost love or recalling times past). I write quite a few tanka and submit fairly regularly to Eucalypt, the Australian tanka journal edited by Bev George. I’m also part of the Cloud Catchers, a local ginko group. We get together every season (the Oz ones) and have a haiku walk, usually about three quarters of an hour before we regroup and share our haiku.

I’d say the influence of these forms definitely affects my writing in free verse.  In an important way, the hard clear image, unlike polemic or high blown linguistics, doesn’t lie. I’ve made it almost some kind of credo to avoid the use of abstractions and airy figures of speech. Probably I’ve been too dogmatic about this but overall there’s something undeniable about a good image. Bob Dylan’s method of ‘chains of flashing images’ is a compelling one.


‘Chains of flashing images’ was a phrase coined by Allen Ginsberg to describe Dylan’s writing style. Throughout the last five decades, Dylan has been a touchstone for many poets and I know he is someone that has influenced your life and work. What is it about Dylan’s work that continues to mesmerise? 


Well I’ve written one poem, outlaws, largely influenced by Dylan’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It’s his least verbal album but I’ve tried to capture the atmosphere of that work, the overall sense of inevitable tragedy in the outlaw story echoes the fate of the lovers. Even the music becomes part of that:

harmonica swirls as we sink to the floor, wound
in guitars’ quicksilver chords. maracas
swish to the silk of your dress
as i follow you up the stairs.

Saw Dylan the first time he came here in 1966… Rushcutters Bay Stadium in Sydney, still a functioning boxing ring (fortunately we didn’t have to put up with the revolving stage they’d used for the Beatles less than two years before: you’d get one song full-frontal then they’d crank the stage another 30 degrees round til three songs later it all came your way again), the audience for Bob wasn’t so big. I’ve never really forgotten it: Dylan and what was (minus the drummer) The Band; snarling, surreal, wildly eclectic grooves, lots of it from Blonde On Blonde which I don’t think had even come out yet. I’d never heard anything like it… I’d never seen human beings that looked like that! Cuban heels and strange Confederate style suits from some Civil War of their own…Dylan with his floaty, Little Richard bouffant, pale and on fire. Just made me aware of the power of words and music as incantation…something prophetic and uncanny the way he brought it all together. From there I discovered Rimbaud, Verlaine…the declamatory quality of Walt Whitman and the lyricism of Tennyson you could hear it all in Dylan.

I’ve never had any problem with seeing singer-songwriters as bards in their own right. When I went to study English literature at Newcastle Uni I felt lucky to find a department where the Romantics were given great respect with the implied acknowlegement of the importance of the lyrical in poetry. One of our lecturers was the late Norm Talbot who was described by Gwen Harwood as Australia’s greatest living poet. He wrote an article in poetry australia called ‘The Stranger Songs’ (I dug it up) where he declared that something was indeed happening Mr Jones:

The lyrics of many pop songs…are considerably better, more craftsmanslike and more interesting than the work of the Established, the Serious, the Bright Young, and the Promising poets. This is uncommon.

I remember Norm asserting at some discussion of popular song that the Tambourine Man was none other than the Muse. Not to say Norm was some Dylan sychophant or anything (he was probably more interested in Keats and Blake and Emily Dickinson) but he could hear the poetry when it was there. All sounds a bit post-modern now but it was inspiring at the time to see the important place of song in poetry, like putting the lyre back into lyrical.

But yes, Dylan’s been a big influence, even as a medium to the work of other poets. I’m also a huge admirer of Ray Davies (the Kinks), love his vision of the lives of ordinary people:

Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander
I stay at home at night

Going back to Dylan, I’m inspired by the narrative leaps of some of his songs such as Tangled Up In Blue and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Poetry and song are a brilliant medium for telling a story, shifting through time and space in a way that nothing else can and Dylan’s a master of this. Also Dylan’s way (mentioned in Chronicles) of leaning into the song on the odd beats is something I’m probably unconsciously influenced by in my work with such musicians as Cleis Pearce. Without the formal structure and rhythmic cycles of a conventional song, you’re thrown into a highly spontaneous interplay of the voice and the musical surge. I feel blessed to be able to collaborate with such a deeply intuitive, sensitive player as Cleis.


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Jumping the Poetic Hurdle (part 6) – an interview with Tiggy Johnson

To continue the discussion about the publication and distribution of poetry in Australia, I thought it would be interesting to speak with publishers of literary journals both in print and online. First up I spoke with Tiggy Johnson from literary annual, page seventeen.


As a small, independent publisher, what do you see are the major challenges for the publication and distribution of poetry in the 21st century?

This is a tough one and probably something I don’t tend to think about a lot. Maybe I should, and, after engaging in discussions about this with other small, independent publishers, I often come away feeling like there’s heaps more for me to do. But, if I am honest with myself, I think it might be more suitable that I stay perhaps somewhat naïve as, if I spend too much time and energy worrying about publication and particularly distribution of poetry, it would all seem too hard and I’d possibly give it all away.

This is possibly a luxury I can afford given I am such a small publisher, producing only one literary journal per year. At times, I have considered producing additional titles, but other than the time commitment (that I don’t currently have), I guess the idea of marketing and distribution turns me off a little. For now, I am happy with the success of page seventeen and doing the distribution myself.

I feel it’s unlikely that there will be a solution to distribution in the near future.


Why is it that poetry, an art that arguably best reflects the speed at which we absorb ideas, information and imagery, is being neglected by corporate publishing houses and distributors throughout Australia?

Perhaps if Jamie Durie were to write a collection this might change? And really, we probably don’t want that. It’s all about the money. Everyone knows there’s no money in publishing poetry. Independent publishers publish poetry for other reasons, such as its cultural value, and accept that they may sell enough copies only to ensure they may continue to publish more.


Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel? What is the future of poetry publishing and distribution?

I don’t see a light as far as distribution of actual books goes, but there are more poetry journals appearing online. This will help ensure poetry remains available to readers as well as potentially helping the (non-poetry-reading) public to become more aware of its existence. Advances in printing technology also help ensure books are still being produced. Printing costs wouldn’t be viable for page seventeen if it weren’t for digital technology.


What is on the horizon for page seventeen?

Mostly more of the same. Issue 7 in 2009. I’m not currently looking to produce anything additional to the annual issue of page seventeen.

However things are changing from the inside with procedures and so on. With the current issue (Issue 6), I stepped aside from reading submissions, and adopted an editorial committee. This proved to be successful for everyone involved, and so it will continue to happen. I guess we are moving from a journal that not only promotes the published work of new writers (along those who are more established, of course) to a publisher that provides additional opportunities to those ‘new’ to the field in other ways too.

In 2009 we will be running our short story and poetry competition again and will also be accepting general submissions. We are changing the general submission guidelines too, so look out for those, along with a new cover sheet.


About Tiggy:

Tiggy Johnson is the editor/publisher of the annual literary journal page seventeen. She also writes fiction and poetry, some of which can be found in Cordite, paper wasp, kipple, The Mozzie and on Melbourne (Connex) trains as part of the Moving Galleries exhibition. She was awarded 2nd prize in the Herald-Sun Short Story Competition 2004, and her short story collection Svetlana or otherwise was published in 2007 (Mockingbird/Ginninderra Press).

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Speak Out: Poetry and the Spoken Word an interview with Hinemoana Baker (part 1)

This Lost Shark has been thinking alot about poetry and the Spoken Word lately.

Spoken Word boomed in popularity during the 1950s and 60s. Poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti took their words to the street and found favour with mass audiences, breaking down the barriers of inaccessibility usually associated with poetry. The crowds were there because the poetry was part of a culture. Spoken Word peaked again in the 90’s with artists such as John S. Hall, Maggie Estep, Bob Holman and rocker Henry Rollins all reaching large audiences and achieving critical acclaim. Spoken Word was making a splash on the airwaves, gaining the attention of major record label execs and breaking into the world of MTV. This success has continued into the 00’s with shows such as Def Poetry becoming a programming favourite with USA heavyweights HBO and Poetry Slams reaching ever increasing audiences worldwide.

So why is it that few poems published in literary journals would find an audience in the world of, performance-driven spoken word? In turn, why is it that the majority of pieces performed on open-mic/Slam stages would be ignored by established literary journals?

Is there a line that separates spoken word from poetry?

Over the next few weeks, this Lost Shark will speak to several artists to get their view.

First up I chat with Hinemoana Baker



Kia ora Another Lost Shark. Thanks for the invite to contribute to this discussion. Yessssss. Page vs Stage. Very good questions.

I know poets whose readings and public performances get raved about, the audience literally gasping, laughing, crying…and yet time after time: the rejection slips. From literary magazines, from anthologies, from websites. I also know poets whose work sings and dances in books, then falls dreadfully and disappointingly flat when they read it in public. It can seem like there’s some kind of quantum crease in reality.

Without getting too much into a definition of poetry or performance, which is territory I’d rather not traverse no matter how much I love you, I reckon we’re actually dealing here with two very different acts, products, artforms if you like. Furthermore, I think the two have something to learn from each other. I’ve had mild-mannered success with both, and I don’t feel too much of a tension between them in my everyday life as a writer or performer. But I know that’s not the case for everyone. So if it’s ok, I’ll just gab on a bit about my own experience, rather than write any kind of academic treatise on the whole thing.

I believe once a poem gets type-set (or just typed, I guess, if you’re publishing on the net) it has to do all its performing on the page, as Bill Manhire would say. No bells and whistles, just the ink and the paper. It can’t call on any of its friends in the back row to join in the refrain. It can’t win over the unhappy punter in the leather trousers with its mellifluous voice and impressive microphone technique. It can’t start its set with that joke about Dylan Thomas / the Pope / the duck who turns out to be a fully-qualified plasterer. The page can, indeed, be a mofo of a venue to crack.

The only ‘voice’ on the page is the one the poet has managed to shoehorn into the words themselves, the black and white, bare-assed text. There can be silence in a poem – but only visually, if you know what I mean. With the use of line-breaks, stanzas, punctuation, that sort of thing. There’s (hopefully) musicality in the poem – the rhythms and sonic resonances of the words, their lines and cadences, the echoing choices the poet’s made with techniques like repetition, assonance, alliteration, all those lovely old chestnuts.

But there’s no actual, audible music. And there’s no volume knob.  Yes, we can use different fonts, italics, bold, capital letters and suchlike if we want to, but none of that can really approximate the experience of being in front of the bona fide, carbon-based life form who wrote the damn thing and having them tell the poem with their own mouth, body, props, whatever. And if you ask me, that kind of formatting stuff can easily start to feel a bit forced on the page, a bit like ‘Can you just let the poem speak for itself, already?!’

And that’s where it gets interesting – at least for someone like me. I’ve published a book and I get published fairly regularly in literary locations here in New Zealand and occasionally in Australia (go GDS!) and further afield.  I’m very grateful – may this continue forever and ever. I also perform my poems – as part of a stage show that makes room for lots of stuff, including sound effects from a scuba-tank and digital samplings of my traditional Māori instruments.

For some reason, I’ve never really considered myself a proper performance poet. This is possibly because I am comparing myself to others who I admire greatly and figure I can never hope to emulate, like Marc Kelly Smith aka Slam Papi, Emily XYZ and Tusiata Avia. It’s probably also because my show is a fairly ad hoc combo of songs, poems, stories about songs and poems, stories about stories, thigh-slappingly funny jokes and, as I say, the scuba tank stuff. So I’m not sure it ‘qualifies’, officially, as any one thing. Any moment now I will be able to describe what I do in fifty words or less.

Most of the poets I know who perform don’t change their text for the stage – the way it’s written (sometimes even published) is the way it’s delivered. It’s like a script that doesn’t change just because the poet is in front of an audience creating a show, an entertainment, rather than a reading or recital. This may be because, at least for those poets I know, their writing voice is pretty much the same as their performance voice.

That’s also the case for me. I don’t do too much to a poem from the page to the stage. In fact, sometimes I don’t ‘perform’ them at all – ie, I don’t memorise them, I don’t use any theatrical devices like doing different voices for the different characters, or using my body to act stuff out. What I definitely do, however, is that I make a very conscious decision about which poems, out of the ones I’ve written for the page, I will definitely not perform. Some, I reckon, are just meant to be read on the page – and they reward re-reading, of the kind it’s not possible to do when you hear a poem once from a stage. The ones that seem to work best for me on stage are the ones with a traceable narrative, the ones with some good strong quotable lines, the ones with a bit of humour, and/or the ones with a meaningful and entertaining backstory.

The ones which are fairly dense with imagery, elliptical language and wordplay, and the ones which are fairly long and experimental, are the ones that I may choose not to share with the public. That said, I sometimes surprise myself (and my audiences) by breaking out some kind of Language Poem dripping with made-up words and sonic art type stuff. And most of the time when I do this it goes down well – but I usually preface it with some kind of comment about how I love the many things words can do, not just providing us with meanings etc. I ask them to indulge me – and they do. People can be real nice like that. 

I feel a lot of empathy for my audience. I am always incredibly grateful to have anyone in front of me at all when I perform. So I want to invite them in. I want them to be moved, and entertained, and also to be intellectually stimulated. But I don’t want them to feel comfortable the whole time, and I don’t want them to be able to predict what might happen next in the poem or in the performance. And I don’t want to end up telling them what to think or believe or even conclude from my poems. I want to come from a space of asking questions rather than one of knowing all the answers.

I’m not saying I’m always successful, but those are my goals.

And actually, those are the same goals I have when I’m writing (if I were ever to articulate them to myself).

So when I find myself saying something like ‘Can you just let the poem speak for itself?’ when I think about poems with lots of formatting on the page, I have to ask myself, am I applying two different sets of rules here? Do I want different things from the different ‘deliveries’ – a damn good show from the stage, but unencumbered dignity from the page?

Well, no. I think I want exactly the same thing from the stage and page, and that thing could easily be summarised as Less is More. I’m not saying performance poetry should be all Minimalist and Unsaid, but I think it could learn, sometimes, that what’s not said is just as important as what is. I think we, as writers and performers, can trust that our audiences will fill in the gaps, on the page and on the stage.

For me, poetry on the page, whether it’s telling me a straightforward story or inviting me into a slightly more mysterious engagement, is about economy of expression, making sure that each word and gesture punches above its weight. And any performance I enjoy is likely to follow the same rules – it’ll leave room for my own imagination to take flight. It’ll say just enough and then shut up.

There’s a limit, though. Sometimes a poem isn’t given enough help when it comes to a reading or a recital. The poet who gets up and reads their poems with few pauses (sometimes not even the ones that they themselves wrote in there), in a monotone and/or consistently quietly or consistently loudly will usually lose me. It doesn’t take much to create even just a gentle dynamic. It doesn’t have to involve acting with a capital A, and it doesn’t have to be about pretending. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, it’s not so difficult to discover a slightly more amplified version of yourself as a poet and writer. I probably just have a short attention span. But I feel people owe it to their work to try and master the basics of public speaking and/or stagecraft when they read their work in public.

I teach my students about this in my Creative Writing classes. It’s something that’s a bit neglected, I reckon, in writing courses, at least here in NZ. We cover all sorts of things that I feel are useful for page poets who simply want to make a good fist of public readings when the time comes, as well as students who are more focussed on Slams, open mics, performance poetry etc. We talk about things like the right to perform; owning the space; post-performance depression; the way time changes on stage; the enormous value of breathing well; and most importantly, being prepared – rehearsing, timing yourself, taking all the props you might need etc. Nothing worse than getting up to read and having to scramble back down to your handbag for your glasses.

(stay tuned for part 2 of the interview tomorrow)


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Jumping the Poetic Hurdle (part 5) – an interview with Lyn Reeves

The final interview in the series with small publishers is with Lyn Reeves from Pardalote Press. There will be future interviews with online publishers, but for now, let’s see what Lyn has to say about the current state of poetry publishing and distribution in Australia.


As a small press publisher, what do you see are the major challenges for the publication and distribution of poetry in 21st century?

Recently I attended the Publishers’ Market run by Australian Poetry Centre at Glenfern. An informal forum, ‘Is Poetry Worth Publishing’ identified marketing and distribution as the main problems faced by small press publishers. Another area we discussed was the difficulty of getting our books reviewed in major newspapers and journals. However, we didn’t come up with any real answers.

Other major challenges are lack of resources – time, staff and money. Most poetry presses are run by poets, simply for the love of doing it. These poets have to find time for their own writing, and the tension of balancing both pursuits is not easy to resolve.

It’s not inexpensive to produce books, and if sales aren’t returning the outlay and bringing in enough to keep the press afloat, it will fold. Print runs are usually small, which increases the cost per unit. Booksellers and distributors take up to 70% of the RRP; the royalty to the author is another 10%. This doesn’t leave much for the publisher once printing and design costs are met. Direct marketing is the most efficient way to sell, and to avoid the books languishing in bookshops, becoming shop-soiled and unsaleable. Pardalote Press has been fortunate in receiving a number of grants, donations and sponsorships to produce its books and enable it to keep going, but it isn’t a profit-making venture.

The most challenging area for Pardalote, as for many other small presses, is promotion. I run the press alone, facilitating all aspects of proofreading, design and printing. These are the things I enjoy and can do well, but marketing is not one of my skills. Though I’ve tried a range of approaches to getting the word out – website, media releases and review copies, launches, emails, mail-outs, distributors, advertising – I’ve found that the most successful way to sell is through the authors themselves. When authors are active in giving workshops and readings and promoting their books in other ways, they usually manage to sell a good number of their books. Hopefully SPUNC (Small Press Underground Networking Community) will help address some of the difficulties in promoting to a wider audience than small presses can afford to reach on their own.


Why is poetry, an art that arguably best reflects the speed at which we absorb ideas, information and imagery, is being neglected by corporate publishing houses and distributors throughout Australia?

It’s a reflection of the fact that poetry isn’t a money-earner and the corporate publishing houses are interested in the bottom line. Poetry doesn’t have a high profile in our society. There are the well-known Australian names like Les Murray and Dorothy Porter but the main audience for poetry is other poets. Poetry is considered an esoteric and fringe activity by mainstream culture. The general public would rather buy books on sport or gardening or biographies of celebrities or, when it comes to literature, books by writers they’ve heard of. Even when some boutique bookshops stock poetry they rarely take more than a few copies, and these are usually hidden at the back of the shop somewhere out of sight.

‘Reader Education’ can help overcome some of this resistance, and there’s often talk about how to do this, but it does need effort, funding and coordination to be effective. I’ve found that when, as a poet, I’ve been involved in taking readings to new audiences outside the literary community, people are generally very positive about poetry.

Small presses have arisen in response to the decline in interest by the corporate publishers, to meet the need for poets’ voices to be heard and read. I doubt if any of them actually make money out publishing, but that’s not the point of it, though it would be nice.

My own experience with using a national distributor wasn’t successful, so I’ve set up a shopping cart on my website. I still rely on the poets to let people know their work is available, and to personally sell and promote their books. Pardalote also hosts books by a number of other Tasmanian poets on its site.


Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel? What is the future of poetry publishing and distribution?

That does seem like a pretty bleak picture but people will go on writing and reading poetry, so there will always be the need to share their words abroad.

I don’t think of it as being inside a dark tunnel. I think you have to accept your limitations as a small press, the appeal of poetry to a large market, and work within those parameters. It’s more like being in a field adjacent to the bigger marketplace, but that field is full of the light of many voices, the joy of creativity, both in the writing of poems and the making and sharing of books. The rewards are in the doing. It would be nice to reach bigger audiences; as communicators we all want that. So we go on trying different approaches. And we do need to break even so that we can keep on producing the books.

Electronic delivery of poetry will play a greater role in publishing and distribution. There are more and more journals going online. Though it’s been slow to catch on, the e-book seems to be gaining more acceptance. The problem seems to be how to pay for the product, but in digital format it’s less expensive to produce. The internet will certainly play a role in making poetry more available, but the printed book won’t be ousted altogether. There’s something about the intimacy of poetry that harmonises with the tactile pleasure of a lovingly made book. We spend so much time in front of screens, it’s good to relax and get comfortable with a book. There’s less distraction and for me it’s a more focussed way to engage with the writing.


What is on the horizon for Pardalote?

Pardalote Press has been publishing poetry for a little over eight years now, beginning with a chapbook by Eric Beach, Red Heart, My Country. Initially I set out only to produce chapbooks, something affordable that could be sold at readings, but soon the lure of ‘the book’, beautifully designed and presented, took hold and I’ve continued to strive for a high standard in production values, as well as content, in the fourteen titles that make up the Pardalote list to date.

The most recent collection is Postcards from the Asylum by Karen Knight. The manuscript won the Alec Bolton Award in 2007 and is a powerful book. Reviews to date have been consistently stunning.

At the moment I’m editing a new collection of translations by Ian Johnston of ancient Chinese poetry, a sequel to Singing of Scented Grass, which has been my most successful book so far. The poems in Waiting for the Owl are taken from an earlier period, mostly from the Han Dynasty. That should be available some time later this year.

Because I work alone I can only do one manuscript a year, though there have been times when I’ve done two or three. I’d like to do more. I’ve had to send back some wonderful manuscripts by very fine poets that I would have loved to publish, and sometimes had to disappoint people I’ve had a tentative arrangement with, because life events made it necessary for me to cut back on how much publishing I could do. I try not to plan too far ahead. There’s another collection under way that may come out before or after the Chinese poems. But I’m also working on finalising a manuscript of my own that a publisher has offered to take up, and I’m doing some postgraduate study. It’s important to find time for my own poetry this year. At the moment I can’t accept any new submissions.

As well as producing these collections I need to empty my cupboards by selling more of the books that remain in unopened boxes, to make more room and bring in some funds to help with making more books. I wish for a marketing person, committed to poetry and willing to work for virtually no financial reward. Although I use a distributor in Tasmania, poetry really needs passionate representation that distributors don’t give it.

I often think it would be good to work with a small team of people with a mix of skills. That way we could get more poetry books out there, and there’s no shortage of worthwhile manuscripts to choose from. I’m also interested in the idea of e-books, especially for those titles that are out of print. Learning how to do that will be a whole new journey.


About Lyn:

Lyn Reeves is a poet, editor, managing director of Pardalote Press and an associate editor of the literary journal, Famous Reporter. She has collaborated with painters, print-makers, musicians, photographers, workers and scientists for various poetry events. Awards include grants from Arts Tasmania and the Australia Council, and residencies at Varuna, St. Helens, and Darwin. Lyn has been a featured reader at many festivals, including the Queensland Poetry Festival, Sydney Writers’ Festival, Word Storm, The Tasmanian Poetry Festivals, and at other venues in Tasmania and interstate. A collection of her haiku, Walking the Tideline, appeared in December 2001. Her poetry collection Speaking with Ghosts was published by Ginninderra Press in 2002. More recently, she has published two chapbooks, Beads (Picaro Press, 2007) and the ink brushed distance (Walleah Press, 2008). She is one of four poets whose work appears in the award-winning anthology Seasoned with Honey (Walleah Press, 2008).

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Jumping the Poetic Hurdle (part 3) – an interview with Ralph Wessman

As part of the ongoing discussion about the publication and distribution of poetry in Australia, this lost shark has fired off a few questions to some of our country’s fine independent publishers to get their view on the future of poetry publication and distribution and to see what they are up to in 2009.

First up in this series is an interview with Ralph Wessman from Walleah Press. So, let’s hear from Ralph…


As a small, independent publisher, what do you see are the major challenges for the publication and distribution of poetry in the 21st century?

Speaking personally – about poetry distribution – I’ve never been a good marketer of the titles I publish, though it’s an area I intend to improve on. Not sure if having joined SPUNC – the Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC), self-described as a representative body for small and independent Australian publishers – will help much in this regard, from what I can gather SPUNC doesn’t see itself being involved in the distribution side of poetry; I listened in to a Melbourne forum in October – ‘Trends in Poetry Publishing in Australia Today: Is poetry worth publishing?’ – which was part of the Festival Franco-Anglais de Poesie. Heard Antoni Jach and Susan Hawthorn (both involved with independent publishing, both members of SPUNC) suggesting SPUNC’s role as an organisation would remain that of a representative body acting to promote the views of small press participants and not as a distributor. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful SPUNC will prove a source of marketing ideas or strategies.

I get the impression that distribution is problematic not just for poetry publishers but for journals as well. (As publisher of famous reporter, I’m interested in journals). At the festival just mentioned, I spoke to the editors of a couple of Melbourne-based journals (Etchings, Harvest) about their distribution methods, both said that at this stage they were committed to doing it themselves. Etchings’ editors had journeyed across to Adelaide and up to Melbourne in an effort to flog their magazine (one comment was ‘We found Sydney very different, unlike Melbourne where there are chains such as Readings … in Sydney it’s more commonly the independents.’) with Harvest also doing the rounds locally, for the moment at least.

As for challenges to poetry publication, it seems in a state of flux at the moment. The Oz Council are in the process of making (as yet unknown) changes to its support mechanisms. I think increased web publication is the way of the future, but the print medium feels good in the hand, seems pretty safe at the moment. I think if I had an inclination to make another investment in time and energy into publishing another journal, (which I don’t), I’d go the way of a web journal; it doesn’t surprise me so many do, and with good results.

Why is it that poetry, an art that arguably best reflects the speed at which we absorb ideas, information and imagery, is being neglected by corporate publishing houses and distributors throughout Australia?

Because they’re businesses? Back when Penguin made its decision to cut its poetry list in Australia, it seemed to crystallise the notion that an investment in poetry – in poetry’s worth – didn’t extend beyond the profit margin. Well, maybe I’m being tough on them. Some people argue if poetry made itself ‘more accessible’ it might just capture the public imagination and thus the interest of the publishing houses. But it’s argued elsewhere – and just as persuasively – that poetry isn’t a commodity as such and would do well to forget marketing and concentrate on its raison d’etre.

Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel? What is the future of poetry publishing and distribution?

A hard one. I’m a small player on the scene, take things on a day to day basis, I’m not sure if I have an eye for the bigger picture – though speaking of the immediate future: there’ve been a few instances of publishers sending their books to printers overseas – to Hong Kong, for instance – because they can get a better price, but I’ve heard of a couple of occasions where that’s been knocked on the head because of the recent savaging of the dollar.

What is on the horizon for Walleah Press?

Well, I’m pleased to have come to grips with the software publishing package, Indesign. For two or three of the collections I’ve published the typesetting has cost $800 or $900 (and I’m sure they were bargain basement prices) but I’ve since learnt to manage that side of things myself. Not ‘professionally’, but at least comfortably; insofar as the economics – what I can afford! – of publishing is concerned. Having that skill is wonderful; (empowering! don’t laugh). I’d hope that I can continue on with my magazine, I enjoy that even though the last few weeks of putting it together (June and December) drive me crazy; as to a lesser extent does my mailout cos that usually takes me a month. I’m not quite ready for a more concerted effort at publishing poetry, at this stage; perhaps within another eighteen months, two years.

About Ralph Wessman:

Ralph Wessman frets over typefaces and paper stocks, publishes books of literary merit – poetry collections primarily – and since 1987, the literary journal ‘famous reporter’.

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Lost Shark Interview #1 – Sean M. Whelan


Woodford Folk Festival is just days away and one of this year’s featured acts is Melbourne artist, Sean M. Whelan. This Lost Shark took some time to have a chat to Sean about his last shows with The Mime Set, Spoken Word and his plans for 2009.

Spoken Word is one of those terms that encompasses an incredibly diverse range of styles. Where do you think your work with The Mime Set fits?

I hope it doesn’t fit anywhere too comfortably.  There are slight elements of theatre involved in our shows, but mostly it’s about the music scoring the spoken element. It’s pretty carefully constructed. A lot of attention is provided towards creating spaces for the words to breathe in. I’ve always been a bit frustrated whenever I’ve seen poetry and music together and the music is drowning the vocal. I figure music already has it’s natural voice, but when you can’t discern the words of a poet then that voice is diluted. Everybody in The Mime Set had a real intuitive feel for it all. As a poet I hate to deliver such a pun bomb, but… we were definitely on the same page. Ouch.

I don’t think much about spoken word in terms of different schools. It’s never a healthy act to get into the whole comparisons thing anyway. I’ve certainly enjoyed the results The Mime Set and I produced when we stepped into a rehearsal room together. It wasn’t always an easy process, rehearsal rooms sometimes had stormy skies, but whenever something good is at stake, there’s some risks involved.

What can an audience expect at your shows?

I hope a damn good hour or so of their lives. We’ve had such wonderful, generous and warm audiences over these past few years. They’re the moments that are why I love performing. When a kind of river opens up between you and the audience. It sounds kind of airy-fairy new age mumbo but for me it’s often the difference between a good and bad show. I think maybe I’m overly sensitive to the mood of an audience, I certainly have a hard time having fun on stage if the audience isn’t. I’m not suggesting one should pander but if you don’t have any feelings at all for an audience then I can’t work out why you would want to step onto a stage in the first place.

These are the last shows you will perform with the band. How are you all feeling about this journey ending?

There have certainly been moments of deep sadness about it but that’s grasping onto the past. Mostly I feel completely blessed, blessed to have been involved with such talented and incredibly good looking musicians. We toured, we worked hard putting on good shows, we did it all off our own bat and we fucking loved every minute of it, yes, even the bad minutes.

Sam Wareing, Andrew Watson, Justin Avery, Jonathan Shannon and Chris Chapple; I salute you. I also strongly salute our special guests Bec Armstrong, David Cox and Emilie Zoey Baker.
Do you have plans to continue collaborating with musicians?

Most definitely. I’ll be working with members of the The Mime Set again. It’s not something I’m even thinking about until next year, but I have no plans to stop working with musicians. All of my most rewarding experiences in literature have been through collaborations. There’s no reason why I would want to stop doing it. What I really want to do is develop it further. I was also involved in a collaborative show this year at the Melbourne Writers Festival called Static. This was with writers alicia sometimes and Nathan Curnow. Also director Kieran Carroll and Quinn Stacpoole. That was an amazingly rewarding experience. The show was specially commissioned by the good folk at Going Down Swinging. And we’d all like to develop that show further next year and possibly tour it too.

Jonathan Galassi, President of the American Academy of Poets referred to spoken word poetry as a “kind of karaoke of the written word.” Legendary poet Amiri Baraka has also been outspoken about the spoken word movement, despite his ties to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe: “I don’t have much use for them because they make the poetry a carnival … They will do to the poetry movement what they did to rap: give it a quick shot in the butt and elevate it to commercial showiness, emphasizing the most backward elements.” What is your take on this?
Well let me say first the last thing I want to get into is a slinging match with the President of the American Academy of poets! Military action might be taken! (Joking! Guys I’m joking really.) Humour is difficult in print sometimes isn’t it?
I digress.  I’m not interested in getting onto platforms and defending the virtues of spoken word. For many reasons really. I don’t identify myself as a champion of spoken word because it’s only one of many things I do. There’s also the printed work, photography, plays, novel writing (it’s coming! it’s coming!). Also spoken Word is exactly the same as every other art form you care to mention. There’s the most undescribabely precious jewels at the top of the mountain and a river of shit flowing through the valley below. With all the extremes inbetween. And just like every other art form when you really find the jewels, the chase is definitely worth it. I feel so blessed to be able to enjoy the pleasures of seeing my name in print and touching the paper it lands upon and also being able to personally deliver those same words to a room full of people. Especially work that is memorised. I’ll always be in debt to the wonderful NY poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz who really pushed me into getting off the page. It’s an incredibly liberating act for a writer to read their work from memory.  And to be swaying on stage with a bunch of beautiful people all plugged into the same electrical socket that you are is a special kind of bliss.
You also often perform in solo mode. How does your work differ without the band?

It’s certainly different. I wouldn’t rate one as better than the other. Just different. If I’m coming off doing The Mime Set shows then it can feel a little naked. But performing solo is what I do most. There’s so much involved in putting the music shows on. It still goes back to what I said before about establishing a link between you and the audience. The same rules apply. The advantage of the music shows is that you can perform a lot longer. It’s difficult to do a dry reading longer than 20 minutes.

What’s on the horizon in 2009?

Plenty! Firstly a tour of Canada and the United States. With Emilie Zoey Baker, alicia sometimes and Justin Ashworth. We’ve all been specially invited to perform at the Festival Voix d’Amériques in Montreal. A festival specially dedicated to spoken word, it runs from the 6th to the 13th Feb. We also have more shows in Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto. After that there’s shows at The Bowery in New York and The Green Mill in Chicago, the birthplace of slam poetry. So that’s pretty damn exciting.

When I get back from the tour I have plenty of other projects to sink my teeth into. Shannon Ryun, a film maker from Brisbane is making a short film based on one of my poems. I also look forward to working more with Beck Wheeler, an incredible illustrator from Melbourne who has produced many works based on my poems. We are looking at releasing a book together and some short films too with Neil Sanders. There’s also an ongoing series of readings myself and the Babble crew have been putting on together called Liner Notes. Which are spoken word tributes to iconic albums of our time. The last one we put on was dedicated to AC/DC’s Back in Black album and was an amazing night. I think we’ll look at developing that show more, maybe putting together some kind of compilation CD. One other project I can’t even talk about, it’s so red hot! A trip to Berlin could be on the cards too.

Should be a great year I expect.


Sean’s latest book, Tattooing the Surface of the Moon can be purchased at www.smallchangepress.com.au


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