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On novelists and poets

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Wade Marynowsky, Acconci Robot, 2012, robotics, wood, 900 x 600 x 2200mm, electrical engineer: Aras Viachas, programming: Dougall Johnson, courtesy the artist (Photo © RMIT Gallery.) Wade Marynowsky’s work will be part of Cementa 15, 9-12 April.

As a publisher, I am continually aware of the difference in economies between poetry and prose. Poetry does not depend on bookshops for sales; it does not require agents, publicists, rights managers – or even editors, in a substantial way, because an editor who is not a poet cannot interfere successfully with a poem to anything like the extent an editor who is not a writer is expected to do with fiction.

Poetry has little appeal for book clubs and reading groups. Poets are treated as the poor cousins of the book world at writers’ festivals, put on first thing in the morning or later in the evening, when they can be processed in bulk. They are rarely reviewed in the newspapers, and then in a sporadic or haphazard fashion – again, usually, in job lots. For a long time, their prizes were worth less than the novelists’, as if more effort went into a novel than into a collection of poems. In some cases, there was no prize at all, as with the Prime Minister’s Awards in its early years, until intense lobbying pointed out the stupidity of the omission.

The prejudice against poetry goes deep, and it isn’t simply a matter of it being ‘difficult to read’. I have often heard this criticism levelled at literary novels too – ‘it’s difficult to read’. What actually rises before me at this moment is the phrase, ‘the market says no’, delivered in the same self-righteous whine that David Walliams uses in Little Britain to defer to the authority of his computer. But deeper than the sense that the poets are trying to put one over their readers is the assumption that they are bludgers as well as con artists, and therefore have no right to be in the marketplace at all. I once heard an eminent person declare, on a funding committee, that only novelists should receive grants, because they have to write all day, week after week, for years, and so should be relieved of the obligation to work for money, whereas poets just sit around for months on end waiting for inspiration, and you would only be funding them to waste time. Perhaps inspiration, like sales, is another of those things which work very differently, in the different economies of poetry and the novel. Fortunately the funding agencies are on the side of the poets. It is their job to put themselves at a distance from the market, and generally they do.

If you go along with the assumption that there is no market for poetry, then it is easy to believe that there is no economy to it at all – hence the habit of treating poetry and poets with condescension, as if they were good for the soul, or for the culture, but otherwise of no practical or commercial use. For a long time, there has been a tendency to think of poets as crazy, as if they had no sense either, and of being fractious and spiteful, as if the few scraps that might fall their way from the table of literary opportunity had tainted their nature and rendered them ungenerous.

Thank God for craziness, where would our literature be without it? And as for the supposed animosity of poets, towards each other, or towards the world, where is it? Yes, there were poetry wars, around 30 years ago, but for all the acrimony and partisanship, they were at least about poetry. When was the last time we had novelists engaged in a serious discussion about the nature and purpose of fiction? I don’t mean the kind of discussion that takes place on the panels of writers’ festivals, where it would be impolite to queer the pitches one’s fellow novelists are making for public approbation. Where the market rules, the market also determines what it is appropriate for people to say. And to write.

The preconceptions about poetry and poets really only testify to the almost complete dominance of fiction, and prose more generally, in the minds of readers. It’s just laziness. The poets I work with are highly educated – many have doctorates, or are studying for doctorates – they are widely read, and they are remarkably adept at getting by on the incomes available to them. They are acutely aware of what they are writing as poets – they organise conferences to discuss poetics, they carry the discussion of principles in blog posts and comments, and in reviews in online journals and launch speeches. In his Critic Watch essay ‘The Poet Tasters’, Ben Etherington noted rightly ‘that poets themselves constitute just about every aspect of their world: they are the writers, the publishers, the editors, the event organisers, the critics, the audiences, the anthologists, the scholars, and sometimes even the printers and distributors.’ You could say that this dynamic sense of community is a reaction to the neglect of poetry in the wider community and the marketplace, except that I doubt poets spend much time thinking about the wider community or ‘the marketplace’. They have their own.

In this economy, books circulate more easily than they do outside of it, often traded hand to hand, and without the intervention of middlemen. If the publisher gives the books to the poet at half price, and the poet sells them at gigs at their full price, or at a 25% discount, both parties make more money, and sell more copies, than they would if the books were distributed through bookshops. Surprising as it may seem, a poet can make as much in advance payments for a new collection as a novelist, if you include in those payments not only the advance paid by the publisher, but the fees earnt by individual poems published beforehand in newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and in radio programmes like Poetica (until it was banished from the airwaves). There is a compelling decorum in the recognition of these sources in the acknowledgements pages of new collections, thirty or more in some cases, with their playful and esoteric titles, and their international provenance, testifying to an economy that is simply unavailable to the writer of novels.

Poets were onto the possibilities offered by the internet, and by email, earlier than any other writers. John Kinsella’s meteoric rise to recognition as an international literary figure from the western edge of the continent was facilitated by his extraordinary dedication to email correspondence, the commitment of a regional publisher, and a poetry magazine open to overseas contributors – three key ingredients of poetic dissemination. The wonder of it is, he was able to take advantage of the possibility more than twenty years ago, when the whole digital business was very new. The only way novelists can achieve this kind of range is through the collaboration of publishers in different countries, with negotiated rights agreements involving one and sometimes several agents along the way. It can take years. Even then, you are unlikely to have the contacts on the ground that the poets have.

From a publisher’s point of view, too, there is less risk in publishing poetry, than there is in publishing fiction. With new printing technologies causing dramatic reductions in the cost of printing, you can get much the same unit cost for small printings as you can for larger ones. You aren’t likely to make a profit on 700 copies of a poetry title, but with the support of the Australia Council, you can’t make a loss either, and this after offering a decent advance (given the size of the print run) and paying for launches in one or two cities. As is well known, the market-oriented publishers of fiction don’t like to have launches, because they say they lose money on them.

It is impossible to talk about economies, alternative or otherwise, without dealing with the question of value. One can’t be certain about literary value – when it will be realised, and in what circumstances. You get used to the fact that it may not happen in your lifetime. In the meantime, you remain committed. Does indifference to the commercial pressures of the marketplace breed integrity (alongside anger and melancholy)? It must do. The attenuation, the withholding of recognition – it takes a lot of guts to live with that. I think what I admire most in poetry, and in fiction that shares the same high ideals as poetry, is its ability to talk from itself and about itself, whether anybody is listening or not. I don’t mean this in a confessional sense. Poetry’s truth lies in the rhythms of language, in song rather than story. If you can’t hear it, or you’re waiting for the story to begin, that’s your problem!

Sydney Review of Books this week features essays by two of Australia’s most respected literary critics, Kerryn Goldsworthy and Peter Pierce. In ‘Rolling Downhill’, Goldsworthy looks at the latest work by Robert Dessaix, What Days Are For, a memoir that describes Dessaix’s near-fatal heart attack in 2011. Goldsworthy’s essay is a tribute to a literary figure whose self-fashioned persona and quirks of style have combined to produce a charming and characteristically idiosyncratic reflection on mortality:

Written in the first person and the present tense, What Days Are For has a diary-like tone and structure, covering the twelve hospitalised days immediately following what Dessaix calls ‘the emergency’ … It is as though he wishes not only to record the first stages of his recovery in an orderly fashion, but also, at the same time, to re-create the state of mind one is in when mortally ill and heavily drugged, surfacing to full consciousness only at irregular intervals and sometimes not knowing what day it is: the book’s tidy structure of days is used as a container for the bursts of reflection and lucidity that illness and hospitalisation can produce, but not in a regular or predictable way.

Pierce’s essay ‘The Catastrophe Business’, surveys the career of James Bradley, whose new novel Clade depicts a future world ravaged by the effects of climate change. Bradley has written fiction in a variety of genres and Pierce considers the various ways in which these works are inspired and informed by historical and scientific research. Bradley is, observes Pierce,

a humanist whose imagination is most excited by the non-human world – of photographs, fossils, rotting ship’s timbers, radio signals from outer space. An earnest and often didactic environmentalist, he writes nonetheless with a nonchalant brio not of how the world might be saved, but of how it is already falling apart, even if catastrophes are his business rather than apocalypse.

From the Archives this week looks back at another Australian novel that deals with environmental catastrophe. In ‘Going Viral’, Jane Gleeson-White reviews Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, arguing that its rich imagery, abundant storytelling and imaginative reach makes it the ‘first great novel of climate change’.

Our image this week comes from media artist Wade Marynowsky. His work Acconci Robot is an interactive robot that follows the viewer when they are unaware. It appears to be a shipping crate and is mute and motionless as the viewer approaches. But when the viewer turns away, and starts to leave, the robot begins to follow. If the viewer turns to look back at the robot, it stops in its tracks. The work will be part of Cementa 15, a four day contemporary arts festival in Kandos NSW.