CONTRIBUTION TO FORUM, "GREAT SUCCESS IN THE SMALL PRESS", Sunday 17th May,1998; BOORANDARA LITERARY FESTIVAL
1. The "small press" is an umbrella. You put up an umbrella when there's a storm. But it's a distraction , if not a grievous mistake, to confuse the umbrella with the storm. The storm is always the literary crucible of personal & social questions.
Ivor Indyk's Heat magazine enters the fray, declaring its intention to cut through mediocrity & cowardice... Years ago, Jack Shoemaker turned the curriculum of his Sand Dollar mail-order bookstore into the innovative literary publisher North Point to immediately take the honours at the fine quality end of the American small press...
The various histories which today aggregate as the small press explain its cultural & aesthetical values. We can describe longer or shorter histories according to knowledge, personal experience & disposition.
History was neither here nor there in Melbourne amongst poets in 1967/68 when that era 's small or little press was born. Michael Dugan could & would talk about the Angry Penguins & of Barratt Reid's Barjai & of the beginnings of Meanjin & Overland --in short, the '40s & post WW2 new Australian literary scene. And Michael was a subscriber to several English little mags of the '60s --a Sixties which was not yet definable except as the notion & imperative "new" & "now". (It's ironic & instructive that I could come from the English provinces to Melbourne,Australia and be closer to the international action than if I'd stayed at home, 100 miles from London!) It's vital to insert the idea of "underground" into this definition --because "small press" & "little magazine", then as now, are relative terms, --are relative to the mainstream examples. Outside of mainstream journals (& journalism) & large publishing houses, everything else is the small press! Especially today!
Michael Dugan's & my idea in the '60s was to reflect or represent the alternative for all of the alternative scenes, --thus, the underground.
2. If I'm to retrieve some meaning from the oxymoron of Ken Smeaton's title for this forum, --since "great success" & "small press" seem to me to derive from opposing cultural notions --I'd say that a great success of small press is its simultaneous granting of the freedom of expression (which is a political act) & the sustenance of new & original literary work. I should add that since the '60s, the parallel development of the reading aloud of poetry (mostly) & prose has, locally, greatly expanded the crucial community aspect of the small press, whether "underground" or "non-mainstream".
3. "Great success", of course, begs the question. "Great success" suggests quantifiable measure, it suggests quantity. "Small press" is small --its values are not, esentially, those of the mainstream. A recent great success was Chris Grierson's launching of five titles from his imprint, Soup. Both Chris & his friend Kieran Carroll refer to the '60s mimeograph revolution. The Soup booklets or pamphlets are in editions of 100. Their authors --Grierson, Carroll, Cassie Lewis, James Lee, Brendan Ryan --are in their 20s or only recently left those "beautiful years"! For those of us who are no longer the younger generation or the new generation, who are older or more published, these five represent the emerging literature.
For those who havent yet published, they represent a kind of establishment, that is of poets & writers who have broken through, who're writing, publishing & reading their work around the traps.
The great success of Soup is in its accessability. The work exists; here it is published; here it is being read; here it is in its first edition, distributed. Whether or not Penguin Books or Angus & Robertson or, dare I say, Black Pepper, are available to publish it, here is Soup ready to publish NOW!
4. To return to my figure of speech, "small press as umbrella" and my proposition that "the umbrella isnt the storm" : the "storm" is always the authorised condition as perceived by those outside of the exercise of that authority. The "umbrella" is always what those people put up as protection, defence, shelter for their own literary & political dignity.
Never is it really a mutually exclusive situation --though it may suit people to beleive & behave as if it were --for a while at least.
But though it isnt mutually exclusive, it is a mistake to regard the literature & the production of the small press as simply a stepping stone, a credit on the way to "success".
"Success" itself is ever changing --world market would seem now to be the index of success. And the technologies of that potential appear to be the new scene of the action.
"Small press", then, may insist on notions of limitation --of locality, of personality --may insist its traditional reality against the invitation of infinite growth & relevance & popularity.
And these political & philosophical issues have always been reflected in the aesthetical values of the small press journal & book.
I might close with the examples of two beautifully made literary journals, Heat (edited by Ivor Indyk) & Boxkite (edited by James Taylor), --which are considerable statements of the state of the small press in Australia as well as instantly being participants on the international scene --contributing Australian perspectives on & to Anglo-American & European literary writing. And they represent the contemporary paradox of the "small press"...
[This seminar moderated by Ken Smeaton and featuring Geoffrey Dutton, Gail Hannah & Kevin Pearson, Kris Hemensley, Mark Rubbo.]