Diamonds in the Rough: Cordite Poetry Review, Kent MacCarter, and the Australian Poetry Industry

An editor at a nationally-prominent, poetry-specific publishing house and I were recently talking about “the industry.” After reading my manuscript, she relayed that, despite the fact that she found the poems to be of “high enough standard,” her press would not be able to publish it. This was simply for the reason that the press wasn’t taking on any new work whatsoever. I was both surprised and dismayed, and not only for reasons of self-interest. This news came amidst the recent downturn in Australian poetry more generally, and to see yet another press fold made me concerned for all the poets I knew, and the hungry readers of poetry that I know exist.

Nowadays, individual poems and reviews of poetry books are no longer in Australian newspapers, and books of poetry are mainly absent from the lists of major publishing houses. Occasionally, a book will get printed when a novelist writes a few poems, which happened with Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Carrying the World (2016) at Hachette, and Omar Musa’s Parang (2015) at Penguin. But, the big end of town, such as it is, does not pay much attention to poetry. Even the larger independent publishers like Text and Scribe no longer accept poetry submissions, and, as of this year, the reputable Black Inc. has discontinued its annual Best Australian Poems, which was the national showcase for so many people. With the slowdown at small publishers like Puncher & Wattman and Hunter, the number of presses that publish Australian poetry is dwindling. Although I am an optimist and recognize that problems create opportunities, this is a concerning trend. I fully expect a crop of new presses to emerge, which would replicate the rise of recent online journals like Stilts and Plumwood Mountain. Poets, like everyone else, are hardy people. There are presses working today that we must herald precisely because they persist in very difficult circumstances.

At present, there are two presses that have a strong commitment to poetry at a national level while also publishing books of fiction, history, and other genres. These are University of Queensland Press and Giramondo Press, which is based at Western Sydney University. In drawing fine divisions that are only heuristic, the former has a preference for the voice, craft, and lyric, whereas the latter prefers experiments, assemblage, and the work of a self-described “avant-garde.” The former comes from an abstracted idea of the literary market and the latter seems dedicated to the academic. However, both UQP and Giramondo are places for proven performers and we can speak of them as having “stables” because they often commit to more than one book by any one individual.

Becoming a poet with a book by UQP or Giramondo involves a long apprenticeship, including publishing in journals, taking creative writing courses, participating in readings and festivals, and being part of “the scene” as a participant, listener, and friend. Even after this due process, it seems that these major presses only consider poets who have a book with another publisher. Of course, both presses have published debut writers like Sarah Holland-Batt and Jaya Savige (UQP), as well as Maryam Azam and Eunice Andrada (Giramondo). But the general rule holds — you graduate into these presses after proving yourself worthwhile. Consider the recent headline news in the national magazine Books + Publishing when Omar Sakr signed with UQP. I have heard from credible sources that a similar announcement is forthcoming from Giramondo, albeit with someone else. However, both poets have one book out already with smaller publishers. And so, to answer my question — where do these poets come from? — we must turn to the minor leagues.

There is no minor league in Australian poetry more major than Cordite. It produces the largest journal in terms of poems published, has the biggest national and international online readership, and also privileges emerging and overlooked poets with their book series. It was where Sakr’s first book came from and where other debut poets — such as Autumn Royal, Siobhan Hodge, and Elena Gomez — have found a willing home. Cordite Books has become a source of talent for larger publishing houses and it consciously eschews the “stable” model. It only gives poets a home for a single book: there are no Cordite poets, even as there are Cordite poetry books. This differs from UQP and Giramondo, who both seem committed to nurturing poets who they can call their own. This might be justified aesthetically, but it is also tied up with funding, marketability, and longevity.

As with any feeder league, Cordite is often where the most interesting work happens. In this way it is similar to baseball, where someone could first see Shohei Ohtani playing in Japan before heading to the Angels. Someone could go to these leagues to scout people out, for the cheap tickets (and beer), and to see what the future of the league might be. On rare occasion, a whole minor division championship team is elevated to the big leagues. Cordite certainly could do that if it had a supportive university and regular funding. As a collective, its key personnel could manage to take on more responsibility and develop into an even more important force in Australia. Their future might be like Jacket2, which moved from Sydney to the University of Pennsylvania not so long ago. But at this stage, Cordite is still a place for poets to turn the arm over, solidify their batting style, and get used to the clubhouse. Whether any of them enter the Hall of Fame in world letters, or simply win a World Series, remains to be seen.

When viewed in a global and historical context, any press in Australia might not even be part of the major leagues — not even the Australian operations of Hachette and Penguin, let alone the big independents like Black Inc. and Text. Australia, after all, is a small place when placed next to the infinity of the world. There are, of course, internationally recognized individuals from Clive James and Les Murray to the Windham-Campbell Prize Winning Ali Cobby Eckermann and the everywhere-at-once, W. W. Norton-published John Kinsella. But I do not know of any Australian poetry press that is a hot ticket in global, literary markets — from Frankfurt Buchmesse to Jaipur Writers Festival. If one comes up from Cordite to either UQP or Giramondo, it might be a whole lot harder to make the next step, into the international English-speaking scene — regardless of a common language, shared histories, or a textbook batting stance that obeys all the rules of aerodynamics. Yet, even the pros start in the Little Leagues.

What holds Cordite together, in a general way, is clear — Kent MacCarter. He is as American as he is Australian, having moved from a childhood on Wild Horse Island in Montana to Castlemaine, just outside Melbourne in Victoria, where he now lives. There are, of course, other people who matter, but MacCarter is the Managing Editor and Publisher who oversees the books and hires all the editors, of which there are many. At present, Cordite is very much MacCarter’s entity. He finds talent, grows it, and encourages poets to keep to the task, regardless of any pressure to change their stance.

It might come as no surprise that when the manager steps up to the plate, the result is somewhat mixed. When considering MacCarter’s recently released collection of poetry California Sweet (2018), it might be necessary to remember Ben Etherington’s words about Australian poetry:

… poets themselves constitute just about every aspect of their world: they are the writers, the publishers, the editors, the event organizers, the critics, the audiences, the anthologists, the scholars, and sometimes even the printers and distributors.

Just like any minor league, the manager is also the pitcher, designated hitter, shortstop, catcher, and hot dog vendor. MacCarter’s work deserves to be read in this light. As Etherington goes on to suggest:

Separating out acts of criticism from the various roles that poets play will only falsify the object, making any attempt to ‘watch’ poetry criticism complicated. Also, particular acts form part of patterns of alliance and aesthetic creed. These are entirely obvious to those involved but obscure to the uninitiated.

In this way, I must declare an interest. I briefly edited for Cordite Poetry Review under MacCarter and have interviewed him for a series on contemporary poets. This does not discount me from being critical, but might explain why other poets have been reticent to have a go. A friend recently commented that it would take a certain amount of daring to even review California Sweet, presumably because MacCarter is seen as an important figure in Australian poetry. Yet, interrogating California Sweet matters to a reading public in and of itself, and also because MacCarter’s poetry suggests something of how he runs Cordite. It is suggestive of his aesthetic preferences and tells us what he likes, even if it does not diminish, negate, or forget the work of other poets who he continues to publish. This is despite the fact that they may be diametrically opposed, aesthetically speaking. In this way, reading California Sweet reveals one central node of the Australian poetry world, and I am sure that he can handle the spring training that follows.

From the opening poem of the book, MacCarter seems to be a straight talker reaching for the experimental, not the other way round (see “Sundown over Badwater Basin, California”). There is a basic attention to the musicality of language despite an over-reliance on being clever that includes a preference for a long and specialized word over a clearly expressed vernacular (“Are You Ready to Go Superfast?”). When MacCarter relaxes into it, as he does in the middle section, the “California Suite,” he demonstrates unity and beauty without foregoing difference or difficulty. But where these middle poems are spare and allusive, in general, MacCarter layers reference upon reference to create an idea of an Austerican public sphere that shares hollow commodities and pop culture — “Constanze Weber Steps off Amtrak’s Super Chief Passenger Train in Los Angeles… and Fears She Has Disembarked at the Wrong Station.” Yet, he remains ambivalent about a solid, politicized critique of what might be possible if we are to overcome the bonds of our lifestyle, with its alienated social relations and materialistic fetishes. And so, it becomes hard to know if MacCarter agrees or disagrees with world historical systems like global capitalism, despite his evident nostalgia for a liberal activism that is locally potent — “In Death, Cesar Chavez Has a Vision of a Heronry Near a Minimart in Barstow.” In this way, California Sweet has a certain aesthetic eclecticism that is not held together by a strong voice or an avant-garde technique. It sits somewhere in-between the avant-garde and mainstream not unlike Cordite as an entity. I certainly liked the book even as I was reminded of Etherington when he said that “no one believes that most Australian poetry volumes are a couple of edits or a tempered excess away from being a perfect version of themselves.” That is as true of California Sweet as anywhere else, something that is suggestive of the structural issues at work in the field as a whole. This is not the failing of any individual.

With California Sweet, MacCarter shows that his greatest contribution to Australian poetry will remain his role with Cordite. Cordite Poetry Review and Cordite Books have an international flavor, even as they could only be Australian. It is an expression of cosmopolitan liberalism with a national but not nationalistic orientation rather than a type of international regionalism. This gives it a wide poetic range, being less critical and selective on matters of taste than UQP or Giramondo, and with no strong house style per se. The books are a place for both up-and-comers and rejuvenated if somewhat marginalized poets. For the former, we have the debut poets I mentioned above, as well as Natalie Harkin, Claire Nashar, and Matthew Hall; for the latter, we have Louise Crisp, Javant Biarujia, Alan Loney, Kris Hemensley, Caren Florence, and Chris Mann. At Cordite, MacCarter embodies some sort of John McGraw, managing to get the best out of his line-up despite the odds. This includes fending off those managers who have come to poach the very best players who he has found in cornfield diamonds on the other side of the globe.

It might be necessary to celebrate Cordite then, and not only for how it encourages local poets to go on to better and brighter things. The journal and the book series serve important functions in Australian poetry in and of themselves. MacCarter is integral to that and has given emerging writers the space and freedom to express themselves, and connected established poets to a still living history and tradition. They all might have been easily ignored if we did not have someone like him to connect them to an audience and a readership beyond ourselves. That is more important then ever given the slowdown in smaller publishing houses and the cutbacks in the poetry industry in general. Cordite matters, and even if its poets go on to Giramondo and UQP, they will always have a home ground that MacCarter has kept so well.

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