The multi-award winning poet and novelist David Musgrave founded the independent publishing company Puncher and Wattmann in 2005. Its name derives from Lucky’s soliloquy in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In ten years, the press has produced some one hundred and ten books and established itself as a significant and reputable presence in the Australian cultural landscape. Though poetry titles constitute about three-quarters of the Puncher and Wattmann list, the press has also published literary fiction, literary and cultural criticism and biography.
This diversity is, I think, important, providing as it does opportunities for writers whose work doesn’t suit the commercial imperatives of the major publishing houses or the increasingly straitened (and therefore increasingly commercially driven) circumstances of the remaining few university presses in Australia. The story of the founding and development of the press is the story of David Musgrave’s initiative, vision, determination, resilience and taste. Though he would undoubtedly credit the help he’s had from friends, there can be little doubt that his own commitment has fuelled the enterprise from the beginning. It is in keeping with this commitment that he drove from Sydney to Canberra and back in a day at his own expense to spend a couple of hours with me over lunch, talking about the origins, development and future directions of the press.
In the 1990s, Musgrave was involved in producing the Sydney university magazine Hermes. Using experience gained there, he subsequently produced 35 issues of a newsletter, The Rejectamenta, which arose from the fortnightly meeting of a group of friends, including Peter Kirkpatrick, Sarah Newton-John, Matthew Karpin and Delia Falconer, who came together through the Sydney Poetry Society. The idea was to showcase their work, but it also developed Musgrave’s skills in layout and design: the seeds of an ambition to start a publishing company were sown. The newsletter, however, died a natural death, and the seeds lay dormant for another ten years. Though the idea of publishing remained attractive, Musgrave admits he had no money and no idea how to make his aspiration a reality. Then, in 2004, while working in IT and as a compensation for trying difficulties in his personal life, things changed. Having lunch one day with his friend, Nick Riemer, the conversation turned to the fate of Riemer’s poetry manuscript. It was Riemer’s first book of poems. He’d had a contract in place with Robert Adamson’s Paperbark Press, but Adamson’s financial backer had recently withdrawn support, and the contract had been cancelled. With the demise of Paperbark, the alternative options were severely limited. Discussing this situation, Musgrave said, ‘How about I publish your book. What do your reckon?’ Riemer agreed, despite being warned he would be playing the role of ‘Guinea Pig’. And so the first Puncher and Wattmann title was decided.
The book, however, didn’t appear until 2005. In the meantime, Musgrave acquired the Adobe programme InDesign II and over a period of six months taught himself how to use it. He also investigated costings with the Sydney University Printing service and began to learn about the economic realities of establishing a press.
In those days, in order to be registered as a publisher with the Australia Council, five books needed to be published with minimum print-runs of 500 copies for poetry and 1000 copies for a novel. The cost to produce these runs was approximately $2000 for a poetry title and $6000 for a novel. Consequently, Musgrave spent a lot of time in the early years scraping together the money to produce the first five titles, including cash he’d won from poetry prizes and grant money he’d received for his own work from the Australia Council. Nick Riemer’s book was published in 2005, and in the following two years three further poetry titles appeared, including Peter Kirkpatrick’s brilliant collection, Westering. But perhaps most significantly for the future of Puncher and Wattmann, in 2006, Musgrave published Alex Jones’s wild, witty and wonderful comic novel, Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything. Well and widely reviewed (Kerryn Goldsworthy described it as ‘a brilliant and near-absurdist rave, a sort of 21st Century Such is Life’), the book sold well and made enough money to ensure the immediate future of Puncher and Wattmann. Revenues from the book were helped by the fact that in the same year as its publication, Musgrave was made redundant and spent his time doing his own distribution for the press, carting boxes of books around in the boot of his car, thereby avoiding any payment to a distributor and maximising the returns for the press and the author.
Having five books in print enabled Musgrave to win grants from the Australia Council to support the press. This, together with the money from Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything, enabled Puncher and Wattmann to thrive and grow. Apart from a difficult year in 2010-2011 when the Australia Council reduced its support at a time when Musgrave was also assailed by difficulties in his personal circumstances, the growth of the press has been steady. This doesn’t mean that it has become massively profitable or profit-driven. Sales of the anthologies Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry 1986-2008 (edited by Jennifer Harrison and Kate Waterhouse) and Australian Poetry (edited by John Leonard) have provided welcome revenue streams. Nevertheless, the business still struggles to break even or make a small profit. Musgrave doesn’t pay himself a salary from the company, and its work continues supported by several key people who donate their time and efforts pro bono. From a precarious beginning with slender means, Puncher and Wattmann has grown to become one of the most important small presses in the country; it is to Sydney what Black Pepper is to Melbourne. Black Pepper is, of course, ten years older than Puncher and Wattmann, but it is interesting that both these fine companies have been founded and are run by practising poets.
David Musgrave has very clear ideas about the position of his press in relation to literature and society. Though he thinks that literature might be viewed as an autonomous field—a system and structure that constitutes its own body of knowledge—he strongly believes that literature can have a positive indirect impact upon society. The notion of indirection is important to him in so far as he does not wish to subordinate literature to anything else, yet he is adamant that he doesn’t believe in art for art’s sake. Musgrave is also clear-eyed about the way the withdrawal of the traditional ‘gatekeepers’ of literary merit has left the field more open in some ways, even though he avers that the market for individual titles has shrunk since 2005. The lack of any authoritative critical culture once supplied by serious and widespread reviewing and value-judgements emanating from English Departments together with the withdrawal of the major publishing houses from the publication of poetry and literary criticism means there are few mechanisms for promoting one poet’s work more than any others’. The relative ease with which a book of poems can now be produced means that the market is flooded with product, but readers are difficult to find. With the relaxation of the Australia Council’s rules in relation to print runs and the advent of the Heidelberg machine that can easily print small runs, the usual number of copies of a book of poems is now 250. These are usually sold (if they are sold) by a launch and readings to the poet’s friendship group and networks. Musgrave is clear that spending more on larger print-runs and marketing would soon lead to bankruptcy.
There are aspects of this situation that trouble me more than they appear to trouble Musgrave. I can see the attraction of viewing ‘literature’ as an autonomous field, yet I worry about the definition of ‘literary’ in this context. It seems to me that in this model, there is a risk that ‘literary’ will be defined against all other writing that is popular and does have a market. In this scenario, ‘literary’ may come to be associated with writing that is self-consciously obscure and self-involved, couched in an ornamental rhetoric wherein figures of speech are deployed to display the writer’s ingenuity rather than being integral to vision. Fine judgements are required to differentiate between the genuinely experimental avant-garde and the lucubrations of the pretentiously incompetent. It seems to me there is a widespread lack of confidence in declaring which Emperor or Empress has or has not clothes and, indeed, whether nudity or dress is preferable. All this, I think, contributes to the divide between the ‘literary’ and the ‘popular’ and so the process goes on squeezing the literary further and further from a general audience and sequestering its readers and practitioners in the contained walls of the academy wherein schools of creative writing have flourished at the same time as value judgements have been abnegated and the selective relativism of post-modernism tends to reign.
Though it might be argued that the proliferation of titles (I’m thinking particularly of poetry here) enacts a nicely democratic impulse, validating as it does an ever increasing number of poets, one could also suggest conversely that the paradoxical effect of this is to bolster the ranks of a self-selected group who want to see themselves as an ‘elite’ and pride themselves on not having an audience, for that would condemn them to the assumed vulgarities of the market place. What seems on the one hand to be an impulse towards democracy paradoxically turns into the creation of an elite.
I have no answer to these problems, and it is all to the good that Musgrave has not allowed such considerations to deflect him from his purpose. Though he concedes that few of us read well all of the time and acknowledges the part that regionalism and friendship have played in his editorial decisions, he is very clear on one point: his ability to distinguish between writers who have taken ten to fifteen years to hone their craft and those who are interested in fast-tracking a career via instant publication of second–rate material. He is also keen to point out that some of his decisions to publish have been based on the position of a manuscript in relation to the broader context of Australian Literature. As an example, he cites Winifred Weir’s book, Walking on Ashes, a poetic memoir of an Australian family affected by two World Wars. Weir’s father served in the First World War, and it is his service and its impact on the domestic life of the family that forms the kernel of this thematically linked sequence. Musgrave cites the fact that nobody else had explored this ground in Australian poetry before as a big factor in his decision to publish.
Though he believes in innovation, Musgrave is open to publishing poets who belong to various traditions, Romantic, Modernist and Post-Modernist. Many of the poets he has published were already established figures before being taken up by Puncher and Wattmann. Two very substantial ‘New and Selected’ compilations perform the dual function of offering a generous selection of previous work that might now be hard to find in out-of-print earlier volumes, while simultaneously showcasing the poet’s latest work. Diane Fahey’s The Wing Collection, and Alex Skovron’s Towards the Equator are books of this kind, to which we might add Geoff Page’s New Selected to make a trio deserving of the widest possible audience for poetry in this country.
Fahey’s observations of and meditations upon the natural world are poems characterised by linguistic clarity and fine particularity of perception. They are filigree poems that invite the reader in through their subtle rhythms and lucid syntax. More ambitious perhaps are her dealings with classical mythology and fairy stories. To my mind, these are not as evenly successful as her poems dealing with the natural world, yet here, in the absence of pretentiousness and in the intimate tones adopted, there is also much to surprise and delight.
Alex Skovron’s work has a more dramatic, historical and political flavour to it than Fahey’s. The brutal history of twentieth-century Europe, and in particular the Second World War and the Holocaust, casts deep shadows over Skovron’s work, much of which is engaged in trying to come to terms with this history in the context of immigration to Australia. Like Winifred Weir’s, but on a larger scale perhaps, Skovron’s work is important because it occupies a unique space in Australian Literature.
Geoff Page’s New Selected shares Skovron’s taste for the historical and dramatic. Page’s poems, however, form an interesting and ongoing argument with several well-established Australian cultural myths. They are lean, terse, laconic sidelong poems, which interrogate the masculinist traditions of the bush and Anzac, often bringing these into question while also celebrating the hardihood of men and women living disappointed lives. The puritanical cast of these poems means that they are emotionally spare, but the precision and clarity of Page’s technique results in poems, like those of Fahey and Skovron, that one can imagine being enjoyed by more than a specialised audience.
Other established poets Musgrave has published include Ken Bolton, Philip Salom, Anthony Lawrence, Laurie Duggan, Jordie Albiston, MTC Cronin, Peter Boyle, Ania Walwicz, Sarah Day, Alan Gould, Bruce Dawe, John Tranter and Jill Jones. The range and quality are impressive; in the contrast between say, Ania Walwicz’s experimental and recherché procedures and the accessible astringencies of Bruce Dawe’s work, we might locate the breadth of Musgrave’s taste and discernment. If we add the names of another group of poets who are fast establishing themselves as significant voices in Australian poetry—including Andy Kissane, Louise Wakeling, Simon West, Meredith Wattison and Musgrave himself, we begin to appreciate just how distinguished a list this is becoming. One of the effects of this is to encourage readers to sample the work of less well known writers like Tricia Dearborn and Phyllis Perlstone who have had early books published by Puncher and Wattmann. The reputation of the press begins to become a marker for the discernment of quality and interest.
Having said so much, I confess that while many of the individual volumes of poetry Musgrave has published promise to be as replete with accessible and important subject matter as Fahey, Skovron and Page, some of the work published tends to reinforce my worries about definitions of ‘literary’. I am not keen on poetry that seems to be hermetically sealed in a world of its own self-delight. The experimental work of Catherine Vidler or Toby Fitch, for instance, demonstrates that Musgrave has wider tastes than mine. This is poetry that advertises its intellectual ingenuity, but the point of the ‘cleverness’, beyond a questioning of what ‘a poem’ might be said to constitute, isn’t always apparent to me. It is hard to imagine such work appealing to anything other than a coterie audience.
Instead, let me turn to three outstanding volumes that would surely bring pleasure to many more than 250-500 readers. I should make it clear that my choice of these books is arbitrary to the extent that I haven’t had time or energy to read all Puncher and Wattmann poetry titles and that my interest has been led by earlier preferences. Nevertheless, Andy Kissane’s Radiance, Anthony Lawrence’s The Welfare of my Enemy and MTC Cronin’s The Law of Poetry provide three outstanding examples of contemporary Australian poetry. Although very different in their styles, these writers work with immediately accessible language and form. This doesn’t mean their work is devoid of artistic risk and surprise; it is rather that such risks and surprises are not foregrounded to display the respective poet’s virtuosity or cleverness but arise organically from the poet’s vision of the subject matter at hand.
Andy Kissane’s work is often lyrical and owes much to Romanticism, but he is also capable of great narrative energy and deft changes of linguistic register that deliver wit and irony. He is also unafraid to deploy unusually long lines and risk the charge of writing prosaically in order to create relaxed and intimate tonalities appropriate to his narrative purposes. Though there isn’t a weak poem in the book (which is unusual in itself), the sequence ‘Sea of Tranquility’ with which Radiance ends deserves special mention. I know of no other contemporary poet who has dared to write about the moon at such length and with such élan. These are love poems to the literal, metaphoric and literary Moon, in which the poet makes daring and dazzling shifts between the quotidian and the sublime, maintaining a compelling emotional warmth without ever succumbing to sentimentality or cliché. It is a bravura performance. Though I haven’t space to quote at length, I can’t resist a few lines; this is the beginning of a poem titled, ‘At the Movies’:
The Moon likes to catch a film on Friday nights. She enjoys art-house, film noir and a clever script, but whatever you do, don’t mention werewolves. We sit up the back because of her tendency to glow in the dark and disturb the other patrons. O my firefly! My phosphorescent queen!’
Anthony Lawrence’s The Welfare of my Enemy is an altogether darker work than Kissane’s, though like Kissane’s, Lawrence’s work has its origins in the Romantic tradition. (I’m aware, of course, that Romanticism, Modernism and Post-Modernism might be seen as a series of modified conjunctions rather than a set of discrete disjunctions.) Though the blurb describes Lawrence’s book as ‘blending verse novella and book length poem’, I experienced the poems as a sequential dramatisation and meditation on the phenomenon of missing persons. The whole book is written in couplets of varying length, sometimes rhyming, more often near-rhyming or off-rhyming. These latter techniques reminded me of the way Wilfred Owen’s para-rhymes work to give his poems a sense of unease and disquiet. Just such an atmosphere pervades this volume as Lawrence approaches his subject from all angles. His ability to imagine victims, perpetrators, policemen, lawyers, relatives of missing persons, and voluntary missing persons makes this a compelling if at times chilling read. While using some of the recognisable motifs of crime fiction, the sequence works to destabilise and question these, leading the reader into harder and more complex spaces where our society’s obsession with crime, real and imagined, is subjected to forensic scrutiny:
Since the night or morning Paul and Anne went missing: you want to move on, you begin connections with the day to day, you try. Once, in a shopping mall. Those kids, they were so in love, they had their whole lives. It gets so bad. Sadness and anger come in waves and you never know. You hear all kinds of stories. And those shows on television – what a sorry spectacle for anyone. And I’ll tell you, your marriage takes a hiding, when it should . . . You pledge your heart and life, for life, for ever and ever. Having someone go missing. . .
M.T.C. Cronin’s The Law of Poetry might be read as a companion volume to her book of micro-essays (also published by Puncher and Wattmann) entitled Squeezing Desire through a Sieve: micro essays on judgement and justice. The Law of Poetry runs to some 260 pages and, we are told, contains poems written over twenty years by someone who is described as ‘coming to poetry through the law’. Every poem in the book is titled ‘The Law of Something’ as in ‘The Law of Broccoli’, ‘The Law of Ducks’, and so on. As these titles suggest, there is some serious play going on here, and, as in the micro-essays, a concern to subject the idea of ‘Law’ to post-modern deconstruction. I find the poems fascinating. Cronin’s style owes a lot to Pablo Neruda, and, like that poet, she writes work that has a beguilingly approachable surface, but also, as with Neruda’s, the end product is often mysterious, and the quality is sometimes hit-and-miss. I like in Cronin’s work, though, the sense of abundance, and the movement between abstraction and imagery; she is capable of the epigrammatic as well as imagery of great verve and invention. Throughout, one senses a keen intelligence at work, and the poems (as well as the prose) continually provoke thought and feeling not by hectoring but through a sense of being invited to join the writer in her investigations. The opening lines of ‘The Law of Kindness’ demonstrate Cronin’s ability to shift effortlessly from abstraction to image, and to invite the reader to ponder big themes in the lightest manner:
To produce nothing But yourself Is the kindest action For the Universe When pushed To swing like a little door That others May pass through . . .
Musgrave is committed to continuing to publish criticism and biography, and for the most part, he seems to have selected works like Cronin’s ‘micro essays on judgement and justice’ that have their origins in academic interest but find a form that might well speak to an educated public beyond the academy. Michael Carter’s stimulating discussion of excess in nature and in dress is another case in point. His Overdressed: Barthes, Darwin and the Clothes that Speak is a stimulating discussion in which both Barthes and Darwin are interrogated with respect to the idea of useless ornament in nature and in fashion. Michael Sharkey’s meticulously researched and elegantly written biography of David McKee Wright, Apollo in George Street not only provides a fascinating portrait of its principle subject but also provides a brilliant account of literary life and its relation to wider society, particularly in Sydney between 1910 and 1928.
Given the quality of these books, it seems unfortunate that to my mind the least compelling critical volume published by Puncher and Wattmann is dedicated to poetry. Poetry and the Trace, edited by John Hawke and Anne Vickery, constitutes a series of essays mostly, but not exclusively, by academics addressing themselves to Derrida’s notion of ‘the trace’. The title of the book, of course, suggests that anyone unfamiliar with Derrida might as well not begin. The opening essay with its unfortunate title: ‘To hold the Hole: Poetry and the Trace’ begins like this:
This volume considers the relationship between poetry and the trace, investigating whether poetic language and form might provide ways in which to approach what Derrida calls the ‘mark of the absence of a presence’ or ‘an always already absent present’. (Spivak xvii) The trace is an affective site; our relation to it is often of desire, but also of mourning and melancholia. Just as ‘Nothing is ever lost’ so too ‘“Everything is lost” doesn’t sum/it up either” (Du Plessis 29)’.
As this beginning might suggest, the book is large and heavy, running to 445 pages. Though no doubt it contains hidden gems, it’s hard to imagine anything being written more likely to alienate a potential reader from outside the literary academy. It is this kind of writing that I worry about when considering the idea of an autonomous ‘literary field’. In its determined promulgation of specialised language, its astonishing lack of wit or irony (‘John Tranter writing about […]. John Tranter might be considered an exception, but I’m not sure …’) and its pervading sense of high-minded seriousness, it made me wonder if the writers were not like adherents of some gnostic sect seeking to articulate their search for the numinous through their ‘belief’ in literary theory. For myself, I recall the opening of Brecht’s last poem: ‘And I always thought: the very simplest words/ Must be enough’.
Though all I am noting here might simply add up to a difference in taste, in turning to the future of the press, it is heartening to hear Musgrave articulate his hope that Puncher and Wattmann will continue to publish literary biography and scholarly criticism of a general rather than strictly academic nature. He is also keen to make the point that the press is striving to find as wide an audience as possible for its fiction list. In order for the press to continue at all, however, the practical side of the venture presents a constant challenge. Though turnover has increased by 500% since 2009, there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure the press goes forward on an even financial keel. Part of Musgrave’s vision for the future is the establishment of a Puncher and Wattmann literary trust fund that would enable philanthropic donations to be made tax-free. A ‘Friends of P and W’ could be established to encourage regular donations. The necessity for such a strategy is predicated upon the unpredictable future of funding from the Australia Council and indeed on the unpredictable future of the Australia Council itself.
One of the practical difficulties going forward is a direct consequence of the success of the enterprise. Authors who have been published by Puncher and Wattmann understandably want to make the press their home. Keeping up with the output of these writers and having the resources and capacity to also expand the list is a constant challenge. Over the last few years, the press has aimed to publish about twelve titles a year, but this has resulted in the accumulation of a backlog of some thirty-six titles. Accordingly, sixteen titles appeared last year, and with the help of Australia Council funding, Musgrave is hopeful that the remainder will be published as soon as possible.
One senses that the pressure of running the press is considerably lightened by the team of friends helping Musgrave keep the company afloat. Anne Vickery is now the poetry editor while Ed Wright edits the fiction (Musgrave talks enthusiastically about new forthcoming novels by Subash Jaireth and Philip Salom). Andy Kissane helps out with publicity. Matthew Holt is responsible for design and Meredith Kidby manages the website. None of this work is paid.
As our conversation moved towards a close, Musgrave voiced his hopes that he might sometime soon be able to take a sabbatical from running the press. Despite his energy and commitment, it is impossible not to detect an element of weariness. After all, running Puncher and Wattmann is not his full-time occupation; Musgrave also lectures in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and, of course, is also engaged in writing his own work. I ask about the impact of the press on the writing of his own poetry, and he says he reckons he’s a book or two behind where he might otherwise be. Given the quality of his work, this seems a considerable loss. On the other hand, we can hope that if he is granted his wished-for sabbatical, the ground might be made up.
Though he speaks of the interest and rewards of the enterprise —not least of which are the friendships he’s made—he also admits that running the press is tough and has come at some personal cost. ‘You can’t be cavalier’, he says; ‘you have to care’. He accepts that authors are ‘demanding’, even believes they should be so in respect for their work. But when unspecified ‘falling-outs’ have occurred, he has been led to question whether the enterprise has been worthwhile. On the other hand, he expresses the wish that Puncher and Wattmann might continue to thrive and outlive him. With a soft ironic chuckle, he suggests his founding and running of the press constitutes ‘a weird martyrdom’. I think it’s a remarkable, not to say heroic, achievement.
Musgrave is sanguine about the position of poetry within Australia but admits its relationship to an audience is problematic. He is of the opinion that this is ‘an extraordinary time for poetry’ and, remarking on the extraordinary dynamism in the field, suggests there are more top-level practitioners in poetry than prose. Nevertheless, he admits that reading poetry doesn’t form an integral part of most literate individuals’ experience. Wouldn’t it be good, he suggests, if the big newspapers would give a double page spread to say six poets and recommend them to the wider public. If they only did that once a year, it would be something. It certainly would. In the meantime, if you want to check out some of the finest poetry being written in Australia, I suggest the Puncher and Wattmann website is a good place to start.
As Australian Poetry Journal goes to press, Puncher & Wattmann’s bestselling titles (well over 1000 copies) include Motherlode: Australian Women's Poetry 1986–2008; The Puncher & Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry; and Alex Jones’s novel Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything. Poetry titles stand at 84, with a further six forthcoming by the end of 2015. Many titles have sold in excess of the standard print run figure stated in the essay, and exceptional sales include Carol Jenkins’ Fishing in the Devonian, Andy Kissane’s Out to Lunch, Ken Bolton’s Sly Mongoose, Bruce Dawe’s Slo-Mo Tsunami, Sarah Day’s Tempo, and Alex Skovron’s Towards the Equator.