Poetry Journal

Latest writing / 8 Jul, 2016

Susan Hawthorne and Spinifex Press

Heather Taylor Johnson

‘I failed English literature when I was sixteen’. This, from the author who wrote The Butterfly Effect, the poetry book from 2005 that blew my mind with its heady mix of the critical and the lyrical; this from the same poet who went on to write Cow and Lupa and Lamb, where mythology and history combine in experimental semi-verse novel forms; this from the same woman who wrote the decisive feminist eco-political text Wild Politics; the same woman who, with her life and business partner Renate Klein, began Spinifex Press and over the past twenty-five years has discovered, encouraged and honed the skills of many other accomplished female authors. Yes, that Susan Hawthorne. Together we laugh at the irony of her statement.

We’re sitting at an Indian restaurant in North Adelaide. Susan’s here for the Feast Festival and to give a talk at Australia’s Homosexual Histories Conference. She’s agreed to a long lunch with me and a tape recorder. Over a glass of wine and a large plate of food neither of us can imagine we’ll finish, she tells me that it wasn’t until she reached her twenties that she began to think about writing. In her thirties she began seeing her worked published, and it was around that time that she accepted the role as the Writing, Theatre and Music Coordinator of the New Moods Festival, which resulted in a nine-day women’s writing event called The Language of Difference. This was 1985, and this is how it all happened.

It was a time of feminist activism in Susan’s life and she was too-long out of work when the opportunity to apply came along. Winning the position was good for the festival, with Susan securing international authors like Doris Lessing, Audre Lorde and Keri Hulme as well as important Australian writers like Elizabeth Jolley, Hazel Rowley and Dorothy Hewett. Susan says it was such a huge event that she mightn’t have taken it on if she’d known what it entailed. But this was life-changing stuff for her so I’m thinking she’s being tongue in cheek. She sips on her wine while chilli simmers and I wonder how often she thinks about how strange and delightful these paths are that lead us to our destinies. ‘In doing that I met publishers and discovered that they didn’t have three heads and it kind of opened the door for me to think maybe I can get a job in publishing’.

A year later she became an editor at Penguin, working in fiction and poetry, mostly, and got to know the sorts of books she wanted to see published. She focused on getting in new writers from Indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds, broadening the Penguin list quite substantially. She did this for four years then took a break for a short stint in the US with Renate. When she returned, as happens so frequently in the big publishing houses, everything had changed and it wasn’t to her liking. Enter the idea for Spinifex Press. And it stuck. And it’s stayed.

‘We didn’t get funding to start the press, we just did it’. Renate had a paid job at Deakin University as Associate Professor in Women’s Studies at the time and, once they started, Susan sometimes took on second jobs for more income. Occasionally they got grants, and still do, but grants are never long-term, nor are they consistent. Intention and determination, however, have been.

‘We both thought we knew a lot about publishing’, she laughs, ‘but there were a whole lot of things we didn’t know’ particularly the businessy side’. So they experimented with their own books first. ‘At the end of the first year we didn’t know if we’d keep going’.

‘You know that’s what the Rolling Stones said after their first year together?’ Considering one of their most popular albums, Exile on Main Street, is known for its machismo stance positing women as defenceless against their sexy rock-star male counterparts, I’m wondering how she, a publisher defined by her feminism, takes this comment. She smiles and says, ‘That’s interesting’. How can anyone take it any differently?

‘Everything has an effect on a publishing house’, she continues. It’s the personalities of the publishers involved, their styles, politics, what’s going on in the world when setting up. For Susan and Renate, it was the Women’s Movement.

‘It would’ve been better had we started 10 years earlier’. I’m trying to imagine a different world in which there were a lot of feminist bookstores, such as there were in the 1980s—mostly in America. ‘Spinifex had about three to four years of that lucrative time’. So it’s the niche thing that made it so easy to succeed, right? ‘And then Borders came into being’. I can hear the bop-bop-bop-bow theme song straight away and I don’t really need an explanation to know that this story isn’t going anywhere good.

‘Borders killed off independent feminist bookstores and as a result independent publishers went down’, She talks extensively about this in her small but mighty book Bibliodiversity: A manifesto for independent publishing. Around the same time, postmodernism came in and depoliticised the women’s movement, so running a feminist publishing house in the late 80s / early 90s was a risky enterprise. ‘And it’s much harder to be a feminist publisher now than it was twenty years ago.’

I’m still holding onto my theory so I spill it out, though doubtfully: ‘I thought the ‘niche’ of feminist writing would have been the answer to why the longevity?’ Susan says partly, yes, but you can’t find their books in many bookstores, and I feel my heart drop.

‘The only thing going for us now are things like e-Books selling books over the website, things like Facebook’. But those things don’t make up for the loss of bookstores. She says, ‘I’ve almost stopped going to bookshops because I get so angry’, and my heart drops another level. At least there is food to shove in my mouth when ‘I’m sorry’ seems superfluous.

‘There used to be about two-hundred [feminist bookstores] in the States. We used to sell more to the States when we had twenty titles than we can now with two-hundred titles—something’s wrong; something has happened.’ This is the time we both drink from our wine glasses and let the weight of her last sentence sink in. She then tells me that in the heyday of independent bookshops Spinifex used to do print runs of three thousand. ‘Now five hundred to a thousand is good’.

So in a business that struggles to be seen and heard yet refuses to lie down and publish anything marketably flashy or trendy, where does poetry sit? Unsurprisingly, at the lower end.

As any publisher will quickly admit, no one’s in poetry for the money. So why persist? I thought it might be because Susan is herself a critically noted poet—Earth’s Breath was shortlisted for the 2010 Judith Wright Poetry Prize and Cow was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Award in 2012 and made a significant splash in US feminist circles by becoming a finalist in the Audre Lorde Lesbian Poetry Award—but if she wasn’t a poet, she insists she’d still publish poetry. In fact, she says, she wasn’t a poet when they published their first poetry book.

‘One of the most important political feminist moments for me was reading a poem by Susan Griffin called, “The Song of the Woman with her Parts Coming Out”’. She’d read it in 1973—six years after she’d failed that course in literature. She also brings up H.D., one of the most important modernist poets to emerge in the second decade of the twentieth century, and not for the first time during our lunch. Kris Hemensley of Collected Works introduced her to the Imagist who has become an inspiration for lesbian and feminist poets. ‘Poetry has been something that I have felt has sustained me both politically and imaginatively for a long time’.

And so through Spinifex she gives us poets such as Sandy Jeffs, whose Poems from the Madhouse won a stack of awards, was reprinted twice and has sold more than six thousand copies. Jeffs writes about her own experience of living with schizophrenia and domestic abuse and her work is noted for helping others to live with their own mental illnesses and recover from domestic abuse. Important poetry. Sustaining poetry. Sandy Jeffs is a good one to have on her author’s list.

Jordie Albiston is also a good poet to have on the list. Her first collection, Nervous Arcs, was published alongside Diane Fahey’s The Body in Time in a single book. Why the dual collection? In an earlier interview conducted via email, Susan writes, ‘We did a number of titles with two authors as a way of increasing the sales. It made them thicker on the shelves and the market for each book meant that it sold to the readers of both poets. We tried very hard to make sure that the two poets sat well with one another. When my first collection was published I was one of four poets (Penguin was doing that), and I had no problem with that, but I felt that four was too many together and it weakened the combination instead of strengthening it. I love both these collections—Jordie’s and Diane’s—and I think they sit really well together. There is a kind of resonance between them, their concerns, that I think enhances the overall book. I also hoped that readers of Diane’s work would be introduced to Jordie as this was her first collection’. Spinifex has a few books working under this model—Sandy Jeffs, for instance, was paired with Deborah Staines, Miriel Lenore with Louise Crisp—but soon enough the authors said that they wanted their own single collections. ‘So I gave in. I still like the format of two poets together’.

When asked if she has a favourite poet— and I likened it to choosing a favourite child, knowing it would be difficult to answer on record—Susan admitted it was very difficult to choose. ‘Like all mothers I love them all. But if I have to choose, then The Abbotsford Mysteries by Patricia Sykes sings for me every time’.

I remember reviewing that book for Mascara in 2011. Up until that point I’d known Susan only as a poet who had come to a pretty informal book launch of my first poetry collection in Melbourne. I was an unknown poet from Adelaide so quite thrilled when Susan had introduced herself saying something in the way of, ‘I liked your review of The Butterfly Effect / you seemed to get what I was doing / I had to see what this “Heather Taylor Johnson” was all about’. The Abbotsford Mysteries was the first book I’d ever been sent a review copy directly by the publisher so I was crossing my fingers that I’d like it. In that review I wrote, ‘These poems take on the “we” with enormous solidarity while still placing enormous value on the individual experience. Sykes incorporates direct quotes from her interviews within each poem, so her words and their words intermingle, creating a unique type of history and an effective type of poetry. The result is not one of give and take, but one of union’. I was relieved that I liked Sykes’ approach and her writing. Spinifex had also published her Modewarre: Home Ground and Wire Dancing, both either commended or shortlisted for major awards. I knew after writing that review that I needed to keep my eyes open in the future for other Spinifex poets.

Back at the Indian restaurant with the people walking by our window on a pretty perfect Spring day and a birthday being celebrated at the large table behind us, I ask Susan which other female writers she wishes she could have published, and she barely takes a second to think before she says Virginia Woolf, Monique Wittig and H.D. ‘I think they broke new ground in their writing and they were all a bit visionary in some way in terms of imagining what was possible’.

It mightn’t be a coincidence that Woolf, like Susan, was a poet and a publisher. Historically the two occupations have been known to go hand in hand, but how, logistically, does one manage?

‘It’s no accident my most recent books were written while I was out of the country’. During ‘time out’, the percentage of Susan’s writing over publishing is about 80% to 20%, but in ‘the regular setting’, it’s the reverse. ‘Time out’ equals India, maybe Rome, probably with residencies funded by Asialink and the Australia Council. Their ‘regular setting’ is their office on Queensberry Street in North Melbourne, where you’ll find the sign ‘Feminist books for a feminist future’. Book displays decorate the windows and more posters inside hover over boxes of stock. An office manager is inside, along with a media manager and events manager, none of them full-time but working between two and four days a week. Under the desk in Susan’s office is Freya, the dog she and Renate adore. Upstairs is the living area, where Susan and Renate live when they’re in Melbourne. Where the delineations between writing and work sometimes blur would be Far North Queensland, where Susan and Renate (and Freya, of course) spend most of their time. If they ever retire, that’s where you’ll find them full-time. But retirement? She thinks about it often but how could she not publish the next book? Who would publish it? She couldn’t see it not being published.

What if she hadn’t been around to bring Indian fabulist Suniti Namjoshi to an Australian readership? Who would have done that? And who would have published A Girl’s Best Friend: The Meaning of Dogs in Women’s Lives or A Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection? Fables and heartfelt subjects like pets and friends may seem mainstream enough to be printed in pocket-sized books and given as gifts for birthdays and Christmas but Spinifex ensures there’s an intelligent edge, a certain critical search-and-discover (which is why I bought one of the books for a friend’s recent PhD submission). And have I mentioned Spinifex’s gorgeous covers? They’re one thing Susan feels she does really well as a publisher, along with Renate and cover designer Deb Snibson. And I agree. Her own cover for Cow is intrinsically decorative, and Merlinda Bobis’s Locust Girl is subtly and enigmatically intuitive.

One thing she does poorly? ‘Renate says I miss things’. When she laughs I’m wondering if this is a bit of a workplace joke that’s turned into a domestic joke, but Susan puts me back on track in telling me she’s better at a structural level than she is with detail—bibliographies, for instance —which is often left to Renate. Renate will read poetry but Susan’s the main editor in that genre. And of all the genres she edits, Susan prefers poetry the most. It used to make her nervous ‘but’, she says, ‘I feel I understand it better now, so that’s just a matter of knowing more and understanding better how poetry works; it takes a long time’.

As a poetry editor for Transnational Literature, suggesting edits always makes me nervous. It might be a hangover from my Wet Ink days as Poetry Editor, when I kept hearing people at the round table complaining that poets could be so precious. I’m heartened to learn that Susan feels the opposite. ‘It’s hard to generalise, but, if I have to, then I think poets are so careful about their words and the effect that they have that they do listen carefully and if something has hit you, that they almost always go back. And they’re quite original in their responses. Often I think they rewrite the section because if one thing is wrong and you try to change that then it fucks up the lot. You can’t just change the word often or the position of the word or whatever because it changes the rhythm, so I think that’s what happens with poetry. But with fiction and non-fiction you can drop a sentence here or there or drop a whole paragraph and it might not really affect the book…. That’s much harder with poetry. It disrupts the balance so much more’.

She admits she loves being edited, so her personal approach to editing poets may have some grounding there. ‘I wouldn’t just put a line through four lines of poetry, I’d say “I think you need to rework this poem and here are some suggestions”’. Sometimes lack of time or a smacking deadline won’t allow her the opportunity to edit a poetry manuscript so she asks another poet to edit it. ‘I would only ever get another poet’.

Our food is good and it’s surprising how it disappears until our plates are empty. We’ve ordered another wine each but now that the waiter has taken away our plates, there is nothing between us but the tape recorder. I’m feeling the bareness of the interview, the formality, the short pauses seeming too long, and I clumsily look over my questions then ask one that seems to come out of nowhere and feels very pointed: ‘Looking at what you publish and knowing how dear the subjects are for you—Patricia Sykes Wire Dancing certainly sticks out—[Susan is an aerialist herself, a circus performer, which is amazing considering she lives with epilepsy]—each book seems as though it would’ve been nothing more than a labour of love. How much does a book’s marketability factor into your acquisitions? And she says, ‘The deciding point is that we have to feel passionately about a book in order to publish it. We sometimes feel that but for other reasons we aren’t able to publish and I have a few regrets. At the beginning, Renate and I decided that neither of us would veto the other if we felt strongly enough. We do sometimes have long conversations trying to work that out. Each of us has a few books the other would not have done, but it doesn’t stop us feeling strongly and passionately about our list’. I think it’s the ‘passionately’ that brings me back to the organic nature of this interview: me asking someone I admire to talk about something she loves. And she does – she loves publishing. ‘My greatest wish is that there were more feminist publishers around so that we could share the load a little because there is a bit of an expectation that we can publish anything that’s suitable for us and it’s just not possible. There are many more books that are suitable for us than we can afford to publish’.

So of the publishers around who are sharing the load (you can Google ‘feminist publishing’ and see that it’s not a very large market, comparatively) Susan has her favourites. She says she’s really happy New Directions exists. It’s a New York-based press that publishes writers from countries like Argentina and Indonesia, so they’re diversified for sure, and their writers are mostly daring and original. They get a lot of notice in the business without having ‘Top 5’ subconsciously etched onto their logos because, though they don’t publish en masse, their authors have become big-name writers—Bolaño, Transtromer, Octavio Paz, Tennessee Williams. But there are smaller publishers who are working in really difficult situations that Susan can’t go past in answering this question. Müge Gürsoy Sökmen is the publisher of Metis Publishing in Turkey. She’s gone to court time and time again for her literary direction. And the Indian publishing company Kali for Women that started up in 1984. When the founders Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon parted ways, they both started up new feminist publishing companies: Zubaan and Women Unlimited. ‘It’s not quite the same situation as in Turkey, but they’ve done it against a cultural norm that if they’d been listening, they couldn’t have done it’. Publishers like these women have to ignore the constant negatives from authoritative men who say no, no and no. Susan’s amazed at the courage of feminist publishers she recently met from Syria and Iran where censorship is rife. ‘I know a couple of publishers in Bangladesh, one who is a potential target and, you know, he’s had authors who have been killed and he knows other publishers who have been killed, and that’s this year’.

At home in Australia, we’re a lucky country when it comes to censorship and freedom of speech, most would agree, but funding of late has become a major concern for both publishers and writers, Brandis sticking it so hard to both in 2015 that neither can feel a future can ever really be secure. In a follow-up email to our lunch, I asked Susan what she’d do if she were given the job of divvying up the money, scant as it may be, to the literary arts.

‘Let me answer on the one hand as a publisher and on the other as an author. Publisher answer: I would provide more funding to Independent Publishers. For example, a few years ago the government considered providing $10,000,000 to university presses. University presses already have institutional support. It would make more sense if the government provided money to independents who could do amazing things if supported. In the end, the University presses did not receive the money, but I find it problematic that no one thought to consider independent publishers. Author answer: I have just read the Industry Brief on Australian Authors. Poets earn far less than any other group of writers ($4900 is what is earned by the highest 25% of poets) and yet, as you and I know, there is a thriving poetry scene. Poetry is a literary form that has a long life. Some support for poets at a critical point in their careers (perhaps after the second or third collection) would help poets do something more than write in the interstices between everything else. My answers are similar: assist those who earn the least and put in huge effort’. So poets, in Susan’s ideal world, would be so much better off. They’d have more opportunity to create and the independent publishers would have greater opportunity to get their work out to the public. But would sales increase as a result? The sad part to her ideal world is that sales might not change. Spinifex could still expect their 300 to 500 print runs.

It’s frustrating, because as Susan says about the poetry scene at lunch, ‘There is so much happening. It’s like a parallel universe though’. She laughs. We both do. We both know, too, that nothing’s actually funny. ‘Most people in Australia don’t even know it’s happening. They don’t know that hundreds of small poetry books are being published every year. You know, occasionally one gets some publicity because it wins a prize or the author does something that gets some notice that might not even be related to poetry, but it is very hard. You know, in a place like Korea, a poet can sell thirty-thousand copies of her book?’ I tell her I can’t imagine that ever happening here and I’m suddenly feeling we’re not the lucky country at all. We’re the footy country or the cricket country, and where does poetry fit in with all of that? To change our way of thinking, Susan says, ‘would involve changing the education system, the media, the government, the subsidies—it’s a big call’. And so it is on our part, as readers, too. In an article she wrote for The Conversation called ‘Small is Beautiful: In Praise of Organic Book Publishing’, she writes, ‘Change requires both intention and follow-through. As a reader, venturing only to the front of the bookshop is a bit like visiting Europe or Asia or Africa in five days. Exploring ideas takes time…. I’d encourage you to venture among ideas and people you don’t already know, or you need to dig deeper among those you do. To live on the surface can be all very glamorous but at some point it becomes tiring, satisfaction is lacking, one becomes cynical and despairing’.

Poetry is not mainstream, and I hate to say, but have to say I really think it never will be in Australia. We have to search it out to find it and read it. But look at the invitations to launches on Facebook and the announcements of awards and publications tweeted per week. Listen to the discussions about poetry at various readings around town. These prove that there’s a huge engagement right now regardless of sales. I’m thinking about Adelaide’s own Lee Marvin readings, which Ken Bolton curates and Susan read at once while she was in town. I felt so proud to show her how cosmopolitan Adelaide can be as a legitimate site for poetry, and it wasn’t just the poetry that night—which was exceptional—but rather the discussion in between the readings that showcased our engagement.

‘Poetry being read now as opposed to the readings I went to in the 70s and 80s is better. There’s more attention paid to how the poem really works, that lines aren’t thrown in just for the heck of it, just to shock somebody’. Shock poems are important, we need them now and again to shake us out of our comfortable places of living and thinking, but as Susan insists, ‘a whole series of them can desensitise and you stop being shocked. And you then need to find some other way to do it, and I do think the work I’m seeing now is really well crafted, and that’s quite something’. She pauses. There’s still Indian music in the background and people all around us are talking and eating and scraping their forks along their plates, but it really is as if everything else somehow pauses while I wait for Susan to continue. I can tell she’s working up to something. I’m eager to ingest it. ‘It’s sometimes hard to know if poetry is better because I know more about it or if it’s because it’s really better. I do know more now but I do know that I’m fussier than I used to be so it ought to be harder to please me’. Looking at the quality of poetry books coming out of Spinifex Press, and Susan’s own work, definitely, it would appear she is a fussy one. I’m hoping she’ll fuss-on for at least another decade.