Five Islands Press is offering its inaugural Ron Pretty Poetry Prize this year, named in recognition of Ron’s contribution to Australian literature through his own poetry, his teaching, and his publication of 230 books of poetry by other poets. Ron was the founder and managing director of Five Islands Press between 1986 and his retirement in 2008.
Sydney poet Brook Emery, whose first three books of poetry were published by Five Islands Press, sat down to interview Ron about his publishing and poetry careers – and his ideas on what makes a good poem, the place of poetry in Australian culture, and the pleasures and frustrations of poetry publishing.
This conversation between Ron Pretty and Brook Emery was conducted in September 2014.
Brook: Ron, I’d really like to talk to you about poetry rather than about the poetry scene or even about the perils of publishing, but there are some things we just must touch on. How did you come to start Five Islands Press?
Ron: Yes, I think I’d rather talk about the poetry, but for the record, FIP began in 1986 when eight of us formed a co-operative publishing house in response to the difficulties we were having in getting our work out. Not that it’s got easier since. After two years and a book by each of us, the co-operative morphed into FIP Associates, run by Deb Westbury, Rob Hood and I. That lasted another couple of years until Deb and Rob went their separate ways, and I took over as sole proprietor, though Deb continued to help with the selection of new titles, especially in the New Poets program.
Brook: For how many years were you its managing director, financial controller, editor, typesetter and chief bottle washer, and in that time how many books did you publish?
Ron: I retired as publisher in 2008 after 22 years, the last 16 or so in sole charge. During those 22 years, FIP published 230 titles by Australian poets. 72 of them were in the New Poets Series, which ran for 12 years.
Brook: What were the pleasures and frustrations of running the press?
Ron: How long have we got? There was a great deal of both. The pleasure of bringing new work to the market place, work I enjoyed and whose quality I was confident about. Quite a lot of this was by poets I felt had been unfairly neglected – I published some terrific older poets for instance – or because they were working in unfamiliar territory, or because they were new poets struggling to find a publisher for their first book. The New Poets Series was a particular pleasure for that reason. So many of these authors have gone on to become significant figures in our poetic landscape. Frustrations? Oh God. Never having enough time to do things properly, especially in publicity and marketing. Looking back on it, for much of that time I was publishing too many books each year, but it was hard to say no to fine poets who seemed to have few other publishing options. The difficulty of getting reviews and the occasional bitchy one that came along. The parochialism that meant that it was hard to get an audience for a Western Australian author in Sydney. The constant battle to stay afloat financially… I could go on …
Brook: For a long time there has been debate here and in the USA about the merits of creative writing courses. Ron, you’ve taught poetry and poetry writing for many years and published the terrific, out-of-print guide ‘Creating Poetry’. Can it be done? Is it a ‘good thing’?
Ron: As a matter of fact, Pitt Street Poetry are bringing out a revised edition of Creating Poetry early next year. (Pause for a commercial break). But you know, the usual argument is that ‘poetry can’t be taught’. And that’s perfectly true. But it’s also true of anything else you might want to teach, from ethics to mathematics. All you can do is create the conditions under which learning can take place. In the introduction to that book, I talk about what those conditions would seem to be – things like ethos, the models, the exercises out of which, for some students, their own poetry might come. Not all students will turn out to be poets, any more than all students in a maths class will turn out to be mathematicians. But most of them will emerge with a heightened awareness of the way poetry works, and will appreciate a good poem when they see it.
Brook: Let’s move away from Ron Pretty as publisher and teacher to Ron Pretty as reader and writer. How long have you been reading poetry and how did you come to start writing it?
Ron: As in most things, I was pretty much a late starter. I can remember being caned in third class for not being able to recite the second stanza of “I Was a Pirate Once”, and I don’t think any poetry made much impression on me again until I reached uni. My main interests in those early years were history and fiction, in that order. I was writing short stories, some of which made their way into school magazines…but when I got to Sydney Uni – after a couple of years teaching in the bush – W B Yeats opened my head with a meat cleaver. “Sailing to Byzantium” is still probably my favourite poem. And for a number of years afterwards I was writing bad imitations of him. He is still probably lurking in some of what I write. But after uni I went to Europe, and for a year in Greece I was reading the Europeans – Seferis and Cavafy, Brecht, Pasternak, Rilke, Supervielle… That year was when I really started writing seriously. When I got back, I caught up on some Australian poets – Fitzgerald and Stewart, Tranter and Forbes, Gwen Harwood – she was a terrific poet. Then there was Neruda and E B Brathwaite – his trilogy Rites is stunning. Lately I’ve been working my way through Carolyn Forche’s anthology Against Forgetting and the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, terrific anthologies, both of them.
Brook: Are there poets who influenced you in the early years? Are the influences different now? Just how did they influence you?
Ron: Well, obviously Yeats was an early – and persistent – influence. As I said, for a long time I was writing poor imitations. As you read more, though, and look at what other poets are doing it can’t help but affect you, let you see what’s possible. Lowell’s Life Studies and Berryman’s Dream Poems and e e cummings, they all have an impact. The series of “Butterfly Poems” I’ve written recently probably had their genesis in Robert Harris’ “Seven Songs for Sydney”, though I read Harris a long time ago. Things stay with you though you’re not aware of them, and they pop up unexpectedly while you’re doing something entirely different.
Brook: Do you go back and re-read certain poets?
Ron: There’s so much new stuff pouring in on you all the time, it’s hard to find the time to go back. Occasionally I dip into Yeats or Brathwaite or the sonnets, or a line will appear in my head and I’ll go back and read the poem, but really, it’s not very often.
Brook: What do you look for in a poem? What excites or impresses you?
Ron: So much could be said about this. For me, I want the poem to surprise, but I also want it to satisfy; the surprise should be neither facile nor imposed, but come naturally from the area of experience being explored. I want the poem to challenge me. I want the language of the poem, the imagery of the poem to be lively, fresh and appropriate to the subject matter. That’s not just a matter of avoiding clichés (of language, of emotion, of experience), but of finding new angles, new ways of exploring the experience, new ways of expressing the results of that exploration. I want the poem to have unity so that the language, the imagery, the tone, the movement and structure of the poem all reinforce one another. I want the level of difficulty in the poem to be appropriate to its concerns: I don’t want it to be simplistic or facile, but neither do I want it to be obscurantist or difficult for its own sake. If the poem is layered, I want the layers to be consistent with one another and supportive of one another. I want the poem to open out to me. If it is challenging, I am prepared to read it several times, even many times; but as I read I want to find new insights, new connections, so that in time I will understand it, even if only viscerally. I am not satisfied if I come away from a poem perhaps appreciating its brilliant language or structure or sound patterning, but having only an imperfect sense of what the experience is that is being explored. And I want some variety in the poems I read: I don’t want every poem to be deadly serious; I want playfulness sometimes, and humour, and whimsy as well as satire, irony, anger, elegy, distress …
Brook: How do you work?
Ron: Since we moved back to Wollongong, I’ve developed a set routine. Three or four nights a week I go out onto our back verandah to write – it overlooks a cemetery, Kembla Grange Race Course and Lake Illawarra. I have a pad, a fountain pen, a bottle of red and, if it’s a still night, some candles. I wait till something, usually a line, comes to me, and I follow it. And I write three or four first drafts a night, sometimes. In the morning I read over what I’ve written and usually discard a lot of it. Anything that looks as though it might have potential I’ll start re-drafting; I usually have at least six or seven drafts, sometimes more than twenty. And even then, when I come back to the poems a week or so later, I still find I throw a lot of them away. It’s a wasteful method, but every now and then you get something worth keeping; and there’s always the surprise, the pleasure of discovery of what’s hovering there, that’s what keeps you going, even if, later, it turns out to be not much good.
Brook: How many poetry books have you written? This might be an impossible question but do you have a favourite poem or two of your own?
Ron: I’ve written six full length collections and four chapbooks. I don’t know about favourite poems. Sometimes I think I’d like to put out a “Selected” of no more than about 20 poems, but I get bogged down when I try to work out what they should be. I’ve got a soft spot for “Night of the Bonfire” because it was the first poem I published – in Southerly – but it’s a bit ragged around the edges… “Theseus at 80” and “Da Capo” probably would be among current favourites, but it changes with my mood…
Brook: And finally, the Czech poet Miroslav Holub said somewhere that he dreamt of a day when people read poetry as naturally as they read the newspaper or go to the football. Do you have a hope for the future of poetry?
Ron: In your dreams, Miroslav. I am frustrated by the fact that there is so much poetry happening at present, but most of it is hidden from the majority of Australians. I don’t think poetry is so much an unpopular art as an unknown one. So many people don’t know how to respond to it because they’ve had so little exposure to it since they left school, where many of their experiences with it were not happy ones. There’s plenty of poetry on the web, of course, but only those who know about it go looking. Wouldn’t it be nice if every newspaper carried a poem every day, if every radio station read a poem morning and night, if television featured it as a matter of course. It’s a dream, of course: that the commercial imperative will somehow, some day, be transformed into a humane one, but it’s a dream I’m happy to share with Holub.
*The title for this conversation comes from the W. H. Auden poem, ‘The Cave of Making’. The relevant extract is: . . . After all, it’s rather a privilege amid the affluent traffic to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into background noise for study or hung as a status trophy by rising executives, cannot be ‘done’ like Venice or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon being read or ignored . . .
An abridged version of this interview was published by the Wheeler Centre, here.