Monday, November 7, 2011

An interview with the editors of The Best Australian Stories, Essays and Poems 2011

Each year the Best Australian collections – essays, stories and poems – bring together the best and brightest that has been written across the country. We talk to the current editors about the 2011 editions.

Ramona Koval is the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2011

What was the selection process like for The Best Australians Essays?

My kitchen table was covered with journals, magazines, newspapers and submissions and I moved these around to the yes, no and maybe piles. Then I would redistribute these and some maybes would go to the yes pile and vice versa. When a new essay was being considered, the rubic's cube process began again.

 What do you look for in an essay?

I look to be transported by the language and the structure. I look for illumination. The subject matter doesn't need to be something I'm interested in. But the essay will make me interested in it by its sheer engagement.

What are some of your favourite or noteworthy pieces in this year’s collection?

They are all noteworthy for one reason or another - that's why they have been selected. I like the way they sing to each other as one ends and the new one starts.

What do you hope people take away with them after reading this collection?

I think these essays tell some of the story of the year as it happened - both in the public sphere (wiki leaks, news corp, Japanese tidal wave) and the private (sex and death, scandal, growing older) as well.

Any advice for aspiring essayists?

Find a story and tell it passionately and learn what you think along the way.

Cate Kennedy is the editor of The Best Australian Stories 2011.

What was the selection process like for The Best Australians Stories?

It took over my life for a couple of months as I worked my way through hundreds of submissions. I’d just get one huge pile under control when another batch would arrive in the mail, so I was living and breathing short stories.

What do you look for in a story?

That’s a tricky question because there’s no guaranteed formula to what makes something memorable and arresting. Sometimes a story is technically perfect but somehow lacks life, sometimes the craft is lacking but the subject-matter is stunning and deeply-felt. I love starting to read with the rising awareness that the author has the skill to command my total attention. I like being surprised by a revelation that stops me in my tracks, or a moment that takes the story in a direction that feels both unexpected but absolutely ‘right’.  And of course I’m always full of admiration for the stories that are polished and distilled, that unfold and resolve perfectly in a few short pages. 

What are some of your favourite or noteworthy pieces in this year’s collection?

Because the stories selected have been culled from several hundred, they’re all probably my favourites on some level! I really admired the plausible, complex interior worlds created in “Duty of Care”, marvelling at the author’s attention to small, precise detail, and in the mordantly funny – and tragic – “Everybody Wins on Kid Planet.”  “Istanbul” was a story I knew instantly I wanted to include, as was “Jumping for Chicken”. I was stunned by the maturity and authority of “Blow In”, (particularly when I discovered the age of the author!) and while it’s not often a story actually makes me laugh out loud, let me give a comedy guernsey to “The Road to Nowhere”, which nailed its characters so perfectly.

In your opinion, what makes a great story?

Control. The discipline to keep the crafting transparent and non-intrusive. A sense that, whatever territory you’re covering, the author has their hands absolutely on the wheel, and is taking you somewhere well worth getting to. 
What do you hope people take away with them after reading this collection?

A sense of the extraordinary range of voices at work telling their stories in this country, plus of course the satisfying sense of connectedness that comes with being immersed in the worlds created in those stories. There’s something very elemental, I think, in the exchange operating between a writer and a reader – they write it in silence, you read it in silence, and some wordless bond is created between you which seems more and more like a respite in a noisy world clamouring constantly for our attention. So I hope these stories linger in the minds of readers, as they did for me, long after they finish reading them.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

If you want to avoid disgruntled bitterness, don’t take this up as something you can master quickly to win you fame and fortune.  Sort out your reasons for wanting to write early on, and make sure they’re going to stand up to long-term scrutiny and disillusionment.  This is like learning to sing – you have to learn to hear yourself; how good your pitch is, whether you’re tone-deaf or not,  whether you can commit to singing aloud, whether your songs are going to resonate with other people or not. Other people can teach you technique to an extent, but nobody can be in the room with you when you commit yourself to your own voice – to drafting and redrafting a story. So my only advice is the same advice I would give to any aspiring artist – don’t try to impress people, try to move people. That takes the real fearlessness, to me. 

John Tranter is the editor of The Best Australian Poems 2011.
What was the selection process like for The Best Australians Poems?

The editors at Black Inc. sent me the poems in large envelopes, about two envelopes a week, over a period of a couple of months, until I had about three thousand poems to read. I checked off all the poems and all the authors and kept in touch with the editors so we didn’t lose any. And I read them all.

I’ve done this kind of thing before. When I was poetry editor of The Bulletin from 1990 to 1993 I read everything that was sent in, regardless of who wrote it, and asked poets I knew to send in poems too. And I went through back issues of the magazine looking for excellent poems. That way I discovered many real gems.

And when I was asked to be one of the judges for one of the many sections (long poems, short poems, and so on) of the 1988 Bicentennial Poetry Prize we all read everything that was sent in. When that was all over I suggested to the ABC that they produce an anthology of all the best poems, and they agreed. That meant I had to read everything over again, in all the different sections: some six thousand poems in all. The anthology was titled The Tin Wash Dish (ABC Enterprises, 1989), and it had over a hundred wonderful poems in it, from famous poets and from people who had never written a poem before. I remember one I liked about a little lost calf in the bush.

And I have edited a fifty-page selection of Australian poems for The Atlanta Review and a similar selection for New American Writing (both in the USA). And five anthologies of Australian poetry since 1970 totalling about a thousand printed pages. And forty issues of Jacket magazine, a free Internet-only literary magazine I began in 1997 and gave to the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. You can find out about all this stuff (and more, much more) on my homepage at

What do you look for in a poem?

First, it has to be a good poem. What that means exactly is hard to say, and my judgments here are more or less intuitive and experiential, based on a lifetime of reading many tens of thousands of poems (in English and a dozen other languages translated, and from ancient Greece to Rome to China to Elizabethan England and up to contemporary America), and thinking about why some worked and some didn’t. That first selection process is not difficult, and anyone who is properly trained can do it. I noted when judging the medium-length poems for the Bicentennial Competition in 1988 that the whole group of judges I was with, about half a dozen of us, quickly agreed on which poems we should think about further, and which poems we need not think about further. It’s a workshop skill, and it’s always surprising how firmly everyone agrees on the first sorting: roughly ten per cent good, and ninety per cent no good. It’s the next few steps that cause arguments, when you are comparing fifty good poems in order to get down to two or three of the very best. That can become quite miserable, because you know how much talent and hard work has gone into each poem. And sometimes there just isn’t room to include all the poems you know are good. Some have to go.

When Philip Mead and I compiled the work of 86 poets for the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry in the early 1990s, I was quite aware that (according to Thorpe’s Australian Writers) some six hundred Australians considered themselves as poets. Over five hundred of them had to be left out of the Penguin book, otherwise each poet would get two and a half lines, and the collection would be impossible to read. I always regret having to say no.

And talking about the basic qualities I hope to find, I look for literary skill, a sense of wit or humour (if appropriate), a sense of deftness in the use of English, arresting and fresh imagery, a strong point of view, something special to say, a clear sense of the cultural space poetry occupies, a sense of tradition, an awareness of the need to challenge tradition.

But every poetry anthologist would say things like that. In a basic way it is a matter of personal taste, but it’s to do with selecting and editing and balancing, not creating or writing: an anthology is not like a collection of poems you might write. Each poem I write is quirky and essentially me, but an anthology cannot me be, it has to be made up of a hundred or so other people. That’s what is so refreshing about compiling an anthology: I could never have imagined the poems that make it up. Each poem is a surprise.

What are some of your favourite or noteworthy poems in this year’s collection?

Well, there are lots, and each reader will find their own favourites, poems that answer some special need for the reader. I liked them all, or I wouldn’t have put them in. So I can’t tell you which ones are the good poems: they’re all good, in different ways. But here are a few of the poems that clicked for me: Jude Aquilina’s ‘An Apology’, which is a very funny poem rejection letter, ‘Portrait of Edith Murtone, fiction writer,’ a quirky and revealing story about a popular novelist with lots of problems including a fondness for the bottle, by Peter Bakowski; ‘The Sublime’ by Kevin Brophy which takes a surreal but touching look at an old couple; ‘Motherlogue’ by Michael Farrell, a bizarre drug-soaked monologue by a heroic mother-figure amid the wreckage of suburban Sydney; ‘Send in the Clowns,’ by Evan Jones, a dry and civilised tribute to the late Peter Porter; ‘Heroes of Australia,’ a terrifyingly funny poem about unspeakable hangovers by Michael Sharkey… but I could go on and on.

And of course there were many very good to excellent poems I had to leave out, which is always the downside of doing this kind of work: I’d love to be able to publish at least half the entries, but there is only room for a tenth of that. Then again, there will be another anthology next year, and another the year after that…

In your opinion, what makes a great poem?

Look, it’s hard enough justifying the title ‘Best Australian Poems’, without going into more dangerous territory! What’s ‘best’? As I mention in my Introduction, ‘I’m not sure that we can trust the word ‘best’ when we’re talking about poetry — there are so many different kinds of poetry, from Homer to rock and roll, and then there are millions of readers with their individual tastes and prejudices.’ The word ‘great’ is even more open to disagreement. From ‘Wow, that pizza was great!’ to ‘Shakespeare is a truly great writer’ you have a gulf of galactic dimensions. Let’s say you have a scale for poems, from ‘awful’ to ‘okay’ to ‘pretty good’ to ‘excellent’ to ‘blindingly powerful’… well, ‘great’ lies well beyond ‘blindingly powerful’ with the additional difficulty that you have to wait a hundred years to see if it really applies. I mean, in Alexander Pope’s time, Colly Cibber was the Poet Laureate, and was thus the most renowned poet in the land. A hundred years later it was clear that he was a laughable fraud, and now, over two hundred years later, there’s not a single book of his in print. So I guess ‘great’ is ‘very successful’ plus a hundred years.

What do you hope people take away with them after reading this collection?

A sense of happy excitement. And a desire to read more wonderful poetry. There’s an awful lot of drivel out there, and the difference between a really good and memorable collection of poems and a bag of flab is the quality of the editorial process; the editor. That’s what made Jacket magazine so widely read, at close to a million visits. There was a lot of rubbish on the Internet, and Jacket at least was edited by someone who had trained properly, who had spent a lifetime at it, and who took the job seriously.

Any advice for aspiring poets?

I am often asked that, usually by people starting out to be a writers, asking me to read their manuscripts and tell them (a) how good the manuscript is and (b) offering a course of reading and writing that will turn them into successful published writers. Since what I say is usually the same, here it is.

It’s a good idea to read widely. Unless you read other contemporary poets’ work, you will have no idea what is going on out there, and you are likely to repeat someone else’s great idea, or write stuff that is immature and out of date. Also read the great dead: they were bright young things just like you when they wrote their best work. If you can manage it, do a good English degree (not Creative Writing: English) for several years: it forces you to read a lot. Apart from a few plays of Shakespeare, you should know the best work of a few of the main poets of Rome, the English Renaissance, the Romantics, a few of the French Symbolists including Rimbaud, and twenty or so poets in English (or American) from 1920 to 1970. Seek to understand why Coleridge was such a brilliant success. Seek to understand why Coleridge was such a tragic failure. (Hint: Richard Holmes has written a wonderful two-part biography of Coleridge.) Seek to understand why Wordsworth was such an inspired and radical young poet (did Communard politics have anything to do with it?). Seek to understand why Wordsworth was such a terrible old bore (did success and old age have something to do with it?).

Write a lot, and – more important – rewrite a lot. When you’ve written a good poem, put it away for a week or two and then rewrite it. Seek feedback from others and pay attention to it, and publish widely and persistently in a few different poetry magazines for a few years. That’s what I did, for ten years, before I published my first book, and I now wish I had waited a few years longer. It takes about ten years to turn out a skilled concert pianist or an interesting music composer.

Now and then I get inquires from people who say “I’ve got this manuscript of poems, how do I get a book produced?” I usually ask “Have you appeared in many poetry magazines?”. Usually they say “Oh no, I don’t want to appear in magazines, I just want to bring a book out.” This misunderstands the publishing and book-buying process.

No publisher can afford to bring out a book by a writer who is unknown. Publishers know that it’s hard enough to get a bookshop to stock a poetry title by a well-known writer; at least the bookshop owner knows that a few of his customers may have heard of the well-known writer and may buy a few copies of the book. For an unknown writer, there’s no point even asking the bookshop to stock the book.

Of course if you have a book ready, you can self-publish it without too much expense and try to find buyers for the book yourself. Or try Kindle or some other e-book publisher on the Internet. There’s nothing wrong with doing that.

But you learn a lot from publishing in magazines. On the one hand it helps you to find a readership, but also you can learn a lot from a poem when you see it in print in a magazine. Before it’s published it belongs to you, you know what it’s doing and how it works. But when you see it in print, in a different context, suddenly you see all the things that are wrong with it, and you will be amazed to find out how little of what you thought you put in the poem actually gets across to a reader. Then you can think about what to do better next time.

It’s useful to join a poetry discussion group, or a blog, or to take some classes in writing poetry. Your local Writers Centre will have a list of these. Academic Creative Writing classes can be useful, but many of them don’t teach you to read widely, which is what you need to do first.

When you feel your work is reasonably good, and you can handle a few rejections, send two or three poems to each of a few different magazines, making sure you enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope if the magazines ask for that. These days, with email, that’s often unnecessary, but it’s worth checking. Read some copies of the magazines first (try a large public library or a university library or a Writers’ Centre library) to get some idea if they might be interested in the kind of poem you write. It’s a waste of their time and of your time and money to send inappropriate poems to the wrong kind of magazine.

Keep a log of which poems you’ve sent to which magazine. When they come back, send them on to the next magazine on your list. If they look ‘used’ or grubby, make fresh copies. Keep doing this until all your poems have been sent out, then write some more and start again.

It’s probably a good idea to do some kind of training that will enable you to get a reasonable job, one that will ensure you mix with other people (don’t be a loner!) and that gives you a reasonable income without eating up all your energy. Fit your writing around that.

Poetry won’t provide a living for you, and it won’t make you famous. Remember the T-shirt motto from the twentieth century: ‘Life’s a bitch: first you grow old, then you die.’ Writing poetry won’t change any of that. Learn to accept with good humour having your life’s work more or less ignored. That’s what dentists have to accept, and most dentists are more important to more people than most poets.

And as a poet of whatever calibre, you will have the privilege and the fun of writing many poems that give pleasure to yourself and to others, and of becoming familiar with some great and rewarding writing by other poets. Enjoy.

The Best Australian Essays, Stories and Poems 2011 are available now in all good bookstores. To find out more, please visit The Best Australian Writing website.

1 comment:

  1. Ramona Koval on essays: "Find a story and tell it passionately and learn what you think along the way." Crystallises it perfectly.