Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Poetry Publishing Degree Zero

Zero says hello ...

[& - contrary to popular belief - our cat is named Zero because of the big white circular markings on her sides, not because we want to belittle her or give her an inferiority complex. Looks pretty hard done-by, doesn't she?]

I received an email the other day:

Hi Jack,

Im trying to get a hardbook copy of my poetry. As i dont know the process involved in creating a book and marketing it im wondering if you could help



Sent from the NZ Society of Authors - the New Zealand writers' website

It was a bit hard to know where to begin with the reply. And yet I can't even claim it's that unusual a question. Nobody ever seems to ask me "Where do you get your ideas from?" (I suspect that if they've read any of my books, they're a bit afraid of the answer). What they do ask me is: "How do I go about getting my book of poems published?"

I've just been reading a very interesting book called Reinventing Comics (2000), by that great pundit and prophet of the graphic novel form, Scott McCloud, and I must confess I was very struck by his answer to a similar question:

Go out and photocopy your comic a few times on a double-sided xerox machine, then sell it to a friend for a buck ...

Sounds a bit frivolous, doesn't it? But there's something in it, all the same.

The traditional hierarchy of poetry publishing runs more or less as follows:

  • self-publishing: the "my-basement" press (or whatever name you choose to call it)
  • vanity publishing: that plausible sounding gentleman in the High Street who offers to put out your book for you, handle all the editing, proofing etc. for a (substantial) fee
  • small press publishing: that group of close friends / enthusiasts who've set out to reform the world of letters single-handed
  • scholarly or specialist press publishing: nice-looking books, often, but priced quite high and not very widely available
  • commercial publishing: generally only accessible to the stars in the genre: Simon Armitage, Billy Collins, Derek Walcott, etc.

This hierarchy is, it should be said straight away, completely out-of-date in the digital age, but it still governs a lot of the audience reaction to particular poetry books. Readers are a conservative bunch, and poetry-readers are even more conservative than most. It takes quite a lot to jolt them out of reliance on this particular paradigm.

Now, at this point, if you're really serious about wanting to produce a book of poems, you should ask yourself a series of questions (the answers are for you, not for public consumption, so there's no point in being anything but rigorously honest):

  1. Have you ever had any of your poetry published?

  2. If so, where?

  3. How many poems?

  4. Have you done any live readings or performances of your work?

  5. Do you have any fans or people who've expressed an interest in your work?

  6. Do you have any friends or family members interested in your poetry (or prepared to pretend to be for the sake of peace)?

  7. Do you have any money, or access to any through friends, fans, family etc.?

  8. How much of it do you feel like spending on this project?

  9. Or is it rather that you want to make money out of it?

If you've never published any poems anywhere (except in the school magazine), you don't have any following based on live performance, you don't have any money or any sympathetic rich friends or relatives, my own advice would be to hold off on publishing a book until you've addressed a few of those preliminary steps. Don't give up on the idea - simply postpone it a little.

If, however, you're already some way down the poetry highway, and are beginning to feel that there's enough interest in your work to justify a book (or you'd simply like to get it all in order by gathering and selecting the best pieces for a volume), then a different set of possibilities begins to appear.

The facts of life

  • A printer will charge you far less to produce a book than any of the publishers-on-demand traditionally referred to as vanity presses. If you already have the editing and layout skills needed to produce a long document, it makes a lot of economic sense to eliminate the middleman.

  • If, however, you're doubtful about the quality of your work, and would like a second opinion from a professional, be warned that editors and manuscript-assessors make their living from the job, and accordingly tend to charge high rates. Don't go down this route unless you're very clear on:
    • exactly how it will benefit you
    • just how much it's likely to cost
    Have you actually seen any work that's been edited by the professional you're proposing to employ? Was it published as a result of this work? Does their recommendation really hold any weight with publishers?

  • Do you need an agent? In some countries, yes. In New Zealand, certainly not - that is, if your only aspiration is to succeed as a poet. Agents here are largely a waste of time unless you expect to attract substantial overseas sales. Even then, how much does your particular agent really know about (say) the Frankfurt book fair or copyright law in Venezuela?

Let form fit function.

If all you want is a sumptuous giftbook edition of your poems to hand out to friends and family at Christmas, then talk to a specialised printer such as John Denny of Puriri Press. Ask him to show you samples of his work - collaborate with him on the design.

If, on the other hand, your main objective is to break into the poetry world, remember that it's one thing to make a book, quite another to distribute it. It's very difficult to get a book into shops unless you go from door to door yourself. Even then you'll get a lot more "no's" than you will "yes's." And very few shops are prepared to deal with individual operators on anything but a sale-or-return basis.

Once your book's in the shop, chances are you'll never see any profit from it. Either it'll be returned to you shopsoiled in eighteen months time, or you'll end up forgetting just how many shops you left it in (one prominent bookshop in Christchurch which will remain nameless simply chose to ignore all my requests for the - extremely trifling - money due me from sales. They knew I didn't live there, so they just threw my letters in the garbage. Way to support local culture, guys! You know who you are ...)

Print no more copies than you need.

You do not want to prop up your basement with unsold boxes of your book for the next twenty years. Be warned. Very few books of poetry in New Zealand sell more than a hundred copies - and that includes titles from the alleged high-end publishers.

Unit cost goes down as you produce more copies, but what use is that if you can't sell or distribute them? Some printers will try to persuade you to produce thousands of copies of your book. They will never sell. Modern digital printing makes it easy to produce runs of 20-50 copies at a time at no great cost. Better to stick to 50-100 copies initially and build up by increments than take a punt on the possibilities.

Be realistic. How many friends, family, fans do you really have? Will they be supportive, or just treat it as a joke / aberration on your part? People can be surprisingly cruel at the expense of their friend's artistic ambitions - generally (one suspects) as a result of jealousy / embarrassment / tall-poppy syndrome or a combination of the above.

The world, as we all know, rests on the back of a giant elephant (as Zero the cat is so elegantly demonstrating for us in the picture above). Works of literature rest similarly on the back of a huge amount of calculation and forethought, both artistic and commercial. It's no accident when they arrive in your local bookshop just in time for you to buy them.

Traditional commercial publishers sell books through various types of advertising, which creates (hopefully) popular demand, which is met by their network of national and international distribution.

This is difficult for smaller operators (you or your friends' or your publisher-on-demand's recently founded imprint) to match. So far as I'm aware, there are no NZ firms which currently distribute small-press titles nationwide. The last one that did charged well over fifty percent of the unit price for the privilege, and even then it went out of business!

There's a new player in the game, though, which should embolden us all. The internet. If you have your own website or access to someone else's, you can advertise and sell your book over the net to anyone who wants it, worldwide. Access to all this is just one mail-order package away!

There are even, now, sites such as which will advertise and sell your book on a print-on-demand basis if you supply them with print-ready files.

Always remember, when people scoff at "self-published books" or "vanity publications," that both George Bernard Shaw and Fyodor Dostoyevsky published their own books from mid-career onwards. Neither of them started off that way, but, in both cases, that's how they became rich - by taking all the profit from booksales themselves and not divvying it up with publishers. Robert Browning, too, spent the first twenty years of his career publishing his own books (with his father's money). No publisher was interested in work that was just so downright odd.

How many authors drive expensive cars? Precious few. No NZ poets that I know of. How many publishers drive nice cars? All of them except the small press ones, so far as I can see. That should tell you that the ten percent royalty they'll offer you isn't quite such a good bargain as it might seem at the time.

Who is it who goes on loudest and longest about the "stigma" of self-publishing? Funnily enough, it tends mostly to be publishers or their lackeys. (What class of people are the first and loudest in denouncing "escapism"? Jailers, as C. S. Lewis once observed).

Poetry is not really a mass medium (though it may have been one once, in the days of Homer or Shakespeare). Rather than lamenting the fact, let's acknowledge it, and even see it as a strength.

If even the heavyweights in the field of local poetry (especially the page-bound Academic variety) are lucky to exceed more than a couple of hundred sales, then you don't have to be that much of an entrepreneur to match them through your own efforts. You can give readings, set up your own website, go on the radio ... If people like what you're doing, they'll respond just as readily to work you're spreading through your own efforts as work that's been "officially" sanctioned by a university press.

If they don't like it (and it took readers a long time to crank around to liking Robert Browning or Ezra Pound - another inveterate self-publisher), well, then, having the name of a fancy publisher on the back of your bookspine won't help all that much.

And having your publisher gobble up all the profit gets to be less and less amusing as the years go by. Try reading that contract you signed with such eager glee long ago when someone offered to publish your first book and you may be quite surprised to see how much you signed away. What do you actually own of your own work?

The main thing, I think, is to be bold. Make wild experiments. Please yourself with the way you format your text. Nobody ever went to see a movie because they heard it came in under budget, as Billy Wilder once remarked. Sir Walter Scott said it a different way: "There's only one unforgiveable crime in an author: to be dull."

So, to recap:

  • If you self-publish, do it with pride - but be very careful to limit the number of copies and make sure that it's a good-looking, well-edited and carefully-proofread book.
  • If you're a mad revolutionary in the field of poetry, try and find some likeminded souls: there may already be a small press out there dedicated to the same principles (this happened to me when I sent a copy of my first novel Nights with Giordano Bruno to the late lamented Alan Brunton's Bumper Books).
  • If you want the assured distribution and prestige of a traditional publisher, make sure you read the contract carefully before you sign it. Different publishers make very different demands. If your poetry book becomes a blockbuster movie, it won't be much fun to see that you've already ceded all the rights.
  • Above all, don't listen to nay-sayers and professional wet blankets. By the same token, though, a book can have a very long shelf-life - so a few months or even years spent editing and perfecting it will not be wasted. You don't want to pick it up in ten years time and blush with shame and chagrin. None of us is on the clock. Spend some time to get it right.

Comments, anyone?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

M. Edmond & the Marti-verse

[Martin Edmond: The Supply Party (2009)]

You know how it is with some writers - as time goes by, and you read more and more of their books, something in them begins to add up to more than the sum of their parts? It's as if the worlds of their imagination have undergone some kind of Hegelian change into a universe - even, in certain select cases, a multi-verse (to borrow a bit of phraseology from DC comics).

I guess that's what's started to happen to me with Martin Edmond. One of the most entertaining aspects of being a magazine editor for me - first brief (2002-5), then my guest issue of Landfall (2007) - has been the chance to see (& publish) new pieces of work by Martin.

Extracts from both Chronicle of the Unsung (issues 21 (2001): 69-74 & 22 (2001): 82-88) and Luca Antara (issues 29 (2004): 33-41 & 30 (2004): 21-26) appeared in brief long before the two of them came out as books.

More to the point, though, I was privileged to include a piece from Martin's as-yet-unpublished short novel Terminus Motel in brief 27 (2003): 32-36; extracts from his White City: The Autobiography of Ernest Lalor Malley first saw the light of day in Landfall 214 - "Open House" (2007): 54-66; and Tina Shaw and I included Martin's short story 'The Temple of Baal' in our anthology of new fiction Myth of the 21st Century (Reed, 2006).

Here's a quick rundown of his work to date (or the pieces I've come across, at any rate):


[Martin Edmond: The Big O Revisited (2008)]


  • Streets of Music (1980) - winner, Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry
  • Houses, Days, Skies (1988)
  • The Big O revisited b/w Providence (Auckland: Soapbox Press, 2008)

[Leon Narbey, dir: Illustrious Energy (1988)]


  • Illustrious Energy (1988) [feature]
  • The Footstep Man (1992) [feature]
  • Philosophy (1997) - winner, Best Short Film, New Zealand Film Awards 1999
  • Terra Nova (1998) [feature] - winner, best first film at the Montreal World Film Festival, 1998
  • Earth Angel (2002) - winner, Best Screenplay at the Breakfast Film and Music Festival, 2003

[Martin Edmond: The Evolution of Mirrors (2008)]


  • The Autobiography of My Father (AUP, 1992)
  • Chemical Evolution: Drugs & Art Production 1970-80 (Bumper Books, 1997)
  • The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont (AUP, 1999) - finalist in the 2000 Montana Book Awards
  • Fenua Imi: the Pacific in History & Imaginary (Bumper Books, 2002)
  • Chronicle of the Unsung (AUP, 2004) - winner, biography category in the 2005 Montana New Zealand Book Awards
  • Ghost Who Writes. Montana Estates Essay Series. (Four Winds Press, 2004)
  • Luca Antara: Passages in search of Australia (East Street Publications, 2006)
  • Waimarino County & other excursions (AUP, 2007)
  • The Evolution of Mirrors (Otoliths Press, 2008)

I guess the easiest way for me to summarise my views on Martin's oeuvre is simply to reprint the review I did of Waimarino County in Landfall 214:

[Martin Edmond: Waimarino County (2007)]

At the Revival Meeting

  • Martin Edmond, Waimarino County and Other Excursions. Auckland: AUP, 2007. ISBN 978 1 86940 391, 240 pages, RRP $40.

I first met Martin Edmond in Devonport, on the night of Alan Brunton’s memorial concert in December 2002. A group of us were booked to do a cabaret-style performance at a café as part of the Massey Gothic Conference (also on that weekend). We were planning to speed on over the bridge afterwards to catch the dying minutes of the concert. As it turned out, the venue we’d been booked to perform in had – quite unexpectedly – gone out of business, so we ended up being able to attend the whole of that baroque, extraordinary, farewell celebration.

From the moment we met, I felt as if I’d known Martin for years. It’s true that we’d been corresponding for a while – over his contributions to brief magazine, which I was then editing, and also various matters to do with Brunton’s Bumper Books, the publishing arm of Red Mole. Meeting people you feel you know through letters is not always entirely satisfactory, though. All sorts of things you hardly notice on paper can suddenly rear up when print converts to flesh.

Which is a rather roundabout way of saying that we got on well, and have continued to get on well. What’s more, the manner of our meeting was a characteristic serendipity. I’ve never had a conversation with Martin Edmond which hasn’t involved him filling me in on some piece of arcane lore about a little-known writer, or place, or iconic event.

In one sense, then, I’m the ideal reader for Martin’s collection of essays, Waimarino County & Other Excursions. Leafing through it is a lot like the experience of meeting the man himself. Witty, urbane, well-informed – but not in the distant, old-world way that those words would appear to imply. No, Martin’s writing never eschews emotional involvement with the matters he is describing. There’s hardly an essay here which sounds as if it was constructed to order. The subject matter is always close to his heart.

I guess, for me, the most striking example is “The Hallelujah Chorus.” At the centre of this essay there’s a terrifying account of his visit to a revival meeting:

And as these sinners declared themselves, the chanting in the theatre rose in pitch and fervour and intensity until there came above the thunderous chorus a weird, high ululation from the stalls on the front left-hand side. I had never heard people speaking in tongues before. Glossolalia sounds like someone yodelling so hard their uvula goes into spasm. It reminded me of a time I heard a flock of sheep mustering at dusk on a Lands and Survey block out the back of Stratford ... [20]

I was there! Not at that particular meeting, of course, but many similar ones (Billy Graham, the Church of Christ, the Assembly of God). The only difference is that I would have been part of that flock yodelling strangely as the spirit of Pentecost came down on us …

Praise the Lord the Holy Ghost has descended upon us in Tongues of Flame! the Preacher screeched above the clamour of the Believers, doubling and redoubling their efforts. Then he began to call particular people out of the crowd. Suddenly I heard him say: There is a young man of sixteen or seventeen years (I had just turned seventeen) and he is sitting on the right-hand side of the cinema (I was) two thirds of the way towards the back (exactly!) and be is wondering whether to come forward now and give his soul to Jesus (I wasn’t, but, hell …). Let us all now raise our voices to the heavens and ask the Lord to give strength to this young man so that be may come and join us...

That’s precisely it. He’s put his finger on the mastery of it, the curious effectiveness of those techniques of mass persuasion. How many times have I sat fidgeting in the middle row, sure that I was the one who was being singled out for attention, sure that this was it, that tonight was the only chance I would ever have to escape perdition?

And I did feel a powerful force calling me. I was young and uncertain and the exorcism of possible demons from the chaos of my awakening mind did for a moment seem desirable, even seductive. Surely there was no harm in it? It was certainly impressive to see old people getting out of their wheelchairs and tottering forward to lean on the edge of the stage.

An opportune bit of squabbling saves Martin in the nick of time – “Any chance I would go forward to be saved blew away in that poor kid’s outraged, helpless sobbing” [21]. What impresses me, though, is that he is prepared to admit that the opportunity was there, that he might have given in.

Mind you, I doubt it would have taken. Martin Edmond was born to be a flâneur, a Baudelairean dandy exploring the byways of the metropolis (whether it be Auckland, Wellington or Sydney). There’s another part of him that is in deadly earnest, though. The strength of his writing is that he is able to give equal weight to both sides.

Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde named the two warring impulses within his hero after the two dominant intellectual influences of that time, the late nineteenth century: on the one hand, the amoral aestheticism of Walter Pater, on the other, the moral earnestness of John Ruskin. In Martin’s case I’d be tempted to call the two Ohakune and Alan Brunton.

Does that sound frivolous? It isn’t meant to. The Martin Edmond of Autobiography of My Father, of the childhood portions of Chronicle of the Unsung, of the “Autobiographies” section of the book we’re examining here, is a man profoundly, wistfully in love with his own past – with the complex intensities of youth and adolescence in that little town on the Grand Trunk Line. He’s the poet of that region, in fact – more alert to its contradictions and diversities even than that near neighbour of his, the Gothic novelist Ronald Hugh Morriesson.

And yet there’s also the Martin who ran away – almost literally – to join the circus, who followed the mercurial Alan Brunton on tour with Red Mole, abandoning the academic gravy train of Victoria University to do so. This is the Martin who writes so lovingly about Cavafy and Pessoa, who understands the attraction of that shifting signifier of international modernism, the heteronym.

Why are Martin’s books so challenging in form? Why does he resist easy genre identification, that secure place in the bookshop racks? It’s cost him, that’s for sure. Anyone straddling the uneasy frontiers of fiction and non-fiction, whose work might equally well be shelved under autobiography, travel writing or cultural commentary is liable to the suspicion of lazy readers. Praise, yes – there’s been a lot of praise of the originality of Martin’s work., but it’s usually (paradoxically) coupled with the name of some other writer whose example he is implied to be imitating: W. G. Sebald is the most obvious example, but recently Thomas de Quincey has been cited as a strong precedent (this despite the fact that Martin assures me that he has only the most tangential familiarity even with the original Opium Eater essays).

It’s hard for me to imagine any reader not finding something to their liking in the four sections of this book: ‘Autobiographies’; ‘Meditations’ (on subjects ranging from the Rosetta Stone to Alan Brunton); ‘Illusions’ (prose poems and dreams, mostly from his online blog); and ‘Voices’, published previously under the title Ghost Who Writes in Lloyd Jones’s excellent little Montana essay Series. Nor do I think I’m unique in finding virtually all of it to my liking. In fact, I can’t think of a book which has beguiled me as much since I first picked up Borges’ Labyrinths when I was a teenager.

The idea of the blog, the online diary, is another important component of Martin’s collection. He began (as I understand it) with the idea of starting a new blog for each new book project, but they appear to have evolved into a more complex symmetry.

There’s Luca Antara (“... who knows what other travellers might not have set out with a wild surmise for these shores? Looking perhaps for Luca Antara; perhaps just for the day after tomorrow”), described as being the work of a “schizoid antipodean.” That one has been running since 2004.

Then there’s dérives (started in 2005), which began with prose poems and reflections, but has now settled down to a portrait of the seedier side of cab driving in Sydney.

White City (begun in 2006), now a compendium of dreams and dream essays, was presumably intended to accompany Martin’s Ern Malley memoir / novel (accessible, so far, only in extracts such as the one included in this issue of Landfall).

No doubt Martin foresees a date at which he can move over to the new blog, Fetchers (started in July 2007) At present it’s confined to the single optimistic statement: “It’s a happy day today,” but there’s no doubt a lot more to come.

[The funny thing for me about this particular paragraph from the review is that "Fetchers" turned out to be the name of an imaginary dog, whose adventures in various parts of the world are being charted online by Martin's kids. I did think at the time the tone of some of the entries was a little outré even for him ...]

Raw material for the books? Undoubtedly. But the mere fact of being able to make your random jottings available online within minutes of writing them has an inevitable influence of the nature of that writing. It’s hard to see how writers can continue to ignore the possibilities of instantaneous communication – the barrage of comments and cross-references possible through hypertext.

In the present case, it’s fascinating to see how they’ve stolen into the texture of Martin’s book, along with more considered pieces from the nzepc, brief, and various other anthologies and projects, to give us the closest thing to an anatomy of the life of a twenty-first century writer I can readily imagine.

So I guess the reason I’d really advise to buy this book is not simply as an entry pass to the world of Martin Edmond, but also as a cartography of where we are, right now, at the bottom of the world, in the complex of world culture.

[Landfall 214 (2007): 187-90.]

Now there's a new addition to the canon, and thus to the labyrinthine complexities - already, one would have thought, quite sufficiently baroque and strange - of what I'd like to refer to from now on as the "Marti-verse."

Martin's new book The Supply Party, which has just appeared from East Street Publications, the publishers of Luca Antara, charts the adventures of the German scholar and naturalist Ludwig Becker, whose twin careers - as a contributor to Shakespeare iconography, and official artist on the ill-fated Burke & Wills expedition - have never really been clearly juxtaposed before.

I'm looking forward to reading it just the moment I can lay my hands on a copy. Now that Philip K. Dick is well and truly dead, and there doesn't seem much hope of more posthumous books to flesh out his bizarre, prolific cosmos, who else is left to feed my addiction to the strange new worlds of cold hard print?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Mark Young: Lunch Poems

[Mark Young: Lunch Poems (Auckland: Soapbox Press, 2009)]

Title sound familiar? It certainly should.

I guess a lot of others grew up on those beautiful City Lights Pocket Poets editions of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and - of course - Frank O'Hara. The latter's sublime Lunch Poems came out in 1964, two years before his death in a freak traffic accident on the beach at Fire Island.

There've been a lot of collected and selected editions since, but it's still arguably the best introduction to him and his hip, relaxed, laidback aesthetic - "Ave Maria," "The Day Lady Died" or "Lana Turner has collapsed!"

Mark Young's own slim volume is the seventh in Michael Steven's elegant series of chapbooks, issued through Soapbox Press. Here's the list to date:


Michael Steven: Homage to Robert Creeley
Jack Ross: Papyri
Renee Liang: Chinglish


Christian Jensen: Zin Uru
Martin Edmond: The Big O Revisited
Mark Young: Lunch Poems

planned for 2009

Jen Crawford: Napoleon Swings
Francis McWhannell (ed.) Poems of Lawrence Rees

Interestingly enough (to me, at any rate), the last time I was sent a book of Mark Young's to review was in 1999, when Alan Brunton's Bumper Books put out his first volume of verse after forty years of writing: The Right Foot of the Giant.

Here's what I had to say then (the review was commissioned by Mark Pirie for JAAM 13, but he ended up not including it in the magazine, I'm not quite sure why - I think he said at the time for reasons of space). I wish I could take some credit for prescience, but it was (at any rate) the best response I could come up with then to a wholly new name (for me) in the poetry firmament.

You see, I wasn't around in the NZ poetry scene in the sixties and seventies, so the Mark Young poete maudit legend was simply something I would eventually read about in the pages of Brunton, Leggott & Edmond's Big Smoke anthology of 2000.

Here's my review:

What would you call it? A conjuration of masks, perhaps? You know, the Venereal Game, those nouns of multitude: a pride of lions, an unkindness of ravens, etc. Mark Young certainly runs through a fair few masks in this, his first volume of poems – despite forty years in the writing game. Let’s take them one by one.

There’s late Baxter-ish Grafton poems:

On the edge
of a condemned gully, we too await
the graders that will be our guillotines.

Sexually frank Ginsbergian homosexual love poems:

Until that night when you fucked me more
ferociously than usual, & I felt carnivore breath
on the back of my neck …
& as you came in me I called you ‘Lion.’

Early Baxter-ish heterosexual love poems:

This sad flute was once the white bone
of your thigh, beloved …

Janet Frame-y incarceration poems:

I could not watch
the sports today – to see the spastics & mongols
running races is too bizarre …

Is such a multiplicity of personae a problem? Not if they are personae – but they seem to me, some of the time, rather too close to their originals.

Young’s publisher, Alan Brunton, regards him as a significant, but so far largely unrecognised player in the transition from the regional controversies of the forties and fifities to the more outward-looking poetics of the sixties. Certainly a poem like “Lizard” could easily be read in that way. I wasn’t born when it first came out in the NZ Listener in 1959, but I can see how intensely exciting it must have looked right then:

’Lijah Lizard, put your Woolworth glasses back on.

It’s intensely urban imagery (“I wanted to see the big city. / Still, there is an even bigger one / waiting for me now”), albeit filled with a sense of apocalyptic dread. The strange thing is that this was his “first poem attempted” – and has had perhaps the greatest success of any of his poems. It looks a little out of place here now, as if in inaugurating an era it left little space for the poet himself to manoeuvre, nowhere much for him to go.

I notice that Young makes no particular “important player” claims for himself, though. His engaging author’s note concentrates on the personal: an enthusiastic list of influences, authors, eras. “This book assuages my greatest regret, that I never had a collection of poetry published.” That, to be perfectly frank, would seem to me to be its principal function. I leave to better informed critics than myself the precise determination of Mark Young’s place in New Zealand literary history, but his importance to the average poetry reader is always going to depend on the merits of the individual poems.

Brunton also comments on the “sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll” ambience of so much of his work, but claims that they are “peripheral references, past of the landscape in which he existed … he was too busy surviving in it to write about it.” There’s something in that, I think. If you take away all the “period” details – invocations of all the people one might like to be (“Tristan Tzara, William Burroughs / Han-Shan The Rolling Stones”), jazz stuff, Beat stuff, French surrealism, and so on – there still has to be a distinctively personal voice left behind for us to continue to enjoy Young’s writing.

Is there? I think there is. Funnily enough, it’s a voice (fresh, fierce, frank) which would fit quite easily into the technically conservative, sixties-nostalgiac live poetry scene today. That’s not to say his work is unsubtle, but somehow unreflective, despite the breadth of reference - it's more Frank O'Hara than John Ashbery, if one wants to put it in those terms: more Beat than New York School. As he puts it in “I begin with Crazy Horse”:

Then it was easier. Your heroes
were alive, at least in mind.

“The shining images of youth” … those days of hope when internationalism, in the form of the Beats and the French New Wave, first came to rid the land of its demons. It’s nice to see that that the second part of this book, ‘A Bestiary for Borges’ (poems mainly 1969-79) is stronger (though, admittedly, less unified) than the first, which dates from 1962-68. I take that as a promising sign. With Mark Young, now that this history has finally seen the light of day, the best may yet be to come.

God, that sounds patronizing when I reread it now! I suppose that's the real reason Pirie wouldn't include it in his magazine.

There are a couple of good points hidden away in there, though, I think, if you strip away all the portentous bullshitting about Young's "place in NZ literature." First of all, the masks are certainly there, and clearly identifiable - I just didn't realise how much of a feature of his mature work they would become. There's a persistent tendency to duck and hide the moment a particular method or approach becomes identifiable in his poetry. Now I'd see that as a strength. I did then, too, I think, but was just a little doubtful about how many stances there'd actually been over that long haul between 1959 and 1999.

Second, my identification of the second part of the book, ‘A Bestiary for Borges’, as the stronger of the two, seems at any rate a little prescient. I'm not sure that anyone then could have foreseen the profusion of blogs, books, chapbooks, magazines and styles that Mark Young would go on to pioneer over the next decade, but at least I could see the best was yet to come.

If you want to see at least a preliminary bibliography, I recommend his author page at the nzepc as a good starting point.

Beyond that, what should I say about this particular book, the one Michael Steven has just put out? It's Mark Young. It's hip, streetwise, unaffected, urban & cool. It's a lovely tribute to its predecessor, Frank O'Hara's book, 45 years on from its first appearance.

I could go through the poems and talk about them individually, but what I like best about them is their sense of flow, their updated version of the O'Hara list poem ("I do this / I do that") in a new, electronic continuum.

Mark Young certainly is a poet for our times. I see now, as I couldn't really see ten years ago, that it's because of that long haul from 1959, not in spite of it, that his relentless trying-on of new hats has become a series of Borgesian avatars, not the set of exercises in the currently-prevailing fashionable styles I then thought it.

Happy fiftieth anniversary, 'Lijah lizard!