Sunday, 4 October 2015

Island Press 45 year celebration at the Harold Park Hotel

On stage, from left: Martin Langford, Les Wicks,
Philip Hammial, Roberta Lowing.
This was a pretty unusual event in the Sydney culture calendar but it gave people like me who enjoy poetry as a unique form of cultural expression an opportunity to touch base with peers. The email notification for the event was from Roberta Lowing, who had previously been responsible for organising reading nights at Sappho Books in Glebe (although she doesn't do that job anymore).

Island Press is also a pretty unusual institution in Australian poetry. Established in 1970, at the time and for decades into the future it gave local poets an outlet who might not match the publishing criteria of poetry stalwarts Oxford University Press or Angus & Robertson, then the only two houses putting out poetry (I learned at the event). In 1979 the founding editor Philip Roberts returned to his native Canada and handed operations to Philip Hammial (see pic). The press went on to become a stalwart itself in the Australian poetry scene, publishing early works by some of our most renowned poets.

For me the location of the event at the Harold Park Hotel had added significance as there had been many evenings of readings by poets and others in my early days in the 1980s at this place. On Saturday the crowd who turned out for the Island Press event tended in general toward the senior end of the age spectrum but there were younger people present as well.

During the afternoon's program I spoke at length with a woman who turned out to be the mother of Roberta Lowing (see pic). Early in the proceedings Roberta read from a new book of her poetry that has been published by Island Press. Her mother Pat was originally from Queensland and in her youth attended the University of Queensland.

Two other meetings on the day were notable for me. I met Adam Aitken and Richard James Allen, who are both well-known Sydney poets but who also used to work with me on the young poetry magazine Neos during the early-to-mid-80s. The doyen of that venture was Neil Whitfield, then a Sydney secondary school teacher but who is now retired. Neil unfortunately was not at the Island Press event yesterday. It was nice to meet up with these old friends again after such a long period spent doing other things apart from nurturing poetry. As I mentioned to Pat, we all undertook the entire range of tasks required to bring out a magazine, from selection of the poems to publish, to editing and typesetting and layout, through to distribution in bookshops.

It was a grand adventure. And from listening to the current editors of Island Press, who were seated during the afternoon on the stage, the same can be said for that imprint as well. As someone said during the proceedings, you get involved in this type of activity for no other reason than that you have a passion for it. There is no other word adequate to describe what it means to publish poetry in contemporary Australia.

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