This is our first monthly newsletter that we have failed to send on the last day of the month, but we have an excellent excuse. Last Friday the 30th of September we launched our tenth title, Herding Cats by To Giang (translated by Hai Luong). Thank you to everyone who came out for the launch and thank you to Moosa Bar for hosting us. It was a wonderful event. In addition to translator Hai Luong we were lucky enough to have a few Vietnamese experts on hand to provide some additional context and insight.
This month’s issue comprises:
Herding Cats – Melbourne Launch and Release
The True Gods Attend You by Clarence Caddell release
Holding Patterns by Alasdair Cannon e-book release
Australian Poetry Anthology: Call for Submissions
Ryan William Daffurn’s exhibition opening
2. In Search of the Holy Grail – Publishing Dreams and Electronic Gatekeepers: Editorial by Andrea Jonathan
3. The Passing Winter – Yayoi Kusama: A Digital Exhibition by Lily Hull
4. Up On All Fours (1993) by Philip Hodgins – Review by Lucas Smith, Editor-in-Chief
Herding Cats by To Giang, a memoir about the Vietnamese underworld in Melbourne is now released!
“Dân chăn mèo appear to live in ordinary houses, but these houses hide a secret. The role of the cat herders is to deceive the ‘cats’, i.e., the neighbours, the police monitors, and public officials. Cats are curious creatures, so cat herders must avoid arousing their curiosity. Another way of putting it is that these crop-sitters are mice that control cats!”
A bestseller in Vietnam under the title The Green Faraway Road, Herding Cats is a uniquely candid look at the “green underworld” that flourishes beneath Melbourne’s prosperous exterior, written by a former insider.
The True Gods Attend You is the debut collection by Australian formalist Clarence Caddell. Drawing on the author’s deep reading of primary Biblical, extra-Biblical and other ancient sources and with direct challenges to both secular and religious worldviews, The True Gods Attend You is a profound and self-reflective examination of the modern conscience. The long blank verse poem that concludes the book is “The Candidate”, a glimpse of the burnt-out spiritual seeker at his moment of invisible crisis, worthy of recent narrative poetry masters like Anthony Hecht. With a strong through-line of satire and irony, The True Gods Attend You is a powerful challenge to obscurity in verse and a bold annunciation of the evergreen riches of linguistic euphony.
“With The True Gods Attend You, Clarence Caddell establishes himself as a significant and contentious voice in Australian poetry. Formally adept and self-assured, this is a collection that knows exactly what it is doing. It is utterly stunning.” —Alexis Sears, author of Out of Order, Winner of the Donald Justice Prize
Cover image: Study of ‘Bust of an Apostle With Folded Hands’ by Anthony Van Dyck (c.1620) by Ryan William Daffurn
We are also pleased to announce that the Kindle e-book of Alasdair Cannon’s stunning collection Holding Patterns is now available. We know that for a variety of reasons some readers prefer digital versions and we are endeavouring to make all of our titles available across a wide range of platforms.
Submissions for our 2023 poetry anthology are open:
Thanks to a grant from the English-Speaking Union (Victoria Branch) Bonfire Books will showcase the finest in contemporary verse in early 2023.
Please send up to 3 poems in a .pdf, .doc or .docx attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org. with “Your Surname-POETRY” in the subject line. Poems should be no more than 100 lines each and no more than five pages per full submission. Poems may be previously published in periodicals within the last five years but not in books. Poets will be remunerated and will receive a copy of the anthology. While all poetic forms and themes are welcome, preference will be given to music, sense, meaning and felicity of language. Submissions close November 1 and are open to Australian citizens and Australian residents.
And finally, for Sydneysiders, Ryan William Daffurn, who graciously provided the cover image for The True Gods Attend You, will have an exhibition at Maunsell Wickes (Barry Stern Gallery) 19 Glenmore Road, Paddington, NSW 2021 from the 5th-16th of October. For more info and to preview Ryan’s fascinating work visit here.
That’s all this month.
In Search of the Holy Grail – Publishing Dreams and Electronic Gatekeepers
Editorial by Andrea Jonathan
Reporting from BookScan indicates that fewer than 1% of books tracked in 2021 in the US sold over 5000 copies. To my mind, this points to two factors, one being the sheer number of books being published today, and two being the dominance of the Big Five publishers (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette & HarperCollins).
For Australian authors, the ‘island factor’, not having direct access to the 300m+ US market, nor the reach of the US to global markets, makes reaching this 1% appear even further removed from the realm of possibility.
The writer’s dream of the 20th century was to be picked up by one of these Big Five and given an advance to spend, firstly on frivolity and then on alleviating the acute pressures of his financial hardship, all while preparing for glamorous launch parties and book signings with scores of adoring readers. The arrival of the internet, giving rise to Amazon and other self-publishing and promotional tools, appeared initially to up-end the traditional publishing process, democratising what had been understood to be an exclusive and members-only club of ‘the published’, separated from the hopeful and yearning ‘unpublished’.
Despite a number of high-profile exceptions of self-published success stories (defined here as selling enough copies to make a professional living from one’s work), what this data indicates is that large corporate publishers continue to exert dominance and pick winners. The salve for the unpicked is that many of those who appear to have ‘made it’ still do not sell enough copies to ‘make it’ in reality, evidenced by the speed at which new releases (often ‘authored’ by journalists with writing teams), are relegated to the newsagent bargain bin, as well as revelations of unscrupulous authors and publishers gaming bestseller lists by buying hundreds or in some cases, thousands, of their own books.
What this means is that the nexus between being published by a big 5 with front-page media coverage and the number of people reading the book and the royalties authors receive has been muddied, which may ironically serve as a kind of emancipation for the unpublished, and for those working with independent presses, who, with some assistance from independent bookstores that help to incubate their local literary scene, are empowered to focus on a readership in their local area and through existing networks.
Silicon Valley now promises to save us from the convoluted world of publishing and distribution by creating ‘Spotify for books’ apps (such as Tertulia) that centralise available titles across a huge library of retailers and distributors, and privileges titles of their choosing to create a digitally curated ‘community’ of readers. It’s enough to make one reach for one’s revolver.
All of this is to say that one should not get caught up in the false promises of the commercial publishing paradigm. Writing for meaning and impact, rather than the disposable plasticity of media fame, will make for better writing and more original books.
To order titles from our catalogue please visit bonfirebooks.org
The Passing Winter – Yayoi Kusama: Digital Exhibition
by Lily Hull
Winter is coming for London while here in Melbourne, the warmth is touching the pavement for the first time in many months. I have recently returned from my first summer overseas and in doing so have found great comfort in knowing that both cities are sharing the experience of transition.
Failing to see the Tate Modern’s exhibition Infinity Mirror Rooms from the renowned Yayoi Kusama in person is one of my few regrets from my time overseas. This digital exhibition has been curated to celebrate the changing of the seasons. It looks to the joy of pink polka dots and outrageously sized vegetables, transporting us to the unimaginable, child-like world of Yayoi Kusama as we near our Australian summer.
Phalli’s Field, 1965
Dot Obsession, 1998
Up On All Fours (1993) by Philip Hodgins
Review by Lucas Smith
“It’s strange that in a country with so predominantly pastoral a tradition as Australia,” writes Peter Porter in his back cover blurb for Philip Hodgins’ 1993 collection Up On All Fours, “there has been so little truly accomplished poetry about country life. So much of the tradition is yarning, balladry, legend and truculent attitudinising. Up On All Fours is thus an original and welcome incursion into a creative field badly in need of renewal.”
One wonders just how closely Porter had read Hodgins’s “Rural Affairs” which is chock full of truculence, but his point is excellent, and remains so to this day. Although such poets as Les Murray and John Kinsella, from very different perspectives, have produced exceptional Australian pastoral verse, the genre tends to overdone romance and rather boring resentment, when it is done at all these days.
Of course the country/city divide is not what it used to be. Long gone are the days when Barbara Baynton could feature a Hunter Valley character in a story who considered himself “flash” because he had been to Sydney twice. The “divide” is often simplified into a political dichotomy by both country and city folk with various agendas.
The Fitzroyification of country towns is a well-established phenomenon. According to one recent census Castlemaine in Victoria has the highest percentage of self-described “arts professionals” of any postcode in the country. Most country people have strong connections with one or more major cities and most urbanites likewise. The internet and now work from home has blurred the boundaries even more, such that two next door neighbours in a country town might have fiercely held and wildly diverging views on Northern Hemisphere events while both remain unaware of corruption on their local council, for example. While population figures for the country are likely to see a modest increase, primary producers “on the land” will stay steady at less than one percent of the population. Living the Brunswick Street life in Daylesford or the now very posh Healesville, is hardly the country living of even a decade ago.
Hodgins, who grew up on a dairy farm near Shepparton, was no hick. Part of Up On All Fours was written while he was a visiting writer at the University of Venice. Writing just before the so-called “Poetry Wars” of the mid-90s, Hodgins’ polemic is mournful rather than vindictive, as in “Becoming Urbanised”
It happens imperceptibly of course.
No revelations of the sudden mind
Just wan accretions to the reference base.
Another summer evening walking home:
More wealth in one small car than in the farm,
Frustrated barking from an inside dog
That wouldn’t last five minutes in the bush…
Australiana is well-represented by “Snap Shot”, part of a series of poems about football kicks published as a pamphlet with an introduction by Ron Barassi. One of the delightful things about the series is how Hodgins invents an appropriate form for each style of kick.
He’s on your hammer, closing in with every bounce
pushing you deeper and deeper into the pocket,
the gap between the goalposts closing fast,
as fast as other options are running out.
Your only choice is to try the Snap.
Holding the ball at either end
just like the umpire does
you screw it sideways
inside the line
and watch it
There is the typical no-nonsense attitudinising of the country dweller in “The Rise of Theory”
Try pounding quatrains into something else
and you’ll be there until the theory breaks.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the teardrop style
(so good for those rewarded by the line)
the latest formal sausages from Yale,
or free verse’s deep aversion to the right.
A poem keeps in shape by being reread
while all around it theories go to ground.
But ultimately what makes Hodgins’ work persist is what killed him. His writing life was overshadowed by the leukemia diagnosis he received at the age of twenty-four. Doctors gave him three years. He took eleven. For this reason every poem sounds like it could be his last. The rhythms of life and death on the farm take on a new resonance with this knowledge of his biography. He is almost unique in making his own imminent death his own subject and the best of these poems are equal to Boethius in stoicism and lyricism.