“Your poems – you will not need them.”

When I’m not wasting time writing record reviews about non-existent bands, poems about dysfunctional families, prose poems about imaginary cities, new definitions for strange Dutch words, the odd (yes, odd) sonnet, an occasional ode to the Buddha Machine, away on explorations in Abendland or Morgenland, posting as Clint Bo Dean in disguise and so on, I’m actually attempting to do some work on what they sometimes refer to as a PhD. Call me suicidal but upon completing my Masters at the University of Melbourne in 2004, a strange feeling of optimism (or stupidity) overcame me and I sought, successfully, to enrol as a PhD student at Swinburne University of Technology – an institution, coincidentally, that my grandfather attended in the early twentieth century when it was still a Working Man’s College.

I’m writing this post from my eyrie in the upstairs section of the Institute for Social Research, a multi-disciplinary policy research centre where wonks such as myself take refuge from the world – I mean work hard on our very important research projects. Mine is perhaps not as important as some. Going under the working (okay and slightly pretentious) title of Bonfire of the Vanity Presses: Self-Publishing In the Field of Australian Literature, my thesis is, obviously, concerned with self-publishing, specifically self-published poetry in Australia. That might sound like a mouthful, and that’s because it is. You try writing 80,000 words on the subject.

What’s all this got to do with Yoda? Well, erm, let me explain. The picture above is taken from a poster series put out by the American Libraries Association that encourages youngsters (and oldsters too, I guess) to read. I think this one came out in the early 1980s. I like this image because not only is Yoda (whose actual race or ethnicity has never been determined) holding a book but it is a book without a title. What kidn of book could it be? A diary? A simple prop, similar to the blank-paged or “dummy” books used by publishing companies to wrap dust jackets around for promo shots? An anthology of Jedi poetry? Or, indeed, a book of Yoda’s own poems, self-published and bound by Yoda himself, in a (very small) fit of vanity?

Perhaps we will never know. The point is, similarly, that we may never know the true extent of self-publishing (and its evil twin vanity publishing) in Australia, let alone the world. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Pierre Bourdieu, while the task of cataloguing and fully documenting such a world may seem impossible, it is surely better to try than to revert to simplistic generalisations (for example: “all self-published poetry is crap”, or “poetry is crap”, or “your poetry is crap” or, indeed “you’re crap”). As I see it, Yoda and his little red book symbolise the force (or lack of force) possessed by the self-publishing writer or, to put it another way, the “force” of words that have not been consecrated by the literary mainstream.

Am I afraid? Of writing this thesis? Well, no – not yet. But I can hear that vocie of Yoda inside my head, as the deadline approaches, whispering you will be, you will be …

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