In July 2009, as my PhD thesis was in its final stages of production, I discovered that one of my chapbooks had been archived by the National Library of Australia.
Dead Poem Office (2007) is a 24-page A5 poetry chapbook, with a wrap-around colour cover, featuring 19 poems.
As it turns out, the NLA’s is one of the only copies of Dead Poem Office that was ever printed, and was apparently bought by a roving NLA staff member at the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle in 2007, at the traditional zine and book fair.
I hadn’t been intending to sell Dead Poem Office at all. Its title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to REM’s Dead Letter Office (1987), an album of ‘b-sides compiled’. The idea was to collect together a chapbook’s worth of poems that had been published previously in journals, but that had not made the cut for We Will Disappear. It was just a mock-up – but in the noise and bustle of the book fair, I either sold or traded it to someone, probably for as little as a dollar.
How it’s come to reside in the NLA I’m not entirely sure. The person I sold it to might have been an undercover collector, snapping up copies of zines and chapbooks for a specific purpose. Whatever the reason, the book has been catalogued, is available for reading by the general public, and is now even available for digital download, for a price. I’ve also received emails from book distributors inquiring as to its availability.
The irony of this is clear: despite my best efforts to present to the world an ‘authorised’ version of my poetic output, in the end individual authors have little or no control over which of their works will be remembered or archived. I now know, if only on a trivial level, something of what Patrick White must have felt all those years ago when he discovered a copy of his book The Ploughman in the NLA.
While I could always simply print up another copy (I still have the text and the cover image on file), I decided to pay the $13.20 required to have someone at the library scan Dead Poem Office electronically and then send it to me via email. I included a copy of this scan as part of the Artefact because of the way it symbolically both represents and erases me as a ‘self-publishing’ author.
Dead Poem Office represents and archives me by way of the Dewey Decimal number Np A821.4 P912 de hand-written on its front cover. However the scanned copy is of such poor quality that my name, originally printed in silver ink on the cover, is unreadable, as is the image used for the front and back cover. My name does not appear on any other page of the book. All that is left is the title and the poems themselves.
In the end this is fitting: for many poets, libraries also constitute a ‘Dead Poem Office’, a final resting place for poems that may sit unread,just like undelivered letters, for many years. While this represents a cautionary tale for any poet distributing their works in public, it also shows that books continue to have an uncanny ability to outmanoeuvre their authors.
Self-published chapbooks are indeed actors within a field of books whose only real enemy is that ‘bonfire of the vanity presses’ all writers fear. For this reason alone they should be celebrated, discussed and remembered.
My thesis demonstrated that various publishing activities can indeed constitute a performance, a ‘publishing of the self’. Publishing, in the literary field at least, is a word that describes a multitude of public and private acts. The reinvention of old formats for books, including the chapbook format, is indeed just one aspect of this multiplicity.
While many forms of publishing and dissemination are possible, when poets use traditional formats, they are in fact entering a conversation with older fields of prestige. The five other chapbooks presented in my PhD thesis represent a performance of self-publishing, rather than a simple denial of mainstream publishing.
The sixth book discussed in m PhD thesis, We Will Disappear, is a performance of ‘mainstream’ publication that also bears some hallmarks or characteristics of other kinds of publishing, including self-publishing.
Re-examining the fields in which these poetry books were produced involves an analysis of the role of books as signifiers of prestige within those fields. The spaces between these fields of publishing are likewise occupied by a variety of actors, and their creative works (in this case poems, chapbooks and other book objects). Despite differences between fields of publishing, books can also be read as a performance of struggles within the field(s) in which they are produced.
Despite technological changes in the way poets communicate their works to the world, older book forms such as the chapbook still play a significant role in poetry publishing. The performance of poetry book objects can tell us a great deal about the way the field of publishing works. In doing so, they inspire a more sophisticated reading of the literary field, and of the importance of books as signifiers of literary and cultural prestige.
This text was originally published as part of my PhD thesis, “Bonfire of the Vanity Presses: Self-Publishing in the Field of Australian Poetry” (Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, 2010).
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