Last week the BWAP students had the opportunity to speak to Kent MacCarter, Managing Editor of Cordite Poetry Review, as part of our guest speaker program. Regrettably, I hadn’t made it to many talks this semester, so was eager to make the most of this one. Fortunately, Kent was an articulate speaker with plenty of wisdom to impart. The discussion he facilitated was intimate and stimulating. I appreciated how forthcoming he was regarding his views on the industry, and his generosity when responding to audience queries. Kent spoke principally about Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home, an ambitious publishing project that addresses our national identity and the immigration experiences of its contributors. Published by Affirm Press, Joyful Strains (co-edited by Kent and Ali Lemer) is a collection of twenty-seven autobiographical essays from writers who – at least at the time of publication – resided in Australia, but hailed from all over the globe. Through personal lenses, these writers have crafted essays that explore the perks, challenges and unspoken reality of living in a multicultural society. As a UK-born Australian, I’ve always been interested in the migrant’s perspective and look forward to reading (and possibly reviewing) the free copy Kent generously provided. During his presentation, Kent spoke at length about the commissioning process for Joyful Strains. With Affirm on board, Kent spent two months researching appropriate writers to share their migration experiences. The project suffered a false start, Kent conceded, because of an unclear early brief. He also struggled to attain the envisioned level of diversity, explaining that few migrant writers from smaller countries were living in Australia. There was some concern the selected writers would view their invitations to contribute as tokenism and take offence, but most were grateful to have been asked and greeted the proposals with enthusiasm and professionalism. The genders and origins of the successfully commissioned writers were suitably varied. Some came from as far away as Russia and Pakistan, while others were from neighbouring areas like New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
Regarding the editing process, Kent said some pieces required heavy redrafting. Syntactical issues arose because some contributors learnt English later in life. Some pieces required fastidious line-edits, with Kent cherry-picking workable paragraphs to implement into the final draft. He persisted with these difficult pieces while striving to preserve their original essence. Interestingly, because of the commissioning process and the project’s somewhat constraining concept, Kent rejected very few pieces for this project. His editing approach is very holistic; he prefers to rework serviceable or even mediocre pieces until they reach the necessary standard. Kent does not relish what he calls ‘editorial power plays’. He dislikes rejection and would prefer to accept and revise flawed works-in-progress than wait for some elusive, fully formed masterpiece.
Joyful Strains received no external funding. All sales profits were donated to PEN Melbourne, an organisation which champions multicultural writing. The project budget was modest, with funds stretching far enough to pay the contributors but not the editors. The Lifted Brow, which I recently interned for, operates in a similar fashion, with writer remuneration taking priority over the compensation of editorial staff. This is the reality of Australian publishing, particularly for niche publications or projects lacking commercial appeal. It’s understandable, but disappointing – a lot of unpaid, after-hours effort goes into the creation of these publications.
It’s clear Kent faced some challenges when bringing Joyful Strains from concept to publication: he shared a candid anecdote about losing what he considered the perfect cover art, endured pressure from his publisher to include some ‘big name’ writers, and he had to stand by his decision not to include pieces from indigenous writers (as doing so would be antithetical to the book’s topic). Clearly, working in publishing requires compromise. It’s also clear, though, that Kent takes great pride in the publication he helped create. Joyful Strains was an uphill passion project, and the warm reception it has received since its publication on Australia Day 2013 must provide some vindication. Although Kent was unpaid for his work on Joyful Strains, he gained valuable experience and had a host of subsequent projects open up. This is what’s known as tangential payment, and seems to be how many progress in publishing. Gone are those linear career progressions.
Thanks again to Kent MacCarter (who is also the author of three poetry collections – In the Hungry Middle of Here [Transit Lounge, 2009], Ribosome Spreadsheet [Picaro, 2011] and Sputnik’s Cousin [Transit Lounge, 2014]). Check out Cordite Poetry Review (which, I found out, has a different guest editor every issue. I can’t even …) here.