Publishing Australian Poetry: ‘Many Months of Loving Care’

Publishing Australian Poetry: ‘Many Months of Loving Care’

Michael Richards explores the efforts of publisher Alec Bolton to elevate the Australian poetry publishing scene with his collection of the poems of James McAuley

Left: Henk Brusse, Alec Bolton at Work at His Brindabella Press in Canberra, 3 February 1987, nla.cat-vn4803021; Right: Australian News and Information Bureau, Professor James McAuley, 1971, nla.cat-vn3096383

Forty years ago, the National Library’s publisher, Alec Bolton, threw down a personal challenge to Australian publishing. Taking a recent collection of poems by James McAuley, he hand-printed a limited edition that is now rare and sought after by collectors. Today, Time Given can be seen as the book with which his Brindabella Press won recognition as a new voice in Australian poetry. It was the fourth book of the press, at that time a weekend avocation.

Low publishing and printing standards were foremost in his thinking when Bolton first approached McAuley. His words, in a letter among his papers at the Library, were blunt: ‘I have seen a copy of Music Late at Night, and wish I had been its printer. The poems are most beautiful, but the presentation is wretched’. Music Late at Night was released as a stapled pamphlet and used to launch Angus & Robertson’s Poets of the Month series, competing with the often-ephemeral output of the New Australian Poetry movement—the zines of the day. Ironically, the pamphlet is now also a scarce work.

Bolton and his wife, the poet Rosemary Dobson, had become friendly with McAuley in the 1950s, when they both worked for Angus & Robertson in Sydney. McAuley’s first book of poems was published elsewhere, as was the Ern Malley hoax he wrote with Harold Stewart, but from the mid-1950s he was a highly regarded Angus & Robertson author. Although they did not share political views, they did agree on book design. McAuley replied to Bolton’s letter in equally pungent terms. It had taken ‘almost three years to bring out one of the nastiest designs and productions that ever disgraced Australian publication’, he said, and he was happy for Bolton to publish a small collection of his poems. Although they originally contemplated a different selection, the book ultimately included the poems from Music Late at Night along with new material.

Left: James McAuley, Poets of the Month: Music Late at Night, Poems 1970–73, Angus & Robertson, 1976, nla.cat-vn4401301; Right: James McAuley, Time Given: Poems 1970–1976, Brindabella Press, 1976, nla.cat-vn2786966, Courtesy The Bolton Family

Bolton thought the poems ‘lovely. It is their crystalline quality that appeals to me, the sense that you have got down to the pure substance of what you are saying’. He was a reader as well as an editor of discrimination, who printed writing he admired. He did not care for a lot of what was being published at the time. ‘Australia seems as never before a nest of singing birds, but I read the work of poet after poet without a sense of recognising an individual voice with something to say’, he said soon afterwards to the writer Tom Shapcott.

Printing Time Given became a race against terminal illness, with McAuley dying of cancer before it was finished. Bolton showed him early pages and, in an oral history interview done for the Library by Heather Rusden, recalled holding his breath while McAuley looked at them for a long time. ‘“Now that is very nice,” he finally said. I was greatly relieved that he approved.’  He deferred to McAuley’s dislike of illustration, using a calligraphic title and section headings written by the Sydney artist and printer Rod Shaw. Calligraphy seemed a perfect fit; McAuley and Bolton both loved the chancery italic of the Italian Renaissance type designer Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi and had adopted italic handwriting as adults. Bolton set the text in Monotype Plantin, an early twentieth-century type based on a sixteenth-century French model, and asked Shaw to consider ‘italic capitals suggesting Plantin with flourishes’. Shaw provided many alternatives and refused payment. ‘Jim would have loved these titles,’ Bolton replied. ‘It’s sad that he is not still around to see them.’ 

Left: James McAuley, ‘Convalescent Walk’, 1975, Papers of Alec Bolton, nla.cat-vn742340; Right: James McAuley, ‘Convalescent Walk’, Time Given, 1976, nla.cat-vn2786966, Courtesy The Bolton Family

Of the 238 copies printed, around 40 were discarded because Bolton was unhappy with their binding, and 100 were reserved for presentation. The rest sold within days of appearing—which, despite the printed publication date of 1976, was in March 1977. Bibliophile Walter Stone praised it as the work of the best Australian private press of the day, and it is indeed a handsome book, winning an award in the 1977–1978 Australian Book Publishers Association design competition. Bolton later acknowledged that its design was conservative, but thought it was the best work he had done to date. The letterpress printing is assured and the scarlet calligraphy, printed with line blocks, is effective. As printer and type historian Sebastian Carter comments, Plantin was specifically designed to work with modern smooth papers, and this is evident in Time Given. Bolton thought the paper was a major element in the book’s success. ‘The Basingwerk Parchment that you imported for me is a lovely paper to work with, and wonderfully sympathetic to letterpress printing on a platen [press],’ he told his paper supplier. He thought it was the first time it had been used for a book in Australia. He made the same point in a letter to his binder: ‘I have used a very good paper and have put many months of loving care into the printing, so that I will appreciate your most careful attention to this job’.

Two years later, when he began writing an occasional column called ‘BookShapes’ under the pseudonym Martin Em for Australian Book Review, Bolton was still critical of Australian book design and printing. (Again, it is a single letter in his papers at the Library that reveals Alec Bolton was Martin Em.) He acknowledged recent improvements, thanks to his predecessor, publisher Andrew Fabinyi, who under the name of ‘Peter Pica’ had written a similar column. But poor book design, he argued, could not simply be attributed to constant technological change. Publishers did not train young staff: ‘In typesetting, as in everything else, you get what you pay for and—more important—what you have been educated to insist on’. He praised ‘generous pages and a confident use of white space; illustrations and text working together without strain’, along with good judgement in leading and type selection. Martin Em’s strictures say much about Alec Bolton’s ambitions as a private press printer, as well as the Library’s publishing program. ‘I like books that are coherent and all-of-a-piece,’ he said, at one point even criticising the printing of the Library’s prize-winning Cazneaux, one of his own books.

‘What we infer from this book is that nobody in the publisher’s office could have cared for it,’ he said of another book. ‘There is no worse fate.’ This could never be said about any of the books printed and published by Alec Bolton at his Brindabella Press, or indeed during his distinguished career at the National Library.

Michael Richards is a historian and librarian. He worked at the National Library from 1986 until 1998 and was curator of People, Print & Paper, the Library’s Bicentennial exhibition. He wrote A Licence to Print: Alec Bolton and the Brindabella Press (1993), and is working on a more substantial biblio-biography of Alec Bolton. He is also a letterpress printer.