• Elizabeth Webby

On 25 May 2011, the Australian Poetry Library website (www.poetrylibrary.edu.au) was launched at Government House, Sydney, by the Governor of New South Wales, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir. The launch was the culmination of several years of work by a number of individuals, a process that inevitably involved many creative judgments, as well as many adjustments along the way.

It began in 2004 when, after the success of his international online poetry journal Jacket, established in 1997, poet John Tranter became convinced of the value of the internet for the dissemination and appreciation of Australian poetry. With some funding from the Australia Council’s Literature Board, he began to create his own Australian Literature Resources website but realised he would need much more financial and other help if the site was to realise its full potential. John had been a Research Associate of Sydney University’s English Department for many years, and had already carried out several small projects with the Sydney Electronic Text and Image Service (SETIS) at Fisher Library. So he approached Ross Coleman and Creagh Cole from SETIS and Professor Margaret Harris from English to ask about applying for further funding to develop an Australian Poetry Resources website. Margaret in turn approached me, the university’s then Professor of Australian Literature, to lead and prepare an application to the Australian Research Council.

As John had already been investigating the possibility of funding from the Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund, we decided to apply under the Linkage program, one that had a much better success rate than the ARC Discovery grants, with CAL as our industry partner. Around this time, writers and academics were expressing concern about the limited amount of Australian literature being taught at Australian universities as well as lamenting that many of our older literary works were out of print. One solution proposed was to prepare a major new anthology of Australian literature, along the lines of the American Norton anthologies. This eventually appeared in 2009 as the Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature, with Nicholas Jose as general editor. Although I became involved in this project, as editor of the 19th-century section, I believed that the only lasting way to solve the problem of reliable access to works by Australian writers, both creative and critical, was online availability, with the possibility of print on demand if desired. Developments in the IT and electronics area since 2004 have increasingly confirmed that digital publication is the way of the future, especially for more specialised works without mass-market appeal.

A good deal of time in the second half of 2005 was spent meeting with representatives from CAL and staff from the English Department and Fisher Library in order to prepare an application entitled ‘Australian Poetry: Production, Distribution, Reception’. The application noted that while a great deal of poetry continued to be written in Australia, poems were no longer regularly published in mass-market newspapers and magazines as they had been during the 19th and earlier 20th centuries. So poetry had ceased to be a part of the everyday experience of Australians. It argued:

Children usually would encounter poems as part of the primary school curriculum and often are encouraged to write their own. But poetry in high school is rarely taught in a way that continues to make it accessible and enjoyable. Unfortunately, many of those who become English teachers wrongly believe that poetry is only for special people and so fail to encourage their students to appreciate poetry for what it is—a literary form which makes a more concentrated use of the English language and which therefore may require a more intensive form of reading than prose, but one that can be enjoyed by all. By making a wide range of Australian poems available via the internet, today’s equivalent to the nineteenth-century newspaper, this project aims to again make it part of the everyday life of Australians. Few Australians would perhaps be aware that they encounter images of two poets, ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Mary Gilmore, almost everyday, on the $10 note. But while poets may be on the currency they usually don’t get to put very much of it in their pockets. As well as providing greater access to Australian poetry, this project, via the partnership with CAL, aims to ensure that poets are paid for the use of their work.

The application also pointed out that, while a great deal of Australian poetry had been published, much of it was now out of print, and so available only in certain libraries. Works by contemporary poets were usually published in small print runs and not widely distributed, so also held only in some libraries. By using the resources of the world wide web, we could make the works of Australian poets readily accessible to anyone in any part of Australia, as well as to an international audience. With CAL as industry partner it was possible to solve one of the major problems associated with putting the full texts of recent literary works on the web—that of copyright. While all the poetry on our site could be viewed by anyone for free, copies could not be made of any material still in copyright without the payment of a small fee, most of which would go to the author.

In the process of preparing the grant, we decided to enlist Creagh Cole, who had been responsible for the digitisation of much earlier Australian literature, prose as well as poetry, for the SETIS site, as a Chief Investigator along with myself. If the grant was successful, John Tranter was to be employed part time as a Research Assistant.

In the middle of 2006 we were all delighted to learn that the ARC Linkage Grant had been successful. We received just over $580,000 from the ARC, at that stage the largest amount ever given to a Linkage project in the Humanities area, as well as additional funds and in-kind support from CAL and in-kind support from Sydney University, especially the Library.

As Linkage grants are mainly aimed at encouraging joint research projects between university staff and businesses hoping to be able to exploit commercially products developed in the course of the research, they require the signing of a contract, setting out guidelines about the ownership of any new intellectual property, before the ARC funds can be released. While our poetry grant was never going to lead to major commercial outcomes, we still needed to go through the same processes. As a result, there was a long delay between confirmation of the grant in July 2006 and the final signing of the contract between CAL and Sydney University in May 2007, which effectively set the project back almost 12 months.

Once the money started to flow, John Tranter and a research assistant, Nathan Garvey, could be appointed and our work begun. We set up a program of regular team meetings, and at one of our early ones John suggested that if we added a couple of words to the proposed site name, making it Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library, we would have a memorable acronym, namely APRIL. So that became the name of our site for most of its development. Why it was changed before the launch will be discussed later.

As part of the grant application, we had had to decide how many poets would be included on the site in its initial stage of development and who they would be. A fairly comprehensive range of the out-of-copyright work of 19th- and early 20th-century Australian poets, already digitised for the SETIS website, would be taken over to our new site. I began to try to prepare an equally comprehensive list of poets whose work was still in copyright but found after covering only a few decades that we would never be able to include them all, at least at the beginning. So we took the list that John Tranter had been working on for his original site and added some further names to attempt to provide as balanced as possible representation of the development of poetry in Australian during the 20th and early 21st centuries. We were of course conscious of the need to provide access to poetry that was regularly or likely to be studied at school and university, since one of the aims of the site was to enhance the teaching of Australian poetry. By encouraging students to become readers of poetry we hoped to expand its appeal and hence ensure a continuing audience for it in this country.

The increasing availability of electronic databases and other web-based information tools has transformed the ways in which students and scholars carry out research. In the area of Australian Literature, the subscription database AustLit: The Resource for Australian Literature has been especially valuable in allowing researchers ready access to a wide range of bibliographical and other material on Australian literary authors. With the aid of several ARC infrastructure grants, much material relating to earlier writers has been added to enhance the initial focus on literary works from the 1970s onwards. As a member of the AustLit board of directors for many years during its development, I was aware of an increasing demand from users for full-text material, including material that is still in copyright. Some full-text material is available on AustLit, mainly through links to online journals and to SETIS’s collection of Australian historical and literary texts, which are works out of copyright. Difficulties with copyright issues, and the need to put most resources into enhancing and maintaining listings of earlier as well as more recent publications to make the database as complete as possible, meant that full-text resources could not be given priority.

In selecting the poets whose work would be featured on the Australian Poetry Library site we needed to be mindful of the generally agreed canon of Australian poetry, making sure we included all those poets whose work regularly appeared in national anthologies. Inevitably, that meant that a majority of the poets on the site are white, Anglo-Celtic and male, even though we did try hard to include women, Aboriginal poets and poets from different ethnic backgrounds.

The 170 poets selected to be included in the project whose work was still in copyright then had to agree to it being represented on the site. As CAL was to be responsible for distributing any money earned through the site, the poets, or their estates in the case of deceased poets, needed to be members of CAL. Paul Bootes from CAL therefore took on the responsibility of contacting the poets and signing them up. While most poets were delighted to be included, there were more difficulties here than we had anticipated. Some poets whose work has been regularly set for study in schools decided that being included on the site would jeopardise their income stream; one or two found the business of filling out the CAL forms too difficult. But the main problem was finding who owned the copyright of the work of deceased poets, especially those who had not used literary agents. Enquiries and advertisements did not help—though the latter did attract the attention of poets we had not selected for inclusion—and after a couple of years of trying we had to decide to go with those we had already signed up. This meant that the work of such major figures as Gwen Harwood, Mary Gilmore, JS Harry, Robert Gray and Bruce Dawe is not included on the Australian Poetry Library site. Also missing are a number of important Aboriginal poets we had planned to include, such as Lisa Bellear, Jack Davis and Sam Wagan Watson, along with poets from non-Anglo backgrounds such as Margaret Diesendorf, Vicki Viidikas, Ania Walwicz and Peter Skryznecki.

Another decision we faced early on was whether just to include an author’s collected poems, where one existed, or whether we would attempt to represent the history of that author’s work as originally published. I was aware that a collected poems did not always include all of an author’s published poems, unless it was a full scholarly edition, and very few of those exist for Australian poets. I was also aware that authors often revised earlier poems when revisiting them for selected or collected editions. Once, for example, when teaching a Les Murray poem, the fact that members of the class were using different editions of his selected poems alerted us to his substitution in one line of another word for ‘gay’, which he obviously felt had now taken on a meaning he wished to avoid. These sorts of changes are of course of particular interest to scholars and researchers so, with this in mind, we decided as far as possible to include all a poet’s books as originally published. This means that in some cases the same poem appears more than once in the online library, allowing researchers to easily compare them in search of possible changes. When the site was launched one or two poets did ask for changes to be made to some of their early poems. We declined to do this on the grounds that the rationale of the site was to present each collection as originally published, just as it would appear in a non-electronic library, though we did offer to include the revised versions on the site if the poet wished.

The inclusion of whole collections is one of the main things that distinguishes the Australian Poetry Library site from other major internet poetry sites that have been developed in recent years. Most of these, like the Australian Poetry Library, feature biographies and portraits of the poets, many also include audio-visual, critical and other material. Some of the North American sites feature a large number of poets, from the past as well as the present, including international figures as well as American ones. The website for the Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), for example, includes over 6500 poets, among them many Australians, but each is represented by one or two poems only. The Academy of American Poets site (www.Poets.org) also includes only a small selection of poems by the more than 500 poets listed there. The Poetry International Web (www.poetryinternational.org) includes poetry by contemporary poets from 80 countries, though in many cases only one or two poets are listed per country. Thanks to the efforts of Australian poet and academic Michael Brennan, Australian poets are very well represented on this site, with work by 48 of them included at present. The site features a selection of their work, mostly a dozen or so poems, presumably chosen by the authors themselves in consultation with Brennan. As a national site, that of the New Zealand electronic poetry centre (www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz) is closest to our Australian Poetry Library in presenting a range of material by both contemporary and earlier poets. It was established at Auckland University in 2004, and notes that the poems included have been selected in association with the poets or their estates and their publishers. With some of the earlier poets, a large number of poems have been included, though there has been no attempt to represent collections as originally published. In other cases, a poet’s page features links to poems that are available online at other sites, such as that of the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre. This site also provides readers with some of the resources available through AustLit for Australian writers, such as information on archival holdings and other bibliographical resources. At present, however, it features the work of just 33 poets.

While we did have to make judgments about which poets to include in the Australian Poetry Library, we were able to avoid the much more difficult decisions about which of their many poems would appear. The site allows readers to read through a wide selection of a poet’s work and make up their own minds about which poems they particularly like, as well as offering them the opportunity to create their own anthologies and obtain a PDF of the poems they have selected for a small fee. Although we thought that this feature would be particularly attractive to teachers and students, it allows anyone to create an anthology of work on a particular theme or by one or more poets.

As anyone who has edited an anthology knows, the decisions about what material should be included and what must be left out are daunting ones. Whatever the reason for the anthology or whatever literary genre is being represented, there is always more wonderful material one would love to include; there is never enough room. The same of course applies to literary journals, as I know from my 12 years of editing Australia’s oldest literary journal, Southerly. Even though it was then appearing four times a year, and the number of pages in each issue increased considerably during my editorship, there was space for only a fraction of the poems and stories submitted each week in the hope of publication. Around 95 per cent of poems sent in had to be rejected. Some of course deserved to be, but many did not. And after a year or two I ended up with a considerable backlog, meaning that poets had often to wait up to a year after their poem had been accepted before finally seeing it published. When accepting poems for publication there is something of a balancing act between including work by well-known figures, which will attract readers and add to the prestige of the journal, while also doing as much as possible to encourage promising newcomers. As well, I was also conscious of the need to preserve a gender balance, and not to give too much preference to poets of a particular type or from one city or region. Obviously some editors would be less concerned about such matters, but I wanted to make the journal open to all, rather than getting a reputation for favouring a particular coterie. Looking back over those years, and all the work involved, the thing that still cheers me is publishing work by then unknown poets who have since gone on to bring out collections and be included in major anthologies. Among them are MTC Cronin, Sam Wagan Watson, Deb Westbury and Michael Brennan.

When choosing poems for an anthology it is usually even more necessary to balance out personal favourites with what readers (and reviewers) will expect to find, though it’s always good to try to include some little surprises too. As mentioned earlier, I was responsible for selecting most of the 19th-century material for The Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature (2009). I say most, because some nonfiction—letters and petitions—by Aboriginal Australians was selected by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter who chose all Aboriginal material for the anthology. I had a free hand in deciding what poems to include, though free within limits since this was an anthology aimed at the school and university market. Everyone would expect to find poems by Frank the Poet, Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Ada Cambridge, Mary Hannay Foott, Victor Daley, Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Barcroft Boake and Christopher Brennan. I chose them all, and they are all also to be found in the largest anthology of Australian poetry yet published, the new Australian poetry since 1788 (2011), edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. But inevitably there are many differences in the poems we have selected, though both anthologies include icons like ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘The Man from Snowy River’, ‘Where the Dead Men Lie’ and ‘Where the Pelican Builds Its Nest’. Being more limited in space, I decided to include one of Paterson’s more comic poems, ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’ in place of ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, a poem I find rather cloying in its easy sentimental contrast of bush and city. And of course was taken to task for doing so by reviewers, for whom it is always easiest to look at what is not in any anthology. If, like Lehmann and Gray, who say that their choices were made in relation to poems rather than poets, I’d been able to include nine poems by Paterson rather than three, ‘Clancy’ would no doubt have been there, in deference to critical expectations. Likewise, Lehmann and Gray include six poems by Charles Harpur, with a focus on his nature poems. Although Harpur is one of my poetic heroes, I had room for only four of his works, and wanted to represent something of the range of his work. So, as well as the standard anthology piece, ‘A Midsummer Noon in the Australian Forest’, I included his savage satire on white treatment of Aboriginals, ‘The Beautiful Squatter’, and two of his love sonnets. Reviewers complained about the absence of ‘The Creek of the Four Graves’ but it is a long poem and would have used up all the space I could allocate to Harpur. I note that it is also missing from Lehmann and Gray’s anthology, perhaps for a similar reason, though maybe it is just not one of their favourites. Anthologists inevitably tend to favour shorter works, another good reason for having as much poetry as possible available on the web, especially longer works.

Once we had made the decision to include as much as possible of a poet’s work in the Australian Poetry Library, some further matters still had to be resolved. One was what type of searches would be of most benefit to users of the site, especially researchers. As the full texts of the poems would be searchable we initially decided not to attempt any subject indexing. Late in the project, when the unexpected early retirement of Creagh Cole meant that the development of the website was not making as much progress as necessary, we had to employ a commercial web designer, Hothouse, to build the site for us. Their focus was much more on maximising Google searches than ours had been, and they therefore felt that APRIL would not be a meaningful site name. After much resistance, we finally took out the R and I to end up with Australian Poetry Library. Hothouse also wanted the inclusion of a search facility devoted to poetic themes. So I found myself having to write some forty 350-word introductions to ‘Love Poems’, ‘Family Poems’, ‘Death Poems’, and so on. Appropriate poems then had to be individually tagged to each theme. The site also includes a facility to search on poetic form, something we had decided on at the beginning of the project, in order to allow readers to trace the use by Australian poets of forms such as the sonnet, ode or epic. But so far no one has had the time to tag any of the poems.

Other aspects of the project as originally planned still require further development. The cost of digitising the collections, which all needed to be sourced, scanned and then sent to a firm in India for conversion to xml through a system of double-keying to locate input errors, turned out to be much more than originally budgeted. Once the digitised collections had been returned, library staff needed to check them for systematic errors such as completeness, accuracy of the number system and correct bibliographic information. They also needed to make sure that the finished product faithfully replicated the often very complex layout of the published versions of the poems. The additional cost of having Hothouse carry out the web design also reduced the funds available for features originally planned for the site, such as new video interviews with living poets, and digitisation of critical material relating to their work. New biographical and bibliographical entries were researched and written for each of the poets, and some earlier video and audio interviews and readings have been digitised and will be progressively added to the site. We were particularly pleased to be able to include 35 portraits of Australian poets taken by acclaimed photographer Juno Gemes on the site, as well as many photos taken by John Tranter, and others supplied by the poets themselves. More will be added as they come to hand.

We have been very heartened by the overwhelmingly positive response to the Australian Poetry Library site, especially from the poets themselves. There does seem to be a real return to poetry in Australia at present, with the launch of Australian Poetry Limited, the continuing publication of excellent new collections and anthologies, and an increase in the number of poetry readings and other events. Our website will clearly help to draw attention to Australian poetry, though developing it to its full potential will require more enthusiasm, more support and more funding. Six months after the launch, however, it was attracting some 1,500 visits per day, with up to 100 people viewing the site at any one time. The site is also to be listed as a resource for the new National Curriculum in English, so there will be the need to work closely with teachers to assist them in the development of future readers and writers of Australian poetry.


Works cited: 

Jose, N (gen ed) 2009 Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature, Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Lehmann, G and Gray, R (eds) 2011 Australian poetry since 1788, Sydney: UNSW Press