It was 1979 and Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, having won the 1975 election. I was reading David Ireland’s A Woman of the Future and Glen Tomasetti’s Thoroughly Decent People. The 1979 budget had cut the Australia Council by more than $12 million, reducing arts funding by about 10%. Small press literary magazines were disappearing as literary funding dried up. Two new writers in Australia were inspiring young hopefuls, Helen Garner, author of the first real-realist novel of contemporary Australia, Monkey Grip (1977) and Peter Carey, author of the strange and fabulist short story collection, The Fat Man in History (1974).
I was an arts student at university, living with my grandmother in Coburg, and Myron Lysenko was a couch-surfer who had run away from his Coburg home at the age of eighteen. When we admitted to each other that we were both unpublished writers working under the shadows of Kerouac, Brautigan, Dostoevsky and a handful of other writers, it wasn’t long before we thought, why not go against the flow and start up a literary magazine just at the time when so many of them were stopping. We put some money into an account, and went looking for writers around Melbourne. We found a hotel in Fitzroy where we saw Ania Walwicz, Eric Beach, Pi O, and others performing. This was a revelation to us. They were real writers, with large ambitions and stunning talent. Kate Ahearne, editor of Chook Chook and See Page 127, magazines we admired, told us not to do it. She was trying to protect us against the overwhelming likelihood that we would fail. We knew nothing about publishing, except that we liked books, and wanted to see new writers being published. As new writers ourselves we knew how difficult it was to get your work published. It had taken each of us nearly ten years of rejections before we got something into print—in a journal called Inprint.
We commissioned work from the writers we saw performing, and tried to get word out that there was a new magazine looking for new writers. We had to find a printer, and we had to find a way to type up and style the magazine. We had to find a name for it too. Myron still has the brainstorming notes we took. Going Down Swinging seemed to say something about the belligerence and defiance required to start up a magazine, it indicated too the possibility that the magazine might be failing as soon as it appeared, and it went some way towards our attitude to failure, an attitude we felt we shared with Dostoevsky, Hesse, Hamsun, Kafka, Kerouac, Berrigan and all the others we were reading.
There are a lot of stories to tell about the those early years and the next fourteen, from 1980 to 1994, as we produced fourteen issues of a magazine we thought at first would come out at least three times a year. It wasn’t long before we had several thousand submissions for each issue from all over Australia to read, argue over, comment on, and mostly reject. You will see from the lists of editors over those years that we had many collaborators along the way, and all of them kept the fragile journal alive through a number of shaky years.
The early issues were produced with typewriters and Roneo sheets. It involved hours of typing up the pages of the journal on foolscap waxed sheets, each letter having to be banged out to make a crisp image. By about 1986 I had severe RSI, mainly from typing up the journal and those unpublished novels that are part of a writing apprenticeship. We kept trying to push the technology, primitive though it seems now, and along the way managed to publish dozens of writers for the first time, produce one of Antoni Jach’s photo-montage fictions, and Australia’s first spoken word CD.
The GDS editors had a few guiding principles or inspirations. One of them was to keep a balance between the genders in the magazine. This meant we received more and more work from women as the years went by, which was exciting. Another principle was to publish new writers, whether young or old, but mostly young. In this way, we wanted the magazine to be on an edge, somewhere outside the main game, outside the mainstream, but not dismissive of those established writers who were so important to us beginners. We wanted the magazine to generate some discussion or thought, and to recognise Australian writers and writing we thought worth noticing. So we interviewed one or two writers at length in each issue for those first fourteen issues. This was great fun for us, contacting writers we admired, re-reading their work, making up the questions, then actually doing the interviews.
We also decided from the beginning to offer each submission a personal reply rather than a standard rejection slip. This was dangerous territory, because instead of accepting a rejection and learning something for the future from our comments, some writers either took offence at criticism or treated the criticisms we made as instructions for re-writing their piece which would then, in their minds, certainly be accepted on re-submission. In any case, the quantity of submissions after a year or two meant we could not keep to our original commitment all the time. The hours spent discussing and debating the merits of particular stories or poems submitted was for us what kept us going. It was an apprenticeship in reading.
In those early years support from Nolan Tyrrell, Carol Carter, Lauren Williams, Antoni Jach, Pi O, Andrea Lloyd, Grant Caldwell, Lyn Boughton, Stephen J Williams and many others was essential to the survival of GDS.
When we stepped back from GDS in 1994, we hoped each new editor and each new editorial team would do something new and unexpected with the magazine, but maybe keep it working somewhere within those early principles. And that’s what has happened. By changing editorships frequently, keeping the editors young, and keeping the magazine open to new writers, it has taken on shapes I couldn’t have imagined. Hopefully it will be there somewhere in the future of small press literary publishing for as long as there are new writers with new ideas.