Paul Mitchell examines the editorial biases at work in the Australian poetry community.

Public and private students often ask me where they should send their writing. As a writer of fiction, poetry, journalism and creative non-fiction, who relies upon writing and its associated industries for my livelihood, my approach has always been to:

  • look around Australia and the world;
  • see what kinds of writing particular publications feature;
  • see if my writing fits that publication;
  • find out if they pay;
  • find out (in the case of journalism/creative non-fiction) if I need to pitch or just send the article;
  • follow editorial guidelines to the letter; and
  • hit send or lick the stamps.

But times are changing. Many publications now prioritise reading subscribers’ submissions. They don’t say you will be published because you subscribe, only that you’ll move up the queue. I think this is an important and much-needed step. Especially when I continue to hear from some students how little they read compared to how much they write. In terms of their creative output, they are often standing on the shoulders of pygmies.

Times are also staying the same. Because beyond an editor’s tastes, there are always other biases in play that mean if you send your work to a particular publication you will have no hope of seeing it in print or pixels. That bias can be based on politics, gender, age, genre, fashion, or ‘new’ voices versus ‘trusted’ voices (some publications prefer the former; some the latter).

Take a recent example of bias: left-leaning Overland’s poetry editor, Peter Minter, recently refused a submission based on the fact that the poet had previously been published in right-wing bastion Quadrant. Minter’s public proclamation of bias caused a stir. Why should a poet’s work be judged on their publication history?

I contacted Overland editor Jeff Sparrow and he told me that Minter’s email to the poet in question had been off-the-cuff and that no such editorial policy exists. But I’m sure any poets previously published in Quadrant (or maybe even The Australian) will be gun-shy now of sending to Overland.

Quadrant’s poetry editor, Les Murray, once said in a conversation with Peter Goldsworthy at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival that an editor should publish a poem by the devil himself if that poem has high literary merit. But given the current political climate in Australia, and to note only two of Quadrant’s pet projects (climate change denial and support for a policy of assimilation for Aboriginal Australians), we can see why Minter (an Aboriginal man) expressed his distaste for the journal, and said he wouldn’t publish any poet who’d been published in it, even if this on-the-fly policy was later retracted.

I’ve been published in Quadrant. For a period, I made a point of stating in my bio that I’d been published in it and Overland, as a way of saying that art should be somehow above or independent of politics (as if it can be!). I sent my poems and stories to Quadrant because I met Les Murray at a poetry masterclass in the early 2000s. He said, send me that one you just read. It was called ‘Leaving Glenthompson’. The poem’s heartbeat was its expression of the devastating effects of economic rationalism on a small country town. Les published it. He also published ‘Finding My Mother’s Magic’, a story that dealt with child abuse at the hands of a World War II veteran, and a poem called ‘The Soldier’. That poem used a modern soldier’s techniques as a metaphor for death’s relentless pursuit of an ill person, but can easily be read as an anti-imperialist poem.

It remains a source of minor pride for me that these works with their left-leaning views were published in Quadrant. But that was not my intention. My intention was to send to an editor who was interested in my work. I was a rank beginner when it came to understanding the politics in Australia’s literary journal community.

You can send wherever you want, but if you’re published that reality won’t be viewed as free of values or politics. The truth is that any writer in Australia could be on any editor’s banned list. Editors just don’t normally talk about it. But the bias is there. And, if you think about it, would it be there if you were an editor? For example, if Holocaust denier Fredrick Töben sent me the best sonnet ever written, I wouldn’t publish it. If he sent it to me under a different name – and I didn’t know – I would publish it.

What’s in a name? In the above instance, everything. And so, it seems, can much reside in the name of an Australian literary journal: i.e. your potential publishing opportunities.

I wouldn’t like to think I’m on Peter Minter’s banned list or anyone else’s, but it remains an editor’s prerogative to take into account whatever they want when considering publishing a piece of art. Writers should never be foolish enough to believe that only literary merit will be taken into account. As a friend who’d served at a high political level told me, he’d never seen any group whose decisions were as political as the Australian poetry community.

Paul Mitchell is a poet, fiction writer and journalist. His latest book is Standard Variation, a poetry collection available from Walleah Press. He is completing a PhD in English at La Trobe University.