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Thinking through language: Editing poetry in Eureka Street

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I was invited to read the poetry at Eureka Street by Morag Fraser, sometime in the mists. She shouted me coffee at the Chinese place across Victoria Street from the magazine’s Richmond offices. That was nearly twenty years ago. As we crunched on fortune cookies, she popped the question. The messages were auspicious. I’ve been editing poetry at Eureka Street ever since and have only chosen to let go of the job this summer because it’s time. It’s time for someone else to have a go. It’s time for me to make a change and create space for other creative activities, my own and others.  

The pay is atrocious but the hours are short. You have to want to do it, and reading original poetry, of every kind, is my idea of fun. Sunday afternoons have been the time to read new words by people I’ve never met. The majority of them, anyway. I welcomed every kind of poetry and every kind of poet. For this reason, Eureka Street is immensely catholic in its representation of new work, both from Australia and Outside Over There.

The first big change from those days is paper. Poems carefully typed and folded arrived, usually with the ominous stamped self-addressed envelope, dutifully devised for the author’s ultimate joy or woe. Stacks of poems rose on all sides as I listened internally to their variable effects, before one or two beauties went their way into next month’s issue. Like many, I continue to wonder if the screen is any substitute for the intimate experience of absorbing a poetic work set out spaciously on the page. I am also thankful for small mercies, like having poetry at all.  

Digital, with its interminable reliance on documents that don’t always open, changed the paper chase into an email trail. The piles became files. Some may lament the fact that digital has removed us even further from the spoken word than print. There are times when the sheer volume of information tests the patience, leaving the editor longing for a human voice. The editor has to make do with his or her own. Digital has certainly increased the leisureliness with which we access poetry, given we don’t have to go anywhere to find it.

Peter Porter, a poet well-known to Eureka Street, once said that poetry exists in tension between the pub and the university. He could mean bohemia and academe, adventure and theory, the marketplace and the stock exchange, the present and the past. Binaries were a popular Porter device. The reality is, as usual, much more complex.

 

'[Poetry] opens up new ways of talking politics, religion, social justice, and personal experience, ways that do not necessarily get heard in mainstream media or the literary journals.'

 

One quickly intuits from the content of submissions that poets may live in deep isolation; or simply wish to entertain their friends; or follow some mystical path that forgot about institutions some time ago, in the proverbial mists. The varieties of urban and bush life test their own tensions, again refuting Porter’s rhetorical distinction. The sense of tradition, of a living language being passed on, is ever present. Moreover, traditions, not always accommodating of one another, rubbing each other the wrong way, or the right way, existing together and making things new. But underlying Porter’s observation is the knowledge that the world is lively with people wanting to say something that can only be said, or said best, in poetry. Editors need to be attuned.

As someone who reads poetry every day, I viewed editorial as a simple extension of that practice. I have no rules about forms, as for me English is immensely adaptable to new and old forms, and part of the fun is seeing what else is possible. My guide is Ringo Starr. In his Liverpudlian matter-of-factness he once said of decisions about recording all those famous songs, ‘If it worked we kept it in, if didn’t, we left it out.’ I cannot say I always (every single time) heard aright the mood or style or tone or even intention sometimes of a given submission, but trust that I brought my own diverse and expanding sense of what was working in the language, together with my knowledge of poetry itself.

Eureka Street publishes every kind of poet. There are the name poets, the established and emerging, and the dedicated practitioners. The magazine has a strong list of regular contributors who treat it as a reliable forum to share new work. Although my sensitivity to Australian poetry has been to the fore, I have recommended the work of many poets worldwide who identify with the magazine’s ethos. I agree with another poetry editor, Gig Ryan, that there are sometimes people who find the moment to write their one very amazing, unique poem; it’s the editor’s job to watch for those vigilantly.

Poetry was part of Eureka Street from the start, and always will be. The magazine provides space for all sorts of voices not always being heard otherwise. It opens up new ways of talking politics, religion, social justice, and personal experience, ways that do not necessarily get heard in mainstream media or the literary journals. In this way Eureka Street pushes its own boundaries, and ours. We are the better and wiser for that. We benefit, too, from meeting alternative voices and discovering new ways of thinking through language.

 

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Main image: Hand writing words with a fountain pen on paper. (Brazzo / Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, poetry

 

 

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Existing comments

Philip, yours has been a kindly light for poets on Eureka Street. So many of us have benefited from your presence, as have our readers. I'd like to thank you for your generosity, and to wish you well. Your presence on Eureka Street will be sorely missed.


Jena Woodhouse | 04 February 2022  

Philip, I'd like to record my gratitude for the many poems of mine you have published in Eureka Street. I came late to poetry and was greatly heartened by your acceptance of my early work, as well as your occasional encouraging comments - plus the sole instance where you suggested I might 'think about' a particular poem. As you mention in your valedictory article, there is a significance, and a pleasure, in presenting poetry in a journal which concerns itself with social justice as distinct from those with primarily literary intent. I'm grateful to you, and to Eureka Street, for providing what I find to be such a nurturing poetic environment. I wish you joy in your endeavours and a splendid season for Collingwood except, as I hope you will understand, when they play the Dogs. You will be missed. Thanks from the heart.
As ever,
Bruce


Bruce Oakman | 04 February 2022  

Philip, you have been an absolute gift. It is a joy to know you and an added bonus to have been so enriched by your contribution to Eureka Street. Congratulations on all you have give to readers!


Michael McGirr | 10 February 2022  

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