by DENNIS HASKELL
By 1976 Westerly was in its twenty-first year, the age of adulthood and full citizen’s rights if it were a person. As such the magazine was an established part of the Australian literary landscape and had certainly established itself as the magazine of prominence for West Australian writers, the means by which they might become known. It published four issues per year throughout the decade, in its traditional large page format and for half of the years using drab covers and a somewhat raw layout style. Black and white prevailed; any colour printing was expensive. Given the precariousness and tribulations of producing a literary magazine, Westerly had remarkable stability in its personnel: it was edited by Peter Cowan and Bruce Bennett throughout the period until I joined them in late-1985, when Bruce Bennett was in Indonesia. By then Bruce was the important figure; Peter Cowan’s editorial work was restricted to short fiction, photography and general advice. Peter knew more about the short story form than anyone I have ever met and his comments on submissions were often sarcastically and slanderously witty; I was glad to be a poet! He was laconic, shy and reclusive and for a new chum not easy to work with but he had local experience and knowledge that I then had little of and Bruce had enormous respect for him.
In 1976 they worked with an Editorial Committee; by 1977 these had become ‘Editorial Advisors’: Patrick Hutchings, Leonard Jolley, Margot Luke and Fay Zwicky. In my wild erratic fancy, visions come to me of Peter Cowan at meetings with the notoriously acerbic, difficult Leonard Jolley, the University Librarian, who would be astonished to learn that he is now best remembered as the husband of Elizabeth Jolley. Margot Luke and Fay Zwicky were to have long associations with the magazine, Margot mainly on fiction and Fay mainly on poetry, although she was also an important contributor. Others to have notable editoral advisory involvement during the decade were Veronica Brady, David Brooks, Hilary Fraser, Susan Kobulniczky (now Midalia, one of Australia’s best short story writers and as passionate about the genre as Peter Cowan), and Harry Aveling (for much of the decade exotically known as Swami Anand Haridas). This editorial stability and the greater administrative staff then available enabled the magazine to survive the smoke and fires of literary magazine production with an outward calm.
Westerly has made its reputation principally in Australian, especially West Australian, and Asian literature. Beginning with its first issue in 1956, it is the Australian literary magazine which has most consistently encouraged an engagement with Asia. During the decade 1976–1985 it was particularly strong in this area, not only in publishing creative and critical Asian writing as a matter of course but highlighting Asian writing in special issues or special features. The year 1976 included a collection of Southeast Asian writing and a cover by Hu Te Hsin of ‘Girls Playing Flute’. The image became the logo for the biennial series of symposiums on ‘Literature and Culture in the Asia Pacific’ which began in 1982, originally organised by the Westerly Centre (formed that year under the name ‘Centre for Studies in Australian Literature’) and the National University of Singapore. The logo was sourced from an exhibition of ‘Recent Batiks and Graphics’ held at the Ampang Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in October–November. Hsin, born in northern China in 1926, toured Malaysia in 1961 and became a lecturer at the University of Malaysia in 1969. This kind of close connection with South-east Asia twenty-five years before the ‘Asian century’ may seem remarkable to eastern states Australians but reflects Western Australia’s geographical location; Perth is as close to Singapore as to Sydney and is in the same time zone as many Asian cities, including Singapore, Beijing, Taipei and Hong Kong.
Westerly in 1976 also included publication of a collection of modern Japanese poems, while 1979 saw an Indian Ocean issue that contained work by W. S. Rendra, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Ee Tiang Hong, Geraldine Heng, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Keki Daruwalla and Chandran Nair — an impressive list. Heng commented that it was ‘anantidote to parochialism and narrow nationalism’. Such antidotes continued: in 1980 articles on ‘Literature and Cultural Identity’ by Darmanto Jatman from Indonesia, Kishori Charan Das from India and Chrisopher Koch; in 1981 an issue on Chinese writing from 1979–1981 in the recovery from the Cultural Revolution; in 1983 ‘An Indian Selection — Contemporary Writing’ guest edited by Ron Shepherd which included Meenakshi Mukherjee on a selection of Indian novels (one of them Anita Desai’s The Clear Light of Day) and Yasmine Gooneratne analysing the work of Ruth Prawar Jhabvala; in 1984 an issue that drew on an Indian Ocean Arts Festival and associated conference, and which included poems by Kamala Dasand Ee Tiang Hong, papers by historians Ken McPherson and Frank Broeze and the Malaysian novelist Lloyd Fernando plus Helen Watson-Williams on Rushdie’s Shame. Apart from these special issues Westerly regularly published Chinese and Japanese poems, both ancient and contemporary, translated by the Hong Kong resident Englishman, Graeme Wilson, who was awarded the annual Patricia Hackett Prize; and poetry by the Malaysian and Singaporean Ee Tiang Hong, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Chin Woon Ping, Dudley de Souza and Edwin Thumboo. There was much less Asian fiction but notably the September 1980 issue included ‘The Chess Players’ by the Hindi writer Premchand in translation. Much of this writing was later anthologised in the collection Westerly Looks to Asia, published by the short-lived Indian Ocean Centre for Peace Studies in 1993. The period also saw the publication of two indexes of material in Westerly, a reminder of life in the pre-digital age; they were valuable in their own time but are now completely redundant: a search of the Westerly website will reveal all you need to know, and give you access to the works themselves.
Of course, Australian writing was more extensive than writing from Asia in the magazine. Surveying ten years of a magazine thirty to forty years on is to take a fascinating tour through literary history. In the end a literary magazine is only as good as its contributors and looking backwards you have to remind yourself that many major figures were not major then. Westerly helped make some of them so — this is one of the key functions of literary magazines, and a key reason to support them financially. In order to maintain reasonable subscription and sales figures (always a struggle for a literary magazine, especially one located in and identified with a relatively small population centre) newish writers must be mixed with those who already have a reputation. Looking back reveals that at any point in arts history the first ones now might later be last; the times are always changing and a magazine must be deeply engaged with both the present and the past. Westerly published established writers such as Bruce Dawe, Rosemary Dobson, William Hart-Smith, Gwen Harwood (including one short story), T. A. G. Hungerford, John Millett, Peter Porter, and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, as well as Peter Cowan and Fay Zwicky. However, much more noticeable is the number of writers then making their way who are now widely recognised for the quality of their work, amongst them Robert Adamson, Doris Brett, Lily Brett, John Bryson (who was awarded the Patricia Hackett Prize), Andrew Burke, Caroline Caddy, Heather Cam, Marion Campbell, Alec Choate, Hal Colebatch, Peter Corris, Jennifer Compton, Julian Croft, Liam Davison, Sarah Day, Adriana Ellis, Diane Fahey, Beverley Farmer, John Foulcher, Marion Halligan, Rory Harris, Philip Hodgins, Pat Jacobs, Colin Johnson, Victor Kelleher, Peter Kirkpatrick, Jerri Kroll, Martin Langford, Andrew Lansdown, Joan London, Shane McAuley, Rod Moran, Mark O’Connor, Geoff Page, Glyn Parry, Andrew Sant, Margaret Scott, Jennifer Strauss, Dimitris Tsaloumas, Gerard Windsor, and Tim Winton, as well as Peter Goldsworthy (who was first published in Westerly), Susan Hampton, Nicholas Hasluck, Graeme Hetherington, Elizabeth Jolley, Jean Kent, Julie Lewis, Dorothy Featherstone Porter (as she then named herself) and Tom Shapcott who were regular contributors.
This is far from an exhaustive list. Among the exotics and surprises, apart from the short story by Gwen Harwood, are one by the critic Noel Macainsh, who regularly published articles in the magazine; poems by the American Robert Creeley (in 1976); stories by Alison Tilson (now better known as a scriptwriter for such outstanding films as The Road to Nhill and Japanese Story); a story by Peter Murphy about cane toads as early as 1979; poems by Michael Ondaatje (interviewed in the same issue of 1982 by Tom Shapcott); poems by the leading New Zealanders Elizabeth Smither and Lauris Edmond; a story by a Czech writer, Marta Kadlecikova, one by Swiss Jung Federspiel, and one by the Italian Giovanni Andreoni. While Westerly’s focus has generally been on Australian and Asian writing, during this decade it published material from everywhere; a review of John Updike’s work appeared in 1979 and of Craig McGregor’s edited book on Bob Dylan in 1980, while in 1985, no. 4 included an interview with Canadian, George Bowering. Amongst the stories, Joan London’s ‘Travelling’ (4:1984) went on to be included in her marvellous collection Sister Ships while Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘Woman in a Lampshade’ (2:1980) and ‘Hep Duck and Hildegarde the Meat’ (1:1982; later to be part of Mr Scobie’s Riddle), and Tim Winton’s ‘Urinals’ (2:1982) and ‘Scission’ (3:1983) were works by local writers that first saw the light of day in Westerly.
I co-edited Westerly with Bruce Bennett and then with Delys Bird from 1985–2009 and I don’t think we ever published an issue without typographical errors, despite the fact that the page proofs were checked by the authors, by us and sometimes by a paid proofreader. This decade had its share too: Robyn Rowland was ‘Robin’ on one contents page but she’s probably used to that — certainly more so than Tim Winton who became ‘Tom Winton’ in a Notes on Contributors (together with the laconic note, ‘His novel, An Open Swimmer, has just been published’). My favourite is in a 1976 draft advertisement for the magazine in which ‘Chris Wallace-Crabbe’ became ‘Christ Wallace-Crabbe’. Many of us admire Chris but even he might find this a bit much; unfortunately the error was picked up before publication. The miracle is that there weren’t more errors; this was the period when submissions were sometimes handwritten and had to be typed as well as typeset, the first proofs were in long galleys before the second (different) proofs came in page format. Communication with authors and funding bodies was often by letter or telegram; it seems like a hundred years ago!
For many readers looking back, and certainly for researchers, the most important part of the magazine is critical writing, in articles, interviews and book reviews. While Westerly was published quarterly it published individual book reviews. These reviews provide a scattered cook’s tour of literary history for the period: Delys Bird regularly reviewed David Ireland’s novels, Brian Kiernan reviewed Patrick White and David Brooks reviewed A. D. Hope, Vincent O’Sullivan analysed Bruce Dawe’s Sometimes Gladness (1985 edition), Brenda Walker reviewed David Malouf’s Antipodes and Veronica Brady Chris Koch’s The Doubleman, while one review was contributed by Geoff Gallop, later Premier of Western Australia. Many notable books of the period received attention, including works by Glenda Adams, Jessica Anderson, Murray Bail, Rosemary Dobson, Robert Drewe, Helen Garner, Germaine Greer, Elizabeth Harrower, Shirley Hazzard, Clive James, Drusilla Modjeska, Frank Moorhouse, essays by A. A. Phillips and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Tim Winton, Judith Wright and others; the emphasis was decidedly on Australian books, especially books of poetry and fiction. Paul Hasluck reviewed a collection of Christopher Brennan’s work, comparing Brennan to a wedgetail eagle. The same issue (2:1982) presented the most interesting review of the decade: Fay Zwicky’s analysis of Peter Porter’s poetry collection, English Subtitles. Zwicky, a very different sensibility to Porter, wrestled with the poems, finding that ‘Behind the toneless, fundamentally unmusical voice of the poet speaking to nobody in particular … lies a tenuous grasp of identity’. Nevertheless she found the poems ‘genuine enough and enlightening enough’ and asked herself, ‘so why do I harbour these grudging reservations?’ Her conclusion was that despite — perhaps because of — the poems’ ‘very real intellectual sophistication’ Porter ‘can sometimes be self protectively evasive’. The previous issue had presented a Bruce Bennett interview with Peter Porter, the first signs of interest that would later lead to Bruce’s critical biography Spirit in Exile (1991). The issues Zwicky raises are still ones to be grappled with in reading Porter’s work. Zwicky is one of the most independent, passionate and incisive literary critics Australia has ever seen.
One writer whose career was closely followed in Westerly was the once local Randolph Stow. Both Visitants and The Suburbs of Hell were reviewed, the latter twice, while The Girl Green as Elderflower received a review article and Bruce Bennett interviewed Stow (with photographs) in 4:1981. Graeme Kinross-Smith provided profiles of Francis Webb and of Les Murray. Regular contributors of critical writing included Veronica Brady, Helen Daniel, John Hay, Noel Macainsh and Fay Zwicky plus the editors, Bennett and Cowan. Work drawn from seminars provided a focus as in the special issues already mentioned and in features on ‘Regionalism in Contemporary Australia’ (Cowan, Hungerford, Jolley and Moorhouse) and ‘Writers and Their Audience’ (Nancy Keesing, Humphrey McQueen and Stephen Murray-Smith) but the articles in any issue could also be eclectic. A 1978 issue, number 3, published essays on environmentalism in WA, ancient Japanese poetry, contemporary Australian women’s poetry, and Fay Zwicky’s reflections on Christopher Brennan’s reputation. The second issue of 1980 included no less than nine articles, the authors including Veronica Brady, Helen Daniel, Harry Heseltine, Leonie Kramer, Noel Macainsh, and John McLaren. As is the case now, essays could also concentrate on individual authors, such as Peter Cowan writing about Grant Watson, Tom Shapcott about Elizabeth Jolley, Helen Daniel about Nicholas Hasluck, Algerina Neri about Shirley Hazzard or David Headon on ‘Les Murray’s Literary Language’. Headon comments, ‘He is so very, but not offensively, Australian’; Les must have been disappointed by that ‘not’. Under Peter Cowan’s influence landscape and history featured strongly, with some straightforwardly historical essays being published, for example, on Dutch shipwrecks and on Charles Court; in later years essays needed to have a literary or cultural orientation. Amongst a great deal of writing that rewards repeated reading are Graeme Turner and Delys Bird on ‘Australian Studies: Practice Without Theory’, Paul Eggert on D. H. Lawrence and Molly Skinner, Fay Zwicky’s ‘Rumours of Mortality’ about poetic elegies (ranging from Milton to Baudelaire to T. S. Eliot and considering ‘the repressive entity of self’), Adam Shoemaker on Ion Idriess and Colin Johnson plus a reply from Colin Johnson, Dorothy Hewett’s ruminations on the ‘society of lotus eaters’ in Western Australia and on the city of Sydney, Carolyn Polizzotto’s biographical article on German born painter Elise Blumann (including sketches by Blumann and photographs), and Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘Horace in the Southern Hemisphere’. Aboriginal writing received increasing attention, from Kateryna Arthur, Veronica Brady, Emmanuel Nelson and Adam Shoemaker. No particular school of literary analysis was insisted on and the overall impression is of wide-ranging variety.
An outsider might have expected financial stability for Westerly by the time of its emergence into magazine adulthood but its financial situation has always been, as one might say, ‘finely balanced’. In 1977 the editors provided a public note about funding difficulties; Bruce Bennett had written to the Literature Board saying that ‘Westerly’s financial situation is percarious’ and requesting increased funds, which were not forthcoming. Nevertheless, the ratio of grants to sale and subscription income was over 4:1. In the absence of a wealthy benefactor a literary magazine always sails close to the financial wind.
Two other external events had dramatic effects during the decade. In 1976 a libel action by Lloyd Davies against his former wife, Dorothy Hewett meant the expurgation of a poem and a book review from an already published (in 1975) issue. In 1984, number two was late but provided one of the first covers of real interest: it showed the charred remains of the issue which had been almost ready for delivery when a fire took hold at the printer’s! At the suggestion of poet Michael Dugan its reprint was called the ‘Phoenix Issue’. It is a symbol for the magazine’s whole history as it has arisen again and again from near financial conflagration.
The last words should belong to a writer. In his poem ‘A Sad Case’(3:1980) William Grono sardonically presents the opposite situation to that of the phoenix. The poem’s speaker, whose mind ‘has retired / to Cypress Villas Garden Suburb’ looks across to a friend as they drink at ‘the new Lord Forrest Tavern’: ‘Behind his head, a purple lobster reared / and teetered, legs flailing feebly in the deep blue glow’.