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Wagtail, Picaro Press

Wagging New Poetry Trails

With the short print runs of most Australian poetry and the short patience of some of the bookshops that actually even stock it, getting your hands on the work of Australian poets outside single poems in a literary magazine can be hard going. Finding representative work from a poet you're interested in often comes down to scouring second-hand shops for old stock.

That's where the Wagtail concept comes in. Positioning itself somewhere between a magazine and a chapbook, Wagtail publishes the best work of one contemporary Australian poet per month and is available as a single order or as part of a subscription service.

As a subscriber, the regular arrival in the letter box of the diminutive Wagtail bundled neatly among the bills and the junk mail, is a small pleasure, bringing every month the best work from some of Australia's finest poets. The latest to arrive was number 18, 'Knock on Wood' by Andrew Burke.

Burke is a poet I didn't know, and the discovery of new poets is one of the attractions of the concept. Each issue is sixteen pages in length, quite long enough, surprisingly, to get a feel for the poet and their work, in a collection of what Wagtail describes as a 'solid introduction to the best work of a single poet'.

Burke is a West Australian poet, which speaks of the national perspective of this NSW based publication, and I was impressed enough with the selection here to want to know more, to seek out his website and his earlier books, notably Pushing at Silence published by Folio (Salt) in 1996. So, one of the ways this concept might work, is by drawing attention to a poet who isn't well known outside their local area, showing some of their best work in a compact format.

I liked the narrative strength of Burke's work in the current Wagtail, which opens with 'Let us begin' and continues with some playful and affectionate portraits of familiar scenes: 'A Night at the Beach' or the retrospective 'Boarding School Days', which seems typical of Burke's interest in his own past; typical too are the small snatches or 'packages' of imagery or sensations:

Our Lady of Lourdes stood stony white
between green bushes before
her outstretched hands
held little pools   her nose twitched
incense mixed with blood-and-bone

Elsewhere, Burke explores the narratives of his own life; aging, illness, memory, through what look almost like prose poems, interspersed with short, more lyrical work like 'Mandala Work' illuminating the beauty of the everyday. Burke seems alert to all that, conscious here of the passing of time and the importance of taking it all in, as in 'Natural SFX' which opens on the Western Desert at night and ends with the imploring 'Listen'.

At other times the monthly Wagtail has reminded me of poets I know and haven't looked at for a while. Lauren Williams ('Eloquent' #2) and Peter Boyle ('November in Madrid' #3) were both featured early on and both sent me back eagerly to their respective collections.

Or the magazine can re-create, with a new sequencing or the inclusion of things from a variety of books, a slight re-casting of a poet. So, though I was aware already of Jordie Albiston's inventive re-workings from history, or Alex Skovron's intellectual sharpness, they were both also new in the tighter selection presented here.

Wagtail states 'accessibility' as one of its key aims and it has a wider audience, including schools, firmly in its sights. With the use of 'print on demand' technology, small print runs and reprints are possible, and at $3 each, including postage and GST, it would seem an ideal way to set up a class study of a contemporary Australian poet, with perhaps the whole class exploring the poems together or students choosing a poet to explore and discuss.

One of the real issues schools face in setting contemporary poetry on booklists is accessibility. It's been something that's been discussed often by the Education Committee of the Poetry Australia Foundation as they work on strategies for getting Australian poetry into schools and universities. Print on demand can address that and Wagtail can provide a compact, accessible introductory selection of poems from nearly twenty poets so far.

I must say I was slightly disappointed to see the forthcoming publication list featured in the latest edition; one of the nice surprises each month was just who would be featured. However, with some of Australia's leading poets such as Rhyll McMaster, Geoffrey Lehmann and Andrew Lansdown due to appear this year, there's still prenty to look forward to.

Picaro say the website is coming, which would make the ordering and re-ordering easier, and move the program slightly more broadly from the paper-centric approach it has adopted as the model. Still, with high quality eco-paper, a consistent cover design and no advertisements, the pamphlet books grow into quite an attractive collection; no Britannica to be sure but maybe a binder to protect your collection will be next from this inventive little enterprise.