I just received an advance review copy of The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight, forthcoming in January from Altaire Productions & Publications. I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard of the poet or the press, they are in Australia and it’s a sad reality that very few books published outside the US gain any real attention here. There are a handful of UK presses I know and love, because I lived there briefly, and I’ve worked hard to gain expertise in the literatures of the countries I translate from, but when it comes to English-language literature outside of the US (like most of my peers) I’m unfortunately inadequately read. So when I got an email from Michael Tasker at Altair Productions asking if I’d be interested in receiving a review copy of the book, I was intrigued.
I was further intrigued by his description of the book, it ticks all my happy-boxes: handmade elements, small independent press, collaborative book, and a reclaiming of an ancient literary woman-figure. All things I’m extremely interested in myself. Though I did not expect to receive (and in fact did not) one of the handmade versions, the review copy is still a beautifully designed and printed book.
Then I opened it up. The poetry is extremely lyrical, and sparse on the page. I’m not going to go into it too much here, because I think I may actually write a review for it, but there are really exquisite moments of grotesque excess, and an intense emotional pitch that one reviewer categorized as juvenile, and is certainly challenging to the dominant cool irony of the contemporary aesthetic. And it’s pretty sexy. As in there’s a lot of sex, as there should be in any good tragedy.
I was definitely intrigued, but as I said this isn’t intended to be a real review of the book. Intending to write a real review, I did what I normally do, and I started researching the poet. I hadn’t heard of her before, and there’s no biographical information included in the book or press release. I went to the press’s website, which has a beautiful landing page and nothing else on it. I went to the book’s website, which again is nothing more than a beautiful landing page. I looked up the author on Goodreads (nothing but this book). I then started googling. It quickly became clear that this press and production company was set up by the author (they seem to have done some film work, so not expressly for the purposes of publishing this book, but I can’t find any other work they’ve done). And then I realized: the person who emailed me was named Michael Tasker. The illustrator of the book is Terrance Hasker.
All of a sudden things that seemed like interesting stylistic choices, like leaving the verso (left hand) pages blank throughout the book, made a little more sense.
Ok, now, I’m definitively not opposed to self-publishing. I think a lot of great writers do it, either programmatically or to get a start. I think it’s becoming easier and easier to make beautiful books (as evidenced by this one) and to get them into the world in a way that previously only larger publishers could manage. This book has already been reviewed at The Kirkus Review and called juvenile by The Portland Book Review in a very brief once-over. I’m sure more reviews of it will be coming up, since they are aggressively marketing it, and it is quite a handsome and interesting book.
What I object to is the charade. This is clearly a self-published book. I might even call it a (much more derogatory) vanity-press book. Because claiming to be publishing other books (as the publicity material claims, without specifying titles, authors, dates), and having a couple of websites with nothing but front pages (literally fronts), to disguise the fact of self-publishing is disingenuous at best. It’s too bad, I think, because I do think the book is interesting in a lot of ways. But having to ‘uncover’ this rouse (and still not getting any biographical information about the poet, which was what I was originally looking for) is annoying. Insulting, perhaps.
Of course, there’s a good reason for the rouse. Self-published books tend not to get critical attention. They are often dismissed. Sometimes unfairly, and sometimes justly. But the thing is, most professionally published books get ignored too. At least most poetry books do. So while I certainly think re-evaluating the stigma (which is already disappearing) around self-publishing in “literary” circles is absolutely essential, I also think that in order to actively challenge that books like this one shouldn’t try to disguise their origins. Instead, Marie Slaight should be proud to have written this, proud to have produced such a beautiful book, and proud she’s capable of generating as much publicity as a professional publisher could for it.
I’m still annoyed, though.