Island is one of Australia’s premier literary magazines. Founded in 1979 in Hobart, over the past 37 years Island has featured a mix of fiction, poetry and articles from multiple Australian luminaries.
AWM recently spoke to Vern Field, Managing Editor of Island Magazine, about poetry, publishing, and being a print-only magazine in the modern publishing industry.
Visit Island‘s website to learn more about the magazine or purchase a print subscription.
The magazine began in 1979 as The Tasmanian Review then changed its name to Island Magazine five years later. The current title, Island, still underscores the link to Tasmania, as an island state, but also references Australia more broadly. Do you see Island as distinctively Tasmanian at heart, or more of a national, or even international, publication?
Island is most definitely a ‘national’ magazine. Two-thirds of our audience is outside Tasmania, and we also have readers outside Australia. We aim to publish high-quality, engaging Australian writing and some international writing, and to explore issues that resonate with our readers wherever they live. Within that, there is certainly room for showcasing Tasmanian voices and issues of interest to Tasmanian readers, but we don’t set any formal quotas on Tasmanian content. Our Board and the majority of our editorial and administrative staff are based in Tasmania, but we also have a poetry editor based in Queensland and an ‘editor-at-large’ based in New South Wales, so they also help us to build connections with writers and readers all around the country.
Island has featured an impressive array of writers, poets and essayists throughout its history, including Frank Moorhouse, Judith Beveridge and Tim Winton. Who are some of Island’s favourite contributors and what makes their work so appealing?
I wouldn’t say that Island has ‘favourite’ contributors. It is very natural that particular editors at different stages of Island’s past will have had access to different cohorts of writers, and may have featured some writers more regularly than others. In the very first issue of Island (then called The Tasmanian Review), the editors wrote: ‘The two criteria which determine the selection of material for the journal are excellence and variety.’ That is also the philosophy of the current editorial team.
Ultimately, our selection of content also depends on what is submitted to us. We have a submission period that is open to all writers from around December to March. Poetry submissions can be made year-round.
Island has recently broadened its editorial team. We now have an ‘editor-at-large’ who takes primary responsibility for the non-fiction content, a fiction editor, poetry editor, art features editor, and a new role of managing editor to help to pull all the threads together. This means that the magazine has input from quite a diverse group of people, and that helps to ensure both variety and excellence.
Island publishes serious essays and commentaries on a range of social, political and environmental issues, such as Lenore Coltheart’s essay in Issue 144 about the interface between national archiving and the secrecy of documents held by security agencies. Could you tell us what you look for in non-fiction submissions to Island?
Variety and excellence are our primary guides, but we’re also interested in ideas and issues that will have relevance, broad impact or appeal. Our previous editor Matthew Lamb wrote about Island as ‘literature broadly construed’: ‘as writing about serious ideas on topics that matter, for a general audience that matters’. We’re not a strictly ‘literary journal’ in the sense of something that could come out of a university English department (in other words, something that focuses very closely on a more traditional concept of ‘literature’). We want to be creatively bold and rove widely through important issues and ideas that will affect our readership, whether that is to delight, to surprise, to inform, to change, or to challenge. We’re also looking for top-quality writing that shows command of language, structure and style.
The fiction and poetry in Island is fresh and eclectic. Could you describe the essence of what you look for in fiction and poetry submissions?
Unfortunately, there’s no simple formula: it’s subjective, and sometimes even quite abstract. This is what is so exciting about writing and literature: there are no rights and wrongs, but readers know when something moves them. In fiction, we want to find material that we think other people will really want to read. We want to be excited, whether because the writer challenges an assumption (cultural, social, linguistic), or because the piece genuinely stimulates emotion, or because it makes us wish we could write like that. We want to be caught up and held by the writer, not bored. A good story grabs you and takes you somewhere, even if it does it gently or slowly. We’re looking to see evidence of skilled craft as well as interesting ideas. We aren’t necessarily demanding inventiveness – sometimes the traditional forms are the right forms, but experimentation that works well is always exciting.
We asked our specialist poetry editor, Sarah Holland-Batt, for some quick comments to share about what she looks for in poetry, and she offered this (amazing) description:
‘Successful poetry comes in many guises: it can be introspective, observational, political, satirical, playful, serious—the possibilities are as various as the form itself is malleable and unfixed. Most of all, a good poem succeeds on the terms it sets for itself, integrating thought, expression, space, form and breath into a condensed encounter with language. This is not to say that poems are always unified: indeed, successful poems often resist unification or intelligence in interesting ways, offering spaces for the reader to enter and interpret, challenging the reader with their silences. However, one thing common to most successful poems is that they usually demand attention from the reader, and reward re-reading. They shift our attention from a quotidian engagement with language into a more charged, condensed, electrifying mode of thought and expression. They bring us into close contact with the consciousness of the poet—their associative and intellectual universe.’
In 2015 Island became print-only. Its subscriptions doubled and retail sales also increased. This was an interesting move given that many literary journals and magazines are, at least in part, published online or in an electronic format. What advantages do you see in Island being print-based and what are your views about e-publishing?
The decision for Island to revert to a print-only form was partly a strategic response to limited resources. There’s little point in distributing a PDF version of a print magazine if you don’t have the resources to appropriately apply the available technologies to add value to the original format. We’re not rejecting digital publication outright, and may consider it again in future, but for now we are focusing on print. There’s also a great joy in a high-quality print object. Many people spend all day on screens and relish the opportunity to reengage with paper and ink. Print can also allow you a different, perhaps less distracted, perhaps slower and deeper reading experience, and that’s a style of reading that suits the kind of material we publish.
You can read more about the decision to go print-only here.
Zoe Biddlestone is currently studying a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing at The University of Queensland. She also has Bachelor degrees in Arts and Law. Zoe works full-time and enjoys freelance editing and proofreading after hours. She loves reading travel writing, the classics and translated fiction.