Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vale Dorothy Porter

I'm very glum at having to report the untimely death of Australia's most widely-read poet, Dorothy Porter, who died yesterday of complications due to cancer. She was 54.

She's probably best known for her lesbian crime thriller in verse, The Monkey's Mask, which was made into a film in 2000 starring, of all people, Kelly 'Witness' McGillis. I published the book in Australia while at Hyland House Publishing, and it was picked up around the world - Serpent's Tail published the UK edition, Random House New Zealand took it on, Arcade Publishing did the US hardback and Residenz Verlag did the German language edition.

Before The Monkey's Mask, Dorothy's audience was confined mostly to literary types, but afterwards she reached the kind of audience (in Australia at least) that any novelist would be pleased with. Subsequent verse novels included What a Piece of Work, Wild Surmise and, most recently El Dorado, about a serial child-killer. Her works were consistently serious contenders for Australia's major literary awards, some of which she won, and she also wrote libretti and collaborated with legendary New Zealand songwriter Tim 'Split Enz/Crowded House' Finn.

I have a soft spot for her first novel, Akhenaten, which was first published by the University of Queensland Press (UQP) back in 1992, before I knew her. It was this remarkable work I witnessed her reading at the National Word Festival in Canberra in 1993 and which first made me want to publish her.

I said as much to her agent and she mentioned that she had a 'crime novel in verse' that UQP were in two minds about. I asked to see the manuscript and took it down to a local cafe with a poetry-loving friend to read it, along with about 30 other poetry manuscripts, most of which were indescribably awful. After twenty minutes of reading it, I'd read a stack of pages and was enthralled. It was a racy read, accessible, erotic, dark and not at all the sort of thing you associate with 'capital P' Poetry.

I managed to convince my partners to take on the book (one thought the book 'salacious', as I recall) and we were off. There was a bit of an edit - there were a few gaps in the plot which she filled with aplomb - but I knew we had a hit on our hands when our warehouse manager rang to ask, in a rather shocked voice, if I'd read page 42 (which is somewhat erotic). I was delighted because it had meant he'd read 41 pages of poetry to get to it.

The Monkey's Mask received rave reviews and we subsequently published Crete, and reissued an earlier collection, Driving Too Fast. Finally in 1998 we got the rights to Akhenaten. At that point, I left Hyland House and Dorothy moved on to Picador and further success.

Dot was a fine reader of her own work. I could only find one video of her reading on the internet. It's 'Hot Date' from her collection Crete, which I published back in 1996. It's sadly appropriate given the circumstances.

Vale, Dot.

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