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John Tranter

John Tranter: Biography

‘A shilling Life will give you all the facts…’ [ Auden ]

This piece is about 5 printed pages long.
After the brief introduction below, it has 3 sections:

[»»] Life Notes    [»»] Internet projects     [»»] Literary Notes

Brief introduction: I have published over twenty books of poetry and a book of experimental fiction, Different Hands. I have compiled half a dozen anthologies of other writers’ work totalling over 1,500 pages, including co-editing the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991), for many years the standard text in its field, and 2011 and 2012 versions of the Best Australian Poems anthologies. I have made more than twenty reading and lecture tours to the USA, the UK and Europe, including twenty-one visits to New York, averaging five to ten readings and talks per tour.

I have worked as a publisher’s senior education editor in Singapore, and as a radio drama and features producer, directing over forty radio plays and features for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as well as managing a weekly two-hour national radio arts feature for some years.

In 1997 I founded the free Internet literary magazine Jacket single-handed, and saw it grow to become the most important poetry magazine on the Internet with over 800,000 visits to its homepage. I granted it to the University of Pennsylvania in lated 2010, where is continues a vigorous new life as Jacket2. and in 2004 I founded the Australian Poetry Library project, the recipient (in 2006) of a major Australian Research Council Linkage Grant, described in detail below. None of the ARC Grant partners wished to continue working on the project when the grant money ran out, so I have left the project.

Currently (2012) I am an honorary associate in the School of Letters, Arts and Media at the University of Sydney, and was an honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities until I resigned in 2015. I contribute to a Commentary blog on Jacket2, write a regular Journal on the Internet, work as a director and systems manager of Australian Literary Management (a literary agency), maintain this rather large website, and somehow write a few poems from time to time.

A useful background to my life and writing are the various interviews by various people on this site. My early writing life is amply archived and freely available for study at the University of Sydney Library’s site.

John Tranter and siblings, c. 1947

John Tranter, left, circa 1947, with his older brother Peter Hellier and sister Barbara Hellier. Photograph copyright © John Tranter 2004

Life Notes

I was born in Cooma, New South Wales, Australia, a distinction I share with the poet A.D. Hope, in 1943. My middle name Ernest is borrowed from my grand-uncle, Ernest Hawdon of Moruya. My father, Fred Tranter, taught at a one-teacher school in the village of Bredbo, some 36 kilometres (20 miles) north of Cooma, high in the southern highlands of New South Wales. My mother had been married before and had two teenage children (see photo at left) when she married my father; her first husband, partly in response to his distressing experiences in the First World War, became an alcoholic, and his wife left him in the late 1920s, taking the children.

When I was about four we moved to the coastal town of Moruya, some 320 kilometres (200 miles) south of Sydney on the coast of NSW, where my father had spent part of his childhood, and where he now took up a job as a school teacher at the large public school. He eventually became deputy headmaster before resigning to take up farming and to establish a successful soft-drink factory. During my early school years I developed an occasional stammer which troubled me for decades.

At the Intermediate Certificate exams in 1957 I did well enough to be selected to continue my high school education at Hurlstone Agricultural High School, a selective state farm school at Glenfield on the south-west outskirts of Sydney. I repeated my third year of high school there in 1958 to pick up Agriculture. A teacher at Hurlstone, John Darcy, encouraged me to begin writing poetry, and one of the first two poems I wrote won a prize in the high school annual magazine The Harvester in 1960.

Being a boarder at Hurlstone was important to me in many hard-to-define ways; many other Hurlstone old boys feel the same. The school spirit, a combination of independence, dislike of bullshit, tough-mindedness, cheerful friendship and an unobtrusive courtesy, is very hard to nail down, but it was nevertheless real and vital. Though repeating third year to study Agriculture for three years turned out to be a fruitless exercise, as I failed the subject dismally in the Leaving Certificate exams in late 1960. This was a great disappointment to my father, who for complex reasons of his own had wanted his only child to take over the farming business he had worked so hard to set up. An old school friend, Rick Wedgwood, who had known my father well, recently (2012) assured me that had my father lived, he would have been proud of my achievements.

I did get a second-class honours pass in English, though: the first Hurlstone pupil to gain honours in English in a quarter of a century, or so I was told. My father’s response: ‘What bloody good is that?’

 
John Tranter at a party with a friend, circa 1960, photo John Nader.

John Tranter at a party with a friend, circa 1960, photo John Nader.

 

     Because I was good at mathematics and art, I chose to study Architecture at the University of Sydney in 1961. My drawing and composition teachers were the noted painters Lloyd Rees and Roland Wakelin. For about a decade after this I made various attempts to become a serious painter, but finally abandoned the ambition. I didn’t take to the routine of Architecture studies, and the prospect of slaving at a drafting table for a decade while I learned the trade horrified me. I withdrew in August. The next year, 1962, I started Arts, which is what I should have done first time around. I did some writing, reviewing and drawing work on the student weekly newspaper honi soit, and became friends with its editor, Bob Ellis. My father died in August 1962, which devastated me.

At the end-of-year exams I passed only two subjects, Philosophy and Psychology, and failed Maths and English. The Commonwealth Scholarship which I had won in the Leaving Certificate exams, which had enabled me to go to university to study Architecture and which had been suspended while I studied Arts, was now gone for good. This was my third significant failure in three years. At the end of 1962 I left the university in a state of depression and distress, abandoning my academic hopes in the knowledge that I had disappointed my dying father and had made a complete mess of my life. No doubt those feelings were unrealistic and unhelpful, but I was too young to know that then.

I worked at various menial jobs for the next few years, including mail-boy at the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Gore Hill television studios, and travelled to Britain by ship in 1966, where after struggling to find a job I liked for some months, and going hungry once or twice, I finally found work as a mail van driver for the Cycle and General Insurance company at Hendon in North-west London. Lyn Grady, whom I had met in the front bar of the Newcastle Hotel in George Street, Sydney in 1964, joined me there in late 1966, and worked as a secretary in the City. I earned fifteen guineas a week, paid five guineas a week tax and five guineas a week to rent a small bed-sitting room in Swiss Cottage, London, and had five guineas a week left over. I can still remember vividly how thrilled I was to come across a pound of bacon pieces in Sainsbury’s store for ninepence. Lyn and I returned to Australia in the autumn of 1967 via the overland route, travelling by bus, train and hitch-hiking, via France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. (see 1967 photo.)

Documents from this period are freely available on my archive site at the University of Sydney Library.

     In late 1967 I worked as a cleaner for a few months, then as an assistant in the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s printing shop. I married Lyn in March 1968. I began to publish poems in Poetry Magazine, Poetry Australia and other magazines, and set up my own magazine, Transit New Poetry. The print shop came in handy there. Transit lasted for two issues and folded in early 1969.

Those few months’ work as a cleaner in 1967 convinced me of the value of completing my tertiary education, and I went back to the University of Sydney early in 1968, studying English I at night and working at the printing shop during the day; I had been promoted to photo-litho darkroom operator and platemaker. Desperation gave my study an edge, and at the end of 1968 I obtained a good pass in English I and a Teachers’ College scholarship, which enabled me to complete the next two years of my BA as a full-time student, majoring in English and Psychology at the end of 1970.

You can read all of Parallax here.

My first book Parallax and other poems was published as an issue of Poetry Australia magazine in 1971.

I was embarking on an English Honours year in 1971 — somewhat reluctantly — when I struck good luck in the front bar of the Newcastle Hotel for a second time: a friend, Bob Debus, offered me a position as a publisher’s editor in Singapore. In giving up my academic study I had to buy my way out of an obligation to work as a school teacher incurred because of the Teachers’ College scholarship for 1969 and 1970; my mother kindly repaid the debt. Lyn and I left in early 1971 and I worked in Singapore as Senior Education Editor for Angus and Robertson Publishers until mid-1972, and in Sydney for the same firm until 1973. Our first child, a daughter, was born in Singapore in 1972. Sadly the Newcastle Hotel was demolished in the mid-1970s.

I took a job as Play Reader (an editorial position) with the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Radio Drama and Features Department in 1973, and resigned that to take up one of the first Literature Board grants for the calendar year 1974. I returned to Radio Drama and Features and a drama producer’s position in Brisbane in 1975, and worked there until 1977, producing more than forty radio plays and features and bringing full stereo drama production techniques to the Queensland branch, as well as producing one of the ABC’s first location stereo radio documentaries, Sideshow People, about the travelling sideshow workers at the 1976 Brisbane Exhibition, many of whom began their sideshow careers in the Depression. Our second child, a son, was born in Brisbane in 1975.

In 1975 the ABC brought me to Sydney to design a book review radio program with (Mr.) Jan Garrett, who was to be its first presenter. Thirty years and several presenters later, the program we devised was still going strong with essentially the same format. At first it was titled The Writers’ Program, then the more sensible Books and Writing, and later was retitled The Book Show, despite the self-evident fact that you can’t show anything on radio. As radio plays and features and book readings became less popular with an audience brought up on cheap talkback radio, ratings dropped. That department and those thousands of radio plays and features were demolished and the dozens of skilled people who worked there were sacked by ABC management in 2012. They say a people gets the government it deserves; it also gets the radio it deserves.

I returned to Sydney in 1977, living first in the inner-city suburb of Annandale, moving to nearby Stanmore in 1984, and to Balmain, a harbourside suburb, in 1995. I set up a small press (Transit New Poetry) and published four books by young poets in the early 1980s: Susan Hampton (her first book), Gig Elizabeth Ryan (her first book), John Forbes and Alan Jefferies. Publishing assistance grants from the Literature Board of the Australia Council supported the first three of these books; the Board (in an unwelcome editorial intervention) rejected the fourth, which put the project into unrecoverable debt, and no more poetry books were published. Since 1980 I have worked mainly in publishing, teaching and radio production, and have spent some years as a writer supported by grants from the Literature Board of the Australia Council.

Late in 1986 I was asked to take over the ABC Radio National weekly two-hour arts program Radio Helicon. I found a debilitated program with its budget cut in half, and managed in one year (1987) to bring it back to its former strength and obtained a full budget for the program in 1988. Working with one assistant, I sought out archival material, commissioned other producers to make new programs, produced programs myself, and presented introductions and links on-air. I worked on that for two years.

In 2009 I graduated as a Doctor of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong.

Internet Projects

John Tranter 2001 Cambridge UK

John Tranter, 2001, Cambridge UK

1997: Founded the free Internet magazine Jacket, at jacketmagazine.com. It now adds up to around five thousand printed pages, and has received half a million visits, making it one of the most widely-read poetry magazines of all time. For the first eight years there was only one staff: me. In 2005 I was joined by Sydney poet Pam Brown as Associate Editor.

1998: Homepage (this site — johntranter.net): over one thousand printed pages of work relating to my more recent writing, consisting of poems, reviews, interviews, photographs and critical material. It contains over a hundred pages of notes to Urban Myths and Starlight: 150 Poems.

2004: With the University of Sydney Library and the University of Sydney English Department (and with a grant from the Australian Research Council), I established a 200-page site of archival material relating to my early writing at http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/tranter/

2004: Australian Literature Resources: Established a free on-line library of Australian poetry resources, supported partly by the Literature Board of the Australia Council and featuring background information, bibliographies and poetry by over seventy Australian poets. This project grew into the Australian Poetry Library: see below.

2005: Obtained a grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council to enable purchase of rights, typesetting and publication of extensive selections of the work of three Australian poets (Christopher Brennan, Kenneth Slessor, Lesbia Harford) also on the University of Sydney Library SETIS site: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozpoets/index.html

2006: Australian Poetry Library: Negotiated the transfer of Australian Literature Resources (see above) to the University of Sydney as the subject of a grant application to the Australian Research Council. In 2006 the ARC granted over half a million dollars to a consortium made up of the University of Sydney English Department, the University of Sydney Library and the Copyright Agency Limited to develop the project over three years into a freely-available database of primary and secondary material relating to hundreds of Australian poets. The project was originally titled the Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library, or APRIL; it has more recently been retitled the Australian Poetry Library, to make its topics easier to find on the Internet via search engines. The site was launched in 2010 and is available here: http://poetrylibrary.edu.au/

Literary Notes

Other work: SBS Television: 1981–86, casual basis, subeditor of subtitles and narration scripts.

Teaching, casual: Workers Educational Association: creative writing; Sydney College of the Arts: a five-lecture course on writing and the creative imagination; guest lectures and seminars at Macquarie University, Sydney University, Canberra College of Advanced Education, the Australian National University, and the (then) NSW Institute of Technology (now UTS).

Teaching, contract: 1983 at Canberra CAE (now the University of Canberra) teaching audio technology, professional writing and script-writing in the B.Comm degree course; 1982-83 at NSW Institute of Technology (now UTS) teaching radio production and script-writing in the B.Comm degree course; 1983-84 as editor, External Course Development section, NSW Department of Technical and Further Education.

Compiled a fifty-page Australian poetry feature supplement for the Chicago magazine New American Writing (No.4, 1989). In 1990 I persuaded the Sydney news magazine the Bulletin to re-introduce a regular poetry segment after a twenty-year gap, and acted as their poetry editor until 1993.

Received several senior fellowships and other grants from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. 1981: a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University. I also received a three-year Australian Artists Creative Fellowship, as well as four writer-in-residencies including one at Rollins College in Florida in 1992 and another in the English Faculty at Cambridge University in 2001.

Made over a dozen reading tours of the USA, England and Europe since 1985 and presented papers and readings at many bookstores and at the Academy of American Poets, St Mark’s Poetry Project, La Maison des Ecrivains in Paris, New York University, Stanford University, California Institute for the Arts, Wesleyan University, the East-West Centre at the University of Hawaii, Poetry International in London, North London Polytechnic, The International Literary Festival in Berlin, the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, and the universities of Stockholm, Gothenberg, Aachen, Heidelberg, Wuppertal, Regensberg, Nottingham, Stirling, St Andrews, Loughborough, Exeter, Cambridge and Oxford.

Books: Published over twenty books, listed on the book list page. Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected (University of Queensland Press, 2006) won the 2006 Victorian state award for poetry, the 2007 New South Wales state award for poetry, the 2008 South Australian state award for poetry, and the 2008 South Australian Premier’s Prize for the best book overall (which includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry and others for the years 2006 and 2007). You can read 100 pages of notes to the book here on this site. You can order the book direct from the publisher. This book was also published for the UK and US markets by Salt Publishing in Cambridge UK. In 2010 Salt Publishing will publish a volume of essays on the poetry of John Tranter by a dozen critics in Britain, Australia and the United States, edited by Rod Mengham, of Jesus College, Cambridge.

Writing has appeared in Australian, British and US literary magazines including the Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Grand Street, New American Writing, Conjunctions, Boulevard, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, _PMC_ (Post-Modern Culture, on the Internet), Verse, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and Poetry Review (UK).

I have continued to travel widely, making many reading tours in Europe and North America. By 2010 I had made more than twenty-five overseas trips, including twenty-one visits to New York.

In 2005 I was elected an honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

In 2005 I enrolled in a Creative Arts doctoral degree at the University of Wollongong. The thesis dissertation consists of 113 poems and a thirty-thousand-word exegesis, and was submitted in early 2009. Both external markers (Australian and British) recommended that the thesis be highly commended. The degree was conferred in December 2009.

In 2011 and 2012 I compiled and edited the annual Best Australian Poetry anthologies for Black Inc publishers in Melbourne.

The Internet address of this page is
http://johntranter.com/00/bio.shtml

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in the johntranter.net site is copyright © John Tranter and the individual authors 1997 et seq. and is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, or reproduced for group or class use or for any other purpose.