‘We Are all Rejects’: Unsupported Writers and the New New Zealand Journal

By | 1 August 2015

So, doom and gloom aside. It is not the end of days, perhaps, but a brave new world. New New Zealand journals, some in print and some online, are creating space for different voices in an atmosphere of reading and writing that is turning more and more towards digital platforms and horizontal structures of reading and publishing. Independent presses are also emerging to champion writers – and unusual forms of poetry – that do not fit the university press book-publishing model. The usual suspects of the lit journal world – Sport, Landfall, Turbine, BNZP, even JAAM – continue to publish good and great work, but digitally connected and empowered writers are finding some fairly rad new ways to create new New Zealand literature, without the need for anybody else’s say-so.

Cats & Spaghetti Press, based in Wellington’s hip, damp Aro Valley, released Pen Pal by Sugar Magnolia Wilson as their first title last year. This poem is published as a foldout book, a tall, concertinaed page with a rather fancy embossed cover. I have not read it, or even held it, as you had to be at the launch to get a copy. And they are not for sale. This is part of Cats & Spaghetti’s vision: instead of angling for reader-buyers, they distributed Pen Pal for free at the event. Editor Pip Adam said, ‘People paid for it through effort and participation and love and joy and support of the writer and the event which we hope means that their relationship with Pen Pal will be different to what it might have been if they had paid money for it.’ While the editors have not ruled out traditional bookstore distribution altogether, booksellers would have to get on board with a gift economy ethos to align with the kaupapa (ethos) of the press.

Cats & Spaghetti have also created Rejectamenta, an online journal that will only publish work that has already been rejected. The journal ‘pits poems against their rejection letters’, some of which are genuine, some of which are hilariously fabricated. Sarah Bainbridge’s rejection letter reads:

Dear Sarah

Thank you for your submission, ‘Entering the Heart’. We will not be publishing your piece, and would, frankly, suggest that you don’t give up your day job.

There have been at least three other pieces of creative writing based around the blue whale heart at Te Papa. They are much better than yours and are written by better looking people.

We have written to Te Papa to request that the blue whale heart exhibit be officially recognised as a local literary cliché (not to mention germ repository with all those children crawling around inside). In time it may be upgraded to a local literary icon, and in that instance we may reconsider submissions with the blue whale heart as subject matter for the purposes of a light-hearted photographic coffee table book collection— in which case your piece would still remain unsuitable.

All the editors in the English speaking world

In her foreword, editor Emma Barnes emphasises the distress of feeling unread and unsupported, alluding to a ‘catastrophic’ personal experience of rejection. It is a powerful force, she says, but one that can shape you as a writer and redirect your energies, if you let it.

One of the strongest online journals to emerge with a brief of diversity and inclusiveness is Sweet Mammalian, now in issue two. The editors describe the origins of the journal as a drunken pact after a night out ranting about poetry and feeling mutually bored and frustrated with the limited options for publishing the kind of poetry they wanted to read and write. Tired of the cool, collected, observational and analytic mode that runs through so much NZ poetry, the editors (Morgan Bach, Sugar Magnolia Wilson, and Hannah Mettner) wanted to publish poetry they describe as ‘rawer, more immediate, hot blooded, impulsive and human.’ Still Wellington-centric and largely International Institute of Modern Letters-educated, this is no ‘outsider’ journal. Yet Sweet Mammalian is publishing delicious, well-curated little clutches of poems, chosen by passionate new voices, and its digital form means production and distribution is, well, ‘free’. It can reach mammals all over the world. It will be exciting to see how Sweet Mammalian continues to reflect the changing preoccupations and experiments of NZ poets. Asked what success or failure would look like, Wilson says, ‘Failure would be not pushing for an ever increasing diversity of voices. More work from other regions, from men, from other ethnicities, from the very young, the very old, etc. There isn’t just one kind of fox.’ Just as Rejectamenta’s tagline is ‘we are all rejects’, Sweet Mammalian’s is ‘we are all sweet mammalians’.

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