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

By | 1 August 2015

Newish print journals are also locating themselves as alternatives to, if not adversaries of, the status quo. They cannot reach the instant international audience of the online journal, but the imperative to reflect and support local writers and local concerns is powerful and much-needed. Ika, the journal of the Creative Writing School at the Manukau Institute of Technology – ‘the other MIT’, as the running joke goes – is like no other journal being published in NZ. It is as much art-book as literary journal. The 2014 issue came packaged with posters and poem-postcards, and a glossy book-within-a-book that showcased interesting text-based visual art. Contributors are a mixture of recognised names – the literary darlings and stalwarts – and local voices, many being published for the first time. Editor Anne Kennedy says the allegiance of the journal is foremost to the readers and writers of South Auckland, a place with one of the highest populations of Maori and Pacific people in the country. Freshly back in Aotearoa after ten years teaching and living in Hawai’i, Kennedy says, ‘The Eurocentricity that still operates in some quarters here is baffling and uninteresting to me. I hope that Ika becomes more and more known for what it set out to do: to publish and show not just some of us but all of us.’ Kennedy sees Ika as a champion for diverse voices ‘in numbers’, and a place of experimentation, as local journals have always been: ‘even the work of well-known writers and artists has an air of quasi-impermanence in a journal – this is not their next opus; it might be, and it might not. So whether a journal has been around 50 years or five years makes no difference to that informal and risky negotiation with the reader.’ Also Auckland-based, the journal Brief has been around since 1995, but a constantly circling rotation of editors keeps it new. The current editor, Alex Wild, says she wants Brief to be ‘a journal so queer you can’t label it’, which publishes work that is ‘relevant to generations and genders and realities and socioeconomies that don’t get acknowledged often enough.’ Brief’s brief is to be a journal that publishes, if not everything, then at least anything. Wild’s story about what the journal’s success might look like is telling: ‘Brief succeeded the other day. I know a woman who writes and makes music and is generally fucking amazing, but has never thought of her own work as the kind of thing you send to a journal. She flicked through issue 52 and said to me that she hadn’t realised a journal could be for the kind of work she was seeing, and that she would like to contribute next time. Yep. That is success. Just that.’ Other print journals that lean into zine territory, including Potroast and Food Court, are also publishing risky or weird new work that will not find a home with the usual suspects. The foreword for the June 2014 Food Court even bears a crossed-out list of NZ literary institutions, including VUP (Vogel St University Press) and Extreme Sport. Visual poetry, vulgar poetry, the digitally inflected and the experiments of novice intellectuals can all be found within its sometimes-bright-pink pages.

Crowdfunding is another way energetic editors are enabling exciting new work to be published and read. Compound Press, which is making space for some wonderful post-language, conceptual, alt-lit, flippant and ‘unabashedly archaic’ poetry with the journal Minarets Journal, has used crowdfunding to publish some important and beautifully-made chapbooks, by poets like Lee Posna, Steven Toussaint, Carolyn DeCarlo and Jackson Nieuwland. The reading series accompanying Minarets has been a welcome shake-up to the usual poetry-reading risk of drone. Editor Chris Holdaway’s highlights include ‘Ross Brighton reading a post-apocalyptic dirge to a backing track that was a Justin Bieber song slowed down 800% into terrifying whale-song and factory ambience’, an Alex Taylor poem mined from google-search auto-complete, and a reading by Ruby Solly, who no one realised was still in high school until she showed up at the door, and ‘killed it’. The art-slash-literary journal Hue & Cry, once an upstart newcomer and now in its eighth year and nearly a NZ institution in its own right, has also used crowd-funding campaigns to fund the publication of full poetry collections. Sarah Jane Barnett’s A Man Runs into a Woman, the first title to be released by Hue & Cry Press, gained a nomination for Best Poetry Book in the 2013 NZ Post Book Awards, though it was Barnett’s first book and would normally fall into the Best First Book category. While of course it is not necessary for the Powers-That-Be to confirm the value of independently published work, the nomination was still thrilling for author and press alike, and, I believe, has lent courage and energy to other young presses who might have needed a push.

Rejectamenta’s logline, ‘we are all rejects’, rings true for any serious writer. We all have inboxes stuffed with rejection letters. In our conservative cultural moment, which is squeezing the arts until they can hardly breathe, rejections of financial support – as well as the silence and holes of shrinking arts pages and discontinued prizes – will need to be met with creativity and a strong sense of community by those who continue to write, publish, and care. Projects like Louise Wallace’s new online journal Starling – a journal for young writers under 25 – are proof of the vitality and passion of NZ literature, even in the face of a crisis. Another of the most exciting initiatives to rise up in the past year is Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton’s Horoeka/Lancewood Reading Grant, which funds young and emerging writers not to write, but to read. Like so many things to emerge from Catton’s brain, this makes me think: what a fantastic idea. The Horoeka venture is also beginning to publish (and pay for! – out of Catton’s own pocket, at least for the time being) commentaries on reading and writing culture in New Zealand. Any subject is fair game so long as it sparks conversation and debate. Horoeka will also start publishing book reviews – anonymous book reviews – which Catton herself acknowledges ‘might be a terrible idea’, but is something she wants to try, in the interests of invigorating our over-cautious reviewing culture. Ventures like this – independent, rigorous, a little risky, and certainly different – make my heart beat quicker, and give me hope for a vibrant literary future in the land of the long white cloud.

This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: