Studio: a Journal of Christians Writing recently turned 20. In its pages it has published the work of a variety of Australian writers, including Les Murray and Kevin Hart. Paul Mitchell spoke to the journal's managing editor, Paul Grover, about the spirit in the journey.
How have people responded to a journal that explores spiritual journeys through poetry and fiction?
In the 80 editions we have published through the last 20 years, Studio has been congratulated, questioned and maligned ?? and sometimes all three at once. People's preconceived perceptions of poetry, fiction, faith and the relationship of a spiritual worldview and the arts have informed different responses; so we have at times been judged very harshly and very generously.
Studio is always in the eye of the beholder. We don't bow before any one spiritual tradition or worldview. People who are comfortable to be part of a journal with our subtitle we are comfortable to know, as well as those who value fine writing without the constraints of a single guiding prejudice.
Why then should the subtitle 'A journal of Christians writing' be important? Why not “a journal of religious writing”, or no subtitle at all?
We have a foundation in publishing work whose writers have a spiritual worldview, a deep foundation and a richly understood touchstone that this subtitle makes common. The writing we publish allows readers to reach beyond the borders of poetry craft, to the art of exploring that which is at the heart of life ?? meaning and spiritual significance. Without this, art becomes merely commerce and decoration, and poetry merely florid entertainment, questionable in its relevance.
To remove the subtitle would be to remove an important truth about poetry and prose. We have been trying in our own tiny way to change the perception of the word 'Christian' to make it much more than something to be embarrassed by, and that is one of the reasons for the small 'c'; to resist the mainstream and stereotyped…it's probably so obscure no one notices! It's also to try to give the word a wider definition.
The word 'Christian' has been tarnished and appropriated by right wing and fundamentalist groups, and used as a weapon of derision by other groups. I worry about that. There is enormous interest in spiritual matters and the spiritual dimension of life (or at least the non-material side of life, whether it be ethics or values or relationships); the meaning of our experience with family and friends; the spiritual side of nature, intimacy and art. If you say you'll never use the word Christian, that's in a way preventing the exploration and questioning of one's own faith, and the necessary expansion of this spiritual tradition to include new spiritual discoveries and journeys.
Do you think that's a reflection of the current political climate?
The phrase 'One Nation' has probably been ruined forever¬¨?. If you allow people to take a word and only use it their way it's lost. Being a teacher of English and a lover of language I won't let people do that without a fight. The word Christian does need to be reinterpreted in the arts, especially.
I like the quiet Christians who are around who don't advertise their Christianity. I like the way Tim Costello does it – he won't use Christian terms all the time, but he's a 'Reverend' so it gives people a framework to understand him. He doesn't say this is the Christian way everyone should do it, like Fred Nile does. Tim will say this is the moral way; this is the ethical way and then people will look at who he is.
That is the way Studio does it. We let that subtitle sit there and then we present the work. We say look at the work, then see what that word 'Christian' might mean. Those who 'have eyes to see will see' and maybe they'll start to reflect more deeply on the world and spiritual experience.
In what ways does Studio contribute to a person's spiritual journey?
Studio contributes in a small way to the ongoing conversation about our place in the world and a person's pursuit of meaning in their own life and relationships. It has allowed people to share and show their writing in a professional publication, and this has given motivation and momentum to a greater appreciation for the arts among the church communities.
Members and contributors come from many faith backgrounds, and take from Studio much that they can contribute to their own spiritual community and explore in their own spiritual journeys. There is a deeply ethical and richly intuitive feel about Studio ?? the writing speaks to the reader, and the reader then reaches into his or her own life and listen to these voices speaking to their deepest self. Good writing goes well beyond mere display and self-promotion ?? there is a feeling for truth, and an enriching journey beyond the everyday.
How would you rate the quality of poetry and fiction published in Studio? How does it compare to work published in literary supplements and magazines?
I feel that often, very, very often, the work published in Studio reaches into the best that is published in Australia today. There is no doubt that Studio looks beyond mere recognition or fame; the 'publish or perish?¬¢ syndrome. Instead, we look at the quality of the work itself, not the writer's name, or their publishing history.
There is an integrity within Studio; we publish the best writing we receive, and during the past five years this quality has become even more discriminating, more refined, and even more powerful in speaking to the reader.
There was a discussion early on about whether we should have a section for new and aspiring writers and separate those who are more widely published. But that raised the idea of a sort of club for some. And who decides when you cross the boundary?
We don't want to have a 'publish or perish' syndrome. We want to be more Christian than that, without it being a soppy Christian idea. But the feeling was that we?¬¢d put some of the more powerful stuff first and not separate it off, and, usually we won't say how old the writers are, although if it's needed for context we will, if they're 12 to 15 or so.
We tussled for a long time about the idea of biographies. We had some early on, but we decided that the work should stand on its own without knowing anything about the writer. It can label people and label the poem, and knowing where a poet comes from can be seen by cultural cringers as being more important – if they come from Sydney rather than, for example, Griffith.
Many people receive their spiritual succor via non-fiction works that look at the non-material side of life, as you put it. In what way does reading poetry and fiction fit into the spiritual journey?
An openness to other voices and the presence of good writing in the marketplace is like the chorus in ancient Greek drama, or the clown in Shakespeare's plays, or the slave in Roman victory processions. You are brought to face the essence of things; to consider the truth beneath outward show; the value of relationships, and the significance of events in life's journey. That honesty and generosity of spirit is valuable in a troubled and transient world.
Our poets, like our philosophers, and like the most talented and intelligent people in all areas of life-historians, archaeologists, scientists-these people receive extremely low salaries compared with those in Mickey Mouse occupations like e-commerce, advertising and marketing which have little significance for relationships and values and the most important things an individual should look towards.
Public marketplace values are topsy-turvy, and our writers expose and explore public and personal truths, which is why they are among the first to be oppressed and exiled by autocratic governments.
Good novels, plays, poems and stories open doors some people would rather keep closed, or do not even know exist. Poetry is the most intense form of human communication, and the spiritual journey the most valuable one we can ever undertake. Roads less taken are important and revealing. Together, fine writing and a searching spirit . . . this journey can change the way you live.
Are you planning to take Studio on-line in future?
No. Because of the power of the printed word on a page; the importance of print and paper; the permanence and tactile experience that is essential to human nature; the importance of preserving poetry in a real world, and the value of seeing work in the three dimensions which is this life… and last of all, on-line is not cost-effective, and does not yet reach all people.