Energy, compost and mulch, Lydia Wevers

Just Another Art Movement. It’s a cunning phrase, suggesting a knowing self-deprecation but also the tiny beginnings from which the noble bush of a future literary landscape might grow.Something has already grown, as I look at the pile of JAAMs on my desk. It’s a long way from JAAM’s modest start as a 30-page hand-bound $2 booklet to issue No 6 with its Sport/Landfall  format and sober arty cover. In fact JAAM’s well on the way to being a solid established journal.

JAAM’s first editorial in July 1995 was “The Vision”. A handful of young minds are plucked from the abyss, they loom in “the inexorable madness of thought” and announce themselves in very traditional student form — meaningful romantic imagery followed by scholarly seriousness: in “Notes on the Text” they are Victoria’s newest writing club, following “the tradition of J M Thomson’s ‘Wellington Group’”, Alistair Campbell, Louis Johnson, James K Baxter and Douglas Lilburn. From issue to issue JAAM gets fatter until by Nos 5 and 6 it is hitting 120-plus pages. The format’s fairly trad too, a sprinkling of well-known names who are featured on the cover and open the issue — a sampling includes Jenny Bornholdt, Greg O’Brien, Dinah Hawken, Lauris Edmond, Fleur Adcock, Sam Hunt, David Eggleton — and a number of Australians by 5 and 6, especially Ken Bolton, followed by the club JAAM represents and others.

JAAM has received a lot of good reviews and is obviously regarded as a welcome addition to the writing/small magazine scene. By No 5 the reviews quoted on the back are pretty solid as well as (of course) uniformly glowing. This is the best journal to have come out of the universities (perhaps), says Alistair Paterson and Louise Alley thinks “first editions of these future literary giants will probably sell for thousands in 50 years or so”, a bold prediction.

Who knows? Brilliant literary futures are as hard to predict as any other futures market, as the Leigh Davis story — maybe unfinished — can tell us. And does it matter? The first four numbers of JAAM exhort us to read and enjoy! It’s not until No 5 that things get more serious and a kind of manifesto emerges which tells us that Mark Pirie’s “ambition” is to give “the next generation a hearing in a tough and limited publishing climate, in order to reduce the dominance of current orthodoxies in New Zealand”.

According to Pirie, there is a “tremendous void to be filled for experimental and energetic writing”. It’s true that there are always orthodoxies or more favoured kinds of writing and that experimental writing finds it harder to get to a market and any kind of venue for it is a good idea. But is the writing in JAAM experimental? What JAAM offers is some very good writing by well-known writers — No 5 has three terrific poems of Bolton’s for example, some good interviews of well-known writers and quite a lot of goodish and not-so-good writing — as you would expect — by student writers. The proportion of already known writers to unknown writers is about 40/60.

It covers a pretty wide range, poetry, fiction, playscripts, interviews, increasingly reviews —but this is the weakest section — and an essay/article in No 3 on Baxter’s representation of women which seems out of place. The effort is laudable. Lots of work has gone into this little magazine, it is clearly receiving heaps of submissions and it is beautifully produced by Wai-te-ata Press, especially the early numbers which have lovely decorative touches.

But I don’t think it’s experimental. The best new work in JAAM is mostly by the members of the writing club — Mark Pirie, Paul Wolffram, Helen Rickerby, Chris Gilman, Anne-Marie Clarke, Ingrid Horrocks. It reads not badly beside the work of, say, Bolton, and it is brave and sensible of JAAM to produce this kind of coexistence but it doesn’t give you the kind of shock I remember getting from Freed, or first reading William Gaddis. To say JAAM is experimental seems to me to make the wrong kind of claim for it. It is good student writing plus an intelligent recognition that new writing comes in a context which JAAM provides by inviting “names” to appear in its pages.

As it builds in size and reputation JAAM’s format is signalling that it is taking itself more seriously, aiming at a serious readership and market share. Names of contributors float across a number of contents pages, which also means it is coming to resemble its competitors. Orthodoxies are notoriously hard to avoid but it is always a double bind for small magazines. The more successful they are the more they attract the kind of writing they set out to be an alternative to. Looking through all the issues JAAM is both more like Sport and Landfall  by No 6 and offering better contributions than it did in No 1. This is especially noticeable in the work of the founding writers who are regular contributors.

So as things get better they also get more similar? Not exactly. JAAM is more heterogeneous, mixed and unpredictable than the more established magazines and maybe its student origin will keep it that way. More likely it is working its way towards something different. I wouldn’t call it a completely new beast but it is a pretty likely performer.

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Takahe also has some claims to a different niche from the mainstream journals, though sometimes it seems the niche is mostly geographical. And the format, interestingly, is much more student-ish than JAAM — A4 and stapled, just the wrong size for most bookshelves and not sturdy enough for the floor. Takahe  attracts a lot of good poetry and fiction and has a kind of a stable of writers whose work regularly appears (Sandra Arnold, Sugu Pillay, Nick Ascroft, Sarah Quigley) as well as a substantial number of new writers. It also runs competitions, features the visual arts and sees itself as participating in a wider debate — the latest editorial is Mark Williams on the new Oxford poetry anthology, for example, and roving editors engage with all kinds of issues from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel prize to Alan Loney on difference. There have also been cultural studies articles in recent issues.

The subscription form which appears in every number has, though, this very curious phrase, which made me focus on the things I think don’t work in Takahe despite its being a showcase for a fairly broad range of writing. When you’re invited to subscribe to Takahe you’re asked if you would like to “support written poetic and visual activity in New Zealand”.

I had to read this several times — in fact I’m still reading it — and I don’t know what it means. What is written poetic.activity? It has that fatal ring of a workshop — why aren’t they poems? And I’m always irritated in Takahe by the overcrowded page they use. Double columns in large format with a small typeface is very offputting and I think it is a bad editorial decision to have all the fiction first and then all the poetry. It’s too much like a set of class notes.

Takahe has the faults of a student-produced journal without being one. The quality of its contributions deserve a better design than they get. Printout, which you might see as sharing the same market as Takahe  (a mix of competent established writers and a willingness to feature new writing), does a much better job of production. The number I have for this review is an old one (10, Summer 1995/96) but doesn’t seem out of date. It straightforwardly calls itself a “Literature and Arts” magazine and its fiction and poetry is sharp and fresh. I specially like John Geraets “Zen Piece” and Glennis Salmon’s “When in Borneo.” There is a lot of good poems. Bill Sewell, James Norcliffe and Margaret Blay are just some of them. And there is an excellent review section. If there’s an alternative to the kind of thing Landfall does, then it is Printout. It presents itself in a sophisticated, attractive format and, being without the overcrowded page and rather doughy feel of the mostly realist Takahe, is a racier read.

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So on to the “professional” journals, the ones I suppose Pirie is referring to when he talks about a “tough and limited publishing climate”. If you read every issue of Sport, it is hard to escape the sense of a particular kind of writing on display. Various allegations have been made about this and there is a Wellington and even a Victoria shade to the contributors list. Mostly, I don’t give a damn. What is always striking about Sport is the evenness of quality — I don’t think I’ve ever read anything really bad. Each issue looks great and has a pacy fresh feel, it is a hugely professional production and I think the kind of writing it features is mostly both readable and pushing out to an edge. I love Annamarie Jagose’s story, “Charades” in No 16, for example, which is so familiar and yet suggests the strangeness, the motility of what we take for granted, or Sara Knox’s “Love Scenes” which keeps dropping you right into the messy space between thinking and feeling.

Sport regularly attracts (or solicits) top-class international contributors, so there’s a good sense of being in the world and also of having to match or at least look towards a standard of writing which can go anywhere. I also like Sport’s focus on the whole issue: like Granta or Meanjin, it has learned to take a bite at something. I suppose this is a trend of the last two decades in journals but it has the great advantage of getting past the pot pourri model which, for the reader, can be like looking for a rose petal in the compost. Peter Black’s photographs in No 15, “white horse black dog”, are superb and suggestively connect and give a sense of travelling through — a landscape, a culture, a history, a journal — the whole issue. No 16 is the Festival issue, full of interesting stuff and No 17 is the “queer” issue edited by Sara Knox with a marvellous cover. Knox opens apologetically, saying No 17 is “no more or less ‘queer’ than usual” but it is interesting to see some of JAAM’s contributors appearing (Harry Ricketts, Ingrid Horrocks) and Michaelanne Forster, also seen in Takahe (and Sport 16). In fact, it is not a queer issue (is there anything less queer than Dennis McEldowney on Pieter de Bres?) but just a regular one with some new names and some interesting contributions.

The notes on contributors point out that there is among them a large number of graduates of Bill Manhire’s writing course. Sport is the only journal which routinely mentions this qualification. This reads too much like a testimonial. The writing should be read for itself.

By contrast, Landfall  is much more oriented to university staff and established writers and not a showcase for new writing. It is much more the official organ of New Zealand literature. The mix of articles, reviews and creative writing puts it somewhere between a professional journal for specialists and one aimed at an informed general reader. Sport’s target is much more the hip urban cosmopolitan reader becoming writer. It uses a looser, more open typeface on a slightly bigger page and the effect is more relaxed, less dense. Landfall has a 50-year history and still carries the magisterial burden inherited from Brasch, making judgment and giving approval. I think this is part of its strength. 

Landfall  provides serious commentary, extensive review coverage and does its readership the favour of assuming they’re interested in substantial debate and significant international writers. Landfall  keeps up. I suppose it’s still the place most writers want to be discussed in, though maybe the preferred venue for first publication is now Sport. 

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The rest of the journals I have in the bag for this review are for specialist readerships and they all do a competent job and sometimes a terrific one. 

Sites has long been one of the most interesting places to look for a range of academic articles on New Zealand that come from a range of disciplines, mostly in the social sciences, and it provides a wider notion of New Zealand culture than literary journals do. The Women’s Studies Journal  Autumn 1996 has a truly weird cover, a naked woman’s back with what look like wings of plaited hair growing from it and some good articles. Jan Cameron’s article on the gender verification of female athletes should be picked up by the media.

One number of Meanjin (3 1996) turned up, I imagine because it has as its second article (after Carmel Bird on Port Arthur) a long review of Geoff Park’s Nga Uruora The Groves of Life  by George Seddon, an Australian environmental historian, who puts it in the context of similar environmental writing from Australia, North America and South Africa. Seddon was struck by its use of New Zealand English, a whole range of vocabulary, especially Maori words, which are not glossed. Seddon is slightly querulous about the lack of explanation for the non-New Zealand reader but also notes a “reinvention of the New Zealand identity”.

Meanjin, like Landfall, is a cultural and historical icon. It has been going so long histories are written about it. I am struck every time I read it by its remarkable quality. We don’t have an equivalent of Meanjin, more’s the pity. Poetry and fiction are offered in Meanjin and are of a high standard  but its real joy to me is in the articles and reviews which more or less cover the spectrum of liberal left wing debate, make no concessions to the “general reader” but are immensely readable and keep you informed about so many things. I’m sure there’s a dud issue from time to time but I can honestly say I haven’t seen it.

Reading a whole swag of journals at once is a strange and artificial experience. There’s too much and it’s too much of the same kind of thing. But it is an acid test. You have to be struck by something to remember it. What it chiefly shows is that small magazines provide the compost and the mulch essential to the health of a culture. There has to be some energy and volatility in their pages, some risk-taking, some movement. All the journals I read had those characteristics and some of them in abundance.

Lydia Wevers is a Wellington critical writer.

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