One degree of separation, Claire Murdoch

Mark Pirie (ed)
Paul Wolffram (ed)
$7.00, ISBN 1 733633 X

Takahe 31
Nick Ascroft (ed)
$0.00, ISBN 0 114413 8

Printout 21
Diane Brown (ed)
$12.95, ISBN 1 1710438

Sport 18 and 19
James Brown and Fergus Barrowman (ed)
$19.95, ISBN 1 877133 191

Spin 27
p n w Donnelly, Catherine Mair, John O’Connor (ed)
$6.00, ISBN 0 113822 7

Meanjin 2-4 (1997)
Christine Thompson (ed)
A$55.00 (1-year subscription), ISBN 0 025629 3

Poetry NZ 12-15
Alistair Paterson (ed)
$15.00, ISBN 0 114577 0

It is by no means a fresh joke, but perhaps bears repeating, that the most accurate title for a depiction of social life in New Zealand would be “One Degree of Separation”.

Obviously, the fact of our tiny population is reflected in our literary world, and further still in the case of the small journal scene. A perpetual awareness of one’s position in this context is a condition of any written, editorial, or publishing activity here. Within the pages of the journals sampled in this review, many of the contributors and editors themselves draw attention to this. Diane Brown, the editor of Printout 12 comments that “it is never an easy job to edit a literary magazine, especially in the small world of New Zealand literature. Frequently you’re rejecting the work of people who may in turn be your editor or publisher … they may be your best friend.” Nick Ascroft makes much the same point in Takahe 31: “The person who suggested that being an editor made you no friends was being terse. I’ve taken my friends into the conservatory and clubbed them with a candlestick.”

The position of the reviewer is no less difficult. The political and ideological impetus for the dictum “state your position” becomes something vastly less academic when confronted professionally with the writing of real, living people. My comments are limited by my position (I do not myself write and am relatively unfamiliar with the journals in discussion), and by the nature of the exercise itself. There is never enough space available to do anyone justice – which would be futile to attempt, and in any case, writers will inevitably wish they had been ignored rather than “clubbed” by the reviewer’s ignorance. As it happens, the national literary context – the formal and informal feedback, the workshops and writers’ clubs, the poetry readings, and the magazines themselves – perform the most important role by providing real opportunities, at every level, for writers to assess their own and others’ work.

This activity is evident in JAAM, the Victoria University writing club publication, which continues to grow in experience, professionalism, and stature. The coherence of JAAM 7 – its essays, its contributions, its commentary – represents a real achievement. Under Mark Pirie’s shrewd editorship, the magazine has attained its original ambitions. It addresses issues affecting writing locally and internationally, aligns itself with established journals and solicits the work of overseas writers.

JAAM‘s role as a promoter of young writing is indisputable. Moreover, it provides its members and contributors with the opportunities necessary for self-development, not just as creative writers, but as critics, self-critics, cultural commentators, editors, and publishers. Pirie himself exemplifies that getting published is the only real practice for getting published – and getting better. As well as appearing throughout these 1997 journals (including in Autumn Spin as guest poet), he is feature poet in the latest Poetry New Zealand. At his best (“Progress”, “Politics” and “Measure” in Spin and “And so say all of us” in Takahe 31), Pirie is pithily clever and wryly self-aware.

The contributions to JAAM are high in quality, and the journal clearly takes itself and its role seriously. But – from Tim Jones’s science fiction to Jeanne Bernhardt’s smart experimental poetry – JAAM is never boring and often displays a powerful sense of humour. Chris Gilman’s filmscript “Nature” in JAAM 8 is hilariously reminiscent of the slightly skewed kind of satire that Americans can only get away with in televised animation. Paul Wolffram’s untitled poem beginning “I was four” is deceptively artless but memorable in its simplicity. As general editor of JAAM 8, Wolffram succeeds in creating a truly eclectic read. As art editor, he excels, JAAM‘s covers and featured artwork are striking and distinctive.

Surveying the spectrum of current writing in New Zealand is discovering anew one of the oldest truisms about art; that we use it to speak to ourselves. This seems truest of Takahe, although it has no fewer international contributors than many of the indigenous journals featured here. Daphne de Jong’s social realist “Queen Street”, Martha Morseth’s “Cheryl”, and Bronwyn Bannister’s “The Ghost in the Bath” are very different examples of the local short story. In Kate Duignan’s “Titahi Bay”, the author uses an intentionally naive narrative voice to render more immediately her own childhood experiences (and those of an entire generation of Wellingtonian “diplobrats”), evoking the NZ-specific experience of knowing, leaving, and returning “home”.

Nick Ascroft’s “The Receiver Barks With Devotion” wittily suggests being stranded in small-town Central Otago. Richard Reeve’s “Courting” and “Transitory Waltz” reveal his powerful feel for a particular kind of city scene. There is an awareness of unnoticed quotidian incidents, or a less dispassionate entry into scenes such as those captured in tabloid/ documentary footage of drunken youths taking swings at each other on late-night New Zealand streets.

Sarndra Smith’s “Sixteen With Boots On” rings utterly true. This story uses recognisably local instances of the female adolescent experience from two distinct generations to render, with considerable poignancy, a mothers emotional experience of her daughter. Gay Buckingham’s “Full Glorious Funeral I Will Have” successfully uses the Dunedin landscape and first-person characterisation in a style reminiscent of Keri Hulme. Catherine Mair’s “Lemonfish” makes a sharp pair with another of her poems, “Draughts”, published in the Autumn edition of Spin.

Some of Takahe‘s contributions are of a very high quality, Kapka Kassabova’s especially. For those who have been hiding under rocks recently, Kassabova featured prominently in New Zealand writing throughout 1997, culminating in the publication of her deservedly successful collection All Roads Lead to the Sea. The professionalism, poise, and self-assurance of this writer is striking. The cultural studies review section at the back of Takahe 31 was a highlight of the magazine, Warren Feeney’s piece on “‘Slack’ Art in Christchurch” particularly.

Takahe has a distinctive, ostensibly amateurish feel, and its quality is often uneven. The magazine has been around a long time though, and this issue is marked by a strong sense of there-ness. In spite of the wide and obviously disparate concerns of the individual poets involved, the issue both alludes to, and captures, the power of shared experiences specific to a time or place or age. The significance of this feeling seems to me to be tied to the distinct spirit of Dunedin itself, and this journal embodies and evokes it. There exists a Dunedin presence or style which has long been acknowledged in music and art, and which has eventually penetrated these worlds at the most interesting and important international levels. It is only mistakenly understood as amateurish. Something similarly unique nourishes this issue of Takahe, providing the journal with its rough, strange strengths.

Printout 12 is the last from its original editorial/ administrative team, and possesses all of the best qualities that have characterised its six-year history. It is well-produced, the writing and reviews featured are consistently good, and the new material fits well alongside the work of better-known artists. It often displays an intelligent sense of humour (Sue MacKenzie’s poetry and tongue-in-cheek photo-montage and Katrina de Graaff’s fantastically kitsch portrait of an elderly woman and her stuffed-toy leopard reclining provocatively a la Jackie Collins on a living-room floor, especially). Kassabova’s contribution to Printout 12 is a fascinating, tight piece of (quite psychological) prose entitled “Strip-tease or the butterfly, this other species”, which displays her considerable versatility.

Diane Brown’s editorial directs the tone of this edition. She adopts an unapologetically personal manner, guiding the reader to links between poems. This influence upon understandings of the writers and their work is a central part of the organic nature of this issue. Martha Morseth’s “Finding Myself” in JAAM was moving and humorous. Her two poems in Printout work very well in this context. Somehow her short story “Cheryl” in Takahe did not, perhaps infected by what Lydia Wevers has called “the doughy feel of the mostly realist Takahe“. This highlights the effect which placement can have on a writer’s work. The positions taken (and taken-for-granted) by editors and contributors are central to the writer-work-reader relationship. Printout 12 is characterised as distinctly by its moment as Takahe 31, and is as specific to its generation and the positions of its poets and organisers. There is a great deal to be found in this issue and a great deal to read back into. Printout moves on under David Howard and a new group of organisers.

So, context can make a piece of writing (as well as a career). Sport is the place to see and be seen in. What can I say about this journal? Its production is consummately professional, its approach distinctive, its cover art dazzling, its layout impressive. It is exiting to buy, read, keep, and the monthly features and themes make it an extremely attractive property. In Sport 19, several writers contribute poems which draw inspiration from the 78 photographs from Bill Culbert’s “Lightworks” exhibition which are (flawlessly) reproduced in the journal.

Sport 18’s central feature is Wormwood, the first (short) novel from alternative New Zealand musician Bill Direen. It would be worth getting hold of a copy just to have a record of this well-wrought, edgy, noir-ish story from Berlin. The other contributions to this magazine are (yawn) uniformly outstanding. John Dolan has seven poems in issue 18, each a pleasure to read. Chris Orsman’s “Sloop John B” is fun, and William Brandt’s “Bad to Worse” is spot-on. Catherine Chidgey’s short fiction “The Craters of the Moon” reveals a seemingly innate talent for the authentic delineation of private thought, individual motivation, and interpersonal behaviour. Her characters are familiar in their human pettiness, touching in their reality. Nick Ascroft, as in Takahe, is irresistibly idiosyncratic. Ingrid Horrock’s beautifully crafted poems appear throughout these journals, and her first collection, Natsukashii, appeared from Pemmican Press in April.

Born in the 1940s, Australian journal Meanjin is of course most closely paralleled in New Zealand by Landfall. Meanjin‘s unique position is largely a function of its substantial history as a national literary organ and now cultural icon. Issues 3 and 4 from 1997 feature a very strong editorial in which Christine Thompson draws on this iconic status and value as part of a justification for continued funding of the magazine.

I am unfamiliar with the Australian context and the immediate background to Thompson’s defence of Meanjin‘s worth (except insofar as the necessary equation of cultural with monetary value so frequently forced upon the increasingly underfunded and today is, like the competition which this engenders, a familiar scenario), but despite the direction that these conditions force her discussion to take, Thompson is too modest. Meanjin‘s real strengths include its “clarity and relevance” – its confident, intelligent contemporaneity – which makes it more than worthwhile for any reader, at “any given moment”, of any nationality. In terms of the whole aesthetic experience of reading printed matter (no mean consideration in a publication dedicated centrally to books), it looks and feels the way it should – both full and fresh. The quality of the contributions is strikingly high, especially the wide variety of reviews, interviews, and articles within its pages (something which these New Zealand publications do tend to neglect). Its breadth and inclusiveness aside, our lack of any precise local parallel and the ongoing importance of encouraging cultural exchange at this level suggest that Meanjin should continue to be welcomed – and contributed to – in our country.

The exception to my reservation above is Poetry NZ. The reviews and the essays in the Comment section of this solidly established, world-class journal are, like the editorials, unerringly and unapologetically intelligent. The magazine’s approach to the poetry it features is intellectually astute and completely relevant. It deserves its reputation. To paraphrase the comments of editor Alistair Paterson on Julie Leibrich (the feature poet in issue 15), the excellence of this magazine speaks for itself.

If these comments have the ring of the newly converted, I make no apology. In spite of the vigour and the creative interpenetration which marks new writing in this country, these journals are neither insular nor self-sufficient. And nor should they be. There isn’t one of these publications that doesn’t deserve attention from a more general readership, and not one that wouldn’t reward, many times over, the effort involved in sampling them.

Claire Murdoch is an Honours student in the English Department at Victoria University.

Kapka Kassabova’s All Roads Lead to the Sea won the Jessie MacKay award for the best first book of poetry at the 1998 Montana New Zealand book awards.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Poetry, Review, Short stories
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