Sunday, October 04, 2009

'I have no complaints': Michael Arnold speaks from the hot seat

If you think that Graham Henry has a tough job running the All Blacks, spare a thought for Michael Arnold, who became managing editor of the long-running avant-garde literary journal brief earlier this year.

A Brief Description of the Whole World was founded by the famously cantankerous poet and printer Alan Loney in the mid-90s as a sort of redoubt within which the members of the neglected 'other tradition' of New Zealand literature could shelter from the slings and arrows of mainstream culture. When Loney's successor, John Geraets, attempted to open the publication to new contributors, and to expose the work of some of Loney's allies to criticism, he soon found himself at the centre of controversy. Angered by the accusation that their use of Maori history and symbolism was exploitative, senior Kiwi avant-gardists Wystan Curnow and Leigh Davis refused Geraets' offer of space to defend themselves and walked away from the journal.

Geraets' successor as editor was also a lightning rod for controversy. Jack Ross' determination to publish a wider range of writers in the journal which was by now known as brief soon had Loney writing an open letter to traditional contributors and subscribers. Loney had the odd sympathiser, but his call for a boycott of Jack's brief was ignored.

Undeterred by Loney's increasingly vituperative criticism, Jack worked to expand the range of brief by encouraging writers to discuss political issues more often within its covers, particularly when these issues related to the (mis)use of language. An important issue of the journal was dedicated to the case of Ahmed Zaoui, the Algerian politician, poet and refugee who was held for years without trial in the panoptic remand wing of Mt Eden prison. Jack's opposition to hysteria and xenophobia and his commitment to open, pluralist discourse were reflected in his publication of multiple translations and analyses of Zaoui's poems.

Ross organised issues which commemorated the lives and works of Alan Brunton and Joanna Paul, two middle-aged Kiwi writers who died tragically in the early noughties, as well as a celebration of the work of the great New Zealand poet Kendrick Smithyman, who died in the mid-90s. Ross' commemorative issues were lively and various, featuring everything from memoirs and serious 'academic' essays to previously unpublished correspondence and dirty limericks.

When I took brief over in the mid-noughties I tried to emulate Jack's themed approach by producing issues dedicated to exile and to war. The war issue, in particular, ruffled feathers: some admirers of a distinguished American postmodern poet didn't like the way I'd reproduced the warmongering statement that poet had placed on e mail lists in the weeks after 9/11. One long-time reader complained of the 'contamination' of the journal with 'millennial politics', and began a secret but heated campaign to part me from the editor's chair.

As it happened, I was eased out of the chair by Brett Cross, who was rightly worried by the time I was taking between issues. Brett produced one issue by himself, and one 'New Zealand music' issue with Bill Direen that came complete with a free CD featuring poets and free noise musicians battling each other in a leaky garage studio. Once again, the tastes and reference points of a section of the journal's readership were being challenged.

I've been talking to brief's new editor about the challenge of running the journal, and about his plans for the next issue.

Michael, thanks for agreeing to answer my questions. As the current managing editor of the journal, and a man who has read extensively through back issues, you're in a good position to interpret the interesting and complicated history of brief. What do you see as the important points in the journal's development?

The magazine has always been devoted to innovative and edgy Kiwi writing, and the kind of poetry that fits this description has naturally changed over the years. The work that was published in the original issues of brief is very different to that which gets printed now. The most obvious transformations have come with changes of the guard in the post of editor: particularly with John Geraets’s decision to open the magazine to contributors outside of the inner circle. It’s unfortunate that the history of the magazine has been soured by walkouts and rivalries that still exist to this day. Despite this, brief has been remarkably consistent at being a reliable platform for serious, exploratory work.

Did you feel the pressure of expectation, when you took on the role of managing editor? It's well known that a previous editor, Jack Ross, was subjected to all sorts of criticism by Alan Loney, who felt that Ross had somehow betrayed the spirit of 'his' journal...

I’m less well-known on the literary scene here, so the pressure from brief’s followers has been a lot less than for previous editors, simply because the stakeholders haven’t known what to expect. In that way the ambivalence of brief’s regular contributors has been to my advantage. Fortunately, the magazine I’ve inherited has gathered some maturity in recent years, allowing me to focus more on the quality of writing rather than the stormy relationships and conflicting points of view amongst the contributors. You edited issue number 37 of the journal, to which you gave the theme 'The Exotic', before letting Jen Crawford guest edit the just-released issue 38. What are your favourite pieces in each of these two issues? Do you notice differences between the two issues?

Having Jen edit the most recent issue of brief has proved that the magazine has only benefited from the contributions of editors with different tastes. I’ll be interested in appointing a number of other good writers in the near future to put their stamp on an issue of brief as guest editor, so that the magazine can continue to achieve a broader coverage of the writing that New Zealanders are now producing. I tend to have a leaning towards prose poetry and analysis/essays, whereas Jen perhaps prefers more evocative verse and richer imagery – in my issue I was happy for Gabriel White to take up an unfair number of pages for his in-depth critique of Jack Ross' novel The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, and chose to open the magazine with the muddle of impressions of Ted Jenner’s ‘Spinning a Soft Endless Web’. Jen, on the other hand, has given a fair proportion of her issue over to emerging writers. It’s good to have some fresh blood for the magazine: without having any reconceptions, I found I enjoyed the earnest creativity of Jen’s contributors. Joseph Cahill-Lane’s short story 'Caliburn' is a good example of instinctive craftsmanship.

Sometimes the editors of literary journals complain that their duties circumscribe their freedom as writers, because they find themselves spending valuable writing time annotating submissions and licking postage stamps. Have you struck this problem? How is your own writing going?

I have no complaints. Writers who are not reading and thinking about the work of others are going to lose their edge; editing brief is an opportunity to do just that, which can only work in your favour. I still write screeds – I’m concentrating on a long piece of non-fiction at the moment, but have a small pile of creative writing that gets attended to at the appropriate times.
A cynic would say that a journal like brief, which publishes challenging literary work and has a small circulation, is irrelevant to the mainstream of New Zealand society and culture, because it is never going to be in a position to have anything like the cultural influence of, say, a glossy magazine like The Listener or Metro, let alone commercial TV and radio. How would respond to this sort of criticism? Can brief be accused of irrelevance, or elitism, or both?

brief may be a tad obscure, but that’s quite different from being irrelevant. Both new and established writers try out their untested work in brief, and they expect that their writing will be read by their peers and commented on by other writers. Many writers have gone on from publishing new work in brief to compiling and releasing full-length collections of their verse for wider audiences. People who devote their time to the kind of writing brief is dedicated to publishing are already interested in literary motives aside from entertaining the masses – they want to produce polished work, and to be appraised by others who do the same thing. brief's contributors support and inspire each other, and this leads to more serious and adventurous writing.

Before you returned to New Zealand and became closely involved with brief you lived for some years in China. Do you have a sense of the differences between Chinese and New Zealand culture? Does your time in China influence the way you edit the journal?

Studying Mandarin has confirmed for me the dreary regularity of human obsessions; overhearing conversations in a mysterious Eastern tongue merely reveals the quotidian concerns of the everyman, what he had for lunch, what time is the game, why is it so hot in here...Ask any Kiwi or Chinese person or anyone else in the world about their culture, and the answer you’ll hear more than anything else is the central importance of drinking. The only thing that stands out for me in terms of what’s unique about Chinese culture is the self-referential web of signs that is the written Chinese language.

Chinese poetry is notoriously difficult to translate into English because a full half of the linguistic elements of written Chinese do not appear in our script. In my own writing I’ve attempted alternative methods to depict what it is that I see in Chinese for people who can’t read it, although perhaps with only limited success. I’m always interested in how other writers in
brief have made comparable attempts, an obvious example is Hamish Dewe, a good friend of mine who’s spent more time in China than I have, and earlier on Michael Radich used Chinese in his writing in similar ways under Alan Loney’s editorship.

Can you tell us about your plans for the next issue of brief? Are you calling for submissions and, if so, what sort of submissions do you want?

We’re a little behind schedule, but we have a commitment to three issues this year, so we’re trying to put out a fast & hard issue in time for Christmas – and begging for urgent submissions of substance. I’m hoping for some weighty reviews, brow-furling longer poems of around 4 pages in length, short works of inscrutable prose – in short, hardcore intellectualism in record time. E mail me at mishenica@gmail.com

Finally, a slightly silly question: who would your dream contributors to brief be? Can I get you to name three writers, living or dead, whose work you'd most like to see in the journal, and ask you to explain your choices?

It’s a slightly unfair question – brief is more of a platform for contemporary innovation rather than a hall of fame, and quite honestly the writers I enjoy reading most already contribute to brief. Sincerely, I’d like to see Alan Loney contribute again. brief may not be the magazine he started back in 1995, and he may see it as something of an errant child, going its own way despite the intentions of its founder – but brief remains Alan Loney’s legacy, and it means a lot now to the people who contribute. Fifteen years on, his creation is still a home for writing that doesn’t get the attention it deserves from other publishers, and represents an alternative tradition for great New Zealand writing – I think brief today is something he could be proud of.

Subscriptions to brief cost $45 for individuals and $70 for institutions. Subscriptions from Australia are charged $60 and other international subscriptions cost $75. Visit this official site for more information, including details on how to access the latest issue of brief online, and this fan site for a record of every back issue of the journal.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Ask any Kiwi or Chinese person or anyone else in the world about their culture, and the answer you’ll hear more than anything else is the central importance of drinking.'

Typical elitist Marxist snob!
Just like the puppet Maps!

10:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

typical intellectuals bickering all the time about nothing

12:36 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I have never found Michael elitist. Yes he is pretty clued and well educated, as is Maps. What is an intellectual? What is elitist? I contribute to the more recent Briefs but I don't really consider myself "an elitist intellectual". For if I was called a huge intellectual, I think such as Jack Ross, would be the first to let out a massive laugh as big as he Universe... Yes, I did get an Engineering Certificate but that was hard work and also a BA at University, but that was also hard. I have always found learning fascinating but hard. Curiosity is the main thing and hard work and taking an interest in many things. Now THAT's the key to the nature of people like Maps, Michael Arnold, or keen readers of Brief. They are interested in unusual or stimulating ideas, people, or even places, even if they might find such things difficult or strange.

And literature (and indeed people!) can be difficult and strange. Poetry can be difficult (or it may be relatively accessible also, there are many different rooms in literature).

(Assuming that "anon" isn't Maps himself again!) I think Michael Arnold means that we all share similar feelings and human aspects whatever our cultural or "ethnic" differences... I have never found Michael elitist. Yes he is pretty clued and well educated, as is Maps.

2:19 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

But Maps is really just a “good old” farm boy, from Drury, South Auckland, who uses a lot of big words - and he does it very very well, and he has some great points to make as on this Blog. But despite that he has doctorate, has wide interests, and reads a lot (as long as that isn't a crime), he is not "an intellectual" as such - or elitist. Brief started out, under Loney and selected “Writers Group”, as a bit "sealed off" - he wouldn't publish me* (he wouldn't even look at a manuscript I had) - and I felt that was good then as his "system" (which I agreed with then and still do, as I feel that it was good that it started in that way) meant that only his (Writers Group) ran Brief etc. But Brief’s overall aspect did change when John Geraets took over - he wanted younger people (and indeed he did lean toward the esoteric or "intellectual" and had allegiances with some of the "Loney guard" etc). But with the expansion of the style and approach of contributions and who or what was published is where the conflict with Loney came in; and there may have been other reasons when Jack Ross became editor.


But Ross and Geraets tended to broaden the spectrum of who was published in Brief. But how can a person do anything without using or her mind? So how can one - anyone - not be "intellectual"? What is an intellectual? How is one defined as an elitist - when one doesn't take much interest in rugby? What is elitist? If I draw picture that looks like a Picasso or whatever, or I write poem with a lot of long words in it (or it is very very short with short words) and you don't like it am I elitist or if I paint a picture that makes you feel good and is an exact replica say of motor car - does that make me a smart cowboy? I contribute to the more recent Briefs but I don't really consider myself "an elitist intellectual". For if I was called a huge intellectual, I think such as Jack Ross, would be the first to let out a massive laugh as big as he Universe... And most of the work I have ever done in my life has been in factories or as basically a manual worker, a lineman, and I was once a technician. Yes, I did get an Engineering Certificate but that was hard work and also a BA at University, but that was also hard. I have always found learning fascinating but hard.

Curiosity is the main thing and hard work and taking an interest in many things. Now THAT's the key to the nature of people like Maps, Michael Arnold, or keen readers of Brief. They are interested in unusual or stimulating ideas, people, or even places, even if they might find such things difficult or strange.

And literature (and indeed people!) can be difficult and strange. Poetry can be difficult (or it may be relatively accessible also, there are many different rooms in literature). I find poetry (and many other related subjects such as philosophy) very difficult myself. And I studied literature and philosophy at University as well as I have read many books (and I still am always reading) on the how to and the "why" of poetry, literature and related matters.

But those who might be termed “intellectual”, and those who take some interest in Brief etc, are also open to politics. Or they are at least they are open to the debate as to whether politics is a valid part of literature etc.

*(I got on very well with him at the time and I agreed with him then that his way was good - by the way he is not an "academic" at all - he has come up the "hard way" and is - as well as being one of NZ's great poets - he has done a lot of literature in NZ through his publishing and printing skills).

2:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hot photo, he looks like rapunzel without the long hair

5:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anybody asked Alan Loney if he would like to be involved in the journal again?

12:37 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I don't know myself. But he wont speak or communicate with me (not that I have any say in the matter)- and I think that is the same for Jack Ross - however that may have changed. I don't know about Michael etc The new editors might get him involved.

Loney has some interesting but rather complex and difficult views of the world and poetry and is very difficult to deal with* - but the right person might be able to communicate with him.

Once, for reasons unknown to me, he refused to be included in an anthology of NZ Poetry.

But I only say that myself. I'm not part of the editorial "team" as such. I kind of hover on the outside.

Maps and Michael etc will undoubtedly have views on this issue also.

Another ex patriot is David Mitchell who it would be good to publish and the are others.

*I'm not saying they are "wrong" just kind of trying to convey a picture of him.

9:54 pm  
Blogger Jack Ross said...

Great post, Maps. It's extremely useful to have these frequent reports on the state of health of brief. It seems amazing that the thing is still going, and that it should have survived so many setbacks. I think the only reason can be that it's shown a capacity for re-inventing itself in the hands of each new editor. Perhaps that's got something to do with the fact that it began so unpretentiously, with xeroxed pages from a core set of contributors -- glossier, more impressive-looking journals seem to have a much shorter shelf life.

12:44 pm  

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