'I have no complaints': Michael Arnold speaks from the hot seat
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issues were lively and various, featuring everything from memoirs and serious 'academic' essays to previously unpublished correspondence and dirty limericks.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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.