Anti-humanism, jazz, and Oceania: a briefing with Hamish Dewe
Back in 1995 a cantankerous poet and printer named Alan Loney photocopied and stapled together a few poems and stories by his friends, and gave the resulting sheaf of paper the rather grand title A Brief Description of the Whole World.
Over the past seventeen years Loney's creation has evolved into a stylish, eclectic journal called brief, which has published forty-three issues, attracted the services of a series of editors, and regularly won funding from Creative New Zealand.
I edited a couple of issues of brief back in 2005-2006, and I'm guest editing the 44th issue of the journal, which will have the theme of Oceania. Hamish Dewe edited the 43rd issue of brief, and I wanted to talk with him about his experiences, and about my plans for number 44. When I dropped into Hamish Dewe's house this morning he was stretched out in his backyard, close to the place where a great plain of mud-grey concrete gives way to plots of rising corn and spinach, and reading Wyndham Lewis' supposedly unreadable novel Roaring Queen.
As long-time readers of this blog will know, Hamish has never been afraid to talk turkey, and he took pleasure in both defending his own editorial principles and questioning my ideas for the next issue of brief. Here's a transcript of my interview with the man who was once described as 'the Ezra Pound of Auckland'...
SH: With its relatively small number of contributors and lack of obvious editorial interventions, your issue of brief might seem like a throwback to the early days of the journal in the mid-'90s...
HD: The similarity wasn't intentional. Back in the early days Alan Loney gave contributors ten or so pages each and let them do what they wanted - he was leasing space on the shop floor. I haven't done that. I've selected - I've rejected.
SH: Do you think that an editor needs to be an interventionist?
HD: Yes, unless he or she is a utopian. In the best of all worlds free expression might be possible. In practice, though, writers tend to need pressure from outside. They need to be told when they're producing shit. Loney's laissez-faire approach meant that writers felt free to fill up their allotted pages with shit.
SH: You didn't include any of your own writing in your issue of brief. Other editors, myself included, haven't been so modest...
HD: I see the editor as somebody leading a group, without dominating it. A group of musicians, say. I used to belong to an improvisational jazz band. The most difficult thing to do, in a band like that, is to know when not to play -
SH: Miles Davis used to sit out whole songs -
HD: That's right. I want to supervise things but I don't want to take over. SH: brief has been the focus for a number of controversies over the years, as it has evolved. Alan Loney handed the editorship to John Geraets, who began to solicit work from a wider circle of writers and to comment on important cultural and political issues. Jack Ross succeeded Geraets and began to publish people Loney disapproved of, and to editorialise about subjects like the Iraq war and the imprisonment of Ahmed Zaoui. Loney felt the journal had changed too much, and urged a boycott of it -
HD: Loney is a control freak.
SH: But he felt that he was making principled criticisms of the way the journal was evolving. He had wanted brief to be a sort of record of the work being done by neglected Kiwi writers - by members of what he called 'the Other Tradition' -
HD: That tradition existed mainly in Loney's head. Loney himself wasn't neglected - he got grants, residencies, published a couple of books with Auckland University Press - and neither were many of the contributors neglected.
SH: Loney seemed to derive some obscure psychological gratification from imagining himself as a victim of persecution. Admittedly, his antics annoyed so many people that he eventually really became a neglected, if not persecuted, figure. He now lives overseas and has few contacts with the New Zealand literary scene. How do you regard brief, today?
HD: I see it as a way of cohering a community. There's a group of writers who share their work in the journal. I'm wary about making too many generalisations about their work, though -
SH: There's been some discussion at Reading the Maps about the future of offline publishing in general, and offline literary publishing in particular. In this age of online living, is it possible for a literary community to cohere around a print journal? HD: I admit to belonging to various social media. Facebook, twitter. But I'm a lurker at those places, not a poster. I don't feel entirely comfortable in the online world. I love the old-fashioned print publication. I love the spine, the pages, the coarseness of paper. I write in pages, and I think in pages. The page is my horizon. I simply can't concentrate in the endlessness of cyberspace.
SH: Do you sympathise, then, with those technosceptics who wonder whether the online reading of literature is an entirely good thing?
HD: People like Nicholas Carr who argue that in twenty years kids won't be able to read Tolstoy because their brains will have been rewired by the net strike me as a little extreme. But I wonder whether the advocates of internet literature have forgotten the importance of constraints. So many great works of art, of literature, have been built around constraints. The sonnet is a constraint. The diptych is a constraint. The cartoon frame is a constraint. Grammar is a constraint. You can't think without constraints. The open-endedness of the internet, the ability of a site to grow and grow, seems to excite many people: I don't know why. I like short poems partly because I like to be able to see all of what I'm reading in one glance. I'm a synoptic reader. I annoyed Brett Cross, who was laying my issue of brief up, because I insisted on putting those poems which covered two pages on facing pages. I couldn't bear to split them.
SH: And you also have a liking for old-fashioned means of composition?
HD: I like to compose long-handed. In fact, I can't type poetry. I hate the finality of type, and I hate the neutrality of type. You strike a key, or press a keyboard button, and you get the same letter as you got the last time you hit the key or button. It feels mechanical. It is mechanical. But when you write you can vary the size and shape and darkness of your letters, of your words. You can cross out errors or unacceptable truths. You can mutilate phrases. You can write corrections and queries between the lines. I know that a poem is usually published in print, not in longhand, but there is a thread, a secret thread, that goes through the composition process, that insinuates its way into the published text, when you compose in longhand...
SH: Can I ask you about the cover of your issue of brief?
HD: It was my favourite image from Wall, an exhibition of drawings held by Ellen Portch at Elam last year. I am interested in the character it shows. I call him Sexless Man. And I like the form of the drawing. I like its extreme structuring. I like the regularity and repetition.
SH: Is the drawing a sort of visual equivalent of the poems you like?
HD: I do like poems that have a structure apart from the ego.
SH: That's quite a resonant phrase but I'm not sure exactly what it means. Can you unpack it for me?
HD: Must I? I like resonant phrases. I have a tendency to talk in aphorisms...I guess what I mean is that I don't like poems which revolve around individual selves. I don't think the self offers the best vantage point on the world
SH: You want something larger than the self?
HD: Something smaller.
SH: I was listening to an interview with Alice Oswald, the British poet and translator of The Iliad, and she was criticising the tendency of Westerners to see the countryside in Romantic terms, in the terms that Wordsworth and his friends established so long ago. She was arguing that there are many ways to see a landscape, to see the world, and she asked the question "How does a landscape look from the point of view of moss?" Is that the sort of question you're trying to answer?
HD: Not really. Isn't it very Romantic to think you can impersonate moss, instantiate yourself as moss in a cave? What fanciful bullshit! If you're talking about models for breaking down the self, breaking through the self, I'd prefer you to discuss Louis Althusser and his anti-humanist approach to the world -
SH: You like Althusser's idea that humans aren't the centre of the world, that humans don't really even control their own actions, and that human history isn't heading towards any sort of great goal?
HD: Very much so. I don't like Marxists who talk about dialectics. To me dialectics always seems to involve some idea of synthesis, or reconciling small things in terms of something bigger. I don't want reconciliation. I want fragments. I think that what makes us human is the small stuff, the forces and processes that pass through us, under the radar, so to speak, of our superegos, or even our conscious minds -
SH: Stuff like -
HD: - hunger, boredom, lust...
SH: Are you surprised that a number of people have called you a pessimistic writer?
HD: No. And I take such criticism as a compliment. A while ago I was called dour. That was meant as a criticism. I took it as a very great compliment. SH: Can I ask you to name a favourite text from brief 44?
HD: I don't want to talk about a favourite but I'd like to draw attention to the poems by Vaughan Rapatahana. They hark back to the early days of the journal -
SH: That seems to me a weird thing to say, because Vaughan's poems are short and carry readily accessible, strongly political messages. By contrast, a lot of the stuff in Alan Loney's brief seemed quite abstract and elaborate. HD: Yes, Vaughan's work is political. He sits in exile in Hong Kong passing judgment on Maori and Pakeha alike for their perceived xenophobia and philistinism. He is disgusted by the way Australia and New Zealand act as deputies for the US in the Pacific. He is worried about the threat that the English language and Western culture poses to Pacific island societies.
But can't someone write poems which are passionately political and at the same time linguistically adventurous? Just take a look at the way Vaughan, in his polemical fury, mutilates his words and lines, throwing letters and whole phrases across the pages. Just look at the way the meaning of his poems is tied up with the shape his poems makes on their pages. He reminds me of some of the wild Futurist poets of the early twentieth century - of Marinetti, for example, who tried to simulate the feeling of war on the page by going berserk with typography...
SH: I think Vaughan has brought something different to brief, and to similar spaces where he has published over the last year or so. brief has - let's face it - been a journal dominated by urban middle-class Pakeha, but Vaughan has a very different background -
HD: And his concerns are different. His focus on rural Maori society, and on the Pacific -
SH: And his work in trying to save Pacific languages. As you know, I'm editing the next issue of brief, and I've given it the theme of Oceania. I took the term Oceania from the late Tongan intellectual Epeli Hau'ofa, who disliked 'Pacific', because he thought that it suggested an ocean without people, rather than a set of peoples connected by water. I don't want to pretend to be anything but a palangi, and I don't want to pretend that brief isn't a palangi journal - I just want to bring a few more Vaughan Rapatahanas into the literary consciousness of palangi Kiwis, and make a few of us, at least, think about our society and our writing in terms of the ocean and islands which surround us -
HD: That sounds very noble, but also quite problematic. brief represents a particular set of people - most of them are used to thinking in terms of a national New Zealand literary tradition, and in terms of European and North American writers. That's where their models come from. Is there any real chance they'll embrace cultural traditions they've never heard about before? I think they'll reply to your efforts with a resounding silence -
SH: It can be argued though that a silence about Oceania - a reticence about New Zealand's real geographical context, its real neighbours - underlies the whole history of palangi literature here. The nationalists who created the official model of New Zealand literature in the '30s, people like Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch and Frank Sargeson, were seduced by a vision of this country as a handful of islands floating in a vast empty ocean. We only need to think of some of the key phrases of Curnow's famous nationalist poems - phrases like 'Not in narrow seas', 'distance looks our way' and so on - to appreciate the emphasis on isolation, on loneliness.
Curnow and the other nationalists thought that New Zealand's great problem and opportunity was its isolation. And the 'internationalists' who challenged their programme - people like Louis Johnson - accepted, consciously or unconsciously, the notion of New Zealand as a very physically isolated place. Johnson argued that modern communications and literary tradition meant that there was 'an underground tunnel' between this country and Europe. He also pointed out that, in the postwar decades, we were drawing a lot closer culturally to America. But he apparently never thought to challenge the idea that New Zealand sat in the middle of a vast and empty ocean.
The reality is that, for many hundreds of years, the Pacific was a highway for Polynesian cultures. And in the nineteenth century writers like Melville celebrated Oceania as one of the great crossroads of humanity. Victorian New Zealanders considered the seas to their north as vital to their colony's future, and worked to build an island empire. The 'isolation' about which Curnow et al talk so often was an economic and political construct. After the advent of refrigerated shipping New Zealand became Britain's farm, and the Pacific became less economically important. And as New Zealand and other foreign powers annexed most of the Pacific Islands, restrictions were placed on movement across the ocean. Trade links to cities like Sydney and Auckland were lost, and Polynesian vaka were burnt.
As a result of all this, palangi Kiwis lost their awareness of the galaxy of societies which lay in the seas to their north. And it's surprising how little things have changed, despite the recent great migrations to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands. Epeli Hau'ofa celebrated the new mobility of island peoples in the late twentieth century, because he saw it as a reopening of the Pacific highway which palangi colonists had closed for decades. In Auckland some of the most vital art is being made by Pacific immigrants, or people with a 'Pasifika' background. Painters like Andy Leileisu'ao, who calls himself a Kamoan, or Kiwi Samoan, and Glen Wolfgramm, who describes Tonga as his 'foreign homeland', are doing remarkable work, as they bring palangi and Polynesian cultures into dialogue. But where are the palangi artists and writers attempting a similar dialogue? Why isn't the great emigration from the north stimulating us, as well?
HD: That's all very well, but you can't force people to take an interest in a particular culture. And you shouldn't try to tyrannise us with geography. Many brief contributors probably feel more comfortable with American literary models than Pacific literary models. That's alright.
SH: I don't want to tell people what to read. But it does seem to me that palangi Kiwi writers could be enriched by contact with other inhabitants of Oceania. There are all sorts of fascinating intellectual currents floating across the Pacific.
Over the past year and a half I've been investigating the Tongan intellectual scene, and in particular the 'Atenisi school of thought, which has its origins in a tumbledown private university on the outskirts of Nuku'alofa but now has adherants in universities across the world. Futa Helu, the founder of 'Atenisi, wanted to fuse Polynesian and classical Greek thought. I think that was a fascinating, if quixotic, ambition. I think Helu can teach us something about biculturalism, about cultural exchange. Futa Helu was passionate about Heraclitus - so is the poet and classicist Ted Jenner, one of the most prolific and distinguished contributors to brief. Paul Janman, whose movie about 'Atenisi was recently released, is a long-time reader of brief. I think there are connections waiting to be made.
HD: I think you need to be clear about the difference between exchange and appropriation. If you want to take something from another culture - fine. Picasso stole from the Africans, Pound stole from the Chinese. But appropriation is not the same as genuine exchange. I wish you well, but I think your Oceania issue will be an aberration in the history of brief. I don't think you're going to inaugurate a new era in the history of the journal. I think it's better to have smaller ambitions - to try to keep the quality of the journal high, and to introduce the odd new voice, like Vaughan Rapatahana. Your issue sounds like a utopian enterprise, and I am not a man for utopias.
Send submissions for brief 44 to email@example.com
[Posted by Maps/Scott]