Jack Ross, ed.: brief 25 (October 2002)
Hunter S. Thompson: The Proud Highway (1997)
The basic function of the underground is to croak the establishment’s bullshit.
– Hunter S. Thompson, The Fear & Loathing Letters, 1: The Proud Highway (1997): 624.
That seems like a reasonable place to start. Many of you will be aware by now that Alan Loney, the founder of our magazine, has issued a “Letter to All Original Authors in A Brief Description of the Whole World” in which he says (among other things):
… when I set up the magazine it was to serve a number of writers I respected and wanted to see published much more regularly than they were. I confined the list of authors very specifically, and sought subscribers in the clear understanding that the magazine was there to represent what I have elsewhere and very provisionally termed ‘the other tradition’ in New Zealand letters.
The original intention and that faith have been almost completely unravelled with Jack Ross’s first issue. He seems to have no respect for or even understanding of the magazine’s purpose, and, as one of the original authors has written to me, it’s “gone mainstream,” and my work’s undone.
Hard words, especially after just one issue under the new dispensation … certainly words which require a response. “He seems to have no respect for or even understanding of the magazine’s purpose.” I guess I would see a fallacy in the tacit assumption that that purpose (any purpose) can remain static – that printing a group of under-represented writers in 1995 has the same implications as printing those same people, “the original authors” (assuming their willingness to be so characterised), seven years later, in 2002.
Which brings me back to the Hunter Thompson quote. The underground, or “other tradition” (I would agree) exists mainly to keep a watching brief on the establishment, or “mainstream.” However, the constituents of these two groups can’t – in the very nature of things – stay fixed. Times change. Reputations consolidate. The rebel of one era becomes the G.O.M. of the next. That’s as it should be. Why should one bring work to the attention of readers except for it to be read, and thus become acceptable, familiar? And once it’s become familiar, once we’ve read a great deal of it, does it not become orthodox in its turn? Does it not require to be challenged? Oedipal struggle, Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, all that jazz. This is as true of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as of the Petrarchan sonnet.
In other words, it’s not only that writers can’t be said to be perpetually of “the other tradition” once their work has begun to enter “the mainstream,” it’s also that no style of writing can be said to be intrinsically rebellious or conservative: the context it’s written in lends it that status conditionally.
To quote from the conclusion to “Necessary Oppositions? Avant-garde vs. Traditional Poetry in NZ,” an essay I published on the subject a couple of years ago:
It’s perhaps too much to come to so bland a conclusion after all that: Each type of poetry has its own audience, its own possibilities for excellence … I should prefer to put it more combatively: if smugness is the crime, then outrage is the solution.
A supportive community of writers (such as “The Writers Group”) can easily edge over into becoming a clique or a coterie. Once that happens, it’s lost its edge of opposition. The conditions of production have, up until now, given brief an authorial and editorial freedom unavailable to the more commercial journals. My principal concern is to keep it that way. What is our magazine for but to challenge orthodoxies?
… the more mainstreamers are in the magazine, the fewer of the original authors of A brief description of the whole world are able to occupy the limited number of its pages, and I regret that deeply.
I should like to respond with another passage from my own essay:
It’s as well … to remember that (in certain contexts) Jane Austen can be more outrageous than William Burroughs. With this in mind, I reserve my right to scroll down the menu of poetry providers looking for something which transcends this, in the end, somewhat futile squabble.
To answer the point more formally, though, I should have to reverse Loney’s statement – the fewer “original authors” choose to occupy its pages, the more additional contributors must be sought. I’ve always thought the idea of reserving a default space of four pages for each of the original group of contributors to use as they saw fit an ingenious way of obviating (inevitable) editorial bias. Nor do I think it’s lost its point. The practice of accepting submissions as well (announced formally by John Geraets in ABDOTWW 15) was not adopted lightly, however. It was no longer possible to gather sufficient material for a challenging literary quarterly by adhering strictly to the old policy.
To be frank, it’s hard for me to think of a magazine (and I have worked on a few) where pressure of space has ever been less of a priority than it is in brief. The number of pages is limited only by a sense of our audience’s tolerance (and the costs of binding and copying). If the magazine slims down it’ll be because we’re not receiving enough material which – I believe – needs to appear.
… all I can do here is to dissociate myself from it, saying I won’t support it or Jack Ross, and will never publish in it again.
All I can do here is to thank Alan Loney for reminding me to make my editorial policy for brief much clearer (I’m afraid that the untimely death of Alan Brunton just as #24 was going to press rerouted the editorial which I had originally intended to devote to the subject). Loney goes on to suggest that I should either (1) “change the title so it does not relate to its predecessors, and … relinquish the name ‘The Writers Group’ as the publisher,” or else (2) “I think he should give it up.”
I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s his decision to make. Nor is it really mine. It’s yours. You, the readers/ contributors / subscribers to this magazine need to decide what you think it exists for. You can do this through the work you send me (or decide not to send me); through paying – or withholding – your subscriptions (perhaps the simplest way of spiking my guns); and by writing in (privately or for publication) to tell me your views.
My mission statement is simple:
- I want to edit an interesting, stimulating literary magazine which specialises in the innovative and technically ambitious work which I also believe to be underrepresented in other New Zealand literary journals.
- I want to provide a place where writers and artists can see their work precisely as they created it: fonts, formatting, spacing and accidentals. Xeroxing, in this sense, can be seen as democracy in action: cheap, coarse, but effective.
- I intend to keep on soliciting contributions from the “original authors” of the magazine. Continuity has always been one of its strengths. I don’t seen any contradiction in combining this with a quest for new talent and new approaches, however.
- There would be little point in trying to short-circuit the form/content debate by expressing a facile preference for one over the other, but I’ll repeat my comment from above: “if smugness is the crime, then outrage is the solution.” I’m not interested in Formalism or Emotionalism per se. Both can be powerful in the right hands.
I ended my 2000 essay by saying, of the whole “mainstream” / “other tradition” debate:
Other things matter more. You don’t need me to tell you what they are.
I still hold to that. Aesthetics, for me, is not an end in itself. If any of our artistic projects (this magazine among them) have value, that value has to be assessed, finally, on the human and ethical level.
I’m sorry that Alan’s chosen to part company with us over the composition of my first issue, but it was probably inevitable that this dispute would arise sooner or later. Opposition (says Blake) is true friendship. If his letter has helped to bring these issues out in the open, then that’s definitely for the best.
I’d like to add, finally, that writing seems to me too serious a thing to be taken seriously all the time. We’re in a pretty good position here to croak the establishment’s bullshit. Let’s make the most of it.
The next issue, # 26 (December, 2002), will focus on Kendrick Smithyman.
I’m also now collecting material for:
# 28 (June, 2003):Alan Brunton special issue
unpublished work / memoirs & tributes / criticism / bibliography
unpublished work / memoirs & tributes / criticism / bibliography
1. Poetry NZ 21 (2000): 80-83.
brief 25 (2002): 3-6.
brief 25 (2002)