Manifestos & Reviews:

A selection from some of the write-ups which have appeared to date:


  1. Pander 9 (1999): 14-16 (16/10/99)

  2. brief 24 (2002) (26/2/03)

  3. A Brief Poetics (4/7/11)

[Pander 9 (1999)]

A Brief Description of the Whole World:
A Review Symposium of the first twelve issues of this Journal of Experimental Writing, founded by Alan Loney in December 1995,
and thereafter issued by him (in stapled, xeroxed, A4 format) until
October 1998, when the editorship passed to John Geraets.

“Our criticism is littered with overviews – the year’s poetry, the year’s fiction, a review of seven magazines in one to two thousand words, five new books from a new press, or yet another anthology to tell us who’s in charge of canon building.”
- Alan Loney, ABDOTWW #8 (1997): 3

“It is in the zone of hyper-bowl that we will have to stand.”
– Jacques Derrida, Auckland Town Hall, 18th August 1999

* * *

Dear Jack,

You mentioned perhaps I might send some comments which you may be able to use in the retrospective review of Brief D. I did this the other night, but lost it, damn!, so v. briefly let me try again:

1. ABDOTWW looks to publish not simply material that is experimental, or material that is simply new, but material which is newly experimental.

2. Such work is intrinsically related to language, but is not necessarily “literary.”

3. The term “literary” is always retrospective. Novelty is not an interest.

4. Newly experimental is always to do with a self-questioning, although these questions are not necessarily ones that are asked. They address a reflexivity that may be strangely extended, extensive.

5. As well performing a special questioning, ABDOTWW questions its and its material’s performance.

6. Its “material” includes its contributors, subscribers and readers, and editor, as well as its physical properties.

7. ABDOTWW is not any one of these.

8. In all this there is subtlety involved, to be sure.

These tenets have nothing to do with, yet are contingent upon more mundane practicalities: all but special guest contributors must be also subscribers; material is accepted on an issue by issue basis, each issue having its own definition; the continuity may be in terms of regular contributors, or perhaps not, perhaps it may be in its restless unfolding; contributions, past issues, subscription requests and enquiries should be addressed to THE WRITERS GROUP, 11-20 POYNTON TCE, AK 1001.

– John Geraets

* * *

Dear John,

Thanks for getting back to me about the Pander review. I’ve collected some views already, and am gradually working my way through the issues (in both senses).

There’s a rather missionary tone in some of the editorials which slightly grates on me, I must admit. I don’t really see being “non-referential” as either inherently wicked or inherently virtuous, I must admit. What appeals to me most is the ludic cleverness of so much of the work I read there.

The purpose of the review – or review-symposium – is to describe and celebrate more than critique, though. There’s too much there which would need to be dealt with in isolation, and I really just want to bring our readers’ attention to the existence of this submerged continent of innovative text-work.

I take your point about not particularly wishing to expand your market. I just think it would be nice if people who would like it got to know about it.

I did this the other night, but lost it, damn!, so v. briefly let me try again:

That, of course, makes me muse on the immense mana of the lost message. What brilliance must have been there! So only this skeletal residue remains ...

The term “literary” is always retrospective. Novelty is not an interest.

No, kinda twentieth-century, really, all that stuff about innovation and “newness,” isn’t it?

Newly experimental is always to do with a self-questioning, although these questions are not necessarily ones that are asked. They address a reflexivity that may be strangely extended, extensive.

I’d add including an implicit challenge to the reader’s ontology – though I quite understand that you might see this as a heretical return to something resembling the affective fallacy …

As well performing a special questioning, ABDOTWW questions its and its material’s performance.

I like this mystic apotheosising of your magazine, and the HLAH-like initials are fun, too.

In all this there is subtlety involved, to be sure.

To be sure – but “don’t rely on subtlety / frighten them or they won’t see” (Tim Rice: Jesus Christ, Superstar)

– Jack Ross

* * *

Alan Loney’s magazine, ABDOTWW, is contributed to by members of a writers’ group. This group, and the $20.00 p.a.sub, helps to keep in print a fairly wide range of talented N.Z. poets. They are not all of Loney or Wystan Curnow’s generation. Included are such relative newcomers as Tom Beard, Paula Green, and Mark Wills. While the writing styles are diverse, there is an emphasis on experimental, or original writing. Anyone wanting to see new developments – significant developments – in N.Z. writing should buy or subscribe to it.

Before anyone accuses me of bias, I must make it clear that I’m not a member of the group. I did ask Loney if he’d look at my long poem “Chains,” but he wouldn’t. So, in urging people to look at ABD, I’m not pushing my own barrow. Nor am I of any “school” or “camp”. I don’t know if I’m a Postmodernist because I don’t know (exactly) what the term means.

Not every issue was equally good, but there has always been (for me) interesting data in each issue. Loney’s editorials were always stimulating. Rarely, by contrast, do I find anything of comparable interest in the mainstream magazines. In fact, the only other magazine I would recommend in such terms is Salt, put out in Auckland by Scott Hamilton and Hamish Dewe. (Please note that I don’t support Scott’s letters of abuse – otherwise it’s a very exciting magazine).

If you’re bored with stuffy, bourgeois-liberal-humanist crap, take a peepers at ABDOTWW and Salt.

– Richard Taylor

* * *

A Brief Description exists to encourage the radical, fringe, exploratory, innovative in N.Z. Literature. Other journals may say they do, but when it comes to the point will only take the “received radical” – that which already has some degree of critical imprimatur. The bafflingly new, that which in no way conforms to the existing critical templates, has nowhere to go. One can try sending one’s work overseas but (speaking for myself) much of my work is so entirely N.Z. in content, depending so heavily on our history and cultural ironies, and so seemingly eccentric, that such moves have been only occasionally successful.

It is probably correct to say that none of our publishing firms are dedicated to the advance of N.Z. poetry. Their customary reply: “It’s good but it will not sell,” has the effect of keeping our poetry in a tame or domesticated state, and existing for the sake of the institution. At present, it is only A Brief Description that lets in new vigour from the wild. Many poets frequently published in the journal rarely appear elsewhere – writers such as Peter Crisp from Napier and Michael Radich, a New Zealander who lives in Japan. Others, such as Joanna Paul, Murray Edmond, Wystan Curnow, Alan Brunton, Tony Green, present work that might hardly be acceptable elsewhere. Such an openness is a great gift to a writer who has met with continual frustration from other publishers, and who is about to lose confidence.

The journal is now edited by John Geraets, and is supported by the Writers’ Group. Its list of subscribers is not large, but one would like to think its influence is profound.

– Leicester Kyle

* * *

Leigh Davis. Willy’s Gazette. Auckland: A Brief Description of the Whole World 12 (1999).

To appear in a different time and a different place is more than just to reappear: it is to happen again, fresh and self-brightening.

So John Geraets, taking over from Alan Loney, frames this dual reissue/issue 12 of ABDOTWW – which prompts the question: do we need it? Unfortunately, we do.

Unfortunately, because we should have paid more attention the first time round. Willy’s Gazette is just as luminous now, self-brightening, as it was when it first appeared in 1983. The fact that this book remains practically unknown attests to how much writing, of even the most mildly experimental nature, becomes marginalised in NZ literary culture. The possible charge that this is due to wilful obfuscation fails in light of the fact that the Gazette, and ABDOTWW in general, works towards an understanding of community. That this community seems small, hermetic, is the result of a general ignorance among readers of, and commentators on, NZ poetry. Community in writing does not depend upon lists of the author’s drinking buddies, nor upon generalised sermons on the nature of nationhood: it rests in allowing readers to co-operate within the space of the text.

Willy’s Gazette lays itself open, straddles the illusory divide between the traditional and the avant-garde. It is a series of sonnets, but only in that each poem has 14 lines. The Gazette is provisional, a tentative assaying of various fields: local, international, literary, artistic, formal, political. This sheer variety enables the Gazette to interrogate the local without indulging in a protectionist poetics, without defaulting to the ubiquitous paysage moralisé. The book is “implosive, paratactical,” it registers, gestures:

We editors and cartographers face that fact
daily maps age post-modern printing isn’t
miraculous predictive of political outcomes
borders stay where history last placed them

The Gazette acknowledges the impossibility of containment, while employing the infinity of gesture: closure, that raptorial illusion, is endlessly deferred.

That deferral determines my own. I defer talking about the text. I find myself circling it, swooping to raid some fleshy piece, only to find myself compelled to return – to get the whole thing. This is, of course, impossible. Is that a scary notion? It should be. Where’s that sense of communication I’m looking for, that community? Well, it’s around here someplace – you’ve just got to accept that the thing’s not static, not linear, it’s not a command: it’s just as mutable and unstable as the world itself. Communication is communion, a sharing. There’s a place for you in this text. Go play.

the cabbage tree claps
its swords over the setting sun
turning as if to say
mouth open, exclamatory
so armature you were ready
so gestetner, old and dizzy,
& your line so charcoal grey and endless

– Hamish Dewe

* * *

“Go play,” says Hamish. But what said Alan Loney, ABDOTWW’s onlie begetter? Here are extracts from various of his editorials:

I ever hope for words clear as these, on a sign on a lamp-post I saw last year – “Our cockatiel has flown away. We miss him” … a search for clarity among the literally unimaginable welter of words we live in, would be useful.
- “On Clarity” #1 (December 1995): p.3.

We want answers. The culture wants answers, the media wants answers, any answers, where all answers are all too equally valid. The ‘unexplained’ is then reserved for the strange, the weird, the spooky, the ‘paranormal’ …
In my own work, the sentence “Nothing like it exists everywhere” still haunts me, as an enigmatic unsolvable puzzle, several years after writing it.
- “Defamiliarizing the Familiars” #3 (June 1996): pp.3-4.

While I think that all information is privileged information, it’s hard to see that it’s necessary for information that is not readily available to stay hidden. One reason for the apparent ‘obscurity’ of some writing will be that it has not been spoken for …
- “Who do I write for?” #4 (November 1996): p.6.

[from a review of Tony Green’s NO PLACE TO GO printed by Tara McLeod:] … if Green mourns the loss of some of his line-endings, or if McLeod mourns the loss of options that would have been given by different types and papers, and if I myself mourn for the loss of the opportunity signalled by the term ‘collaboration’, then are we doing any more than what we’d do by being faced, as in this book we most concretely are, with the vagaries of reading that are inevitable when the work goes out ‘into the world’, with no place to go but into the hands of those who will read it.
- “A place to go” #6 (July 1997): p.6.

… one of the most interesting things I learned from my years as a psychiatric nurse and an orderly in a geriatric wing of a general hospital, was that very many people, even most perhaps, die without ever enjoying classical music, looking at fine art, or reading great literature, yet believed absolutely that they had lived a full life … This flies in the face of one of our most cherished assumptions about the quality of life …
- “What are poets for?” #7 (September 1997): p.3.

… there is only one Tradition, and everything whatsoever is in it, like it or not. But if everything is in this Tradition, what can being ‘marginal’ mean?
…. What is, for instance, ‘postmodern poetry’? By the mainstream it tends to be taken as a kind of ‘thing’, which one can have to deal with or not as one chooses. Postmodern poetry is then seen as a kind of poetry, a sort of style, as if it’s an option on the menu that we can click on or pass by, take it or leave it. But what if postmodernity is … the name of the condition in which we [as a culture] find ourselves?”
- “The Other Tradition” #8 (December 1997): pp.3-5.

“Those who specialise in generalist overviews that mention oppositional writing in passing lack the credibility that only published close readings can provide …” (#4 (1996): 6). Point taken, Alan. This rather scrappy collection of views and re/views is the result. One could hardly hope to consider so varied, so textually adventurous and visually challenging a body of work otherwise. What’s more, “reviews do not necessarily stimulate a lot of sales, but negative reviews almost always stop sales in their tracks.” (#7 (1997): 3). Perhaps it is invidious to single out one from so many examples, but how can I refrain from finishing by quoting this page of Lesley Kaiser / John Barnett’s (#6 (1997): 9)?

Stone is
more stony
than it used
to be

– Jack Ross

[brief 24 (2002)]

the magazine formerly known as:
A Brief Description of the Whole World / ABDOTWW / description / ABdotWW / Ab.ww &c.

brief1, n. Pope's letter on matter of discipline to person or community (less formal than bull); (Law) summary of facts & law-points ofa case drawn up for counsel (hold ~ for, be retained as counsel for, argue in favour of); size of writing-paper, typewriter, etc.; instructions given to air crews etc.; watching-~, of barrister who watches case for client indirectly concerned; ~-case, small leather handbag; a ~, piece of employment for barrister, whence ~’LESS a. [ME & OF bref f. L breve dispatch, note, neut. of brevis short]
brief2, v.t. (Law) reduce (facts etc.) to a brief; Instruct (barrister) by brief, employ; Instruct (air crews etc.) with regard to raid etc. (~ing-room, where such instructions are given); Instruct thoroughly in advance. [f. prec.]
brief3, a & n. Of short duration; concise; be ~, speak shortly; in ~, in short; (pl., colloq.) shorts, women’s panties. Hence ~'LY2 adv., ~'NESS n. [ME & OF bref f. L brevis short]

matter of discipline

The facts: The magazine was founded in December 1995 by Alan Loney. Its format was simple: A4 sheets, copied exactly as their authors wrote them, stapled together, then distributed with bio notes and a cover.

less formal than bull

John Geraets took over as editor at the beginning of 1999. This initiated an immediate shift in names and styles. His first issue (12) was a re-issue of Leigh Davis’ 1983 book Willy’s Gazette. He devoted special numbers to Loney (17) and Aesthetics (20-21), and greatly increased the range and number of contributors.

Of short duration; concise

Jack Ross succeeded Geraets as editor in 2002. To date he's put out four issues (including #28: Smithymania, a special Kendrick Smithyman number), and an index of the first seven years of the magazine’s contents. There’s been some controversy (conducted both inside and outside brief correspondence columns) over his attempts to open up our pages to new contributors, but hopefully this is now dying down. Our latest project is an issue (#28: Spring 2003) devoted to the late Alan Brunton, poet, performer, playwright, and all-round cultural phenomenon.

As he sees it, brief’s mission is to provide an alternative to the somewhat monochrome fare of the other major New Zealand literary magazines. He prefers to print work which he suspects could not find a home in Landfall, Sport, JAAM, Takahe or any of the others. Not that I mean to disparage those magazines – I simply feel that there is a significant constituency of experimental and technically adventurous writers who don’t find full expression in them.

We specialise in page-works, articles/poems/stories, photomontages. As we reprint work exactly as it sent, so this enables our contributors to pay close attention to the design and layout of their pages. Otherwise, the look of the magazine remains the same: A4-size, perfect-bound, with bio-notes and a card cover.

The existing contributors (Loney’s original twenty, for example) can always feel confident of a welcome, but we also want to extend an open invitation to the disenfranchised to come on in ...

[Leigh Davis: Macoute (June 1998)]

[This paper was originally delivered at the “Poetry and the Contemporary” Symposium (Deakin University, Melbourne: 7-10 July, 2011]:

Prologue: the first four years

What purpose does a literary journal serve? Why do so many people spend so much time, at such lousy rates of pay (nothing – or less than nothing – in many cases) editing and contributing to small magazines – or (more to the point) founding new ones? No doubt there are many reasons. As a general rule, though, I think that a journal comes into existence as the voice of some interest group or coterie which believes itself to be significantly under-represented by existing publishing outlets. There may be other, more individualistic, motives for founding a print (or online) periodical, but unless it continues to be perceived as providing a valuable alternative to the status quo, it’s unlikely to survive beyond the first few issues.

The magazine I’d like to talk about today is brief – aka A Brief Description of the Whole World / ABDOTWW / description / ABdotWW / Ab.ww / or brief. It was founded in 1995 by the poet Alan Loney, who was then writer-in-residence at Auckland University, as a response to a refusal on the part of the central government funding agency – now known as “Creative New Zealand” – to back John Geraets’ recent (1993) application for financial support for a new magazine.

In his essay “Power and the Scandal of Editing: the Case for A Brief Description of the Whole World,” Loney attributes this refusal to a desire to control both the means and the content of “Arts” publication in New Zealand, and discusses in detail the structure of the magazine he set up in response, A Brief Description of the Whole World, as an attempt at a counterblast against this continuing dominance of the mainstream in all aspects of New Zealand writing.

To maintain liberty from this influence, he decided, it was necessary to have a publication “in the conduct of which external funding had no part to play.” His decision had a number of practical consequences. Although Loney is a master printer, the magazine would be photocopied in order to keep down costs. Money for the Xeroxing would be provided by a list of subscribers – a hundred or so was the desired number – who would pay $20 each per annum for four copies of the magazine. There was also provision on the subscription form for those who could afford to it to increase this figure to a larger donation + subscription. In accordance with this desire for complete financial independence, contributors to the magazine must also be subscribers.

Which brings us to the content of the magazine. Loney decided that the fairest way to represent what he termed “the ‘other tradition’” in New Zealand Poetry was to reserve “four pages, in every issue of the periodical” for “25 people whose work I wanted to read regularly.” This act of “positive discrimination” was intended to provide a alternative paradigm of editorial control to the predominant “merit-by-works model” (again, Loney’s phrase), which involves an individual decision by the editor over each submission and published piece.

A Brief Description of the Whole World was accordingly set up as it was in order to bypass the traditional notion of a gatekeeper (in this case, Alan Loney himself) and to guarantee the appearance of precisely what a designated group of dedicated experimentalists chose to include in each issue, in exactly the same font and format that they sent it. Loney did express a preference for works which could be ongoing from issue to issue, and thus achieve the kind of totality within the library or archive which might well be denied them by more conventional publishing outlets, but (again) the decision was left up to the various contributors. As it turned out, some supplied serial instalments of larger, ongoing works; some did not.

Alan Loney’s experiment was undoubtedly a bold and original one, and there’s a distinct unity in the contents of the first ten issues of the magazine, from issue 1 in December 1995 to his final double-issue 10/11 in October 1998. Was it also a success in practical terms? His issues varied in size from 82 pp. to 52 pp., but the last “double-issue” contained only 47 pages. Was this a sign that the initiative had run its course, and the necessity to collect materials from the designated list of contributors was becoming increasingly difficult? Some anecdotal evidence would suggest so, though the initial list of 25 had received a few additions by 1998.

The main factor in Loney’s decision to stop editing the magazine in 1998 was, however, undoubtedly his desire to leave for Melbourne, where a series of new artistic and publishing challenges awaited him. Somewhat surprisingly, two of the initiatives he’d pioneered at Auckland during the three years he was working in the English Department there – Holloway Press fine publishers (run with Peter Simpson), and A Brief Description of the Whole World (run with the cooperation of what was officially described as “The Writers Group”: essentially, the existing list of subscribers / contributors) – survived his departure. Both are still operating to this day.

It was almost a year before A Brief Description of the Whole World (now called ABDOTWW) started up again. In the meantime, though, a special issue (no. 12), consisting of a reprint of Leigh Davis’s 1983 sonnet sequence Willy’s Gazette, had appeared, financed by Davis himself (hence its unusually high production values).

The new editor was John Geraets, who’d been a contributor from the very beginning, and whose failure to get state financing for his own magazine had inspired the whole venture in the first place. His first independent issue (no. 13) showed little change from the prevailing temperature of the Loney era, but from issue 14 onwards a distinct shift in tone and direction became apparent.

As Geraets himself put it in his editorial for issue 15:
The magazine is not exclusionary, though that is what some who have felt excluded from it in the past may complain. It provides the mechanism for a forthright, rigorous, tendentious, experimental, robust, progressive, open, unsentimental, proud, reflexive, urgent literary practice.
He went on to explain:
ABDOTWW welcomes submissions from all interested persons, each submission will be considered in terms of the relation of intrinsic interest (a tricky matter!) to the context of assemblage outline. On occasion the magazine does solicit or invite material, perhaps related to a specific issue, or for the mere pleasure in having certain writings or writers included.
In effect, this statement of Geraets began an entirely new magazine, one which no longer privileged the status of a preset list of 25-+-certain-additions-by-contributors four-or-so pages by whom might be confidently anticipated in each new issue.

In practice, one must admit, this had never really constituted the sole contents of the journal, even in its first three years. One notes, for example, the inclusion of C. K. Stead in issue 4, of Brigid Furey in issue 6, Leicester Kyle from issue 6 onwards. What Geraets was saying, in effect, though, was that the experiment was over. It had run its course.

The original contributors were never subsequently excluded from the magazine’s pages, but they were no longer necessarily dominant within each issue. ABDOTWW was now to be just one more “merit-by-works” magazine, though it kept its list of subscribers, its cheap production methods, and its freedom from external funding. One might argue, in fact, that it had become more truly the voice of its constituency be ceasing to define that constituency so rigidly in advance.

So much is history. The facts behind what I’m telling you can be easily checked by visiting the brief website, which includes a complete index of the magazine’s contents over the 16 years of its operation, together with a breakdown of the 271 authors and artists who have contributed to it over that period.

What I would like to argue here, though, is that a good deal of the ongoing vitality of brief (or whatever you wish to call it: the choice of a name has a good deal to do with whether you see it as a single magazine or as a set of separate, chronologically-bounded journals) is based on the arguments and controversies which have found expression in its pages.

New Zealand is a small place. “Great hatred, little room”, as W. B. Yeats remarked of his own isolate state. The local literary set has never been an exception to this rule, though there’s always been a tendency on the part of governments and state-funded Arts bureaucrats to try and smooth over the cracks in the interest of providing some kind of officially sponsored state literature (the centenary celebrations of 1940 are one notorious case, with Allen Curnow and Douglas Lilburn roped in as unofficial laureates for some cultural concensus – the more recent Poet Laureate scheme might be seen as another example).

Some of these arguments have taken place in public, some in private. From the information given above, it’s clear that Loney’s A Brief Description of the Whole World was meant to stand as the embodiment of one of these ongoing disputes: the clash between the (so-called) “mainstream” and Loney’s “other tradition” in New Zealand Poetry. The choice of contributors was intended to reflect this, and there was no confusion possible over the implications of the contents of each issue, given that they were prefaced by a series of critical reflections by Loney (many of them subsequently reprinted in his Selected Essays, edited by John Geraets, and issued (by the new book-publishing arm of the Writers Group) in 2001.

Flags in the Dust: the Leigh Davis affair

Something new happened in 1999, though. In only his second issue as editor, John Geraets included a review by Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul (now Associate Professor of Design at AUT) of Wystan Curnow and Leigh Davis (eds) Te Tangi a te Matuhi (Auckland: Jack Books, 1999). The book was a record of Davis’s exhibition Station of Earthbound Ghosts, held at Gisborne and Auckland in March 1999.

The review was, to say the least, somewhat critical of this exhibition and its sumptuously designed and printed catalogue (published by Leigh Davis’ own self-funded publishing house, Jack Books). Among other things, she included a map of appropriations of Maori land by Europeans between the years 1860 and 1939, with the caption “happy biculturalism’, in the context of what she deemed the book (and, by implication, the exhibition’s) alignment with “New Zealand Tourist Board rhetorics”: which (she further remarks) “smacks more of a taking of sides for artistic effect, than a contribution to the culture which has already paid the price.” (p.30)

She also objected strongly to the appropriation of Hauhau and Ringatu flags and emblems in the book and exhibition (even going to the length of quoting certain opinions on the subject which she had solicited from Maori elders). Engels-Schwarzpaul concluded her review by saying:
You might think that I am taking things too seriously, that the game is not really that dangerous and the stakes for Davis not that high either. In that case, you might choose to sit back and enjoy the sensuous presentation of this book, and the pleasant shivers of watching a revolution with blank ammunition. (30)
The immediate consequences of this hostile review can be charted in a fairly straightforward manner. Leigh Davis never again contributed work to brief, though he’d earlier financed an entire issue devoted to his own work, and sent work for both of John Geraets’ first two issues: 13 and 14. Wystan Curnow, who had been a regular contributor throughout the Loney era, published one further piece in brief 18, but then did not appear in the magazine again until Jen Crawford guest-edited an issue in 2009.

Brief had, in other words, ceased to be the house journal of the official New Zealand “oppositional” (to borrow another Loney term) avant-garde.

It’s hard to believe that Geraets can have been unaware of the implications of what he was doing. The precise terms of Engels Schwarzpaul’s indictment of Davis (and, by implication, Curnow) accused them of conducting “a revolution with blank ammunition” – appropriating indigenous cultural materials in the interests of a naïve and impotent politically-correct attitudinizing.

Whether Engels Schwarzpaul was right or not, whether she might be thought to have missed the point of the exhibition and conducted an inquisition into the political bona fides of two intensely serious and committed artists with no real knowledge of the background of their work in general, is largely beside the point. Brief had published the review, and therefore – at least in some sense – endorsed this set of accusations as worthy of being heard. It was, to say the least, a watershed for the magazine.

The fact that Leigh Davis, as well as being an avant-garde poet and critic, was one of the financial success stories of New Zealand’s monetarist 1980s could no longer be deemed an irrelevant aside in assessments of the net effect of his work: particularly of this exhibition. Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul had placed such matters firmly on the agenda, where they’ve remained ever since (so far as brief is concerned, at any rate; less so in the rest of New Zealand’s anaemic and mealy-mouthed literary scene).

The real hero of this controversy, though (if it needs one) would have to be John Geraets. His editorial to issue 14 consisted of a reprint of a correspondence he’d been having with writer and political maverick Scott Hamilton, where Scott spells out in detail what he terms “the Leigh Davis paradox”:
The paradox of Leigh Davis goes something like this: a poet who is regarded as important (and, dare we say it, avant-garde) by a number of other poets and theorists who valorize words like ‘oppositional’, resistant’, and ‘destabilizing’ – who, in short, consider themselves a subversive group, an opposition – works as a merchant banker for Fay Richwhite. Sorry if I’m being obtuse, but I see a contradiction between being an important member of a ruling class which has in the last fifteen years devastated this country – a group of people which has destroyed or besieged many of the institutions of this country, including crucial cultural institutions like the Public library system, Public radio, Maori news, the system of free tertiary education etc. – and writing ‘oppositional’ poetry. Oppositional to what? To the thousands of jobs that disappeared after Fay Richwhite bought and gutted NZ Rail, perhaps?

Several years ago, in an interview in the NZ Herald, Leigh Davis said, “I love capitalism ... the movement of goods and services, surpluses an deficits, people’s wants and needs and their expression” Not exactly the words of a young ‘voyant’, are they? (p.4)
John Geraets had a number of points to make in reply. One stands out at this distance in time, however: “You conflate my magazine with the one that Alan started.” Just so. The magazine had indeed moved on, and by doing so, had asserted its right to be seen as still lively and relevant. His letter continues:
In the upcoming issue of ABDOTWW there is a challenging review essay on the Davis, Curnow et al flags project publication, Read that. (p.6)

Le Grand Lustucru: The Ross / Loney dispute

Rather than trying to summarise even the main points about the magazine’s growth and development under John Geraets, I’d like to jump ahead now three years to 2002, when I inherited the job of managing editor from him.

What happened next can perhaps best be summarized by quoting from my editorial to issue 25 (2002). Although I have no doubt that some of the participants in this controversy might well regard me as a somewhat partial witness, this procedure has at least the merit of confining the discussion to published sources:
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. …

Loney continues:
… 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.
… To answer the point … 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 see any contradiction in combining this with a quest for new talent and new approaches, however.

It all sounds a bit pompous to me ten years on, but I went on to conclude my editorial tirade by saying:
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.
It may sound a bit hypocritical of me to say so, but (in retrospect) I have a lot more sympathy for Alan Loney’s position. He wrote to me after the appearance of my first issue to say that, while he thanked me for my favourable review of his latest book, The Falling, he’d had to consign the rest of the magazine to the dustbin, given some of the authors I’d seen fit to include in its pages.

It would be invidious to mention precisely which names he went on to mention, but suffice it to say that they must have seemed actively calculated to make him see red. It’s hard enough to keep up with your own literary feuds at times, though, let alone taking on other people’s – I can honestly say that my offence was completely inadvertent. As to the quality of the work submitted by those authors, I cannot but feel (now) that he may have had a point.

At the time, though I saw the issue as centred firmly on the fact that a previous editor was claiming the right to veto the magazine’s contents in the future. Perhaps I should simply have borrowed John Geraets’ words” “You conflate my magazine with the one that [you] started.” So far as I was concerned, I was continuing the magazine which Geraets had created – while attempting to put my own stamp on it.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the controversy, I continued to edit the magazine for another two years. I did receive a few letters of protest from Loney’s original set of contributors – but, by the same token, I received a number of letters of support both from that group and from other people (including one from Leigh Davis, interestingly enough). I’m not aware that any of them (with the exception of Alan Loney himself) ceased to contribute material.

So, while at the time I saw it as a battle between politically quietist formalists, determined to stamp out the socially-concerned positions being staked out by the new-look brief, I now think that it was more of a consolidation of an argument already partially articulated in Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul’s review of the Flags project.

On the positive side, though, it did confirm that brief had now become a magazine where the (so-called) cultural “avant-garde” could expect to be held responsible for their works and opinions, rather than the automatic rubberstamp supplied by a dedicated interest-group.

Epilogue: Pandora’s box: Michael Arnold and Lulu.com

The saga has, of course, continued. I still feel a certain perverse pride at having been the first to publish a series of translations of a poem by imprisoned Algerian refugee (and suspected terrorist) Ahmed Zaoui in issue 31 (2004) – nicely combining the aesthetic and the political, I thought (that double issue, the largest in brief history, was entitled Kunst / Kultur).

When Scott Hamilton took over as managing editor, in 2005, he shifted the magazine firmly into the political side of that equation. The subsequent rash of guest and short-time editors, though, has guaranteed a wide diversity of views, ranging from the more aesthetic focus of a Jen Crawford or a Richard von Sturmer to the maverick opinionatedness of a Brett Cross or a Bill Direen.

Recently, though, the last bastion of Loney’s design for his independent, self-funding magazine has come under attack. Scott Hamilton shifted it from the A4, pagework-friendly Xerox format to its present form: an A5, perfect-bound chapbook. Its present managing editor, Michael Arnold, has succeeded both in attracting Creative New Zealand funding for the magazine and in listing it for sale both as a file-download and a print-on-demand book on the website Lulu.com.

This has given rise to the complaint (from some contributors) that they weren’t consulted before having their work reproduced in this form, which was – at the very least – a breach of literary etiquette. Once again, one feels below the surface of this dispute over copyright and literary punctilios a larger dispute over the ownership and commercial status of non-commercial, “literary” writing. It’s one thing to publish it for free in a small magazine. It’s quite another to put it up online to be copied freely by anyone with a pdf decoder.

I’ve been watching this argument unfold with a great deal of interest: on the one hand I’m grateful – for once – not to be in the direct firing line; on the other hand, I’m concerned that it might be the last straw for brief, that without a vital internet presence the magazine really has reached its use-by date.

Is brief magazine still relevant now? Who can say? It’s only ever reached a very small audience of subscribers and literary experimentalists, which would seem to demonstrate that its influence cannot be compared to more conveniently accessible publications such as Landfall or Sport. But is that really a useful criterion for judgement?

I’d prefer to think that the proof that brief remains relevant lies in the fact that, despite all odds, it continues to come out. Its actual value, though, in my opinion, lies in this precious, hard-fought-for ability to act as a lightning rod for flashpoint cultural issues.

If it ever stops doing that, it might as well die – in my opinion, at least. So far, though, it shows no signs of ceasing to piss people off and generally be rambunctious and irresponsible. That’s why I, for one, intend to continue to support its (at times) bizarre and offputting inclusiveness.

Works Cited:

Engels-Schwarzpaul, Tina. “Between meaning and nonsense: review of W. Curnow / L. Davis (eds) Te Tangi a te Matuhi (Auckland: Jack Books, 1999).” ABDOTWW 14 (1999): 23-33.

Geraets, John. “Editorial Note.” ABDOTWW 14 (1999): 3-6.

Geraets, John. “Editorial Note.” ABDOTWW / description 15 (2000): 5-6.

Loney, Alan. “Power and the Scandal of Editing: the Case for A Brief Description of the Whole World.” Reading / Saying / Making: Selected Essays. Auckland: The Writers Group, 2001: 126-33.

Ross, Jack. “Editorial.” Brief 25: Trains at a Glance (2002): 3-6.

Zaoui, Ahmed. “He will come back …”: 5 versions. Trans. Riemke Ensing (et al.). Brief 31: Kultur (2004): 12-21.

– Jack Ross (4/7/11)

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