This is the first installment of an occasional feature we will run to highlight a small journal or press outside of the US context.
Since moving to Aotearoa New Zealand in the summer of 2019, I have noticed the myopic scope of my literary and lingual attention. First, until moving here, I knew little about New Zealand or that its name in te reo Māori, the first language of this place, is Aotearoa which translates to “land of the long white cloud.” Born in Ohio, a graduate of a US MFA program, and product of the US education system, I’ve grappled very little with literature outside of what’s marketed in US bookstores. Sure, we’re taught to read the Baudelaires, Nerudas, maybe Arundhati Roy, and translations of Murakami, but no class or teacher pointed me to a literary journal outside of the US. And sadly, I never pursued my curiosity much further than the North American context.
Aotearoa is a small place, one whose inhabitants often write about or around the experience of living on an island of under 5 million humans, in a country that is most likely to be left off a world map. While in Māori and Pasifika literature here, there is often a sense of connection to others brought about by living in relation to vast stretches of ocean, as the world has become increasingly globalized and entrapped in systems of neoliberal economics, New Zealand writing bubbles with an energy to break the confines of isolation. Take for example Ashleigh Young’s, Windham-Campbell Prize Winning book of essays Can You Tolerate This? which often speaks to a commonly expressed desire to travel, experience an ‘elsewhere,’ to form connections with other parts of the world.
While Aotearoa has been the envy of much of the world for its Covid-19 response, (a collective ethos and proactive government are possible things, Americans!), many who were looking forward to those experiences of connection through travel are experiencing a different loss of disconnection, feeling further cut off from the world.
I write all this as a primer to today’s spotlight interview on the online journal Starling started by award-winning poet Louise Wallace in collaboration with her friend, colleague, and fellow writer Francis Cooke. Starling (tagline: New Writing from Young New Zealanders) was founded in 2015 and has quickly become a go-to journal for young writers in Aotearoa, and a launching pad for many new writing careers. Their most recent issue, Summer 2021 (remember, southern hemisphere!), was launched this week. Starling issues begin with poems or prose by one experienced New Zealand writer before featuring 20-25 young writers and concluding with an interview. I have found the journal an excellent resource in acclimating to this new literary place, a place in which both the feeling of isolation, and increasing lingual awareness of Māori and Pasifika culture, rights, and injustices, often ride in the background of the work.
Clicking through Issue 11, many of the works straddle the line between prose and poetry. Many young writers stretch form with slashes, contrapuntals, found-text, erasure, and varied lineation. When I read works such as “A Room Recording” by Tessa Keenan, I see such a skillful use of the unpunctuated prose block in poetic form, a pushing against the confines of the “room” of the poem, to find abundance within. When I read Rhys Feeney’s “Decoherence” I am drawn into the use of scientific metaphor, repetition, and formal innovation to express a longing to stretch beyond the monotony of place and oppressive (colonial) economic structures. When I interviewed Louise, she talked to me about the formal innovations that she sees and admires in young writers in Aotearoa. As I reflect on that interview and what I’ve read from Starling I can’t help but draw a connection between formal experimentation and that feeling of disconnection that recurs in writing from this island nation.
My hope is that Gasher readers see this feature as an encouragement to peek beyond US borders to our peers elsewhere. I know I am learning so much about the limits of my knowledge as a writer from the US and I am grateful to Louise for taking the time to chat with us over a cuppa (as they say here).
Rushi: To start off, what prompted you to start Starling?
Louise: When I was a young writer, I remember submitting to journals where I could, potentially, be up against the likes of say Bill Manhire [well-known former poet laureate] competing for the same publication space, which seemed an intimidating order. I grew up in a very isolated region of New Zealand. It was a very small community, and it was also pre-internet-times. So I was quite keen to set up an opportunity that wasn’t restricted by living in a main center [Auckland/Tāmaki Makaurau and Wellington/Te Whanganui a Tara are the two main centers in New Zealand in addition to Christchurch/Ōtautahi and Dunedin/Ōtepoti on the South Island]. I wanted to create an opportunity accessible to young people all over New Zealand since so much seems to be restricted to Auckland and Wellington. Essentially, I set out to create a publication I would have wanted for myself.
R: In addition to accessibility, what were some of the key features you had in mind for the journal? I know that you kick off each issue with one more experienced writer, followed by younger writers, some of whom find their first publication in Starling. What sort of community were you hoping to foster?
L: We hoped that by featuring an experienced, guest writer in addition to an interview or group interview, that we could give the younger group a platform alongside some established writers. We wanted to show that these younger writers do have a place in the larger literary community in New Zealand, that they are in conversation with more senior writers. What’s exceeded our expectations is that younger writers have taken on this vibe, or energy, themselves and have begun to create their own community. We’ve done quite a few events such as readings and issue launches for Starling writers, but heaps of the writers are now friends and creative collaborators. Starling has become this really supportive community that has gone far beyond what we originally hoped for. So that’s been amazing to see.
In order to make sure that the work by these young writers would be taken seriously, we spent a lot of time paying attention to how the journal looked. While we had the idea for Starling long before we launched, neither my co-founder Francis Cooke nor I are coders or software developers. Still, we knew we wanted to do an online journal for accessibility reasons and relative ease of administration. At first, this seemed only a dream, since the idea for Starling came before the proliferation of website-building platforms like Squarespace. But when those service providers came along, that allowed us to start constructing. We have full control over the magazine’s aesthetics and content, instead of needing to explain to a third party what we want.
With young people’s writing, I’d noticed a tendency towards thinking, “oh they’re just young,” and to treat the writing like it is at a junior level. At Starling we know that this writing is just as good as anything anyone else can produce or is producing no matter the age. We spent a lot of time making sure we could achieve the visual layout we wanted so people would come to the site and realize, “this is the real deal.”
R: So you’ve been running Starling for going on 6 years now. What have you noticed about young writers in New Zealand in regard to aesthetic shifts, content interests, etc.? What has you excited about new writing in Aotearoa?
L: I have noticed a strong visually experimental vein with work submitted to Starling. Maybe that’s just because the writers have seen that we are capable of producing the layouts they want, but a lot of young writers here are more bold in terms of their style and form than I was as a young writer. We see a lot of techniques like erasure, caesura and slashes, whereas when I was a young writer I wouldn’t have even known what some of these forms were. So formal innovation is a trend that I see. Another thing that really strikes me is that these young writers are so much more fearless than I was in terms of their topics and what they want to say in their work. They seem sure of who they are and what they want to say. I felt like I took such a long time to figure that out, and maybe I am still figuring that out! But I admire that fearlessness that I see in them.
R: Being trained as a writer in the US, I can say that many of us can often be clueless as to what is happening elsewhere in the anglophone writing world. For some readers of GASHER who might not be familiar with the scene in Aotearoa New Zealand, are there any other publication venues that you think are really good resources?
L: The Pantograph Punch is one. They publish a lot of features on important topics nationally, in addition to art and literary reviews. In terms of news and political features, The Spinoff is a go-to, including the Books section and poetry published there [edited by poet Chris Tse]. Scum Magazine is an Australasian creative journal, and they are publishing new voices. Sweet Mammalian publishes online issues of New Zealand writing. Headland publishes creative non-fiction, as well. Tupuranga is a journal that prioritizes indigenous voices of Aotearoa. But these are just a few from the online literary landscape here.
R: What’s next for Starling?
L: Certainly with Covid, physical events and community building have been hampered, but we just want to continue to grow. We are hoping to transition this journal, eventually, to become a space for young writers run by young writers. It’s a step-by-step process to get there, but we are excited and motivated by that goal.
If you run a small press or journal outside of the US and are interested in being featured in this occasional column, say hello at email@example.com.
Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things in 2017. Her poems have appeared in journals including Atlanta Review, Landfall, Meanjin and Sport, and have been anthologised in a number of collections, including Short Poems of New Zealand (2018) and Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry (2019). In 2015 she was the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago, Dunedin. In 2016 she represented New Zealand at the Mexico City Poetry Festival. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago on long narrative poems by women, [domestic] paralysis and poetic form. She tweets: @LouiseM_Wallace.