SPORT 46: A conversation with the editors

This year, Sport turned 30. It was started in 1988 by Fergus Barrowman, Nigel Cox, Damien Wilkins and Elizabeth Knox, with assistance from Bill Manhire, Alan Preston and Andrew Mason, as a platform for emerging writers whose work didn’t easily fit elsewhere. Some of those emerging writers were people like Jenny Bornholdt, James Brown, Gregory O’Brien and Catherine Chidgey – writers who are now widely celebrated.

Sport started as a biannual publication, but since 2003 has appeared once a year. The last few issues have been edited by Fergus Barrowman (FB), Ashleigh Young (AY) and Kirsten McDougall (KM).

KM. I thought we could start by saying how we choose the pieces to go into the journal. What do we each look for in a piece?

AY: This is so hard to pin down exactly, and all too often you hear editors saying, ‘You know it when you see it.’ And of course there’s truth to that, but it’s really important as an editor to be able to say what it is that you’re seeing, or not seeing. So, there are a few things:

I look for a sense of necessity in the writing. I love it when a piece of writing feels as though it needed to have been written, and written by this person only. When that happens, the writing holds my attention completely, and I feel glad that it exists.

I’m always looking for voices that I don’t feel I’ve heard before, and work that takes risks – not only in the way it uses language, but in the way it uses perspective, structure, argument. Sometimes if a piece of work makes me feel uncomfortable, that means it’s working. The definitions of ‘good writing’ are endlessly negotiable.

I love it when there’s real enjoyment in the writing – a sense that the writer is enjoying what they’re doing; enjoying finding out, line by line, what this work is going to be. Also, I have to say that one of my biggest weaknesses is a good joke. I am just always drawn to a piece of writing that makes me laugh. I can’t help it.

One of the great things about working in a team for Sport is that we can talk about our discoveries and have a continually evolving conversation about the writing. When you find a piece that you want to accept, you feel such pleasure – both in the work itself and also for the writer, because it’s such a good feeling to have work accepted. When there’s something that we have to turn away, it’s hard. I know how it feels, and that makes it even harder. If you’ve sent work to Sport and we’ve said no, please don’t stop sending your work! Without a wide variety of submissions, Sport wouldn’t exist.

FB: What Ashleigh said!

I’m dodging the question, but I do find it impossible to judge writing by a checklist, or to set out in advance what I’m looking for.

KM: It’s easier for me to answer this question by saying what I respond to in my reading, so I’ll talk about a story that was an immediate yes for me when I read the submissions. This is Rose Lu’s story about living with her parents and grandparents in a house in Whanganui. I loved how she uses the description of the fabrics and textures of the household to give us information about the family. All this is done on the first page. The narrator swaps between pairs of slippers to move between the home and the dairy that is at the front of her home, there’s the stools behind the dairy counter that are ‘upholstered with tan faux leather, cracked and patchy.’ There’s her grandparents in front of the TV in the lounge on La-Z-Boys draped over with heavy curtain fabric, covering their knees with the grandson’s baby blanket. With a deft sweep of the eye around two rooms, the story has given me so much information about these people’s lives, so much so that I feel I almost know the smell of their house. This immediacy pulled me in straight away and I wanted to know more about this family. It’s a story about immigrant experience, homesickness and longing for a home that you don’t have anymore. It’s about the untranslatabilty of experiences in different cultures. Finally, it’s a beautiful portrait of two elderly people. I loved that Rose Lu was writing a story based in a home that said so much about socio-economics and migration and family. Stories like this remind us that politics starts at home. I guess that’s what I respond to in work – something invades my imagination with its textures and its ideas. Finally, I loved that as a reader I didn’t know anything about Rose Lu. I always get a great rush of optimism and joy when I read exciting new writers for the first time.

I’m big on readers with editorial and critical roles having open hearts and minds. People talk about literature’s gatekeepers, which makes me think of farmers with whistles, and dogs and sheep. As an editor of Sport, I think of myself as a sheep that's run off with the farmer's whistle for a few minutes. This job is totally subjective. With that comes a responsiblity to be open to new sounds, new ways of speaking and to be prepared to have your mind changed.

KM. Of course we start the journal with this phenomenal interview conducted by Anna Smaill with Bill Manhire. How did that come about Fergus?

FB: Anna is writing a book about Bill’s poetry, and this interview is part of her early research.

KM: Until this interview I don’t think I’d seen anyone really climb inside Bill’s writer’s mind with such acute attention and curiosity.

AY: I really like the moment in this interview when Bill tells us that the poets who have really mattered to him were the ones he found for himself. It reminded me of that feeling of wandering around the town library on a Friday night, or a second-hand bookshop, and just coming across something. And I think a literary mag can be a similar place for people to go – you find things for yourself then go on to search out more.

KM. What’s it like editing with others, Fergus? Not so much in terms of workload, but in terms of giving Ash and me a voice in shaping the issue?

FB: Editing your own literary magazine = I’ve always needed other readers to test my certainties and uncertainties against, so I’ve always had co-editors or guest editors or on-demand readers; but I’ve always kept end-of-the-day control too, and this organically shared editorship feels different. I like it. I think it only works because we’re all at VUP so it’s part of an ongoing taste conversation. Really it’s part of Sport’s heel-dragging move from being an independent magazine to fully inside the tent.

Q. Fergus, can you see any major changes in the writing that’s being published now in Sport compared to say ten years ago, and twenty years ago? In terms of content and quality?

FB: Someone else with more critical distance needs to answer this question. You can see trends in writing reflected in Sport’s pages, but I’m never sure if that’s influence or more a sign that writers here are swimming in the same currents as writers elsewhere. I couldn’t tell whether several pieces in this Sport were fiction or non-fiction, and I think those pieces sit very naturally amidst the ‘autofiction’ that is providing some of my best reading.

The number of submissions remains enormous, but the average quality – or entry-level standard – has definitely risen. We have an amazingly healthy writing culture.

Bill Manhire: Actually I think Fergus is right that it's hard to tell. I'm struck by the fact that with the early issues of Sport, you felt you could get your head round each one fairly easily, hold the contents in mind, see where emphases lay, and so on. That was helped by the twice-a-year thing, and the lower page-count per issue. But I don't think it was just that. There actually was a group of writers (people like Nigel Cox, Elizabeth Knox, Damien Wilkins) who were hanging out their shingles.

Whereas now the annual issue of Sport is excitingly bewildering – so much going on (300 or 400 pages!), and though there's obvious editorial ordering, the whole thing feels like a big rich box full of vast quantities of goodies. Now, rather than following from one page to the next, you close your eyes and reach in and pull something out to look at. Or I do. (So it's all a bit like the wider changes in the NZ literary world over the same time period.)

Which reminds me that my favourite item in the early Sports was the erratum slip in Sport 2, which simply says: "Please read page 79 / before page 78".

FB: Before there were cut-and-paste errors there were cut-and-wax errors. (This reminds me that Sport is older than the internet and what we used to call desktop publishing.)

KM. How many more Sports do you have in you Fergus? A good half century?

FB: Why stop halfway?