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Joining the club: On the high hopes and broken dreams of millennials who want their writing published

Tim Grgec plucked up courage to submit his poetry to literary journals. But he didn’t know anyone in New Zealand writing and no one had ever heard of him. So then what?

I used to think of New Zealand’s poetry scene as an exclusive club – a club constricted in living, with strict rules on how to act and behave. It was a club that no one talked about or told me how to join. A club inaccessible to aspiring writers like me.

I felt like Homer Simpson trying to get into the Stonecutters. My friends were getting published in journals, enjoying a life of luxury chairs and reserved highways. While next to them, off to the side, I was stuck in traffic, my poems unwanted in the folders of my laptop.

It’s easy to get caught up in the pretence of literary elitism. No one really reads poetry because no one understands it. Some of the more cultured might repost an inspirational quote from Tumblr on Instagram, but for most millennials, the last time you confronted a poem was in the unfamiliar text section of your NCEA Level 2 English exam.

But there’s a wide range of literary journals in New Zealand. It’s not just the high-brow who read them either. There are many audiences for New Zealand writing: many Stonecutter clubs. Most of them are actually pretty cool with new writers joining too. There are no set rules or criteria that define what a poem should be or what makes it publishable. Holly Hunter, junior editor at Victoria University Press and founder of Mimicry journal, explains her view that if a poem “has the capacity to move the reader in whatever way, it’s publishable at least in some form.”

But how do you know whether your writing will affect others?

The only way to find out is by submitting your writing to the big bad world of publishers. Most aspiring poets are nerds who have spent all of their time confiding in books – just talking to other human beings is hard, having editors judge your work is downright terrifying.

I started writing poetry in my last year of high-school. I can’t really remember why. Probably after a literal misreading of Robin Williams’ character John Keating, who famously proclaims to his students in Dead Poets Society: “language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women,” which, in hindsight, is awfully sexist and reductive advice.

At an all-boys secondary school, I would’ve been the target of ridicule had my peers known I wrote poetry. Even the admission of reading a prescribed English text was looked at suspiciously. Poetry, then, was always a private task.

I would sit up late at night in my room and write embarrassingly clichéd poems about love and women in my Moleskin notebooks, taking inspiration from books I found at home. As I grew up, almost everything I ever needed to read I found among my parents’ bookshelves – from Essential New Zealand Poems to Jane Austen’s novels to AJP Taylor’s historiography.

A few years later, I tried to get serious about writing during an undergraduate poetry workshop paper at the IIML. One of the course learning objectives was to “write poetry of a standard comparable to poems being published in contemporary New Zealand literary magazines.” That was all I wanted: to be published.

To me, getting published was what defined you as a poet. To publish was to make your writing public. Your poetry was out there, in the open. It was the measurable transition from the aspiring to the real. It was a way of being recognised, of being heard.

As a naïve third-year English Literature and History major, I thought I knew a little bit about what made “publishable” writing. I went straight to the top, submitting a few of my best poems to Landfall and Hue & Cry.

James Brown, my course convener at the IIML, touched on the process of how to submit to journals. It seemed like lots of emails and cover letters and stamped self-addressed envelopes and waiting and waiting.

Brown was my first figure of support in writing; my first genuine critic and mentor. Brown, as course convener, became the reference point. He was the omniscient figure whose opinion I held above everyone else’s. But he never said if he thought my work was good enough (clearly because it wasn’t), or what I needed to do to get there. No one did. It was like this big secret. None of us on the IIML course ever discussed what poems we thought might be good enough for publication, or what journals we were thinking of submitting to.

Perhaps I was hoping for some aspiring poets’ helpline that offered advice on how to get my first poem published. Whether to show instead of tell. To underwrite rather than overwrite. Clarification on what space I should allow for emotion, or where to be more ambiguous and restrained, forcing the reader to interpret the meaning. I guess I wanted a clear, definitive guide on what made editors take notice. I wanted encouragement, as well as affirmation. But it never came.

The anticipation was unbearable. At first I checked my emails hourly. I would tidy the lounge in my flat, or do the dishes, madly cleaning every porcelain surface until it shone, trying to distract myself from looking at my phone. During lectures I’d open Gmail on my laptop, just in case there was some kind of glitch where I wasn’t notified about a new email. In bookshops, I was doing quick maths every time I picked up a poetry book, checking the age of the author and wondering how many more years I’d have left to be published myself.

After not hearing back immediately, a week would pass, then another and then another. Eventually resignation took over and my life became subsumed again with all of the other priorities of student life and survival. Like hanging out at bars and gigs, 21sts, assignments, red cards, and every night before going to bed worrying about what I’ll do when I finish my Arts degree at the end of the year with a $30,000 student loan and no job prospects.

A few months later, when I’d forgotten all about it, I got a response from Imogen Coxhead that read: “Dear contributor. Thank you for submitting your work to Landfall 229. It has been read with interest.

“Unfortunately we have been unable to find a place for your work in this issue.

“However, the editor would welcome the opportunity to see future work from you, should you wish to submit it.”

By this stage I had come to expect it and could easily rationalise my decline. Of course I was no way near good enough. This was the best literary journal in the country. I didn’t really know who Imogen Coxhead and her editor David Eggleton were. I’d never even read a full issue of Landfall. I was just some impulsive 20-year-old who did a poetry course. The editors of Hue & Cry sent me a similar response.

I started questioning everything. What was my poetry missing? Why did I even write? All those hours spent agonising over words and line breaks, what was it all for?

I took some time out from writing and just read lots. I figured I needed to get a feel for New Zealand’s poetry journals and support the underfunded literary scene I was trying to be a part of. Instead of looking for a job, trying to transition from education into meaningful employment, I spent hours at the library and bookshops reading issues of Sport, Landfall, Hue & Cry and JAAM. I read online issues of Turbine, Best New Zealand Poems and the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre.

Reading contemporary work felt like I was reading poets in conversation with themselves, a conversation I wanted to be a part of, and perhaps one day influence. There were so many New Zealand writers I read then that are still central to my poetics. Amy Brown, Louise Wallace, Kate Camp, Bob Orr and Bernadette Hall are all poets I kept coming back to.

Bob Orr, Bernadette Hall, Kate Camp, Louise Wallace, and Amy Brown.

While I appreciate language, the poetry I love most finds new ways of looking at ordinary details. I love writers who capture emotion not by exposing the remarkable, but by exposing what is already familiar. Poetry that presents a new world: a palpable and recognisable world made from the fragments of our tired, everyday reality.

I realised there was innovative, fun stuff around too. Chapbooks were a thing. I discovered Carolyn de Carlo and Jackson Nieuwland’s Bound: an ode to falling in love (Compound Press), a collection of love poems as if written between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Later, Nina Powles released a brilliant poetic biography of famous New Zealand historical women, Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press). Hera Lindsay Bird was galvanising mainstream interest in poetry with her Spinoff poems. She wrote about iconic 90s sitcoms, held BYO writing workshops and got tweeted by Lorde. No longer, it seemed, was poetry something for literary nerds, or quotidian at funerals. Poetry could be cool.

I also realised rejection from Landfall and Hue & Cry wasn’t the disaster I imagined, (I mean, people have been executed for being poets). I moved on. As Holly Hunter puts it, submitting work to publishers is kind of like asking that cute person you fancy whether they want to grab a drink: “The only negative is that, back at theirs after the bar, you’ll have to endure a post-coital review of everything they liked and disliked that night.”

My first publication was in Sweet Mammalian Issue 3, a New Zealand literary journal which aims to embrace “an ever increasing diversity of [literary] voices.” They published two of my poems. I got invited to perform at their issue launch at Lit Crawl, Wellington’s annual literary festival. It was then, reading to a crowd of strangers crammed into the Ferret Bookshop on Cuba St, shaking from the wind rattling the windows, the excitement shaking me as well, that I felt like a poet. I’ve since been published in Salient, Mimicry, ART, Starling and The Spinoff Review of Books.

Getting accepted into a journal makes it all worth it. It’s a burst of encouragement; a wild rush of validation – like the sex was good enough and that cute person you fancy is keen for a second date. Being published means an editor wants to share your poems – and that, finally, someone other than your mum likes your writing. It justifies all of those hours spent arranging words on scrap paper and Word docs. That compulsion to write finally means something. Perhaps one day I’ll make another submission to Landfall.