Online literary magazines are giving breath to a new wave of gender diverse writing
Poet Lily Holloway sits on her living room floor, surrounded by op-shop books, vintage magazines, and a stickers pack from the 90s. She is gluing together a paper eel. It twists and turns in her hands, a mix of blues and greens and a pop of yellow. The creature now lives on the home page of Eel Mag—New Zealand’s newest literary magazine.
Eel Mag is a collaboration between poets Shaina Pablo, Nathan Joe, and Lily Holloway. It’s a queer literary publication for poets of Aotearoa.
“It’s about creating a space of inclusion and queer celebration. And in doing so energising and facilitating the community that is queer literature, and queer poetry in our country,” Holloway says.
Eel Mag is the latest of Aotearoa’s online literary magazines, which are making space for new writers, giving breath to gender diverse voices, and opening the door to New Zealand literature. Journals like Starling, Sweet Mammalian, Stasis and now Eel Mag are often the first place new Kiwi poets share their work.
Writer Paula Green calls them a “conversation between things you know and things you don’t know”. Green thinks there is something fascinating going on in these spaces. “If you look at any issue [of Starling] now, you see that a lot of those writers are women. And I just find it really fascinating that there’s a real groundswell of young women writing who are appearing online. And it’s the same if you pick the journal Sweet Mammalian. The majority of writers in there are young women.
“You’ll see [people with the pronouns] he, she, they. You’ll see Pākehā, Pasifika, Asian, Māori, a range of voices. And also, our taonga, old voices, are part of the mix as well as secondary school students, people who haven’t had a book out.
“It’s so many different ways of writing. I can’t pinhole it into ‘this is the way young voices are writing at the moment’—everything and anything goes. The form changes, the politics, the subject matter, the degree of the personal in there, and the melodies, the music of the writing, the experimentation. And if you think about that—that whole kind of diversity in voice—out of that comes connection.”
Online literary journals survive on a diet of government grants, volunteered time, and pure editorial passion. Lily Holloway says she picked Eel as the name for a reason: as fresh and salt water travellers, secretive creatures who breed only in the ocean, eels embody a spirit of queerness. “Eels are queer because they’re constantly transforming. They’re transients. They exist in multiple forms, and there is an element of unknown to them that kind of resists definition.”
Her eel collage is a collection of many different things: stickers, picture books, scientific magazines, encyclopaedias. It is one thing and many things at the same time. You can’t pin it down. This messiness is emblematic of young New Zealand writing.
Eel Mag fills a gap in the New Zealand literary environment. Before it came along, Aotearoa had no online queer journals. Holloway: “I engaged with overseas literary publications, queer literary publications as well. And I felt like New Zealand really had a gap in the literary environment for a journal such as this because in Australia and in America, they do have dedicated literary publications for queer writing.”
Shaina Pablo got swept into Eel Mag‘s editorial team through a Facebook message. On Zoom, they told me about Eel Mag‘s kaupapa.
“It is a place to be openly queer, but also to feel safe while doing so. Because I’ve been in a lot of spaces where I feel like I have one foot in the door and one foot out.”
Pablo, a spoken word poet, smiles as they talk.
“This is queer poetry by queer people. It just gives me a little more assurance that I’m okay with [sharing work], and I feel safe doing so. That’s the kind of thing that we’re hoping to spread with this,” Pablo says.
Or as co-editor Nathan Joe puts it, “We should always be historians for our own community, in whatever capacity.”
Many emerging poets have their roots in the online literary scene. Ruby Macomber (Oinafa/Taveuni/Ngāpuhi) was walking down supermarket aisles with her mum when an acceptance email from the journal Starling popped into her inbox.
“I was so so excited. You know, being a little 16-year-old and not really submitting it with the expectation of any confirmation or affirmation in return. So, to receive that from two writers who are incredible and whose work I’ve read, that was a very empowering experience.”
Macomber’s work was for a school poetry performance—it grieved the loss of her Nan. Her high school English teacher encouraged her to submit.
“I can go back and say it all started there. I’m pretty proud of how my writing has been published in different places. I’ve done with writing things that I never even anticipated were possible,” she says.
“I would say that the hardest part about getting work published and getting into the poetry community is the first step—having the courage to submit your first piece. Just make the first step and then every other step after that.”
Since then, Macomber has been published in Awa Wāhine, Taumata Rau, Signals, and more. She works in Te Kahui, a program that brings creative writing to prisons.
While still writing for print, Macomber is cropping up more and more in Aotearoa’s Slam poetry events.
“I think growing up around incredible orators—you know, my Nan was an incredible storyteller—I really want to challenge myself in that space and honour my family in that space.”
Modi Deng sent off her first poems from her university hall bedroom. It was the same room she dyed her hair in on her nineteenth birthday—the same flat where she started cooking for herself. Deng pulled three poems from her desktop and sent the email.
“I was probably falsely confident. Honestly, it wasn’t even scary. I just did it because I think I just really liked writing,” she says.
Deng now has a poetry chapbook out in AUP New Poets 8. She’s a pianist and writer living in London. But without online literary journals, she’s not sure she would have got there.
“I had no idea how to become a writer. Starling felt approachable just because of the way it presents itself for young writers. I didn’t take any creative writing classes. I didn’t know anyone else [who was writing], and then you’d just see these names continuously being in issues, and you’re like ‘Oh, okay, I really like her writing or ‘Oh, that’s so cool’.”
This sense of community is a tidal pull. Tate Fountain, poet and member of Starling‘s editorial board, was also drawn in by her peers.
“I was watching a bunch of other people my age start to [get published]. Hera Lindsay Bird’s book came out, and other people’s chapbooks and things were happening.
“I started reading and looking through Starling; it would be people like Vanessa Crofskey, or Nina Mingya Powles, or even Sinead Overbye, who is now on the editorial committee with me.”
Fountain sent her first poems off while she was on a student exchange to Dublin. But it wasn’t until she came back to Aotearoa that she started to get experimental with her poetry.
“I noticed the prevalence of young women writers, and I was really inspired by that. Because so many of them seemed to be doing so well and putting out such different work, you couldn’t put a pin on what young New Zealand poets were.”
Aotearoa has a long history of literary journals that challenge what it means to be a Kiwi writer and break the rules of what belongs on the page. As Paula Green says, “It’s like the ocean—a constant groundswell of writing and ways of writing, communication and connection across time. It’s not just happening now. It’s always happening. You can look at it and see that it’s always slightly different.”
There was Phoenix (established at Auckland University in the 1930s), then Tomorrow (which published 29 of Frank Sargeson’s short stories), then Landfall… But for much of our literary history, these magazines have been filled with one kind of writer.
“New Zealand journals were pretty much dominated by white men, Pākehā men, and women hadn’t had a look in,” says Paula Green. “In the early 20th century a lot of women writers were not getting published. They were full of self-doubt, they were writing at home along with being a mother and a house wife and everything else.”
But over the years, that started to change. The internet has “definitely made a difference” in the diversity of Kiwi writing, Green says.
Rebecca Hawkes, co-editor of Sweet Mammalian, is very aware of the history of exclusion in Aotearoa literary magazines.
Sweet Mammalian has been around for eight years. It publishes a mix of established and emerging writers. If you flick through its editions you’ll find writing about climate change, decolonisation, Hobbiton, and everything in between.
Hawkes and Nikki-Lee Birdsey took over editing the journal in 2019. “There is kind of a gatekeeping role of journals that I think people are much more aware of now, particularly when it comes to representation of Māori voices and any [marginalised] voices,” Hawkes says.
We spoke on Zoom, her head bobbing slightly out of frame. Hawkes’ steady voice rose with excitement as we talked.
“I think we’re lucky to have more diversity and awareness now. And part of that is because of the enhanced accessibility of journals.”
It’s not just the accessibility of journals that are important, but their ability to “engage with what’s happening right now”, Hawkes says. It takes a while for books to be published, for poetry collections to hit the shelves. But online literary journals can respond to what’s happening in the moment. “You can really keep your finger on the pulse of what’s fresh.”
The journal Stasis is a perfect example. Created in 2020 by editors Sinead Overby and Jordan Hamel, Stasis published work created during lockdown. It sprung up to support artists whose income has been impacted by the pandemic.
Stasis came back to life after Delta knocked Auckland into lockdown round two. While running, it published a new piece every weekday—bringing a spark of daily poetry to the lockdown experience.
“Stasis is a really wonderful example of the kind of immediate power of online journals at the moment,” Hawkes says.
The journal released two issues, both during times of lockdown. You can still find all the published writing online.
Starling is yet another glowing example of the strength of online journals. Co-editors Louise Wallace and Francis Cooke launched the magazine’s first edition in 2016, after a series of long email threads and the occasional coffee shop planning session. They accept work by any writer under the age of 25.
Since its inception, Starling has blossomed into a go-to spot for young writers—early editions include work by Tayi Tibble, Nina Mingya Powles, and Sharon Lam.
Francis Cooke says, “We’ve always wanted Starling to help create a community that gave space to young writers, and one of the particular things that we thought about as we started the journal is that we had always wished that there had been this kind of space for us when we were in our early 20s. In some ways, [creating a gender diverse journal] was just something that happened through reading the writing and finding the most interesting and exciting new writers, which naturally, is a spread. It feels almost like you’d have to put effort into being closed off to that.
“So long as you spread your net wide, you are going to have a wide and diverse community of writers.”