South Africa’s oldest literary journal forges ahead

New Contrast, volume 40, number 1, has a new look. Blood-red and slim with elegant type adorning 100-odd pages, the journal’s latest issue is all minimalist restraint.

Printed on good paper and bursting with content, there is nothing to suggest that South Africa’s longest-surviving literary magazine is battling severe financial problems.

But as the editor’s note alludes, when academic and poet Stephen Watson died suddenly last year, the fundraising he had organised in an informal way for the journal through the Creative Writing Institute at the University of Cape Town dried up.

Monthly stipends paid to Hugh Hodge, who had edited the journal, and to business manager Sonja Wilker became unviable. Both chose to step down.

“I was simply not ­­prepared to do it for nothing,” Hodge says. “But it was probably time for change. I had an ear [for content] that of course was not shared by every­body. The magazine’s not tied to the fate of any one person.”

Enter new editor Michael King. He is no stranger to the magazine, ­having worked on it in patches since the mid-1980s, including a stint as editor, and he has been and still is a director. An English teacher and deputy principal at Bishops, Cape Town, King holds a master’s degree in ­literature from Oxford and has, as he unassumingly puts it, “a fairly well-established poetic sense” that will determine what contributions make it into print.

Before Hodge’s arrival, King says, a rapid succession of editors and the resulting lack of consistency had led to some loss of credibility and a decline in readership. Subscriptions had dropped to an unviable total of less than 130, placing the 52-year-old magazine’s future at risk. (The first issue, then named Contrast, came out in 1960.)

Hodge, who runs Off the Wall poetry readings and introduced the journal to the spoken-word community, believes opening up the journal to new voices and forms helped to raise the subscriber base to 320.

King, who is editing on a purely voluntary basis, sees himself as a holding editor: he will ensure the magazine meets its obligations to ­subscribers and is delivered four times a year, but will then hand over to an editor and business ­manager who can proactively ­promote New Contrast, as Hodge did.

Still, it looks very different. King’s Michaelis-trained sons, James and Matthew, were commissioned for the redesign and it is clean. The type is smaller but there are luxurious amounts of white space and careful foregrounding of content over identity (poet’s names, for example, follow the work rather than precede it).

Editorial direction has also been tweaked. New Contrast has never claimed a set-in-stone mandate to promote new poets. Its founders’ aims were broad: a vehicle for the publication of new poetry and fiction for South African audiences.

As editor Jack Cope wrote in the first issue of Contrast: “In a policy-ridden country, here in the first place is a magazine with no policy. Its aims may be ­difficult just because they are so ­simple — to keep out of the rough and ­tumble of parties and groups and yet to cross all borders.”

King’s editorial policy remains inclusive, although more rigorous attention will be paid to form. Stream-of-consciousness texts do not appeal to him; he requires “some conscious indication of the craft of poetry”.

Encouraging new voices

He favours work that deals with the local context. And, like his predecessors, he will avoid “any partisan or factional grouping”, although this does not mean an aversion to ideological topics, as long as they offer more than an “upsurge of ­private emotion”.

How this will differ from Hodge — who once wrote that although English came in many different varieties, “the editor wishes only that you write well in your tongue” — remains to be seen. Hodge felt some in academic circles were critical of his editorship — and himself. “People thought of me first as an IT person,” he says (he holds a degree in Russian literature). He felt there were some who wanted to “raise standards”, although Watson’s unwavering support meant ­little direct criticism was articulated.

King himself says he has been out of academic life for too long to bring any particular theoretical engagement to his editorship other than a liberal view — providing a vehicle for individuals to articulate and share their experiences of living in South Africa right now.

“Having a poem published in New Contrast remains a credible achievement,” he says. He will retain the online submission process, previously called Submishmash, through, where submissions are discussed by the editor and invited participants through a closed online forum. King will also consider including artworks in future editions.

The funding issues have not evaporated. King has shaved the cost of producing the magazine to R15 000 an issue (down from R20 000), but growing the subscriptions base and finding more poetry-loving patrons will be essential if New Contrast is to survive.

The directors are also looking at converting to a private company that will allow the journal to escape punitive auditing costs, yet retain financial credibility.

In addition, university English and creative writing departments will be approached to encourage new voices to submit, but this does not mean only academically trained individuals are welcome. “I’d just like to see [more people] feeling that this whole process of committing oneself to paper is a worthwhile project,” King says. “That’s all I hope to achieve.”

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