21 September 2014

From Sisi to Minnie Dean: reading poetry in Vienna

Hi there, if there's anyone still reading this. I haven't posted here in a while, but I did write this thing for the Book Council's Booknotes Unbound site about going to Vienna and reading poetry, which was pretty cool. You can read it here: http://booknotes-unbound.org.nz/helen-rickerby-reading-new-zealand-poetry-vienna/

29 June 2014

Does New Zealand poetry have a voice?, and 32 statements about writing poetry by Marvin Bell

Recently Harvey Molloy (poet and poetry editor of JAAM 31) wrote a short piece about whether New Zealand poetry has a national voice on Awkword Paper Cut. You can read it here (scroll down to the third piece, after Australia and the UK): http://www.awkwordpapercut.com/writers-on-writing/national-identity-and-writing.

Of course it's an enormous subject to tackle, especially in such a short space, but I really like the four generalisations Harvey makes:
(1) We are much less concerned with experimentation and anything remotely ‘theoretical’ than some of our overseas’ counterparts – there’s a tendency towards understatement and a suspicion of all grand styles and schools of thought which stifle poets willing to take risks.

(2) We are increasingly aware of ourselves as located within the Pacific; this offers the promise for a truly diverse national literature. We have just started to talk to each other.

(3) We are a people haunted by our past; our tipuna (‘ancestors’) call to us and ask to be recognised. If we are from descendants of settlers or immigrants we have shadowy memories of other voices, other lands. There’s a temporal dimension to our environments. We know what it is to be haunted.

(4) Earthquakes, heavy weather, intriguing landscapes all occupy our poetry. There’s a sense of hazard or calamity in our relationship with nature. Our landscapes include Auckland traffic, car park buildings, Antarctica, volcanic plateaus, the Canterbury Plains, Wellington suburbs. 
They feel pretty true to me. What do you think? What would you add? Do you think this is a worthwhile conversation to be having? What can we learn from this? Perhaps we can see our boundaries that we should then be expanding?

Also, on a whim I clicked to join a MOOC (massive online open course) about 'How writers write poetry'. This is kind of unlike me as I'm not really a writing-course person (I did one two-day poetry course and one two-day short fiction course 19 years ago), and I can't see myself joining in on the workshops and forums, but I'm expecting the videos of different writers talking about different things pretty interesting. And also it will hopefully be a good introduction to some poets I don't know.

Anyway, I've already found the first, introductory, video pretty interesting. Poet Marvin Bell makes 32 statements about writing poetry (you can skip the first two minutes of introduction). A few things he said that struck me are:
  • If you're in a writing group, especially with friends, you should decide at the outset to welcome surprises - when someone writes something that is experimental and outside what you'd expect from them.
  • Read something, write something, read something, write something, and be influenced in your writing by what you read. (He also said, 'Garbage in, garbage out.')
  • You don't learn as much from work like yours as you do from work that is unlike yours.
  • Poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

22 June 2014

Truth or Beauty: Poetry and Biography conference

One thing I'm doing this year is organising, with Anna Jackson (celebrated poet and senior lecturer in English literature) and Angelina Sbroma (PhD student and all around awesome person), this conference, about biographical poetry. It will be held at Victoria University of Wellington from the 26th to the 28th of November. I am very excited.

It has its genesis in me suggesting to Anna, seeing as she had recently finished writing a long sequence about Ancient Roman woman Cloda Metelli (who is thought to be Catullus's 'Lesbia', if you are familiar with Catullus's poetry, which I wasn't), that we should do a poetry reading of biographical poems (I have written a number of poems with more or less biographical elements, most of which ended up in My Iron Spine). Anna said, enthusiastically, 'Yes, but it should be a symposium'.

We very quickly got a bit more ambitious, and now the symposium has become an academic conference - well actually kind of more than an academic conference. It's a conference where academics and poet practitioners will be able to get together and talk about and reflect on this shared space - the poetry. I am particularly excited about this, because I have been developing a really strong interest in better connection between the literary community and the academic community, and also in the academic community sharing more with the interested wider community. In the case of this conference, I hope the mixture will lead to a reflective, vibrant and sparky few days.

We realised, after hunting around a bit, that while biographical poems are not uncommon, there isn't a great deal written about them in that light - that the field of biographical poetry is just waiting for exploration. And we've found some people who want to explore it with us. We have three keynote speakers already lined up, our Auckland poet and creative writing teacher Robert Sullivan, and two academics (and poets) from Australia: Jessica Wilkinson and Toby Davidson.

In any case, the deadline for proposing papers or discussions or readings is coming up at the end of this month, and while we already have many interesting proposals from great people, there's still time to send in yours. You can read the call for papers here: http://poetryandbiography.net/ and we've just put out some more detailed guidelines for proposals: http://poetryandbiography.net/2014/06/22/guidelines-for-proposals/. Or you can just come along, without giving a paper, and enjoy the talking and readings that I know will be stimulating, thought-provoking and maybe even inspiring. The fees for the conference are a total bargain: http://poetryandbiography.net/2014/06/15/conference-fees/.

16 June 2014

Being away, being a New Zealander

I've been away - from this blog (for longer) and also from New Zealand, for a little bit.

It was wonderful being away. We went to some amazing places, saw some glorious things, ate some wonderful things, and spent some time with wonderful people. It has been a bit hard coming back, what unpredictable life, but I think it's going to be ok. Actually, I think it's going to be good.

Anyway, I wrote this thing about some thoughts I had when I was away about being a New Zealander: http://blog.teara.govt.nz/2014/06/16/whadarya-some-thoughts-on-being-a-new-zealander-overseas/.

If you are interested, there are a few travel pics and travel ramblings here.

And here is a picture of the Parthenon...

08 April 2014

I'm the Tuesday Poet, plus come and hear me read next week

This week my poem 'Symbols that make up the breaking girl' is the Tuesday Poem this week: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.co.nz/2014/04/symbols-that-make-up-breaking-girl-by.html. It was selected by the publisher, Mary McCallum of Mākaro Press. It's quite a dense poem, but I enjoyed reading it at my reading last week in Auckland - it speeds up, it slows down, it is a bit tongue-twistery and has a lot of rhyme and assonance and that sort of stuff, which is quite fun to read.

Speaking of reading, I've been asked to be the guest poet for the April meeting of the New Zealand Poetry Society in Wellington next Monday. It will be a lovely chance for me to share some of the poems from Cinema, and maybe a few old favs, and maybe even some newer ones. Here's the details about the reading:

Monday 14th April, 7.30 pm
Thistle Inn, 3 Mulgrave Street, Wellington

We begin with an open mic - everyone welcome to participate - followed by our guest poet,
Helen Rickerby

$3 members $5 non-members

Here's the Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/260784137436348

30 March 2014

Launch hoopla!

I’m at the end of a writing retreat weekend in Foxton (it has been lovely!) and so it feels a long time ago, but a few weeks ago, on 13 March, I launched Cinema in fine company, and I have been wanting to write about it ever since.

Some of our lovely crowd
It was also the launch of the other books in Mākaro Press’s Hoopla poetry series – Bird Murder, Stefanie Lash’s debut collection, and Heart Absolutely I Can, by Michael Harlow. And it was also a chance to celebrate Mākaro Press’s first year in existence.

I was a bit spacey, as I generally am at such things – and I felt like I only got to spend about 30 seconds with each person and it all passed by in a whirl. But it was a lovely and buzzy and celebratory party, with Mary as a very excellent ringmistress.

Blondini’s, which is the café space at The Embassy theatre, was a perfect venue, especially for me – seeing as my book is all about films. I saw many of the movies I wrote about in the poems at that very cinema, including some that I read (the first two parts of ‘Nine Movies’), and I also wrote some of that poem – the beginning I think, at a table over by the side window in Blondini’s.

Me reading something or other from my book
It was quite a long launch, even though we all tried to be brief, because each poet had our own launcher – Kate Camp for Stefanie, Pat White for Michael and Anna Jackson for me – and we each read a little bit from our books, but it was lovely for us each to have our own little space in our collective celebration. As I said in my speech (which was really just a long list of thank yous), I asked Anna to launch my book because she had been one of the people who read my manuscript and gave me really helpful feedback on it, and also she’d really liked it, which had been so encouraging. I was really blown away by her speech and would probably have cried it I hadn’t been so spacey. She was kind enough to say that I could reproduce here what she wrote to say, though without hearing and seeing her actually say it in her own animated way, it can’t possibly be quite as good!

This looks like a small book but it is actually very big – like the tardis. I don’t just mean in importance, or in the range of ideas, images and subjects that it contains – I mean, in a different format, you could see more immediately that this wonderfully pocketable book actually has a great many poems in it, many of them very substantial poems that run over several pages.

One of my absolute favourite poems is the modestly titled 'Two or three things I know about them' – a wonderful multi-faceted portrayal of the relationship between two film directors, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, told over several pages in brief scenes and snapshots, accounts and quotations, dreams and reflections. The poem offers a study in contrasts – 'Jean-Luc: A film is a girl and a gun'; 'Francois: Art for beauty, art for others, art that consoles': – and a series of comparisons and coincidences, responses and anticipations.

Helen has a brilliant way of making a life snap into focus with a single starting detail, real or imaginary. I think of her portrayal in My Iron Spine of Katherine Mansfield and D H Lawrence taking it in turns sliding down an ironing board at a party. I have been an avid reader of Helen’s poetry since I first encountered her fictional character Theodora in Helen’s first collection Abstract Internal Furniture – but this new book is something else again.

Bringing together the fascination with film and the fascination with character that you find in all Helen’s work, this collection offers a dazzling poetic response to the work of avant-garde film-maker Yayoi Kusama; it imagines the lives of friends as directed by different film directors; it contains reflections both comic and profound about the impressions films can make and how they can shape the imagination of the self. It is exciting to be launching such a smart, fast-paced, deeply thoughtful, often funny, always sharply focused collection.

26 March 2014

Poetry reading/book launch in Auckland

I haven't even managed to blog about the first launch yet, and I'm about to have a second one!

I'm going to be the guest reader at Poetry Live, a poetry reading event that happens every single week in Auckland. How's that for commitment to poetry!

Seeing as Cinema has just been published, I thought I'd take the opportunity to have a second launch for it, and Anne Kennedy has kindly agreed to be my Auckland launcher. Callum Gentleman is the musician for the evening, there'll be an open mic, and MCing it all will be the talented and lovely Kiri Piahama-Wong. Cinema, and the other Hoopla books (Bird Murder by Stefanie Lash and Heart Absolutely I Can by Michael Harlow) will be available for $25 (cash or cheque only)

It starts at 8, and is at the Thirsty Dog, 469 Karangahape Road. Here's the Facebook event, if you do that sort of thing: https://www.facebook.com/events/633607820025828/

And aren't the posters gorgeous! They have such a lovely late-summer vibe going on.

04 March 2014

Tuesday poems, Bird Murder, and an invitation

This week I got to be the editor of the Tuesday Poem blog, and I cheated by sharing three poems rather than one. All are from Bird Murder, the debut collection by Stefanie Lash. I couldn't decide, plus I wanted to show a bit of the breadth of the book. You can read them here: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.co.nz/2014/03/from-bird-murder-by-stefanie-lash.html.

Bird Murder is part of Mākaro Press's Hoopla poetry series, which also includes my book Cinema, which long-time readers will have been hearing about for years (I can barely believe it's finally finished!) and Heart Absolute I Can by Michael Harlow. All three books are going to be launched next Thursday, 13 March, 5.30, at Blondini's (the cafe at the Embassy Theatre). It's also a celebration of Mākaro Press's first year in business. I hope you can come along!

12 February 2014

Cinema and the Hoopla poetry series

Dear everyone, I'd like to you meet my new book - well, the cover anyway.

Isn't it cool! And that image, which was taken by artist and designer Helen Reynolds, looks so cool and abstract, even though it actually isn't.

Cinema has been a long time in the making - the earliest poem in the book I wrote, um, ages ago, before My Iron Spine, but it wasn't meant for that book. (But it's found a home here.) I started deliberately writing poems connected to films in 2006, many of which haven't made it into the book. I don't think I realised quite how many I had written! But we've cut it back to the poems that I think are the right ones to be in this book.

This is the blurb my publisher, Mary McCallum, has written about my book:
The poems in Helen Rickerby's Cinema look at the personal through the lens of a camera and the world of cinema through the unfiltered eye. Meet the boy who learns to kiss from action movies, the girl made up of symbols and the director with the aesthetic of a sniper on the roof.
It has been wonderful to work with Mary McCallum and also Paul of Mākaro Press on this book. It's one of a series of set of three, the first batch in their Hoopla poetry series. I'm the middle poet, Stefanie Lash is the new poet (this is her debut book!) and Michael Harlow is the established poet. Here are all the covers side by side.

I'm lucky enough to have had an early read of Bird Murder by Stefanie Lash, and can assure you it's fabulous. It's by turns magical and lovely and grim and funny, and is so imaginative. It's like nothing I've read before. This is its official blurb:
An albino huia, a stranger in the attic and a pink-haired woman ... Bird murder by Stefanie Lash is a gothic murder mystery narrating the demise of a ruined banker set in the not-quite-fictional town of Tusk.
And while I haven't read Michael Harlow's collection of love poems, Heart Absolutely I Can, it's sure to be great too:
Five fresh poems and a number from past collections form this book on the hoopla of love – a theme long a part of the poet’s fascination with the mysteries of human nature and his job in finding the language and music to express it. Michael Harlow calls on ‘the music of the heart to sing us alive’

Our three books are going to be launched together in March (invitations soon!), but before then, Mākaro Press is running a PledgeMe campaign to help fund the printing costs (alas, poetry is not the money spinner we would like).

The rewards are excellent, if I do say so myself, from copies of the books (think of it as a pre-sale, and if you're out of town it includes postage too!), to an extra special high tea with us poets and we'll even read to you (that's kind of a bargain because you get ALL the books, and high tea, and fun and poetry). In between there's a copy of an extra-special limited edition hand-made book featuring a poem from each poet (not one from the books), which I will personally be making, a bespoke poem from Stefanie or myself and a mentoring session with Mary. There was also a cross-stitched line of poetry from Stefanie, but that's gone already.

Anyway, if you'd like to support it, or just have a look, you'll find it here: https://www.pledgeme.co.nz/projects/1816.

10 February 2014

Tuesday Poem: The Memoirs of Dick Grayson by Sandi Sartorelli

The Memoirs of Dick Grayson

The best part was always after
I enjoyed fighting crime but the ride home with him
filled me with longing for our cave
until at last, the sight of Bruce with his tights
around his ankles made my patience wane.

No one can rock the robin like Bruce Wayne.
Holy Moly! And he’d hold me after,
gloat over The Joker’s demise, one arm tight
around my waist, a naked bat dressed in socks –
there are disadvantages to love in a cave.
Before the shivering progressed, I’d wrap him

in ermine. I wanted the limestone, just me and him
but he had obligations in Gotham City. Wayne
I’d say, maybe we could camp forever in our cave.
Have Alfred bring us casseroles and LPs. After
Bruce all for myself, it was a terrible sock
to my spirits to surrender him. Straight resolve, lips tight,

I’d help him suit up in his playboy guise. Tighten
his tie for his entrance into the mansion, to watch him
woo the socialites. I’d lean against the wall, a sock
in my Adam’s apple. My role was ward of the Wayne
family – I was just another accessory. And after
our loving, I should have been content, should have caved

to the demands of the part, but my heart was the concave
side of a spoon filled with his broth. My appetite
for him spilled over until I fondled his tux. After
all (I have this urge to justify) I only wanted him
to own me in public – the one thing neither Wayne
nor The Batman could ever give. My claim was a sock

to his image. Could’ve wrenched his shackles from the socket
that day, but he was no Dobby. We hung out in the cave
for the last time that evening, his fortunes beginning to wane
on the stock exchange, all because I’d believed myself entitled
to be his beau. I said a tender goodbye to him.
To this day I stroke the imprint of batwings, long after

his thoughts of me have waned, super-hero/billionaire personas tightly
locked in place and a new robin in the cave to warm his socks.
But Todd can’t adore him in the way I still do all this time after…

Sandi Sartorelli lives in the Hutt Valley and is a graduate of the Whitireia Creative Writing Programme. Her poetry has appeared in a number of publications including JAAM, Blackmail Press, Penduline Press, Renee's Wednesday Blog and Shenandoah. Recently, two of her poems were highly commended in the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize and the New Zealand Poetry Society Competition.

For my first Tuesday Poem of the year I've chose this poem by Sandi Sartorelli, which was included in JAAM 31. When I first read it I was taken by the alternative story it presents of Batman and Robin, and the tenderness and longing and sadness. It was only on my second reading that I noticed the very tight form of the poem, which is a sestina. All those gorgeous repeating words, except sometimes the poet playfully alters the words a little - eg: tights/tight/appetite/entitled/tightly. And using different meanings for the same word. Possibly the only thing that never changes is 'him', which always refers to the adored Batman/Bruce Wayne. It all adds up to a very satisfying poem, which is enhanced by its form, not overwhelmed.

Speaking of form, if you're interested in poetic forms you might be interested to see what Sonia Johnson, an NZ poet at large in Iowa, is up to. She's writing a poem in a different form every week, and is blogging it on A Formal Year.

And for more poems, not necessarily formal, check out the Tuesday Poem blog over here: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.co.nz/.

02 February 2014

A ramble through forests and bush, with a side detour to a paddock or two...

I've been reading Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland (and still am, but am almost finished), which was bringing up all sorts of thoughts and feelings about New Zealand forest/bush and also about how the land has kind of been colonised as much as the people. I haven't been able to articulate all of my thoughts, but I managed to wrangle some of them into a blog post, which you can read over here: http://blog.teara.govt.nz/2014/01/31/of-forests-paddocks-and-bush/.

The book is really good too. It's also been making me think a lot about fairy tales again. I'm a big fan of fairy tales - my masters thesis was about fairy tale intertexuality in Margaret Atwood's fiction. In my original proposal it was going to be about fairy tale intertexuality in women's writing. That was quite a big topic. For a while I cut it down to three writers: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and this very same Sara Maitland.

I haven't read a lot of fairy tales, or about fairy tales, since I finished my thesis, but this book, and another wee project I'm working on with a friend (about mermaids!) has got me thinking about fairy tales again, and I have an idea for another collaborative/contributive project about fairy tales. Anyway, I'm sure I'll write more about that later. Or I might just start bugging you all to write me things.

26 January 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf's diary

Virginia Woolf, 1939
It was Virginia Woolf's birthday yesterday - she was born in 1882.

She kept a journal from 1915 until she died (in 1941). I'm not reading the whole thing (there are volumes and volumes), I'm reading a selection that focuses on what she wrote in her diary related to writing. I do love reading writers' diaries and journals, but there's always a somewhat uncomfortable feeling when you're reading someone else's private writing.

In some of the early pages she wonders what future Virginia will make of these pages when she reads of them - she hadn't imagined another audience for her diary except herself. I had to keep reminding myself of that sometimes when reading - when she says something really snobbish or nasty or vain - it's not really fair to judge someone harshly on the things they write only for themselves (God knows I would hate for people to read my private thoughts! I have left instructions for my journals to be burned unread so no one knows how shallow I really am...), but nevertheless it's hard not to.

I had previously read some of the bitchy things she's said about Katherine Mansfield (as well as some of the admiring things), so I was compared. I did have to put the book down for a bit when I read her thoughts about Don Quixote:
writing was then storytelling to amuse people sitting around the fire without any of our desires for pleasure. There they sit, women spinning, men contemplative, and the jolly fanciful delightful tale is told to them, as to grown up children ... So far as I can judge, the beauty and thought come in unawares: Cervantes scarely concious of serious meaning ... Indeed, that's my difficulty - the sadness, the satire, how far are they ours, not intended.
I have to confess that I haven't actually read Don Quixote (yet), and I know that the time and situation you live in will of course alter how you read a book, but to imply that a book was accidentally good or satirical, and that those childish people in the past couldn't possibly understand or feel quite to anything like the same level as Victorians was pretty infuriating.

Moments like that aside, it's a fabulous book, giving an insight into this particular writer's mind and processes, and her conflicted feelings about wanting her work to be popular, and not caring if it isn't. There are lots of wonderful quotes, like this one more about how she felt about Jacob's Room, her third novel:
There's no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise.
Several years in - by 1926 - she was considering that there could be another audience for her diaries:
But what is to become of all these diaries, I asked myself yesterday. If I died, what would Leo [Leonard - her husband] make of them? He would be disinclined to burn them; he could not publish them. Well, he should make up a book from them, I think; and then burn the body. I daresay there is a little book in them; if the scraps and scratching were straightened out a little.

Finally, here's a thing that has been floating around the internet lately, the only surviving recording of her speaking:

20 January 2014

A book that caught my eye: I'm Working on a Building by Pip Adam

Recently I had the opportunity to write a piece for the Book Council about a book that had caught my eye, design-wise. After a few days considering what I wanted to write about, I settled on a book I'd finished reading (twice - once forward, once backward). This isn't so much about the graphic design of the cover, but more about the physical/structural design of the cover, and how how it reflects the novel inside.

A book that caught my eye: Helen Rickerby

It isn’t until you hold the book in your hands and begin to read that you’ll really get just how disorienting the cover design of I’m Working on a Building by Pip Adam is.

We all know how book covers work: there’s a back and a front and a spine. The spine is on the left of the front cover, and the right of the back cover. We know how novels work: characters move through time chronologically (even if there are flashbacks); there’s a beginning, a middle and an end – in that order. But let go of what you think you know…

Read the rest on the Book Council site...

13 January 2014

Careless People and The Great Gatsby, or, What I read on my holiday

My main holiday book this year was Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, by Sarah Churchwell, which was - as I mentioned in an earlier post - awesome, and I'm going to devote this entire post to it.

This book, which describes itself on its back cover as 'the biography of a book' (the book being The Great Gatsby, which I should say at the outset that I love - I even loved the recent Baz Luhrmann film, somewhat to my surprise). It's kind of a carnival of a book. It's wide-ranging, academic while not being dull (or having footnotes - though it does have an extensive and scholarly notes section), and also is lots of fun and easy to read. It's an academic book for a general audience in a way - and I for one think more academic books should be like this. Brainy but fun.

It weaves discussion and interpretation of The Great Gatsby with especially relevant biographical info about the author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda and their milieu, with contemporary trivia and current events that are likely to have had some influence on the story - especially the 1922 Hall-Mills case: a double murder of a rector and his lower-class choir-singer lover who aspired to greater things.

Scott and Zelda in the 1920s

A great deal of the book is concerned with 1922, the year the novel is set, and also the year F. Scott and Zelda returned to New York after a brief time back in the Midwest, and lived and partied on Long Island. It's also the year that the verb 'partied' had it's first recorded use: in a letter by poet e. e. cummings, in which he described a night spent with the New York literary crowd.

There is a whole fabulous section devoted to the language of the time. The book quotes Virginia Woolf, who, in 1925, said in an essay about American fiction: 'The Americans are doing what the Elizabethans did - they are coining new words. They are instinctively making the language adapt itself to their needs ... Nor does it need much foresight to predict that when words are being made, a literature will be made out of them.'

On the next page of Careless People lists words that were first used in the 1920s (including many I thought would have been much earlier, or much later - such as post-feminist), and then is a list of words that were first used in 1922: 'brand-name, Hollywood, moviegoing, rough cut, performative, robot, sparkly, schlep, dimwit, no-brow, oops, multilayered, rebrand, mass market, broadcasting and broadcaster, finalize, lamé, sexiness, transvestite, gigolo, to proposition, libidinal, post-Freudian, cold turkey, quantum mechanics, polyester, vacuum, notepad, duplex, Rolex, entrepreneurial and party-crashing '. I took the 1922 words along as a prompt to my New-Year's-Day writing session. Two of us wrote poems that included sparkly lamé at a party!

This is a bit of a digression, but I took another couple of quotes quoted in this book along to our next writing session as prompts. Firstly:
The artist, wrote Conrad, shines 'the light of magic suggestiveness' on 'the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old word, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.'
This book is full of gems like that!

And, secondly, F.Scott Fitzgerald himself:
And lastly from that period I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.'
Tragic! But beautiful while being tragic. And also I clearly don't agree with his philosophy on happiness. But anyway...

The more I learn about F. Scott Fitzgerald the more amazed I am that he wrote The Great Gatsby, which to my mind is such a wise and insightful book. Fitzgerald himself does not appear to have been especially wise: he was a bit of a clown and was destroyed by alcoholism. It seems to me now that he wrote a book that is better and wise than he is/was. I feel the same about Tolstoy. I find it magical and wonderful that sometimes we can write above ourselves. (I once wrote a character who I'm quite sure was funnier than I am, though I don't know if I've been wiser, or even wise.)

Another big reflection of mine after reading Careless People is how I, and I think most present-day readers of The Great Gatsby, didn't realise quite how topical the novel was at the time it was published, how the events in it - the car crashes, the parties, the murders, the jazz age, etc - were so of the time. I mean, surely I knew but seemed to have forgotten that it is set during the prohibition - so no wonder so many people flocked to Gatsby's parties, where alcohol was free and also of high quality. Apparently hundreds of people (mostly poor people) died from drinking alcohol that had been made out of industrial alcohol, to which the government had added poison in an attempt to stop people drinking it. No wonder anti-prohibitionists in NZ used the US example as a reason to not ban alcohol!

When The Great Gatsby was first published, people by and large seem to have been unable to see past that up-to-the-minute surface. One early reviewer, Isabel Paterson, said that it was 'an imponderable and fascinating trifle,' that had not 'gone below that glittering surface, except by a kind of happy accident' and 'What has never been alive cannot very well go on living: so this book is of the season only...' She continues: 'He gets the exact tone, the note, the shade of the season and the place he is working on; he is more contemporary than any newspaper'.

As Sarah Churchwell says:
Fitzgerald's first readers could only see one half of the meaning of the book, its entaglement with the facts and contexts of the day, and were blind to its transcendent meanings. We tend now to focus on those universal meanings, letting our myths and misapprehensions about the 1920s take the place of facts about Fitzgerald's world. Each moment mistakes the part for the whole, seeing only one side of his book, the other side obscured by the darkness of the era's own blind spots, the lustre of the moon half hidden by the shadows of the earth.
The initial print run of The Great Gatsby was 20,000 copies and the reprint of 3,000 copies never sold out during F. Scott Fitzgerald's lifetime (his previous two books sold more than twice that). Fitzgerald, who had enjoyed early success and notoriety, had become largely forgotten, or at least dismissed, by the time he died in 1940. (He was only 44, but had been prematurely aged by alcohol.) His last royalty cheque, which covered a year, was for $13.13. His funeral had a few more attendees than Gatsby's, but not many. The minister who agreed to bury him 'charmingly' said: 'The only reason I agreed to give the service, was to get the body in the ground. He was a no-good, drunken bum, and the world was well rid of him.'

But it didn't take too many years for Fitzgerald's reputation to increase again, and especially appreciation for The Great Gatsby. And it might be true that we only see part of his work now, as Churchwell suggests, but we do generally now see through the surface of the novel to the universalness, the timelessness, the humanness of the novel. I kind of which Fitzgerald could know that - that his work is appreciated after all.

11 January 2014

My first writing session

Write a persona poem from the perspective of a dance, singing or instrument teacher about a student.

I am sitting at Maria's table with Maria, Helen and Helen. We're having a writing session. Above is my prompt.

I want to follow the rules, but I know that my immediate response would be a cliche, and I think that's often my problem with writing. And so I want to twist it somehow, weirden it a little. Make it not the nostalgic bittersweet thing that I first jumped to, that everyone could jump to, but something else. Something surprising and slippery. But there's the difficulty - how to turn it over, how to see it new? Perhaps the teacher is other than I expect, perhaps she is younger, not older, than the student. Perhaps she is not jealous of her student, or proud of them - him, her? Perhaps it's not about their relationship at all. Is it dance, is it music? What kind?
And then the time ran out and I never did write that poem....

09 January 2014

A sort of a review of 2013 but mainly a list of the books I read (or at least the ones I can remember)

In my last post I said that 2013 had been a bit crap, which is true - there were some crappy things that happened. The main bad thing was discovering that we needed to do a LOT of work on our downstairs flat after our tenant of forever (well, seven years) left, and the money and time and especially the stress that ensued.

But many good things also happened, and I had lovely times with friends and family and so forth. It just got a bit much at the end of the year!

Principal among the good things of the year was having an enthusiastic publisher (Mary McCallum of Mākaro Press) want to publish Cinema (which, as I said in my last post, is coming out next year). I also really enjoyed doing some finishing work on Cinema, and getting some really good and helpful feedback from Mary and also from Anna Jackson.

Another highlight was publishing two fantastic new books - as Seraph Press: Paula Green's The Baker's Thumbprint and Maria McMillan's The Rope Walk.

Other highlights were the lovely poetry conference in Hawke's Bay and especially getting to read at it;  talking to writing students about publishing and publishing students about editing for the web (a bit of a step outside my comfort zone); a great trip to Auckland in May to launch The Baker's Thumbprint, attend (a little bit of) the Auckland Writers Festival and hang out with friends; restarting a writing group with a bunch of my friends (most of whom were part of the JAAM writing groups that the eponymous magazine came out of in 1995); launching the latest issue of JAAM, and oh a bunch of other stuff. Like going away for long weekends with Sean. That's always lovely.

And somehow I seem to have read quite a lot this year. Mainly novels and non-fiction - my poetry reading seems to have been a bit thin.

Among the poetry that I can remember off the top of my head, I read and enjoyed Kate Camp's Snow White's Coffin, Rachel O'Neill's debut collection One Human in Height, Janis Freegard's The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider. Gosh, there's surely more! Oh, and the lovely Night Swimming by Kiri Piahana-Wong. A big highlight was actually reading an unpublished poetry sequence by Anna Jackson. It's called I, Clodia and is in the voice of an ancient Roman woman (and gf of Catullus). You too can enjoy it probably sometime this year - it will be in Anna's next book.

This is some other stuff I read that I can remember:
  • Biographies of Virginia Woolf. I read two of these, one after the other. The first was a shorter, introductory sort of biography. I think it was a necessary introduction to the other, much longer and more in-depth biography by Hermione Lee.
  • I had quite a run of New Zealand fiction, beginning with The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy. I've mainly only read Anne's poetry (I especially recommend The Darling North), but she's a fantastic novelist too. The strongest part of the book for me is the middle, where one character talks about his childhood in Northern Ireland. It was amazing. Riveting and straight to the heart.
  • Dead People's Music and The Fall of Light by Sarah Laing. Both were great, and I loved the images in The Fall of Light. I also read four collections of her comics, which I bought off her after a talk at the National Library. I've been really enjoying her comics online, especially the ones that feature Katherine Mansfield (often interwoven with Sarah's own life). I'm really looking forward to reading her completed graphic novel about Katherine Mansfield (being the big fan of KM that I am).
  • The Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan. It was strange and exciting to read about my own neighbourhood, albeit reflected in a rather distorting and somewhat grotesque mirror! Also cool to read about characters based on people I actually know (also distorted). I was a bit disappointed that The Campbell Walker, while a great villain, didn't seem much like the real Campbell Walker, who I think would also make an excellent cult leader. The launch of this book was also a highlight, not just for Danyl's hilarious launch speech (Sean said it was the best launch speech he'd ever heard, which of course offended me greatly as he's been at all my launches), but because we got to nose around inside the School of Philosophy on Aro Street, which we've all been dying to see inside for years.
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I started reading this when I wasn't very well, hence I could devote the necessary vast swathes of time to it. Consequently it only took me a week to read (and really only in the weekends). And, for all its size, it is quite a fast read. It took me a little while to get over the fact that a book I knew was written by a young woman who lives in Auckland sounded like it was written by a bunch of crusty old Victorian gentlemen, especially at the beginning. But once I got past that dissonance I was impressed with the writing. And the end gets rather spare and lovely. It certainly is ambitious and, while it didn't entirely connect with me, I'm delighted she won the Man Booker Prize, and I loved her speech and her philosophy of writing. I was also pleased I'd read it before she won the Booker, so I could become the resident expert on The Luminaries at work, as the only person on my floor to have read it.  
  • I'm Working on a Building by Pip Adam. Conversely, this is quite a small novel, but it took me ages to read in little bites. I wanted to savour it and give it space. It's a book that builds up piece by piece, and the characters, especially the protagonist, don't reveal themselves to us in a hurry, but it's worth the wait. It's like there are concrete blocks under the words, giving it weight and density that I didn't expect from the size. Its chronology runs backwards, chapter by chapter, and it's like nothing I've ever read. I think this is an amazing and important book. I've written about it for the Book Council's online newsletter thing, so I'll link to that when it's up.
  • Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm. I love Janet Malcolm's writing, and these articles and essays are almost all amazing. Especially the longer ones - towards the end were some shorter pieces that I'm not sure deserved collecting, but still, great book.
  • Memoir of Silence by Lloyd Jones. I love me a good wide-ranging, thinky memoir, and this didn't disappoint. While my family isn't quite like his, I related to the things he was remembering and exploring, and the story he uncovered about his mother is fascinating and rather sad. 
  • Artful by Ali Smith. I'm still not sure what this book is. I mean, its several lectures that Ali Smith gave about art and stuff, which mix fact and fiction, but I'm still not sure where the fact ends and fiction starts. They purport to be based on notes that the author's partner (who is haunting her) left when she died, but I think (from reading the internet) that Smith's partner is alive and well, and that Smith herself is not in fact a tree surgeon. Anyway, lots of lovely things along the way, though I wasn't quite sure what it all added up to when I was finished. Also, for some reason these lectures didn't seem to go through a usual editing process when they were published, and so things like book titles weren't in italics when they should be, and for some reason that niggled at me quite a bit. Gosh, that all sounds much more negative than I feel about it - it was a joy to read, with lots of little treasures.
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I finally got around to reading this. I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood - I wrote my masters thesis on fairy tale intertextuality in her fiction, but I actually haven't really liked anything she's written since Alias Grace (which came out while I was writing my thesis and I managed to sneak it in). Has she changed, or have I? I feel that she has become more propagandistic and less artful, and also just less good. Possibly I disliked The Year of the Flood slightly less than Oryx and Crake, of which it is the sequel, but then I also had lower expectations. I started to read MaddAddam, but stopped after a few pages because I just didn't want to continue. Maybe I'll finish it this year - they're a trilogy and I do hate a loose end. No, that's a lie, I love loose ends in all sorts of things, but I do usually finish what I've started.
  •  The last book I read in 2013 was A British Picture: an Autobiography by Ken Russell, which I devoured in a couple of days after Sean gave it to me for Christmas. It's great! Whatever you might think of Ken Russell's movies, he sure can write. This was thematic rather than chronological, which I really liked. I love his movies, even when they're awful, and it has sent me back to watching some more of them, and re-watching some. We re-watched The Lair of the White Worm the other night, which is great fun. When I first watched it I was sure it was supposed to be funny, though this time I wasn't entirely certain of that. Very surprised to see Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) as the archaeologist. So young!
I also started, but didn't finish, Careless People, which is all about The Great Gatsby and is so awesome that I'm going to devote an entire post to it.

What did you read? Have you read any of those? Thoughts?

05 January 2014

Welcome to 2014! And a sort of announcement of something you probably know already

I have high hopes for 2014. Last year was a bit crap, for various reasons, but this year is going to be awesome. I am determined. And there are some very cool things coming up, which I'm sure will make for a good year.

It has started off very well so far. We spent New Year's Eve in Paekakariki with a dear friend who lives overseas these days. We had been planning to go to a party, which would have been lots of fun, but instead we decided to stay in and spent the evening reflecting on our plans, goals and hopes for the year, which felt right. The next day I got to hang out with some poet friends who were about - mainly because they live there - and we even had a writing session, which felt like a very auspicious start to the year. I'd never written with other people quite like this before: the four of us sitting around a kitchen table and, with the help of prompts, writing solidly in our notebooks for blocks of time from five minutes to half an hour. It didn't matter what we wrote, but our pens just had to keep moving. I think one of the main advantages is that you can't just go and check that one thing on the internet, and then inevitably fall down a rabbit hole; but I also loved being in the same space creating with those dear poetic minds. We did the same thing a couple of days later, and I hope for more of the same.

Writing is going to be my focus for at least the first half of this year. My own writing. I've decided to not begin a new publishing project until at least the middle of the year. The particular reason for this is the most exciting news, which I think I've probably told most of you already, but which I haven't formally announced or anything, so this is my formal announcement:

My new poetry book, Cinema, is going to be published by Mākaro Press! (It's scheduled for March at this stage.) Mākaro Press is a new published company started by the multi-talented Mary McCallum, which has just published the fabulously successful Eastbourne: an anthology. Cinema is going to be published as part of a batch of poetry books, a triptych perhaps. It's in fine company: the other two are a debut book, Bird Murder (a murder mystery in poetry), by Stefanie Lash, and a collection of love poems by Michael Harlow. So, a new poet, an eminent poet, and me.

The poems in Cinema all take film, films or/and film-making as a jumping off point, but they fly in all kinds of directions and explore other themes and ideas. I've been working on Cinema for a long time now, writing the poems, and then working on the poems, and shaping the book and reshaping the book, and then reshaping the book again. At several points in the process I've had some trusted people read the poems, and then the manuscript, and give me lots of helpful and encouraging feedback. It's a better, and shorter, book for all that.

Another thing I want to do this year is blog a bit more again. I haven't much in the last few years, and it hasn't been where my head or time was at, which is fine. But I think that sort of reflection and kinda public-ish writing is something I want to do again, for a while anyway.

What are your plans for your year?

10 December 2013

Tuesday Poem: 'Alice Spider Visits her Nanna' by Janis Freegard

Alice Spider goes to South Shields to visit her Nanna. Nanna doesn't like the Blairs. Every time Cherie comes on the television, Nanna says, that skinny little bitch. Tony fairs no better. He's a crook. Look at him, grinning like a Cheshire cat. He's bloody evil. Nanna doesn't support a united European currency.

People starving in Africa? They should sterilise them. Asylum seekers? Taking jobs from our men. Striking miners? I didn't give them a penny. They never gave the pensioners any coal. Northern Ireland. Your Granddad always used to say, there'll never be peace in Ireland. They should pull the soldiers out and then drop an atom bomb on them.

As long as it only killed the right ones.

Nanna's a Sun reader. She can tell you about every affair that every politician, footballer and television personality has ever had, not to mention their operations. She wasn't sorry when Diana died. EE, she was a slut. Them poor bairns.

(Alice knows that even if she were an Irish miner slut in Africa, Nanna would still get up early to cook bacon and eggs for her breakfast, despite Alice's protests. It's a different kind of love you have for your grandchildren, says Nanna.)

I must have first met Alice Spider in AUP New Poets 3. She's quite charming character, fun to hang out with, but perhaps a little unpredictable. I came across her again in JAAM 28, and then this year she got her own book: The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider (I kind of always knew she would). The book was published by Anomalous Press in the US, and was part of a fun Kickstarter campaign (which is how I got my copy), but you can also get it from Matchbox Studios in Wellington or Unity Books in Wellington.

I chose this poem simply because it appeals to me, but I'm having a bit of trouble articulating why. I find it quite funny, in a wry way, though bigotry shouldn't be funny. I guess it's the split, the tension, between the good person you know and love, and the terrible things they say and think. 

Janis Freegard's debut poetry collection, Kingdom Animalia: the Escapades of Linnaeus, was published in 2011 by Auckland University Press. She also writes fiction and is a past winner of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award.  She lives in Wellington with an historian and a cat. She has been writing poems about Alice Spider since she was 18. I expect to see Alice around some more, having new adventures, some time in the future.

For more poems, visit The Tuesday Poem blog: 

02 December 2013

What do editors want?

A few weeks ago, at the Hawke’s Bay poetry conference (which I blogged about a little a few weeks ago), I was on a panel called ‘What do editors want?’ (or something like that). This is editors of a commissioning editor sort, rather than a copyeditor sort (which I also am). On the panel with me were Siobhan Harvey, who has edited issues of Poetry NZ and has been the poetry editor of Takahē, Nicholas Reid, who has edited several issues of Poetry NZ, and Doc Drumheller, editor of Catalyst. It was a good session, chaired by Laurice Gilbert, president of the Poetry Society.

But, we each had five minutes to speak at first, to answer the question from our own perspectives. And, while I didn’t think my bullet points would take very long to cover, and I worried that I wouldn’t have enough to say, turned out I had HEAPS to say! I really didn’t cover all of the points I wanted to make. So I decided I would turn my notes into a blog post, in the hopes that they will be useful. So, here goes….

I’m going to talk to today with two hats on – two imaginary hats – one is as the co-managing editor of JAAM literary magazine, and the other as the managing editor and general dogsbody of Seraph Press. [I think in the actual talk I burbled for quite a while about both of them and held up some books to show off how pretty they are, etc…] The things I’m looking for in each role are similar, but there are some differences too.

As the only one of us who is also a book publisher, I might concentrate a bit more on that [I totally didn’t, because I was running out of time…]

So, what do editors want, apart from fame, fortune and world peace? Well, I’m going to talk about what I want as an editor, and assume that other editors want something similar.

  • I want good writing. Or, to be more specific I want writing that I think is good writing to me. Let’s be honest, subjectivity does come into it – editors do have their own taste and can only back things they can see the merit it. Through reading a journal, or through submitting to it, you can get a sense of the sort of things an editor will like, and find editors who appreciate the sort of work you’re doing.
  • I want writing that speaks to me, surprises me, expands me. Things like fresh new images, ideas or ways of saying things. If you’re saying the same thing as everyone else in the same way, then it’s not going to excite me. But if you say new things, or say them in a new way, then I’ll notice. Read over your work and look out for clichés. And then take them out, or make them new somehow. Originality – your own voice. Beautiful language, which doesn’t have to be flowery – it could be really spare.
  • I want writing that gives me a little shot of jealousy.I want you to read the submission guidelines.
  • And I want you to follow them. Don’t send too many poems (or stories) and don’t send too few. About three to six poems is generally a good number. I'm not as strict as some editors - some won't even read your submission if you don't follow the guidelines to the letter. But I will probably be less well-disposed to your submission than I would be otherwise.
  • I want you to not be discouraged by rejection, but be gracious and try again. When you start out, especially, it’s wise to expect to have your work rejected (and then be delighted when it isn’t).
  • I want you to read other people’s writing, past and present. And buy other people’s books (especially New Zealand poetry) and literary journals (especially JAAM!) New Zealand's literary culture won't thrive unless we support it.
  • I want you to always try to become a better writer. I want you to be constantly aiming to grow and develop your craft. To push yourself.
For a Seraph Press book
  • I want all of the above, but to an even higher standard.

  • I want work I’m in love with – its my money and, more importantly, my time, and I need it to be a project I love so much that won’t resent it.

  • I want poems that work together to create a whole book – that’s more than the sum of its parts. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be thematic though.

  • I want a manuscript of even quality – cut out the weaker ones, or make them better. I want you have worked hard on it, and perhaps had other trusted people read over the manuscript and give you feedback before you even send it to me.
  • That said, I want to be able to work with you on polishing the collection. I want you to be willing to work and collaborate with me to make the work shine. To make a collection we're both happy with and stand behind. So I want to you to be open to input, and I want to you to know your own mind.

  • I would expect to have heard of you before – if not, why not? Not because I only publish ‘name’ poets, but because I want you to be engaged with the poetry community in some way, to have published some poems in literary journals, to go to readings, to be involved in poetry on the internet, or be involved in the community in some other way. (This isn’t the case at all with JAAM though – we don’t care at all if we’ve never heard of you before, so long as we love your work.)
  • I want to know why you want ME to publish your book. I’d want you to be familiar with what I’ve published before. I don't want it to just be because I'm a publisher, and any publisher will do.
After each panelist had spoken individually, the we also answered some questions – though we didn’t all answer all of them. But I had prepared answers for all of them, so I’ll include them all here.

As editors, who do you consider your readers are? 
The readers of literary magazines are generally other writers. Also the friends and relatives of the contributors (especially if it’s their first publication – friends and relatives are less excited when you start racking up a lot of publications). There are also a few wonderful, precious people who aren’t writers but are just interested in literature.

Is it harder to get accepted the first time you submit something?
In terms of your first submission anywhere, yes, I think it is, simply because you’re likely to be a newer writer and not as good yet as you’re going to become. In terms of your first time submitting to JAAM – I don’t think so. The work stands on its own merit, and if the editor loves it then it goes in. Quite a lot of writers who have carried on to fabulous things have had their first publication in JAAM, and I’m really proud of that.

Are there some topics editors prefer to avoid? – and if so which?
I think that depends on both the editor and how the topic is approached. I don’t think any subject is necessarily off limits. Personally, I wouldn’t publish something that I consider abhorrent, like a racist poem, but a poem about racism could be great.

What percentage of the poems submitted for publication in your journal is accepted.
We haven’t scientifically analysed the stats lately, but we estimate that around 20% of submitters to JAAM will have work accepted. We’re becoming quite a big journal, but we get a lot of submissions, including quite a lot from overseas (of which we publish hardly any, because we're primarily a journal for New Zealand writing).

I'm sure there are heaps of other things I should say, like always include a covering letter, and return postage if you're still posting (for JAAM, we'd rather you emailed), but it's a bit of a brain dump. Thoughts?

19 November 2013

Tuesday poem: 'Sigourney Weaver and I Go to Bed' by Emma Barnes

Sigourney Weaver and I Go to Bed

Sigourney Weaver flew me some place on what seemed a too small
aeroplane. We didn’t talk about her appearance in Avatar. The
papyrus got between us: A font of discontent. She held my hand
inside her shirt and said that she just wanted me to hold her up.
I had a potato gun in my back pocket. She passed the tuber.

After landing we arrived at a white bed. It seemed as tall as she was
to me: a more dumpling sized human. There were steps around the
edges and the middle was a long marshmallow cloudland in the style
of my home country. I could see her foggy outline reflected in the
roof. Her flannelette pyjamas were covered in the faces of dogs.

‘This is where we go to bed’ she said. I looked up into her size-9
eyes. ‘But, I’m more of a cat person?’ This was just like going out with
the 42-year-old butch I dated when I was 21. A lot of determined
looks and short phrasing. But she was already up on the mountainy
pillowtop and a long, slender arm loomed at me. The life rope of

a completely different social class. This place was no Dream Father
mansion, but it sure had something going for it. I was lying in bed 
with you. It was a Thursday. Outside the white noise said it was 
summer and the cicadas were okay with that. It had been clear weather
for almost ten days. Standing in the sun a person could be 

described as hot. But I’m not allowed to write letters in bed, says
Sigourney. The ink will make a mess of the linen. So I lie there
composing in my head. In bed with Sigourney Weaver. In bed with
you. She can palm a basketball. You’re more of a music man than
sports fan. Sigourney Weaver and I go to bed. All I can think of is you.

Emma Barnes

(Please forgive some of the line breaks, my design just isn't wide enough to fit the longest lines)

I wanted to share this poem because Emma read it at the launch we had for JAAM 31 on Friday, at 19 Tory, a space run by the Concerned Citizens Collective (thanks guys!). We hadn't had a bit public launch for JAAM for a long time - or actually maybe never. (Though we have had smaller launches from time to time, but not that often.) It was really lovely to gather together the Wellington-based contributors (though more of them are scattered around the country) and have a celebration. It was nice to put some faces to names, and also people could put our faces to our names. JAAM has been quite an anonymous work sometimes and it was good to connect with some of our community.

Cover image by Andy Palmer, cover design by me

But the big treat was having some readings from a few of the wonderful writers whose work is in JAAM - Helen Heath, Tim Jones, Pip Adam, Sandi Sartorelli, Lucy Kirton, Chris Tse and Emma - and there were more writers we would have loved to have had read too.

This poem by Emma is just one of three 'Sigourney Weaver' poems in this issue of JAAM, which are just three of many of a wonderful series. They're all quite different, but they all have the same form, and a similar tone I think. I've been loving seeing more and more of them appear

As well as in JAAM, you can read more of them in the recently published 4th Floor journal, and in Cordite, and you can listen to some on Soundcloud here and here (this is the poem above).

And once you're done with Sigourney Weaver, you might want to check out some other Tuesday poems at the hub: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.co.nz/.