30 December 2007

Jeanette Winterson/Writing what you love

Another of my favourite writers is Jeanette Winterson. When asked what my favourite book is, after my disclaimer that really it’s an impossible thing to answer because there are so many, I say The Passion. It’s a book that is, to me, perfectly written. It’s poetic, funny, playful, heartbreaking, and it’s a book I’m jealous that I didn’t write.

I don’t love everything Winterson writes, but I respect everything she writes. She writes with deep feeling and experimentation and skill. I’ve just finished her latest, The Stone Gods, and I think it falls into the ‘like and respect’ rather than ‘adore’, but adoration is a tough ask. I certainly liked it better than the chairman of the Booker Prize (who is, apparently, a statistician), who damned it as ‘a complete failure’. Winterson has said, in her December column on her website (www.jeanettewinterson.com), that they might use that quote on the paperback.

Also in that column she said:

I loved writing The Stone Gods, and I am happy with it. My advice to writers anywhere, published or not, is to love what you do, and forget about the rest. Writing is always hard work, always difficult, there are days of despair, that are times when the thing really isn’t working, but you have to be able look underneath all of that, and find the place of private commitment that is yours and yours alone. If that is there, and if it is real, you will be able to carry on. If it isn’t there, then you will be vulnerable to whatever other people have to say about your work – good or bad, and that is not right. For anyone who works alone, creativity is not about consensus. This isn’t to say that you behave like an arrogant shit – it doesn’t matter whether your gift is great or small, it matters that you care about what you do, and find enough satisfaction in it, through good times and bad. And remember, experiment is important, and the right to fail is important.
When I write, the place I work best from is one where I don’t care about what I think other people might want, when I’m writing something I care about and when I’ve giving myself permission to write badly. But it’s a hard place to get to.

Too often when people have started writing seriously (when I say ‘people’, I mean me, but this has also happened with other people I know) they clam up and it becomes so hard, because you want it to be really good first time and you know it isn’t perfect and so have trouble putting the words down. And then you feel guilty for not writing and don’t write because you feel guilty. Back when you start out, the words flow easily and it’s always fun, because it doesn’t matter so much.

So I keep on needing to turn off my inner critic, stop worrying I’m never going to write a good poem ever again, and write what I love. It sounds so easy!

28 December 2007

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

Well, we’ve just had Christmas, so I’m going to write about one of my presents.

I didn’t know Douglas Coupland had a new novel out until a few days ago when I was browsing the shelves at Unity Books, in search of presents for Sean, and there it was, sitting there looking all new and promising.

Immediately, I added it to my list of stuff Sean could get me for Christmas and was not at all surprised to find it there when I unwrapped one of my gifts.

So I devoured it yesterday, in between picnics and visiting and half-watching movies, and finished if off this morning.

‘Thumbs up or thumbs down?’ Sean asked me when I was finished (our perpetual first question at book group – currently in hiatus cos Karen abandoned us for New York).

For me, it was a return to form. I’m a big fan of Douglas Coupland and rate him among my favourite writers (an ever-expanding group). I would say that he’s my favourite male writer, but that would sound patronising. I’ve loved - or at least liked quite a lot – everything I’ve read that he’s written, except his second-to-latest, jPod, which left me kind of cold, kind of annoyed and kind of wondering if Coupland had gotten meaner and shallower. (Other people liked it a lot though, so don’t just take my word for it.)

I need not have feared – in The Gum Thief, Coupland is back doing what I like in his work – mining the little lives of ordinary odd people with empathy and understanding. And making me giggle.

This is certainly not to say that all his novels are alike – each is definitely doing it’s own thing and exploring different kinds of ordinary odd people.

This novel is written in a different and interesting form – I guess it’s the traditional epistolary form, using letters and journal entries, but it’s often not really that clear who is writing what.

The novel begins with Bethany (early 20s goth-girl) finding out that a middle-aged co-worker at a stationary super-warehouse (Roger) has written a journal entry as if he was her, and it’s weirdly accurate. And thus begins an odd sort of friendship.

As well as the letters and journal entries, there’s also a novel-within-a-novel: Glove Pond. (‘I don’t remember the inspiration, but the words have always sounded to me like the title of a novel or movie from England – like Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas – or a play written by someone like Tennessee Williams.’) There’s also a novel-within-the-novel-within-the-novel. And, like all Douglas Coupland novels, almost everyone seems to have the knack of making odd but beautiful observations about the world.

So, The Gum Thief gets a definite thumbs up from me.

20 December 2007

JAAM 25 hot off the press

JAAM 25 arrived from the printers today and it looks absolutely gorgeous! I’m really, really pleased.

As you can see from the picture, it has a black cover with white text and a colour image - Anthropology, by Peter Schwartz. (I thought we could splash out a little on this issue as we haven’t had a colour cover for a little while and, with digital printing, it wasn’t actually much more expensive.)

But what you can’t see from the picture is the gorgeous texture and classy finish created by the matt laminate on the cover. As well as looking and feeling really nice, this protects the colour and stops it from scratching or flaking off.

JAAM 25 was printed by Wakefields Digital, who also printed JAAM 24 and Cold Comfort, Cold Concrete: Poems and Satires by Scott Kendrick (which also has a matt laminate on the cover – I’m a big fan now).

I really can’t speak highly enough of Wakefields. When I decided to digitally print Cold Comfort, Cold Concrete, it was a cost decision – digital printing is much cheaper for short runs than offset printing. I expected that the quality of the cover would suffer, especially as it has a large block of red and, with my previous experience of digital printing, I expected the colours to end up a bit mottled and spotty. I think my timing was quite good - Wakefields had just got a new digital printer, which is fantastic, because when I show people Cold Comfort, Cold Concrete, they are surprised to find out that it wasn’t offset printed, because the block of red is so smooth and even.

If you’re not that familiar with printing, really simply – offset printing requires making plates (one per colour – cyan, magenta, yellow and black for a full-colour print job) and using them to print with ink on a industrial printer. Digital printing is basically printing with a fancier-than-average colour laser printer. There’s a little bit more about digital printing and offset printing on wikipedia.

With JAAM 25, as with Cold Comfort, Cold Concrete, I’m also really impressed by the quality of the print – the large blocks of black are evenly printed and the colours in the image don’t look blotchy at all. The other thing that really impressed me with Wakefields was the perseverance they showed when, in their initial trials, the laminate was making JAAM 25’s cover curl. They tested all kinds of solutions, until they got it right, and the end result is just perfect.

As well as being pretty, there’s lots of interesting writing in JAAM 25, as I said in my earlier post, including a couple of my own poems (both about Emilys: ‘Passion’ is about Emily Bronte and ‘Emily Dickinson at home’ is, as you would expect, about Emily Dickinson).

I’ll be sending out copies to contributors, subscribers and bookshops after Christmas. If you’re interested in getting hold of one, email jaammagazine@yahoo.co.nz, or check out JAAM's website.

17 December 2007

Farewell Bernard Gadd (1935-2007)

It hasn't been a good month for New Zealand poetry. I heard today of the passing of another New Zealand poet: Bernard Gadd, who died late last week.

I've come across Bernard, or Bernie as he was more familiarly known, mainly through his poetry in literary magazines and through the work he has published in JAAM. He was also a fellow small-press publisher, running Hallard Press. There's an in-depth interview with him in the online Stylus Poetry Journal, in which he talks about his place in the NZ literary scene.

16 December 2007

Poetry Society anthology

This from the NZ Poetry Society:

Copies of our 2007 anthology, the infinity we swim in, are still available to members [and non-members] who are looking for that special Christmas gift or a high quality read over the holiday break. Infinity is the latest instalment in the NZ Poetry Society's annual anthology series and showcases the winners of the 2007 international poetry and haiku competitions and features the work of more than ninety poets from across the globe. It provides an excellent showcase of contemporary poetry and celebrates a diversity of new and established voices.

The infinity we swim in is $25 or $22 to members of the society. For more information, visit the Poetry Society's website or email the Poetry Society.

13 December 2007

The Master and Margarita II

I finished reading The Master and Margarita (this link is to a website all about the novel created by a very keen fan) last week, and I found it beautiful and rollicking and moving, though I’m still not entirely sure what it was all about.

A friend of mine wrote a dissertation on it and two other novels from the 1930s (The Master and Margarita was mostly written in the 1930s, though it wasn’t published until after Bulgakov’s death in the 1960s): The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (now there’s a depressing novel) and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. They seemed rather dissimilar novels to me, but she said that what they had in common was ‘the world gone mad’.

It may interest other Bulgakov fans to know that the sidekicks of Woland (Satan) - Behemoth, Koroviev and Azazello – turned up in an X-Men anthology that Sean was reading in the weekend. They’re only there for about three frames, and they don’t look anything like how I imagined them, but a curious cross-over nevertheless.

11 December 2007

Howling at Howltearoa

So last night I finally made it down to Howltearoa, at the Southern Cross. And indeed, there was actual howling to be heard.

It was lots of fun and lots of variety in both performers and performances. There were a lot of keen people in the open mike section. While it was mostly poetry, there was also prose, song and mixtures of all three. Pieces ranged from funny to intense to political to love poems to limericks to Mike Tights reading a poem using some device to make his voice sound like a robot (which unfortunately also made it impossible to make out any words, except ‘Can you hear me?’)

My own contribution was to read my poem ‘Handicrafts with Minnie Dean’, wherein I knit baby clothes with the notorious murderess.

Highlights included Matiu’s intense song, Andy’s poem about the corpse of Saddam Hussein (really it is much better than it sounds from that description) and Hamish’s piece about Jack who wrote secrets on his shoes.

If there was a prize for best use of the Shortland Street theme song in a spoken-word performance, it would have to go to Craig Ireson (Karaoke Poet, Word Collective stalwart and co-MC for the night), who introduced ‘Is it you or is it me? Lately I’ve been lost it seems. I think a change is what I need’ into his opening and welcoming ‘address’. (Which also included him singing the familiar ‘Come aboard, we’re expecting you’.)

My previous experience of the Word Collective is of a group that is welcoming and encouraging, and last night was more of the same. Howltearoa is taking a break until March or April next year, but I’ll be back.

In other news: today I went to L’s graduation (finally!) Congratulations.

08 December 2007

JAAM 25 at print

Yay, JAAM 25 is at print!

If you need some background, JAAM (Just Another Art Movement) is a literary magazine that was started by a bunch of people, including me and led by Mark Pirie, at Victoria University in 1995. Since then it’s grown and expanded and now is one of the major literary mags in NZ.

The work in the 25th issue of JAAM was selected by guest editor Siobhan Harvey, a writer, reviewer and creative writing teacher. Siobhan has made her home in Auckland after emigrating from England. Of her selection, she says in her editorial:

Using my émigré outsider’s sensibility and eye, I aimed for samples of the best work and writers from what might be broadly termed the various sections of contemporary domestic literature: those who, for instance, are stridently innovative; those who aim for accessibility; those who are alternative; those who are influenced by American modernism and postmodernism; those who seek to forge a distinctly New Zealand form of postmodernism; those who combine some or
all of these traits; those who reject them all or combine none; and so on.
As you might expect, the selection is quite varied, which is usually the case with JAAM. And, as is also usual, there is a good mix of well-known writers (such as Alistair Paterson, Jessica Le Bas, Jack Ross, Iain Sharp, Kapka Kassabova, Harry Ricketts, to name just a few) along with new and emerging writers.

There are also some images by Peter Schwartz, including art of the cover. It’s going to be a colour cover this time (they’re usually black and white) and will be, I think, particularly attractive.

It’s getting quite late in the year for publication, but I’ll try to give it more of a push in January. For more information about JAAM, or to subscribe, check out the JAAM homepage, the JAAM MySpace page, or email jaammagazine@yahoo.co.nz.

04 December 2007


If you're in Wellington and you like a bit of spoken word/performance poetry, you might like to pop down to Howltearoa. Howltearoa is a monthly event, which I haven't managed to make it to so far, but have very good intentions to go this time.

Howltearoa is run by the Word Collective, who have also run the Word Festival, which I did manage to make it to once. The thing that struck me most about the open reading at the Word Festival was what a cosy, supportive and non-judgemental atmosphere there was, and I'm told (by a reliable source) that Howltearoa is the same.

There will be an open mike and a guest reader. They say:

This year's final guest is Markus McIntyre: a stale wart of the Word Collective and all round kiwi renaissance man reminscent of Crumpie mixed with Curnow. This man catches his dinner on the South Coast of Wgtn then composes homages to Kina and Paua in his beaut little batch- catch him whilst you can my little rose buds.

Howltearoa December 2007
Monday 10th
Southern Cross Bar and Restaurant
Abel Smith St
Free entry

29 November 2007

Private Detective/distribution via Trade Me/Kilmog Press

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Trade Me, letting me know that there was an item for sale that I might be interested in. And indeed I was – it was a newly published book of poetry by my friend Mark Pirie: Private Detective.

I’ve seen second-hand books and remaindered books for sale on Trade Me, but this is the first time I’ve come across a just-published book. I’m quite fascinated and think this could be the way of the future: distribution direct to readers via Trade Me (and other similar sites).

Distribution is always hard for small presses and especially small press poetry publishers like myself (can you hear the violins?) In general, the independent booksellers are the only ones who will stock our books, and even then only some of them (big thanks in particular to Otago University Book Shop, Canterbury University Book Shop, Parsons in Auckland, The Women’s Bookshop and the extra-fabulous Unity Books in Wellington). But more and more people are buying things on Trade Me, and with online payment you’ll never even need to leave your room.

I think Seraph Press might have to try it.

Back to Private Detective – it’s a hand-printed, hand-bound, limited-edition book published by Kilmog Press, about which I know nothing except that it hails from Dunedin and it produces gorgeous books. I’m basing the latter assertion on the pictures of Private Detective on Trade Me and on the two Kilmog Press books I’ve seen in real life: In the Dragon Cafe by Peter Olds and When Muldoon was King by Bob Orr. I had to buy In the Dragon Cafe – not only was it beautifully produced – hand-printed, hand-bound, beautiful paper – but it had a dragon on the cover. Who could resist!

I very much enjoyed the poetry in In the Dragon Cafe - a poem that has particularly stayed with me is ‘Letter to Hone Tuwhare (the Count of Montecillo)’, which describes a visit to an unwell but still feisty Tuwhare.

Several of Kilmog Press’s other books are also available on Trade Me: Isadora’s Shroud by Sandra Bell, Parable of the Sea Sponge by Stephen Oliver and a reprint of James Joyce’s first poetry collection Chamber Music and Other Poems. Worth a look.

Despite my new interest in Trade Me as a distribution vehicle, I’ve decided to wait and buy my copy of Private Detective at the HeadworX Christmas party, where it will be launched along with two new HeadworX collections: L E Scott’s Speaking in Tongues and Dream Boat: Selected Poems by Tony Beyer.

27 November 2007

Side Stream poetry zine

Last week I received my copy of Side Stream, a free monthly poetry zine, which was nice enough to publish one of my poems (‘Partying with Katherine Mansfield’) in its latest issue. Side Stream is published by Auckland poet Miriam Barr, with the help of a bunch of volunteers who help guillotine and staple the pocket-sized publication.

I had been idly pondering publishing a similar kind of poetry zine a couple of months ago after some friends wrote and published a crazy/hilarious zine and after reading a free feminist zine that Sean picked up somewhere in town. The appeal of a zine for me is the freedom brought by low production costs and the fact that you can just leave them lying around somewhere for someone to pick up – perhaps someone who doesn’t normally read poetry.

Seems Miriam had been having some similar thoughts, and in February of this year she acted on them. Miriam, who runs Poetry Live in Auckland, says that she began Side Stream to provide a forum for new poets to publish and get their work out of their shoeboxes, and also as a way of making poetry more accessible for people who aren’t normally exposed to poetry. She says:

Through my involvement with The Literatti and The Guerrilla Poets I was also thinking a lot about the disparity between the way people reacted to the idea or suggestion of poetry, and the way they responded to it when it was placed into their worlds and they got to actually experience it (either in performance or chalked onto pavements for example).

I started to see that access to poetry for everyday people was rather limited, and saw this as one of the reasons why poetry receives such a dusty rap on the most part (and also probably why it is near impossible to make a living with it).
Miriam says that Side Stream is placed in a diverse range of places such as cafes, doctor's surgeries and bookshops – places where people go.

Most people are kind of scared of poetry and probably a good deal of that is because their exposure to it as adults is quite limited. (Though an exception to that I think are in times of great joy or sadness, like weddings and funerals.) So if the people won’t go to the poetry, perhaps we can take the poetry to the people.

So I’m going to take the copies that I have to distribute around Wellington, and find places where unsuspecting people might pick it up and find, to their surprise, that they enjoy poetry.

22 November 2007

The Master and Margarita

We spent last weekend staying in the fabulous Hunt Cottage in Tinui (near Castlepoint), which doesn’t have that much to do with writing or books except that, while there, I wrote a little and read a book.

The book I was reading (and still am reading) is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov, which several people have told me is their favourite book in the world, so I figured it was worth a look.

Despite being written during the Stalinist period, or perhaps because of that, it contains the typically Russian black sense of humour and absurdness, which I always enjoy. Russian writers seem to always be able to make even a tragedy funny - in a dark sort of way. A friend of mine suggested that the sense of the absurd may have come from Russia being such a large country, making bureaucratic absurdities inevitable.

I’m still in the middle of it, but I’m enjoying The Master and Margarita immensely. Possibly my favourite passage so far is this:

Ivan was so struck by the cat's behaviour that he froze motionless by the grocery store on the corner, and here he was struck for a second time, but much more strongly, by the conductress's behaviour. As soon as she saw the cat getting into the tram-car, she shouted with a malice that even made her shake:

'No cats allowed! Nobody with cats allowed! Scat! Get off, or I'll call the police!'

Neither the conductress nor the passengers were struck by the essence of the matter: not just that a cat was boarding a tram-car, which would have been good enough, but that he was going to pay!

The cat turned out to be not only a solvent but also a disciplined animal. At the very first shout from the conductress, he halted his advance, got off the footboard, and sat down at the stop, rubbing his whiskers with the ten-kopeck piece. But as soon as the conductress yanked the cord and the tram-car started moving off, the cat acted like anyone who has been expelled from a tram-car but still needs a ride. Letting all three cars go by, the cat jumped on to the rear coupling-pin of the last one, wrapped its paws around some hose sticking out of the side, and rode off, thus saving himself ten kopecks.

I read that passage out to Sean and kept him updated as I went along: ‘The cat hasn’t reappeared yet.’ ... A few pages later – ‘Oh, here’s the cat again. He’s drinking a glass of vodka.’

20 November 2007

Farewell Meg Campbell (1937-2007)

I was really sad to hear that poet Meg Campbell died on Saturday. Meg, wife of fellow-poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, had just published a new collection of poetry.

14 November 2007

Anne Sexton and learning not to be afraid of rhyme

As I said in my last post, I’ve been reading a lot about Anne Sexton and her poetry lately.

She’s a poet whose work I didn’t know very well until now, though I did read her collection Transformations – which is retellings of fairy tales – when I was writing my masters thesis almost 10 years ago (Fairy Tale Intertextuality in Margaret Atwood’s Fiction).

At the time, I found them too bitter.

This time around I’m enjoying her early work a lot. Her language is deliciously rich and full of metaphor – and often also humour. Admittedly, some of her work can be hard going: she was a pioneering ‘confessional’ poet – a lot of her work draws on her own experience (though generally fictionalised in one way or another) and her experience included severe depression, suicide attempts and hospitalisation. Pretty brave stuff to write about back there in the 50s.

One thing that has struck me about her work is her use of rhyme – or rather, it didn’t strike me, because it’s used so subtly. I read the poem ‘Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward’ all the way through its five stanzas before I realised it rhymes with a strict ABABABABABA scheme.

Child, the current of your breath is six days long.
You lie, a small knuckle on my white bed;
lie, fisted like a snail, so small and strong
at my breast. Your lips are animals; you are fed
with love. At first hunger is not wrong.
The nurses nod their caps; you are shepherded
down starch halls with the other unnested throng
in wheeling baskets. You tip like a cup; your head
moving to my touch. You sense the way we belong.
But this is an institution bed.
You will not know me very long.
(from ‘Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward’, by Anne Sexton.)

Sexton said she liked to use strict rhyme schemes, particularly in her early work, as a way of containing the strong emotion. The harder something was to write about, the more restrictive the scheme.

Rhyme is something I’ve generally avoided in poetry. I have a suspicion that the probability of a modern poem being bad increases ten-fold if it rhymes. That said, I certainly don’t write rhyming poetry off completely, though the contemporary rhyming poets I most enjoy tend to use rhyme to add humour: people like Wendy Cope, Harry Ricketts and Scott Kendrick (shameless Seraph Press plug):

So I wrote up a letter saying “I can’t pay;
I feel real sick – might die today.”
They sent back, “Oh we thought you knew
Where clause seven dash six one point two
Says: The client shall not be mislead
Into thinking it’s over when they’re dead.
If your soul’s off tripping in a heavenly way
We’ll work it out so you can pay

Your student loan, which as was shown,
Is taut and tight and tanned and toned.
The rivers may cut away the stone,
But nothing’s gonna cut your student loan
(from ‘Song of the Student Loan’, by Scott Kendrick)

Until a few years ago, if even an internal rhyme had accidentally slunk into a line of my own poetry, I’d exorcise it as soon as I noticed. But lately I’ve become brave enough to play with internal rhyme deliberately. (Though one editor seemed to assume that my carefully constructed internal rhyme running over three lines was some kind of unfortunate accident.) So you never know, maybe I’m on my own slippery slope to rhymingdom.

12 November 2007

Ted Hughes on the danger of good reviews

So I’ve doing a bit of a study on Anne Sexton and her poetry lately. In her biography I found an interesting quote about how good book reviews can bad for you, from a letter Ted Hughes wrote to Anne Sexton after she had received some bad reviews in England.

Knowing that she was smarting over the bad reviews, he wrote her consolingly, saying don’t worry, good reviews are bad for poets. He went on to compile a catalogue of the harms produced by favourable reviews: "they tend to confirm one in one’s conceit - unless they praise what you yourself don’t like. Also they make you self-conscious about your virtues - just as when you praise a child for some natural charm. Also they create an underground opposition: applause is the beginning of abuse. Also they deprive you of your own anarchic liberties - by electing you into the government. Also, they separate you from your devil, which hates being observed and only works happily incognito." (Page 283, Anne Sexton: A biography, by Diane Wood Middlebrook.)

11 November 2007


It's now three years since Chris told me not to start a blog for at least a year because it would get in the way of my writing. But I think the time has now come...

My plan for this blog is to write about what Seraph Press is up to, what JAAM is up to, what I'm writing, what I'm reading and any other poetry/publishing/literature-related things.

More soon.