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.