Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Moving right along ...

Wondering why there haven't been any posts here for a while? That's because the whole kit and caboodle (now there's a word begging to be reinstalled into the English language!) has shifted permanently (I hope) to

Ka kite ano, 


Thursday, 8 May 2008

How to Win at Poetry Workshops

Oh dear. Reading this I laughed until I nearly wet myself. (And trust me, cringing and laughing simultaneously will test the bladder control of any woman over the age of fifteen.) It's all so true. And yet ...

One friend of mine has commented more than once with horror and distaste on my predilection for workshop groups. He is offended by the notion that you could read a person's poem a couple of times and then feel competent to offer criticism. (Dear man. And yet he's willing to be seen in my company occasionally!) I can understand his feelings – he is a meticulous craftsman, and believes (quite rightly) that coming to grips with a good poem is something that takes dedication and time. Not a committee meeting.

And yet ...

When I made the decision to start writing poetry "seriously", I was writing on my own. Reading heaps, and as widely as my local library would let me (and we are blessed with a very good library). I was ... ok. Not too bad. Editors would occasionally offer comments, and I would try to work from there. Then I heard about a local writing group, the Airing Cupboard.

It was a revelation. All these other people – real people – who also wrote poems. Who loved poetry. Who were knowledgeable and encouraging. Once a fortnight, I'd bring poems to the group. The good bits would be praised, and it was a wonderfully affirming experience. Exactly what I needed at that point.

And yet, and yet ...

After about a year I started to feel restless – I wanted some actual critiquing. Which wasn't what the Airing Cupboard was for. I knew that there were problems, that I wasn't writing high calibre poetry all the time (ok, or even very often). I wanted more. I needed more.

And I got it. Four other women had already formed a second group, intended to provide some real workshopping of/for each other's poems. And they asked me to join.  We've been meeting for the best part of ten years now, and this is the group that I take my work to on a regular basis. (I also belong to a couple of other groups who meet to read each other's work, with varying levels of critique involved). We all know each other's work and each other's weaknesses. And every one of us writes better poetry now than we did before we started meeting. Sometimes the discussions get quite heated (we prefer to think of it as "passionately engaged"), but there's something wonderfully  fulfilling about those sorts of discussions, even when we disagree. Quite often a new poem is born from them. I know that there are plenty of times when a poem has been saved.

The thing is, while all the points made by Jough Dempsey are perfectly valid – I've been guilty of all of them at some point or another, although never consciously intending malice – they ignore the fact that those exact same judgments can and probably will be leveled against your poem (lets pretend that most critics do remember the distinction between "you" and "your poem") by everyone else out there in the big, bad, poetry-reading world. Editors. Judges. Critics. Readers.

So maybe the way of thinking of even the most toxic workshops is as a form of vaccination. Building up your tolerance. Raising your immunity. Even, or especially, when they get it all completely wrong.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Library Thing Top 106 Unread Books

Like many other dedicated LibraryThingers, I've decided to succumb to the LT Top 106 Unread Books meme. WTF? Here's the explanation:
This meme has been going around for a while now: Top 106 unread books on LibraryThing. People are going through the top 106 books tagged "unread" on LT, and then marking which ones they've read, which they read for school, which they started but didn't finish, which are on their to read list, which they loathed, which they read more than once...
(For those of you who haven't heard of LibraryThing before ... oh boy, where to start. At its simplest, it's an online book cataloguing site. But it's so much more than that. Reviews, social networking, recommendations ... it's got the lot. As much or as little as you want it to have. You can even have a trial catalogue of up to 200 books for free. Go now and have a look. I'll still be here when you get back. Promise.)

Here are the rules: 
  • books you've read go in bold
  • books started but not finished are in italics
  • strikethrough for books you've read and hated, 
  • an *asterisk for books read multiple times, 
  • and underline is for books that are on your "yet to read" list.

So, from the most recent list that I have:

  1. *The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  2. *Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
  3. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  4. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  5. Life of Pi : a novel – Yann Martel
  6. Don Quixote – Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra
  7. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  8. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  9. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  10. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. Ulysses – James Joyce
  12. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  13. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  14. The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  15. *Catch-22: a novel – Joseph Heller
  16. *Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  17. The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
  18. Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle I) – Neal Stephenson
  19. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
  20. The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
  21. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  22. Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books – Azar Nafisi
  23. *The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
  24. The Kor'an – Anonymous
  25. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  26. The Odyssey – Homer
  27. *The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer
  28. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  29. The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo
  30. The Historian : a novel – Elizabeth Kostova
  31. Foucault's Pendulum – Umberto Eco
  32. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
  33. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling – Henry Fielding
  34. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  35. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  36. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
  37. The Iliad – Homer
  38. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  39. *Emma _ Jane Austen
  40. Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
  41. Sons and Lovers – D.H. Lawrence
  42. Gulliver's Travels _ Jonathan Swift
  43. The House of the Seven Gables – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  44. Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies – Jared Diamond
  45. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  46. Lady Chatterley's Lover – D.H. Lawrence
  47. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
  48. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
  49. The Once and Future King – T. H. White
  50. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
  51. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
  52. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
  53. Oryx and Crake : a novel – Margaret Atwood
  54. *Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
  55. Labyrinth – Kate Mosse
  56. Tess of the D'Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
  57. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed – Jared Diamond
  58. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
  59. Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe
  60. Underworld – Don DeLillo
  61. Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott
  62. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  63. *Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  64. *The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake
  65. The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
  66. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  67. The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
  68. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  69. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
  70. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court – Mark Twain
  71. The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
  72. The Inferno – Dante Alighieri
  73. Gravity's Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
  74. The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
  75. Swann's Way – Marcel Proust
  76. The Poisonwood Bible : a novel – Barbara Kingsolver
  77. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay : a novel – Michael Chabon
  78. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
  79. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
  80. Silas Marner – George Eliot
  81. *The Portrait of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
  82. The Man in the Iron Mask – Alexandre Dumas
  83. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
  84. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  85. The Confusion – Neal Stephenson
  86. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – Ken Kesey
  87. *Frankenstein – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  88. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
  89. The System of the World – Neal Stephenson
  90. The Elegant Universe : superstrings, hidden dimensions, and… – Brian Greene
  91. Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson
  92. The Known World – Edward P. Jones
  93. The Time Traveler's Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  94. The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot
  95. The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
  96. Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon
  97. Dubliners – James Joyce
  98. Les Misérables РVictor Hugo
  99. The Bonesetter's Daughter – Amy Tan
  100. Infinite Jest : a novel – David Foster Wallace
  101. Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad
  102. Beloved : a novel – Toni Morrison
  103. Persuasion – Jane Austen
  104. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  105. The Personal History of David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  106. Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

Hmm, this could be embarrassing ... I need an extra category – "um, I thin I have, but I can't remember for sure, it was a long time ago". Oh, and "Never heard of it. Is it any good?"

How did you do?

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Kinked and tangled: Tiffany Atkinson's 'Kink and Particle'

I've been rereading a first book that was highly recommended to me a while back, Tiffany Atkinson's Kink and Particle (Seren, 2006). I've posted a proper review here on my website.
I have three main problems with this book. Her 'voice', her metaphor abuse and her endings.

She writes in that hip, sassy, streetwise voice that seems to be the current default voice of any female poet past puberty and pre-menopause. And as a stance gets boring pretty quickly. It just doesn't work for more than a couple of poems. (I'll give it to her for 'Photo from Belfast', but no more.) It becomes a really irritating mannerism.

She also has a habit of clogging up the stanzas with similes and metaphors until the reader glazes over. She rarely just 'describes' something, which is a pity, because some of her metaphors are brilliant – my tongue's a husband in a dress-shop ('In This One') is exactly right, as is drops [of blood] like pomegranate seeds, caught on her cuff ('Acts of Devotion'). But in the fifteen lines of 'Ynyslas', she crams the roof's black keys, with the soft flesh-bells of cattle, and the boatyard's dirty beats, plus synaptic crack of cock-crow, plus the sky's live tissue, and a havoc of sun. Possibly she was aiming for "intoxicating", but what she achieved was "intoxicated". And maybe it's just me, but some of her metaphors are too bizarre. One thing that writing haiku teaches you is that a too-clever metaphor risks supplanting the poem's internal cohesion with an awareness of the poet's cleverness. So I'm not sure what I'm meant to do in response to a metaphor like I work my cigarette like pornography ('Only so many ways') or we stretch from our vehicles like molluscs ('Nine Miles Stationary'). Applaud? Throw her a fish?

She also goes too many times for the Duffy ending – clipped. Telegraphic. Deliberately downbeat. Death. A Chardonnay hang-/ over. Heels. A damn good haircut. ('Nia, June 16'), or Brew/ dodgy wines come autumn. Laugh. Grow fat. ('No Warning'). But where Duffy uses this to underscore something that has been subtext in the poem, Atkinson has it undermine any depth the poem has managed to assemble. And it becomes yet another mannerism – you barely need to read the last two lines. You know how she'll say it, and the what will almost certainly be a recap of something already stated.

Ultimately it's probably a matter of personal preference. And the poems that I really liked – 'Tea', 'Photo from Belfast', 'Baby Sitting' and 'Paddling' – can't do enough to make the book matter to me.

Here's the test: having paid for it with my own money, if I left it by accident on a park bench, would I go back to look for it? And the answer is No.

Friday, 25 April 2008

ANZAC Day & The General

My generation is the first in my family to not have a member serve in the armed forces (yet – who knows?). And ANZAC Day has a special resonance for me – my great uncle, who was also a poet, was the man blamed for the disaster that epitomizes the ANZAC legend: Gallipoli.

General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton (1853-1947) was known as "the soldier-poet", and published a number of volumes during his life. (My grandmother had an autographed copy of "Listening to the Drums", but it was ... borrowed by someone unknown and never returned.) He was a career soldier, and was held in such high regard that he was the only person that both the Japanese and Russian sides were willing to see appointed as "observer" during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). He had essentially retired from military duties by the beginning of the First World War, but was called back by Lord Kitchener to oversee operations in the Dardanelles.

It was a catastrophe of incredible proportions, even to the frankly cynical eyes of modern times. It was a slaughter, and Hamilton was recalled to London (effectively sacked). He later faced a court-martial over the debacle, and is generally written up in the history books as being the man responsible for the whole affair. As it happens, the court-martial clear him of all culpability – his advice against the proposed landings to the higher command had been routinely ignored. The true culprits were established, and should have been publicly named. Except the principal culprit died just before the findings were released, and the secondary culprit went on to become a hero war-leader. (You can do your own historical research for the names. I admit my family bias towards exonerating him.) So he has passed into history as the man responsible.

I've read some of the letters he sent to my great grandmother (they were cousins), as well as many of his poems and journals. Many of his attitudes I can't agree with – he was a hawk, pro-war and (mildly) pro-Nazi (the dictatorship part, not the anti-Semetic). But he was also a poet, and as such, I've always felt as though he was standing somewhere behind my left shoulder, nodding approvingly. One of the first poems I wrote with any serious intent was for ANZAC Day. My teacher at the time (final year of primary school) thought it was so good that he has annually inflicted it upon his subsequent classes. (I'm sorry!) As a gesture towards this day and an offering of my awareness of how rubbish some of my work is and has been, I append it to the bottom of this post.

During my last visit to London, we went to St Paul's Cathedral. Down in the catacombs of St Paul's, there is a memorial plaque to him. Technically you're not allowed to take any photos there, but I was able to get special permission to take photos to send back to my grandmother. His memorial is in a side chamber, just off to the right of the tomb of Horatio Nelson:

The poem below is full of errors, both factual and poetic. Let me repeat this point: I was only eleven years old. So. To the memory of General Sir Ian Hamilton, in defiance of pride and any pretensions to literary greatness, and in gratitude to all the fallen. We must not forget.


My back is scarred with trenches,
my green is turning black
the air filled with the stench
of men who rot upon my back.

The trenches stretch from tree to tree –
I am, of course, Gallipoli.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Haiku Aotearoa 2008

Fascinating weekend. It was great to finally meet lots of people who I've heard of, or even corresponded with for years, but never met face to face before. With a very few exceptions, it was a who's who of New Zealand haiku literature. And on top of that, we had the launch of the third New Zealand Haiku anthology, the taste of nashi. And that really was a who's who night!

Back row: Nola Gazzard, Owen Bullock, Elaine Riddell, Shirley May, Jeffrey Harpeng, Sandra Simpson, Helen Bascand, Lynn Tara Austin, Elise Mei, Joanna Preston, Helen Yong, Rosemary Scott, Janine Sowerby.
Middle: John O'Connor, Andre Surridge, Karen Peterson Butterworth, Greeba Brydges-Jones, Richard von Sturmer, Helen Lowe, Sally Holmes Midgley.
Front: Judith Walsh, Margaret Beverland, Kirsten Cliff, Nola Borrell, Barbara Strang and Cyril Childs.
Photo courtesy Beverley George.

One of the interesting things that came up was a discussion of the importance of haibun as a way of gaining admittance to the mainstream. There's quite a big overlap of people in New Zealand who write both haiku and conventional poetry. While there are still morons who think that haiku is "a seventeen syllable epigram" (three guesses who), the awareness of haiku's existence as a valid form is pretty high. The discussion came around to the matter of getting haiku literature into the mainstream journals. There are a few who accept haiku with no problems, but most are wary of it (some because, by their own admission, they have no idea what constitutes a good haiku). But quite a few journals – no, make that virtually every NZ literary journal – has at some point recently been infiltrated by haiku in disguise. Haiku sequences, renga, and haibun, submitted without those labels, have been appearing all over the place. Proving that the form itself is no problem: just the perception of its difficulty/esotericness (is that a word?!)/lack of relevance etc etc etc.

There's no doubt that there have been a lot of prose poems appearing. It's a bit of a fad here at the moment – the book that won the Best First Book award at the 2007 Montana Book Awards was one. (Or so the author and publisher claim. And yes, I have read it.) Personally, I have read very very few prose poems published in NZ in the last few years that qualify as poems – no music, no structure, no poem. (No, "zaniness" doesn't do it.) But haibun ... now that's a different story.

One quote that I came across in the process of compiling work for the haibun workshop really appealed to me:

So why is a haibun not a short story? ... You cannot introduce a new character in the last line of a short story. But in the haibun ...
George Marsh,
introduction to Ken Jones' Pilgrim Foxes, (Pilgrim Press, 2001)

It's a form that has so much possibility. One of the exercises I set everyone was to look at a selection of haibun, which I'd split into prose and haiku. The task was to match the two back together. The wonderful thing was that less than half of the time did they get it right. Only two times were the majority of the people on the right track! It was a really good eye-opener – for me as much as them – as to how many different ways the links between prose and haiku could work, and how many possibilities there were in the writing. Some of the time the "wrong" haiku made for a much more interesting poem!

Start with the haiku; spin the prose off in any direction. Start with the prose; let the haiku act as stepping stones between the ideas. Or to act as an ice slick, and send the poem shooting off in a totally new way. Or act as a counterpoint to the prose, so that the story is revealed when you look back at the poem. Diary, diatribe, documentary, heck, why not even detective novel?

I'm buzzing with ideas. And possibly caffeine. And cortisol.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Haiku Aotearoa '08 is go!

Woohoo! Just about time to head off to the opening event in the Haiku Aotearoa 2008 festival/conference/shindig.

I'm quite looking forward to everything, although I'm nervous as hell about the bit that I'm running – Saturday, 1:30 to 3:30: "Introduction to Haibun". Not helped by the fact that Cyril Childs – who I consider one of the very best writers of haibun – is going to be there. The thing is, most of what I know about haibun comes from Cyril. Among other things, he ran a haibun workshop for the Small White Teapot Haiku Group a couple of years ago. I had been planning to quote him at length, and to freely re-use what I remembered from his workshop. No longer possible! So the last few days have been me and the computer, desperately trying to get it all up to a suitable standard. I had been planning to aim down quite a bit – simple, encouraging, basic – rather than be scholarly. Oh well. Thank heavens for the internet.
(Breathe now, breathe.)

It's going to be interesting to meet everyone. Haiku is such an international genre – we tend to do a lot of corresponding, and as much with people overseas as here in New Zealand. Other than Cyril, I don't think I've ever been face-to-face with any of the non-Christchurch Kiwi haiku writers. All those names to put faces to!

(In and out. In ... and out. Breathe. Breathe.)

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Poetry readings – the good and the unintelligable

I went to the fifth evening in the Canterbury Poets' autumn "Poetry in Performance" readings series last night. The guest readers were Sioban Harvey, Kerrin Sharpe and Jeffrey Harpeng. Interesting night. I haven't come across Sioban or Kerrin before, although I vaguely knew their names. Jeff's work I know quite well, and was entertaining, as usual (although he's a good mate, so I'm hardly objective). But Sioban was quite a revelation. Tall, blonde, drop-dead gorgeous, and also actually a good poet! I'm surprised she hasn't been picked up as the latest "hot-young-thing", à la Kapka Kassabova and Kate Camp. (Ok, yes, I'm jealous. Not being anything remotely resembling 'glamourous', I get annoyed with media darlings, even while appreciating the need for their presence.)

Back to the subject. To add insult to injury, Sioban was also a very good reader, although a little annoyingly prone to that heavily inflected, over emphasised reading manner:

I read, and I want
you to hear every line
and comma,
as though
they were ham
-mered in, into your bones

and I'll say it like

and this,
and this, and then trail

[pause pause pause]

silence ...

Ok, that's a little unfair. But I'm sure you've heard it being done. It doesn't bother you to begin with, but then it gradually starts to irritate and you catch yourself counting the beats and mentally correcting her emphasis (emphases?). But even that does pass, as long as the poems remain interesting.

Kerrin Sharpe wasn't bad, but seemed blissfully unaware of what the microphone was for. And, to make it worse, got quieter and quieter as the reading went on. I was in the front row, and I could only just make out what she was saying by the end. The slightly odd/sad thing was that no-one asked her to speak up ... She also had a tendency to over-explain the poems, and to not do enough to indicate where the comments stopped and the poem began. Maybe nerves? Not helped by the fact that the poems tended to be quite short.

It was a touch of the Elizabeth Smither – one of the worst readers I've ever come across. She read at the Chch literary festival a couple of years back. God, it was bad. I remember she had a stack of papers in front of her, and seemed utterly determined to get through them all, in order, if it killed us. And it wasn't just that every poem had its own page – that's not so bad. But every poem had its own, separate, page (or more) of explanation. And there was absolutely nothing – no change of tone, change of volume, heck, even change of posture! – to let us know when she'd finished explaining, and started reading again! Just another page being turned over. It's possible that there were some poems that covered multiple pages – you couldn't tell. I'm certain that there were plenty of poems that were much shorter than their explanation. The audience just sat there, dead in our seats. Slowly getting older.


Tuesday, 1 April 2008

My new other blog

I've started playing with a second blog, devoted strictly to haibun. Partly as a result of the preparation I've been doing for my 'Haibun for Beginners' workshop at Haiku Aotearoa 2008. But also because I was having an idle flick through some of the kazillions (technical term) of photos we have from our three years in the UK, and realized that I was starting to forget a lot of the things we did/saw/experienced. Some have already become haibun – I know I swore I wouldn't write any travel poems, but didn't say anything about haibun did I? Heh heh heh.

Anyway, to cut a long story short: I'm going to use the other site as an online workbook. Create a haibun sequence (or possibly series; I've never been too sure about the difference between them) of things to do with our travels. Post photos. Jot. Edit. Compose. Post work-in-progress as well as relevant completed haibun.

Should be fun. Or possibly just another distraction. I've called it The Long Road Home, as a kind of reference to Basho's Oku no hosomichi. Feel free to drop in, it's right here.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Brain Training

I came across an interesting podcast this morning, while browsing the iTunes store (as you do, when you should be working on something else). It's called "Brain Ready", and they offer a series of (free) quick audio exercises, designed to keep your brain active, and prevent (or even reverse) the deterioration of your mental facilities as you age.

Quite apart from the obvious long-term benefits (given that most of the women in my family live into their nineties and beyond, I need to look after myself), it did make me feel much more awake and alert for the next few hours. 

So here's the challenge I'm setting myself. Do one brain-training podcast every morning for the next couple of weeks, and see what (if anything) it does to my creativity.

Of course, Easter is almost here, so fitting it in around my holidays will be interesting ...

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Sabotaging myself

I'm assuming that I'm not the only writer who seems to have a self-sabotage reflex? A recent example. 

One of the things that is (meant to be) occupying me at the moment is work on a novel. (A dark, dystopian fantasy.) A good friend had her first novel accepted for publication in the USA recently, and has been keeping us all updated with progress through the various stages. She's on to her seventh or eighth "proof-reading/editing". All of which is no doubt perfectly normal. But here's the thing. I caught myself thinking "well that all sounds like too much work. Good reason to not finish writing my novel." 

What is the correct response to that? Beating head against desk? Tearing out of hair? A loud "ARGH!", followed by expletives? Half an hour coming up with the most bizarre and/or appropriate reworking of "will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?"

Twenty minutes turning it into a mildly amusing blog entry?

Friday, 14 March 2008

Book launches

Lovely news from a friend, Diana Deans – her first book, It matters that we were young together, is being launched in Christchurch on the 27th of this month. She really is a good poet – she's got a delicious sense of humour, and a very good ear (not as common as it should be here). She doesn't get involved in poetry politics, so she doesn't have a huge profile. But she is well worth seeking out. Yet another coup for Steele Roberts. Should be a good launch. I know it'll be a good book. If we weren't good friends, I'd even review it ...

I was at the launch of another Steele Roberts book the week before. Dunedin poet/artist Claire Beynon launched her first book, Open Book, at the ArtSpace gallery. It's gorgeous – a real coffee-table treasure. She wanted to tap into the heritage of the "artist's book", so it marries her paintings/images with her poems. Very very good. I plan to review it in the next few weeks, so I'll post the review on my website.

Speaking of reviews ... in a(nother) fit of madness, I put myself down to review another book for the NZPS. Rae Varcoe's Tributary. 

Stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

poem in progress – Burning

I thought it was probably time to post a work-in-progress.

Haibun – Burning

Winter, and I’m burning tree-stumps. This one, deep in the cattle-camp of scribbly gums, sticking out a metre, with a sharp point like the one that bled the broodmare dry.

Build the twig-pile around the base, burn the wood-witch at the stake. Bullgrass and bark-pith tucked under. The match flares like a curse, like a hole ripped open into another world. Friend and enemy, servant perpetually on the point of rebellion. Blessings laid at the foot of the mountain. I lean close, give it my own breath.

first light –
a dusting of ash
against frost

I started writing this haibun about a week ago. It's made up of lots of different memories, but is loosely based on a particular event. I've been toying with the length a fair bit - the first draft was much longer, and covered a couple of days. But pared back feels better. I know the haiku is still not right – it's verging on being a recapitulation, rather than an extension of the ideas.

As seems to be the case quite often these days, the poem was prompted by reading some new haibun by Jeffrey Harpeng. It's a collaboration between four poets – Jeff, Patricia Prime, Diana Webb and Jeffrey Woodward – called "Quartet: a string of haibun in four voices". Wonderful stuff. I think they're looking to publish it as a chapbook, funding permitting.

Suggestions? Comments? (Be nice! Or at least interesting!)

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Poetry and Music

I use music a lot when I write. A lot of my poems have been written to what amounts to a a "theme song" – a piece (or pieces) of music that fits the emotional texture of the poem. That takes me back into the emotions that the poem is coming from. Writing being the stop-start affair it is (in my case anyway), I find it really useful to have something that can do that. (I also use aromatherapy, but that's a topic for another time.)

Some concrete examples might be useful here. When I was writing Lighthouse-keeper, I needed to find a way of tapping in to the emotions I wanted – desolation turned inward so long that it becomes a sort of ecstasy. We never see or hear from the "she" of the poem, but I wanted her presence to be quite literally everywhere. I'd been listening to the CD Howard Goodall's Big Bangs (a seriously good source for this sort of thing), and found the perfect music: 'Io La Musica' and 'Possente Spirto', from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Glorious stuff. Well worth seeking out. Just the right mixture of anguish and control.

One that doesn't need any explanation: writing Seamstress to the sound of Credence Clearwater Revival's 'Fortunate Son'...

Less obvious is the music I used writing Skeleton. Early drafts had all swirled around what became the central image: rebirth. I could imagine the way it would feel when you got to the end of the run – the g-forces letting go. Coupled with the sheer lunacy of throwing yourself head-first down a track that the bobsled guys use ... (I admire the courage of the skeleton sliders, but I have no desire to try it myself.) I knew what physical feeling I wanted – the sense of emergence, of pressure suddenly lifted, with a touch of sadness (it's over). I was also trying to write it in very short lines, the words tumbling down the page. The last line – the cold/ the brilliant/ light – crystalized very early on. 
Believe it or not, this one is set to Kate Bush. 'Feel It', from her very first album, The Kick Inside. The rhythm is from the chorus and the coda; you can actually read the end of the poem over the end of the song, and have them both finish on exactly the same beat. (A minor triumph, which pleases my inner nerd.)

Saturday, 1 March 2008

The fraught business of reviewing

I have a confession to make. 
I'm a coward.

I've been browsing through some other peoples' blogs – specifically, the blogs of some other NZ poets –and getting quite twitchy. You see, I have no litcrit. I can't talk the talk, let alone walk the walk. And, to be honest, the only time I wish I did is when I'm reading other peoples' comments or analyses and feeling more insecure with each paragraph. I feel like a kid who's snuck in to stay up with the grownups, and is getting more and more panic-stricken about the immanent likelihood of being unmasked.
Pathetic, isn't it?

It's come to boiling point recently because of the reviews I've been writing for the New Zealand Poetry Society. I passionately believe in reviewing. In being honest, and balanced, and fearless. There are way too many reviews written in NZ that are either sycophantic drivel or self-aggrandising hatchet-jobs. Or they speak in so much jargon that you feel like you need to know the secret handshake to be able to read them. Who are they being written for? The poets? The publishers? To promote the writer? What about the readers, the people who are trying to work out what poetry is all about these days and have no desire to become part of an argument? Who are still trying to come to terms with the near-total abandonment of formal verse here (warning: hobbyhorse), and don't give a flying fart for "movements" or "schools" or "cliques", but just want good poetry?

  • I believe that the reviewer must be honest. Say "this is good" and why; say "this is bad" and why.
  • I believe that the reviewer has to be fair. So no reviews of friends' books, and no reviewing of books that you hate before you even open them (unless you become converted; in which case I want to know how and why).
  • I believe that the reviewer's loyalty is to the amorphous mass know as "the audience", and that the only requirement for membership of this group is a willingness to sit down and read a poem.
It takes courage to put your work out there, whether you are the poet or the reviewer. But at least the poet can pretend that the work was "in persona" (which it usually is, to some extent). 

A recent review I did for the NZPS was of a book that I thought had some major problems. I liked it overall, but when I sat down to read it critically I kept finding myself jotting down things that jarred or frustrated me. But the book wasn't bad – certainly it was no worse than a lot of other recent NZ poetry collections (hobby horse alert). I wrote what I thought was a balanced review. I tried to use examples to illustrate my criticisms as well as my praise. Then I had to edit it back down to the 500 word limit. (I'm not very good at writing to length.) Which meant that some things had to be cut out. So I tried to keep the balance of the review the same, while still giving what I believe/d to be an accurate discussion of the book's merits and flaws. And I'm willing to stand by every comment. 
So I was shocked and surprised when a good friend comment on how unfavorable a review it was. All the more because the next review I'd written really was unfavorable (justified too, although 500 words is a small space to do a decent job of criticising. Praise is much easier). 
And I'd just submitted yet another review ...

I'm still waiting to see what if any fallout there will be. Any? None? (Lady, you ain't that important!) Argh.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Current work in progress

Part of the trouble at the moment is that I have about a dozen poems that I'm semi-writing. Which sounds good, but isn't. They start to interfere with each other – ideas jumping poem mid-stanza, emotional tone blurring across, etc etc. I have no known upper limit for self-sabotage. My writing friends are very kind about it all, but still make the odd "well there's an idea for a poem!" comment.

Enough complaining. On with it.

There's a poem I've been working on for a while now, loosely in response to Ted Hughes's October Salmon. The seed comes from a night when I was on my own at home. It was when we were living in The Parlour, high up Curly Hill, across from Ilkley Moor. Sometimes cloud would fill the valley (Wharfedale) and hide the town from us completely. Just the lights from the Cow and Calf pub, opposite.
A couple of times the clouds seemed to swirl down the valley as though it was under water. Very strange. 

I was in bed, reading the anthology Wild Reckoning (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2004), and I'd just started the Hughes poem when a plane passed overhead. 
It was so loud, I genuinely thought it must be crashing. I was out of the bed and across the room without even thinking. Waiting for it to tear into the roof – I could actually hear the air screaming through the landing gear.

And it really was close. Close enough that I could see individual faces in the porthole windows. The pilot must have been coming in to land at LBA, and somehow started his descent too soon. They didn't crash, but it looked (and sounded and felt) for one of those endless moments like they must do.

I kept watching from the doorway, until it rose over the edge of the valley and dropped down the other side. It looked for all the world like a huge fish, launching itself out of the water. I made a note of it in my journal, meaning to come back to it later. 
Which ended up being two years later, when we'd returned to NZ.

The date in my journal was September 11th, 2004.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Procrastination as an artform

Another year, another set of excuses. (And yes, I know it's the end of February – you did read the title of this post, didn't you?)

Every year I try to start out with a new workbook. Which is pretty discouraging if the old workbook isn't even half filled. But that's the way it seems to work (when it works). If I'm being honest, I've managed to develop a set of odd superstitions about my workbooks:
  • The first poem written in there is going to be crap.
  • The number of pages in the book is greater than the number of pages I will write during the course of the next (calender) year.
  • Adding a picture or any sort of adornment to the book cover before the year is over will suck creativity out of me as I (try to) write, and doom that year's efforts.
  • Some biros are better than others; my best poetry is written with a pivot pen.
I've given up trying to fight my way free of them. They just sit there, dangling over me as I write. Or try to write. Or come up with excuses for not writing. It's taken me a couple of years to understand that I don't get any extra points for being sensible. So I just try to work around my superstitions – it's not that hard to leave the workbook plain. And the "first poem is crap" one means that I can write the first poem of each year in complete freedom, and not even feel it necessary to pretend I'm going to edit it.

Trouble is, my pivot pens (samples from my dad's work a couple of years ago) are a limited supply. And are running out ...

What are your writing superstitions?