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.