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.